Like many artists, living contract-to-contract has a tendency to distort my art practice. For example, my work as a Teaching Artist includes hour-long commutes to schools in New York City’s outer boroughs where I am often given as little as 45 minutes to teach as many as 35 young people how to write poetry. As a Performance Poet, I am often asked to perform for fifteen to as little as three minutes. While these are opportunities to engage people with poetry, they do not go to the depths I believe needs to be explored.
For years, I have experienced my art and me as an artist relegated to the margins of conversations. It is always the mission and the mandate of the organizations, institutions or schools that take precedence over my artistic vision. At the end of many weeks, I often find myself asking what am I doing this for.
During the last three years, I have taken a stand for my artistic vision. To develop this vision, I enrolled in the MFA Program in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. This provided a rigorous academic structure and community to develop my ideas. My participation in The Field's ERPA (Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists) grant program boosted my capacity to mobilize my vision. During the last three years, I have transitioned from the “Artist Mercenary Model” to what my artistic collaborator, Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian, calls the “Generative Artist Model.” As a Generative Artist, I am the initiator of the project, the holder of the vision, the expert in the room. As a Generative Artist, I am in the heart of community, the hub to keep the wheels turning.
In June, I held an event that is an excellent example of my growth as a visionary artist, “Growing Up Queens.” The event was part of Queens Council on the Arts’ Queens Arts Express four-day festival celebrating art along the 7 train line in Queens. Growing Up Queens combined my work as a performer and as an educator. Young people from five different schools I worked with during the year came together to share the stage with each other and with me. I also performed excerpts from my multimedia show, “Growing Up Hip-Hop: Plugged-In.” The event was an opportunity to celebrate expression.
"Growing Up Queens" was an example of being a Generative Artist. To produce this event, I engaged classroom teachers and schools, a performing arts center, and an arts organization with my vision. My years of experience producing student culminating performances within schools made me the expert at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center. I had a more in-depth experience with select students. The aesthetic and flow of the event followed my vision as opposed to the mandate of the schools.
Another example of my transitioning to the Generative Artist Model is my Poetry & Dialogue series “The People’s Inauguration.” On January 20, 2010, the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s Inauguration, I held a panel discussion at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space at WNYC to celebrate the release of my collection of poems and discuss the first year since this historic moment. The panel format, “Poetry & Dialogue,” began with poetry readings from each chapter of my book, followed by responses by each of the four panelists. The event concluded with a personal letter I wrote to President Obama.
In contrast to the dozens of panel discussions that I participated in previously, I designed this one with poetry in the center of the conversation. As anyone who has ever attended a panel discussion knows, panelists tend to spew pre-formulated sound bites. During "The People’s Inauguration Event" the poetry engaged the panelists and the audience in dynamic ways, infusing sentiment and insight into the dialogue.
During the event, we created several opportunities for audience members to participate through the “Dear Barack” campaign. Before the event, they wrote letters to the President. After people wrote their letters, they had the opportunity to read them on camera. Audience member in attendance as well as those watching online could also participate by Twittering their comments and questions with the HashTag #dearbarack which was aggregated on a live feed on our website (www.dearbarack.mvmt.com). This was also in contrast to traditional panel discussions which only give audience members the limited Q&A session to contribute their voices to the conversation.
The People’s Inauguration event is a second example of the Generative Artist model. During the first year of Obama’s presidency, as U.S. citizens engaged in coarse debates at Town Hall Meetings, I offered an artist's approach to dialogue. By engaging the panelists and audience members through poetry and letters, I offered a method of expression where people felt comfortable expressing anger, disappointment, hope and joy and asking long-standing questions. Poetry and personal letters gave people permission to speak from the heart, to leave questions unanswered, and to embrace the contradictions.
These two events were examples of my transition from the Artist Mercenary Model to the Generative Artist Model. Producing these events did not earn me a lot of money. I probably made $800 from both events while putting in more than 80 hours for each event. That’s not even minimum wage. Still, I took a stand for myself as an artist, and made sure my mission and my vision was at the center of the conversation.