Speaking poetry as embodied empathy and as social justice.

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, many of us have been left feeling helpless and hopeless– small and ineffectual against an overwhelming and oppressive system. Living in Seoul and seeing the events in my country unfold across Facebook and Twitter, I have felt especially isolated. To be clear, in no way am I seeking to equate my feelings with the violent and fearful experiences of my Black brothers and sisters or with the grief and rage of the families of these fallen young people; my frustration and anger are in solidarity with them.

After the Zimmerman acquittal, I came across the poem (above) titled “Father” by Matthew Kelty. I knew that I wanted to work on this poem and do a reading of it. Poems are meant to be spoken and heard, not only read silently to ourselves. Like esteemed verse reader Betty Mulcahy believed, enjoying poetry by looking at words is not unlike trying to appreciate music by looking at a score. As a voice and text coach, I teach people to experience words in their entire bodies, to allow full and free breaths in, and to be physically open to the powerful images such words create. Kristin Linklater writes,

“When words are mainly experienced in the head and the mouth they convey cerebral meaning … By indulging sensory, sensual, emotional and physical responses to vowels and consonants – the component parts of words – we begin to resurrect the life of language.”

What does teaching others how to speak poetry have to do with social justice? Having engaged with many people in a myriad of contexts about identity, race, oppression, White privilege, and hegemony, I have come to realize that intellectual debate (a somewhat Western idea in the first place) has its limitations when it comes to making social progress as a community. This is because oppression is, by nature, irrational. Debate, statistics, and logistics all have their valuable place when it comes to dialoguing about things like racism. I am an academic; I love these things. I love catching people in logical fallacies, I love finding a fact that flies in the face of some broad stroke, and I love seeing the impact I’ve had on others through calm and diplomatic reasoning. I just don’t think this is enough. Because I am not just an academic; I am an artist and a performer. Richard Shusterman writes that “rational arguments for multi-cultural tolerance always seem to fail … because the hatred is acquired not by rational means but by the captivating aesthetic power of images” – images from our TV, laptop, phones, movie screens. If this is true, then perhaps we can create movement from the other direction.

I believe the gap that keeps oppressed people silent and privileged people from listening is about empathy. I do not mean this as a platitude. I am talking about real, embodied, feel-it-in-your-bones-and-under-your-skin-and-through-your-breath empathy. David Granger has written a fantastic article about teaching and oppression called Somaesthetics and Racism: Toward an Embodied Pedagogy of Difference (2010), arguing that “…culture, with its complex of symbol systems, ideals, values, beliefs, and customs, has its roots in the lived body” (my emphasis). Therefore, just talking rationally about oppression is not sufficient for progress. We perpetuate unjust systems because of something deeper in us, our breath and chest tightening when we get defensive, our tension in our shoulders deepening when we see a Black male on the street, our jaw clenching when privilege is mentioned.

When we teach people to embody the images that spring up from powerful speeches, poetry or other types of text, we are seeking to breathe the way that speaker breathed, see what they saw, and feel what they felt. This is beyond rationalizing and intellectualizing. It is empathy and understanding in a physical sense, a gut sense, and a heart sense.

Kelty’s poem is well-written and powerful. He clearly uses the length of lines and punctuation to indicate to us how he imagined Trayvon Martin’s father’s breath patterns to be. He gives us long vowels to express his grief and sharp plosive sounds to convey scathing anger and energy. I have never known what it feels like to lose my own child or to have a Black body in a dominant White culture. But speaking this poem and honoring its soundscape and rhythms opens my body towards a greater capacity for connecting to Trayvon’s father’s pain. His stark images, his rage and grief, and his building breathlessness all create a physical experience in my body as I speak Kelty’s words. Therefore, I am able to feel a greater connectivity to others who have suffered from similar injustices and to my own pain for being a woman of color who has experienced oppression as well.

I am grateful and inspired by movements such as #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and I am honored they gave me their blessing to tag this piece.  There is a reason this movement started and that millions are physically gathering together in the US to show solidarity. It is because being with other bodies and allowing our voices to be a live, resonant chorus moves us in powerful ways.Black lives matter. Greatly. Until more of us get beyond only intellectualizing that and truly feel a sense of shared humanity in our bones and our breath, I fear we will continue to struggle.

