by Hannah Bressler
Brian McCracken is an activist, performance poet, educator, and organizer living in Olympia, Washington. He writes about many topics, including but not limited to political analysis, trauma, patriarchy, mental illness and neurodiversity. He founded Old Growth Poetry collective in Olympia and runs poetry workshops. In 2014 he won the Seattle Grand Slam competition and competed in the National Poetry Slam. He has two chapbooks out now "If a Caterpillar Flaps It's Wings" and "Dotted Lines: A Road Manifesto for Word Bleeders. He is currently on tour around the Pacific Northwest. Contact him here.
Hannah Bressler: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Brian McCracken: I consider myself educated by the feminist movement. I'd say I need feminism.
HB: Tell me about your background before you were doing poetry and how you got into it.
BM: I grew up in northern Virginia, right outside Washington D.C. which is a pretty affluent, upper-middle-class area. There's more economic diversity there than there used to be when I grew up, both more poor people accessing services and more rich people not wanting to pay for services.
It was a very liberal and very educated area. And it's not a place... that I super felt like I 'fit in' and, um, people's value system was very consumption oriented. People were political but in a way that's like, "Oh, I can talk at great length about a special I heard on NPR. And I really want you to vote." And that was about the extent of people's political participation, unless they were part of the the Democratic party. That was really disempowering and frustrating to me.
When I was was in high school, 9/11 happened. I saw the country really shift and turn into this angry beast. That's also the time when I discovered punk rock and started listening to "Anti-Flag" and "Bad Religion". So I started discovering more radical politics. Then I did some traveling and saw, as a young adult, how different everywhere was.
In 2008 I went to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions to protest the two party system. I was intrigued. The Democrats were running on "Clean Energy Solutions" and "Clean Coal". But one of the major criticisms of the party was "Yo, what is this Clean Coal? Coal is not clean energy." And also they pointed out that some of the biggest funders of the DNC were resource extraction companies that had horrible records and multiple Superfund sites that were still being cleaned up or couldn't be cleaned up.
I also saw the mobilization of fancy-new police weaponry and policing around the "Free Speech Zones" they were creating and I was like "If this is what the Democratic Party calls freedom, I don't know what there is for me. Fuck 'em both."
I met people who called themselves anarchists and saw them organizing things very horizontally. There was no formal leadership there but they were getting shit done. It was amazing to me. That's what I had always wanted. So, I found a group of people that I felt I really fit in with and that motivated me to move out to Olympia in 2010. I heard about the Port-Militarization Resistance that was going on there. I was like, woah, people here disagree with the war and they want to do more than have, like, a boring rally in D.C. or distribute petitions. They're like, "No, we're gonna stop it." It was really inspiring to me, so I moved out there.
HB: Can you tell me a little bit more about Port Militarization Resistance?
BM: In 2011, the Port Militarization Resistance was a coalition of some anti-war groups in Olympia to provided economic disincentives to people funding the war. The port was bringing in vehicles to be serviced. They blockaded the port on and off for 11 days. It costs the Port of Olympia money. It was powerful to me to see that. It was super goal-oriented action. A lot of protests today is not very goal oriented, we're focused on tactics and not on strategy. I don't have a lot of patience for protesting that is not at least on it's way to a larger strategy.
HB: About being goal-oriented, do you also feel that way with Art? What is your philosophy of art and poetry?
BM: In the making of the art, I am less goal oriented than I should be. Right now I'm learning to articulate my goals to myself a little bit more. In my organizing of art, I've always been pretty goal-oriented. Like the Olympia Performance poetry scene, (I started the Old Growth Poetry Collective as a student at The Evergreen State College in 2011). Now we have a weekly show, and slams, and send our team to compete at competitions.
HB: Can you talk a little bit about your poetry teachers and how you run poetry workshops?
BM: I've taken a few writing classes at Evergreen and community college. In the creative writing workshop I took in community college, I learned how to be in a workshop, to give and take critical feedback. I learned how to separate myself from my work to the point where if someone 'flicked' my work I don't think they're doing it to me. I'm even to the point where I can 'flick' my work, and make it do what it needs to do better.
When I first started I was looking at the people who were way better than me, like Tara Hardy, (she was our featured poet at the Olympia Grand Slam) when she performs, she tells a lot stuff that tells you how she writes her poems. I try to do that a little bit now and share my process.
I think the way poetry is taught in schools a lot of times makes people hate poetry... They ask "What is a poem and what does it do?" rather than "What does a poem do for you?" How can you form an attachment to this art form and express yourself with this tool? If art is not a tool for self expression, or a tool for something, I don't think it's very worthwhile.
A lot of my recently learning [about slam poetry] has come from going to national events. I competed in the 2014 National Poetry Slam on Team Seattle and in 2015 I coached Olympia's first team. Coaching was a source of a lot of good learning for me as well.
