“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” — Zora Neale Hurston
“He’s just an asshole, standing on stage, making people uncomfortable with explicit details about his sex addiction.” –Jaime Lutz, writing in Splitsider’s article “The Uneasy Relationship between Mental Illness and Comedy”
This is a post about writing, and also a post about sharing your writing in public, and also a post about writing in a public space you share with other writers, and also a post about your political responsibilities to yourself and others when you write with them in public. FEMINIST GROUPBLOG META-META-METAPOST!
My mom is a gifted storyteller, and it was probably her influence and her taking me to the super-fun outdoor Hoosier Storytelling Festival as a kid that doomed me to major in English, despite Phyllis Schlafly’s feelings about it. Now I have my degree, and I am the co-leader, event planner, and emcee of an open mic for creative writers in Norman, Oklahoma. My event has a lot of intersections with the open mic poetry, comedy, and storytelling scenes in Oklahoma. Through being a leader in my open mic (and no thanks to the professors who taught me the canon of dead white men was all there was to know about poetry), I’ve learned there’s more to creating a space for writers than
1. Creating Facebook events
2. Finding a coffee shop that will let people say “fuck” on the microphone
4. Profit (j/k no one profits in this)
One of the problems I’ve run into leading a space for writers is that if you take a hands-off approach, then bad people will use it to hurt others. That is, you can’t let the “open” part of the open mic become all-important, and value “free speech” above the safety of your space, even if it’s obvious to everyone that at least the leadership of the space holds progressive values. Your space will become a space for abusers, and not for survivors. *Cough Occupy cough*
Ideally, as someone who strives to be a baseline decent person, you would want to broadcast your creative space as a safe space for survivors, and NOT a safe space for predators. But if you aren’t willing to/aren’t experienced enough to talk about survivorship, and what it means, here are some examples of the people you will get:
- The comedy guy who used the mic to take down a conservative female politician by using female slurs against her.
- The white slam poet who described a violent antiblack hate crime in explicit detail in an attempt to be “moving” but which left all the black audience members feeling extremely unsafe.
- The writer who told a true story about a sexual encounter he had at a very young age which triggered the childhood sexual abuse trauma of an unwarned audience member.
- Any of the Nice Guys who write poems about their bitch ex-girlfriends who left them for jerks.
- The poet who wrote a creepy poem about using open mics to hit on much younger women and posted it on the Facebook wall of an event where a much younger woman was featuring.
- The poet who promoted an event with two female featuring poets by telling his friends to come so they could look at how hot the poets were when they performed.
- The white academic who thinks he has studied Chinese culture extensively enough that he gets a free pass to use exaggerated accents of Chinese-American immigrants in his poem as “loving tribute”.
- The Facebook guy who posted his poem using “primitive” bone-nosed spearchucking cannibalistic imagery to describe Wall Street and then tried to school me on what a metaphor was when I told him it was racist.
- (I KNOW WHAT A METAPHOR IS, MOTHERFUCKER.)
The point is, all this abuse has much more to do with politics–and social injustice–than I realized back when I was in undergrad and starting out on the mic. To be a good leader of this space, you have to be willing to have call-out conversations all the time, and you have to be willing to ask people to change their behavior at the mic or leave. You have to be willing to explain the difference between good satire or good venting, which aims its attacks upwards at a privileged group, vs. bad satire or abuse, which aims its attacks downwards and reinforces an existing type of oppression.
You have to use your best judgment on whether and how to have these difficult conversations with people who share few or none of your privileged identities or whether that in itself would be contributing to oppression (Should a white cis queer lady tell a straight cis black man he’s supporting cissexism, or is that oppressive? MAYBE READ A BOOK ON THAT ONE FIRST, GIRL). And most of all, you have to get over this desire to reward everyone just for wanting to participate, to value bodies in seats more than you value whether the bodies in these seats have good politics. And you absolutely have to get everyone to use trigger warnings, no exceptions.
This is how you use your liberal-scum English degree. Take that, Schlafly.
If you are a good leader of a creative space, you have the potential to build solidarity with people who suffer oppression, and to empower them to tell their stories to the other people in the room. You can give them confidence that the people in the room are fellow writers, not predators there to exploit their vulnerability. And they’ll know that if somebody does something fucked up, there’s going to be a leader who is right on top of it with the banhammer–or at least, does their best to fix the problem. If you’re very skilled, it can become (as in Jaime Lutz’s article) both a place of healing trauma and a place of turning the results of that trauma into something really amazing that makes the world better.
Jessie cried all through the poetry portion of last year’s Take Root: Red State Reproductive Justice conference and is excited to hear there’s going to be poetry this year, too. You should register and come see.
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