The Varsity, The University of Toronto’s student newspaper, published an excellent article on the Whistle Stop Tour today. The writer posed some questions, and our performers’s responses were so beautiful (and unpublishably generous) that I wanted to present them all, uncut and unvarnished, here. Kassandra asked: What do you do, and why? What motivated you to participate in political commentary? How important is it for events like this where artists can speak about current politics? How do you respond to criticism surrounding what you are doing? Read our answers below:
On “Me”: Always an interesting question – what I do for “money money” is a lot different than what I like telling people I do – I’m an adjunct professor of writing every now and again, poet, playwright, published author, etc. – an artist, basically. However, art and a passion for writing doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. What does these days? For my day job, I work in insurance where I navigate the tricky waters of catastrophe, like trying to operate a rowboat with a q-tip. Every day you hear about an accident or something tragic and it could be something very minor, but for that person you’re talking to, it is the biggest catastrophe imaginable, especially at that exact moment in time. Kind of like a poem you hear at an event – at that exact moment in time, it is the greatest demonstration of the power of language, a syllabic submarine popping up out of the mouth and if the poem is honest, if it’s true and passionate, it will take aim at all the things that are bringing us down. Working in insurance has allowed me to appreciate catastrophes and that might sound weird, but by appreciation, I mean having a greater understanding for the tragedies that befall all of us on a daily basis – and socially/politically speaking, it’s important for us to know every level of catastrophe and break it down and learn how it affects ALL of us on a daily basis – and really, isn’t that what poetry or art is all about?
On art and politics: And I guess that smooths nicely into the next question of what motivates me to participate in political commentary – it’s that so many people feel catastrophe, but are ultimately numb to what that might really mean, like the struggles that the person sitting next to you might be going through on any given day. In my opinion, there’s a democratic disconnect in the heart of every North American and poetry, performing, falling face first into the acidic pool that is art, allowing us to scar away the façade we wear until we have a better understanding of the world around us. We’re all responsible for the disconnect and this misunderstanding might be the most democratic thing about us all. So yeah, I desire a devouring of the disconnect and I believe that poetry and the arts is the aperitif, let’s say, the thing that gets the appetite flowing and growing until the heart’s mouth is big enough to swallow the disconnect. Eating the disconnect might just be the most important political act we can do, so we should all just open wide and let the words fly.
How long have we just kept our mouths shut? How long have we just ignored the craving to devour that disconnect? Despite the allure of green and blue, we’re not meant to be islands; we’re meant to be autopsies spewing our innards and private parts at each other. We must ask each, “Why does everything suck so hard?” – and yes, I’m watching the latest South Park episode as I type this out, but it’s an honest to goodness question – we must strip ourselves clean and be hungry again. We chain-smoke disconnect, because we’re addicted to un-intimacy – sometimes those carcinogens taste sweet, but it’ll never be enough. We must learn how to roll around with each other again in beds of air, pillowing each other in empathy, and maybe we can collide our catastrophes until that disconnect is dead and done. That is what I hope we accomplish with the Whistle Stop Poets and Comics ’16 Election Tour. Poetry is alive and well – it is living and breathing in the catastrophe of the everyday, it is living and breathing in our little islands of disconnect, it is living and breathing in the q-tips that will run day row us ashore, row us to a better life, a better future, row us through an ocean of noise, of pain, of blockage, until we’re clearheaded once again, when we can finally hear the songs of everyday people, of everyday people who care deeply and passionately. At the end of the day, connecting is the best way to protest – eating the disconnect might just be the most important political act we can do. Open wide. Let the words fly.
On “Me”: What do you do and why? I’m a poet and songwriter, and adult novelist, playwright and sometimes journalist. I do it because it is always been my intention since childhood and it turns out I’m good at it. A lot of the poetry these days is technique driven – and much of it derived from a pay to play perspective where teachers of Masters of fine arts programs who are also editors and publishers gravitate towards their prize students. It’s important I think that poets outside of this economic system and even outside of the academic system continue to push at the development of societal conscience and consciousness with poetry that is idea driven.
On Art and Politics: It has often been the job of the poet to take on the issues of the day, to attempt to awaken conscience while celebrating life and love. These all go together naturally.
… It’s important for like-minded artists to find each other and share work. Cultural movements start in this way. Right now we’re in a period that’s almost the opposite of peoples poetry – at least in academia, which too often controls the government-funded journals, readings and pursestrings. Not to mention awards which promote books. More important is that imaginative political poetry be launched more frequently into the mainstream media. Poets who are engaging as readers of their work can help make this happen.
On criticism: Sometimes a critique can be helpful. I only respond when I think a critic has done a lazy job or when I feel there is something personal in their remarks. The trick these days is to actually get reviews. And when you do get a review more often than not they are from a Masters of fine arts molded perspective. Spoken word perspective and movement is much more democratic, inclusive, idea driven and necessary. I believe humanity has a natural need for poetry and that people respond to good poetry when they hear it – something which can happen all too infrequently in the regular outlets which often serve the purpose of dampening the appetite for poetry and alienating those who seek. It.
On “Me”: If you’re Black everything you do is a political act. If you’re intelligent — you’re angry. If you’re poor — you’re a thug. If you’re male — it’s assumed that you’re a drug dealer, or you have weed on you. If you save your money, tellers suspect you of doing something illegal to get that money. When we enter stores security guards follow us. Statistics that I’ve read suggest that Black people are more likely to have post secondary educations in North America than whites. Yet, we are disproportionately incarcerated. We watch as white people burn the jerseys of our athletes for changing teams. Our hockey players are accused of “showboating” when they score goals. But, white players are having good clean fun when they celebrate.
What do I do? I live. I observe, I research, I write, I share my work. Whether it’s political, or not it doesn’t matter. As a Black writer everything I write is scrutinized as some sort of political statement. There is no why. Why not? Why does one write? You tell me.
On art and politics: All events are important for the same reasons — social, camaraderie, community, etc. That really has nothing to do with artists speaking on politics. If an artist doesn’t make some sort of statement with their work, if it is based on a philosophy of aesthetics without social commentary, then it’s likely mundane. To be clear, there are no set beliefs that an artist must support, but without something that drives the artists work, (I don’t know, their love for cats over dogs, for instance) it’s just drivel. How does that relate to politics? How can one not be passionate about how one is ruled, if they think critically?
On criticism: If it’s not constructive criticism, why would I care? Worst things have happened to me simply for being Black than any person’s criticism about my work. The goal of most negative criticism is to discourage people from trying to reach their aims in life. If the criticism makes no sense to you, if it’s just angry vitriol, don’t worry about it.
On “Me”: I’m adjunct professor of English, a freelance travel and music journalist, and a writer — by that I mean a fiction writer; I’ve just begun seeking representation for my first novel. But I assume you’re most interested in the tour, the poetry. I don’t remember exactly when I heard the first blast of the trumpet, but I do remember that the poet Max Crinnin spent a night at a concert on the Buffalo Harbor in early September of 2015, and ended up on the second floor balcony of Pearl Street, a bar in downtown Buffalo. We were old intimates catching up after a long time apart — I’d spent the previous year earning my Master’s at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland — and our conversation touched on certain interconnected subjects: a dissatisfaction with most poetry poetry magazines, headquartered in MFA departments, filled with timid, dishonest, and poorly crafted verse and distributed to small, insular, indifferent audiences; an interest in the Buffalo “renaissance” so much talked about, a desire to participate mixed with a distrust of the Buzzfeed-style hype (listicles like “10 Reasons Why Millennials Are Settling Down in Buffalo” were au courant, while our poverty, stark racial division, and rampant homicide rate were less often discussed); and lastly speculation about where our generation’s artistic revolution would plant its first flag, and in what direction the first shots would be fired. (Postmodernism, we knew, was already a corpse and not worth defiling; the “New Sincerity” is so young we’re still arguing about its christening; what gold would we melt down and what dimensions would we give our idol?) By November, Max, our friend S. James Coffed, and I had decided we wanted to make a print magazine. By January, digital artist Darren Canham had joined us, and we began our slow ascent to publication and launch, on May 1st of this year, shedding at every step preconceptions, misguided hopes, manifestos, and fears. The velleity of an idle hour one pint-soaked summer’s end had turned into a thing, a physical thing, that we had made.
