Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is all this necessary?

I've neglected this blog. In it's neglect, however, my project has continued to evolve at a rapid pace. Returning to the US has caused certain hurdles for me, but also, in a beautiful, underhanded way, has given me incredible opportunities. I've moved to Washington DC, my self-proclaimed "home for now". This city is an odd place, filled with transient businessmen in suits, where your job not only defines what you do, but what kind of person you are and most importantly, your level of worth. Being placed in this position, constantly asked by acquaintances and strangers "What do you do?" and having to quickly judge whether I give them my official job title (Youth Outreach), or rather a description of who I am (Artist) has had an incredible impact on my daily life. I feel torn between these two sides of my personality (my mother, asking "you're not planning on doing poetry *forever* are you?"; my international friends begging me to get on stage more often)

Returning to the US has given me great opportunities. I have a lot of "things" now. I have an apartment, two jobs, a boyfriend, a graduate school and (gulp) a sketchy outline of a two-year plan. I have stability. And there's a great sense of contentment that washes over me, and i imagine, most others who have achieved this sort of stability. When I tell people what I have done, they almost invariably make some remark about how "brave" I am. But to me, it is much scarier to be complacent and washed every day with this overwhelming waves of dull happiness. The kind of happiness that comes with routine, security, well-marked paths. The kind of happiness when everything goes to plan. That dull aching happiness, much like eating too much delicious gourmet food, and taking a nap, belly full. This kind of happiness is dangerous to me, because it's addictive, and I think it also calmly coaxes us in soft motherly voice "Don't change. Don't take an adventure. Don't risk losing what you have." I miss the happiness of adventure, of pure reckless abandon. The wild, senseless happiness you feel after realizing you've fallen in love. The gnawing insatiable happiness that nips at your heels in the morning and purrs on your chest at night.

But, these are all just tangents of feelings. Returning to this country has allowed me to reflect on important questions about poetry, adventure, history and life. It's helped me discover not only who I am, but a bit about why we all are the way we are. Piecing together a mountain of stories, as I mentioned in my last post, has been no easy task. It's a desire to make sure that everyone is heard, ever voice validated, ever story fully sung out.

But these stories are more than voices and faces on the screen. These are stories that are still living and breathing, oceans and time differences away. Every so often, they re-surface with a friendly email received at some bizarre time of day, giving me a flood of tactile sensations from places I left long ago (has it really been so long?). Just a few nights ago, I had a great conversation with Renee Liang, a poet from New Zealand, who was interviewing me for this website:

http://www.thebigidea.co.nz/news/blogs/talkwrite/2009/jul/57936-slamtime-video/ (a pretty dope website for the Kiwi arts scene, regardless of the fact I'm in it. Check it out!)

Towards the end of our conversation, Renee asked me an interesting question: Why is poetry needed? You obviously can and should read my answer on that page, but I've been thinking about it the past few days some more. Why IS poetry needed? Why is deep language needed? In a culture like ours (American), it seems we can get by with advertisement copy that hints at sex, text messages instead of phone calls, facebook posts instead of emails, emails instead of letters, and twitter instead of blogs. Why the wordiness? Why the esoteric subjects? What's the point?

I'm not really sure how to answer that. Because whether or not it's "needed", it exists. Without reason, without logic, amidst today's fast paced, yuppy filled, sexy, recession savvy, tweet friendly, disaster of modern society, people still line up around the block every friday night in New York City to see poetry at the Nuyorican. They crowd bars in Sydney. They fill smokey ancient cafes to the brim in Vienna (making a certain scholar wonder fearfully, 'what would happen in case of fire?!'), cafes that were once frequented by philosophers, psuedo-psychologists and yes, poets. In Mexico City, the poets freestyle battle. In Casablanca, poetry hasn't lost it's sacred roots. Poets- dead and alive- still show their faces in Irish pubs.

When I first wrote my proposal for this entire project, way back in 2006, I asked myself the same question. I emailed all the poets I could get in contact with, asking them this important question. A young man, Inua "Phaze05" Ellams (http://www.phaze05.com) wrote back: "...wherever there is language and lungs, it will come." (Sadly, I couldn't stay in England long enough to connect in person with this amazing artist. I guess that gives me an excuse to go back...) He had a point-- we, the artists, like to think we're in control. We like to take credit for the movement we've created. But the fact of the matter is, we are just the vessels. Whether or not we, as individual artists exist, poetry will exist. It always has and always will.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Puzzle Pieces

I sit amongst the mountains of footage I collected over my year of travel. The tapes pile up, forming what looks like a jagged little city inside the box, along with various release forms, fliers, notes, business cards and train ticket stubs. I see pictures of friends from what seems like another world, or a dream. But it's a dream that affects my every day life-- I turn a corner and am reminded of Vienna. I hear a song, and am drawn back to Australia. I hear the smooth trill and flow of spanish and am taken to Mexico. And so on. I breathe it in, write it out.

