Passion, Poetry & Politics: The Spoken Word Artistry of Ami Mattison

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It has long been said that dynamite comes in small packages. One needs look no further for proof of this axiom’s veracity than spoken word phenomenon Ami Mattison. Small and slight of frame, Mattison’s unique poetic stylings are a force to be reckoned with. Defiant, poignant and straightforward Mattison’s work hits you where you live and cuts to the very core with a razor sharp edge of rage at the policies of exclusion, apathy and greed that permeate out society. Unafraid to offend delicate sensibilities or coddle the faint-of-heart, Mattison tackles the issues of poverty, homophobia, gender issues, and civil rights with an unparalleled ferocity that challenges even the most stalwart of opposition.

Having performed at universities and festivals across the nation, Mattison will be joining local spoken word troubadour Minton Sparks for the second in her new “Minton Sparks & Friends” spoken word series at TPAC’s intimate Johnson Theatre. The first of the shows was performed to a sold-out crowd. For every performance in the four-show series, ticket-buyers will enjoy free appetizers in the lobby beginning at 6:30 p.m., a post-show dessert reception with the artists, and a new, reserved-seating chart for Johnson Theater that includes cabaret tables. Audience members are invited to take beverages into the theater during the performance.

Playing to sold-out crowds at Nashville night spots, Sparks has performed nationwide at universities, clubs, songwriter series, and festivals and has been featured on internationally syndicated radio.

“Ami Mattison is a real inspiration to me,” said Sparks in a phone interview with iOut. “I think that she is a very important voice that people in our country need to hear.”

Born in New Orleans , LA and raised in Montgomery , AL , Ami lived in Atlanta , GA for nearly two decades before she moved in 2004 to the Midwest to serve as Visiting Assistant Professor in Women Studies at Antioch College in Yellow Springs , Ohio . Currently, she resides in Detroit , Michigan and has returned to her primary preoccupation with being a broke-ass poet.

Recently, Ami Mattison took time out to speak with iOut over the phone.

iOut: Your work contains a wide variety of subject matter. For people who may be unfamiliar with your body of work, what issues do you tend toward in your poetry and what do you feel are the most important issues of today that people should be aware of and involved in?

AM: I talk a lot about identity issues and identity politics. Most of my poetry tends to take personal situations and utilizes those to examine larger social problems and ideas.

I believe that people should be more aware of the poverty that most people are living in, more precisely looking at the ways in which poverty happens and the really complex puzzle that creates poverty globally as well as in the US. For instance, from 2004-05 there were 1.1 million more people who fell below the poverty line in the US alone.

George Bush won the last election based on playing to people’s homophobia and fears. That is another really big issue that I think should really be examined and looked at. I also think that we should begin to look more closely at an issue that a lot of queer activists are interested in: Gay Marriage. There is this part of me that is not precisely against it, but I think there are better ways to take care of ourselves and our families. Ultimately it seems just a little bit ludicrous for us to be asking for certain kinds of privileges for ourselves rather than demanding adequate health care for everyone. If everyone got the same break just because they are citizens they wouldn’t necessarily need to be married to have access to health benefits. Marriage would simply be about religious or social values. The fight for gay marriage is a really middle class sort of mentality and I wonder about the priorities that are involved. Why aren’t we trying to make sure everyone is taken care of regardless of their sexual orientation?

iOut: Based on your opinion about the subject of gay marriage, do you think this might signal a shortcoming in the approach of the gay community not only on this topic but also others that we seem to hold dear?

AM: Yes. There seems to be this notion floating around that since we are more visible we are somehow better off, but in the last election we saw eleven states outright ban gay marriage or strike down domestic partner benefits. I live in Michigan now and even before when I was in Georgia there was never even much talk about people trying to get married. However, both places wanted to pass a constitutional amendment as some sort of preventative strike that resounded with complete irony.

iOut: It sounds like you are saying that we may be tolerated as a community at this point but we are not yet accepted and that there is a big difference in the two. If that is the case what do you feel is the best approach that we can take as a community towards these issues?

