Episode 23: Alice Lovelace - A Peaceful Disrupter
Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes
What is "This Poem" really about?
This poem is a cultural hybrid
And totally irrelevant
What do you mean by Peaceful Disrupter?
I am never happy with the status quo. So, I'm always looking for ways to disrupt the status quo and to move it in a more progressive [way] or [by] empowering those who I see are being left behind.
And that has to happen a lot, they have to be those who make other people uncomfortable, so that in their discomfort they actually deeply contemplate change. Because when we are comfortable, we don't contemplate change.
... I'm a peaceful disruptor. I don't get loud. I don't, I definitely look for opportunities to shift power and to shift the conversation,
What does "asking permission" mean in a classroom?
When I walk into a classroom, the first thing I say to my class is I asked permission to be there. And often the teachers don't understand that, but I will say to the students, “this is your community, and I am an interloper, and other adults have made a decision that I should be here, but the rightful decision-makers are you because you were the one who had the power to make this a success or to make it a failure”. So, I always ask their permission.
How can you fight the power of the false narrative?
I've never forgot the lesson of. Standing up to bullies, not getting into the stories people are telling about you, ...the moment that you try to speak to that story, all it's going to do is keep that story spinning. So, I would never address it.
Alice Lovelace: This Poem is for reading only after I'm dead, as the weight of the words could kill
This poem is full of blood, fornication, guts, and guns
This poem hates nationalists, sexists, racists, factionalists and fundamentalists of all ilk's
However, this poem encourages creative lies when those lies are in line with this poem’s politics
This poem, This poem, This poem is about starvation in Ethiopia, tribal warfare in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, oil workers striking in Nigeria, starvation, re-classification, indoctrination, stagnation, and the return of the colonialists to oversee our freedom
This poem, This poem, This poem is about moving forward but you goin' nowhere, you goin' nowhere, you goin' nowhere
Bill Cleveland: Well, the first time I laid eyes and ears on Alice Lovelace, she was standing in bright blue lights on a stage in Atlanta, Georgia. She was a diminutive presence in a delicate white dress, who, from the second she began to speak, literally took over the theater.
AL: This poem is about arming for peace
While withholding food until those ungodly hordes Recognize the salvation of Capitalists ideals
This poem is about the salvation of Russia...Not
The unification of Europe...Not
The liberation of Africa...Not
This poem shits on other poems
This poem is about psychobabble posing as Art
And Art so fuckin' pure it offends
This poem is about dropping the bombs on Iraq for border aggressions
While patting the Serbs on the back
About boycotting Cuba 'cause they won't be like us
While rewarding China 'cause they won't be like us
This poem advocates shitting on the Queen's English and the Queen
This poem sanctions the shooting of Career politicians on sight
This poem is a cultural hybrid Travelin' everywhere
Irresponsible Irreverent And totally irrelevant
This poem is
About Jesus prostitutes
Trashin' the airwave Foulin' up my system Pissin' on my poverty
This poem is about
About gettin' a fix on the problems Without gettin' your
About Klansmen giving out free ammunition
To convicted felons to protest gun control
About withholding abortion rights to teach those
Unwed teenage welfare cheats a lesson in humility
BC: Well, we weren't referring to it as spoken word back then, but as far as I was concerned, at that moment, in that space, it was THE word. And that word was commanding, no grabbing my attention as though the lyrics to that Screaming Jay Hawkins song were coming true. “I Put a Spell on You”
AL: This poem is about the need
To write poetry while the people
Starve and imagine your words feeding the masses
When in reality, man you just you movin' 'n groovin
Movin' n' grovin' Goin'
Movin' n' grovin'
Goin' Goin' Goin'
BC: But, since then we've become friends, colleagues, collaborators. I have to say. That spell that power to teach the moment to help you see life's vexing puzzle pieces in a new way that reveals something hot, something that will feed you and those you love. Well, that power is still there. If you don't believe me, then just listen up.
This is Change the Story, Change the World, A Chronicle of Art and Community Transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.
BC: Alice and I held our conversation over two days in early 2021. We started with me as the guest on her new podcast, from the Arts Exchange in Atlanta. […] Then, we zoomed on over here to The Center for the Study of Art and Community to record this episode
Part One: Organizing is a Tool of Culture.