I often liken the experience of traveling to cutting yourself open. The return and piecing back together the shattered bits is the hardest yet most interesting part. I had a similar experience when returning from Granada, Spain. Just as I did then, I shut myself away for a while, staring at my hands to remember the feeling of someplace far away. This time, however, it was my poetic voice that was shattered.

Being surrounded by so many amazing artists who were speaking of so many incredible things made me realize that we (as poets) have an incredible power. There's a reason that poetry is considered sacred-- it truly is a spiritual work. We are putting people in contact with each other and with themselves, and it's an art form that is desperately needed in Western society. So when I came home, I looked at myself, my writing, my film and my pictures and put them away. My voice was undergoing a transformation, and to regenerate itself. I needed time to absorb everything I had experienced.

No more than a month ago, I took that box back off the shelf, and dove into my memories. I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that it hurt. It was painful, feeling pulled and tugged back into the nomadic instinct. Very often, I daydream of packing up whatever I can and go on my next adventure, perhaps to South America or Africa this time. I'd like to leave this little life I've created behind again, ditching the crappy economy, harsh American culture and the two jobs I work to pay my ever increasing DC rent.

But at the same time, there's work to be done. And I can do it here just as well as anywhere else. Poets need to start talking to each other. We're on to something very big and very important. And so I started talking about it. I started writing about it and now, finally, I dug deep into the recorded memories and started cutting together a film about it. I'll be airing it in episodes, but for now, you'll be able to access the preview/trailor and individual performances at www.youtube.com/speakfilm.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

10 taxi cab rides

I sit in an empty living room, surrounded by my backpack, my trusty orange suitcase and my purse. Anxiously, I peer out the window behind me every five minutes. There's nothing worse than waiting for a cab at 6am to take you to the airport. Well, almost nothing. The bittersweet time has finally come, and this is the last leg of my journey around the world.

Last night, while conversing with a poet, I confessed that I was nervous about returning home. When he inquired why, I was unable to give him an answer. I'm not sure why I'm nervous. I'm excited too. It's funny, when I began this trip, I felt the same way. And a poet told me that excitement and nervousness were the same emotion with two different names.

I guess it's the knowledge that I'm starting, yet again, a new chapter in my life. I don't know where I'm going or when, or if I'll settle down someplace. My plans last until next sunday. Planning 1 week in advance: yeah, that sounds about right.

This trip ended much earlier than I anticipated, and that aspect makes me a bit sad. There were so many more places I wanted to see: more people, more poetry. But things never work out like we plan them to, and that's always meant to happen.

I have so many memories, and have met so many incredible people. Not a day went by this year when I didn't at least once reflect on the privilege of this journey. Even through the rough times: the fact that I felt stranded and isolated in a foreign country was a gift in itself.

I've learned so much about myself, too. No offense to previous Bristol fellows, or the fellowship itself, but I'm starting to think that's the real point of this whole journey. To find the world, but really to find yourself. It's so trite, in a way, but at the same time, so necessary. In a world full of video games, high speed internet, 24/7 in demand entertainment, it's necessary to pick up passionate and brave people and plop them in an uncomfortable situation. How passionate and brave are you now, eh?

I didn't know how this project would shape up, or if it would turn into something bigger. I know now, for sure, that it will. Over drinks on thursday night, during a heated discussion about page vs stage poetry, a poet referred to me as "possibly the most knowledgeable person of spoken word in the world". What a weird thought. But then again, no one *has* ever done what I've done, the way I've done it. And suddenly, I no longer feel like an outsider, observing the spoken word scene from a stand-off, third party standpoint. Suddenly, not only am I qualified to speak about my opinions on the scene, I have a responsibility to do so. So much can come out of what I've learned, who I've met. I owe the global spoken word community so much.

