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The State of the Nation, in Verse - By emily-wilson - March 6, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

The State of the Nation, in Verse

Michelle Lee (YBCA)

Recently, Michelle Lee, a spoken-word poet who goes by Mush, was invited to go perform for a former economic adviser for Hillary Clinton. Although it seemed like a great opportunity, she felt she couldn’t say yes due to other commitments. But there was no way she was passing up a chance to be part of the 2017 Poetic Address to the Nation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 11. She did it partly because her close friends Chinaka Hodge, who is emceeing of the show, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, YBCA’s Director of Pedagogy and Programming, are taking part and asked her to join them.  But also the subject — responding to Trump’s presidency — swayed Lee.

“It just feels urgent,” Lee said. “I was born and raised in the Bay, and I feel like there’s this buzz, this collective fear or anxiousness around Trump’s presidency and how world is moving. I felt like I needed to write myself out of my own anxiety.”

Hodge and Joseph asked Lee to write some kind of poetic address to the president and the nation. This was refreshingly specific.

“The idea was super fresh and compelling,” she said. “I’m in arts education, and 90 percent of people who ask you to come perform just say, ‘Oh, do whatever you do! Just come and do that thing you do!’ ”

“It is not helpful,” she adds.

Lee ended up writing an epistolary poem to the Founding Fathers. Letter writing is always something she’s loved, she says. For research, she read Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, alongside books about the American Revolution high school students might read. All this made her think about the significance of hyphens.

“I’m a Korean hyphen American and a woman hyphen artist of color and a mother hyphen stepmother. And there are so many versions of ‘other,’ not just race,” she said. “There’s ability and class and orientation and religion — I feel like we’re all stuck to the hyphen and in-between, and people are yearning for a simpler time. At least 100 percent of people I’ve talked to in the past year are.”

Beyond Lee, other performers on Saturday include singer Tassiana Willis, poet Tongo Eisen-Martin, and writer and artist Guillermo Gómez Peña. The event will be livestreamed and doors will open early for various pre-show activities.

The YBCA is putting this event on in partnership with the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, which is a grassroots organization, not a government agency. The department’s “chief policy wonk,Arlene Goldbard, believes that while politics and policy can divide us, stories can unite us. Jonathan Moscone, YBCA’s Director of Civic Engagement, is fully behind that although he admits it may sound a little Pollyannaish.

“The act of an artist is to refute the narrative and our job is to create narratives,” he said. “And after Nov. 8, it was like, ‘Oh fuck, we’re ready to go.’ This takes on such a surreal meaning, now that we’re talking about fake narratives or taking one narrative and making it two and here’s a fact and here’s a different fact.”

Stories may not be the solution, Moscone says. But a story is hard to ignore and can lead to change.

“Policy is preceded by culture and culture is created by people,” he said. “It wasn’t a magic thing that the Supreme Court decided it’s legal for gays to get married — it was the result of a cultural movement.”

The lineup for Saturday is full of people who know how to tell stories, Moscone says.

“I mean, we have the Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the best fucking performance artist who I can’t believe I get to work with,” he said. “And Chinaka Hodge, whose last TED Talk ended in a five-minute standing ovation.”

2017 Poetic Address to the Nation, March 11, 5-6:30, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, $8-$15, 415-978-2787 or ybca.org.