We caught up with the Indy 500 laureate to talk video games, Carb Day, and poetry slams.
Before we get into the poetry, let’s talk about other work you do.
Well, I’m a PhD student at Indiana University, so I’ve been writing a lot for peer-reviewed publications. Recently, there was a study I did where I played all of the Metal Gear Solid games, which there’s like forty, as well as all the Max Payne ones. I and another student looked at how PTSD is conveyed in these video games. We were surprised to find just how prevalent PTSD was in these games as well as many others (Uncharted, God of War, and so on). A lot of the antagonists are specters or ghosts. A lot of the protagonists suffer from recurring haunting images throughout the story. We presented some of our findings at Comic Con and actually had a former enlisted Marine come up to us afterward and ask if we might be interested in studying people clinically diagnosed with PTSD who play these video games and look at their emotional reactions. If, for example, they found the experiences in these violent games cathartic perhaps.
I also just wrote an article about Kendrick Lamar. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is the best rap album of all time.
There are quite a few YouTube videos of you performing slam poetry. Was that your gateway into writing poetry?
Yeah, I had a hard time in school when I was a kid, really struggling with depression and issues with self-esteem. And I didn’t do any of the things I do now that I love: poetry, writing, theater, and teaching. But I saw Def Jam poetry for the first time on HBO my freshman year of high school and watched these artists speaking so confidently about their own frustrations. Their boldness inspired me: how unafraid they were. I became inspired to tell my own story and began feeling more comfortable listening to other people’s stories as well.
How do you feel about poetry beginning to be integrated into society and culture-at-large again?
This actually relates to slam poetry well. Marc Smith created slam poetry in Chicago back in the 1980s, and he saw it primarily as a community thing. He was a construction worker who would have to hide his poetry from his construction buddies, but then when he went to poetry readings, he found it was all boring dudes in high-collars droning on-and-on. He thought poetry shouldn’t be this element of our society and culture that gets tucked away. That it should be taking place on porches and in front of fireplaces. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited about this contest. I saw it as a continuation of this same desire of making poetry more commonplace again. People forget that it was once normal for the Indy 500 to have an official poet.
How has slam poetry evolved from when you first got started to now?
My first-ever poetry slam was back in 2005 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Man, the scene was so debaucherous back then. Poets were skinny-dipping in the pool of the hotel, having naked foot races. The manager, who let us do whatever we wanted and was the coolest guy with us, ended up getting fired because things got so crazy. We felt terrible afterward.
It isn’t like that anymore now. It’s become much more activist-oriented and a lot less chauvinistic.
It’s not a poem about cars. It’s a poem about people who love cars.
You do a lot of educational work with poetry, such as being a counselor for Slam Camp in Bloomington.
For some kids, poetry is their first opportunity to be a citizen, to try out advocacy, to see what being engaged with the social world around them can be like. Often times that starts from a place of “I hate this” or “I’m frustrated by this” or “This makes me angry.” A lot of times that’s as far as they can get, so they’ll write a poem that isn’t spot-on for what they’re trying to get at. But it’s still their first attempt at making a statement in the public sphere about what they think is right or wrong with the world. As an educator, if kids are being instructed how to properly do that, I think it’s really cool and really positive.
What I see as problematic is now that there are all these youth leagues (Brave New Voices, Louder Than A Bomb, Get Lit)—which I see as positive in themselves—I see a lot of coaches trying to coach their kids into triggering themselves in their own traumas. You should start crying before you get up to the microphone. I went to one of these competitions a couple years ago, and I was kind of shocked, seeing these coaches trying to make these kids be in pain in front of people. If that comes organically, I’m all for that, but you’ve got these kids who are coming with their funny poems, and they’re getting trounced by these other kids who are being coached into crying in front of an audience. You don’t have to traumatize a kid to get them to be themselves or to share their story.
Why aren’t more poets like you focusing on education right now? What’s the downside?
Poets who work in education often find themselves in a unique space, where administrators view what they do as both priceless and worthless. I’ll have people tell me, “Hey come to our school. What you can offer is really valuable and something unlike what other people can. We see how engaged the kids get and how much they love writing poetry and raps … but we can’t actually pay you.”
There are parts of your Indy 500 poem I feel have a sarcastic twinge to them (the line “Andy Griffith neighbors,” for instance).
No, that wasn’t my intention at all. That was a pun on Jim Nabors’s “Back Home Again.” Gomer Pyle was one of the neighbors in The Andy Griffith Show, and he was played by Nabors. My poem wasn’t intended to be tongue-in-cheek. The goal was to make something celebratory and something that was representative of race culture. Although I’m interested in that interpretation. It’s crazy when you say something like that. Making it for this big community, I feel like the poem isn’t even mine anymore.
Still, one has to imagine a lot of race fans are at least suspicious of a slam poet/PhD student writing a poem that celebrates the Indy 500.
Oh yeah, definitely. There was a guy online who said, “I’m not reading this unless the poet’s been to the Indy 500 at least ten times.” That’s an interesting conversation and one much larger than just this event. It’s really asking what a fan is.
I’ve been to the Indy 500 once. I’ve been to Carb Day twice. And I’ve also gone to a lot of prerace events. That’s always how my life has been, though. I just went to Little 500 for the first time two weeks ago. When I wrote this poem, I interviewed my friend Evan, who has been to the race 11 times, and he dedicates every May to this. He absolutely loves it. So I sat down with him before I started writing my poem. A lot of the images are taken straight from our conversation. For instance, he talked about being a kid, standing on top of a cooler while trying to hold onto the fence so he could see the cars better. At one point, I asked him, “Why do people in Indianapolis love this?” Me being from Evansville. And he responded, “I don’t know. We just love fast, loud things.” That’s the reason this poem became so significant to me. Because it’s not a poem about cars. It’s a poem about people who love cars.
What do you think fans of poetry can learn from fans of racing? And vice versa?
There’s a mentality that if you like comic books, you can’t also like IndyCar. Or if you like IndyCar, then you can’t also like comic books. Neither of which are true. Poetry belongs at the Indy 500, as much as it belongs anywhere else. That’s what I want both communities to learn from one another.