10 taxi cabs. I have taken 10 taxi cab rides to the airport. And every time, without fail, they always ask me if I'm going home.
Today, finally, I can say yes.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

woes of international travel with my kind of passport

I'm tired of feeling like, as an american, I alone am responsible for the whole world's problems.
I'm tired of having to make excuses for the ignorant face the media paints on my country.
I'm tired of feeling like I must know every single detail of american politics, or else I am just another ignorant american.
I'm tired of having people whose own countries have committed the same or far worse atrocities criticize me for being american.
I'm tired of feeling like I need all the answers
I'm tired of having to pretend I am different than the rest of america so I don't get treated poorly
I'm tired of feeling ashamed of my country.
I'm tired of people constantly asking me "Obama or Clinton" as if it were a given that I am a member of the Democratic party

I don't know everything about my government, nor do I know everything about its previous international relations strategies, war policies and health care industry. I don't know everything about the elections or campaigning or super delegates.

I can't even tell you how many times I've sat down at a table of strangers, and once they hear my accent, or get wind of my nationality, I can actually see their faces change. They challenge me. They think it's fun, like it's a game. They make me feel like I have to represent an entire country- a country so much bigger than their own, and so much more complicated. They don't care that we're all different, that it's impossible to generalize a country as big as mine. They don't care that some of us are ashamed, some of us are angry, and some of us are proud. All they care about is making a point to sound more educated than the american. Most of the times it makes me so angry that I can't even say anything. I can feel my throat tense and I've got so many words to say to them, but I don't. Out of fear of being seen as that "belligerent american"who can't participate in civilized debate.

It's not that I don't enjoy a little political discussion. I'm always interested in the views of others, even if I disagree, because I know I can learn from them. It's just those times where it gets personal, when I can feel everyone in the room looking at me like I'm somehow personally responsible for all the evil things in this world. There isn't even a word for how I feel when that happens.

The truth is, much to the dismay of the rest of the world, being american feels just the same as being canadian or british or australian. In the end, we're all just trying to get by as best we can. Nationality has nothing to do with it.

Back in North America. Back to drama land

As I dragged my beat orange suitcase up on to David Silverberg's porch in Toronto, I had a little moment of reflection. I started here. I will finish here. Strange.

I have always regarded Canada as having one of the most hectic yet successful performance poetry scenes that I have witnessed, and now that I have finished my trip, I can officially say so. Scenes in Canada are organized, efficient, in touch with each other and cooperative. It runs like a finely oiled machine... all because of a mutual love of poetry and community.

That being said, there is something to say for smaller performance poetry scenes. I've been asked a lot lately about which scene was "the best" or "the most alive", and it's a hard question to answer. Vienna had enthusiasm like what I imagined the Green Mill was like during the adolescent years of the poetry slam- a crowded bar,simply packed with people smoking cigarettes and drinking large pints of beer, the audience mouthing off to the MCs, booing the judges and cheering the poets. And, as I said before, Canada certainly was the most efficient scene I've witnessed (efficient to the point where I have to stop and wonder if it is possible for performance poetry to get *too* big, *too* mainstream that it might end up killing itself- like Rock n Roll?) Each country I went to had it's own idiosyncratic style, it's own networking abilities and it's own issues. And I realized, there- while standing on David's porch- that there was one poetry scene that made me really excited about performance poetry; one place where the events were commercial, but not too commercial, where the poets worked together even though they competed against one another. There was a place, a very small and quiet city that I almost skipped over entirely, where the poetry actually touched me, the way it used to when I first began this trip. Auckland, NZ takes the prize for my favorite. Small, polite Auckland that seemed to buzz and teem with energy and creativity. It was organized and advertised enough to pull a strong following for the weekly events, yet still managed to maintain a renegade, sub-cultural vibe. Its places like Auckland that remind me why I got into poetry in the first place- to make a connection with people through poetry who normally wouldn't read poetry.

Alas, I'm back in North America, welcomed so graciously into Silverberg's home. Over dinner last night, David mentioned a recent blog entry that has turned the Toronto Poetry scene into a tizzy. I decided to check it out to see what all the fuss is about. You can check it out too, here:


Reading this blog entry made me want to puke. Not necessarily because I disagree (he's got a valid point), but because it's such a pointless, empty and tired argument. The "page vs. stage" battle (oh yes, it's so common that they've made up a clever rhyming name for it) has been going on.... forever. You could trace it back to the Beat generation: how many critics scoffed at Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac for their writing styles, for the way they mixed music with poetry. And as we all know, those who prefer "classic" art styles often clash with those who prefer "contemporary" art styles. I even recall one Harold Bloom saying "spoken word is the death of art" which raised quite the scuffle in the USA poetry scene in the mid 90's.

But here's how I really feel about it. My honest opinion: (and since I've spent the whole year traveling around the world studying this "art form", I think I'm pretty qualified to voice my opinion now).

