Artists create safe community through spoken word



Poster of the August 30 “Mouth to Mouth” show at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in Midtown. Photo: AAWW

“My pronouns are he and they,” said the emcee when the show began. “You can also refer to me as pogi, which for the tagalog speaker, means handsome—that’s who I am.”

The person speaking was Kay Ulanday Barrett, who identifies as “transgender, disabled, brown, and poor.” Ulanday Barrett served as the co-host of “Mouth to Mouth,” an open mic event held at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in Midtown on August 31.

Created in 2010 by Sonia Guiñansaca, a prominent undocumented migrant organizer, “Mouth to Mouth” is a monthly spoken word series for marginalized groups to practice their art. For the past few years, Ulanday Barrett and Guiñansaca have curated the spoken word series to be more focused on queer and trans people of color and migrants artists—communities that face increasingly precarious conditions under the Trump administration.

“There aren’t many safe, community spaces centered on people like us,” said Ulanday Barrett. “The first thing that authoritarian regimes take away is art. Art creates counter-narratives.”

For Ulanday Barrett, who grew up in working class Chicago, open mic events were affordable cultural spaces where people like him could express themselves. “Spoken word was that place where we could create storytelling, talk about our bodies, our diaspora, sexism, the struggles our parents face and we face,” he said.

The intimate 30-person enclave was packed for the evening. A Chinese American filmmaker was among the crowd, along with a group of college students supporting their friend on stage.

Giselle Buchanan, a Bronx-born artist, performed first. She said that poetry was essential to the process of healing in traumatized communities. “She makes the wound a light everyone strains their neck to see,” crooned Buchanan into the microphone, lulling the crowd into tranquility.

But the mood went from serious to humorous when Korean-American actor Daniel K. Isaac read from his comedic script about racial dynamics in the gay community. In his play, a white man tells the protagonist that he is not into Asian men. “I’m not racist though, I minored in Ethnic Studies,” said Isaac, in character, drawing laughter from the audience.

Ulanday Barrett noted that Asian American activism has historically been intertwined with black culture, and that spoken word itself has a hip-hop lineage. And the commitment to solidarity could be seen in the night’s diverse array of performers.

A former Tibetan refugee launched a blistering tirade against the Chinese government’s persecution of Tibetans and the difficulties of being a gay refugee in the United States. A black college student likened the necessity of having to change her personality around white people to witchcraft. A Latinx organizer ended her poem with a stirring call to take to the streets in support of migrant rights.

Syrian American writer Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, who read a snippet from her upcoming debut novel, said that she wanted to use art to give a voice to her Arab American community.

“With post-9/11, I think it helps to have those mirrors for people to be able to say yeah, my voice matters, yeah I can see myself as a hero in this story—in my own story.”

According to Ulanday Barrett, “Mouth to Mouth” is not only a safe space for marginalized communities but also a chance for artists to develop and refine their art.

“I don’t want communities in struggle to operate from scarcity—we deserve quality, and quality craftsmanship,” he said. “Anybody can say something at a mic, but to do so in a way that lands, that supports the audience, that supports your communities, that does it with artistry–that’s its own different skill.”