Being in a national community I saw that, woah, you can really push this art form. There was one performance that I learned a lot from. It was called "Auditions for Being a Black Boy". It was a Black man off stage that was reading the poem and basically giving dance instructions. It was loaded with very racialized instructions, like "put your head down" "don't talk too much", things like that. And then on stage was a white man who was not speaking at all, just dancing.
So I actually connected to it to that piece in a much bigger way. I mean, this is what racism does, it conditions. I was conditioned to relate more to White people's experiences and to think they are more similar to mine, and in a lot of ways they are. I am such a fan of a lot of poetry that is about Black Liberation by Black people. I really hella support that. And I also know that I'm never gonna fully comprehend what it is they're talking about because I have White Privilege. But seeing a White, blond man with a beard enacting that poem and not speaking produced a new level of empathy in me. I'm frustrated I've not found that online yet. It was so brilliant.
Most of my poetry learning has been from my peers. I think the time when I'm learning best in when I'm in the middle. When I'm looking towards people who are more skilled than I am and when I'm translating what I've learned to people who are just learning the craft. That's the best space to be in.
HB: A lot of poetry slams I've been to, trauma is the big theme. Why do you think that is?
BM: Because it's not allowed anywhere else. It's "What other outlet do I have? We'll put it into this spoken word." I think at it's core, a poetry slam is a place where you can speak powerfully about things that you can't talk about in other places. So that the slam ends up being a place where the personal and the political are very weaved together. And it's a place where you can give a strong personal narrative about what is actually a collective trauma and be heard and validated for that.
Also, it's a place where people can hear that shit without feeling the need to interject the dominant narrative. Immediately when you speak about a trauma that is politicized, whether someone says it out loud or not, they are having a reaction that was taught to them by the dominant narrative.
Slam is a competitive art form and judges are instructed to give 0-10, based on content, performance, and originality. You're supposed to judge 'the best' poem. But in Slam it's not the best poem that wins, it is the poem that connects with the judges the most. Slam is the art of art as communication. Did you communicate this effectively? Did they feel you?
HB: Your "Truancy" poem reminded me of the book "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk, the idea is part of this theory that your body holds everything even if your consciousness can't.
BM: Yeah, I've heard of that book. .
HB: In Slam Poetry there's a lot of body-presence in it, more than other forms of performance I've seen. Do you want to talk about that a bit? How does it feel to perform? How do you prepare yourself? And what does it feel like in your body?
BM: I'll typically mediate for the two poems before I perform. Because I want to wash away all the other feelings to clean slate, and when I start doing the poem, that's the feeling. I go into that feeling. That's when I do my best performance.
When I'm doing poems about trauma in my past, I'm trying to revisit the feeling of that moment, the feeling of where that poem comes from. Some poems are really hard, like the poem in my first chapbook, "Serenity" about coming out of drug addiction, when I did that poem justice, I would cry afterwards every time, a) because it was a mix of feelings, allowing yourself to be as emotional as you can get on stage and b) it's really liberating.
I've learned to be more and more in my body for those poems. My sweetheart was telling me that I should try the Olympia Dance Co-Op so I could be free-er in my body and it would help me in my performance. They do this thing called "Five Rhythms Dance" which is a somatic dance therapy.... a lot of people go there to dance out their trauma.
I used to do this thing where I would do the poem with my body stiff as a board, but the dancing taught me to get my body involved. Our voices are really connected to our bodies too. If our voices aren't loose then our bodies are tight too
HB: Marissa Janae Johnson, one of the women who interrupted the Bernie Sanders rally, said in an interview with Real Change, "How would we behave if we were creatures who came from the world we wanted to be in?" She was speaking from a place of her own vision of how the world should be. So I've been asking other artists and activists, if you came from another world and were dropped into this one, what would the world you came from look like?
BM: A world where people can talk about their feelings without feeling shame and be heard. That would go a long way! I mean men. I really want men to become more emotionally literate. I think that would solve so many problems right away. It's a thing some people learn early on but a lot of people never learn. So much of society has encouraged me to project my hurt onto other people. And that's not cool, but it's really socially accepted. And if you share it, to not necessarily have another person be like, "Ok, let me fix that for you." Just being able to say it really does a lot. There's so many ways that we manifest our hurt that we can't process that are unhealthy. Through addiction and mental illness, and violence towards others, and needing to control, or not caring enough to control.
That, and a world without hierarchy. I think that people, when they put their minds to it, are actually pretty good at agreeing on things and finding a way forward.
And maybe a little more autonomy for the individual, and a little less obsession with the individual at the same time-- a more communal mind. Realizing that doing good things for other people is also good for us.
Note: This interview has been condensed for length and some paragraphs have been rearranged for a more linear reading experience.