Published on November 8th, 2012 | by Wild Gender0
Poetry vs. Toxic Space: Accountability & Privilege in the Slam Scene
POETRY VS. TOXIC SPACE: THOUGHTS ON HETERONORMALCY, ACCOUNTABILITY,
PRIVILEGE, AGEISM AND BOUNDARIES WITHIN THE PORTLAND, MAINE POETRY SLAM
by Brody Wood
There are things that happened a couple of years ago, and there are things that happened a year ago. There is space there, in between that dichotomy, where it is cloud but also where there are totally obvious, hard things. I broke up with the poetry slam community in Portland, Maine a couple of years ago and I came back to a year ago, partly because I missed some things, but largely to reaffirm in a direct and honest way that I was right.
I spend a lot of time counting the times it could be worth it right now to make space for myself where there isn’t already space for myself, counting to zero, being really grossed out by inclusivity and inclusion. As a white, queer, female-assigned
trans person who was sharing space and never not disputing all unattractive power of the community’s leaders who were mostly older, white, straight, cis men, when I tried to come back around to do my own thing, to try to be a poet and a performer on my own terms, very intentionally, to use space and connections the way I deserved, without guidance and coaching from anybody I wasn’t asking for that from, I imagine that since I was out as queer and out as trans, wasn’t
18 anymore, and had begun assuming a reputation as things like Dedicated Hate Mail Author, that perhaps I would love to be included, now that I know who I really am that perhaps I just hope they will offer me acceptance, that perhaps I am interested in (I can’t even bring myself to write the word…) equality. I am interested in processes of safer space commitment and execution, and I honor what I know of myself to be ability, privilege and knowledge to move forward and facilitate that reality, but not at the expense of my own productivity, safety, self-worth, and time, when I can‘t see it serving more safety than harm.
Unique to my experience this is all otherwise known as a transphobic and homophobic person’s sense of entitlement to let me know that I really ought to always be emotionally available and willing to educate people since I am a queer person and a trans person and not everybody else is, they need people like me to like raise them or something. I broke up with the poetry slam community twice because I was trying to be productive and a writer in toxic space of disrespect, enablism, and normalcy that I don’t have the heart to nurture because it is irrelevant to me. It is relevant to consolidation of the privileges of men, straight people, cis people, who are in their late 20’s and early 30’s and have an interest in working with youth, schools, and venues when they aren’t ready to be accountable for themselves, and often don’t understand boundaries and consent.
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO
When I competed in the National Poetry Slam in 2009 in West Palm Beach, Florida, I was the third youngest person of 72 teams and entourage, and scored the lowest in my bout. I was wearing a great outfit though and smoked all the boys’ cigarettes, I also wrote a zine while I was there because I was so bored. So while there are a lot of ways I feel jaded about my presence in the slam scene then that mostly are about angst and embarrassment, a lot ways I feel jaded about that
time, that are relevant then and now, are entirely the distrust of older, straight, cis, white men to act humbly and reputably, to be committed to fleshing out and being accountable with privileges, and dissolving behaviors that are projections and products of their privileges, especially when assuming the power you have as somebody who runs a venue and ultimately the environment of your entire scene, and similarly when assuming the power to form relationships with youth team competitors and public schools, which can be really valuable, revolutionary and healing: a severe and incomparable responsibility to operate upon utmost acknowledgement.
I was young, I was presenting as a girl, I was flirting, I wanted to be a writer and a catch. This past summer, I wrote a letter to somebody I was sleeping with when I was 16, an experience that was triggering and remained unresolved for several years. The letter is largely about sex and intimacy, but since I am becoming aware of what parts of how I feel about the heteronormative pseudo-romantic relationships I used to have with older men that I feel similarly about mentor/mentee relationships, it feels appropriate to share an excerpt. A couple of sentences into the first paragraph of the letter read, “there are a lot of people that I could write this letter to,” and a little while deeper I move forward to map this out for him:
“As a straight, cis, white, older male socialized and male identified person who could have been and may have tried to be a friend to me, you had a responsibility to a young, female socialized person who was sleeping in your bed to not enable me to be coerced by you. While I may have perceived myself to be a consenting person with you, I couldn’t have been on some of the same levels with you, and it would have been appropriate for you to operate upon the assumption that couldn’t possibly fully understand yet what it takes to consent to someone who should be aware of and in correspondence with the privileges he has that inherently have a power to dispute my safety and autonomy, unless those privileges are continuously checked, and until there is space made for extensive careful conversations about safety and needs. Your condescension as a 22 year old and abuse of power by way of charm are easy for me to remember, especially since those actions are such accessible representations of unsafe and threatening products of patriarchy that are actualized and that I have to deal with in my life every single day.”
Right, this letter is largely about sex and intimacy, and though there is some crossover of the particular relationships I’ve had with some of the men in the scene that I am talking about, I mostly am just interested in paying attention to how parallel the way I can talk about sex is to the way I can talk about mentorship and working relationships. Kissing some of them, others trying to kiss when I wasn’t saying yes: I don’t take responsibility for never having been asked what size I felt like next to them. Being teammates with them, facilitating performance workshops in public high schools while I was still 17 or 18 years old with them: I don’t take responsibility for never having been asked what size I felt like next to them.
A YEAR AGO
1) This one total dude, one high-up in the scene, asked myself and another female-assigned trans person if we would like to compete in the Women of the World qualifying slam because we are definitely welcome and allowed to, which is not even true, and to believe that it is true, and to give us permission to take up space that doesn’t belong to us and to tarnish and disrespect the intention of space on such a basic level, is silencing and opting to invalidate identity.
