Spoken Word Actions and Voices of Resistance Reflections From a Feminist Classroom

by Sean Farnham, Sharon Joyce, Sara Morton, Brianna Rodríguez Flores, and Anonymous

WHAT’S A SWA?

A Spoken Word Action, or SWA in short, is a decolonial and feminist pedagogical tool adapted from the Spoken Wor(l)d-Art-Performance-As-Activism (SWAPAs) assignments developed by Chicana feminist scholar and educator Chela Sandoval. This assignment combined research, creativity, community-making, and performance and served as a pillar of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies WST 390 Seminar, “Plays and Voices of Resistance,” taught by Professor Francesca Spedalieri in the Fall of 2018.

Dr. Spedalieri tasked us with crafting short pieces of spoken word poetry (1 1/2 to 2 minutes in length) and then performing them in front of the class. The topics of our poems had to relate to the content of the course, something we needed to articulate clearly in essays that accompanied our creative writing. The essays also had to state why we chose the topic of the poem, what organizations or movements currently address the problematics we touched on, and how we could concretely engage with these organizations. After we performed our poems, we held a roundtable where we shared the content of our essays and reflected on each other’s performances.

SWA AS RESISTANCE

Throughout the semester, our class studied how artists, organizers, and protesters use plays and performance as tools of resistance. Very early in the course, we read Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from Sister Outsider. In the essay, Lorde says: “[T]he machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak…we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid” (42). That reading became a guide to write our own poems, but also to understand the labor of resistance undertaken by artists and scholars we studied as we witnessed them break their silence and use their voices in the performances we saw, plays we read, and spoken word poetry we heard.

Being involved in this creative process gave us power to express ourselves and allowed us to perform our own resistance in response to issues that we find important. This process also cemented our bonds with each other as we developed into a community of advocates. Like the artists we had studied, we used performance as resistance. Connecting  what we learned to our lives, we utilized our voices and bodies to bring forth our own poetic resistance to obstacles and injustices that felt personal to each of us. As Lorde prodded us, we had to ask ourselves: “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day…until you sicken and die of them, still in silence?” (41).

SELECTED POEMS

Our poems reflect our personal thoughts, feelings, experiences, as well as our desire for change. While each of our poems examines societal issues that contribute to the broader political conversation, we all engaged with the assignment in unique ways and utilized varied structures and styles.

Skinny Jeans
by Sean Farnham

When I came out as gay, my Aunt said she always knew
because I wore skinny jeans.
And she was right;
as soon as the first pair of jeans touched my thighs,
I stopped liking girls and I started liking guys.
When I came out to my mom,
she pulled me aside,
with tears in her eyes,
and said: “Just promise me you won’t get HIV and die.”
And I looked at her and asked:
“Did you have this conversation with my siblings?”
And she replied: “No, why should I?”
Okay, well that’s a lie.
The truth is, I sat in silence and pondered why,
why she felt the need to perpetuate a statistic,
that I am more at risk for sexually transmitted diseases,
when I had just felt true liberation,
from the isolation in which I was living.
When I came out to my grandma, she said:
“Oh, I don’t give a shit.”
Yet, she introduces my boyfriend of almost three years as my friend.
At her end, I was supposed to get her engagement ring,
that is, until I told her that I liked men.
She told me I won’t need the ring anymore,
a ring, in her mind, that I should be giving to a girl.
And I sat there in silence again as she basically told me
because I’m gay I don’t have marriage in my future.
A future in which
I don’t need their blessings,
but I want them.
In their minds, I am a walking stereotype.
I want them to realize their assumptions and generalizations
have consequences beyond their imaginations.
I wish I had the courage to question them
instead of sitting in silence and letting them
continue their ignorant rhetoric.
Sometimes I just wish that they’d look at me,
talk to me and support me like they did,
before I started wearing skinny jeans.

Thoughts from the Artist/Advocate: Sean Farnham

This poem confronted the stereotypes I have faced as a gay man. Specifically, I discussed comments I have heard from members of my family. I wanted to raise awareness about how harmful stereotypes can be, especially when they come from family. I linked this particular poem to the activist organization The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project aims to raise awareness and educate people about issues within the LGBTQ+ community. They focus on crisis intervention and suicide prevention. On their website, they have resources available and numerous ways for people to get involved and they are available for speaking engagements on university campuses.

