In the past week, the music industry has been rocked by the release of Beyonce's latest visual album, Lemonade. The project debuted on HBO and instantly the internet was bombarded with the virtual onslaught of lemon emojis, lyrics, and most notably, questions.
I, myself, had several eyebrow raising moments as I watched half-listening and half-stunned at the blatant honesty Beyonce put into this project.
Overall, I was thankful. The music industry has often put successful artists into a confine of expectation and often they succumb to this artistic plateau. Thus, the music industry is rarely shocked by vulnerability and audiences are left with material that severely lacks substance.
However, the obvious confessions of infidelity seemed to overshadow the underlying brilliance of Lemonade so much that few have gone deeper into the subtleties floating in the pitcher. This pulp, these symbolic anchors, are worth are second, third, and fourth look.
So, lets pause and get analytical for a moment as we review the top 4 missed messages in Lemonade:
1.) The recipe
Take one pint of water, add a half pound of sugar, the juice of eight lemons, the zest of half a lemon. Pour the water from one jug then into the other several times. Strain through a clean napkin.
This recipe is a reference to Southern culture as few things are more culturally indicative of the South than a pitcher of cool lemonade poured into a tall glass.
This in itself is a nod to alchemy. The science of crafting precious metals from seemingly ordinary items. Beyonce throughout the album is telling the narrative of her personal struggles with infidelity from her father's past, her husband's shortcomings, and the idea that black women are constantly mistreated.
When life gives us lemons, we make lemonade.
This iconic piece of shade is a double entendre which shatters the fragile construct of relationships in the age of access-- and excess.
Yes, Beyonce opened the well known pandora's box that is the pop culture notion of the allusive "Becky". While this name is commonly utilized by rappers to stand for white woman, this is where most people stop paying attention to the narrative. Luckily, Aniese Tates, a close friend and classmate of mine, took to Facebook to educate the masses on the delicate reality behind the proclamation known as "Becky with the good hair":
"Becky with the good hair is not exactly a person, but a concept. For years black women have witnessed black men choosing European women over us. Black men are very quick to criticize and critique us, call us ratchet, thots, hoes, gold-diggers, whores while constantly praising non-black woman. Black women are always expected to reach a level of European beauty to actually be considered beautiful"
One word: yes.
Aniese's comment sums up the startling reality that most people chose to overlook in favor of shaming Rachel Roy and Rita Ora, Beyonce made Lemonade to empower black women in a time when the media force feeds us standards of European beauty.
3.) Kintsuji Pottery
At the beginning of Sandcastles, the camera focuses on a still image of a piece of Kintsuji pottery. This Japanese tradition uses precious metals to repair the shattered ceramic pottery.
Beyonce is illuminating the fact that while infidelity rocked and shattered her marriage, they have chosen to rebuild.
Now, they are stronger than ever.
4.) Warsan Shire
Holding the crown as the first Youth Poet Laureate of London, this amazing young woman contributed the pieces of spoken word poetry that is found throughout Lemonade.
Let's take a closer look at the art which frames the album:
I tried to make a home out of you, but doors lead to trap doors, a stairway leads to nothing. Unknown women wander the hallways at night. Where do you go when you go quiet?
You remind me of my father, a magician ... able to exist in two places at once. In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 a.m. and lie to me. What are you hiding?
The past and the future merge to meet us here. What luck. What a f*cking curse.
Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kit. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter who then passed it down to her daughter.
I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade. My grandma said "Nothing real can be threatened." True love brought salvation back into me. With every tear came redemption and my torturers became my remedy. So we're gonna heal. We're gonna start again. You've brought the orchestra, synchronized swimmers.
You're the magician. Pull me back together again, the way you cut me in half. Make the woman in doubt disappear. Pull the sorrow from between my legs like silk. Knot after knot after knot. The audience applauds ... but we can't hear them.
These two pieces, Intuition and Redemption, start and end the album, and showcase the cycle of healing that women must face when grappling with forgiveness. Beyonce unveils her journey through Anger, Apathy, Loss, and Emptiness as she finds her way to Hope. As she arrives at Redemption, her audience has witnessed the hardship of finding yourself after betrayal and choosing to work it out.