“So, Harry learned how to be still, to camouflage, to be the least.”

This video (Harry Shum Jr., Ze Frank, & Elana Farley) has been making the rounds recently and there are many things that resonate with me.

  1. Harry’s childhood pain being bullied as part of a diasporic community.
  2. The fact that Harry healed, grew, and blossomed through theatre and dance.
  3. The acknowledgement that so many of us have lived in shells but one day they may not have such a useful purpose anymore. Perhaps at that point, they actually limit us and our potential.

“And if someone carves into a sapling with a knife, the injury is as wide as the entire trunk. Though that mark will never fully heal, you can grow the tree around it, and as you grow, the scar gets smaller in proportion.” ~Ze Frank

This is a stunning metaphor and something so many of us (especially those from diaspora) work through during our lifetime. It’s not about ignoring or burying our painful experiences, it’s about the fullness of our being expanding around those things that will always be part of who we are.

My only (slightly nitpicky) thing as a voice teacher is the reference to Harry getting into theatre and speaking through the words of others- which is a huge part of theatre, of course, but I also advocate for the type of theatre where we speak through our own voices and writing as well. Because they are just as valid and powerful as those who have been published beforehand. I’m grateful that Harry is using theatre and dance to express all of who he is now.

“I guess I’ll go this way. I think there is a Staples down there.”

Ok, so this is only tangentially related to my research foci, but it is evocative and intriguing. I had thought about doing a similar video installation (on my list of 9,383,832,928 things to do) that explores our running narrative about seeing people and their visible identity locations (or the assumptions I’d make about them) in public spaces.

Anthropologist Andrew Irving has recorded 100 people verbally narrating their inner thoughts in New York City as they walk through the streets. I found this part of the artist’s particularly compelling:

“…once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.”

The idea of inner speech, imagery, muscles, blood, and nervous system all working together in a symbiotic relationship – this is exactly what many of us are trying to do with our acting students when they are working on text. And I particularly enjoy the emphasis here on urban life. Often, as voice teachers, we resort to a lot of nature imagery and metaphors. We often use our voice classes to escape our modernized world and get back to what is “natural” and “organic.” I’m interested in shifting the binary of nature = good/urban and modern = bad. Is nature imagery important to voice work, text work, poetry work? Omigod, yes. Especially if the text was written among those landscapes of yore. Can urban living create habitual tension in our bodies from low levels of the fight or flight reflex? Definitely. Living a city can have a negative impact on our ability to be vulnerable. That being said, what I like about this video project is that I see some green shoots springing out of some of these established paradigms. How do we, as students, artists, society, find a way to be expansive, empathetic, and vocally open within an urban environment? Can we challenge ourselves to use urban landscapes to explore our vocal potential?

For more information on Irving’s project, you can go here.

“Embracing the complications and the contradictions”

In a recent roundtable discussion in Minneapolis, Asian American artists came together to discuss the current state of Asian American theatre, their influences, and the relationship between their creative work and their identity.

Key quote from poet Bao Phi:

I feel like America’s narrative talking about race and all of these things – gender, sexuality – is becoming more and more complicated, for the better. And I’d like to see media coverage embracing the complications and the contradictions, rather than figuring out what stories fit into preexisting narratives and paradigms.”

As educators, we can embrace this challenge as well and provide our students with more opportunities to express their own stories and explore identity intricacies. A number of students have told me that they have been given text to read/perform in class by authors that maybe shared their parents’ nationality or just the color of their skin and they sometimes felt pressure to connect with this writer.

Linda Her, a spoken word artist and activist, reflects on the intersectionality of their identity locations and the challenges this sometimes presents:

“My experience as a Hmong American queer woman and performer has been that when I’m invited to a LGBT specific event it’s filled with all white folks, and then when I’m invited to a Hmong space to perform it’s filled with majority straight folks. I would love to have a space that is inclusive of all your selves, your identities. For example, how is the notion of marriage equality different for couples in which at least one person is an immigrant? How can we include those experiences?”

