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Alok Vaid Menon. Poetry, Activism and the definition of success.

Updated: Oct 22, 2021




"I do not care where you went to school nor what you majored in, these things are no longer relevant in a world where we are losing some of our most creative and dynamic minds to the epidemic of success"
-Alok Vaid Menon

I was taken aback by a Ted talk Alok made in 2013, long before they became famous for their public activism on gender non-conformity. On the topic of how we define success they were recalling an experience they had in travelling to South Africa to work with the transgender movement and research the disconnect between progressive legislation an the experience of violence on the ground. in returning and being in the final stages of writing the report they found out that one of their interviewees had died. [around 9'15"] The completion of the paper at that point would surely benefit their career but did it really help or impact the actual situation that they were reporting on. How much more does a paper help if people are still dying? "what is the point of a thesis that is inaccessible in the language of the people that it is about?" [around 9'55"] They go on to say "Success is a violent and manipulative process. The thesis committee didn’t care about my ability to create research that was actually relevant to local organisers, let alone my ability to end violence [on the ground]. If anything, my research would have perpetuated violence so that future generations of researchers could come and study it for their own job promotions. Call that a success story." [At 10’55’’] They note that their success in that experience was coming to that point and leaving academia to work in the field.


Link to the ted talk is here:


I have been thinking a lot about competition lately (especially in the art world), what I define as success and where I want to go with my career. Spending a lot of time researching notable and significant artists puts us in a position where we feel in some ways that this is what we are aiming for. to be constantly relevant, to be innovative and fresh. While challenging yourself is a positive thing what is the cost of always wanting to do better? I'm content with constant experimentation and improvement for my curiosity but will I always have the same energy levels for that as I do now? I think in the end all I want to do is make art and don't want to put all my energy into the competition.

perhaps I have a lot more to say about that, and I'm still gathering all my thoughts. For now, I'm really enjoying Alok's use of language to adress emotional disconnect, and the impacts of constantly battling each other.


This is one of my favourite poems:


‘Funeral’ by Alok Vaid-Menon

There is a video of them reading (highly recommended!) it here: https://buttonpoetry.com/alok-vaid-menon-funeral/

our train is delayed and i am late for lunch with a boy i like because he makes me feel
less lonely, and that seems like a sufficient definition for love these days.
in this city where it is possible to be surrounded by the warmth of millions of apartment lights and still feel cold. 
the lights turn off. and it’s one of those moments when we are forced to look up from our screens and remember that we exist outside of them. 
they tell us that someone jumped in front of the tracks. that he died upon impact. so we just sit there in silence as they remove his remains.
and some part of us is happy because this,
this is the first time we have felt like part of something greater than ourselves in a while
in this city where sometimes it takes an accident to remember what the purpose of a
body is to begin with.
when the train starts up again
the woman next to me starts complaining and asking why he didn’t do it at home
how he could have saved us the trouble and time by taking a bottle of pills before leaving the house. how selfish it is to delay others with your death and i want to hug her
say: “remind me the purpose of this arm”
want to love her, say: “remind me the purpose of this heart”
but you see this is america. where people scatter on streets like discarded leaves –
only touching accidentally as we land on these cities we grew up circling on maps
saying  “remind me happiness”
and somehow convinced ourselves they did the same way we believed in the borders between countries so well that we built a wall around them: called it ‘mine’
this is america where pain is a ritual we are required to conduct in private:
an elaborate symphony on mute. 
call it “he died in his sleep peacefully” (as if the stroke did not tear him to pieces)
call it “he lived to be eighty six years old” (as if he didn’t hate himself for at least thirty of them)
call it “accident” not no healthcare
call it “casualty” not calculation
in america:
death is a distraction.
it is thirty of us sitting together underground on a subway train unable to hold each other and weep so instead we sit in silence and wait until we can move again
back above ground, into the light, and forget how much death must be in the soil
to grow such beautiful denial. 
i want to text the boy above ground waiting for me, ask:
“have you ever been to a funeral with complete strangers?” but instead i look at the woman next to me, the one who told a dead man to die more considerately and i remember that to live in america is to attend a funeral with complete strangers:
how many ghosts does it take for a cemetery to call itself a country?
to live in america is to blame the dead for their own death, not the country for creating the very conditions that already killed them before they caught up and
made things more clear which is why when i tell the liberal who wears words like ‘diplomacy’ and ‘democrat’ that i will not pay his taxes
because i do not want my coins to cause carnage and he calls me a terrorist
(i understand)
which is why when i tell him that i do believe in monsters who come
out at night, call them ‘men’ for short
and he tells me that i only dress femme because i want to be bashed
(i understand)
which is why when i tell him that the very women who started our movement
are still being murdered in the same cities where men are getting married and calling it momentous and he gasps: “that happens here? in america!”
(i understand) the ways we have been taught
to apologize for our sadness. to blame ourselves for the hurt. to erase the violence.
to numb the pain. to normalize the death. to wake up in the morning and deny that sometimes when the train crawls into the station that we may see a pill in its place.
that we may wonder what it would mean to have people empathize with our suffering
for once in our goddamn life what it would feel like
to hold the captive attention of a funeral of strangers
so i want to embrace to this woman on the train
and say: “i am afraid too” say: “remind me trust” say: sometimes this silence feels like the highest pitch of screaming. say: i understand. say: these past thirty minutes were the first time i have been forced to publicly grieve death in a long time and there is something beautiful about that
say: what if we stopped moving more often,
took a second to absorb the pain, let it fill us a little less empty.
but instead i will sit here and wait until the train starts up again.
i will exit the car without saying goodbye to her.
i will walk up the stairs to the boy outside with the smile that makes me feel less lonely.
i will apologize for being late.
i will not have the words for a type of loss that is so distant it is intimate.
after lunch later i will get back on the train.
i will remember.
i will soon forget


_________________________________________________________________________________

References:


Vaid-Menon, Alok. Funeral. 2019. poem. Transcript sourced from https://et-alia.tumblr.com/post/126730207738/funeral-by-alok-vaid-menon/amp (Accessed 21/10/2021)


Vaid-Menon, Alok. We Are Nothing (and That Is Beautiful): Alok Vaid-Menon at Tedxmiddlebury, TEDx Talks Youtube, 2013. Acessed from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxb-zYthAOA&ab_channel=TEDxTalks

(Access date: 21/10/2021)








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