Human Writes: Interview with Elizabeth Sampson, Director of the Hands On Stanzas Program by Aidan Forster

"Radioactive" by Jenn Moon (Adroit Journal, Issue 14)

"Radioactive" by Jenn Moon (Adroit Journal, Issue 14)


What was the inspiration for this unique project?

On a daily basis, walking into a school and hearing young people (whether 8 or 15 years old) exclaim “Yes! Poetry!” is an awesome ongoing inspiration.

The program started in the 1990s when the Poetry Center of Chicago staff became concerned with the lack of arts-focused literary curriculum in the schools. The Poetry Center worked with poet and teaching artist Kenneth Koch and the Teachers & Writers Collaborative of New York City, the program on which Hands On Stanzas is modeled, to build this program. Hands On Stanzas has been placing Poets In Residence (our teaching artists) in Chicago Public Schools ever since.

Our initial inspiration continues to be a driving force. In addition, there are few programs in which a teaching artist is with the same students for nearly the full academic year, and this extended length allows the Poet In Residence to build trust and nurture their student’s creative voices in an impactful way.


What do you see for the future of this project? What is the ultimate goal of this project?

Our dream is for a Poet In Residence in every Chicago classroom. In the last few years we’ve added a scholarship program, so schools that can’t afford the program receive it at no cost to them. We’d love to grow the scholarship program to support more classrooms!

Hands On Stanzas is big in our hearts because at once it allows us to provide paid teaching opportunities for Chicago poets, and bring poetry to Chicago’s students. The more working poets and student poets we can support, the better.

If any of your readers would like to see a super cute video of some of our student poets reading poetry about what poetry means to them (their very own Ars Poetica, if you will), you can check it out here, and of course, feel free to support the cause! This video is good for your heart, I strongly recommend a viewing!


Before this, you taught creative practice workshops in Cairo and Sinai in Egypt. How does this compare to teaching in Chicago?

I’ve taught all ages, and in many different educational environments. They all seem to boil down to the same core elements, as a teacher. If I am prepared and eager with my material, but also open and ready to be flexible after meeting my students, if I show up with love and eagerness to meet the other people in the room, things go really well.

My favorite teaching environments are those where my teaching leads to other’s making, and so in that sense, the creative workshops I taught in Egypt (focused on maps and place as creative practice) and the Hands On Stanzas residencies I teach now, are the most fun I’ve ever had as a teacher.


How did you choose the other Writers in Residence for the schools?

We are lucky to have awesome teaching artists that stick around for a long time. Larry O. Dean, Kenyatta Rogers, and Rachel Javellana pre-date my time as Executive Director! Our newest Poet In Residence, Timothy David Rey has that perfect combination that our other PIRs have: years of experience as a teaching artist, and he’s active in Chicago’s writing and performing communities.

We look for working poets with a strong teaching background. As a teaching artist you need knowledge of poetry, but you also need a personality that can walk into a room of 3rd graders, or 8th graders, or sophomores, and hold their attention, have fun, and earn their trust.


Do you have any favorite lines that students have written?

So many! Here’s a few—

After reading “Blake’s” Tyger, this second grader was asked to write a poem to a mysterious animal. One couplet went: “Are you tall like the Sears Tower? / Or small like a tiny doctor?”

The other day I encountered: “I wish I can have all of the watermelons / I wish I can be a god”

Those are from the more humorous end of the spectrum, I love how kids combine two ideas that would be such a non sequitur to an adult, and something beautiful appears in the juxtaposition.

A short poem written by one of Larry O. Dean’s student poets a few weeks ago really floored me:

Body Language
Ibrahim B.

I feel like
being speechless.

Using my body,
you know what that means,

it means


There’s too much to list, but if your readers want more, they can find a whole archive of student work at


Who are your personal favorite poets? Do you find that their particular qualities influence the kind of work you encourage in your students?

Hmm… I have special love for hybrid-form writers, like Bhanu Kapil and Claudia Rankine, and I’m sure their leanings inform my teaching style. One of the exciting things about this program is that I find I can reach way back or go totally contemporary, and the students are game. Sylvia Plath, it turns out, really speaks to people of grade school ages. Before teaching here, I might have thought she was too intense or… adult? But it turns out students love her.


Why does your project focus on students in particular? What, do you believe, is special, about young people and poetry?

