Hey Kyle, thank you for taking the time to speak with COMPAS today. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into spoken word?
I’m very much an introvert. To this day, I can’t say that I particularly like being on stage. But after being dragged to some open mics by friends, and just kind of randomly falling in with poets and hip hop artists as friends in my formative years, I’ve developed an appreciation for the space that the stage creates—a space to dialogue with my community, to express myself, to have conversations that we do not often get to have in our everyday lives. This isn’t a very dramatic story, but I think it’s a story that’s important for students to hear: first, you don’t have to a certain type of outgoing, energetic person to be a performance artist. Second, a lot of this work is more about relationships than natural talent. Finally, and kind of combining those two impulses, spoken word is very much about building community and telling our stories. There’s power in that, more power than just going up on stage and getting high scores from the judges.
What is your favorite thing about spoken word?
I love that poetry slams and spoken word open mics are spaces where we get to talk about issues that are often hidden. We get to shine a light on stuff that a lot of people would prefer remain obscured. Watching young people get applauded and validated for speaking on issues like police brutality, the education system, gender roles, LGBTQ identity and so much more—where else does this happen but in arts spaces?
Do you remember when you first became interested in the arts? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?
I was ten years old in 1993, which meant that I was at a very impressionable age during a 2-3 year period when some of the most important and beautiful hip hop albums were being released. I listened to a lot of Outkast, Goodie Mob, Wu-Tang, Nas, the Fugees, the Pharcyde, the list goes on and on. The idea of hip hop being an entry point into a love of language and writing is not terribly original, but it’s definitely part of my story.
How has your work as a teaching artist evolved in the last few years?
Because of the mentors I had, I’ve always had a student-centered view of teaching and facilitating spaces—I prefer dialogue (as opposed to lectures), collaborative list-making, making sure that we recognize the expertise and assets that students already have with them, etc. I didn’t always have the theoretical frameworks or language with which to talk about it, though. After going back to school, and after diving more deeply into writings on pedagogy and curriculum development, some of that foundational knowledge is being filled in. It doesn’t necessarily change the way I work in the classroom in a dramatic way, but it does help sharpen it.
What advice do you have for new teaching artists?
I mean, hopefully you already know this, but being a good artist is not the same thing as being a good educator. Being a teaching artist requires cultivating a different—though complimentary—set of skills and instincts. So there is some actual work that goes into it, and professional development is important. Read books, have conversations, go to workshops or conferences, etc. Beyond that, I think a key thing is understanding the “both/and” framework related to youth work and the arts: we’re not just doing art-based “therapy,” but we’re also not just trying to “train” brilliant artists. There is a space where form and content and standards and critical thinking and relationship building and just having an outlet all come together, and it’s something worth walking toward.
What projects have you been working on recently?
I actually just finished my first book, A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry. It’s a mixtape-style collection of poems, song lyrics, and essays that I’ve written since I moved to Minneapolis back in 2007. Having all of these poems and songs juxtaposed next to each other, for the first time, really affirms the idea that all of my work—whether consciously or not—features common themes of perspective, power, agency, and activism. The book also contains as much “process” as it does “product,” in terms of discussion questions, expanded thoughts, writing prompts, and more. The official release date is October 4, and I will be doing a series of performances throughout the month of October, in a number of different venues, to celebrate its release. If anyone is interested, I maintain a performance calendar on my website. I’d like to set up a MN book tour sometime this Winter or Spring as well.
What is it like to be a COMPAS artist?
I think that my work with COMPAS has been grounding, in the sense that a lot of my job these days is traveling to colleges to perform, and there’s a certain glamour to that. Coming back home and working in a high school or middle school—where maybe no one knows who I am—is a great reminder that art isn’t about ego, or having lots of followers, or getting famous. It’s about the relationships we build and the seeds we plant.
Does living in Minnesota have any influence on your work?
I know how I’m supposed to answer this question—to talk about the cold, the culture (or what gets stereotyped as the culture), the grant money, etc. But I’m not entirely sure I wouldn’t be writing the same stuff if I lived somewhere else. I think what Minnesota has given me is less about some mythical conception of the state itself, and more about the individuals who I happen to be in relationship with who happen to live here, if that makes sense. I have a lot of mentors, a lot of heroes, and a lot of people to look up to who live in Minnesota, and that definitely makes a difference.
How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?
I am not the most disciplined writer, so practicing creativity does have to be defined a bit broadly for me. I think about Twitter a lot. I don’t necessarily write poems on Twitter, but a 140-character limit will do wonders for one’s ability to craft an argument, make a point, or contribute something original to the larger conversation in a punchy, engaging way. It’s easy to write social media off as “just a bunch of millennials telling you what they had for breakfast,” but it really is a platform from which you get what you give. It can be silly, but it can also be a revolutionary re-imagining of how we transmit ideas, information, and culture. I’m on Twitter as elguante, by the way.