On art and politics: I was in the Bahamas, Green Turtle Cay, with the other Foundlings editor Steve (S. James), and we stopped into a gift shop where a TV was going, and Donald Trump was speaking on it. “We can’t escape it,” I must have said to the proprietress, because she replied, “We pay attention. Because when the U.S. sneezes, we get the cold.” That was a reminder not just of the influence of U.S. politics globally, but of just how enmeshed our lives are with the lives of any other person, anywhere else in the world. It’s easy to feel politically powerless as an American — I mean, the disenfranchising systems we’ve created (the two-party system, and absurdly long election cycle, news-as-entertainment) had conspired to offer the country a choice of two presidential candidates very few of us are comfortable claiming as a first choice. One is a charlatan and a narcissistic imbecile who might if given power end human civilization as we know it and the other is a Machiavellian, quite possibly a murderer, and utterly without moral foundation, a candidate motivated by nothing other than enjoyment in the manipulation of power for its own sake. Powerless, I felt and continue to feel — and yet, I felt then, in the Bahamas, I still had a moral obligation to resist. At its base I think this is an impulse to assert individual free will against all the forces of mass coercion. So every morning at 7 I rose to swim when the light was still white-gold on the water on the eastern side of the island and then I would return to the deck and begin writing what eventually became a piece I’ve read on this tour, “Modern Love Song to the Summer of ’16,” which is alright but not excellent.
So I organized a launch party at Founding Father’s in Buffalo and brought together some readers to “open” for Gerry — this was on Aug 28th — and it was such a success that we thought we might take the “show” on the road. Immediately the debates suggested themselves as an organizing principle. We’d have four stops in four cities on the nights of the presidential and vice-presidential debates. We would find a way to turn sustained attention to our politics, but to free our discourse from the phrases that would be uttered and senselessly repeated in the echo-chamber of our media. Whistle Stop was born in a flurry of emails and phone calls over the course of the next month.
I should say, though, that poetry should try to be “political,” in the narrow everyday sense of that word. Poetry should try to be anything — all art should avoid ideas and especially ideology because the former always strangle art and the latter will embalm it. But John Dos Passos begins his U.S.A. trilogy — really the Great American Novel, our very own Genesis, Exodus, and Book of Psalms — by saying that “mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” Well, then there’s more than art at stake, here. Our national identity is at stake. If the U.S.A. is the speech of the people, judging by the “speech” I hear the most, our country has gone all fearful, dishonest, suspicious, small. If that isn’t the case — if there is speech that stirs pride and wonder and sounds true to be heard in the nation, in the world, then I want to hear it and let that define us. I want to find it and hear it and give it a microphone with the amps turned to to 11, I want millions to repeat it in fine oratorical voices, an undisciplined but spirited chorus.
… I think it’s very important. I lived in Scotland during the failed independence referendum, and I saw such passion on both sides — Leave and Stay — that I’ll never look at mass action, democracy, the right to vote, the same way again. After living in a country struggling to define itself, and witnessing unprecedented involvement in this vital question, I returned to the United States and watched the systems (mentioned above) strangle the best hopes, the best candidates, on the Right and Left. I felt confusion, despair, indifference, scared cynicism, mistrust, anger, and fear becoming the dominant emotions and impulses — this was a felt thing in America, you only had to put your fingers to your own wrists. I feared a total disenchantment — perhaps an entire generation that would never again feel involved or implicated in American democracy.