This program was built out of the belief that poetry is good for everyone, that creativity is vital to a good education, and that everyone deserves the same resources in their education. Our Poets In Residence, our classroom teachers, and our students know first hand what a benefit it is to the whole community, as well as one child’s life experience. To watch students move from very little confidence in reading towards flourishing self-expression is a gift.



HumanWrites: Interview with Michael Broder, Founder of HIV Here and Now by Aidan Forster

Michael Broder is a Lambda Literary Award finalist and founder of HIV Here + Now, a project that explores the impact of HIV on all of us in the modern world, regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender, or any other category of identity. I was lucky enough to snag him for an interview where we discuss poetry, the project, and his experience with HIV.

Aidan Forster, Assistant Blog Editor: First, tell us a little about yourself. 


Michael Broder: I’m a 54 year old gay Jew, second-generation American of Eastern-European descent. Grew up in Coney Island in a Mitchell-Lama co-op apartment complex (New York State government-subsidized housing for low- and middle-income people). I mention this because in the current resurgence of identity politics I think there’s often an assumption that white Jews from New York of my generation (baby boomers, although I’m what I like to call a late boomer, the 1960-64 birth cohort) all grew up with a certain level of socioeconomic as well as white privilege, and that’s not true, at least not the socioeconomic part. I was poor, as were many of my friends, neighbors, and relatives. We didn’t get braces on our teeth. We didn’t go on vacations. We didn’t go to summer camp. I went to New York City public schools. I went to Columbia University on a Pulitzer Scholarship and paid for my room and board with an American Federation of Teachers College Scholarship, and lots of student loans. I studied comparative literature. I spent my 20s studying Latin, Greek, and Biblical Hebrew while failing to establish myself in any kind of sustaining career. Capped that decade off by getting infected with HIV in 1990 at the age of 29. In my 30s I stumbled from nonprofit management to freelance journalism to medical communications, which means helping drug companies market their products through means other than advertising and public relations, such as physician education. A lot of my work in those years had to do with educating physicians and allied healthcare professionals about the new HIV treatments, and it was good, important work that I was proud of. By 2000, the HIV drug market was becoming much more competitive, and the leaders in the field were shifting their resources from education to advertising. The good work that I was proud of, not so much anymore. I had to get out of there. I had to figure out what I was really going to do with my life. So I leveraged my medical communications background to do freelance medical writing that paid the bills (including health insurance, which I could never be without because I needed my HIV meds to stay alive), while getting an MFA in poetry from NYU and finishing a long-abandoned PhD in classics from the CUNY Graduate Center. I tested the waters of an academic career but by this time the economy was tanking, the academic marketplace was shrinking (for full-time, tenure-track jobs, that is, as opposed to adjunct exploitation), classics was a dying field, and nobody wanted to hire an aging fag whose dissertation was on queer kinship and camp aesthetics in the satires of Juvenal. By 2014 I was profoundly depressed, anxious, and insomniac. But through some kind of grace that increasingly appears to be that of The Power That Created the Universe, plus psychotherapy, clonazepam, and citalopram, I clawed my way out of the hole. In 2015 I started a small independent literary press, Indolent Books, and became active in a number of queer, Jewish, and/or literary activities and organizations. And I started the HIV Here & Now Project.


AF: What drew you to poetry over anything else?


MB: I came late to poetry, as to most things in my life. I’ve written since I was a child, but I was initially drawn to fiction and thought poetry was only something one read if one’s English teacher assigned it. Awful, I know, but that’s how it was. I abandoned creative writing altogether when I was about 18, based on some weird internal homophobia that said, “You only want to write about one thing, Michael, and you know you don’t want to write about that thing because then you won’t be able to keep that thing a secret anymore.” My cover story was that I was more cut out to be a scholar and critic than a novelist. Like my heroes Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, I was going to subvert capitalism through literary criticism and cultural theory. I also had this odd idea that if you left the lights on in your dorm room when you went out to see live jazz downtown, that would ultimately bring about the downfall of capitalism through exhausting the energy supply. Needless to say, none of my revolutionary ideas panned out. But when I was about 28, I suddenly felt fiction welling up in me, and I started to write short stories. Not very many of them. I wrote very slowly. Of course, they were all the gay coming of age stories that I had censored myself from writing ten years earlier. Now I could write them from the perspective of a somewhat older first-person narrator who had finally navigated his coming out process. After a while, however, fiction began to feel like lies, and I wanted to write in a different way. So I did, and after a while, I thought, hmm, could this new way of writing be…poetry? And indeed, it was. And that was December 1991. The poem I wrote that month, the first poem I wrote as an adult, when I was already 30 years old, was published in Assaracus, Issue 17, in January 2015 (“Casual, Anonymous”).



