Spoken-Word Artists Bassey Ikpi and Giles Li Tell It Like It Is
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Now Li writes to express his views in the most authentic way possible, including all their complexity: "For me [the goal is] to accurately represent what’s inside of me. Everybody, what’s inside of them, it’s all kind of mixed up, and nobody really knows anything, and now [my goal is] nothing more than trying to accurately represent ‘I feel this way about it, I might have misgivings about it for this reason, or I might be fully behind it at this time.'"
The complexity of these views is evident in his piece “The Morning After”, which he performed at Equilibrium. In this poem Li articulates his ambivalence on the morning after President Obama’s election and why, given the throng of emails and positive media that greeted him, he could not join in the celebration.
“Still I find myself unmoved by his audacity,” the poem goes. “As I walk into the community center where I work/I look for clues/am I just getting old, soft, apathetic?” He sees the young people he serves, troubled by inadequate health care, lack of access to decent food and social services, and a system too mired in bureaucracy to be effective. “Don’t fool yourself into believing/the change we can believe in/comes from a guy we never met.”
This message illustrates the multifaceted nature of his views, grounded in his particular experience as both a community activist and poet.
“I can only write from what’s inside,” he explains. “All I can really do is just be honest and hope that the authentic feeling of what I’m saying will speak to people. I don’t even have electronic copies of a lot of my poems.”
Ikpi echoes this need to use one’s individual story as a central point of departure for her writing.
“I have a lot of respect for people like [poet] Patricia Smith,” she says, “who does this amazing thing with persona, where she just inhabits characters that are so extremely foreign to who she is. I have so much respect and admiration for that, but I absolutely cannot do that.” (laughs)
Even though her impulse to write begins in her own experience, she craves connection with others, as well. “I tell people that I write for the ‘me, too,’” she explains, “because once you describe or explain or transcribe your unique experience, you don’t want to just own this thing, you want someone else to say, ‘Oh my God, me, too!’ So that’s my motivation for continuing, because there’s always another experience that I need to make sense of, and I want to feel rooted in a community that feels the same way.”