What it means to listen

It is a gift to be asked to write.

With it comes: confessions, testimonies, responsibilities, fears, questions, curiosities and hopefully some discoveries that might lead to answers. And with it comes the possibility that someone will read, hear and speak these words.

But with it also comes the possibility of being met with resistance. We put ourselves out there (“there” where it is often impossible for us to conform, “there” where what we speak or write is compartmentalized, diminished or dismissed more often than not.) We put ourselves out there anyway.
 
I am a queer, Asian, male interdisciplinary artist, and I’ve been asked to write about misogyny in the Canadian spoken word community, representing no one but myself while outlining what I have witnessed on our stages: at our slams, in our workshops and in all the other places we overlap. It exists in our scene because we live in a misogynistic society, and we carry it with us. It is there when we succumb to it, and it is there when we fight against it. It is there because spoken word is a reflection of the world we live in.
 
At first I was nervous to write this because it is something I have lived beside, not within. I could not possibly understand it enough. Then I was scared because of all the mistakes I would make and all the people who might deem my writing exclusive, appropriative, oppressive, inappropriate or simply untrue. Then I ‘screwed my courage to that sticking place’, remembering all the times that people have needed to say uncomfortable things to reveal truths, insights and ignorance.
 
What I mean is, I’m willing to show my ignorance, so I can learn something new. And hopefully, those reading can gain something from the discussion, too.
 
As poets, we use our skills in a way that leaves us vulnerable to challenge and, more importantly, leaves us open to change. Change shows that we are listening, not just speaking. I believe many poets face these challenges – including women, especially women…because women are writing and performing themselves in a world that resists them. I believe that often, being an artist is an act of resistance and a means of coping with oppression.
 
Poetry slams, writing workshops and open mics are common venues for spoken word artists and their supporters to gather, build community and share work. These avenues are often environments where people who have felt silenced, or without a voice, are given a platform to speak and be heard.  In many situations, this is a cathartic experience and, when it gets really good, it’s transformative.
 
I am always inspired by engaged performances – when a poet can go on stage and connect with the audience, and I am able to believe what they’re saying; when the writing is evocative, clear and really demonstrates an understanding of how words can go together. In the presence of this, I feel encouraged to think, and I am transformed. At the same time, I find myself equally excited by the responses from the audience – seeing how these voices are being heard. I am inspired by feeling that my fellow audience members are experiencing the same level of engagement as I am, and that feels promising. I feel hopeful because good work begets good work: it raises the bar, and we are all encouraged to work harder and write better. For me, it’s about the craft.  
 
This doesn’t always happen, and that’s to be expected. But as I mentioned earlier, there are risks and responsibilities in this environment. Sometimes, we aren’t prepared to listen, or we don’t think about why we aren’t listening. When that connection is broken because of ignorance, discrimination, sexism and work goes unrecognized for its potential power to transform and inform – that’s when it gets dangerous.
 
Recently, I was in St. John’s, Newfoundland as part of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation. It was a multi-disciplinary conference where artists of many practices met to discuss issues around practice-based research in the arts and, of course, improvisation. Two conversations took place there that deeply affected the way I perceive gender and art.
 
The first was in lecture: Professor Jesse Stewart from Carleton University was facilitating a discussion on the gendered lines of power within music performance. He gave an anecdotal example about there being significantly fewer women musicians who take up the electric guitar. He then had us imagine a lone female instrumentalist in a room full of men, trying to contribute to the musical dialogue and the challenges therein. During the jam session, each musician took turns taking the solo, or offering up musical suggestions to encourage the ensemble to join in on a movement or motif. For the female instrumentalist, this same space was not given, and oftentimes she felt shut out or reduced to being a support as opposed to taking a solo. Or, if there was specific music to be played, the male musicians would be the first to offer to take on the more difficult passages.
 
