“Button Poetry”, a new awakening of American poetry

If you become the kind of woman men look up to
You can let them watch you
But don’t mistake the eyes for hands, windows, or mirrors
Show them what a woman looks like
They may have never seen one before.

Thus begins Sarah Kay’s poem, “The Type”, viewed nearly 1.8 million times on Button Poetry’s YouTube channel (official site). The account Twitter by Hanif Abdurraqib, another valuable contributor to Button Poetry, has more than 36,000 subscribers. How to explain the success, happy and liberating, of this new impetus of American poetry?

Birth and life of Button Poetry

Renewing poetry, such is the avowed goal of Button Poetry since 2011 by Sam Cook and Sierra DeMulder, which would be sadly banal if this ambition remained formulated as it is. Far from the poet who remains alone in front of his paper, or the one who recites his verses in front of the crowd, Button Poetry’s performances have at heart a poetry that lives “in books and bars, magazines and performance halls, in minds and in mouths.

Hanif Abdurraqib, ‘When I Say That Loving Me Is Kind of Like Being a Chicago Bulls Fan’.

Born from the clash produced between the page and the stage, their poetic sparks break down “the old boundaries between performance and writing”, and promote the free growth of the literary arts. In April 2012, the founders of Button Poetry filmed their first poetry tournament (the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational) which brings them closer to slam, in the wake of the “spoken word” of the Beat Generation. Like Allen Ginsberg, the Button Poetry collective would gladly claim that poetry is “an outlet” that allows us to speak publicly about intimate experiences. This intertwining, the poets of Button Poetry deploy its full scope.

But the easy interplay of influences undoubtedly takes us back even further: to the militancy of Maya Angelou, to the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell, to the gospel revolts, to the political lyricism of Langston Hughes, and, perhaps, to be, to Walt Whitman in his most irreverent verses, where in the quest for himself and his nation he asks himself: “Why should I pray? Why would I be respectful and subject to propriety? » (herb leaves, first edition in 1855). But it would be muzzling the voice of Button Poetry’s poems to overinvest them with a restrictive literary heritage, naturally random from one spectator to another.

The haberdashery of moods

Button Poetry is a sprawling entity, which invests the majority of major media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr. Because it is so easily accessible, it is able to invite itself at any moment of the day, and invests our thoughts when they wander in the metro or get lost between two skyscrapers.

Going to the YouTube channel or the Instagram account of Button Poetry, fed several times a week with new lyrics, gives the feeling of opening the door to an unusual haberdashery where, according to our needs, we would be guided towards the buttons, needles, threads and other items that might help us mend our torn clothes. The same goes for all the poems that Button Poetry keeps in its boxes: from trauma to ecstasy, through moral injury and the meanderings of desire, many states of mind are crystallized there and offered to the spectators.

Button Poetry does not offer a panacea, but shows the great diversity of the textile works of those who came to repair themselves before us. They cover the darker aspects of human interactions, such as racism (“The Shotgun”), rape (“The ‘I’m Sorry’ Poem”), body shaming or the shame inflicted on the body (“The Fat Joke”), etc., as they evoke with humor and lightness the wonder that everyday life offers, including the fantasies of childhood (“Baby Brother”), or the beauty of the feeling of love (“Pretzeled Bodies”).

The next morning you came to me
Your smile in one hand, God in the other
And since then I have never ceased to confuse them

All these themes are not treated separately: they collide, overlap, and give back to human experiences the complexity of their nuances. The feat is also due to the challenge of Button Poetry’s format: succeeding in a limited time (between two and five minutes) in interpreting a poem where the density of metaphors does not hinder the fluidity or the clarity of the performance. The game is therefore intense, the anger rhythmic, the tears sometimes irrepressible: the performer scream, cry, accuse, and sometimes smile with overwhelming tenderness.

“Show them your fangs, your claws, your anger”: beauty in the face of violence

Button Poetry invests the hiatus between an American society whose normativity mutilates individual experiences, and an infinite sum of anonymous people who, by shattering the daily order with a gloomy and almost anemic language, mercilessly ward off the pain of the evils that they are inflicted. To reconquer the sovereignty of their existence, the poets seize on the real of which the powerful cannot be the sole owners. Button Poetry stands up against the monopolization of reality by technocratic politicians for whom the facts can be alternative and the truth relative, especially since the last American presidential election.

Brittney Conner.

Many of these poems are first presented as memories, and appeal to a series of anecdotes that unfold with modesty or grandiosity within a wide variety of tones: irony, tenderness, bitterness, bliss, despair, ecstasy , rage, amusement, etc. Each text is, for a few minutes, an open wound on the intimacy of a world which, in its cries or murmurs, brings out from its memory the origin of a suffering or a state of grace. Nevertheless, the performances of Button Poetry, even if they welcome in them a multitude of sensitivities bruised by the evils that they recompose, do not commit the error of an inauthentic universalism. What is expressed above all are the individual experiences which affirm this: even if they cohabit within the same space to the point of being sometimes joint, our sufferings are not equal.

Because the spectators are probably unaware of the pain we are talking about, the performances are living and raw forces that spare nothing. The aesthetic and scenic components of Button Poetry give this ephemeral show a breath that forces us out of the field of our certainties and our good feelings: it is out of the question to remain quietly seated on the reassuring seat of our daily life while, we urging us not to just sing the famous “We Shall Overcome” (sung by Mahalia Jackson or Joan Baez), Javon Johnson tells us about the murder of an African-American child, or when FreeQuency cries about being raped. At the end of the performance, the spectator returns to his metaphorical seat, less comfortably seated than at the start, but, we hope, quicker to get up when a life is bruised with impunity.

If, at the heart of capitalism and ultra-liberalism, everything, including human feelings, can be commodified and be given a price, the performances of Button Poetry invite us to review the daily budget of our empathy , and enrich it. Accessible everywhere, complacent nowhere, these dazzling poems state an unequivocal conviction: there is no case of human fracture where lucidity is purchased too dearly.

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