Community Through Art: Interview with Write About Now Founder, Amir Safi | Written Wednesday

Amir Safi is from College Station and is based out of Houston, Texas. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University. He is the co-founder of Mic Check 501(c)3, the Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival and the founder of Write About Now. He is a 2017 Houston Poet Laureate Finalist, a 2013 and 2015 Southern Fried Poetry Slam Champion, a 2013 National Slam Poetry semi-finalist and his work has been featured by A plus, BuzzFeed, Upworthy, The Huffington Post, Whataburger, Total Frat Move and more. Most recently, his poetry has been published by Pittsburgh Poetry Review and Tincture Journal, and he has received recognitions as a semi-finalist for the Crab Creek Review 2017 Poetry Prize as well as a finalist for the North American Review’s 2018 James Hearst Poetry Prize.

We had the opportunity to meet and connect with Amir. Read more to see what we learned about him!

You co-founded Mic Check and the Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival, then founded Write About Now. What made you decide to become involved in the organizational/curating aspect of poetry?

Great question. Mic Check existed long before me; however, Christopher Call and I are the ones who made the organization a non-profit. Basically, I didn’t like slam at first. My thought was that Oh, you think your writing is better because you say your poetry louder? But then, I went back one week and the poetry night barely had anyone there. It was then that I decided to become involved because an outlet of expression was really needed in Bryan/College Station and it was really important that it did not disappear. It was idealistic forming a nonprofit. We thought we’re a nonprofit now so people are just going to give us money! We were wrong, so I created Texas Grand Slam as a fundraiser for Mic Check.

Texas Grand Slam was also created because slam communities often spend resources they don’t have to travel and compete at slams across the nation. With Texas Grand Slam, we could cut down the expenses for our members, attract incredible poets to our community and raise some funding for our organization in the process.

By the time I moved to Houston, I was completely burnt out on community organizing and over it. But then, my friend introduced me to a venue named AvantGarden and I took it as a sign that I had no escape.


What are important factors that anyone interested in starting their own arts non-profit needs to consider?

I would ask certain questions such as:

What’s your mission?

Is anyone else doing this work?

Is there a gap that this organization will fill?

Can you just collaborate with someone and accomplish the same task?

Have you done your research and compared starting a nonprofit with other ventures?

If you’re happy with your answers, you’re good to go!

You use seemingly mundane things such as monkey bars, pepsi commercials, and Whataburger as devices to convey powerful narratives about identity through your poetry. How have you developed your writing style over the years?

Oh man, okay. Time for self reflection here. So, what I end up doing in those works specifically is answering a question through a series of events or images.

For example: Amir, why don’t you just let things go? Or Why was the Pepsi commercial problematic? Or Why do you love Whataburger so much? And then I just try to answer that question as many different ways as possible, which helps me better communicate my message to the viewer/reader.  

Tell us about the start of Write About Now. What inspired you about the idea? What major obstacles did you face in developing it into reality? What is your proudest accomplishment from the outcome of WAN?

As I mentioned before, I moved to Houston with no intention of organizing ever again. I was burnt out. When I first moved to Houston, a friend of mine opened his home to me and invited me to stay with him for two months or until I figured the city out and was comfortable picking out a place to stay. Well, that friend lived with his fiancee and they were getting married at a venue named AvantGarden. He told me that the venue would be great for poetry and that I should talk to the owner. I politely declined and told him I was over organizing. One day he convinces me to go to AvantGarden to scope out the venue before the wedding. He introduces me to the owner, Mariana, and tells her that I have a lot of experience running poetry events and that I should do poetry at AvantGarden.

Mariana told me about how much she loved poetry. She gave me the recap of the history of poetry at her venue. She gave me the day, time, and space I wanted. And the venue’s name was AvantGarden. It was a sign and we’re about to celebrate our 4-year Wanniversary at AvantGarden.