In this anecdote, one that resonated with many of us in the room, he spoke of how it appeared that the female musician was not as actively engaged. Though she wasn’t directly dismissed, she was still being drowned out. The professor questions her about this, and she voices her experiences of being disregarded. The other musicians didn’t even realize what had happened, and it made them reconsider who they listened to and supported as equals.
 
Here, it was up to the marginalized person to speak up and identify the problem before it could be addressed. There is no balance when a person has to advocate for themselves. After an act of aggression or oppression has occurred, it places the speaker in a reactionary position where she has to work so much harder to “earn” her share of the space.  Women musicians trained as hard as their male counterparts; they earned their degrees, met the requirements, and made it through the door. There shouldn’t be anything left to prove. But they have to fight anyway. This is quite common when we don’t take collective responsibility for equality and respect.
 
The other interesting moment took place while I was in an open improvisation workshop. Jayden Pfeiffer, a professional improviser, discussed the practice of improv within a theatre context. He said simply, “When we enter into a workshop or performance, we make an agreement between each other [as performers], and with the audience.” It is our job to honour those agreements and to recognize that all of our practices are based on a set of agreements that are being made.
 
Within spoken word, we make continual agreements about what is important and what is acceptable. Every snap, clap and hiss is a call and response; it is our peers measuring our success or failure in relation to the spoken and unspoken agreements we’ve made. However, that stage, and the stage of each of our minds is gendered. Our audiences and our agreements are gendered and, all too often, female poets are forced to speak much louder to be heard above the din of dismissal. And even then they may not be heard. But if a group of well-meaning men talk about violence against women or sexism, they get praised to the rafters. They are heroes. Why is this?
 
I believe this is because, no matter how hard we try; no matter how many rules we build into our poetry slams to make them inclusive, respectful spaces, our stories and our very selves are still a reflection of the world around us. We cannot separate them – we bring the oppressions we have learned into our art practices. The spoken word community is systematically flawed and oppresses women and other marginalized communities based on race, gender identity, religion, age and more. It doesn’t happen everywhere, or every time, but these hatreds, these built-in hierarchies are present like lurking shadows. While we cannot control who comes to our events, or what they choose to perform, we have control over what we tolerate and when we are silent about things that are disrespectful or wrong.
 
How many times have you seen a female poet go up to the mic and be met with eye rolls or sighs or catcalls or one big collectively-held breath of impatience as she talks about violence against women? That dismissal is an extension of the violence that women are being subjected to in the poetry scene. Our discomfort with or dismissal of these topics, our annoyance and impatience become barriers to actually talking about violence as a community – or wanting to listen to the people who experience this violence within our community.
 
It never happens to just one person. Rape, ass-grabbing, inappropriate comments, unwelcome come-ons, abuse. It never happens to just one person.
 
I identify as a queer, Asian poet. I often talk about relationships in my work, explicitly exploring queer situations from my own life. I speak on issues of racism and homophobia because I am an expert on them. I experience these things every day. Just like women experience sexism and misogyny every day and are experts on those topics.
 
I live in the Canadian Prairies. Within my community, there aren’t many other queer Asian poets, but there are a few. There are queer poets, Asian poets, poets of colour, etc. What I meant earlier about not being able to separate the outside world from the spoken word world, is that, like any community, any public space, there are way more attendees who do not identify as any of the above.
 
I found out recently that a good friend and colleague within the scene – a person who has appreciated my work, snapped and cheered along – is very devout in their religious beliefs and views homosexuality as a sin. It’s simply what they believe. It took a great deal of courage for them to say that to me, and it opened up some transformative discussions (for me). I learned more about how my work impacts the listeners that I may not have been writing for when I first started this practice. Some of my poems were not received well because the very nature of my content left people uncomfortable. My friend was kind enough and brave enough to be able to voice this and feel safe. I don’t take credit for that trust; I simply am grateful that he trusted me enough to share those concerns. But what happens when we are not comfortable, when we are so dismissive, that our ignorance about what is happening on stage becomes an act of aggression? Who notices when we actively choose to NOT listen?
 
We are all are witnesses in this world – and do you know who watches closest? People from marginalized communities. Why do marginalized people see it more? Because we’ve lived it, we’re familiar with it, we know to watch out for hatred. Unlike us, it is anything but invisible. You see these things, and you’re watching and waiting for it to be your turn next. If it can happen to one of us, it can happen to any of us. And standing by and letting it happen to one of us means it has happened to all of us. We do this to each other all the time.
 
I am guilty, too.
 
“I’m tired of consent poems.”
 
I’ve said it. I’ve meant it. I’ve sat through shows where I faced violence fatigue from being smashed by memory after memory – none of which are mine to claim, but which seem so hauntingly familiar to the stories of the people I love. Listening to too many friends who have lived through assault, or recalling the times I’ve experienced it. The problem is, that moment wasn’t about me. But I made it about me.
 
I did not behave in a way that made the poet onstage feel respected or safe. I got up to get a drink, go to the bathroom, just left the room – not because I felt triggered or unsafe (or maybe because I felt triggered or unsafe?), but definitely because I didn’t want to listen to women talk about rape anymore. I remember one night, when other people behind me started chattering through a poem about rape, I did nothing to support that poet. Even as the audience got progressively louder and more dismissive of what she was saying from the stage…she had to speak loudly, even on the mic. She had to speak so loud to be heard. I gave a lukewarm clap afterward, and the encouraging finger snaps when she delivered the most engaging, powerful, interesting lines, because I thought- “Yes, this is what I think good writing is. I’m being supportive, right? I’m keeping it about the art. Yes, Poet. You keep writing like that. I like what you said there.” But I don’t think I was hearing her overall message.
 
Then I realized: this must be what it feels like for the audience every time I take the stage. I speak on my experiences of oppression all the time. If people think it’s exhausting to listen, it’s way worse living it. But the luxury of being an audience member is being able to detach, get up and walk away. That is the power that the listener holds. And if that is what needs to happen to protect oneself, then hey – that’s ok; it’s encouraged.  The core idea here is that I had something important to say, and I thought there was an agreement that the audience would try to listen.
 
There are very few out, queer, male poets who have been able to experience the community at the national level, either by touring, winning slams, performing at CFSW or CIPS, or being showcased at major venues. Because of this, when I do perform, I feel pressure to do queer-themed poetry even when I don’t want to. It’s a matter of visibility. Survival. I feel a responsibility to give voice to something I don’t believe is discussed enough, or brought forward enough. Maybe this is what some of the women in the spoken word scene feel about speaking about gender and violence? But one of the problems with poetry slams is that after I get off the stage, it’s someone else’s turn to get up, and before we have a chance to talk about it (beyond a compliment or a hug off stage), yet another poet has gone up with something else that’s equally worthy of the mic.
 
Our practice doesn’t have a structure that is conducive to discourse after the performance. This, compounded with the existing oppression that people face, like racism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny… doesn’t help us change the system we live in or the part we play in keeping hatred alive and active in our scene.
 
In 2014, I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop by Titilope Sonuga, who was featuring at the Regina Slam in January 2014. During her feature set, Sonuga quoted another poet, Lishai Peel, who was speaking on the subject of how to be strategic about choosing poems at a slam. Peel had said: “Speak your most urgent truth.” Sonuga’s most urgent truths that night were on her experiences of being a person of colour, of being Black, or being a woman. It changed my perception of the work, and encouraged me to ask, “What is my most urgent truth?”
 
Titilope made me consider why it is so important to speak about what isn’t heard enough. I speak about my queer Asian experience because there are not enough voices talking about experiences like mine. I speak out because my goal, always, is to reach those queer Asian listeners who need to feel that they exist as valid, valued people. They need to see and feel that they are allowed to speak. This is my most urgent truth.
 
What shocks me is that, with so many female voices in our community actively speaking their urgent truths, it still isn’t enough to turn the tide of violence. There are still not enough words about consent, safety and equality because we have not yet changed. We’ll know it’s enough when there is no more sexual assault or abuse in our community or elsewhere.
 
