One Man Play “An Act Of God” Opens On Broadway

One Man Play “An Act Of God” Opens On Broadway

We often talk here on EG about where slam poets can/should/could/will find themselves after or as the pursue a place in the great halls of fame of slam (the halls don’t exist). To answer the question absolutely is tough mainly because only lately have we seen a great deal of spoken word artists move into other forms of public work and writing. For many years, slam was a hobby for people who had real everyday jobs and as the spotlight at the platform grows, we’ve seen poets doing new and exciting things more and more lately. One of the potential answers to our reoccurring conundrum is theater, and as an obvious next step, one person theater.

Jim Parsons, 4x Emmy winner of the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, is starring in a new play I’ve been reading about called An Act Of God. One person theater has long been a topic of much discussion among theater-heads, in fact I had a great conversation about it last week with Obie winning director Lou Bellamy, founder of Penumbra Theater Company in St. Paul, MN where we talked about how much one person theater comes from the actor/writer and how most of it seems to be navel-gazing, often never really setting out to craft a real story, but settling for a my-life-up-until-now story that has no real credible ending. I think this new show Parsons is in is a good concept, the question is Will it keep audiences (and critics) entertained for a whole 90 minutes?

 

 

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Lizz Straight | I Hope Failure Finds You | Curated by Adam “Henzbo” Henze

Lizz Straight | I Hope Failure Finds You | Curated by Adam “Henzbo” Henze

Unless I am very mistaken, Lizz Straight is the winningest female poet in the history of the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, capturing numerous team and individual titles and gracing several final round stages in her more-than-a-decade-long-history in the slam community. Despite her reputation as a fierce competitor and brutally clever writer, Elizabeth Straight-Wilt doesn’t tour as extensively as other artists with way less talent and titles under their belts. And to be honest, I am not quite sure if things worked out that way by accident.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve both collaborated with and competed against Lizz at venues all over the country, and there is no doubt that she is the realest. This article is not trying to lift her up to awesomeness, because trust me, she is already there. However, to me Lizz exemplifies the growing number of poets in America who have prioritized education over their own success as commercial artists. When artists make the conscious decision to become a mentor or educator, they often do so at the concession of their own productivity and success as writers. Often those sacrifices are met with, “Why haven’t I seen you at the open mic?!” So, I wanted to spend my last day of my Eternal Graffiti takeover focusing on the educational efforts of an artist like Lizz.

One of the best experiences I ever had as a performer is when I joined the Lizz Straight Ministries Prison Tour one year. At the time Lizz hosted a spoken-word themed radio show in Tampa, Florida, and she was surprised when she started getting correspondence from prisoners to tell her that her program was the best part of their week. She was at a stage in her career where she could have focused on touring extensively on the college circuit, but Lizz explained to me that she wanted to do something different: she told me instead of booking colleges, she decided to see how many prisons she could book instead. The program was successful, and by the way she talked about it I really wanted to be a part. In 2010 I moved to Florida for 5 weeks and we toured 10 facilities along with several other performers. I have still never had a more exuberant and enthusiastic audience than in those prison gymnasiums.

Around the same time, Lizz and I both passionately talked about enrolling in graduate school. After working 6 months as one of the mobile booth facilitators for StoryCorps, Lizz was accepted to a Master’s Program at Florida Atlantic University, studying English with an emphasis in poetry. Since graduating, Lizz earned a position in 2013 as a 6th grade English and Language Arts teacher at Ideal and Dream School in Royal Palm Beach, Florida.

Now here is the kicker: later in the year the administration also asked her to serve as the office manager for the school (and the sister school as well). This is not entirely rare in the current state of American education. Our most talented educators are now often tapped to serve in multiple roles or hold multiple positions. For me, it is a testament to Lizz’ status as an all-around bad ass. And despite all her hard work Lizz still managed to place in the top 3 last year in the individual competition at Southern Fried.

Today we are going to look at one of Lizz’s classic poems “I Hope Failure Finds You.” Hey, Lizz? Remember when we used to talk about being grown-ups?! Kudos!

