Humberto Ak'abal, "If Birds"

Truth be told, in a world where noise-cancelling headphones are needed, the "mic drop" appears profoundly countercultural.

Humberto Ak'abal, "If Birds"

Welcome! I've got a few things to share

Parker Molloy on the SCOTUS confirmation hearings is a concise and devastating summary of what we've witnessed. She lists all the GOP absurdity and cruelty: attacks on trans people, attacks on gay rights, affirmation of QAnon conspiracies, attacks on women's rights, attacks on the notion people of other races have rights... you get the idea. From her write-up:

There’s a reason Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been trying to get his GOP colleagues to stay quiet about what they actually believe in agenda-wise. It’s because this is it: absolutely off-the-wall bonkers nonsense that will gut the legal protections of millions of Americans while shouting conspiracy theories.

You'll want to read the whole thing. She's not happy with how media in general is covering this. A lot is being done to make it look like Republican Senators seem like reasonable people as opposed to drunks who need their car keys taken away.

On another note (no pun intended), I've got music. If you want to see a countertenor make hitting the high notes look easy while making every breath count, here's Andreas Scholl performing Handel's "Ombra mai fu." If you want something more contemporary, Robert Glasper's "Why We Speak," ft. Esperanza Spalding & Q-Tip just blew me away when I heard it on the radio.

As always, thank you for subscribing, and please do spread the word about the newsletter. I've discussed a wonderful short poem below which I know I'll be using in future classes or presentations. Humberto Ak'abal's "If Birds" is electric, take a look:

Humberto Ak'abal, "If Birds"

The dream of the "mic drop" moment is ubiquitous. You get up there, say one thing, drop the microphone. Everyone's mind is blown because you spoke the truth they had not realized. You did it with supreme confidence. Now they must go out and change the world because of that revelation.

At first glance, it does seem strange that high schoolers giving presentations aim for "mic drop" moments. They watch YouTubers and streamers who excel at explaining how to do things or make banter. They listen to podcasts where stories take considerable time to unfold. But if you're presenting on an important topic, and you had to memorably say what made it important to you, the "mic drop" can become a fixation. Truth be told, in a world where noise-cancelling headphones are needed, the "mic drop" appears profoundly countercultural.

Except it isn't. Talk shows, roundtables, and politicians use a number of rhetorical techniques closely related to the "mic drop." They're looking for sound bites, for short clips which can go viral. (Related: this photograph of Senator Ted Cruz checking Twitter.) So they'll say anything, as long as it has a damning, final sound. Lawyer-like argumentation abounds, where the things you contend can contradict one another, as long as they create a feeling. Being quotable takes precedence over making sense. The cumulative effect is propaganda, as those in power somehow manage to maintain and even expand their reach while this passes for deliberation. The "mic drop" itself envisions an end to all this, a brief moment where the scales drop from our eyes. Unfortunately, we're being hit with mini-"mic drops" all the time. Something may not be quite right with this approach to truth.

If Birds
Humberto Ak'abal

If birds
wrote down their songs

they would have been forgotten
long ago.

So how should we understand "If Birds," a poem which is a "mic drop?" We can imagine someone walking up to an open mic, saying this, then sitting down, bringing stunned silence to the room. "If birds / wrote down their songs // they would have been forgotten / long ago" is an effective, elegant statement. Counterintuitively, I believe it is worth exploring this as if it were far more than a declarative sentence with a plain meaning. This "mic drop" introduces a powerful mystery as if it were the only thing worthy of wonder.

The puzzle begins with writing and memory. That's the literal text. Birds don't write down their songs, so we treasure them, and they live to sing them. At this point, the puzzle explodes into a million other questions. The identification of bird and song is incredibly tight, leading to questions of authenticity and originality. A bird may sing a song that was sung once before, but it does not matter if the bird knows that or not. It sings like its life depends on it. This is an authenticity which is hard for me to grasp, as people often lie going to and even beyond the grave. And the originality involved is not dependent on anything novel except that bird's own life.

Is there a lesson for those of us who want to create? Right now, I'm focused on the singularity of bird and song. How some people are caught up in the belief that something is truly meant if only offered once. Not exactly carpe diem, which relies on a use-it-or-lose-it logic. I'm thinking more of the inhuman level of trust young lovers demand of each other. Where they'll demand another person exactly match their vision or their dreams. A bird's song can be beautiful and unforgettable, but that's partly because it speaks to the wideness of the world, not the magic we want for our own lives. Still, there's a link between a bird's authenticity and our misguided ideas.

The mistake, for us, is believing our sincerity to be the same thing as integrity. That we're somehow too good to ever experience pain. I can see how we radicalize ourselves. What the bird represents is different, but if I believed everything was the soundtrack to my life, I wouldn't understand it. There are times you must be your words and nothing else. Where what you say, where you, are unforgettable. Those times can't be trusted to any system, like writing or ritual. They depend, crucially, on you.

This doesn't go much further. We're not birds. And birds are not descendants of some mythic purity personified (speaking of which, I need to wash the car, because you know). It doesn't have to go further. I've got a powerful impression of Humberto Ak'abal as a poet and thinker now. The "mic drop" leads to repetition and reflection, to change in a quieter, slower, and deeper sense. For a moment, I can imagine an audience like birds, listening to a song.