Can poetry be a tool to break out of heteronormativity?

Poetry can be used for many different reasons. It can be a person’s occupation or a way for someone to express some of the beautiful things we come across in life. For others, it’s used as a form of self-expression. Unfortunately for some of those who use poetry as a form of self-expression, it is a necessity to survive. In Poetry Is Not A Luxury by Audre Lorde, she states that poetry is a necessity for those who do not have a voice to be heard. She states that, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Dreams and new ideas can be written in the form of poetry and can be liberating for those who have been oppressed. Although Lorde focuses on the positive outlet that poetry is, she only speaks about poetry in terms of what it does for women, and occasionally women of color. However, she fails to address that there are other groups who have been marginalized, not just women, who also use poetry. They include the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities as well.

After spending enough time subscribing to and watching YouTube channels that promote slam poetry, I’ve made the realization that many of the most viewed videos that I have seen encircle the idea of one main premise: the challenges that minorities and the non-privileged face. Some include “Shrinking Women” by Lily Myers, “Dear Straight People” by Denice Frohman, and “A Letter to the Girl I Used to Be” by Ethan Smith. These slam poets use poetry and public speaking as a form of self expression, a cathartic release where they can do two things: bring awareness to the public about their struggles in a heteronormative society and utilize it as a form of therapy where the audience acts as a therapist who listens and absorbs information about their patient.

In “Shrinking Women”, Lily Myers expresses the societal notion that women are to play submissive roles and men are to play domineering roles. As Adrienne Rich points out, “we are all taught and coerced into adopting conventional gender identities” (Seidman 7). Women are taught to shrink as men are taught to grow larger. In her slam poetry, Myers state that, “as my grandmother became frail and angular, her husband swelled to red round cheeks, rotund stomachs. And I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking making space for the entrance of men into their lives.” Myers addresses the issue of the conventional gender identities that women are expected to play. She criticizes it and challenges its notion. With a video with over 4.5 million views, it has definitely affected many people and has also resonated with many other women as well.

Another video that has hit over 1 million views on YouTube, “Dear Straight People” by Denice Frohman, speaks about the privilege that heterosexuals and heterosexual couples have. In this video, Frohman addresses the criticism she receives from people who feel uncomfortable when she tells them that she is lesbian. As Pascoe points out in “Guys are Just Homophobic”, the myth of the predatory fag is this misconception that homosexuals are out to get heterosexual people, so heterosexuals feel uncomfortable. Frohman starts out the poem by stating that she knows that they feel uncomfortable, which makes her feel uncomfortable, therefore she is annoyed by the uncomfortable situation they are both put in. Frohman also states, “Dear straight people, kissing my girlfriend in public without looking to see who’s around is a luxury I do not fully have yet.” This line brings the awareness to the privilege that heterosexual couples have because they do not have to fear judgment from strangers who disapprove of their relationship. But another aspect that Frohman points out is her gratitude for straight allies. She uses poetry as a means to address the criticisms she receives and also thanks the people who have been supportive.

In “A Letter to the Girl I Used to Be”, Ethan Smith speaks to Emily Smith, the girl he once was. This slam poetry really sheds on the internal conflicts that people who are transgender go through on a daily basis. Smith focuses on his thought process and transition as he enters adulthood, trying to find himself. He writes that even performing this slam poetry was extremely difficult for him, stating, “I’ve been trying to write this letter for 6 months. I still can’t decide if this should be an apology or not.” His internal conflict is of whether he should be ashamed and sorry or not when he sacrificed his ability to have children of his own to be a man. Through poetry, Smith was able to express to his friends in the audience that he was transgender and also gave a very humanistic perspective of the difficulties that he had and continues to endure. In his blog post “Transie”, Ethan Zimmerman writes about his thought process as a transgender, stating, “How I feel: … angry that the world can be such a shitty place to people who don’t fit in, confused, scared, sexy, freakish, relieved, lucky to have my trans community, thankful to modern medicine, pissed off at being born in the wrong body…” Both Smith and Zimmerman utilize writing as a tool to express to society how they feel about breaking outside of the heteronormative norm.

Poetry is a form of self-expression, especially for those who challenge the binary systems that exist within society today. As the Internet becomes more of a instrument for people to share their ideas and as YouTube videos of slam poetry have received many views, can slam poetry be used as a powerful tool to make progress in breaking binaries and bringing awareness about the issues surrounding privilege?

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