 

 

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Gypsee Yo | The Sea Of Unforget | Curated by Adam “Henzbo” Henze

Gypsee Yo | The Sea Of Unforget | Curated by Adam “Henzbo” Henze

I first met Gypsee Yo in 2006 at the Southern Fried Poetry Slam in Birmingham Alabama. She was a fiery poet who threw her shoulders into every syllable. I was captivated by her relentless energy, which was especially impressive considering she was rapid-fire slamming her poem “Girls Get Cut” while several months pregnant with her first daughter Ema. Over the years Gypsee (or Jonida as I have come to know her) has become a close friend, and I even competed with her on the Atlanta Java Monkey team at the National Poetry Slam in 2008.

I have always thought of Jonida as a teacher. At poetry events we would often talk at length about social justice, and whenever she told me about the political landscape of her native country of Albania, I would nod my head and try to keep up. In 2013, that landscape changed when the Albanian parliamentary election resulted in a victory for the Alliance for a European Albania. Many political refugees like Jonida found that they could return, and she surprised the poetry community soon after by announcing that she and her family would be moving back to Albania. I was a little sad, but mostly I was really excited for her.

It has been very inspiring to keep up with Jonida’s work since she has left the United States. She was recently appointed as the head of the Tirana Youth Center, and has been effortlessly raising money and building partnerships for programs in the center. I wanted to talk with Jonida about her work as an educator in a community space, and I am thankful that she had the time to answer my questions.
You and your family recently moved back to your native country of Albania. What has that transition process been like, both for yourself and for the country.

Cultural re-entry is a process that all expatriates have to go through regardless of what countries they are traveling to and from. In my case, I left Albania when I was 18 and returned 17 years later, so half of my life was spent in the US. While I still have to deal daily with micro-aggression and the disbelief that most people express upon hearing of my decision to return, I came back with a clear vision and mission. I decided that for me it was not enough to just speak of youth and women’s struggles in a global context in my poetry; I wanted to be committed to the work at the front lines.
Congratulations on your new appointment at the Tirana Youth Center. Can you tell us more about the Center and what your position entails?

Tirana Youth Center is the first and only all-inclusive public center serving youth age 15-25 in Albania. Our city is coming close to 1 million, 2/3 of our population are young people. I have a staff of four, including myself, and we serve on average 1500-2000 youth per month. All our services are free to our young people. We have a very modest operational budget, so we rely on volunteers and partnering organizations for the 30+ events we host per month. These events vary from training sessions, conferences and public discussions to poetry shows, exhibits, and concerts. So my position includes strategic planning and policy consultancy, creation of programs and projects, developing relationships with organizations, politicians, and educators, as well as developing a generation of active volunteers. I also sweep and mop the floors, clean toilets, handle repairs, hang exhibits, and hook up sound systems.
There is currently a crowdfunding campaign for GLOW TIRANA. Can you tell us about the program and what you are raising funds for?

20% of graduating 8th grader girls in Albania do not go to high school. The number does not include the ones who enroll but do not graduate. These girls face incredible obstacles like poverty, lack of access to schools, physical danger, early marriage, human trafficking. GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a program that Tirana Youth Center—with the help of Peace Corp and college-age Albanian women—is implementing in 14 public schools in at-risk areas in the city. In GLOW clubs, girls are trained by older Albanian girls on topics of leadership, reproductive health, gender equity, self-love, and future planning. We currently have 350 girls enrolled in the program.

We have to split 4 boxes of sharpies and 3 boxes of craft paper in 350 parts. We are fundraising to offer better quality activities to the girls. In addition, we will host 12 GLOW summer camps at the Youth Center this July. We are firm believers that emancipation is not an imported product, and the only way to achieve sustainable change for the women of Albania is for women themselves to be the leaders and shapers of that change.

GLOWtirana-Jonida Beqo on genderequity

 

I have long admired your commitment to sharing the art of writing, performance and storytelling with people. Why are those discourses so important?

Storytelling and poetry are two powerful tools for community education. In fact, I have found the model of the educator and youth worker that has shaped my work in the poetry slam community. The best education I have personally received on the issues of race, gender, geo-politics, education, and intersectionality has been as the result of sitting and listening to performance poets in open mics, slams, and workshops. I am proud to have been part of the fourth wave of poet-activists which is a phenomena beyond the US. For that reason I am committed to use storytelling, poetry and performance as education and empowerment tools for this generation of Albanian youth.