AF: Recently, you’ve been working on the HIV Here and Now Project. What spurred you to start this project? What sort of feedback have you been getting?


MB: I was participating in an LGBTQ reading in Minneapolis during AWP in April 2015, and I noticed that a number of the gay male poets, particularly older gay male poets, including me, were reading poems about being long-term survivors of the AIDS epidemic, about being HIV-positive for a very long time, like, 25 years. I think especially of John Medeiros, the Minneapolis poet who helped organize that reading. But there were others, too. And I thought, huh, this isn’t Marie Howe writing about her brother who died of AIDS, or Mark Doty writing about his lover who died of AIDS, or any of the amazing poets in David Groff and Philip Clark’s incredible anthology, Persistent Voices, who wrote about their own experience of AIDS and are now dead (I’m not going to list even a single one because I don’t have room to list them all; just get the book). No, this is something different. This is we, the poets who didn’t die, the poets who lived, and how about that? What’s that like? And that’s when I decided to do the anthology. But at the same time, I decided I wanted huge breadth—not just old fags like me living with HIV for 25 years, but 22 year old kids newly infected, or on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill you take once a day to prevent HIV infection), or not on PrEP and scared shit they’re going to get infected any day now. People of all races, ages, sexes, genders, geographies, HIV statuses. So I got back to Brooklyn after AWP and started getting out the call for submissions and doing a lot of direct, individual solicitations to as many of my poetry friends and acquaintances as I had or could find emails for or reach on Facebook. And some were down with it right away. But a lot of people didn’t understand what the fuck I was talking about, and responded in ways that I found surprising. That’s not a topic I write about. That’s not something that’s part of my experience. I’m flattered, Michael, that you want to include me, but I don’t have any relevant work. So the feedback has been varied and at times I’ve been discouraged and even angry. But it got better over time, especially after I had the rather brilliant idea of starting the poem-a-day website, which gave the project greater visibility on social media and just gave people something they could actually look at, visit, interact with, experience, and I think it helped give some people a better sense of the possibilities for quote-unquote, “poems about HIV.” And then somehow you youngsters (*bumps his gums*) got a hold of it, which is what I really wanted all along, but I didn’t know how to reach you, and finally, somehow, the word got out, and now I’m getting all this incredible work from high school and college kids, and I’m so happy, and so grateful.  


AF: How has the project changed your idea about HIV in the modern world?


MB: So that’s sort of what I was starting to get to in my answer to your previous question, about the feedback I’ve received. I was already well aware that HIV was not only a major ongoing catastrophe in the developing world, but a persistent public health crisis right here in the United States. We have about 1.2 million people living with HIV today in the US. Of these, about 170,000 don’t know they are infected, and about 755,000 are not on HIV meds. There are 50,000 new infections every year, and the hardest hit group is young black gay men and transgender women in urban centers. So even just in stark epidemiologic and public health terms, it’s a huge clusterfuck. But what I did not realize was the extent to which HIV stigma remains a problem here in the US. How much shame and secrecy remains about having HIV or AIDS. How many people still face discrimination at work, at school, in the community, because of their HIV status. And the lack of awareness among the general public about just how much of a social and public health issue HIV and AIDS still are in 2015. Not only that, but there’s an intense desire among Americans to think of AIDS as a tragedy from the past that is now behind us, and HIV as a chronic, manageable condition whose impact is…well, they don’t even really think about what it’s impact is. It’s just not something they need to worry about. It’s not “their issue.” It’s off the radar.


AF: How has your experience with HIV influenced your writing? How has it influenced other aspects of your life?