 

Cycles of Shame
by Sharon Joyce

A heavy-flow pad on a chalk board with a number 1 over it. Day One:
Nausea, cramps, pain so bad I feel I’m going insane
Cramps are so bad
I can’t catch my breath
Is this the face of death?
I tell my mom I need birth control because I can’t take this pain no more
Now I must go to a pharmacy to buy pads and tampons
Trust me it ain’t cheap
Why must I pay for my body’s natural course?
It doesn’t feel like anyone has remorse
Instead, women are looked down upon in disgust
The way women are treated during menstruation is unjust
Around the world women are driven into isolation once a month,
Some are even forced to stay alone in a hut

A heavy-flow pad on chalk board with a number one over it; next to the pad is a smiley face with the number 14 over it. Day Fourteen:
I am feeling good
I would do backflips if I could
Although I’m in such a good mood,
I can’t stop thinking about food
Then I’m reminded of what will come in two weeks
I remember the feeling of shame and disgust
And the lack of my boyfriend’s touch
I wonder how different the world would be
If men got their periods like you and me
Would sanitary napkins be free?
Would men be celebrated during menses?
Would menstruation take a whole different meaning
Considering it has the word “men” with it?
Would one be manlier when menstruating?
I have always wondered about these things and
Why is the process to bear an offspring,
Seen as something disgusting?

Day Twenty-eight:
I’m not ready to start this over again
And feel the shameful look from men
I can’t complain because other women have it worse,
Where they are exiled and treated like a curse
Women must pay the price for something as natural as breathing
On top of that, we can’t stop bleeding
The only way we can get men to understand
Is if we join together and take a stand

A heavy-flow pad on the chalk board with a number 1 over it; next to the pad is a smiley face with a number 14 on it; next to the smiley face is a panty liner with the number 28 above it

Thoughts from the Artist/Advocate: Sharon Joyce

As we were reading Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Always Have Done, I noticed that she mentioned that women in Nishnaabeg culture were excluded from ceremony while they were menstruating. I thought: Why do we seldom bring up menstruation in our western academic setting? Why does it still feel like a taboo? How would the world be different if men were the ones to menstruate? So, I chose to speak up about the struggles of menstruation in my SWA. I wanted us to consider the way women are still viewed and treated while they are on their period and thus structured my poem to reflect the menstrual cycle. I also wanted to use physical gestures together with my poetry to leave a lasting impact on the audience, so I attached different types of sanitary pads on the chalkboard to mark the cyclical passage of time.

I linked my poem to the organization Days for Girls, which provides women and girls in developing countries with educational materials related to menstruation as well as sanitary linens and reusable menstrual cloths. The organization accepts donations but volunteers can also actively contribute by providing menstrual kits for women in need and by helping them sew sanitary linens.

 

Purple
by Sara Morton

Here I am living and breathing and becoming
           But it’s as if the bruises make me feel more alive
…Roses are red…violets are blue
           I hope you figure out this one is for you.

I AM SICK.
I am sick of nurturing your goddamn feelings.
Tell me, how does it become my responsibility
to make you feel ‘masculine’? Get your fucking hands off me.

Your yelling is making me deaf, I’m scared of your every move
Does that help you?
Damaging me not only on the outside
But to my core.
My soul is crumbling, rotting away.

You’ve made this a scary place to live
It’s the painful ripple down my spine
It’s the uncertainty that every new day brings
Living in fear, scared of what’s behind me… what follows me…

Let’s be honest with ourselves here,
Do you think it’s fair you live in fear?
That it’s ok to feel we must close-out everyone, hide in our own lives?
Who are we? Who are YOU?

Fear. These bruises. Those memories.
I hope your guilt eats you alive, I hope your bullshit is devoured
You’re not a fucking ‘man’. You’re a fucking coward.
I’m so sick of people apologizing for me, please, PLEASE, apologize for your goddamn self.

Thoughts from the Artist/Advocate: Sara Morton

The intent of my piece was to help expose the huge issue of violence towards both women and marginalized individuals and to express how damaging it truly is, physically and mentally. In my poem, I described the immense fear I’ve felt after experiencing violence in my own life. I also spoke about the range of emotions I had experienced, including guilt from believing it was my fault, to anger towards those that have hurt me. These emotions were all a part of this difficult internal struggle I had faced. In my spoken performance, I made it a point to create space for myself by moving the podium to where I needed it to be. I also slammed my hand against the podium during various points of the performance to make my point and express my frustration and tension.

In class, we spoke about the “heat of passion”, and how it is often given to justify abuse, sexual assault, and violence. The more justifications that are accepted, the more we (as a society) are allowing the cycle of abuse to continue. Whether violence affects us directly or indirectly, it’s a large and incredibly terrifying social issue. To me, it’s very important for all people to feel safe and comfortable in their own skin. It’s also very important for those who have imposed violence onto another person to be held accountable.

I connected my poem to the organization Women Against Abuse, which supports survivors of domestic abuse by offering programs and helps to spread awareness of this issue. WAA offers different types of support in a manner that promotes victim safety, autonomy, and dignity. These support services include safe havens and a legal center for survivors of domestic violence, transitional housing for survivors with children, a 24-hour domestic violence hotline, and more.