 

Finally, what is next in store for you and your work in Tirana?

We are working to expand the scope of GLOW in every public school in Tirana. We will launch our creative writing and performance series for high-school students in the Fall, as well as the first youth slam in Albania. We plan to start a series of public conversation sessions called “Courageous Conversations.” These public discussions will present a constructive framework for speaking on the issues of race, gender equity, agency, LGBT youth, ageism, inclusiveness, and so forth. We are committed to digging deep and working for long term impact in our culture, serving the youth of Albania to the best of our abilities, with all the passion and love they deserve.

To learn more about GLOW Tirana and the fundraiser, please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/girls-leading-our-world#/story. Please donate if you can. Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper EG post without sharing a poem: Gypsee has a prolific amount of great poetry on YouTube, and today we will be looking at a poem recorded at the 2014 Women of the World Poetry Slam titled “The Sea of Unforget.” Enjoy.

 

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Sterling Higa | Mangrove | Curated by Adam “Henzbo” Henze

Sterling Higa | Mangrove | Curated by Adam “Henzbo” Henze

One of the hardest parts of being invested in the poetry community is you have so many talented friends and colleagues juggling multiple projects at any given time. It is practically impossible to support them all. But when slammer and graduate student Sterling Higa announced he was releasing a hip hop mixtape titled #Gradlife, it didn’t take much thought before I threw down my 10 dollars.

As a poet in a PhD program at the Indiana University Department of Education myself, I related to the project. Graduate school is often an immersive, time consuming process, and so much is focused on ingesting information. There isn’t always a lot of time to write poetry or lyrics for yourself. I was pumped when I got my CD in the mail, and wanted to share it with Eternal Graffiti. I asked Sterling about the #Gradlife theme and why it was important to him. I appreciated the candid nature of his response:

During the middle of the snowiest Boston winter on record, while studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I found myself deeply depressed. I had lost a lottery to get into the only available course on critical pedagogy, and I needed something to give me hope. I started writing this project in February, throwing everything I had thought about during the year into the mix, and trying to craft a cohesive sound while taking on some of my favorite instrumentals. This project helped me navigate school while reminding me that I could still rap, could still get loose on a track. Strip away all the frustrations and contradictions of academia, and hip-hop is inside me, and if I was in the school, then hip-hop was in the school too, even if I didn’t feel like it during my classes.

I really relate to that last line. The #Gradlife mixtape spans 6 tracks, featuring beats from The Fam, Boi-1da, El-P, and Jahlil Beats (with a bonus track featuring a beat from Scott Storch). To me, the album seems to be a reclaiming of identity: Sterling left his home in Honolulu two years ago to complete his Master’s Degree at Harvard, and the lyrics give us insight into the cultural negotiations of being a hip-hop-identified, ethnic minority student in an Ivy League school. As a result, Sterling’s lyrics mention a variety of influences, with name drops ranging from historical icons like Marx and Mandela to pioneer rappers like M.F. Doom. His song “Tetris Block” is a good example of how Sterling juggles the multiple identities involved with hip hop, race discourse, and academia.

and my penmanship– excellent

other rappers talk shit, write it too excrement

other rappers toxic, won’t stand– let em sit

while I get in get in where I fit in like a tetris brick

melanin deficient disguise to hide an old soul

lines so fine, read em twice, like an oboe

logos, pathos, ethos, I’m dope

convert these heathens to compost, y’all know

In the span of two lines Sterling jumps from Aristotelian logic to a traditional rap diss. I love it. You can listen to Sterling’s dynamic wordplay yourself: All 7 tracks are available for listening at https://sterlinghiga.bandcamp.com/. If you like what you hear, give the man ten dollars: he was just accepted to a PhD program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and he’s got books to pay for.

In closing, Eternal Graffiti really wants me to share a video with every post. Here is a great video of Sterling performing his poem “Mangrove.” Listen to the poem, but don’t skip out on the raps!