Write About Now is different than my previous projects in that I’m older now and I’m in one of the largest cities in the country, which gives me access to more resources. My goal is to help your voices reach as many ears as possible. So I look at Write About Now as a platform that helps amplify the individual’s voice. The problem with a physical space is that you’re limited to those parameters. We’re meeting every week and bringing in featured poets. Why not film them? Boom! Now, we’re online, and the internet is another platform. Another source to help amplify the poet’s voice. We’re already filming the poets and we have audio. Why not use the audio to make a podcast? Boom! We created a podcast channel. These poems are on the internet already. Why not link up with media influencers like Upworthy, We are mitu, AFROPUNK, George Takei. Boom! Now, we have working relationships with these artists.

I’m really proud of it existing for four years and the community and quality of individuals and poets this organization has attracted. Honestly, my favorite part is building this wonderful community we have.

What is it like acquiring permission to record an event? Do artists ask for compensation?

It’s important to always receive the consent of the artist before you post their videos. We typically have general media release forms that we have artists sign. I can’t recall anyone ever asking us to be compensated. Most people appreciate having high quality video of their work published.

How is it like with competing organizations like Button Poetry and Def Jam?

The way I look at it is that other poetry channels aren’t my competition. In fact, the greater appeal they have the more opportunity it creates for Write About Now and vice versa. All of us are paving a larger runway that allows for these poems to take flight and that’s, really, what’s important.

Name some of your favorite poets that you featured/collaborated with.

I love working with Christopher Diaz, Ebony Stewart, Danny Strack, Mason Granger and Dena Igusti.

What experiences have you found to be the most frustrating and/or challenging when organizing your own events and programs?  Which have you found to be the most rewarding?  

As a community organizer, you have to always be prepared and on your game because anything that can go wrong will go run. Some difficulties I’ve had are trying to do high level production of shows and media while having limited resources; navigating how to keep a live outdoor show running with weather variability; collaborating with different artists and personalities and expectations, working with different media platforms, etc. The most rewarding thing about organizing is watching people grow, become better writers, and gain confidence on stage.

From your own perspective what are the most crucial elements to consider when building an organization from the ground up?  

The most important thing is consistency. People need to know that you’re going to meet at a certain place at a certain time at a certain frequency. But also, what’s your mission? Are you actions consistent with reaching its goal? Are you consistent in the way you make decisions and govern?

What connections/type of connections have you found to be the most valuable and beneficial to your organizing?

connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect

connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect

connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect

connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect connect

As Hafiz says, no one knows in which shell the priceless pearl lies. You can never have too many friends or too many people in your corner.

You recently started adding captions to the poetry videos you post on YouTube. Tell us why you did/do this. Are there other ways like this that poets can help when performing/submitting poems?

A lot of times people ask what they can do to help Write About Now and I don’t often have a lot of tasks other than volunteering at the physical show. But, recently, we’ve opened up community contributions on YouTube to allow people to help add captions to videos on our channel. Captioning poems helps make videos more accessible for people with disabilities and people who may not be fluent in English. It also optimizes the video’s shareability. A lot of time people want to watch vids in an area where there cannot be volume. It’s super easy to add captions. All it takes is watching a small tutorial video and then trying it out.

Be sure to check out Amir Safi on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and watch Amir and other phenomenal poets on Write About Now!

Submission Sunday | Poem, “Fearless Future,” by Walter Herres

Heaven or hell, being a gentleman or a deviant destined for a cell. Many past authors, scholars and sages have transcribed through the ages the secrets of passing cyclic degrees, to in turn stand stable upon  feet rather than knees. The wise show reverence to noble truths; as fools make shackles for themselves by conduct. More so his ancestral roots are weeded and bleeded out. Who deserves human rights ? Why withhold liberties and justice for all?

When without the corner stone to Americas founding , the governing structure kharmically will fall.

Moving along the currents, to current life as we know it. 

Persistence gives momentum into the neo matrix of myriad opportunity.

However who can enter the courts of prosperity cheerfully, without a shaming virtue wholesomely.

Leaving hidden links to the vaulted up genealogy of numerous unseen sphinx.

Lost to a civilization who’s favorite past time is bigotry, due to the fact they are unable to see , blinded by lusts desires and the all mighty note of currency. Constant meetings, surveying and graphing lands, like the Dutch, French and British dividing Africa with the confirmation of shaking hands. 

Now unearthing what is hidden beneath the sands yet rather obvious once brought to the surface. We are a chosen generation born into this unjust nation , to rectify the cry of every soul not race, taking the bitter distaste of Master’s leftovers. Then, digesting the past accommodating spacious freedom when it rings…….Echo….. Echo. Presiding powers that be, from the continental congress to the constitution all brainstormed so economically, that till this day and age distant relatives of southern slaveholders hold seats in Congress which rule and super rule, while lobbying aka puppeteering the presidency.. 

 

 

Find Walter on Facebook!

Written Wednesday | Interview With Justice Hehir

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Justice Hehir is a second-year MFA Playwriting student at Hunter College under the direction of Annie Baker, Brighde Mullins, and Branden Jacobs Jenkins. She graduated from Rutgers in 2016 with a BA in English and Women’s and Gender Studies and a lot of debt. She’s from New Jersey and her plays tend to focus on the people who make up the pulp and substance of her life- working class, diverse individuals. She strives to write plays that reflect the multicultural, multiracial, multilingual society she’s grown up in. Her work has been presented by the Downtown Urban Arts Festival, The Secret Theater, The Magnet Theater, Torrent Theater Company, the Semicolon Theater Company, and the George Street Playhouse, among others.

 

As an intersectional feminist, what factors do you take into consideration when playwriting, especially in comedy?

The beauty, to me, of living your life as an intersectional feminist, is that it manifests in your work consistently. Because so much of my daily life has been and continues to be about unlearning prejudice, bias, heteronormativity, etc., the things that I find funny tend to be informed by those insights. That being said, I obviously am also a careful editor, because intent is irrelevant and you always need to be responsible for what you say, and unconcious bias is so important to address in the performing arts. When I write sketch comedy, in particular, it’s important for me to always understand why my audience is laughing; you can learn so much about people by what they laugh it, it’s ridiculous. What makes us uncomfortable (and a lot of comedy is about just that, discomfort) is a really intimate and powerful way to check in with ourselves and see where we are. The biggest victory in writing for comedy is watching people realize that they just saw a sketch that doesn’t rely on stereotypes, oppression, etc. and they laughed their asses off. I hate this idea that feminists can’t be funny… like I’m pretty fuckin’ funny. And the frustrating thing is, comedy itself is an underappreciated art form. There is so much power in laughter, at getting people to laugh at themselves and as society and its ills. Too often comedy is used to reinforce stereotypes and bias, and that kills me, because it can work so effectively to do the exact opposite. Not to claim all my comedic writing has a message; sometimes I’m writing sketches that are just weird, dirty, bizarre, farcical concoctions made to create laughter. Actually a lot of the time. But I like to think, especially in my plays, that my sense of humor is a means of connection with my audience.

You are a poet and a playwright. Do both mediums influence one another? Do you identify more as one than the other?

At the moment, I’m pretty much squarely planted in playwright land. I’m in my second year of a Playwriting MFA program at Hunter College in NYC, and that means I write a LOT of plays. Like all the time. Just for a single class this past semester, I had to write three Greek tragedy adaptations, and again, that was just one class. So much of my program has been to learn to treat writing like any other pursuit: something that you need to practice every day in order to be good at it. Writers tend to be precious about our craft and think we can only write when we are inspired. In fact, some of my best work has come from being pushed to write when I really didn’t feel like I had anything good zooming around in my head. When you write when you’re not feeling it, sometimes you hand the pen over to your subconcious, and they have so much to say. It’ll surprise you, for sure. That said, my poetry work absolutely influences my playwriting and vice versa; my forte tends to be group poems, and given the context of my work holistically, that’s not a big shock.

Describe your creative process when writing a play. How does that compare/contrast with your approach to writing poetry?

Every room I enter, every new space, I’m always asking, “what’s happened here? What does this room know?” I eavesdrop compulsively, I observe people often.

When I write poetry, it’s usually “me” speaking. I don’t do character pieces, it’s in the first person and that’s that. With plays, you have to open yourself up to all these characters you’re creating inside you and listen to them. It sounds self indulgent and bizarre, but I’m a channeler, as my professor has taught me to say. I channel the people in my plays and write down what they say. To be a playwright is to share your body and brain with all of these people you’ve thought up; you’re never alone. You spend your days in gestation, waiting to birth these characters, and while that might not be through labor, it can be painful in other ways. Letting another person out of you, I guess, is always painful. In a sense, I feel like I give birth through my fingers and chest. Characters are like babies in that you want what’s best for them, but then, at the same time, you can’t protect them. Protecting your characters makes for a boring story. You need to let them experience the world of your play for themselves, and that’s terrifying. Any kind of control I personally find terrifying. It’s a scary thing, to be in control of your own world, to create characters that you don’t like, to make people you feel are everything that’s wrong with the world. Sometimes, the only way to let our characters show how amazing they are is to let other characters shit all over them; sometimes the best way to change a bigot’s mind is by writing a bigot into your plays. Sometimes all it takes is an audience watching someone do something wrong to know what’s right. Theater, I think, like poetry, should make people uncomfortable. For me, whenever I feel discomfort, I know I have the opportunity in that moment to decide between two things: defensiveness and learning. I strive to write plays that encourage audiences to do the latter.

Describe a play you worked on and what you expected your audience to take away from it.

I wrote a short play a couple years ago with my friend that we performed together called “trash.” It’s about two women doing community service on the side of a highway, picking up, you guessed it, trash. To be frank, I don’t know exactly what I expected for people to take from it; I just knew I felt the piece was authentic and real to me, and so maybe it would feel that way for others too. Unlike in poetry, you really don’t get to show your hand; telling people what you think works so well in poetry, but in plays, not so much. No one wants to go watch a play where they’re told what they’re seeing, why it’s good/bad, and honestly, that would suck. That wouldn’t be interesting. With plays, you need to guide your audience to that water, that kernel of truth, that idea you had and got all excited over that made you write the play in the first place. In slam poetry, you can open the goddamn fire hose and go wild on them. I think there’s value to both, and I happen to love activist poetry that is explicit, honest, and direct. But in theater, you’re creating a story, not a message; there might be a message somewhere in the story, but if your audience knows exactly what it is, your play probably isn’t that good. That’s something so different than poetry, or at least, my slam poetry, which is up front and in your face. The other thing about these two mediums is the difference in time: in slam, you have three minutes. In the theater, you’ve got at least ninety. Obviously, if you’re trying to get a message across in three minutes, it’s going to have be more direct than a piece where you have ninety minutes. I live for all the little moments of connection and verisimilitude that make others feel less alone, and in that way, my plays absolutely mirror my poetry. On a lighter note, being in “trash” involved exposing my breasts and nipples to public audiences. This was the hardest part for me, not because I mind being naked, but because as a woman, we rarely get to control how others experience our bodies visually and physically. I knew every time we performed that to me, this act was celebratory and defiant, meant to normalize my body, but to some members of the audience, I was just showing them my tits. To some members of the audience, I was pitied, I was the sad young vulnerable girl so desperate for attention, so desperate to be edgy, that I took my shirt off. To some, I was about to become another disembodied, masturbatory image for the shower later. It’s so hard to not have control of that. I guess ultimately I wanted my play to make people think a little more critically about the complexity of women and women’s interactions. In that way, I think we were definitely successful.

Was not majoring in the arts a factor in applying for an MFA program?

Definitely. To be honest, if I had, I might not have felt I needed an MFA; but I studied Women’s and Gender Studies and English at Rutgers. I don’t regret that decision for a second; studying Women’s and Gender Studies was one of the best decisions I have ever made. My professors in that discipline gave me the tools I needed to better understand oppression, power, race, gender, and sexuality, and that is a huge part of who I am and the plays I write. But I know myself, and what I want to be, what I am, is a playwright. I was really hungry to hone my craft, and made the unusual decision to pursue my MFA straight after undergrad. I learned so much getting a BA about the world itself, but hadn’t learned much yet about how to write about it; after all, Rutgers has only one playwriting class and I took it my freshman year. My MFA program has been wonderfully vocational, in many ways, helping me write plays that are effective and powerful. Between the two, I finally feel like I have the education I need to move forward in creating work I feel is authentic and meaningful.