AM: If we could take a step back we might start to see how these issues are all interconnected We might learn that we can’t continue to isolate ourselves in groups. We have to start seeing that our issues are just parts of bigger issues that affect everyone. It still feels like we are only working within these enclaves. We aren’t seeing ourselves as part of a larger fabric of the US and of the globe. But we are a part of it. We are fundamental to it. We undercut ourselves by thinking that because we are seen now it’s all ok, but we still aren’t getting the same kind of equal rights that we’ve been seeking all along. We haven’t begun to put a dent in the serious homophobia that people still feel towards us. Just because they like “Will & Grace” on television doesn’t mean that they like dykes and fags. They still don’t want us getting married, or having children or living next to them.

iOut: I understand you identify not only as “queer” but also as “trans”. Could you explain that and how it works into your poetry?

AM: I have a lot of different ways of putting it. People call me a lesbian but I’ve always identified more as a dyke or as a queer. I also identify as trans and that kind of complicates things. I write a lot about that in my work. I don’t necessarily identify as man or woman. I often say that I’m trans-identified in a female body. If it were possible to get rid of gender I would. The trans issues are harder to address in my work because it’s not something that I’ve written directly about.

iOut: It has to be a difficult thing to get these ideas across to the average everyday person in the community at large, but do you think that it is any easier within the queer community? Are gays & lesbians any better in your experience at acceptance than their straight counterparts?

AM: I think that they are often worse. The history of gay and trans communities have overlapped for so many years that it’s perceived as threatening to them. What is even more interesting to me is within the trans community there is such a huge difference between those of us who are genderqueers or transgendered and people who are transsexuals. It’s even funny that those two groups would be linked together because those two groups see gender in completely oppositional ways from one another. Transsexuals are much more interested in matching their lives and their bodies to the one gender that they identify with. Genderqueers tend to be more fluid around that so it has been interesting to me to start with those sorts of questions within the trans community about those kinds of differences and learning how we can work together to make changes around these differences.

iOut: Why do you think that gay people can be so threatened by trans-identified people?

AM: I believe they think it reflects something onto them, which when you think about it is really the most ludicrous thing ever. That is the true case any time someone is threatened by somebody else’s identity. It’s really just the result of having poor boundaries. If you think the way someone presents themselves or identifies makes you look bad then the problem is really your own and not theirs. Sometimes it touches off something in them they haven’t dealt with and examined in their own lives.

iOut: In your opinion ,how do you suggest that these disparate, often oppositional groups who really have a lot of the same goals begin to come together in order to work towards those goals as one larger force?

AM: It is a very complicated process. First of all I think that dissent and disagreement are good things that are simply part of the democratic process. Any time that we all start thinking the same way I start getting scared. Dissent doesn’t have to be a fracturing force. In fact, it can be a strong uniting force. That idea may seem a way of thinking that is against the grain, but I think that once we really start to determine who we are and begin to communicate to one another responding to each other with mutual respect for those kind of differences and disagreements, eventually those things don’t take on this huge power to divide any more. Instead they can just be and we can start to find the commonalities that are important. It really starts with self-acceptance. I like to think that I use my poetry to connect with other people and to help other people make new connections. If there is a revolution it will be long, hard and ugly…that’s just part of a revolution. But to make that revolution start it requires one intimate connection at a time.

Minton Sparks & Friends @ TPAC: The Voices of Today is recommended for mature audiences. Tickets, including appetizers and desserts, are $25 for standard reserved seats and $30 for cabaret tables. Tickets are available at the TPAC Box Office (Downtown or at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in The Mall at Green Hills), online at www.tpac.org, or any Ticketmaster outlet. Tickets may also be purchased by calling Ticketmaster at 615/255-ARTS (2787). For more information on Minton Sparks please visit www.mintonsparks.com.