Pages Matam performs poems, sparks discussion

Kelly Pyzik, Editor-in-Chief
pyzikkel@grinnell.edu

Pages Matam is a Cameroonian poet, activist and educator based in the D.C. metropolitan area who speaks on immigration, race, sexual violence and other social issues. The African Caribbean Students Union (ACSU) brought Matam to campus this past Wednesday, Nov. 5, as part of their awareness week to perform his poetry and open up important conversations.

The ACSU also held a pub quiz night, a screening of “Half of a Yellow Sun,” and other events for ACSU awareness week. Tonight, Friday, Nov. 6, at 10 p.m., they will be hosting the bi-annual BLACKOUT party fundraising for the Mwana Africa Scholarship.

“The mission in general for ACSU week is to engage the whole campus in issues pertaining to the African continent and Caribbean islands, and to share our cultures and get people on campus involved in our cultures, too,” said ACSU student leader Annette Mokua.

This semester, the week’s theme is “Relationships: Our culture, politics and lingo.” ACSU awareness week has not brought in a speaker in a while, but they felt Matam, as someone who speaks and educates on race, immigration and sexual violence, would be the perfect artist to bring to campus.

“Race and immigration are issues that are very important to African/Caribbean students, and those are some issues we discuss within the ACSU meetings as well, but the sexual violence component we thought was something that’s important to the campus, especially right now, and in general something that is unfortunately so pervasive, against women and against men … We felt that Pages was a suitable fit for our theme on relationships,” Mokua said.

Matam writes and performs poetry and works with youth to encourage creativity.  Photo by Sofi Mendez

Matam writes and performs poetry and works with youth to encourage creativity. Photo by Sofi Mendez

During his time on campus, The S&B’s Editor-in-Chief, Kelly Pyzik, had the chance to sit down with Pages Matam to talk craft and education.

The S&B: You are very aware of the power of language. How do you wield it carefully?

PM: Just being very responsible and taking ownership for everything that I write, and being responsible about the things that I write. Knowing that it could spark conversation, controversy, it could spark a number of things, but that I take ownership for all of those words I put down. I am not afraid to have a conversation with people about that. It is very important to just be aware of every word that you have and to know that every single word has a purpose. If it does not have a clear and succinct purpose, it does not need to be put on the page or set on the stage. …

Your work reads very well on the page as well as out loud, which of those do you consider first in your writing process or does it change?

I don’t really like to make that distinction of page and stage, it’s become a little too divisive. As someone who navigates both spaces as a performance artist and someone who uses their body to convey a message and then also a writer, I think every poem has a life of its own, so every poem demands a different thing. That’s why it’s important to listen to the voice of the poem and understand it as it resonates with the voice of the author. And to also be aware of the questions the poem is asking. We have the answers. We think we don’t have the answers, but we actually do. We have all of the answers, we just don’t know what the questions are. … If you know the exact question the poem is asking, then it’s easier to get through it. These are things I apply whether I’m performing I’m writing, or if it’s a poem I’m just taking onto the stage. … There are many ways to read and still be effective and still resonate – you learn to perform that way. … I don’t really like to make the distinction.

What do you think is the problem with making that distinction?

It becomes too divisive. It becomes a thing of “Page poetry is better than stage poetry because page poetry is more focused on craft” … In order to perform a poem you have to write it. A well-crafted poem is a well-crafted poem whether it’s performed well or not. … You have to be able to master the conventions of both page and stage and understand the nuances involved in both of those dynamics and how they operate in a very parallel way, but can also be very polarizing, in how you manipulate conventions. That takes time, that takes skill, that takes paying attention to the craft within the writing and to the craft of the performance, and understanding your own body and your own voice … There are so many levels to it. …

Tell me more about your relationship with gummy bears. You like them a lot?

I do, I eat a lot of gummy bears. I actually really need some right now. That would be so grand if there were some at the Spencer Grill.

How did it start?

I don’t know how it started. I just started eating gummy bears and I just kept eating them.

But you think they’re superior to other candy forms?

Yes, it’s like, they’re bears! They’re little tiny bears and you get to bite their heads off. How often do you get to bite off the head of a bear?

So, it’s a small act of feeling powerful?

Yes! Yes, you understand me! It’s a bit of that, but also they just taste good.

You do a lot of work with young people in writing workshops and a lot of your writing is political. How do you think we can help young people become informed and political and passionate?

Listen to them. That’s it. Just listen to them. Listen to what they need. And we need to do more active listening. I think that needs to happen within all people, we’re not active listeners. An active listener is someone who listens to understand, not just to respond, which in turn means that you’re doing a lot more shutting up and listening than talking back. I think if we do more active listening to our young people, that’s the first and most necessary step. I see all the time how much some adults don’t listen to kids and give them a chance to let their voices be heard, and then they get mad when they rebel or do the things that they do which is part of them feeling so stripped of their voice and their identity and their humanity, their rights. Sometimes all it takes is just listening. Sometimes all it takes is, “Hey, I’m here, what do you need? Even if you need someone to just sit here and hear you talk for the next ten hours, I’ll do that.” It doesn’t always necessarily need some sort of punishment or being too rough or being too distant. … Everybody is pretty reachable, you just have to make the effort to listen to that person and have the discernment to know what you’re actually listening to. And that’s something that only gets developed if you’re able to humble yourself enough and see that young person as more than just a body full of hormones that doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about. There’s a thing of ageism, first of all, and then whatever other social constructs it may be — socioeconomic class, background that they come from, race — all of these things play into how much these students are elevated and uplifted or brought down and just not cared about. When I think about the most recent video from the Spring Hill Valley high school and how that happened, there were so many things wrong in that video. That was a reflection of the educational system, that was a reflection of the teacher-student dynamic and how incompetent that teacher is and then it was also evidence of your typical police violence, especially when it comes to young black girls. If we come to a point where we first start actually listening, then from there make the steps toward supporting and doing the work at all times. And doing that work entails a tremendous amount of sacrifice. What are you willing to sacrifice to be able to make sure that that other human being next to you is okay? And a lot of people aren’t willing to do that.