Tell us how you navigate advocating for others (POC, LGBTQ+ community, etc.) while you are in a largely white-claimed academic space.

I piss people off all the fucking time. I’ve chosen to live my life authentically and committed to intersectional feminism, and that’s not a part time job. When entering my program, I had to make the decision to be truthful to my values of inclusion or go with the flow (the arts can be VERY conservative), and I made my choice. I advocate by calling out any shit I see. That choice has made me wildly unpopular in certain settings. I’m either being reductive, a killjoy, “the real racist for talking about race,” mean, annoying, self righteous, a bitch, I’ve heard it all. And I don’t care. The only way the arts are going to change is if we continue to challenge institutionalized bias and power systems. I aim to use my privilege to disrupt Western/white/straight/male centric conversations. I have a seat at the table, and that’s a privilege, and I’m going to use it for good. I don’t mean that in a self aggrandizing way, nor do I mean to suggest I’m the only one doing this. I’ve been fortunate to be in a program that is an outlier in many ways because of its diversity of leadership and students, but that doesn’t make it immune from bias. Being in a rarefied space coming from a working class/ethnic white background can be very taxing. It’s hard to advocate for yourself in a world that feels like it wasn’t made for you. So I try to be truthful. I claim my difference and won’t let anyone forget it. I’ve worked really hard to feel comfortable saying, “No, I didn’t see any shows this week, I can’t afford it.” “No, I can’t go out, I have work tomorrow morning.” For a while, I was so scared to speak because I knew my class would slip out; now, I just let it happen. Being authentically me, I realized, was a radical act in and of itself. I’m not going to pretend to be a WASP or wealthier or classier than I am or less feminist than I am so I don’t make anyone uncomfortable. I’m just me, and I’m committed to helping make others feel they can do that too.

How do you feel being a woman in, what still is, a male dominated field?

Oppressed. But, you know, hopeful. I’ve been fortunate to have so many amazing women/WOC professors and mentors who have always made me feel that women have a place in this field. What’s hard is approaching an industry that still expects, in many ways, scripts by women to be unrelatable and too specific. I recently went to interview for a prominent writers group, and was shocked by how uncomfortable I was. I got there, and every other woman there was dressed up, like hipster dressed up. I was sitting there in my leggings, braless, with a messy, matted bun and realized I had not gotten the memo. There’s a pressure sometimes to be a Cool Artsy Girl. Every other woman was loudly expressing her style… which I am not trying to shit on. Everyone should do what makes them feel comfortable. But in that moment, in that space, that wasn’t the vibe I was getting, that everybody was just “being themselves.” Everybody was in full makeup, “quirky” clothes, laughing loudly, speaking about an octave higher than usual. I realized there is still an expectation, in this industry, to be interesting but nonthreatening, “fun,” and hot. Being a woman who writes well, in that moment, didn’t feel like enough. And being a young woman, too, just amplifies that in so many ways. People often assume you have no idea what you’re doing, and if you stick to your values and advocate intersectional feminism, you’re seen as being “too young to get it” or “still in that college phase.” It’s frustrating to be called naive just because other people are jaded as hell. But I lay low, I do my thing, and look to the amazing women before me who have broke through these barriers and follow their lead. My mom has always told me, since I was little, “Be your own girl.” Her refrain echoes in my head whenever I feel I don’t belong and gives me a gentle push to keep pursuing my truth.

What resources have you found most valuable during your time spent in higher education?

