Joe Brookhouse recently connected with poet, artist and performer Evan Dunn. Evan touches on his heart and passion for poetry and the realities of sharing publicly in both Christian and secular environments. He also shares what it means to be a poet in the realm of Poetry Slams and the many subcultures that surround them. Let’s join the conversation.
Joe: Introduce us to Evan Dunn. What are you passionate about? Why is poetry your outlet?
Evan: Raw. Vulnerable. Honest. Those are all pretty similar words, but they capture both what I am passionate about as well as why performance poetry is my outlet. I have always had deep respect for anyone who shares something painful they’ve experienced, especially in a compelling manner.
Step into any poetry slam – anywhere – and you will hear that. The cry of the human heart for the comfort of Someone Who Can Fix Everything. I can’t put into words how much it means to me to be able to join these poets on stage, and cry out with them.
Joe: You are a featured poet on Phil Long’s Sacrificial Poet Project (SPP). How did you get connected with SPP? From your own perspective, why is SPP so important?
Evan: I met Phil around the time his brain started sprouting this brilliant idea. We performed together at a Christian pseudo-poetry slam (it’s not really a poetry slam when the audience has a homogeneous worldview and votes only for people who agree with them). That event really characterized the blind spot that is too easy to develop for Christian poets. Perhaps even Christian artists in general.
SPP is crucial — not in itself, but in its mission. It is crucial that our culture see we are not insular, self-absorbed, devoted to ourselves. I can name several Christian poetry organizations that band together, perform at churches, sell to Christian crowds, and call it ministry. I do think there is a place for building up fellow Christians, but I also look at Acts and see a community of Christians equally devoted to being a part of the larger community and building relationships with non-Believers. The Christians artist culture weighs heavily on one side of that spectrum.
Our goal is really to keep doing what we’re doing — getting involved in the local slam poetry scene, writing excellent poetry about many topics (including, but not limited to, faith), and making friends. What goes beyond that (such as making disciples) is out of our control, but certainly a part of our hearts.
Joe: You indicate in your SPP profile that you don’t write much “fun” poetry. What IS fun poetry and why don’t you write it? What do you write about?
Evan: I have a difficult time writing happy poetry – I think that’s what I mean by “fun.” I don’t see many poets who write happy poetry much of the time.
To me, though, it’s all about the ending. The story arc. Conflict builds to a boiling point and settles out into Resolution. The Conflict is where I relate to the audience, because, as one poet I recently heard put it: “We’re all in this messed up world together.” The Resolution is where I ultimately differ from the audience, but I’m not going to put that in every poem, so some poems end within the Conflict. Just like some people end life within the Conflict.
The topics I write about are violence against women, how much I suck, how much the Christian Church is broken, societal privilege, my lovely wife, and this crazy and amazing man-God-person called Jesus.
Joe: Seattle, WA is your hometown. What’s the makeup of the poetry slam community in the Seattle area? How is the subject matter of your work received by that community? Tolerated, encouraged, rejected?
Evan: Good question. There are multiple niches with the poetry slam community here. The majority of them are ethnically diverse. But there are a couple spots where the scene is mostly comprised of LGBTQ community members.
Because my subject matter varies, the response I get varies. At times it is tolerated, at time encouraged, and one time it was rejected (more on that in the next answer).
But I need to tell you about their poetry. My heart has been lifted up and thrown down, twisted and turned and torn to pieces (all good things) from the stories many of the LGBTQ poets tell. I am crying just thinking about it. Some of them write so powerfully about their experiences – the rejection, the abuse, the confusion – that by the end of the poem, I love them. The vulnerability is sacred.
One poet recently performed a poem about how his boyfriend was part of some sort of gang, and the gang forced his boyfriend to beat him.
Then I think of Jesus. Beaten by the ones he loved.
Why did some Christians ever think to separate the church from these people?
Joe: Much of your work could be considered quite provocative – for example, “Heterosexuals: An Abomination in the Sight of God”. How is your poetry received in an exclusively Christian circles? Do you deal with any friction or backlash? How do they respond to your approach in engaging non-Christians?
Evan: People have a tendency to hear what you’re not saying. I was concerned with my last answer that some people would hear what I wasn’t saying. But I still needed to say it.
In exclusively Christian circles, there are people who get it and people who don’t. The ones who get it are quiet. The ones who don’t are loud and obnoxious, or passive-aggressive. I think the Christians who give that backlash think I’m somehow compromising something. “Stand firm” means, to them, “Combat the culture.” As if the Kingdom of God was “of this world”. I think of Jesus in the garden, shouting at Peter to put down his sword. “Shall I not drink the cup that my Father has given to me?”
The title: “Heterosexuals: An Abomination in the Sight of God” points out the simple truth that we all are an abomination to God apart from Jesus, and that the main thing the Bible calls an abomination is arrogance.
At no point do I engage the question of whether homosexuality is a sin – and I know that’s tricky, not to engage it – but some people on both “sides” hear what I’m not saying. That was what happened when it was rejected. I ended up publicly apologizing – not because my message was misguided, but because I did not communicate well enough what I meant. And that is something many of us Christians need to apologize for.
As far as the response from Christians, I consider it worth it to let some get angry for the sake of the few who understand.
Joe: SPP’s motto is “Promoting Faith Conversations Through the Art of Spoken Word Poetry”. How does that play out in in an area that is widely considered to be one of the most unchurched in the US?
Evan: It plays out interestingly. I see a good number of other Christian poets in the city, few of them engaged in anything beyond the Christian subculture, and the ones who are engaging the culture have a bitter taste in their mouths, it seems, from the Church and other Christians.
Sometimes I feel alone in the hunger, the weeping, the praying for God to change all these poets – Christians and non-Christians.
A friend of mine put it well recently when he said that we live in a “Post-Christian” society. Many people (in my generation especially) think they’ve been there, done that. Christianity? Old news. Unless you change it to make it fit nicely here, it’s old news.
What we do with the SPP – it’s not “hiding” our faith. I’ve been accused of that. It isn’t espionage. But it isn’t culture war either. Both of those mindsets miss the fact that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” – Ephesians 6:12
I do not fight the non-Christian poets I interact with. I love them, deeply and sincerely. I apologize to them when I make a mistake. I write to them knowing what would hurt them and what would encourage them. I respect their perspectives, even if I do not always agree. Often I do agree.
What we do at the SPP is communicate truth with love: we care about our audience, so we speak their language rather than the Christianese we were brought up speaking. We cling firmly to the truth we know in Jesus, while presenting it well. We try to be as “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” – Matthew 10:16. (That verse is my motto).
Joe: Tell us how best to connect with you and to support your work.
Evan: That’s a very kind question. There are a few ways:
2) Donations. I know that is out-of-the-blue, but we are set up to take donations as an organization, or for individual poets – through www.sacrificialpoetproject.org. It takes a lot of time to write good poetry and perform it – 10-20 hours a week. It’s a part time job. One of the main goals of the SPP is to get us poets funded so we can afford to spend that time.
3) Check out other SPP poets – Marty Schoenleber (www.youtube.com/collectorx91), Gypsee Yo (www.youtube.com/gypseeyo), and Adam Skinner (you can watch his video on sacrificialpoetproject.org). They’re great. They work hard.
If you’re in Seattle, let me know through www.evandunnpoetry.com. I’d be happy to take you to a poetry slam. There is nothing like them.