October 2013, from staff reports
Education is being cut. Racial profiling is running rampant. Wars wage abroad, seemingly without end. There is an endless attack on our civil liberties. Poverty and hunger increase daily. What can we do in the face of such problems? How can we, the people, ensure that our voices are heard?
Poets Matt Sedillo and David A. Romero travel the country with workshop Be Heard! Spoken Word for Activists, engaging people and reminding them that their words are powerful and their voices demand to be heard. These spoken word artists are on a mission to let people know that poetry can be used as a vehicle for social change.
Be Heard! Spoken Word for Activists focuses on the importance of freedom of expression and connecting the personal with the political. Students learn how to write poetry that reflects the call and response structure of protest chants. They also learn how to incorporate spoken word into the culture of their activism, creating an environment where all are free to share the issues that concern them.
Brooklyn & Boyle: Poetry has often been thought of as apolitical. When did you first become aware that poetry could be socially and politically relevant?
Sedillo: You see this idea that art should be apolitical emerge from both high and low. Laura Ingraham sold a lot of books with the title Shut Up and Sing wherein she attacked “Hollywood’s liberal agenda” for undermining America. Of course, when you actually consider the output of Hollywood, you would find that it is just about the most pro-imperial, racist, blindly patriotic section of American society.
We also see major institutions of higher learning and cultural production forward this notion of defining a line between what is art and what is propaganda. That’s all nonsense. Life is integrated. As a person, my life is not just my experience, but my intellectual response to it. My artistic output comes from my life.
I won’t limit my poetry whatsoever because some pseudo-intellectual thinks that real art should never “lower” itself to propaganda, or because some anti-intellectual thinks I should “shut up and sing.” I can’t sing. Sometimes I sing. [Laughs]
Brooklyn & Boyle: Please speak to your experience as an activist.
Romero: Like many Latinos, I was raised Roman Catholic. I'm particularly glad that my mother instilled in me the idea that one's moral character is determined not merely by intent, nor by faith, but by acts. She was always the one dragging me to go volunteer during food and toy drives at the parish and in neighboring communities.
I've since become an atheist/humanist/communist. Though my mother would disagree, I believe that the spirit of all of those hours as a volunteer during my formative years is what has made the committed activist in the fight for social justice that I am today.
Through college years with MEChA and the United Students Against Sweatshops, to currently being an artist affiliate of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, there's an ongoing struggle in my life to not only talk about it, but be about it.
Brooklyn & Boyle: What's the most important thing people can walk away with from your workshop?
Sedillo: What we really attempt to do with the workshops is give people a framework to express what is already in them. We all contain so much love, so much hurt, so much passion, so much genius within each and everyone of us. Oftentimes, however, there is nothing more intimidating than a blank page. The workshops offer people clear and concise direction to, in that time and space, make just a little bit of art of what is already alive inside them.
Romero: Matt and I have presented this workshop, or some form of it, at numerous colleges, universities and political forums. Our most poignant experience, however, came from doing a workshop at the Ontario City Library. A student there wrote a poem about her brother's death from gang violence. By the end of a multiple week workshop, she had memorized the poem and performed it in front of her peers. She told me, “This is the first time I've ever done anything like this.”
Later, I ran into her in a neighborhood coffeehouse and she told me she had shared the poem with her other brother. It had allowed the two of them to open up and talk about their brother's death for the first time. She thanked me and told me that what we do is “extremely important.”
Poetry can open people's hearts and change lives. We're just here to facilitate that.
Matt Sedillo is a two-time national slam poet and the author of For What I Might Do Tomorrow.
David A. Romero has opened for Ozomatli and is the second poet to be featured on All Def Digital, a YouTube channel from Russell Simmons.
With engagements booked for spring 2014 in Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago, Be Heard! Spoken Word for Activists is booking more engagements now! Contact: