‘Button Poetry’, a new awakening on American stages and screens

Sarah Kay, “The Type”. Button Poetry

If you grow up the type of woman men want to look at,
You can let them look at you.
But do not mistake eyes for hands or windows or mirrors.
Let them see what a woman looks like.
They may not have ever seen one before.

So begins Sarah Kay’s poem “The Type”, viewed more than 2 million times on the YouTube channel of Button Poetry. Hanif Abdurraqib, another of its valuable contributors, also has more than 63,000 followers on Twitter. How does one explain the success of this new American poetic movement?

Hanif Abdurraqib, ‘When I Say That Loving Me Is Kind of Like Being a Chicago Bulls Fan’.

The ins and outs of Button Poetry

The declared purpose of Button Poetry is closer to a creative and political renewal of poetic performances than to a basic – not to say hackneyed – overhauling of the poetic medium.

The performances of Button Poetry are far removed from the poet who sits alone with his blank page, or who simply reads his verses to the audience. Instead, they endorse poems that “live in books and bars, magazines and theaters, the mind and the mouth”. Set off by the “cross-pollination between the page and the stage,” their work gives off sparks while lowering “the boundaries between performance and print”, reminding us of the aesthetic stance of queerdom, which posits the importance of considering archives, poetry and performance all in one go.

Sam Cook and Sierra DeMulder founded Button Poetry in 2011, and in April 2012 they recorded their first on-camera contest. The College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational took on a slam-like style in the wake of the spoken word of the Beat generation. With Allen Ginsberg in mind, Button Poetry certainly fuels the claim that poetry is “an outlet” that enables us to publicly talk about what is known in private, our intimate experiences. Button poems make the most of that dichotomy, helping foster the passage from private suffering to widely aired poetic performance, without losing sight of their literary influences: Maya Angelou’s activism; the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell; the spiritual outcry prompted by gospel songs; the political lyricism of Langston Hughes; and perhaps Walt Whitman’s most irreverent lines when he wonders “Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?” (Leaves of Grass, first edition 1855).

Although references and implicit tributes do pack a punch, one would silence the voices of Button poems by overloading them with a restrictive literary legacy and classifying them as mere rejuvenating forays into American poetry. Button poems stand out on their own merit, and shine when viewed in isolation.

The haberdasher of souls

Button Poetry extended its reach through many outlets, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. Such accessibility makes Button poems likely to pop up on our screens at any moment of the day and fill our minds on public transport or when lost among skyscrapers. Scrolling their YouTube channel or Instagram account, updated with new verses several times a week, feels like opening the door of an unusual haberdashery where you can find anything you need – buttons, needles, thread – to mend your torn rags. It is in such a shop that you will find Button poems crystallized on shelves as outlets for trauma and ecstasy, for injured souls and the intricacies of desire, at everyone’s disposal.

But Button Poetry offers no panacea, instead it shows the immense diversity of the textile and textual craft of those trying to solve the – seemingly unsolvable – dilemmas they face. Button poems avoid the pitfalls of a poetry undermined by mawkishness and accomplish the remarkable feat of instantly coalescing diverse experiences into a single energy, and for a mass audience. They range from the worst aspects of human interaction (racism in “The Shotgun”; rape in “The ‘I’m Sorry’ Poem”; body-shaming in “The Fat Joke”) to the daily wonders of one’s existence that are too exquisite not to strive for (the whims of childhood in “Baby Brother”; the simple beauty of love in “Pretzeled Bodies”). Button poems offer a version of daily life that is so drawn to the metaphorical that it often comes as a small aesthetic shock:

The following morning you came to me
A smile in one hand and God in the other
And I have never stopped confusing the two.

Button Poetry does not isolate these themes, and within a single poem a complex interweaving of emotions mirrors the complexity of human experience. The poetic format is demanding though, giving performers as little as two to five minutes to interpret a poem whose dense metaphors risk hindering the fluidity and clarity of speech. The visual and audio experience is intense, and one cannot be anything but overawed by the mastery behind these seamless performances, where anger is measured and holding back tears is a struggle.

“Show them your fangs, your claws, your anger”

In a bid to seize the moral high ground vacated by political figures, Button Poetry explores the gap between the stifling conformity of American society and an infinite number of anonymous individuals. Button poems disrupt the logical order of stale everyday language, unapologetically rejecting any coercive attempt by politicians and technocrats to manipulate reality to ward off the misery of everyday life. In providing a voice for the downtrodden, the performers help them take back control of their lives, as an attempt to make “poetry their own”.

Britteney Conner.

Button poets fight to recapture reality itself, through shouting and finger-pointing and gossamer-light texts that turn out to be strongholds against blinkered forces threatening the expression of individual suffering. Needless to say, Button Poetry implicitly indicts the plutocrats who think that facts can be alternative and truth relative, all the more so since the last presidential election.

Many of these poems are memories and revive personal anecdotes that unfold with discretion or eloquence, in different tones: irony, tenderness, bitterness, glee, despair, ecstasy, rage, amusement, etc. For the few minutes that are granted them, Button poems appear as open wounds on the intimacy of our world, from which shouted and whispered memories spring out and share the origin of their pain or the reason for their state of grace. But even though the poems host a multitude of feelings, they never venture on to the path of contrived and inauthentic universality. Rather, they assert that our sufferings are not equal even if they do strike us in a same space and at the same time.

As the audience ignores the pain on stage, the performances unsparingly display their mercurial strength and leave us in no doubt of what to think. The simple staged features of Button shows make for breathtaking moments of revolt that unsettle the audience and force them out of their comfort zone. It is not enough to simply sing anthems like “We Shall Overcome”, by Mahalia Jackson or Joan Baez. We can’t just take refuge in the safety of daily life while Javon Johnson fires off a volley of bullet-like words in “The Shotgun”. An exercise in futility, Button Poetry certainly is not.

At the heart of capitalism and ultra-liberalism, where everything has a price tag, including human feelings, Button Poetry invites us to question the – often times selective – empathy that we feel, to show more of it and act accordingly. As they drop beauty in the palm of our hands, these dazzling poems unequivocally state that, when it comes to the inner bruises of humanity, lucidity has no price.

This article was originally published in French