Poem off the Page: An Interview with Elastic City Founder Todd Shalom

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You’re the founder and director of Elastic City, an organization whose m.o. has been the participatory walk for nearly six years, and you’ve been leading such walks for over a decade. In what way do you see your work as an artist who facilitates experiences for and with other people as being connected to your background in poetry?

For me, the walks are a poem—just taken off of the page. I wrote a lot of poetry about 12-15 years ago. My poems were functioning more like songs, perhaps better heard than read. With other poets and audiences, I wasn’t getting the dialogue I wanted. My work was both personal and coded. It’s what I needed to do for me. (I was in my 20’s). After getting over myself a bit, the desire to connect with people became more urgent, and the walk form gave me the opportunity to both learn from and share with the audience, as they became active participants in the work.

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Cross-Pollination is Key: An Interview with Morgan Parker

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At what point in your writing life did you decide to get an MFA? Why? 

I was in college taking my second ever-poetry class with Josh Bell, during my sophomore year. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. When, in his office hours, he told me my poems were good, I was totally shocked. I had never heard of an MFA when he told me I should consider getting one. At the time I was just writing funny poems or depressed poems and reading them to my friends at parties. So the world has J. Bell to thank (or blame) for steering me in this direction and, basically, helping me to take myself seriously as a poet. I went into my MFA program straight from undergrad, wide-eyed about the possibility of nerding-out with other poets and becoming a more confident, focused writer.

What were you initially expecting to do after the degree? How did this expectation change (or not)?

Immediate worldwide fame. Just kidding. I really wasn’t sure. I was very focused on completing a manuscript by the time I finished school, and I didn’t see much past polishing and submitting it. While I was in grad school, I worked four days a week in the Visitor Services department at MoMA PS1. I’ve worked in the visual arts since college, so I was hoping to find a full-time job in the arts that wouldn’t distract me from writing. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of work that goes into being a professional writer. It’s more than writing– it’s editing, it’s submitting, it’s ordering manuscripts, phone calls with publishers, giving readings, marketing, applying for fellowships and residencies– and it’s a lot of work. The balance between “work” and “other work” shifts all the time, and it’s taken me a while to get used to that fluidity and the fact that as a writer, you’re always working.

Were you ever interested in staying in academia? Why or why not? 

I’m definitely interested in it to some degree. Maybe one day there will be a Dr. in front of my name, maybe not. I know that the adjunct hustle is not for me. I have a lot of other hustles that keep me occupied and oppressed. I do love teaching, and I look forward to pursuing that more, maybe in academia, or maybe in a more nontraditional setting. In the meantime, museum education plays that role for me.

Your undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing and Anthropology. To what extent do the concerns of the social sciences influence your poems? Do you ever find yourself using ethnography or other parts of an anthropology framework in your work?

Yes– my majors always sounded like a weird combination to other people, but it made total sense to me to study people and how and why we act the way we do, particularly in relation to other people. Anthropology, for me, is about curiosity, observation, analysis, sensitivity, history, “culture,” rituals, all that good stuff. All of that fuels my work, or rather, the way my poet’s mind works. My anthropology studies were very interdisciplinary– I took English classes, African-American studies classes, a jazz studies class, even a class on “posthumanism.” I think of my writing in the same way. I draw on everything that surrounds me and interests me: race politics, feminist theory, pop culture, advertising, music, history. My work is about what it feel like to be this particular human, and I definitely think the anthropological side of my brain is very interested in that.

You’re now the Education Director at MoCADA – were you involved in the museum education/ visual arts world before starting to work there? How did you acquire the background and skills the job required?

MoCADA is my my first job in museum education, though I have worked in arts education/administration at previous gigs. I’ve been working in the arts for about six years now. I didn’t study art history but it’s a personal interest and passion. Since I took my first college job in arts administration, I’ve always loved the idea of being surrounded by artists and visual art. I was at PS1 part-time for almost four years, during which I became really connected to the art world and very in tune with how arts organizations run. I was able to talk and work with almost all of the departments, and tried my hand at everything from bartending for the rich and famous to climbing a ladder in heels to help out with installation. After teaching during my MFA, I was hungry for more opportunities to share my excitement about art, which is essentially at the heart of museum education. Working at MoCADA blends so many aspects of what I love: working with and within the Black community, teaching and spreading excitement about the arts, communications, and curating programs.

Many of your poems deal with contemporary American issues that impact the Black community (such as police violence). Does working at MoCADA give you opportunities to blur the line between what you think/ talk about in poems and what you think/ talk about at work? If the line is blurry, do you like having that cross-pollination, or would you rather keep your day job and poetry lives separate?

