We Are Our Best Things

For National Poetry Month, Indiana poet Chantel Massey shares the inspiration for her work.

Massey is a poet, author, teaching artist, educator, and anime lover based in Indiana. Massey has received fellowship and retreat invites from Open Mouth Poetry, Hurston/Wright Foundation, and The Watering Hole. She is a Best of Net Award nominee and 2020 Indiana Eugene and Marilyn Glick Author Awards Emerging Author finalist for her first collection of poetry, Bursting At The Seams (VK Press, 2018).  Massey founded the poetry organization, UnLearn Arts , serving to inspire underrepresented writers through a Black classic and contemporary arts-centered curriculum. 

These days there two quotes that are heavy on my mind. The first is by Audre Lorde:

“We live in a world full of the most intense contradictions and we must find ways to use the best we have — ourselves, our work – to bridge those contradictions, to learn the lessons that those contradictions teach & that is the work of the poet within each one of us — to envision what has not yet been & to work with every fiber of who we are to make the reality and pursuit of those visions irresistible.” 

– Audre Lorde

The second quote is by Mitchell L.H. Douglas who says,

“Poetry, all art, really, is supposed to improve our quality of life”

– Mitchell L.H. Douglass

These words confirm for me that there are two things that we will need to face many of the issues we’re experiencing in today’s world: We need each other, and we need creativity. 

What role does poetry play in this? Amanda Gorman said, “Poetry is always at the pulse of the most dangerous and most daring questions that a nation or a world might face.” Poetry has always played a catalytic role in movements of change throughout history. This is proof that language can be a weapon, but for who or what is it being used for – are important questions. Whether that be through poetry on the page, stage, or using poetry as a way of bringing people together to advance the voices of the community through poetry workshops. 

When I think about UnLearn Arts – the organization I founded dedicated to the creative and professional development of writers in the Black diaspora – my hope is that it will make spaces for BIPOC writers in Indianapolis that are more reflective of the communities and voices that are part of the ecosystem here. I also imagine that the mission and work of UnLearn Arts will not only expand through the Midwest but nationally and internationally. 

Poetry is important to communities because it allows us to interrogate language and how it can limit us and why, by asking when we use these words or take away how someone defines themselves, who does this help and why? 

Poetry allows us to be curious about ourselves and our futures, and it allows us to imagine. It allows us to reclaim and it allows us to do it truthfully and together. By truthfully, I mean it gives us the opportunity to be truthful with ourselves about ourselves. Us being honest with ourselves will also aid us in mental wellness like bell hooks says, “commitment to truth-telling is the first step to self-recovery.” Recovery from the things that hold us back or that hurt us. Once we can recover ourselves, we can show up better for our community and the people we love, but the radical revolutionary act must start within us first.

As Black woman, practicing Afro-futurist, educator and poet in Indianapolis, I am in a consistent space of imagination and questioning. The question I am really wrestling with is: what is the relationship/history between Black people and Indianapolis, what can it be and how can that happen? I think it starts with creating more spaces that value Black and brown voices.

One way I hope to tackle that is through UnLearn Arts. I started the work of the organization because I was looking for that space myself and could not find it, so I made it and found people who also had a desire to find themselves in a similar space. It started out focusing on Black women and non-binary persons, but is forever evolving, much like me and my work. 

I hope when someone reads my work, they see my growth and in turn feel inspired to continue to chase after their best self. And if they are a poet, I hope they continue to write, because the world needs them now more than ever. 

We cannot change what we cannot imagine and what we do not interrogate — we are our best things.