MB: As I mentioned earlier, I started writing poetry when I was 30, when I had recently become infected. So whereas the fiction I left behind tended to be about coming out and gay coming of age, my poetry tended to be, implicitly or explicitly, about living with HIV. Even if the poem seemed to be about a young gay man who was sad and lonely, the subtext was that he was sad and lonely ultimately because of living with HIV, losing lovers, feeling like a pariah, fearing for his life, feeling his mortality so very deeply, palpably. It colored the way he looked at his past, present, and future. I survived all of this gay shame, I struggled through so much homophobia, anger and resentment and resistance within my family, and I came out the other side, came out, embraced myself, embraced love, and for what? Only to face imminent death? That’s the poetry. Sometimes it’s hard to say how much of it is really me and how much of it is an invented poetic persona. As far as how it has influenced other aspects of my life—well, on the one hand, I just kind of go about my business: I have a house, a husband, a freelance medical writing career that still pays the bills, a poetry career that is growing and changing, I’m starting to edit and publish as well as write, in fact really I hardly write any poetry at all right now, I’m consumed by The HIV Here & Now Project as a curatorial and editorial and publishing endeavor. And I’m loving it. But on another level, HIV determines everything in my life. I absolutely cannot be without health insurance, so that means I have to live a certain way, work a certain way, make a certain amount of money so I can afford to purchase my own insurance—cuz ain’t no fuckin way I’m ever going back to a day job with a little grey cubicle and fluorescent lights overhead. It influences the sex I have, how my HIV-negative husband fucks me. The blood I cannot donate. The life insurance I cannot qualify for. The babies I could not father biologically (although I hasten to add that preventing mother-to-child transmission has been a great success of HIV medicine). And so on.


AF: Let’s talk about your poetry collection This Life Now, finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Poetry. As it was your first, how was your experience writing and refining your debut collection?


MB: Again I say the story of my life has been one of coming late to pretty much every party. The poems in that book go back to the mid 1990s. I wrote and revised very slowly. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, and I was a mentorship anti-magnet, I had virtually no one to help me figure out which way was up. And then I dropped poetry for a bunch of years while I finished the PhD and worked the academic job market. I’ve been a very black and white, all or nothing thinker all my life—I could never handle being or doing two things at once. I’m working really hard on changing that now, but it took me over 50 years to figure that out. In a sense, I did not write or refine my debut collection. I wrote a different book. One about twice the length with a lot of poems that had nothing to do with gay experience or HIV. Poems about language. Poems about my mother dying. Poems about 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that manuscript spent two years on the contest circuit, like, really really hard on the contest circuit—I think I entered just about every contest there was two years running. And…nothing. Not even an honorable mention. So I just said fuck it and finished my doctorate and embarked on my abortive academic career. Then in 2013, at the Rainbow Book Fair here in New York City, I met my husband’s friend Julie Enzser, who edits the venerable lesbian feminist journal Sinister Wisdom, and who also works closely with her friend Lawrence Schimel, publisher of A Midsummer Night’s Press, whose Body Language imprint features LGBTQ poets and poetry. And Julie said, Michael, Lawrence and I were talking about possibilities for his 2014 list the other night, and your name came up. You should send him a manuscript. And I did. And bless his heart, he yanked out all the poems that did not scream “Body Language,” and sent me what was left for my review, revision, and approval. And that’s how This Life Now was born. Which means there are lots of leftovers from my original manuscript that still need a home between covers. And there are other poems of gay experience and living with HIV that were never included in that original manuscript, that also need a home between covers. So the world should be seeing a couple more chaps or small collections from me in the next couple of years, just clearing out my backlog, before I go on to continue publishing newer work.


AF: What advice do you have for young writers and young members of the queer community?


MB: Wow. That’s a tough one. I feel like you guys already know so much more than I ever did or do or will know about writing and living a queer life. I feel like you guys are much better at juggling than I ever was—identities, roles, interests, commitments. And I hate sounding like anybody’s dad. Or in some cases grandpa! I think what I want to advise is: do what you want to do. By which I don’t mean be selfish or self-centered or inconsiderate. My husband is into Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant (is that I thing? I guess it is now) whose basic instruction is to pick up a piece of clutter and hold it your hands for 30 seconds. If it “sparks joy” you keep it; if not, it’s off to the Housing Works Thrift Store (to support housing and supportive services for people living with HIV/AIDS—that part is me, not Marie Kondo). So when I say do what you want, I mean choose how to spend your time, energy, resources, and passion based on what brings you joy. From your college major and your job and your apartment and your roommates, to how you do your gender, how you have sex, how you interact with your family—base those choices on what brings you joy, and try your darnedest to wash your hands of all the stuff that doesn’t bring you joy, all the people, all the gender conventions or even the nonconventions, all the sex acts and kinds of relationships you can be in, with which people and how many people and on what terms. And don’t expect to make it all work in one day. You kind of spend your whole life figuring all of this out, and that’s fine. Just check in from time to time and make sure that, on balance, you’re moving closer to what brings you joy and leaving whatever doesn’t farther and farther behind. Same for writing. Write how and what you want to, how and what you need to. Put it out there. Some people won’t like it. Fuck ‘em; they’re not your audience. You’ll find your audience. Your audience will find you. Oh, and one other thing. Don’t try to change the world; do seek to make a difference. Changing the world is really quite difficult. Sort of hard to plan for. Making a difference is really quite possible. There so many differences you can make, whereas there’s only one world you can change, so even if you just look at it statistically, seeking to make a difference is a much smarter way to go.