In conclusion, Lemonade is an anthem for confidence, rebellion, and forgiveness as it dominates media outlets with the harsh realities of romance and survival as a black woman in the modern age.
This piece was originally a journal entry of sorts, but it has morphed into something more:
Life is poetry. Life is chaos. Life is a journey. It is our charge, from birth that we explore tree tops and stars in search of purpose, but most times it is nestled deep inside a temple we overcrowd, abandon, and leave desolate.
You are your own problem and your own solution.
In my very short time on this Earth-- a mere eighteen years-- I have realized that the beauty and plight of humanity: flaw. We are flawed beings, but this condition is also our greatest asset because without flaw there is no growth and the ability to grow is the most precious gift we were ever given...
So, as 2016 approached and the prospect of change loomed, I welcomed it. I searched for literature, videos, and people who would be catalysts for my journey in self-discovery.
With the help of Bri Hall aka SmartistaBeauty on YouTube I embarked on a path that I thought I knew well and found myself buried beneath years of anger, insecurity, and ignorance.
I embarked on the My Fearlessly Beautiful Year challenge.
I read more.
I listened more.
I observed everything.
The most powerful thing we can do sometimes is step back and evaluate who we were, who we are, and who we will become. So I did just that and I fell completely and hopelessly in love with myself.
Here is my pledge:
I, Bryonna Reed, pledge to live the best life I can without fear. I am a beautiful soul on a journey. I must fly.
I challenge each of you to start back on the journey to yourself. Find it hidden beneath the pain, struggles, and confusion and feed your soul so that it may thrive.
Be a wildflower-- thrive where they never thought you could.
I meant to post this after LOMA came to visit, but I didn't have access to the blog at that point....figured I'd post it now. We had a poet come visit recently—LOMA, look him up—and he made a comment about the power—or impact—behind words. I’m definitely paraphrasing, he said he’s careful about the words he chooses because of the impact they can have in the realm of interpretation—“this is a chair because I say it’s a chair”; the word chair summons up our own connotations…That notion—the notion that once you say something, the words cease being yours alone and become capable of something more than is one reason I love words as much as I do…it’s also a reason speech can be so empowering, or dangerous.
Talk isn’t as cheap as we think. Before action comes intention and idea--Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof (V for Vendetta…) Ideas don’t die easily—they’re like Jason from Friday the 13th, unforgivingly relentless. If you’re a fan of N.W.A—or if you’ve seen Straight Outta Compton—you’re aware of the power they inspired within their communities, and the fear these young black men inspired within white power structures, with a song titled “Fuck Tha Police”. The song starts like they’re at a court hearing, starting with Ice Cube taking the stand. Some excerpts:
Excerpts from Ice Cube’s verse, and by far my favorite—that man is a poet, No Vaseline is just an incredibly large and well written middle finger to the remaining members N.W.A.
Fuck the police coming straight from the underground
a young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
and not the other color so police think
they have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one
for a punk mother fucker with a badge and a gun
to be beating on, and thrown in jail
we can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
Fucking with me because I’m a teenager
with a little bit of gold and a pager.
Searching my car, looking for the product
thinking every nigga is selling narcotics.
You’d rather see me in the pen
than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o
Excerpts from MC Ren’s Verse
For police I’m saying, “Fuck you punk!”
Reading my rights and shit, it’s all junk
Pulling out a silly club, so you stand
with a faek-ass badge and a gun in your hand
but take off the gun so you can see what’s up
and we’ll go at it punk
and I’ma fuck you up
The popularity of N.W.A.’s lyrics prompted the then assistant director of the FBI, Milt Ahlerich, to send a letter to Ruthless Records—founded by Eazy and Jerry Heller—and to Ruthless’s distributors Priority Records condemning the lyrics. Police actively refused to provide security for N.W.A.’s concerts, and in some cases actively attempting to stop concerts from happening.
And this was all in the late 80’s, right before the 1992 L.A. riots. Not that N.W.A was single-handedly responsible for the riots, but the content of N.W.A.’s lyrics were speaking to the violence black US citizens were often subjected too. N.W.A. validated the “normal” person’s experience—these famous rappers were telling their story. It happened everywhere, to everyone. N.W.A. was more than just a band, it feels like N.W.A is a part of Los Angeles’s—and the US’s—troubled history of racial relations.
