Exclusive: Michael Cirelli Brings Fun, Excitement, T-Pain to Poetry

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Michael Cirelli is the author of Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard , a collection of poetry, and the Executive Director of Urban Word NYC, a non-profit organization that offers “literary arts education and youth development programs in the areas of creative writing, journalism, college prep, literature and hip-hop.” We posted “Michelle” from his forthcoming collection Vacations on the Black Star Line back in January to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration to some interesting reactions. We recently caught up with Michael and asked him what Urban Word NYC’s all about, what poets actually do during National Poetry Month, and what he thought about the comments on “Michelle.” Our conversation after the jump.

Flavorwire: Urban Word NYC just had its Annual Teen Poetry Slam — tell us about that.

Michael Cirelli: The slam that we had at the Apollo was the Grand Slam Final of the New York Teen Poetry Slam. More than 500 teenagers enter each year. In order to whittle it down to the top 21 poets, we usually have five or six slams before the Final. Those are held at smaller venues across the city, like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the Bowery Poetry Club, the Point community center in the Bronx, and St. Mark’s Church and Poetry Project. We do those every weekend in March to get it down to the poets who will compete at the Apollo in the finals. We take that team of poets to a national poetry slam called Brave New Voices. Last Sunday, a series premiered on HBO called Brave New Voices, which follows six teams of teens from their local finals to the national slam. They followed our 2008 team through their journey and their practices to Brave New Voices , which was in D.C. last year. This year it’s in Chicago.

The six poets who made this year’s team are great. What I love about them is that they’re all really diverse. It was the first year where the competition was so intense that I can honestly say that the next 20 kids who didn’t make the finals would’ve any other year. The kids have evolved so much that they’re now marrying the writing and the performance. Every year there’d be like a handful of kids who slip in on pure writing and a handful of kids who slip in on pure performance. This year it was the total package. We have some really great writers and really great performers, but they all have a little bit of both. They’ll practice together as a team and create group poems together, and get ready for their travels in July to Chicago.

FW: And how about the Slam of the Ages? What will that be like?

MC: This is the first time we’ve done it. Basically, we’re going to have slam teams from the last 10 years that we’ve had New York City poetry slams all compete against each other. The only team that won’t perform is our new team, they’ll be there just to hang out and have the torch passed to them. We have people who have grown up, gone on to college, graduated, and now have families and children. Members of Zulu Nation who have toured Europe with Afrika Bambaataa! And you’ll be able to see them all compete against each other. So that’s what the Slam of Ages is.

FW: Can you tell us a little about the history of Urban Word and how it came to be?

MC: About 10 years ago there was another organization in the Bay Area that had been doing spoken word poetry work with teenagers. And this woman [Jen Weiss] came to New York from California to get her PhD and she decided that she wanted to start a youth center/spoken word poetry writing organization for teenagers here. She started it under the umbrella of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She’s really into alternative education and progressive, social justice-oriented education, so for the first five years she really built our pedagogy and made sure we had a strong infrastructure in place to support this mission of creating uncensored, safe spaces for teenagers. I came in in 2004 to really grow the program so that we could have more students. From there we made a school residency program.

We now work in over 100 schools a year and serve 15,000 youth a year. I built the slam up so that it became more of a high profile event. In the past couple of years we’ve started a college prep program. The idea was just that in the same way that all the teenagers that come to Urban Word have a knee-jerk reaction to [an environment where they can] say whatever they want as long as it doesn’t endanger anybody, we wanted to create an environment where they’d have that same reaction about going to college. You know, that’s the next step, go to college, graduate high school. So we’re going into our 11th year and we’re really doing well. We have the HBO special; we do a program with the New York Knicks; we have a college fair that draws over 2,000 teenagers; we give away $250,000 plus in scholarships; we have over 50 events each year… along with our workshops, which are the core of our program. And we have a Brooklyn site that we just opened two years ago.

FW: It’s National Poetry Month. What does that mean for a working poet?

MC: I get asked to do a lot of readings. It’s just such a weird thing, being a nobody MFA writer, but a nobody with a book. My work kind of toes the line between young/accessible and crafted/academic. I can reach many audiences and I’m always kind of torn. I’m going to be reading at Lizard Lounge in Boston with a jazz band, and then the next day I read at UMass Boston with one of the professors, and then I’m going to be reading at a high school as their poet for National Poetry Month. I do a lot of readings. The big one is April 29th at the Brooklyn Public Library with Patricia Smith. Once a week they have a series of readings for National Poetry Month with all these big name poets, and I’m like the youngest. The whole month is great.