I would also love such a space, Linda. When I’m with adoptees, I’m rarely able to articulate the deep somatic experiences I’ve had as a trained actor and voice teacher that have impacted the trauma caused by the separation from our birthmothers. When I’m with theatre people and academics, it is hard to articulate the part of me that is non-White and frustrated. Interracial adoptees and other diasporic have to deal with this fragmentation their whole lives. I’m used to it but never comfortable with it. And like these artists in this roundtable, I’m manifesting spaces that are more inclusive of all our different selves.

Bao Phi’s poetry is really stunning and full of complex layers. I will be posting some of his work in the future.

“Thank you for giving me no heritage.”

The following is a video of Rachel Rostad’s winning piece at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational in NYC. Titled, “A Letter to JK Rowling from Cho Chang,” she calls out JK Rowling on the lack of dimensionality when it comes to the Harry Potter series’ one Asian character.

Full disclosure: I have not read the Harry Potter books. I have no commentary on the pushback (which I believe to be mostly a straw man) that gets all up in Dumbledore’s sexuality and why Cho Chang was crying over the White dude, etc. I viewed this video as a voice teacher and as a person striving to be critically conscious. I am glad that Rostad is being outspoken about popular authors and their attempt (or lack thereof) to create dimensional, non-White characters. And although I could get nit-picky about Rostad’s physicalization and vocal habits, overall, there is a wonderful authenticity in her voice. It is coming from the very core of her. I believe that this is partly because in this format and context, she was free to express how she truly felt. There was no need to assimilate to a peer group or a faculty at a drama school and not seem so pissed off about something as a person of color. We often feel that we must behave and keep our heads down and not seem too aggressive, or begrudged. I’m glad Rostad doesn’t give a shit about this.

Rachel Rostad is a fellow Korean-American adoptee. Check her out. I will feature some of her poetry here soon.

via Angry Asian Man

“So what is the end game here?”

In his wonderful blog, poet Ted Hash-Berryman asks, Is Poetry Magazine Racist? He presents some simple statistical breakdowns of White vs. Non-White poets published in the magazine for the last 50 years. Some of the comments are the usual, defensive, false equivalency bullshit reaction that often follows a post such as this (where establishment is criticized) but one comment did ask the important question – What do you hope to achieve or accomplish in light of these findings? Hash-Berryman succinctly responds,

…I am trying to call attention to this absurd disparity and get people to start questioning why it’s happening. The poetry community purports to be accepting and free from the biases which poison the larger culture; these statistics prove otherwise, at least in the mainstream.

Ultimately, I want the Poetry Foundation/Poetry magazine to acknowledge their bias against non-white and female poets. Because of their stature, they have the opportunity to make a positive change which will reverberate throughout poetry publishing, which I can only assume is equally rife with this sort of discrimination. If they simply ignore the issue at hand rather than try to remedy it, they are essentially admitting their approval of the racial/gender biases displayed in the magazine’s choices.

Yes. acknowledging is the first step. And it’s a huge one. Look at how much resistance and push back is happening in just 15 comments to this article. I think there is a sad and complicated parallel here to the theatre and education world. Thanks, Dr. Hash-Berryman, for raising this issue in your literary community.

For more of Hash-Berryman’s musings and poetry, check out his blog. It’s pretty great.

“I dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs”

London Eye, October 2007. Photo: Amy Mihyang Ginther

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

~Maya Angelou
One of my students chose this poem last year to work on and I think it’s power and impact surprised both of us. Angelou’s use of consonants and vowels are really gifts to the speaker. The Ts and Ds in bitter, twisted, trod, dirt, dust feel like getting kicked again and again. I love the Ss in sassiness and the H in haughtiness; you can sense how they grate on people around her. Angelou uses Ls and Ws and vowels that glide and move around the sharp plosive consonants with leaping, wide, welling and swelling, air. And of course. the wonderful diphthong in I, rise, high. The repetition gives us a sensation of a resilient wave. Our tongues actually rise in our mouth as we say rise. Mmmm.