2) I was invited by three women to attend what they had told me was their new “Women and Trans Writing Workshop.” Two of them were people who were new to the scene and we weren’t close friends, one of them was a person I had previously lived with, been close with, and made it through participating in the National Poetry Slam with when I was 18.
And you know I was through with getting let down but I decided to see what it felt like to be a part of this “Women and Trans Workshop,” challenge my hang-ups about collaborative productivity and falsely advertised intentional space, so I went. When I got there, the facilitator for that week passed out the agenda for the day to us, it was just the 4 of us, and what I read as the title was “Women’s Writing Workshop,” or something. Mostly I shut down and I didn’t react, the workshop moved forward with working on or warm-up writing prompts individually so I blew it off and wrote about how upset I was
and unsurprised I was allowed to be, moved forward to share our prompts so I didn’t say anything at all, and moved forward to workshop somebody’s poem so I told them that I couldn’t move forward without saying all of this. I spent the rest of the workshop challenging someone’s fear of what they perceived it would look like to be building too much of a wall between cis male poets and everybody else by being too specific with creative and intentional space away from repression influenced and perpetuated by cis men, repression commonly assumed to be a shared experience between cis women, trans women, trans men, genderqueer and gender nonconforming people. I stopped going and have no idea what happened next.
3) This first poem I performed after my sort of hiatus was a piece I’d written about this dichotomy I was nursing of anticipating both wanting to get top surgery, and wanting to breastfeed. It wasn’t for the slam scene or to compete with, just that this really special thing happened when I took a year and a half between my first break-up and my fling of revisiting, and I wrote a lot of page poems and spent a lot of time trying to vitalize and facilitate intersections of my two
worlds of writing. One world was writing about gender and politics that felt was only made possible by academia, and the other world was poetry, that felt like only made possible by 3 minutes and a 10 second grace period, as well as my full
submission to a “dumbing poetry down because the more people that get it the more points” rhetoric. I began combining those worlds and am now committed to honoring and nurturing that crossover. I read the piece the first time and came out as trans on stage just prior, not because there wasn’t anyway that they didn’t already know, but to give
myself hard evidence that I heard myself tell everyone to get a fucking grip and wonder where I have been this whole time and why. Soon after, I decided to compete in a qualifying round in the fall, I decided to use that piece, and I qualified for semi-finals. I was participating in competition at that time to reaffirm discomfort on my own, compete coachless and fairly inactively, and by my semi-finals bout came around, I had practiced so little, didn’t want to try to advance to finals, didn’t have enough slam work anyway, dropped half a poem in the third round, and I was really bored on stage and just wanted to go home and eat dinner more than anything. Also by that day, I had become aware of a post by a blogger in the
scene, of a complete list of pros and cons of each semi-finalist poet. And he said it himself. He really, truly did. He wrote, “Because Brody works within a certain world of imagery, a judge who never heard any Brody Wood before might be listening to a poem about having breasts removed and be put off. At the end of the day this is a con in a logistical sense.” He’s right. That is true and it is something I was thinking about all of the time. But he’s not entitled to say that. If
you do the math, for every poet, something they write is “a con in a logistical sense” because there may be an audience member at least once place that piece is performed who might “be put off” by something they haven’t heard of before. When I hear this person speak specifically of my account of lived experienced in an internalized pejorative way with an honest logistical front, with a listless attempt to reduce it to “imagery,” taking it personally makes sense to me. Initiating discourse of wanting vs. not wanting to fit into problematic normative regimes of poetry, without initiating discourse about how fucked up and alienating it can be, makes you out to be a heartless and, in this case, transphobic troll.
4) At one point, another higher-up member reached out to me to talk to him about what he could possibly do to address concerns about the scene being too much of a male-dominated space, more specifically that they “don’t do much to support female poets” and that they are “generally a closed space.” He made it clear to me that he wasn’t after me for a female perspective, which is something, since I can’t offer that, but that he knew I could “see it from the outside.” We had a really brief meeting where I directly and casually mapped out what it means for him to host an entire community in a space while he has so much power that I no longer trust him to be good with, and suggested a couple ways to be publicly in constant
acknowledgement with that, ways that would hopefully create space he isn’t entitled to, and minimize erasure of experiences that are lived by people who have identities different than his. In the coming weeks, a woman hosted the reading, another female poet was treated really inappropriately by this man, affirmed by another male poet who carried
the torch and enabled him to be emotionally abusive, few more poetry slam scene breakups occurred where marginalized poets redirected their effort and creativity to a safer space weekly poetry reading, and I know little beyond that.
“Points are not the point, poetry is the point,” and “Community Creating Artists, Artists Creating Community,” I can’t stomach, or believe that the relationship between these two rhetorics of the Portland, Maine poetry slam scene is truly what the platform for the movement is. For a lot of people, there is an obsession with winning, if not with a poem then with a person, or with shock value, or with entitlement and taking up space. For others who don’t harbor an obsession with winning, who honor winning and have unique success and healing criteria and processes, namely within the performance poetry world, there need to be utopic arenas for performance and productivity, where competitiveness doesn’t have the resources to thrive in unhealthy ways, to be the stuff of toxic space.
It was a slow breakup that had everything to do with me, I’m never going to be interested in asking for acceptance, because I have better things to do, I am grateful and fortunate to have access to other spaces where it is safer for me to be productive, and I never want the way that I identify with, perform and present my queerness and my transness to be recognized as brave, because it isn’t bravery, it is survival.