The cross-pollination is really, really key for me. The work I do and experience at MoCADA, in particular the conversations and debates I’m able to have with both coworkers and museum visitors, has totally transformed my writing. These are issues that color my life– not just work issues or themes I explore in writing. Art, Black communities, racism, intersectional feminism, activism– these are my concerns all the time, and I love being able to address them with my personal art and in a different way at work. Different strategies, same essential goal.

Do your colleagues know about and support your writing? 

I’m really the luckiest girl when it comes to this. My co-workers are incredible fans of mine. They come to readings, I send them poems, and they’re genuinely interested in my work and my success as a poet. Once, I hadn’t written a poem in months, and I took a day off to write. I signed onto my email in the middle of the day and was promptly accosted by g-chats telling me to go write poems! That kind of support is invaluable to me. But it’s also in the culture of working in the arts, particularly at such a small, inclusive institution. All of my coworkers are wildly talented artists of some kind, and we push and encourage each other.

How do you create time for writing around your other work obligations? 

The real secret is that I can work in front of the TV. While I’m sippling wine and catching up on Top Chef or whatever I’m usually drafting or editing something. Also, I’m single. So, like, what else am I doing? But honestly, and most importantly, I have a really great community of writers who push me. I’m really into meeting friends to write at a café or bar or hosting “writing days” at my apartment where we just listen to records and drink spiked coffee and write for hours. At this point, I’m proud to say I don’t even usually think about it, I just do it. I have to.

The artist collective BFAMFAPhD recently released a census report noting that in New York City, only 15% of artists make a living from their creative work alone, and that those who do earn a median of 25K/ year. (And of those, 74% are white, non-Hispanic). The collective’s response to this data is that artists should attend/ support alternative arts education institutions rather than go into debt. Do you agree? What other ramifications do you think this data has for the future of the arts in NYC?

I definitely agree. I’ve seen this report floating around on social media (confession: my newsfeeds are mostly made up of non-white, non-male artists) and in terms of ramifications, I think that awareness is the first step. And our response should be anger. We should demand more. We should agree to change the system. Because I surround myself with visual artists and musicians as well as poets, I wasn’t even the least bit surprised by this data. The art world is a dark, rich place. In some ways, I think that when one decides to become an artist, there’s a bit of giving into that super-capitalist system and almost agreeing to its rigidity and exclusion. So I’m excited by this information being fuel for revolution, for refusing to put up with these traditions. I think part of what drew me to museum education was an interest in alternative education, community-led education, and artist-as-educator models. And when I say we should demand more, I don’t just mean money. I mean worth. I mean investment in ourselves and the power of art. Alternative education can absolutely help this, as can community organizing around how to expand one’s art practice to allow for more optimal living.

What advice would you give to young writers just starting an MFA? To those doing a degree in New York? To writers of color specifically?

Try not to get distracted, but let yourself get distracted. Write what you care about, not what other people care about or want to hear. If you don’t care about anything at the moment, don’t write about anything at the moment. Go to readings. Give readings. Go to office hours. Be hard on yourself but forgive yourself. Write shitty, terrible drafts of things. Get super used to rejection. Do like Jay Z says and brush the dirt off your shoulders. Find community. And I don’t just mean friends (though those are great, too), I mean people you can trust and who understand not only your work but you as a person. In the NYC MFA community, you probably won’t naturally find a community of writers of color waiting for you in the classroom, but they exist, so don’t be afraid to seek them out. Don’t think you don’t need them. Say you’re gonna go to law school, but don’t. Say you’re gonna go into I-Banking, but don’t. Submit everywhere. Ask for favors. Do people favors. Read everything.

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Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize, and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the anthology Why I Am Not A Painter, published by Argos Books. She works as education director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and  a poetry editor of Coconut Magazine

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Still Outraged at 100: Muriel Rukeyser’s Centennial

Muriel Rukeyser has been dead for 33 years, but we just can’t keep away from her. On the occasion of her recent centennial, Chanel Dubofsky and I gave her a nickname and talked about the ways this incredible lady built essential bridges between art, activism, and work. 

Courtesy of the Paris Review.

Leah Falk: 

So–I guess I would like to start by asking you how you first came to/ heard about Muriel Rukeyser, or if we can give her a posthumous nickname, “The Ruk.”

Chanel Dubofsky: 

So I think I heard about, um, The Ruk in college. I was in this weird band of poetry people.

LF: The best band.

CD:  YES. Even though I’m not actually a poet, we needed each other. Anyway. Someone brought The Ruk to a gathering, and she immediately felt important to me.

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All These Activities Have Nourished One Another: An Interview with Martha Collins

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When did you begin to identify as an activist?

In the late 1960s, I left the rather sheltered world of the Midwest, where I’d grown up and was attending graduate school, to teach at the urban campus of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Unlike my Iowa life (which was extremely white and middle class), U.Mass-Boston had a very diverse student population, in terms of race, class, and age. A commuter school, it attracted many first-generation students; the average age, at some point, was something like 27 or 28, and the majority of the students worked, many of them full-time.