Words are powerful because of the ideas and experiences they represent—which is why poetry, as well as lyrics, can summon such emotional responses. But I think it’s dangerous attempting skirt difficult ideas, or to censor one’s self because of someone else’s interpretation. Not all words are pretty, but I believe they are all necessary.
Lunch...My favorite class period, where I learn the most information that actually applies to the growth and development of my character was somehow different on 4/22. Instead of my lunch consisting of regular "tea-time" as my fellow classmates refer to daily gossip, we was served with Slam Poetry! Joy started this rotation of extremely hot poetry with one of her own poems about self ignorance which I still to this day reflect upon! Many of our classmates were extremely shocked to see Joy share such a powerful poem due to her timid personality. Her poem had left many of us excited to see more performances and poetry. (You rock Joy!)
After Joy, we had Davon silence the room completely with her poem stating "But see, ya'll don't dream a woman into Africa until she's gone, write her poems and tell her how much you miss her but never actually lay claim to her." Which had many of the males in the room on hush mode with that big bite to swallow. (Appreciate women! Appreciate BLACK women) Reflecting on this poem still has me in awe on my worth and the worth of the many Queens before and after me.
While mouths were still gaping, A very well known voice throughout City College had something big to say with a little motivation from me of course! Tobias tried to act like he wasn't a poet at heart with a message, so I had to kindly remind him that I know he wrote poetry because we used to rap in our Sophomore technology class. (Mixtape is well on its way) Once he started reading his poetry I felt like a proud mother because I knew of his capabilities he is just so silly! His very powerful poetry piece stated "Hypocritical stereotypical 'I love god but can't fully embrace Christianity' people hurt people." which had many people taken back because the content of his poem was very powerful but the voice it was coming from is known to be very silly. By Tobias sharing his poem it made people look at him in a new light. A poet with a big voice, big heart with a heavy message to display.
After Tobias shared his amazing poetry about the hypocrisy of the images of religious people and the questioning of the intention of their faith, I was full and prepared to sit back and reflect on my own life experiences but many voices around me was wondering why I hadn't shared any of my work. Many people knew me for being very outspoken and never shy but in this moment...the infamous Jamesha Caldwell was shaking in her own boots. I was worried about the opinions of my peers (which I never do, but I'm an artist whose sensitive about my shit.) , Not only was I worried about the opinions of my peers but my global politics teacher was sitting in the room! Talking about pressure! But then I remembered who I was and my classmates have never known me to stand down from a challenge and they weren't going to start to perceive me as a punk.
My poem goes like this....
"My body is my temple.
My body is my temple.
So let me get this through your fucking mental.
You touch me without my permission, I'm going to show I'm not a victim. Get it through your cranium, your cerebral system, your nucleus , that powerhouse that makes your powerhouse twitch.
I'm going to be more than a bitch. I'm going to be more than that witch. Imma show you a magic trick on how my tongue can turn into a whip. That'll give you whiplash so fast you better think fast, because my knuckles will turn to braze and you'll see my golden mask.
Golden mask made up of women who have been beaten, battered, brutally attacked, Can't speak out and you know that that's a fact, Imma rewind this shit back because I used to be a young women who didn't have voice, But I found that shit from within in that deepend because I didn't have a choice. My story goes likes this.
When you get tied, you get tired. No one saw my tears, played on my fears, destroyed my sense of pride that I hide from reality. Sink into a depression that drowns the souls of the forgotten, Murdered by the Rotten, corrupted by the disrupted. But my 4'11 me had to have a fight with the enemy because when you get tied, you get tired. I burned those chains, through them into acid rain and said that I am free, and I'm going to find and only be me.
So my sisters that have no voice. I speak for you, I know what you've been through. I see only you for you. Ma, I know bitch isn't tattooed on your forehead. And I know you just want those niggas to go head, but I know your mama taught you respect, a simple ideology that niggas seem to neglect.
Seems like, We going to have to protect each other, Because we are all we got. We are unknown creations, simple revelations, with complex conversations. We are young women who stand down to commands, we don't take demands, We are told to withstand from anything that isn't lady like, Brady like, and don't dare us to be crazy like because that'll really piss them off.