BC: Hey, Alice Lovelace.
AL: Oh, there you are
BC: I see you. You haven't aged a bit since yesterday.
AL: Thank God.
BC: Yeah, I want to thank you for just a marvelous conversation, and I just I'm excited that you're doing this show. Tell me a little bit about the show before we start into our regular interview. What, where did come from?
AL: So doing the Arts Exchange and Atlanta, so it was an organization that I helped to found back in 83, 84. We are still going strong. Actually, I retired, went back on the board and sold the building and Grant Park, bought a building in East Point, renovated it and moved us in there.
Once the. virus hit, we had to go with, everything online. And so, they came to me a couple months ago and asked me what I do a podcast, because we'd been doing some little conversations, but they thought that this might build a build on that audience and expand it.
And so, I said, sure I'll do the podcast.
BC: I don't know why they pick a person that's shy as you to do it, though.
AL: Yeah, I have to hold back, my enthusiasm sometimes.
BC: And I actually, I found the same thing. I miss being with my brothers and sisters so badly, and it's just a breath of fresh air to be able to have conversations with people about things other than how bad it is
AL: Amen. And the fact that with this medium, they can be anywhere, like you said, in the country or in the world, and that really expands the pallet. It's great. It is, I'm looking forward to reaching out to a lot of people. Some I know, and some I don't know.
BC: Absolutely. Right. Yeah, absolutely. Let me begin. It's interesting. I have a good friend named Sandy Agustin and she was a principal over there at intermediate arts in Minneapolis.
She's a wonderful artist and she was one of the first people I interviewed, and I said, “Sandy Do you have a street name?” She says “yeah, I got to handle” And I said, “so is it connected to your work?” She said, “Oh yeah, absolutely. They call me the navigator.”
So, Alice if you had one or if you do have one, what would your handle be? What would your street name be?
AL: It's not a street name is one that I only use discreetly, but I think it's one that really defines how I move. And that is, I am a disruptor.
BC: Okay. You want to say more about that and what that means?
AL: Yeah. Yeah. I think a lot of people take that in a negative way, but I am never happy with the status quo. So, I'm always looking for ways to disrupt the status quo and to move it in a more progressive [way] or [by] empowering those who I see are being left behind.
And that has to happen a lot, they have to be those who make other people uncomfortable so that in their discomfort they actually deeply contemplate change. Because when we are comfortable, we don't contemplate change.
So, I know that I am a disruptor. I'm a peaceful disruptor. I don't get loud. I don't, I definitely look for opportunities to shift power and to shift the conversation,
BC: The good trouble, nudge, poke, I'm not going away. This story will not disappear. Let's handle it in the best way possible. You know what it reminds me of… I think about you're a poet, you're an artist. You spend time with yourself. And my guess is a part of your practice is self-disruption.
AL: Yes. Yes. I'm always, I am hypercritical of myself, and in particularly if I've been in a situation, I always go back and I have to ask why did you do that? Why'd you ask that question? Why did you think that was necessary? And yes…
BC: I'm always in the place. Where, when I get self-critical, it's usually like bill, I'm sorry, you have more imagination than that, but you got to get going right?
AL: I think I'm always trying to make sure that what I've done wasn't out of destruction. That it was out of some sense of a movement forward. And if I find myself having said something destructive, I try to say, you can't address it that way. The next time you have to moderate this, so I try to get better at it the next time. So that maybe I get some positive changes out of it.
BC: Yeah. So, for people who don't know Alice Lovelace as a disruptor, what are your tools and how do you put them to use?
AL: I'm an organizer first and foremost. I'm an organizer, and I'm a cultural worker and organizing is a tool of cultural work. Art is a tool of cultural work. These are the tools that I use to move society in different ways. I think people would be most surprised at breadth of the way that I work.
Most people know me as an arts and education, teacher for 35 years traveling the country teaching in jails, schools, churches, senior citizen homes. Anywhere that that they invite me. But then I'm also an organizer. So, I was the national lead staff organizer for the First United States Social Forum. Coordinated and did all the logistics for that. That was 11 locations, 15,000 people in attendance, 2,500 workshops. And I was the head organizer for all of that, that pulled it off and made it happen.
