Kyle "Guante" Tran Myhre
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Upon stumbling by chance upon a man waist-deep in quicksand, I see that he's trying to say something, but I need a second to process. Because I mean, it's weird, quicksand. It's like a cartoon. This is like going to the zoo and seeing a mermaid. So my first response, naturally, is to tell him, "Hey, I'm pretty sure that I read on the internet somewhere that quicksand isn't real. That this idea of a patch of sandy water that sucks a person down into oblivion is just a tall tale. And you know, in real life, you get caught in some mud or something, but are you sure you're sinking in quicksand?" He sinks. My words don't seem to have any effect, so being an open-minded, progressive individual, I reevaluate. Maybe quicksand is real. So what now? Well, my second response upon stumbling by chance upon a man chest deep in quicksand is, before I actually do anything, to make sure I have the whole picture, because, What was this guy doing out here in the jungle all alone? Did he step into that quicksand on purpose? Was he kind of asking for it? Does he have a criminal record? Maybe I should wait till all the facts come in. He sinks. And being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. I want to help, so my third response upon stumbling by chance upon a man neck-deep in quicksand is, obviously, to recite a poem, to throw some spirit energy his way, to describe out loud just how heavy my heart is. I take a piece of paper out of my backpack. With a pen, I write, "Quicksand is bad, and I'm an ally to those who fall in it." I pin that piece of paper to my chest, I take out my phone and I tweet, "When are we going to wake up? #quicksand" He sinks. And being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide that this isn't enough, that we as a society need to address the root causes of people sinking into quicksand. So my fourth response upon stumbling by a chance upon a man forehead-deep in quicksand is to take a moment to acknowledge my privilege as someone who is not sinking into quicksand. I vow to - I don't know - take a class, or to challenge my friends when they make quicksand-related jokes, or to be more mindful of how I navigate the world. He sinks. And being an open-minded, progressive individual, I decide that the time for words has passed, now is the time for action. So my fifth response upon stumbling by chance upon a man disappeared into - We can't allow ourselves to forget what happened here. I know that we need to do something: to educate people or to put up a sign or to build a bridge over this patch of quicksand. I just don't have any wood, I just have this backpack full of paper and pens and rope. What can one person even do? I imagine my lungs filling with mud. Black earth, brown water. The hike back to my hotel will be full of reflection. I say a prayer under my breath. It is the least ... I can do. So, my work is about using poems as entry points into other conversations. I travel to colleges and conferences and use poems to open up dialogue around issues we don't always get to talk about. I write a lot about gender, and race, and class, and history, and power. And I think right away, one thing that art gives us, especially in those conversations, is permission to not have all the answers. It's not to have to think in this binary kind of good-or-bad, either-or, problem-solution type of way. The poem that I just shared with you, I'm not trying to teach you something you don't already know. I'm not trying to make some big, political statement. It's just about me kind of grappling with my own insecurities, and my own uncertainties about how I engage with the issues and the people that I care about. And I would imagine that I'm not the only person in this room right now, especially today, who feels uncertain sometimes, in a world full of injustice, and violence, and hatred, and oppression. What are we supposed to do? And I think the poem itself is complex because I think part of the answer to that question is stuff like cultivating a more intentional social media presence, and thinking more critically about privilege and power, and sure, creating art and striving to be a more conscientious individual. These are all good, helpful things, and they're not enough. They may be necessary steps on the way to "enough," but I think one thing that this poem is trying to explore is how quick we are sometimes, especially in this country, to present individual solutions to collective problems. Whether we're talking about police violence, or rape culture, or climate change, or economic inequality, or whatever. There's another layer of action that is necessary beyond just being a better individual. I feel like art can potentially be a really powerful entry point into a conversation about organizing, which, for me, kind of gets to what a collective response to collective problems might look like: activism. People working together to build mass movements that can shift policy and culture, because I don't remember learning a lot about that in high school. We learn about Martin Luther King Junior, we probably don't learn about Ella Baker. We learn about FDR and the New Deal, we probably don't learn about the labor movement, Mother Jones, thousands and thousands of people who built, and continue to build, these mass social and political movements that have real power to change our whole realities. And I feel like right now, especially when so many people feel overwhelmed and powerless, that feels like a really important conversation to be having. So, my talk today is not going to be about the magical power of poetry to change people's minds, because I believe that the relationship between arts and activism is much, much deeper than just art that is about activist issues. I think that there's something - we've heard from other speakers - there's something in the creative process itself that can illuminate and demystify this idea of activism. Especially for those of us who don't have a ton of experience in that realm. And so, I am a poet, though, and I can only speak for my own experience, so I'm framing this today as five things that being a poet taught me about activism. The first one here is