Other than being a seasoned spoken word poet of 13 years, Myers teaches creative writing at the Community College of Philadelphia, where she is also the adviser of the Spoken Word Poetry Club. Additionally, she belongs to a spoken word poetry group Yellow Rage which has gained national attention through their premier on Russell Simmon’s HBO television show, Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry
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A VERY THOUGHTFUL INTERVIEW WITH MICHELLE MYERS:
BB: How has living Philadelphia shaped the ways you approach your creative process? (I remember a specific piece that you read that completely framed what a summer day in Philadelphia feels like, but unfortunately I don't remember the name.)
MM: Philadelphia shapes my consciousness in many profound ways. While I have studied and worked here for 19 years, I haven't lived in Philadelphia since the 1990's. I'm actually from and currently live in South Jersey, but like I say in my poem "You Bring Out the Need to Claim Philly as My City in Me": "South Jersey is really East Philly--we're just separated by the Delaware River, that's all." :) I love this city. It has character, from the rich historical heritage to the vibrancy of the different neighborhoods. Most of all, I love the people of this city. Philadelphians have a particular attitude--a swagger--that feels like home to me. They are no-nonsense, yet warm. They know struggle, yet can be hopeful. And being a professor at Community College of Philadelphia as well as working with youth at various high and middle schools in Philadelphia has enabled me to get to know people from all over the city, across cultures, and from different generations. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else; Philly is home.-
BB: You speak out on a lot of different issues that illuminate prejudice towards Asian Americans (extremely resonating, at that). How do you see your work as being conducive to a shift in attitudes/consciousness?
MM: First and foremost, my poetry speaks from my own personal experiences. The potential power of this is that my experiences are often shared by others, so they identify with what I describe, my reactions, and my message. Conversely, however, not everyone will have had the same experiences as me; therefore, they cannot identify or understand my message. Thus, my work cannot represent the entire spectrum of Asian American life, but it can speak to a segment of it that some people may have experienced. In doing so, I hope my poetry raises an awareness about issues that have been ignored or neglected, but, most of all, I hope my work moves others to discover their own voices and to not be afraid to express their opinions or to become involved.
So, ultimately, raising awareness and building communities motivate my work as an artist. Through spoken word poetry, I wish to get people thinking and feeling in ways they may not have done previously. Whether my poems address sexual slavery, anti-Asian violence, domestic violence, or Asian pride, I hope that people gain information and inspiration that spurs them to want to know more or to sort out their own feelings on the subject. I believe that artists must change minds before they can change actions; therefore, the first step towards that end must entail the audience becoming more thoughtful and self-reflexive.
But this process must be reciprocal—I am also constantly learning from the community. I have to, otherwise any artistic expression I create would fall into complete self-indulgence and only serve to stroke my own ego. The most important thing I’ve learned as an Asian American spoken word poet, I think, is that we are a complex and dynamic group of people who cannot be simplistically or definitively categorized. As a result, I don’t make assumptions about other APIA’s just because they’re Asian—everyone has a right be an individual with her/his own experiences, ideas, feelings, and desires. Thus, I don’t flatter myself into thinking that I speak for some discrete group called “Asian America.” Ultimately, I can only speak for myself and be encouraged if others identify with what I say.
That being said, I believe that for true change to occur, people must dialogue so that understanding can be achieved and planning for the future considered. As a female, mixed-race, Asian American spoken word artist, I know first-hand that cross-cultural interactions with varying audiences can sometimes be challenging. These challenges are further complicated when other social issues are also at work, such as racial misunderstandings, sexual/gender politics, and generational differences. However, I believe that even if only a few communities dialogue, connect, network, and mobilize, that will be better than relationships impacted by pointless accusations and damaging assumptions. We must recognize and acknowledge that despite our apparent differences, we share similar struggles in this country as we all, at one time or another, have been objectified, oppressed, and misrepresented. Such issues are addressed in my spoken word poetry in an effort to build respect and acknowledge diversity. Through my many opportunities meeting others and performing all over the U.S., I have discovered that the power of poetry and performance is in its potential to unify people of many racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.
