Catherine Labiran | Traveling The World As A Poet

Catherine Labiran | Traveling The World As A Poet

In my opinion, one of the most powerful things you can do for your writing career is travel. The perspective you gain when you see life, and community, and poetry thru another lens is so critical to the development and voice of a writer. I see a lot of commentary on what poetry is, or slam is, etc, that is based on a narrow set of experiences that person has lived in the nest of their own city, region, country.

Today’s spotlight, although young, has experienced poetry in several different places and talks about her experience. If you ever run into me I can talk at nausea about the differences and nuance between the UK, Australia, and US scenes. A lot of the things that I thought I new about the art form were challenged and impacted when I moved out of the US, and I know that my writing and viewpoint is better as a result.

Catherine Labiran is a 19 year old African-American-British Poet who uses her pen as a medium to speak for the silent. Born in Staten Island New York, raised in Harrow, London and now living in Atlanta, Georgia, Catherine is able to infuse her diverse cultural experiences into exhilarating bodies of work, enabling them to live lives of their own. She was selected as a winner of SLAMbassadors UK 2010, a winner of 30 Nigeria House, and was conferred the honour of writing the official Olympic Poem for London 2012 as one of London’s “12 Poets for 2012”.

Since she began her career in performance and authorship in late 2010, she has spanned continents with her transformative presentations. Catherine Labiran has performed at many auspicious venues including The House of Commons, The Roundhouse (where she is a resident artist), and The Royal Festival Hall. Her work has been celebrated in festivals such as Lounge on the Farm, Shoreditch Festival and Bestival. She was selected to be a Poet Laureate for Larmer Tree Festival and accompanied TJ Dema and Nobel Prize recipient, Wole Soyinka , during Poetry Parnassus. Catherine’s written work has been documented in various acclaimed anthologies internationally

 

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Fanny Lou Hamer’s Speech At The Democratic National Convention

Fanny Lou Hamer’s Speech At The Democratic National Convention

The establishment [read- men throughout all of time] have always tried to silence women. They have gone through great lengths to make sure that the voices and stories of women are not included in the national discourse. In this instance, President Lyndon Johnson tried to straight shut down Fanny Lou Hamer because he did not want the world to hear her voice, to hear her truth.

During the 1964 Democratic Convention, He cut away from her speech thinking that would silence her, he thought the world would care more about the nothing he had to say, than the struggle of black people in this country at the time, but it back fired. All of the news outlets, realizing the blatant attempt to silence Fannie Lou Hamer, ran the speech over and over and the impact was immediate

During her testimony this sharecropper from Mississippi grabbed the mic and told a story of her struggle that was so real and so visceral it sends a chill down your spine as you are listening.

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the youngest of her parents’, Ella and James Lee Townsend’s, 20 children. Her family moved to Sunflower County, Mississippi in 1919 to work on the plantation of W. D. Marlow as sharecroppers. Hamer picked cotton with her family, starting at the age of 6. She attended school in a one-room schoolhouse on the plantation, from 1924-1930, at which time, she had to drop out. By the age of 13, Hamer could pick 200-300 pounds of cotton daily. In 1944, after the plantation owner discovered that she was literate, Hamer was selected to be the plantation’s time and record keeper. In 1945 she married her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer. They worked together on the plantation for the next 18 years.

During the 1950s, Hamer attended several annual conferences of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) in the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. The RCNL, a combination civil rights and self-help organization, was led by Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a civil rights leader and wealthy black entrepreneur. The annual RCNL conferences featured entertainers such as Mahalia Jackson, speakers such as Thurgood Marshall and Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, and panels on voting rights and other civil rights issues.

While having surgery to remove a tumor, in 1961 Hamer was also given a hysterectomy without her consent by a white doctor as a part of the state of Mississippi’s plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. The Hamers later raised two impoverished girls, who they later decided to adopt.

Watch the first video which is an except from the Documentary “Freedom Summer”

If this was a slam poem it would receive a perfect 30 from me.

You can check out the entire speech at the link below@

 

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Should I Get My MFA or Nah?

Should I Get My MFA or Nah?

About 6-9 months ago, I started seeing all of the Facebook post of peers of mine talking about either submitting for MFA programs, or receiving their letters of acceptance/denial. I have always wanted to get my MFA in creative writing because, I mean, who would not want to sit with a bunch of other talented writers and talk craft and politics all day, To broaden your network and stay up late reading and discussing great works of poetry and prose. In my head that is what an MFA program was all about, and I was here for it. Admittedly I did not know much about MFA programs, I was a computer science major in undergrad and did not start really writing til well after college, before doing some research I thought MFA’s where a natural evolution and most writers who were able were in favor of it.