how I think both artists and activists are our translators, how we take abstract things and make them concrete. Hopefully you remember your high school English class. Abstract language are ideas - like freedom, and education, and family, and allyship, and activism - they're concepts, you can't touch them. Whereas concrete language is anything that you can see hear, taste, smell, or touch. And I feel like an enormous part of the work that I do as a poet is trying to think of creative ways to make abstract things - like say a political issue - concrete. So that the audience doesn't just understand it on an intellectual level, but can feel it and internalize it. My favorite example of this is on - I cannot stand up here and quote you a bunch of statistics on climate change, just because my brain just doesn't remember those statistics. But what I will remember forever is that one episode of planet Earth where the polar bear becomes more and more desperate for food because its habitat is shrinking, and it gets hungrier, and hungrier, and then it dies. Because polar bears are cute, and that's a sad story, and my brain processes that in a deeper way than just the facts. That's the art side. For activists, or for aspiring activists, I think there's some connection here in terms of the first steps that we have to take into this world. And I feel like - When injustice happens in the world, and you look at your Twitter feed, and people might be saying things like, "If only we had more love, and unity, and justice." And what kind of words are those? They're abstract. So again, we translate. What does love look like in real life, every day, in practice? What is a moment from your memory that captures the idea of unity? What is an action that can bring justice? We make it personal. Think about self-interest, think about, What am I willing to give? What am I willing to give up? Because I know that my abstract identities as activist, as ally, as feminist, as anti-racist - none of that means anything. What means something are the concrete actions that bring those labels to life in the world. And so that leads directly into the next point here, which is how, once we have these big, these concrete images, we zoom in on them to make them focused, and specific, and on some of those, just small. For an artist, that might mean you don't write a poem about war; you write a poem about the first time you step into your brother's empty bedroom. You don't write a poem about family; you write a poem about a specific moment in your memory in which the concept of family meant something to you. And don't tell me what it meant, you show me. In detail, and description, and just telling that story. And so for aspiring activists, here's the connection: it is okay to feel like all of the injustice in the world is so much bigger than you, because it is. So zoom in, start small, start local, think about first steps. This for me is about the difference between dismantling the prison industrial complex, and jumping on a computer to Google who your city and state representatives are, and what organizations are already doing that work in your community. This is about the difference between saving the environment, and maybe setting a meeting with your college advisor to get you into some classes that might set you on a career path to a job in which you can help save the environment. It's about the difference between knowing the ins and outs of the specific political philosophical strategy that is going to end all forms of oppression everywhere, and just showing up to the march, or the vigil, or the rally, or the meeting, even when you don't know what you're doing. This leads to the third point: how we don't have to know everything. For artists, this one might be more clear, but you don't have to tell people stuff in a poem, you don't have to have all the answers. Poems are not about giving people easy answers, they're about, I think, creating space for us to ask more questions, and to think more critically, and just grapple with ideas. Similarly, if you're a young person, or not so young person, who wants to get more involved in activism and organizing, I think it's important to know that you don't have to be perfect before you can show up. You don't have to know all the fancy academic jargon or have some special mutant superpower that you're gonna share with the rest of the movement before you can be present, before you can listen to other people, before you can even just be in a room with a bunch of other people who also don't know everything, but who do care. That leads to the fourth point: how both art and activism are so much less about me or you, and so much more about us. And that might sound like a platitude, that might sound obvious, but there's this persistent stereotype of the Artist, the capital-A Artist who is this tortured genius who barricades themselves off in a cabin for ten years and then emerges with their novel, this beautiful glistening shard of themselves that they share with the rest of us. Pretty much every artist I know who has any measure of success will tell you that art is a much more community oriented, collaborative, collective process than a lot of people realize - you write, you work, you share, you get feedback, you work, you give feedback, you work, you revise, you give more feedback, you get more feedback, you work, you grow, you work, you go out to events together, you hang out, you bounce ideas around, and you work together. And this is also what organizing looks like. This is what power looks like. Everyday people joining up in ciphers, in community organizations, in student organizations, in unions, in collectives, in living rooms, and just working together to figure out what we have, what we need, and how we are going to make it happen. Any artists will tell you it is not enough to just be brilliant. Any organizer will tell you it is not enough to just be "right" about the issues. We have to be able to build and sustain relationships with other human beings. I got into activism because a friend who I would listen to music with, one day just dragged me to a meeting. I got into education work because a friend who I wrote poems with, one day dragged me to a workshop. I got