Michael Broder is the author of This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in American Poetry ReviewAssaracusBLOOMColumbia Poetry ReviewCourt GreenOCHO, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other journals, as well as in the anthologies This New Breed: Gents, Bad Boys and Barbarians 2 (Windstorm Creative, 2004), ed. Rudy Kikel; My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them (Terrace Books, 2009), ed. Michael Montlack; Spaces Between Us: Poetry, Prose and Art on HIV/AIDS (Third World Press, 2010), eds Kelly Norman Ellis and ML Hunter; and Divining Divas: 50 Gay Men on Their Muses (Lethe Press, 2012), edited by Michael Montlack. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of feral and stray cats. 


Aidan Forster is a sophomore in high school. He studies creative writing at the Fine Arts Center in Greenville, South Carolina, where he is the managing editor of Crashtest. His work has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and will appear in the 2015 ART.WRITE.NOW.DC exhibit. He is the recipient of the 2015 Anthony Quinn Foundation Scholarship, and the winner of the 2015 Say What Open Mic: Fresh Out the Oven Poetry Slam. His work appears in or is forthcoming from Verse, Polyphony H.S., The Best Teen Writing of 2015, The HIV Here and Now website, Assaracus, Souvenir Lit Journal, Alexandria Quarterly, and (of course) The Adroit Journal. 





Editor Chats: Peter LaBerge & Christopher Soto (a.k.a. Loma) by Peter LaBerge

          Here at the Adroit blog, we’re huge fans of Nepantla, a new journal dedicated to featuring and supporting the work of queer poets of color. We adore the publication’s mission, and share a number of poetry contributors—Xandria Phillips, Eddie Martinez, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, and Chen Chen, among others. When our founder & editor-in-chief crossed paths with Nepantla’s editor, Christopher Soto (a.k.a. Loma), coordinating an interview felt necessary. 


Peter LaBerge, Founder & Editor-in-Chief of The Adroit Journal: First thing’s first, can you share with our readers a quick bit about yourself? How about one sentence (with as much punctuation as you’d like)?


Christopher Soto, Editor of Nepantla: My name's Loma. I’m a messy punk faggot from Long Beach, CA // currently living in Brooklyn, NY.



PL: What brought you into poetry, and what brought you into editing (Nepantla, but also in general)? Was editing something that felt logical, or did you take yourself by surprise?


CS: I was raised by cholas. Hip Hop brought me to Slam Poetry and Slam Poetry brought me to the page, the page brought me into the MFA, and now I’m an institutionalized Kween… It was almost accidental that I started editing… Jameson Fitzpatrick was editing with Lambda Literary at the time. We met at NYU. We got drunk together. Then, Jameson introduced me to William Johnson [ Managing Editor] and I started to more concretely set ideas for the journal… To be honest, when I first began to school at NYU (& editing Nepantla) I barely knew what I was doing. I didn’t know shit about the contemporary poetry community, never heard of Adroit or Lambda or Sibling Rivalry Press or Poetry Society of America… When the other students would take restroom breaks, in between class, I would take my journal and write down all the names of the poetry journals that lined the walls of my classroom. My first class at NYU was with Charles Simic. I hadn’t even read his work… People started to ask me for poems and started praising my work / editing before I even knew what was going on… I didn’t want to publish any poems until after finishing my MFA. It still feels, at times, like I’m running ahead of myself… So much has changed for me, in such a short time.



PL: Have you noticed recently any poetic trends that you think are on the rise?


CS: Stylistically, no. Thematically, yes… Not sure how you would quantify this, but I think more poets are starting to get political, starting to directly say, “Fuck the police” & “Fuck mass incarceration” & “Fuck White Supremacy.” It’s an exciting time… Also, I see a surge in the distribution of trans poetry, which is cool, & I see a surge in internet angst amongst poets, which is less exciting (but a complicated discussion to have within one sentence)… P.S. My observations are based off the last two years, since I've been kicking it with bougie poets.



PL: It’s clear based on the terrific spread of poets in Nepantla’s debut issue, as well as the issue that just went online that you as an editor value diversity within the community of queer poets of color. How did you come to assemble such a wonderful crew for your first issue?


