Launched recently, Poetry International Community Outreach Programs (PICO) are a series of writing and poetry workshops led by SDSU graduate and undergraduate students, held in collaboration with under-served or under-represented communities in San Diego. So far, PICO has led multiple workshops with the Sudanese American Youth Center and at Hoover High School. PICO will have a website soon and is having another SDSU graduate led workshop with SAYC in April. The following is a blog post of one workshop leader’s experience, Emily Vizzo.
Thun Thun Art Fear
by Emily Vizzo
Sometimes art-making involves the usual things, like scissors, glue, purple-ink pens, fat-tipped markers, spiral-bound journals, mentor texts and workshop prompts. And sometimes art-making happens after that stuff has already been packed away along with the leftover goldfish crackers and juice boxes.
We had the opportunity to make poems with four teenaged girls from the Sudanese American Youth Center in San Diego during a SDSU-based Poetry International Community Outreach workshop in February. For three hours, we listened to music, cut poems into strips, collaged our own words into the powerful words of poets we loved, foraged personal memories and finger-snapped as we shared these brand-new poems with each other.
None of the workshop activities was particularly out-of-the-ordinary; we played around with exquisite corpse, erasure, random autobiography and collage. It felt good to get physical, wielding markers to knock out lines from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and scissor through canonical poetry to make our own crooked, inked- over, glued-up poems. The girls were game, serving up seriously beautiful poetry along with rapid-fire pop culture references, wisecracks and inside jokes.
One student remained a little quieter, working hard at her poems although she chose not to share anything with the group. Afterward, we sat next to each other on the van ride from SDSU back to the Sudanese American Youth Center. When she told me that writing wasn’t typically her thing, I asked her how she normally likes to express her creativity.
“Video, I guess,” she said. “Have you ever heard of Vine?”
Her friends turned around in the seat in front of us.
“She’s famous on Vine,” they said, referring to the Twitter-owned mobile app for sharing very-short (6-second) looping videos.
When I asked her how long she’d been posting on Vine, she said she’d been doing it since she was “younger”—about four months ago.
“I have 34,000 followers,” she said politely.
“You have 34,000 followers,” I said, trying to get a handle on the situation. “You are famous on Vine, and you got 34,000 followers in four months.”
(Full disclosure: When, as a responsible journalist, I checked her account stats, I learned that she actually has 35,000 followers.)
“When I got retweeted by Kanye and Rihanna, a lot of people started seeing what I was doing,” this teenager said in the nicest, most humble voice humanly imaginable. “How old is your little sister again? She’s probably heard of me.”
I asked her how often she posted video art to her Vine account, and she said that when she was “younger”—again, four months ago—she posted pretty frequently. But then she got famous. The pressure is on. And people sometimes leave horrible, racist comments below her art. Now she posts less often. But she’s still there, being brave, and sometimes amassing thousands of likes for a single video.
Immediately I realized that this student was teaching me a big lesson about fear and art. When I was in grad school, my mentor tried to encourage us to be brave by reminding us that no one was listening anyway.
“Here’s what I want you to do,” my mentor told us. “I want you to go to the mall. Go to the food court. Find the longest line. It doesn’t matter what it’s for. Corn dogs, cinnamon buns, who cares. Go down that line and ask each person in that line, ‘Who is Walt Whitman?’ You will quickly realize that Walt Whitman is relatively unknown by the vast majority of people. And if no one is listening to Walt Whitman, definitely no one is listening to you.”
“So you can say whatever you want! Take risks! Write bad poems! Be free!”
So that makes me a little different from my new friend. Nowhere in my world are there 34,000 people waiting to hear what I have to say.
It made me extremely glad that in a quiet classroom on a sunny Saturday afternoon, this particular video artist got to eat some fruit snacks and scribble some unshared poems in follower-free, tech-free, sloppy obscurity with the rest of us. No likes, no Revines, no comments.
And it reminded me that artists are artists everywhere.
Sometimes it’s when class is already over, third seat back in a rented van with a seatbelt digging awkwardly into your shoulder blade, and there’s a quiet kid with a phone and an app and suddenly, a lot to say.