into gender violence prevention work because a friend who I played basketball with dragged me to a conference. And the common thread in all of this isn't me, it's not that I'm some kind of altruistic wonderful person; the common thread is friendship, relationships. Nobody changes the world on their own, that's how you burn out. So we build, we collaborate together. So for my last point, I'm thinking a lot about how - I sometimes go to high schools and then teach poet-in-residence. I'll be there for five days, then on the last day, on Friday, we have an in-class performance, where everyone shares what they've been working on over the course of the week. That can be scary, and that can be nerve-racking, especially if you don't like to be up in front of other people, talking. I can relate to that. But one principle we talk about in that space is how when the water is cold, you can't just kind of walk slowly into it, because that's painful. You dive in. Once you're in, it is fine. The way that that manifests for young poets a lot of times is someone will be like, "Oh, it's really my turn? Oh, do I have to go next? Okay. I don't know if it makes sense, I want to change the title." Shut up! We say that with love. We love you and support you, we want to hear what you created, so dive in the water. Read the poem. For activism, this one is tricky because first and foremost, we have to acknowledge that activism is not a choice for everyone, that some people are born in the water, so to speak, that survival is a kind of activism. And I think there's this other group of people, for whom it is more of a choice, it's a conscious decision to make our values and our principles concrete in the world, to stand up for what we believe in, to dive in and do something. And I think for that group, some of the same principles apply, in the sense that it isn't about waiting until the exact right moment, or until you have all the answers. It is kind of about a sense of urgency, about making a commitment and diving into the water. And I realize that there's totally a danger in what I'm saying here. This point is not about action for action's sake, it's not about diving in uncritically or half-cocked, or - to use the metaphor - to dive in without looking to see who's already in the water or if there even is water in the first place. I'm just thinking about how poets have to ask ourselves, "Who am I? What is my story to tell? How can I contribute to our larger, collective story without speaking for other people or over other people?" And I think activists have to ask these same kinds of questions because it isn't always about, How can you be a bold leader and a catalyst? It's very often about, How can you be a better follower? That can be a difficult thing for some people to wrap their heads around, but it's really important. Let's get concrete. What does that mean in real life? Let's zoom in. One, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question of, What do we do about all the injustice in the world? Depending on what communities we belong to, and where we're at, and the context around us, for some people, diving in means you find that organization doing the work that you're passionate about, and you show up, and you get involved. For other people, it might mean you support organizing work through donations, through leveraging access to funding, and resources in space, and attention, and network. For other people, it's about how we can integrate an activist practice into our everyday lives. So not just going out to where the rallies and the marches are happening, but bringing their energy and their substance into our social circles: in our families, in our schools, in workplaces, and places of worship. That could be to start an anti-racist book club, that could be raise money for the local rape crisis center, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper once a week, have a difficult conversation with a family member, support someone who's running for City Council, or mayor, or Parks Board, or run for local office yourself. There's this whole list of different ways that this can be concrete in the world. And that brings us back to the beginning, which is another strategy that poets use, to end where you started because the journey is very often not linear. But I'm still thinking about this question of what is enough. How do we create change? Because whenever I start listing stuff off like that, none of those things are enough either by themselves. But I think this is a final thing that poetry taught me about activism, that no poem exists in a vacuum, no poem has to be the whole story. I think poetry is less a film and more a photograph, it's a piece of this larger thing, and I think art in general is about illuminating this conversation, this relationship between personal and universal, between micro and macro, between our individual selves and our collective realities. And I think on a fundamental level, activism is also about that relationship, about this idea that just because you don't have the power to run out the front door and magically fix everything, it doesn't mean that you don't have power. Especially when we work together. That's my time, but I think another part of being an artist is breaking the rules. I am going to share one little last thing. I started with a poem about the power that I sometimes feel like I don't have. I'm going to end with something I wrote - it's a short piece - something that I wrote as a reminder to myself about the power that I, or more specifically, the power that we have. There are no stories told in a vacuum, there is no prophecy lighting our way, there is just a lot of darkness to be afraid of, so it's a good thing we are not afraid. There is no Superman in that phone booth, there was no reward in our faith, there is no one who can save us, so it's a good thing we don't need to be saved. There are no starships in low Earth orbit, no aliens to save us from ourselves, there is no voice willing to speak for us, so it's a good thing we know how to yell. There was no chosen one, no destiny, no fate, there's no such thing as magic, there is no light at the end of this tunnel, so it's a good thing we brought matches. Thank you. (Applause)