It doesn't really matter.

Wake up guys. Put it in perspective and stop being so serious. It's poetry. Or not. It's art. Or not. The fact is, it exists, it survives and it's drawing huge crowds. It has the power to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds and countries together. I've seen first hand how it can cause a productive dialogue between sexes, races and nationalities. It is an outlet for a kid whose parents ignore him, or for the one who gets beat up in school. It's a way for people to remember stories, or tell someone in the audience that they love them, or tell the whole audience that they love them. It's a way to bring people together- to get people to turn off the television, laptop, ipod or whatever their brains are permanently hooked up to and listen to other people. For no other reason than the simple fact that they want to listen and be listened to.

I'm tired of poets or spoken word artists or whatever you want to call them (us), getting so defensive about what people want to call them (us). Because in the end, it doesn't matter if some guy named Paul or Harold or my uncle george thinks it's "real art". Whatever it is, it's out there, it's beautiful and it's growing like mad.

And I think we should just be happy with that.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hugs to the land

Goodbye Europe.
You're beautiful, and you'll always be my favorite. Don't forget.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I'm finding myself headed towards another waterfall in my life. That's how it feels anyway.

There are these moments where it would just make sense for life to pause, for time to stay suspended till we catch our breath. I'd like that to be right now.

This trip has been so strange for me, I can't quite explain it. Part of me wants to keep doing this forever. And part of me wants to go home. But I don't really have a choice in the matter. It's time now, and I'm coming home.

I feel a bit guilty, in a way, though I'm not sure why. I guess I wish I could've travelled longer, seen all the places I proposed to see, and visit all the festivals I had read about. But life on the road comes with it's bumps and unexpected twists, and so I suppose I should've known it wouldn't work out as planned.

I purchased a book the other day, called "The Kindness of Strangers". It's a collection of travel stories. And it made me realize what traveling does to us. It pulls us out of our comfort zone and it sticks us in awkward situations. If we do it long enough, we will all eventually find ourselves stuck in the mud, absolutely lost and broke, in some foreign land where we don't speak the language. And just like clockwork, just when we've figured all is absolutely lost, just when we least expect it- some stranger will enter our lives and save us. And then disappear.

It's happened to me on this trip more times than I can count. In New Zealand I got off at the wrong bus stop and was lost in a "bad neighborhood". The first person I stopped and asked for directions took it upon himself to not only escort me to the poetry reading, he actually stayed for the reading and then showed me around Wellington for the rest of my time there. In Brisbane, I was lonely and depressed around Christmas because I had no one to share it with, when this french student invited me to the beach with her friends and then took me out to the movies on christmas day. Her reason was simple "Someone did it for me when I first got here. I know how awful it is to be alone on Christmas." In Vienna, the kindness of strangers went nuts in my life, and I was given free accommodation plus was invited to give a workshop on poetry in a school. In Ireland, two students took me in and let me stay with them in their dorm room during their exam week; and later as fate would have it, I met a musician over a cup of coffee who had more in common with me than anyone I had ever met. In Woodford, I had missed the last train to Brisbane, and was stranded ankle deep in mud at the folk festival, when a poet and his wife allowed me to stay in their super huge tent for the night. In Melbourne, a girl I had met once invited me to stay with her and became one of my closed female friends. In Belfast, after scrambling and failing to find accommodation, a poet gave up his hotel room for me, and then offered to take me on a tour of Scotland.

The stories just continue. I was not totally "down and out". I wasn't begging or even asking for help. It just happened and worked out. But the kindness of strangers is one of those phenomena that really change a person's view of humanity.

As the book says:

"Kindness is really, so to speak, all of a piece- an absolute, which cannot be graded; but its most symbolical expression is the sudden, unpremeditated act of sympathy, offered without hope or reward to an unknown and perhaps unappealing soul in distresss- to a foreigner, a truculent vagrant, an unwashed backpacker or a cat."

The point is, I've had so many wonderful encounters on this trip, that I know things will be different when I get back home. It won't be like Granada, where my heart was broken after leaving Spain. No, it'll be a bit slower, a bit heavier, I imagine. The slow transformation from being an adventurer back into a normal person. Just a girl with lots of stories. And that idea hurts, a lot. I've come to identify myself by my stories. But that's wrong too. I'm more than just what happened this year. I just have to learn to integrate it into the bigger picture. And that'll happen, eventually. It's soon going to be time to pay it forward. I owe the universe a lot. I'm going to have to become one of those strangers.