BB: To me, one of the most interesting things about you is the tenor of your performance--it seemed more like a musical artists setlist rather than a poetry reading--which felt extremely refreshing. Can you tell me a little bit about how you plan your performances? Also, I would love to hear a little bit about what kind of zone you get during performance--I noticed you were definitely invoking a lot of emotion, memory, mimesis, etc, which was very intriguing to me.
MM: I'm so glad you asked about this! I definitely choose my poems and the set order carefully--and that's because I'm thinking about my performance as a journey. I believe that I'm taking the audience on a journey that may begin with some uncertainty, anger, even pain, but just like life, that doesn't mean I need to exclude love, joy, and even hope. All of these emotions are constantly in flux, are constantly finding ways to expand, shift, and co-exist. My mission as an artist is to find the balance and lead the audience through it all.
Though I call myself “poet,” I’m really a storyteller. This is my philosophy as a performance artist. And following the example of my mother and my Korean ancestors, especially the women of my family, I document lives and share them through words that find shape in meaningful, vibrant stories. The purpose of such stories is to impart a sense of history, identity, pride, and community. Ultimately, then, when I write and perform my poetry, I am trying to create community. I believe community-building in and of itself embodies all of the transformative elements of social change work: people must learn, reflect, communicate, share, compromise, and connect. Thus, by laying bare my own anger, pain, joy, and fears in my poetry and on stage, I hope to carry my audience along with me—and the result is that we walk together in this journey, and in walking side-by-side, we support and love each other. In this creative, spiritual, and physical act of community building, we honor our families, each other, and ourselves. We also realize that art is not relegated to the world of the abstract—to the place of fantasy and dreams. Rather art breathes the same air as we do—it lives and shapes our lives, and in turn, connects us to the physical world and to each other through an uplifting emotional vibrancy. So I claim a space for community through my art, using every possible resource that I have to do so.
BB: Finally, I would love to know about your book tour, and any plans that you have for the future. Does this tour conflict with your teaching schedule? Also, do you view your role as a teacher as being influential to your work? As a creative writing student, I thought that it was extremely interesting that you had shared one of your pieces with your class above anyone else. It would be wonderful to engage in that sort of professor-classroom bond.
MM: My book tour will stretch throughout the rest of this year, and I have planned performances all over the country, including in Reno, Boston, and Washington DC, as well as at various colleges along the East Coast. I have definitely had to work around my teaching schedule (and my mommy schedule!), so I can't go on the road for long periods of time. But I'm excited!
My role as a teacher has been very influential to my work. I learn so much from my students--in particular, they are a group students I met when I started teaching a Spoken Word Poetry Workshop at Community College of Philadelphia in 2007. Because of them, my views about my community broadened, and I realized that even if I didn’t know it, I was actually creating for anyone who will listen and understand. This realization came as a result of having a group of predominantly African American youth in my poetry workshop who constantly reminded me that I should write for love, no matter if that love expressed itself angrily or comfortingly; who identified with my poems of racial discrimination and stereotyping even though it was specific to being Asian American; and who were instrumental in creating a space of inclusion and inspired me to believe once again in the healing and transformative power of poetry. The trust, respect, and love that these students bestowed on me gave me permission to claim my identity as a multiracial woman. Common for many biracial people, I have grown up under the intense pressure of feeling like I had to choose one race or the other. But my students accepted me and taught me to accept myself with no shame or apologies. From their example, I came to understand that my community is as heterogeneous as I am: I write for everyone and anyone who can feel love, pain, happiness, despair, fear, grief, relief, joy, hope. I write for every person in that audience who is willing to give me a moment of a chance to touch him or her. And whether I do or don’t touch them, I am grateful for the opportunity to try.
(image credit: Alexandra Leinweber)