But fuck them. It is in our Constitution of Vagina and I as a fellow citizen say that we should expect respect, we should have the option to neglect, and if you see me uncomfortable, bystander you should respond and protect. "- Jamesha Caldwell
At first it was silent, my breathing came to a complete halt. Then a rupture of applause came out. I was breathing again. Emotions was running high. The poem was very personal for me and if anyone had disagreed I was prepared to settle it like the cowboys. I knew that poem was legit, when my Global Politics teacher complimented my work. I knew my poem was legit when my friends who didn't know I wrote poetry complimented my work. I knew my poem was legit when I started believing that my work was good.
-And that was Slam Lunch! Is anyone hungry? Because I'm full!
Last week, I went to the “Silent No More” art workshop given by Lili Bernard. The workshop was hosted by the Sexual Assault Response Unit (SARU) and the Johns Hopkins Caribbean Cultural Society. Lili Bernard is a visual artist, actress, the mother of a current Hopkins freshmen, as well as one of the many women who has accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Her alleged rapist, Bill Cosby, has an honorary degree from Johns Hopkins, which was awarded to him in 2004. On October 24 2015, members of the Sexual Assault Resource Unit met with Hopkins administration to ask that Hopkins rescind Cosby’s degree, which schools such as Brown, Boston University, Tufts and Goucher have done. Months later, the Board of Trustees still has yet to decide on whether or not to revoke Cosby's honorary degree. It is very concerning that this decision is of such little importance to the Board of Trustees, especially considering JHU's shady track record with sexual assault. Although there is no email for the Board of Trustees listed on their website, I encourage you to email President Ron Daniels if you feel that Hopkins should support the victims of sexual assault and rescind Cosby's honorary degree. You can find President Daniels' contact information here.
Note, passed to superman
by Lucille Clifton
sweet jesus superman,
if i had seen you
dressed in your blue suit
i would have known you.
maybe that choirboy clark
can stand around
listening to stories
but not you, not with
metropolis to save
and every crook in town
filthy with kryptonite.
lord, man of steel
i understand the cape,
the leggings, the whole
ball of wax.
you can trust me,
there is no planet stranger
than the one I’m from.
I’ve been reading this poem a lot lately; it is the last two lines, I think, that keep pulling me back. In them, Clifton reminds us that our own world is alien, a universe that functions as arbitrarily as that of DC comics; and one, too, where Clifton can be just as powerful as Superman. “Trust me,” she says--she is like Superman; in fact, she is even more of an authority than he is. She too has faced a world where “every crook in town [was] filthy” with her greatest weakness, where she must put on a cape and leggings so that she can finally stop just “listening to stories”, and act. In fact, she understands these traits so well that she could spot them in anyone, even if they are disguised in a “blue suit”, as Superman is when he goes to work as Clark Kent.
The lines read, to my ear, as both weary and defiant: Clifton dares the Man of Steel to disagree with her, while simultaneously unburdening herself to him. She addresses him as one outsider does another; there is certainly a desire to compare wounds, to measure them and see which is bigger, but there is also a fierce joy in the finding of a person who can finally understand.
The circumstances of Superman’s inception feel particularly meaningful in this light: Superman was created by two Jewish artists, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, in the late 1930s, and spent a good deal of his early career fighting Nazis. The character is—to use words that I recently heard Fatimah Asghar use to describe herself at a panel on violence in poetry—“a diasphoric orphan”, trying to fit into an American society that is rapidly changing. Although Kal-El’s Jewishness, or seeming Jewishness, has been largely erased or forgotten in more modern iterations of the character, he began as a symbol or voice for an oppressed people. Clifton is certainly in a position to appreciate the experience of acting as a voice trying to fight oppression. She writes prolifically about being “both nonwhite and a woman”, and the challenges and celebrations of a life that is deemed unlovely.