Then I started to research it….and lets just say google is a cruel place for MFA’s especially to writers of color. So something was not matching up, the enthusiasm of my peers vs the actual data out there on MFA programs were at odds. Whether or not to get an MFA is a topic that has been written on exhaustively, however I am curious to know how that boils down specifically in the lens of our subculture. i.e “MFA’s for performance poets or NAH?”

As I see it, over the past couple of years there has been a surge in the number of performance poets pursuing their MFA’s, When I first started performing, slam had a strong  sense of anti-establishment, (still does just in a different way), and one of the biggest establishments was the whole world of “academia”. Performance poets did not need nor desire the co-sign, accolades or degrees. They had the streets, they had the ear of the people, that this movement we were starting was more real, more visceral and impactful. Slam poets were by and large made to feel like their work was not valid or “real” and did not have a place in the national conversation and canon on what poetry is. Due to this fact there was almost a purposeful dissonance from all things academia. Performance poetry was the voice of the unheard it was the rage against the machine.

I know I cannot make a sweeping generalization on this, but from my perspective that was the general state of affairs. However, the tide has DEFINITELY changed, more and more performance poets are wanting to carve out their place in the world of academia, and “academia” has started to recognize performance poets as writers, whose works are just as valid and relevant as any traditional poet. I would actually argue that there are programs/journals/residencies where poets who have a background in Performance Poetry are regarded just as relevant as their counterparts that found poetry/creative writing through a more traditional route

I want to point out that all of the above points are just a tip of the iceberg there are a TON of more nuanced points I am glossing over, this is by design, as to not turn this into a longform essay about the combative relationship between the two subcultures over the last 20 or so years. I really want to focus on the present day, and the pros and cons on obtaining your MFA in creative writing. I will however throw out there that anyone who feels they have the chops to write comprehensively on the relationship between the academia, and slam and how it has morphed in the last decade I would be super open to that.

So, If we rewind a bit, the actual trigger for this blog post is from a conversation I was having with a poet who said “I feel like I need an MFA for my work to be respected in the same regards as traditional writers” he also stated that “An MFA is what I NEED to hone my craft of writing and become a better writer” I found this problematic and curious at the same time. I wondered if an MFA is even necessary if the end goal is anything other than Teaching in an MFA program (there is an overwhelming consensus that if teaching is your end goal an MFA is definitely needed)  So if you want to write fiction, or poetry, or all of the writing careers in-between is an MFA really necessary?

*Note – earlier I alluded to “google being a cruel place for the subject of MFA’s and POC”  when trying to determine if an MFA is “worth it” there is a HUGE part of this conversation that deals with the concept around what is “right” being dictated in large by white men, and that lens has largely disenfranchised/silenced women writers and writers of color. In that, MFA programs actually erase the voice of minority groups in an effort to bleach everyone’s voice and mechanic of creative writing to be what “they” deem to be “correct”

I get that, so lets base this conversation on a premise that your MFA program is woke, that it shames those other MFA programs and your MFA, has faculty and staff that does not espouse nor support that type of erasure, cool…ok SO the question remains should I get my MFA??

PROS

  • Network – the network you gain from going to an MFA program is cited as one of the biggest Pros
  • Critical Analysis – In an MFA program you will have peers from all over with different experiences that will be critique your work in an effort to make you a stronger writer
  • Reading – Learning how to read like a writer, is one of the common benefits stated, this helps you better your own writing
  • Discipline – MFA’s MAKE you sit down and write, you can’t make excuses you have to have structure and write to deadlines

CONS

  • Cost – the biggest discussion point by far was the cost of an MFA and does it make sense to go into debt when there is no tangible return on investment if you are not deciding to teach.
  • Indoctrination – One of the biggest complaints I found was around the faculty and staff determining what is “right” or good and as a student having to conform to that, having your work tore down because it did not fit in the pocket of what your particular program thought was correct. One of the common themes from people that recommended the MFA spoke about how impactful their particular advisor or faculty was. Indoctrination can erase your voice, which can erase your story and make you a carbon copy of the status quo [read white male writers] in a way that does not promote diversity of thought which we all know is tragic
  • Elitism – This goes hand in hand with indoctrination, many of the articles I read lamented on the absolute elitism of some of these programs.

