The Choice of Artifice.

Friends, I was recently interviewed for PEN America (my former employer, although that was completely unrelated to my selection). Get an eyeful of my good side on PEN’s website.

Here in the flesh, it’s Halloween night, the Saturday before the 31st. Best believe Brooklyn is celebrating. People howl in the streets, drums rattle and thrum, and cop cars shriek as they pursue their prey. I’m content indoors, with Partner and my own thoughts. I don’t drink, and I’m booed up; Halloween has always seemed like a holiday for getting sloppy and shacking up with strangers.

The apathy is more like distaste, to be real. My friend, the artist RJ Eldridge, wrote a poem about some of the reasons black people don’t dress up for Halloween. In it, he suggests that being Other in this culture makes the holiday less of a game to us; being the everyday Boogieman leaves the idea of dressing up demonic with a sour taste in our mouths. It is an entirely different act when a black person wears a mask than when a white person does. Part of that is because of our achingly stubborn association with criminality. Part is because of our double-edged history with the performance of self among our entertainers. A black artist may wear blackface–or whiteface–and many and diverse may be the reasons for doing so (Tyehimba Jess’ recent, gorgeous book, Olio, explores this subject with nuance and excellence).

As if that question wasn’t complicated enough, as artists, what about our responsibility to the sacred Truth versus our use of artifice as a tool to reveal Truth? Telling it “slant,” and such? I am a writer; I am a performer. But you know what’s terrifying? PEOPLE ASSUME ANYTHING IN WRITING IS TRUE. Also terrifying, which I learned when I began performing my poems? PEOPLE ASSUME WHATEVER YOU SAY ONSTAGE IS TRUE–AND THAT IT IS YOUR STORY. That’s potentially a problem for so many reasons, I can’t begin to broach the subject.

Personally, as an artist somewhat obsessed with process, it’s always been important for me to deconstruct the mythical prestige of the artist. To kick over the podium, as it were. My old touring partner, Kim Johnson, shared with me the feeling that it was our responsibility to showcase and share the tools we use to make our living, tools that can enlighten, evoke feeling, save lives, even. Kim and I wanted others to know they could do what we do, that there is nothing untouchable about us. We’ve all got the spark, as it were. Kim and I tried to make that as clear as possible during our shows: we are just like you. A Brechtian outlook, showing the ol’ gears turning to keep everybody equal.

Over the past couple of years, however, my view on this has changed. I still believe we all should, must make art of some kind or another, that we are at our best when we create in some way on an amateur level, for our own pleasure and sanity. But. Having been to approximately thirty thousand open mics over the years, I no longer believe all scribes were created equal. And practice and study will only take some so far; we are not all nascent Kanye Wests, if only we put our backs into it. Then, simple talent doesn’t earn you a place at the table, either. Hard work, hours, study, and insight matter plenty. Given that, what I do is very different from what many are capable of doing. I got chops, and I work hard to be among the best.

That said, I’ve developed a desire to show that difference more starkly onstage as well, to craft my performances more consciously, to give the audience more of a show, more of a glow. It’s exciting to develop in new ways, and to take new risks. I simply cannot wait to take these ideas on the road with me, with the new book!

Speaking of, the reading celebrating the Cave Canem Northwestern Poetry Prize happens this Friday! I am thrilled, I am humbled, and it is my goal to burn the goddamn house down to its foundations. I hope some or all of you can join me: the reading is from 5-7 PM (I’m last) at the NYU Lillian Vernon House, at 58 W 10th Street, in Manhattan. It’s absolutely free–and the last time I went to one of these things, they had wine and cheese platters, so you may even get a snack or two out of the bargain. Aaaaaand books should be available for sale for the first time, too! Don’t sleep on this one, loves.

Tell it like it is.

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