This piece, Note, passed to superman, is actually part of a series, Four notes to Clark Kent, letters addressed to Superman’s mild mannered alter-ego. Though the poems are ostensibly written for this familiar comic book hero, the voice of the speaker is so prominent that one forgets the man who is receiving these letters; instead, we see the woman writing them, her anger and grace, the parts of her that are just as superhuman as Kal-El. Clifton gives us a four panel peek into the life of her speaker, who is forging her “own voice, at last”, and allows her to fill the frame, to draw our eye in a way that the absent Superman is never allowed to do in the series.
The engagement with a fictional icon is one that I find so fruitful—I think that to speak to Superman is to do many things. Firstly, it is to suggest an equity between the speaker and the hero; one is not greater than the other, both are participants in a conversation that is voicey, challenging, sorrowful. Secondly, it is to allow the self to become alien or supernatural. Thirdly, it is to grant the speaker access to some larger stage on which to display personal narratives; every reader knows Superman, we understand that the stakes are high when he is on the scene. Thus, when we write to him or about him, we write ourselves into a world that is vast and improbable, we magnify the personal into the iconic. Indeed, the comic form itself is not designed to be a subtle one, and adapting the narratives of comics for the sake of a poem requires some risk, some exaggeration in language or feeling. The work is forced to become dynamic to match its caped subject.
I think, too, it represents an important engagement with science fiction, a literary form that is largely looked down upon as unserious by the academy. Walidah Imarisha, one of the editors of an anthology of science fiction written by activists (called Octavia’s Brood), says that “all social organizing is science fiction.” That is, to work at bettering the world, one has to imagine a future without racism, without sexism, without homophobia, transmisogyny, cultural imperialism, etc. The worlds we imagine when we organize are a sort of science fiction, a radical envisioning of parallel dimensions or lives. Therefore, this engagement with an alien immigrant protagonist is not merely a flight of fancy; it is a tool to accustom the reader to imagining worlds beyond our own, and to fight for them (in leggings and a cape, if necessary.)
As a woman of faith, my religion shapes a lot of my thinking and guides my passion for social justice. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of our class discussions, readings, and events have got me thinking about how issues of social justice and expression speak to my faith in God. My understanding of what perfect social justice looks like, it’s aims, and the attitude to carry out while striving for social justice comes from learning about how Prophets dealt with injustices in their societies. In Surat Rahman, a chapter in the Qur’an titled “The Beneficent” (which is a really weak translation for a very deep and powerful word…), God reminds us to be thankful for the innumerous blessings He gave us with the first blessing mentioned after teaching us the Qur’an and creating us, being teaching us clear speech. This class has reminded me time and time again of the power of speech and how beautiful it is that sometimes choosing our words carefully and sharing them can be the change in the world themselves that we need to see and hear.
The Pharaoh of Egypt was known to be one of the worst of humankind- enslaving people, commanding genocide and pillaging people’s homes. He led the epitome of an oppressive regime. Yet when God commanded Moses and Aaron to go advise the Pharaoh against his wrongdoings He told them to speak to him with gentle speech [Qur’an 20:44-45]. While injustice should anger us, I am learning that the most effective way to make change is to express problems and solutions with grace, in a way that will compel people to change, rather than just condemn them or their actions. However, I realize that gentle speech was not the end of dealing with Pharaoh. Moses’ people took action afterwards since the Pharaoh did not heed his warnings. The point I intend to draw out here was his grace in speech and the willingness to give chances regardless of what the Pharaoh did at first.
What disturbs me about our justice system is that it’s about winners and losers, punishment and reward, instead of actual solutions to the root of problems that plague our communities. The aim of a leader in society should be to transform people, see their redemptive qualities, their potential for greatness and bring it out rather than criminalize people. I’ve thought about this even in terms of “abusers” in cases of domestic violence. Nobody wants to be criminalized and thought of as evil. We are more dynamic than that. This does not justify wrong behavior but perhaps we should shift our focus on the good that person has to offer instead of making their wrong behavior define them.
In an event on Maya Schenwar’s reading of her book Locked Up, Locked Down, I learned about restorative justice, an alternative to imprisoning people that focuses on creating harmony in societies when a problem arises instead of just removing the person who committed the crime and labeling him or her as a criminal. An example of what restorative justice would look like is: if violence were to break out in a community, instead of calling the police who may escalate violence and arrest a party involved, a group of people dedicated to providing a safe space for the victim, de-escalating the situation, and solving the problem at the root of the violent act, would be called. The aim here would be abolishing the cycle of incarcerating people and giving perpetrators an opportunity to understand the effect of their action and work towards solving it. This approach emphasizes the importance of safety and healing for the victim and the responsibility of the community for maintaining peace. I push you all to think the same way Schenwar and an amazing professor of mine, Dr. Floyd Hayes, pushed me to think of what will really become of our society when we lock away people that are “problems.” What are they on reserve for?
I began with explaining how I look up to Prophets who were known to be transformers of people and of society through the most just means. Time and time again Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) inspired people to turn around their lives by treating them like gems. He taught us, “People are metals like gold and silver. The best of them at the time of Jahiliyyah [the time of ignorance] will be the best of them in Islam, if they truly understand…” (Muslim). He emphasized the message that strong qualities in people that can be used for bad can be turned around and used for good causes. While we do not draw pictures of our Prophets, Arabs were people of deep and precise language so it was common for people to express their love for Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through poetry. Since he has inspired me so much through the beauty of his words and characters, I thought I would share a poem that attempts to, but could not even do justice for such a beautiful person.
Until this semester, I had never heard of a such thing as a poetry festival. Book festivals, sure—with all the book fairs, author panels, readings—I got that. But what did one do at a poetry festival? Reading and discussing poetry seems like the obvious answer, but I was sure there was more than that.
Armed with the Split This Rock event app (which I found out about from Yasmine’s blog post) I stalked the presenters, performers and event leaders, scrolled through a list of panels all scheduled at the same time making Sophie’s choice each time I selected one over the other and discussed which panels I wanted to attend with my classmates. Of course, pre-planning is simple—nothing ever pans out quite as you’d expect.
Case-in-point: a breakdown of the day-of:
7:00 AM: It Begins (also the caption of my first Snapchat of the day)
“I missed the bus.” Hopkins has a lovely air about it in the early hours of the weekend morning, when no student wakes up with the intention to walk on to campus at 6:45AM. I, of course, having woken up late, ran (walked at a rapid pace) to campus only to find the East Gate of campus completely deserted. Of course, rather than consult any emails or memory of what The Plan was for the day, I convinced myself of the only natural truth: I missed the bus.
Very soon after this thought, familiar faces began to trickle in and approach me (or the gate). However, rather than feeling a sense of comfort, I wondered how I would tell them my newfound discovery: We’ve missed the bus.
9:00 AM: Arrival at Festival and Adventures to the Middle East [Panel]
Upon arriving at the festival, I realized what had been in the back of my mind while looking at the map I’d been handed on the bus: each panel was in a different building—not just a different room. Panels were set up in different spaces within a three-block radius or so. We would have to walk to each one.
Now I’ve heard conflicting opinions on the dispersed panels, however I was personally a big fan of it. We got to walk out into the lovely weather between each panel and see the tiny stretch of D.C. before us that looked all the more beautiful for it. But one issue became glaringly obvious to me within moments of looking at the map: what they fail to check post 4th grade Social Studies is whether you can still read a map after you ace the test. Short answer based on life experience: no. There were no gridlines showing how far Sally’s house was from the elementary school: just a combination of two star shaped intersections and their off-shooting sparks—streets. Even though they were very helpfully up marked map. My only problem was not knowing which way I was on the map. Which led to some very interesting early morning adventures.
I must admit now that I am not a coffee drinker, therefore to play up my tired antics as caffeine withdrawal would be disingenuous. However, given my early morning and short nap on the bus ride, my first intended destination was a lucky chance upon Starbucks. This Starbucks, according to the map meant we were very close to the location of the first panel: Now What? Everyday Experience and Resistance in the Middle East, which my early morning astuteness led me to search for based on the building numbers around me rather than by consulting a map on my phone. Across the street from the Starbucks was a building numbered 1300 Connecticut Avenue, making me certain 1301 (the Institute for Policy Studies new office) was nearby. After crossing Connecticut Ave and immediately crossing back, then crossing N St, and again immediately crossing back, we found that 1301 Connecticut Ave. was right next to the Starbucks in the only direction we hadn’t tried: down the street.