In my research I found several articles that broke down the pros and cons, but one article that was particularly insightful was from the site Flavorwire Entitled “27 writers on whether or not to get your MFA” In this article they found 27 accomplished writers ones who have their MFA and ones that don’t.

They asked the 27 accomplished writers 3 simple questions

  1. Do you have an MFA?
  2. Do they currently Teach in an MFA program?
  3. Would they advise a writer to get an MFA?

If you go to the link above you can see all of the responses, it is actually very insightful to see what the writers had to say, I have copied a couple of them below.

The overwhelming answer was NO, I actually had to dig to find people that really believed that an MFA was the way to go to have an established writing career. Now it should be noted that I do not know anything about the writer of the above article, therefore I can’t state that the “feedback” was not solicited with any bias, but by and large the lion share of the writers said that unless your MFA is free or you don’t take on any large finical debt then go for it, if not then the money would be better spent experiencing life and seeking out workshops and WRITING.

It is also always ironic to me when people who have ‘said’ thing, say don’t do what I did, while not speaking to the advantages they received from the thing they are telling you not to do.

So what do you think? What are your experiences? I would love to know from where you sit, and the circles you are in if you think an MFA is “worth” it. (I know the term worth can mean many things for many people) so let’s re-frame it if you were to get an MFA, or if you already have one, what are your motivations?

For part II of this topic I will be interviewing several performance poets who went and got an MFA, or are currently pursuing one, and will be breaking down the pros and cons particularly for performance poets or individuals who feel themselves to be part of this subculture, and see if post graduation they felt like an MFA was definitely the way to go!

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Ramya Ramana | Miss America

Ramya Ramana | Miss America

I often wonder how much of the hate and absolute vitriol that you see on twitter is real. Meaning,  I wonder if under the cloak of anonymity people are really as evil as their comments suggest. I wonder if you can separate trolling from an actual real reflection of how people feel in their hearts. Unfortunately I am starting to think that what you see online is a true and accurate account of the entrenched ignorance and hate that a portion of our society holds.

The thing I love about the spotlight poet today is that she gives a master class in don’t come for my culture. She absolutely slays those same folks that get on twitter talking reckless and she does it without even raising her voice. Without even flexing, she sits you down and says i’m going to teach you something about my shoreline, about how my shade of brown is as radiant as the sun.  She stands tall on her culture, and says to the ones who feel like this country belongs to them, that newsflash – it does not and it never has.

I cheer for all of the poets and activists and influencers who are standing in the middle of the street saying we see you. Those who have the capacity to go back and forth with people on social media. Who spend time trying to educate on privilege, misogyny, bigotry, etc..It takes extreme patience and love to sacrifice your own harmony to take to task all of these people who spew hate from behind their profile pics.

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Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri

I remember seeing articles about all of the horribly racist tweets that came out after the 2014 Miss America decision in which Nina Davuluri an Indian American woman won. BuzzFeed had an entire article compiling all of the awful tweets [here]. I am happy to be part of a community that constantly works to countbalane all of the false narritive and ignorance in the world.

Ramya Ramana, is a youth activist, poet, writer, and most of all, believer of God. She is the current Youth Poet Laureate of New York City. She won the New York Knicks Poetry Slam that awarded her a full scholarship to St. John’s University. As the Youth Poet Laureate, Ramya has performed at the Apollo Theatre, City Hall, Hammerstein Ballroom and other notable venues

 

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“On The Culture of BNV” by Rachel R. Carroll

“On The Culture of BNV” by Rachel R. Carroll

We at Eternal Graffiti are very proud to present the following post from Rachel R. Carroll about her two years attending Brave New Voices. BNV is the largest youth poetry festival in the world and has found a strong following after appearing on HBO.

This has been the first normal week I’ve had in a while. The two weeks before this one I spent moping around, missing some long distance friends who I only see once or twice a year, and getting about nine hours of sleep a night. It took me about six days to finish unpacking a carry-on size suitcase with less than a week’s worth of clothing in it, even though the initial packing job only took half an hour. In short, I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from 2015’s Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival.

For the first time since the festival’s beginning, BNV was held in the South this year, with Atlanta, Georgia’s Emory University playing host to hundreds of poets, coaches, and supporters. For almost a full week, poets between the ages of 13 and 19 came from all over the country (and the world, including teams from Ireland and Ghana) to participate in a series of workshops, discussions on controversial issues, and a poetry slam that spanned from 9 AM on Friday morning to 11 the following evening. With opportunities to meet poets my own age as well as older writers who I have idolized throughout the years – Theresa Davis, Alysia Harris, Rachel McKibbons – as well as chances to discuss issues such as economic warfare, police brutality, and the harmful repercussions of a gender binary, attending BNV really is a life changing event.

