Trying to decide which of Missy Elliott’s music videos is the best is like trying to decide which sour candy I love the most—they’re all so good. But nothing brings as much pure, unfiltered joy to my dead zones as seeing Missy and Da Brat in red and white space suits battling toy robots on an alien planet. It’s a work of genius. I used to include this video in all my party invitations. Now I’m a loner who watches the video on repeat in bed and feel just as vivified and full of the old party spirit.
I have a habit of texting my friends, “HELP SOS CALL 911 ALERT THE COAST GUARDS GET ME OUTTA HERE,” halfway through a poetry reading, often times during my own poetry readings…They do tend to be just as unbearable and pretentious and embarrassing and exasperatingly high concept and unnervingly opaque as poetry often has the reputation of being. But when poetry is good, goddamn it is good. For all the poets who wrote far too humorlessly, too self-importantly, there is Frank O’Hara, the partier and golden boy who treated friendship like a high branch of poetry, who wrote a poem about the boozy Hollywood starlet Lana Turner, that’s really a hope about all our little hopes and dreams:
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
He never took himself too seriously, which of course means in a way his poetry is all the more serious, and though he died tragically and too young, he left behind so much for us, including the most wonderful manifesto on poetry any poet has ever written. “Personism: A Manifesto” has all the charm and the sweetness that O’Hara was known for. It privileges feelings over a kind of poetry that requires schooling and education. On the mechanics and craft of poetry, he writes, “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.” And on reading them, he writes, “As for their reception, suppose you’re in love and someone’s mistreating (mal aimé) you, you don’t say, ‘Hey, you can’t hurt me this way, I care!’ you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do ‘flay after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.” And most wonderful of all, he describes how his Personism movement was born: “It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.” Read the whole thing and come be a lifelong faithful adherent of Personism with me!
When I feel gaslighted by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I turn to James Baldwin. America needed him 50 years ago, and still, we need him. I need him. My friends need him. For every well-meaning, well-intentioned person who thinks of themselves as reasonable, who feels it is their place to tell people who are hurting and speaking up and mobilizing to “calm down,” there’s James Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show, laying out that, while he does not know “what most white people in this country feel,” he “can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions,” and then goes on to cite examples of inequality and segregation in religion, labor, housing, and education. By the time he gets to the end, I am breathless. “Now this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my women, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, and which I have never seen.” The more times I watch this clip, the more assured I feel that I won’t risk myself or my family anymore than I already have.
9. “My Hair Trauma” by Mimi Nguyen
For the past 15 years, Mimi Nguyen has been my punk idol. She’s written about being a punk, a dyke, a refugee, a subaltern who wanted to fuck shit up, who had no problem calling out “white punks always complaining about ‘blue hair’ discrimination, as if a jar of Manic Panic magically re-positioned their own social status on some level of ‘equally’ marginal footing with people of color.” I discovered and religiously read her old blog, Worse Than Queer, in high school and loved it more than I loved the Bikini Kill song she took the title from. Mimi was my portal to something even better than riot grrrl, which I quickly realized excluded me and other brown girls in a way that hurt much more than when straight white cis bros excluded us. She has an archive of some of her past writings, including her old Punk Planet columns that I used to print out and keep inside my school textbooks for when classes were really unbearable. My favorite of her old essays, “My Hair Trauma” is on the politics of hair. She starts the essay with a middle-aged Asian American interviewer asking her, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?” To which she responds, “No.” She later elaborates, beautifully queering the dominant heterosexual, white supremacist narratives, “We are impressed with an sexual ideal; that is, we are taught to believe that thin, blonde, tall, big-chested, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked are checkpoints in an inventory of what is beautiful. Sometimes this results in a painful process of racial erasure or self-hatred; sometimes we adapt to these myths in unexpected ways: I for one—convinced of her desirability—grew up wanting to fuck the Barbie look-a-like, not to be her.” In trying to parse where radical politics and radical self-love intersects with our hair, Mimi writes:
“…in the context of ‘radical’ racialized aesthetics, the psychological/pathological values assigned to hair-styles labeled either ‘natural’ (therefore indicating racial pride) and ‘white-identified’ (‘she must hate herself because she’s got a perm’) are based on a reversal of Eurocentric binary logics. Does reversal=liberation? Here the inverted logic restages the liberal Western racial discourse about ‘natives:’ that is, in the liberal version of multiculturalism, they like us best when we’re ‘authentic.'”
But the part I’ll never forget is the small, side fuck-you to the sexual entitlement of straight Asian men who claim no one has it worse than them:
When I was a sophomore in college a group calling themselves the Asian Male Underground embarked upon a mission. That is, they graffiti-ed women’s bathrooms on campus with propaganda: ‘Have you tried an Asian male lover?’ ‘Sisters support your Asian brothers: stop dating white men!’ I was and am so over Asian American straight male recuperation of their penises in the name of cultural ‘pride.’ A strong man makes a strong community? I took a red marker from my bag and scribbled, ‘No, but I have tried an Asian sister. Does that count?’”
Read the whole thing, then go through her archives and all the rest, too.
10. Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames
If you’re ever feeling small in that moody, undesirable, helpless way of feeling small and want to feel small in that magnificent, Wait, what is my place in the cosmos?? kind of way, watch Powers of Ten, a 1977 short film by Charles and Ray Eames (yes, the designers of the Eames chairs). Just sit back and enjoy the wonder and the amazement of all that we know and all that we still do not know. Be small. Be curious. Be searching for more. ♦