9:30 AM Panel 1: Now What? Everyday Experience and Resistance in the Middle East
As the first panel I attended at the festival, this panel on the Middle East largely shaped my expectations for the rest of the day. As a panel consisting of academic/poets, there was a collegiate feel of a lecture, paired with panelists unique and informed readings into the works of the Middle East. For the subject matter, I found the format beneficial, however I did feel there was limited Middle Eastern representation. This was not a great concern however, as each of the panelists seemed to be aware of their own distance despite their own positions as translators or burgeoning experts in the field.
The panelists’ grappled with the question of how creativity occupies a space on the political stage by exploring the resistance of poetry through subtle language. In fact their emphasis on the intricacies of the Arabic language ushered the audience members and other panelists to seeing images of resistance in the everyday images of family, nature, etc.
I was particularly interested in the take of the panelists, Nomi Stone, and her fieldwork as an Anthropology PhD. candidate researching practices of the US military alongside her study of Iraqi poets and short story writers. As she read a selection from Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Dunya Mikhail’s “Iraqis and Other Monsters,” she drew emphasis on Arabic works of resistance as a voicing in the world “I am alive and I am not your tool.”
11:30 AM Panel 2: The Space to Create: Designing Successful Poetry Workshops for Communities
First things first: This panel was actually amazing. As a Creative Writing teacher at a local middle school, I know how much outside time and planning is required to come up with engaging writing prompts for my students.
Basically a workshop on how to hold a workshop, the room was filled to capacity with seating spread out to the floor—tightly packed. Despite the minimal elbow room, the room was filled with energy as so many amazing individuals shared their own experiences and gave each other advice across the room on holding workshops. As a relative newbie, I was just in awe to see so many people share my experiences or offer ways to improve how I've held workshops for my students in the past.
After a group brainstorming session the audience broke into groups as we designed our own workshops. On groups I will say this—after being introduced to my group-members, I am actually in awe of how a workshop like this brings together people of all levels of experience from an Ohio county poet laureate to a university student studying poetry. On designing a workshop I will go further and say that I am extremely grateful for the lessons and the advice. Being in a setting where I was introduced to so many opinions and experiences helped me to recognize that although I may be starting out, I'll be armed with the experience of my poetry workshop workshop peers as I move forward.
Lastly, a huge shout-out and thanks to the Project VOICE team Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye, Franny Choi and Jamila Woods for making the process of designing a workshop streamlined and helpful and particularly timely, as I go back to teaching next year!
1:00 PM Meeting Pages Matam in Person (More details in our interview here)
While the poetry festival itself was a new and unique experience, the absolute most exciting part of my day was between all of the scheduled events of the festival (sorry, Split This Rock organizers, and thank you at the same time for making this meeting possible in the first place!). As students in Dora Malech’s Poetry and Social Justice class at JHU, Rejjia Camphor, and WBS writer and myself were partners in conducting an interview with Pages Matam for this website. Due to time constraints, we had conducted our interview with Pages over email, however after receiving his responses he mentioned that he would be at the festival on Saturday.
While our conversation was very helpful for completing our interview for this blog, it was also an excellent summary of this poetry festival itself. It was immediately clear that Pages knows literally everyone—as Rejjia and I were fortunate to meet so many amazing artists who stopped by just to say hi. Upon learning that we were conducting an interview, many asserted that Pages is the perfect combination of poetry and social justice—a perfect interviewee for this class. At a festival like this, Pages was a human reminder of all the stories that need to be told, of the many silences to be broken.
2:00 PM Unchained Voices: Giving Incarcerated Writers a Voice
What I found most interesting about this panel was how it could be so much about poetry and expression, without any poetry being read aloud. In some ways, this panel exemplified the aims of a social justice poetry festival drawing attention to the voices of the unheard.
The two panelists spoke of their experiences not only in teaching creative writing courses to incarcerated individuals, but also of the systemic issues all volunteers face whether it be from program coordinators, grant funding etc. They emphasized their own need to remain apolitical, instead driving activism through writing. By focusing their power on telling their authentic truths, these individuals are able to craft their stories and have a space for their voices to be heard.
You can find out more about the work these panelists do with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop here.