 

México’s Other Border
by Brianna Rodriguez Flores

The U.S.-Mexico border has grown so many metal thorns from the hatred Anglos keep planting, my lips have begun to bleed when I utter the phrase
And I wonder when will I see the roses
But I breathe deeper and I see them, in the distance but giving a wave.
“We’re here.”
And then shears have the sheer hatred to cut their budding voices out
But, I see a wave
Except it’s the wave of people with their Mexican flags
At Mexico’s Other Border, their Southern Border
Saying, Get out of my country, this is my country, stomp on my flag and I’ll stomp on you, Make Tijuana Great Again
My heart breaks again
For people who took their first breath on U.S. domain, trekking against violence in Honduras and El Salvador that was U.S. domained, only to have U.S.-Mexican human chains
Try
To defend you
From people
Who hate you
They are your fellow oppressed
But they hate you
And they hate you

Because they so desperately don’t want to blame their white idol on their inequality
Because they want to see
It’s the queer couple from Honduras and Guatemala that got married once they touched U.S. ground
That is to blame for your problems
So when they arrive, you surround
With your Mexican anthem and tu bonita bandera
You can’t look your oppressor in the eye y no despiertas because you saw you could try to be them when you grew older, you oppressive güeras.

Thoughts from the Artist/Advocate: Brianna Rodriguez Flores

My inspiration for my poem was the LGBTI* group that splintered from the main caravan that started in Honduras and was on its way to the United States border. The LGBTI splinter group was the first group to arrive to the city of Tijuana in México, which is at the border of the United States and México. An immigration lawyer provided the group with a place to stay in a neighborhood in Tijuana. The people of the neighbourhood were in an uproar. They claimed that these migrants were going to harm the people in the city and insinuated that they were dangerous. Since then, anti-immigrant demonstrations have occurred at the border. I saw videos of Mexican folks proudly waving their country’s flags and using Mexican nationalism to fuel these protests. I was deeply upset, for I cannot imagine traveling a month from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border under extreme conditions, to arrive, and have to face violence and hatred. This particular group of people fled their countries because of anti-LGBTI violence and discrimination only to encounter more of that same hatred at the border. I think of the Mexican people protesting against these migrants as wanting to blame their problems on other marginalized people, rather than the Anglo/white man, the true oppressor and creator of the problems they face. I also found ironic that the rhetoric of these anti-immigrant Mexican folks, which paints Central American migrants as dangerous, is strikingly similar to the rhetoric of the current U.S. President that continues to paint Mexican migrants as dangerous.

Currently, the organization Diversidad Sin Fronteraz is helping this same LGBTI contingent group with basic necessities and to receive asylum by the U.S. government. To help, you can donate via Paypal (diversidadsinfronteraz@gmail.com) or Venmo (@dsf2018). You can also check out their Facebook page to share their information and see how else you can help.

NOTE: *I use LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual, Intersex) rather than LGBTQ because that is the most common acronym used in Latinx queer/genderqueer communities.

 

My High School Boyfriend
by Anonymous

1.It was senior year of high school and I was eager to plan my future
2. I was busy thinking about what colleges I could go to with my 4.0 GPA
3. I was constantly reaching my goals and setting new ones for myself
4. My life was great
5. Then I met my first boyfriend
6. He told me he loved me
7. He had psychological issues
8. He thought I would fix him.
9. He told me he’d kill himself if I left him.
10. He hurt me.
He hurt me while everyone was watching
He hurt me while teachers, principals, and even policemen were watching
He hurt me, and nobody came to help me.
He hurt me, and I didn’t know anything different
He hurt me, and I thought I loved him
He hurt me, and I thought he’d be the man I’d marry
He hurt me again and again and I thought it was normal
He broke me.
He told me how to dress, what I should order for dinner, and how to fill in my eyebrows
He apologized time after time and I always forgave him, further enabling his actions
He taught me not to trust men
He taught me to constantly critique myself; my body, my face, my nose
When I finally gathered the courage to leave him, he wouldn’t let me go
I refused to let him control me anymore
The way he hurt me has impacted my entire life
Our society always protects the man, the perpetrator, but what about the woman?
The man’s reputation is protected at all costs
Why can’t we validate and believe the woman’s point of view?

Thoughts from the Artist/Advocate

My poem speaks of domestic violence and the way in which it impacted me directly. I ask: Why is a man’s reputation protected at all costs? What does our society stand to lose for the sake of reputation? When women do speak out about domestic, dating, and sexual violence, they are often seen as liars who are making false claims for attention. This is oppression. It is a continued and cyclical condoning of systemic oppression. The recent Christine Blasey-Ford and Brett Kavanaugh hearings, what actions they might excuse, and what they mean in terms of believing survivors, made me speak out about my own experiences and turn my silence into language and action.

Safe Horizon is a non-profit organization that helps victims of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, human trafficking, child abuse, youth homelessness, and stalking. Safe Horizon’s website is easily accessible and provides hotline numbers that cover a variety of different topics. They also help women in non life-threatening situations by replacing their locks for free so they can feel safe in their own homes. The organization has eight domestic violence shelters located throughout all five boroughs of New York City.

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