Almost immediately, teaching those students began to expand my social  consciousness. How could I not be concerned about social conditions in my country when students with limited finances were struggling to balance school, work, and family? How could I not think about racial prejudice, some of which became particularly nasty during the Boston school bussing crisis of the early 1970s?

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Activist Writers: Chanel Dubofsky on Fiction and Privilege

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The evening the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was announced, I thought that somehow I could not pay attention to it. That’s white privilege, in case you needed an illustration. I can turn off my computer and go down the street or to sleep and not think about it, because for me, a white skinned Jewish girl, if I don’t think too hard about it, it can actually seem like it doesn’t matter. The spoiler is, of course, that I couldn’t not think about it. I couldn’t think about anything else, and for the first time in a long time, I felt the gross creeping of white guilt, something I try not to entertain because it’s so unproductive, so paralyzing, so indulgent. But there it was. The thing about privilege is that you cannot give it away. Not really. You can pretend you don’t have it, people do that all the time. You can step aside and make a space for someone else, but you always have your privilege, regardless of whether or not you want it. There’s nothing like it in the whole world.

Writing is the thing I count on when I can’t figure out how to maneuver through the world. I usually sort through sexism, racism and other disturbing daily social phenomenon with essays, but these days my job is actually to write fiction, seeing as I’m in an MFA program.  I’ve never felt like it was harder to justify making art.  For days, it felt like the most privileged, smug thing I could possibly do. I’d written a blog post shortly before the verdict came in, about my process of writing fiction (anxiety, caffeine, procrastination, frantic typing, delirious joy, exhaustion, anxiety…), and when I looked at it later, I knew I could not possibly post it. It was irrelevant. It was nothing. It was maybe even cruel.

I’ve been thinking about endings lately-the ones that are neat and tidy and satisfying, the ones that have been earned, as well as those that are vague and sloppy and ultimately realistic. Trayvon Martin did not deserve any kind of ending at the age of seventeen. There is no age at which he could deserve the ending that he got, and yet, while so many of us are shocked and bruised by the verdict, we also know that this is the reality of living in a racist country.

Being a progressive activist means understanding that people are complicated, that we all have multiple identities that we engage with to varying degrees. It’s not like it isn’t possible to be many things at once-writers know that, maybe better than anyone else. Sherwood Anderson wrote, “The whole glory of writing lies in the fact that it forces us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.” There are entire books to be written about how to responsibly write about people who are not us without exoticizing, or stereotyping, but for the sake of this piece, I’ll just say that writing, particularly fiction, is-or should be-an exercise in empathy and ethics. For that reason, and thousands of others, it’s important. It can keep us alive.

Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published in RH Reality Check, Cosmopolitan, The Frisky, The Billfold, Lilith and The Forward, among others. She is working on her MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Activist Writers: Gwendolyn Brooks

Credit: The Poetry Foundation

Credit: The Poetry Foundation

In every poetry class I’ve taught so far, I’ve slipped Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic “We Real Cool” into the first week or so. My students, having read the poem silently to themselves, respond to the rhyme, the three beat lines, the language that seems to bare its face while still hiding something. When I ask them what they think the speaker thinks of the “we,” they sometimes say that he or she is warning the young pool players or making fun of them, even as the speaker inhabits their late-lurking, straight-striking world.

But after they hear a recording of Ms. Brooks herself reading the poem, something changes. Suddenly, the first word of each line — “lurk,” “strike,” “jazz” — takes on a dotted rhythm, and the “we” that my students at first read as bearing a full third of each line’s weight becomes only a decoration, a grace note.

This can’t help but change their reading of the poem, one which only scratches the surface of Brooks’s commitment to writing honestly about the black communities she observed and moved within. Brooks was the first black author to win the Pulitzer prize and the first black female poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, but she didn’t use that success as an excuse to occupy only the mainstream. In her later career, she left Harper and Row to publish with a series of small black companies. She also called attention to the change in critics’ response to her work once she began publishing with these presses: some seemed to fear the political content of her work, and she believed that they “did not wish to encourage Black publishers.” Her two-volume autobiography, now considered among her most important prose works, was at first criticized for not containing enough personal information, or “domestic spats,” as Brooks put it.

Given her prolific career, her activism, and her constant effort to show black American lives in sharp focus, It’s no wonder that even the recorded sound of Brooks’s voice allows her own work to be heard more clearly and immediately by young readers. Moments after hearing “We Real Cool,” one recent student commented that Brooks had read the poem as though one of the poem’s verbs –“lurk late” or “die soon” — could totally eclipse the person, the “we,” doing it. As though “we” — the collective as well as the individual within it — could disappear in the action someone else sees.