FW: You let us run your poem “Michelle” the week of Obama’s inauguration. I loved the poem, I had seen you perform it the week before, which was why we asked for it. It drew a lot of commentary on the site. For the most part the comments were positive, but there was one that said “super offensive… this post articulates white america’s fears and fantasies about obama… thanks for a good reason to unsubscribe from this list.” Because you do draw on racial issues and elements of hip hop in your work, is that an attitude you encounter often? How do you respond?

MC: That’s a great question. I’m actually glad that somebody said that. I’m working on a new book, Vacations on the Black Star Line [in which “Michelle” will appear]… I think for that particular poem, the person who read it misread it. But I definitely think that sentiment I’m almost welcoming in a weird way in my new work. That poem in particular. It was interesting to see the comments, because the sensuality that people interpret out of it, like at the ending, I had no intentions — I never read the ending as sexual, as having sexual undertones or overtones. I really was just thinking, hey baby, I’m gonna be the President one day and you’re gonna have an obelisk in your backyard, you know what I mean?

Some of the comments talk about the simpleness of the poem or whatever, and that’s just sort of my style. I definitely take liberties, and I think it’s a fine line that I’m treading between taking liberties writing about people of color and the experiences that they have. One of my closest friends was making fun of me and saying, “your poetry is such ethnographic tourism.” And I think a lot of white people kind of are ethnic tourists in some way or another, so I really wanted to explore that idea, really look at privilege and white privilege head-on in the new work.

In some ways, almost, I’m like a super PC person, not because I try to be, but just because my whole work and life has been in communities of color. It’s really hard to talk about this stuff without sounding very politically correct and clichéd. That’s the whole idea of the book… some of the poems will come off that way. How dare you… write about Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date, who do you think you are? I almost want it to be that way. Unapologetic — that’s what white people do every day of the week. If I’m going to be a white person who’s doing it, and understands that I’m doing it, I don’t know if that puts me off the hook because I [also] do it and I’m not aware of it, as a lot of white people do all the time. I’m glad that it kind of makes people feel that way, because I don’t want the poems to come across as, “Oh look at this perfect white guy championing hip hop culture and black culture,” which I do in my work, but, you know, [I don’t want it to be] like “he’s so down.” I want to kind of stroll that line of what’s down and what’s not down — what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.

So I don’t know if I answered the question. But the Michelle poem is pretty — to me. It’s kind of mild compared to some of the other poems that are going to be in the book. So if that dude was offended by the Michelle poem, he’s definitely going to be offended by some of the other poems. I’m ready for it. I can talk about race and privilege and culture and accountability, and I can deal with being called a racist… I think all people hold the burden of racism. There are lots of different definitions of racism. It’s easy for me in my work to see how it is so hegemonically infused in institutions, especially in education. We see it in government and society and in neighborhoods in New York City. But to me, seeing it in education and working with so many teenagers, I’m aware of race pretty much all the time. A lot of white people aren’t. So that’s what the new book is.

In the Michelle poem, there’s definitely a sense of fetishization. And when when you’re fetishizing a person of color, and you’re white, then issues are going to come up. In this new book, I overly fetishize and look at, like, what is that? I always work with these characters, and the main character who is in a lot of poems in the new book is T-Pain — you know the guy who sings in like a robot voice? I totally think the guy’s hilarious and brilliant, but I don’t like him. I don’t necessarily like R. Kelly when I look at his personal life, but when I watch “Trapped in the Closet”, I’m mesmerized and laughing, like this is freaking brilliant and sad and funny and everything all at once. So it’s a monumental task to try to write this book dealing with these issues when I’ve only got like nine months. It’s almost done, I have a month to get the book to the publisher, and I have a little over half the poems in finished drafts and about another quarter of the poems in varying stages of finishedness, but all the poems are written.

FW: When does the new book come out?

MC: Hopefully at the end of September. I’m trying to get it out before I’m reading in the Wisconsin Book Festival in the beginning of October. I’m also the featured poet in a writing conference in Binghamton… they have one poet, one fiction writer and one non-fiction writer. It’s really interesting because they contacted me and it’s like, yeah of course I’d love to be there, and in the reply back they were like, “It will be so great to have a little bit of fun and excitement infused into our poetry conference!” I guess that’s what people think of me as now, fun and excitement… I deal with serious topics, but I try to put them in a funny light.

Michael will be doing a free reading Wednesday, April 29th, 7 p.m., at the Brooklyn Public Library Central Branch’s Dweck Center. Urban Word NYC’s Slam of the Ages will be held Friday, May 1st, 7 p.m. at Cooper Union’s historic Great Hall in Manhattan. For tickets, visit www.smarttix.com. The Brave New Voices festival will take place in Chicago July 14-19. Everyone else should check out Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices which airs Sundays at 11 p.m. on HBO.