 

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Blythe Baird | Skirt Steak Girls | Curated by Adam “Henzbo” Henze

Blythe Baird | Skirt Steak Girls | Curated by Adam “Henzbo” Henze

I recently ordered a copy of the new Write Bloody book We Will Be Shelter, an anthology edited by Andrea Gibson of “contemporary poems that [address] issues of social justice (2015)” When I opened the book I was blessed with such an amazing surprise: a former student of mine, Blythe Baird, had published her poem “Girl Code 101” in the volume. Blythe had received a lot of attention for the poem recently on social media, with a Button-sponsored Youtube video of the poem receiving over 300,000 views. I was so happy to see the poem in print.

I first met Blythe in 2013 at our academic high school summer camp, The Institute of Spoken Word and Poetry Slam at Gustavus Adolphus College. That first year Blythe was charismatic and compassionate, but I was kind of unsure whether she took the whole poetry thing seriously. I am sure she did, but there was definitely a vibe that I as a counselor should chill out a little bit.

When Blythe returned the following year, her presence was different. She was a leader. She seemed more urgent. I respected her already, but her performance her second year solidified for me that she had the dedication required to be a professional artist. That same month she competed at Louder Than a Bomb and competed at the adult National Poetry Slam for the first time. It has been a treat to watch her improve in so many ways the past two years.

Today we are featuring a new poem recently released by Button Poetry called “Skirt Steak Girls.” I wanted to hear more of Blythe’s perspective, so she agreed to answer 5 short interview questions:

  1. As long as I’ve known you as a writer, it seems that you often use poetry to challenge chauvinistic cultural norms in America. Was there a moment where you can remember realizing that you can use poetry as a platform to express your ideal concept of social justice?

The lightbulb moment for me actually happened at Slam Camp back in 2013. The assignment was to write a political poem, and I was kind of turned off by it. At the time I was like, I’m sixteen! I don’t know anything about politics. But as we watched poems connecting the writer’s individual experiences to greater -ism’s and structures, that’s when it clicked for me. I started viewing my own experiences as examples of something bigger, something culturally significant.

  1. I have long admired your dedication as a writer transitioning from the youth poetry circuit to adult aged slam competitions. Can you tell me about how that process was for you graduating to the adult scene?

There really wasn’t a clear-cut graduation. Until recently, I had one foot in the adult scene and one foot still in the youth scene. I was doing Slam Camp and my first Louder Than a Bomb in the same couple months I was getting ready for nationals. Being the youngest competitor, I felt like I had gotten there by a loophole. It didn’t feel like my space to claim. I think a lot of young poets get pigeonholed into being the “slam baby” when first transitioning to the adult scene, which can be both comforting and disempowering. Over the past year, I’ve learned to give myself permission to mature in both the poetry community and my writing content.

  1. Your poem “Skirt Steak Girls” seems to be about the reality of having to be patient and polite to people when challenging their bigotry. I was wondering if you could expand on that often awkward dynamic.

I think calling someone out is difficult no matter how you approach it, but there is a very real underlying pressure to cater to what people are willing to hear. Rather than just accept this, I think this unfortunate reality needs to be taken as a call to action: stop ignoring what doesn’t affect you. Step up as an ally and person. Manifest empathy. A problem is still a problem even if your own well-being is unthreatened. Ask how you can help. Listen without interrupting.

  1. What should adult poets and educators like me be learning from all the incredibly talented youth poets in the community?

Youth poets care so fiercely for this new, electrifying community they’ve found to accept them and what they have to say. They love and write and feel so openly, which everyone should take note from. At Young Chicago Authors, the motto was: “the point is not the point, the point is the poetry.” I think we can learn from how teenagers approach writing from such a vulnerable, holy state. Young people find religion in being heard. I know hundreds of high school students praying to poetry.

  1. What is in store for you next, in poetry and life?

Geez louise. So much. My first book, GIVE ME A GOD I CAN RELATE TO, is coming out through Where Are You Press this summer. I’m competing at the National Poetry Slam again, this time with the Twin Cities Unified team. I play Stephen Baldwin’s daughter in an indie feature film, The UnMiracle, coming out on Netflix in the next few months. Finally, I just finished my freshman year at Hamline University, where I declared my double major and double minor in American Sign Language, Women’s Studies, Creative Writing, and Sociology.

 

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