With the recent release of Letters to a Young Brown Girl, I have been fortunate to have a whole lot of conversations with different folks, which seem to come down to where art belongs in our lives, as we are growing up and learning that our world is about success and conformity and capitalism.
For Tuesdays with BOA Editions, I had a wonderful conversation with my editor and publisher Peter Conners, about poetic form and function. One thing we talked about was the mixtape, as old heads like ourselves know as those DIY cassette tapes, on which we curated and created playlists for our friends, loved ones, crushes. The making of a mixtape was very much about mood, tone, message, and intimacy. I, as the curator of the mixtape, was telling you some things about me that border on confession. I would share these pieces of me with you, with the hopes that you would get something about me, my feelings, my hopes and desires. Or I would make mixtapes with my best girlfriends, with the hopes of then getting how I feel about them, their strength, their amazingness, their integrity and sticktoitiveness in the face of hard times and heartbreak. Then the making of the mixtape cover and liner notes, also very personalized works of word and art.
I prefaced this mixtape talk with something I’d recently heard on U2 Radio on Sirius XM on Record Store Day. I loved hearing more old heads talking about the wonder of record stores in past decades, the discovery and epiphany that would occur there. Record stores were sacred spaces. I remembered when I was in probably seventh or eighth grade, making the pilgrimage from Holy Spirit School to The Record Factory, how this made me feel like a rebel, in my MacBeth plaid Catholic school uniform and whatever money I saved from allowance (if I even got allowance?), flipping through the bins for who even knew what British imports I would find. Now I understand, that while others around me thought it was frivolous, a waste of time, I was starting to learn to assert my own value system here, over what continued to be imposed upon me in a place where we kept our heads down, worked hard, did not stir up any trouble by speaking out of turn — these were the things that would enable us to fit in and achieve success on the honors track in college preparatory school, on our way to prestigious universities. Art, music — those things existed not for you to learn how to love and make it how you live your life, but to make you and your college applications more interesting. Surely, we were never meant to pursue frivolous things like poetry seriously.
What do you learn from art. Why surround yourself with art, lyric, music. I had the same kind of curiosity and enthrallment in bookstores and libraries as I did in record stores, thinking about the words and ideas of people who could expand my own, enable me to see things around me with different eyes, and to understand and describe my world with a vocabulary I did not yet have.
And then just this morning, more conversation about our place in art, and its value, for this wonderful podcast of Pinay writer Leslieann Hobayan. We talked about this capitalist machine which only values things that can be acquired, and especially of art that is only accessible to those with the means for acquisition. If we don’t have the means, then we can’t have that art. So then I told her about Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, and my memory and takeaway from that book, with art being in the world, somethings we can interact with and participate in, walk with and through, have ideas and opinions about. The sky, and the trees, and the angle at which their shadows fall. So then, how do you resist being sucked into this other value system which is determined by, as Carlos Bulosan wrote, the dominant classes, and it is through their art that they reproduce their value systems. How can we imagine something else which exists outside of elite and elitist spaces. Can we create art that are means of connection, art that is visionary, art that is rebellion — that is the kind of art with which I surround myself, and if, as Bulosan wrote, that our writings restore human dignity, then this is the kind of art I prioritize making.