I’ve had the privilege of speaking on the mic about the unique intersection of being a queer Asian living in North America. As challenging as my content can sometimes be, I’ve rarely felt the groan of disinterest or detachment from the audience that I often see female poets receive. And, for those of us who are not women, there is too much fear of speaking up about something we don’t live; fear of stepping over a line and taking up too much space by advocating; fear of misspeaking and hurting people. There is a fear of being labeled ignorant or a misogynist. And there is the fear of being exposed for our unconscious and conscious acts of aggression. We are afraid of the learning we still have to do.
 
I have the honour of calling many female poets my friends and mentors. Over the years, we’ve discussed poems about rape, consent and gender. We’ve discussed the trend toward these topics of late and the fact that all of them know the risk it represents to perform another rape poem onstage. But they still do it.
 
As tired as I am of rape poems, I’m more tired of rape and sexual assault. I’m exhausted from seeing it happen to my friends and reliving my own experiences of it. But I know that I don’t experience anywhere near the level and constancy of violence that my female peers do.
 
To my fellow poets who are women, who share poem after poem about consent, empowerment, agency and the difficult, complicated work of reclaiming your bodies: I’m sure you’re tired of being raped, assaulted, and dismissed, too. When you experience violence, it’s not something you just ‘get over.’ It is something that you carry with you as a burning, destructive knowledge that you never wanted to gain. Something that lives in the cells of your body, and you can’t forget.
 
So I say, keep speaking. I’m listening. Because I believe we made an agreement as a community that, when we are at a slam, we listen to poets. What happened to that agreement?
 
Our misogyny is activated when we deny our peers the respect they deserve. It is activated when we break our agreements to listen. It is activated when we decide not to do anything about what we hear and know – be it to get help, find resources, or simply support and listen to the person who is speaking out.
 
Poet Louise Halfe, while speaking in a workshop at the 2013 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Montreal, said that poetry is healing work.
 
“There is no healing if what you continually do is relive and retell your trauma onstage, but then return to those same situations,” says Halfe.
 
What she meant was that poetry can be cathartic. It can be a much needed release, and it is important on the journey of healing. However, if we do not change the societal context, or fail to create an environment in which the cause of the trauma is addressed, then healing is not possible.
 
Perhaps I’m a pessimist when I say that I don’t think misogyny, discrimination and hate will be vanquished anytime soon. But we all have a responsibility to ‘check ourselves’ and realize that it is really NOT always about  the audience (our comfort, our needs, our wants). If we can cast ourselves aside as the central character for just a few moments, honour the poet onstage who needs to speak her most urgent truth, who deserves to be respected and heard when she speaks, who has the right to feel safe and actually BE safe when she leaves the stage, then we might be getting somewhere.
 
Before I finish, I need to explicitly say: not every female poet speaks about violence because they may not need to. Not every female poet is focused on the same issues. And, as poets, we talk about a LOT of things outside of social justice, oppression, inequality, etc. But, when we do, we deserve the same respect, engagement, excitement and congratulations.  Spoken word events are not automatic safe havens – even if we want them to be. But they are meant to be places of active change. May we all feel empowered to share our most urgent truths. And may we all take seriously the responsibility to listen and act on what we hear.

Johnny Trinh is a Regina-based performance artist and candidate for a Master of Fine Arts: Interdisciplinary Studies in Theatre & Creative Technology at the University of Regina. He is interested in how we translate our stories and experiences into art and we transfer our narratives from lived experiences to online environments. He is a member of the Regina "Word Up" slam team and an activist working in social advocacy, diversity and ally training who is especially interested in creating dialogue through autoethnographic performance. Credits include: Banff Centre: Spoken Word Residency, "Here Be Dragons" (Impact International Theatre Festival), "A Man A Fish" (Persephone Theatre), "Briefs From The Closet" (Queer Theatre Festival).