4:30 PM The Adventure Back to Baltimore (or When I Remembered I Had Snapchat and Drained my Phone Battery Recording my Last Hour in D.C. to Make Up for Not Capturing the Festival)
“Life is an adventure best lived with the people you love” This semester I was thrilled to take a poetry class with one of my dearest friends before she graduates. While this semester itself has been an adventure for both of us, our trip back to Baltimore was the best kind—inadvertent.
After unknowingly walking to the farther away metro station, passing it by a couple feet and being patiently directed by a fellow pedestrian to look five feet behind us, my classmate, Maysa and I made it to the Metro. Where the real adventure began. Now, everyone knows that trains go in two directions: from Here to There and There to Here. And Maysa, looking in the opposite direction came upon the realization that we were on the wrong train and wrongfully ushered me off the right train. Right before the stop for Union Station—a.k.a. our stop. She continued to advise against the next two trains which both stopped at Union Station (at this point, the blame is solely on me for not asserting my superior directional skills), until the metro which would bring us to Union Station with one minute to our train arrived. Ultimately combination of running as fast as we could, and the sheer luck that the 5:30 PM train was late, brings our D.C. adventures to a close.
I like sports.
I am not in the least bit athletic, but I was raised in a home where the NBA and the NFL and the MLB were constant fixtures on the TV. We didn’t have cable for most of my childhood, but we (AKA: my parents) could at least watch the nationally broadcasted game, cheer for the home team, bicker over chips and salsa about who was bound for the championship. All of this is helped by the fact that I’m from suburban Indiana, and apathy towards the Pacers or Colts or the school football team means that I’ll struggle for conversation topics with a good portion of my peers.
I think it’s easy to dismiss sports as lowbrow, as culturally insignificant. And I can’t really fault that attitude too much. Sports, particularly professional sports, don’t really matter. By which I mean that the Broncos winning the Super Bowl or the Warriors winning 73 games has no real effect on society. Some people are happy. Some people are angry. But it’s a bit frightening to me to think of the millions of dollars poured into this industry whose entire goal is, essentially, just to entertain. Film and literature have the virtues of originality, creativity, social commentary; the sports entertainment world is more or less just a celebration of strong, athletic men and women.
But maybe that’s okay. The Orioles went 6-0 last week. It was exciting. I kept hearing the buzz when I was on the bus or shopping for groceries or just scanning through social media. I like sports because they’re deeply communal—sports fandom is comprised of all kinds of people from the same area, the same community, just coming together and cheering for the team that’s supposed to represent them. When the hometown team is succeeding, it feels like a bit like the hometown is succeeding, too. There’s a sense of pride.
In class, we’ve been reading a lot of poetry about struggle, about the hardships endured by the historically marginalized and those who have suffered social injustices. I think that’s very valuable work, but it can be trying to keep on reading about sadness and sorrow. As Dora pointed out in class last week, it’s helpful, sometimes, to just celebrate. So I looked for optimistic poetry about social justice. It is, apparently, more difficult than I imagined, but I don’t have an extensive mental repository of poems. Here’s one, though. “I look at the world” by Langston Hughes:
I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.
I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that's in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
When I see people getting excited about the Orioles, it’s a nice reminder that there really is a lot to celebrate, no matter how small or silly or ultimately inconsequential the thing is. I think that community work is, very often, at the heart of social justice, and so if people from this Baltimore community are out celebrating a few baseball wins, doesn’t that matter? Nothing of real consequence is being accomplished, sure. But if you look at the local sports teams as representatives of the locality, then there is a sense of pride in that. A win won’t propel social justice forward—Langston Hughes’s road to find is almost certainly not the road to the national championship—but it might help some people in the community feel pleased with what their city is accomplishing. And I think that so much of celebration is about unity, and about community, and these are all things that social justice likes to focus on.
There is much to celebrate. For example: The weather is beautiful. Many of us in class just took a trip down to DC, to listen to some marvelous poetry readings and learn about protest and provocation. For us Hopkins students, Spring Fair was this weekend—there was music and fried food and farm animals to pet. Kobe retired with a 60 point game, and the Warriors just got the all time wins record. The Orioles are at the top of the East. People are accomplishing things all around us. There’s a lot to be happy about, I think.