But to me, all of this work is the same work. Even running the arts exchange, managing the sale, managing the purchase of the new building, overseeing the renovations, all of that is a part of that cultural work of building culture, strengthening culture, as a means of strengthening art. And I always remember that these two are intimately connected. So I'm always aware of the cultural environment that I'm in, and what my art can do in that cultural environment. And the role that I can play, and sometimes it's a supportive role, and sometimes if I don't see the leadership that will lead us to success, I will step in.
BC: So, one of your other tools that is one of my favorites things that you do is you are an extraordinary writer. The first moment that I met you was seeing you take over a stage and blowback the eyelids of the people in the audience with your spoken word. Could you talk a bit about your artistry and how that works?
AL: Again, it came out of organizing. I first started writing poetry when I slipped into a really serious depression. But I was only writing for myself. One of the things that helped me when I began to emerge out of it was going to teach at an Episcopal church. They had an afterschool program for youth, and it was the very first time I ever did that. But I stepped in there and I said, I want to volunteer, and I started teaching a poetry class for young people and watching them grow. It helped me understand that writing was all I wanted to do that my depression was not so much a mental depression, as it was not satisfying my own inner self. And from that point forward that said, I will never deny my voice. And I would never deny myself that opportunity, but I never called myself a poet. I actually took great Umbrage to people calling me a poet. I didn't not think it was an honorific.
I am in the oral tradition, and I come out of the oral tradition. I never would publish my poems for took Toni Cade Bambara to finally push me, and push me, to make me write poems down and publish them I thought a poem should be brand new for every audience that every audience deserves to hear something that was crafted for them, and to be between me and them. And know if you weren't there in that audience, then you couldn't share that experience, and I didn't want you to have that experience.
But I began to morph over the years and more and more write down what I was writing and accepted that position. And then when I started teaching in the state arts programs, I definitely embraced it.
BC: Tell me, you weren't born a poet, and you weren’t be born an organizer or maybe you were, but what was the path that led you to knowing that, that was your purpose on this earth is to do those things?
AL: I see it's two little stories. One was, I was born in St. Louis and I had the fortune of wonderful parents. I come from a very large family. My mother was my father's second wife. My father had 17 children. I was his 13th child. But we lived in a neighborhood, and directly across the street from my house, a half a block to my left was my elementary school directly in front of my house was the huge city recreation center, and to the right of that was the high school. Our church was two blocks away and this was an extraordinary and supportive community.
That community center I learned tap dance. Rumba, Samba, I took ballet, I learned modern dance. We had a big Peruvian loom. I learned how to make rugs on a loom. I learned how to crochet. I took acting classes. I traveled the city during the summer doing a theater at other community centers. And so, I actually thought everybody grew up like that. I thought everybody had this opportunity. I never called it art. It was just what we did. And I sang, and I was in talent shows, and that had an extraordinary impact on my not putting barriers on my art. Like I work with visual artists, I work with dancers, and I cross all kinds of lines in art because that's the way it was brought up.
But then when it came to being a writer in my own home, my mother was from Arkansas, only child, very hard life and she did not approve of idleness. So, to sit and write in her eyes was to be idle.
So, we had a walk-in closet, [and] I used to put on my coat and pretend I was going outdoors to play, go to the hallway, sneak down to the closet and all the way in the back of that closet, behind all the coats, I had a little table, and I had my notes, books and paper, and that's where I would go and write.
So, it was a really weird thing in public I was okay to do all of these artistic things. But at home, it was seen as an idleness. And I think that's where my own conflicts of accepting myself as an artist came from.
BC: What was the name of that neighborhood?
AL: I lived in Mill Creek. The first urban renewal project in the nation. The Bay Shaun Community Center was right across the street from my house. I'll never forget it an extraordinary childhood.
BC: It's interesting, the description of your neighborhood as you well know, there are a number of historic African American communities in the St. Louis area, that were very self-sufficient, and had extraordinary resources. They were isolated from the larger downtown community, but amazing institutions, amazing support structure, and I know one thing that's going on in St. Louis right now is that some of those communities are trying to, rekindle and rebuild a lot of that infrastructure. And what you just described is it's what every kid in the world ought to be exposed to as they grow up.
AL: I totally agree. Yes. And then, in those days, your next-door