On criticism: That depends on the source, and the target. I am a clumsy and faltering artist and I am guilty of fear and bullshit like all other artists, except I am guilty more often than the best. If someone, anyone can point out to me my missteps, I want to know. At the risk of sounding like a complete asshole, I think it’s important to remember that most of what, at any point in history, has been given by some poor sod the name of “art,” most of the writing that’s been labeled “poetry” at some point or another, whether or not the label sticks, is complete shite. A person can develop her sense of beauty the same way a musician can, with time and practice, approach near to perfect pitch. Some people have an undeveloped sense of beauty; others are confused by ideology or negative emotion; and still others — many “artists” — have created their conception of “art” only to justify retroactively their choices, their biases, their weaknesses, to shore up some shaky sense of selfhood. I want to hear from the people who can hear beauty like a true note, whose sense of “art” and “the good,” even if inarticulable, springs from that unfixable spot where the soul and the world meet and make love.
Leaving art aside: if someone’s critiquing me for personal reasons, if someone’s criticizing me as a person … I can’t relate. I’m indifferent and even a little baffled, visibly indifferent and baffled, which has caused me difficulties with family, friends, and short-term acquaintances.
Politics: let’s talk all night.
Lastly, I’ll add that next to the capability for wonder and the “negative capability” John Keats talks about, the third capability absolutely necessary for an artist is the capability for disgust. By that I mean I need to be able to recognize immediately and reject on a visceral level the shite and fear and dishonesty in my own work. I need to get it out in a kind of full-body heave, a purge. This is a way of saying we need to criticize ourselves, because if we’re regularly misusing language, if we’re being dishonest or afraid or small-minded or -hearted, if we’re not paying attention, then we have no business in the same room as ink, paper, or microphone.
Attention equals love, the writer George Saunders wrote to me once. I respond to criticism: with attention, if I can.
On “Me”: I write the truth in whatever way I find it. I like hard truths, truths that force us to look in the mirror and see things we would rather ignore. We go through so much of life not seeing other people, not truly engaging with them, not truly listening to them, not truly treating their experience as real as our own. Poetry knocks down those invisible walls we build. Poetry catches you by the solar plexus, it rides the electromagnetic waves of the heart that no human can block, it builds a bridge to understanding where you thought it was impossible. I write poetry as testimony to all that is divinely human.
I was raised in a Southern, Conservative, Evangelical, Republican, Military family, and I grew up to be essentially the exact opposite of all of those things, so I have always felt that I sort of lived between two worlds. When I was making the transition between the two was about the time I discovered Theatre for Social Change when my theatre teacher selected The Laramie Project. That play really changed the complete course of my life, because it forced me to confront not only my own misconceptions and bigotry, but the violence that those microaggressions cultivate. The docu-drama style of that show allows characters of all different backgrounds to speak for themselves, and so it includes a section where Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church are represented. I got a second life-changing lesson when we were discussing the Westboro Baptist Church coming to picket our show in conjunction with a local military funeral, and my teacher said to me, “Do you realize the hatred that you feel right now for them is the same hatred they felt for Matthew?”. In that moment, I realized that empathy was hard work, hard, but necessary. So that’s what I attempt to do with my writing, unexpected empathy, on as many sides as possible. It just so happens that striving for empathy in a violent society is a political act.
On art and politics: Essential. Absolutely essential. Artists have a duty to respond to the world around them, to address injustice when they see it, to show people another side to things. However, they can only inspire change if they have a platform from which to do it. Artists draw connections, they dismantle and rebuild, they flip the script, they dream up solutions where there are none, but they need people to engage to create movements.
On criticism: I will hear and honestly consider any critique, because sometimes the best advice comes from the most unexpected places. But I rarely write a poem unless I feel it contains a truth I have thoroughly examined. I know some people will consider my poetry extreme, and that is fair, but I stand behind its extremity. Some people will say my poetry is not radical enough, and those are the people I’m more inclined to listen to, people who want to push the boundaries farther.