Both this year and last, I was lucky enough to have earned a spot on Charlotte, North Carolina’s team. I’ve spent two summers in a row working with my coaches-turned-friends, Terry Creech, Jessicah Kean, and Jay Ward. There is so much I love about all the hard work that goes into three month’s worth of practices, but my absolute favorite thing about Brave New Voices is the fact that it is completely uncensored. In a society that so strongly feels the need to monitor and oversee the content to which youth are subjected as well as what they have to say about it, having a space where hundreds of teenagers are speaking their minds about things that are impacting their lives and communities on a daily basis is invaluable.

That being said, there’s a word that gets thrown around a lot at BNV which has a tendency to worry me: “activism.” Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself an activist. I consider many of my BNV peers activists. I believe activism is important and powerful. My fear is that Youth Speaks – the organization in charge of BNV – has the tendency to water it down from time to time.

From a very young age, I have been a firm believer that writing, words, literature, and the like are forces for effecting change. BNV can be extremely validating in that everyone there seems to be of the same mind. However, from my point of view, it is also important to remember that writing does not exist in a vacuum. While I do not believe it is a stretch to say that art – particularly slam poetry – and activism can go hand in hand, is it taking it a step too far to say they are the same thing? A fellow poet once told me, “We can’t take ourselves too seriously. We share shit we wrote in front of strangers, and they give us numbers back.” If we can’t even take our craft seriously (and sometimes it’s important we don’t), then how can we equate it with activism?

This isn’t just about BNV anymore. This is about poetry slams as their own entity. One of my favorite quotes reads, “If it is inaccessible to the poor, than it is neither radical nor revolutionary.” While I am not implying that slam poetry is restricted to the wealthy, we as a community cannot ignore that more often than not, our events are kept in auditoriums, away from the average person on the street. Can we truly consider this activism? And if so, what’s the end game?

For instance: at the very beginning of the festival, James Kass – the founder and executive director of Youth Speaks – asks for a moment of silence for the children around the world who cannot share their voices the way that we can at BNV due to poverty, hunger, and other oppressive structures. When the moment passes, however, it is met with thunderous applause and cheering rather than a solemn, respectful transition from one topic to the next. For me, this is a dangerous blurring of the line between activism that fights to dismantle systematic oppression, and activism for the sake of looking as progressive as possible.

All week, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that activism was being used as a buzzword, as an accessory. Of course, the mere premise of BNV – “youth sharing their truth” – can be considered activism in the sense that it is giving voices to a demographic who often doesn’t get one. But all too often, these voices end up preaching to the choir. BNV poets, in my experience, have a tendency to focus on a very particular set of topics, namely feminism and racism (anti-Blackness, more specifically). Many of these poems are delivered in heart-wrenching, beautiful ways, such as Asheville poet Emma Lenderman’s poem about sexual assault written in the style of a college tour guide, or Team Forth Worth’s piece about forgiveness for internalized racism. However, many others become formulaic, pounding home points of view that the entire audience typically shares. The pitfall of treating activism as if it is a badge to be earned is that it can sometimes result in hundreds of poets wanting simply to sound more radical than the others rather than focusing on nuanced aspects of their respective causes, finding solutions, and bringing them to as wide of an audience as possible.

Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices have taken an essential first step in using the power of spoken word poetry to create a generation of writers who are conscious of the inadequacies of the world around them, and determined to address them. However, even with their incredible focus on diversion and inclusivity, two Muslim girls from Detroit who featured on Final Stage showed that sometimes, things can still slip through the cracks. They performed their piece on Saturday, July 18th: Eid, one of the largest holidays on the Islamic calendar marking the end of Ramadan. These poets ended a poem about facing Islamophobia by posing the question (and I’m paraphrasing here), “How can an organization like Youth Speaks have us up here on stage defending our families instead of spending time with them? Would they ever organize an INTERNATIONAL POETRY FESTIVAL on Christmas? On Hanukkah?”

All in all, when it comes to lighting a spark for a new generation of activists, Brave New Voices has done an incredible job. I spent a week surrounded by passionate, bold, educated teenagers with a hunger for justice. But, as with most everything, there is still work to be done. No system is perfect, not even one which prides itself on battling “The System.”

 

 

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