My most valuable resources have been my professors. I used to be so scared to connect with my them, and I felt for a while like I couldn’t ask for anything, like I was wasting people’s time. It’s actually really hard to have accomplished playwrights as professors, because so much of the time I was like, “But they’re amazing! What am I even doing here? How can I ask them to read my shitty draft when they are so perfect!?” As it turns out, most of the time, they are happy to help, and reaching out to them and asking questions has made a huge difference to me. They have challenged me, pushed me, and made me a better writer than any amount of praise ever would have. Also, financial aid… for real. I am enrolled in one of the most affordable MFA programs in the country, and I still needed help. It’s so important to advocate for yourself. Admitting you have financial difficulty does not diminish you as a writer or person. Don’t be embarrassed to ask. By being communicative, I was able to receive help paying my tuition, and that’s made a major difference for me.

If you were to encounter someone who was just embarking on a similar career path, what is one piece of advice you would offer them?  

As writers, its our responsibility to pull each other up, care for each other, and nourish each other. Find people who will do this for you. Kindness, compassion, and empathy can go a long way in competitive fields like theater in making people feel welcome and affirmed. Especially for women, we need to break down the myth that another woman’s success is our loss. Be authentic, be radical, and stake out your own path, knowing all the while this spark is inside you for a reason, and you owe it to the world to let it burn. It’s so important that the arts continue to evolve; the only way that will happen is that all of us who have felt marginalized by them start banging on their doors. And by the way, in case no one has told you recently: the arts are valid. Pursuing your art is valid. And look, I’m not saying it will be easy, because it won’t. Being an artist means just about always needing a survival job, which effectively means working two jobs: one that pays, and one that doesn’t, and both seem to demand all of your time. Remember that there are affordable MFA programs (check out CUNY schools) and some that are basically free if you get in (like Yale or Brown). Remember that even if an MFA isn’t an option for you, you are still a writer, and what you write is just as important and valid as someone with an MFA. Trust yourself.
Excerpt of “dear dashboard”

NELLA

I really wanna re-watch Fargo.
ALEX

Ok.
NELLA

Are you ok to hang out for a while?
ALEX

Yeah.
NELLA

And you’re ok re-watching it? Because you’ve already re-watched it with me.
ALEX

Slight pause. Yeah, of course/
NELLA

/You didn’t say yes right away though/
ALEX

/Yes! Yes. There are like very few circumstances under which I would say “no, I do not want to watch Fargo.
NELLA

Like what?
ALEX

Like….

Um. Like I guess if Steve Buscemi died? Like in real life. Like then I probably wouldn’t watch it for a little while just to like, be respectful. I just feel like it would almost be sacrilegious to watch the woodchipper scene.
A thoughtful pause.
NELLA

But wouldn’t he like… want people to remember him by watching the movie? I mean he’s fantastic in that movie. Like if I was Steve Buscemi in that movie, I would like insist people watch it to honor my life.
ALEX

Yeah.
A comfortable silence.
NELLA

Then maybe The Shining.
ALEX

Yeah! I’ve actually been meaning to do that for a while. Because of the pig-man giving the guy the blowjob. I have a new theory about that.
NELLA

Genuinely confused. What?
ALEX

You don’t remember that part?
NELLA

No.
ALEX

It’s at the end? Wendy is running through the hallway and she sees in the room at the end of the hallway this pig-man, like he’s in a full animal costume, going down on this guy in a tux, and then the pig-man looks up and makes like, direct eye-contact with Wendy.
NELLA

You’re fucking with me.

Read the rest of the play here

Read the rest of Dear Dashboard here

“Trump Nation” by Victoria Buffalino

betrayal:
sneaky snake
slippery, slow

you feel comfort as
he wraps his arms
around your throat

“Let me save you,”
he coos as he
strangles you

you’ll never
see it coming

(at least, it’ll feel sudden
when you’ve spend the
whole relationship with
your eyes squeezed shut)

one day
he just
strikes

(about:) This is how I feel as I watch our rights slip away, one by one by one. If you’re still
defending him, just remember, eventually you’re next. Seriously, you’ll be next, and if you don’t stand up now, who will be left to stand up for you?

Image and Poem by Victoria Buffalino (IG: schoolyardhero)