CS: I actually have complicated feelings about diversity. I feel like it’s really reductionistic… I try to pay attention to age, gender, race, etc. but there’s always someone missing. The people who don’t get considered in conversations about diversity are usually those with the least amount of access to publication-- incarcerated poets, homeless poets, working-class poets, etc. I think diversity is important but it has a lot of limits… &&&, pertaining to our first issue, I had a lot of help. I asked a group of QPOC poets in NYC to come together for a meeting about the inaugural issue. We wrote down names of poets to contact and solicit. These journals are a lot of unseen work.



PL: I know some publications that have recently come into the spotlight for publishing problematic work that whitesplains, mansplains, straightsplains, etc. & have said that they read blind and therefore support diversity. Personally, this justification doesn’t feel adequate to me (after all, what if no diverse writers are submitting?). Where does it fall for you? What advice do you have for these publications that hope to introduce diverse voices into future issues, but don’t necessarily know how?


CS: Reading blind doesn’t support diversity, that’s bullshit... If you’re interested in supporting diversity then you should solicit from and build relationships with the communities that you want to include in your journal, then affirmative action their work and make sure that it gets published… I’ve asked for multiple rounds of submissions from some people, I’ve workshopped poems with some people… Solidarity takes work, undoing systematic oppression takes work... I don’t really think that many people understand how truly hard it is for poor brown girls to slay in this community, sometimes.



PL: Let’s shift gears for a moment. I know, in the midst of editing the journal’s second issue, you moved from New York to San Francisco and then back to New York. In what ways do you think your time in San Francisco, or even the moves themselves, influenced your editing process?


CS: I could barely edit or write this summer. (Bummer.) I started canceling readings and shit cuz depression hit me real hard-- dealing with a racist workplace, moving to a city with no friends, sleeping on couches for over two months. Then the police killed two people on the block where I finally found a sublet. My mental, physical, emotional health was not there this summer. Venus was in retrograde, but I'm back in NYC now… Cali is where I was born, but it has seldom held me. When I got back to NYC, my mentor said he knew I’d come back. He said New York is 10 years ahead of the CA… I told him that I’m 10 years ahead of New York… I have no fucking clue how I was able to edit the journal this summer… Now I’m thinking about the materiality of production, all of the material resources, support, privilege that it takes to put something like Nepantla together.


PL: How has being an editor affected your personal creative writing, and vice versa?


CS: Editing allows me to see all of the clichés within my particular community. When I’m reading so many queer folks of color, I start recognizing recurrent themes (that aren’t always prominent in the rest of the literary landscape). I try to avoid those themes in my poems… I’ve also become more thankful for the labor of editors and more conscious about what I submit, since founding the journal.



PL: And, finally, if you could say one thing to the Christopher Soto of five years ago, what would you say?


CS: Five years ago, holy jesus!!! Wow. I would tell myself to be strong, to get the fuck out Long Beach… Fucking shit, I started to cry already…. Peter, I’ve had some hard times in this life… I’m aquarius, I’m sensitive. I would tell myself that there are whole communities that will love and support me. I would tell myself that not everyone hates waking up in the morning, not everyone wants to die every morning, not everyone has to work so many hours, not everyone has a group of dead friends that follow them like ghosts in the hallways, not everyone gets pulled over by the police on their drive to school, not everyone gets pulled over on their bicycle too, & fucking shit, DON’T FALL IN LOVE WITH ALEC… He is the only person in California who is messier than you. Ah, I don’t think that I'd believe myself, five years ago, if I said, “You are going to get your MFA from NYU, start editing a national journal, start publishing everywhere, you’re going to be (generally) happy with life, you’re going to have social and intellectual and creative and financial support. You’re going to become so much more than you think.”

Why Lady Gaga's "Til It Happens To You" Deserves Our Attention, And Why It Deserves It Now by Peter LaBerge

             By Peter LaBerge, Founder & Editor-in-Chief

             Note: Please be advised this article discusses graphic (but important) content.

             The Internet has exploded with the release of Lady Gaga's important, emotional, educational, chilling, haunting, necessary music video for her new song "Til It Happens To You." 

             The song, in tune with its sobering title, calls attention to an issue many in society trivialize or miss altogether: the mass sexual assault of women and men on college campuses. The music video, released earlier this week from Interscope Records, is a perfect example of how art can—and should—be used to expose, affect, and ultimately (hopefully) change minds, college legislature, and the outdated fabrics of society. 

             But the song transcends merely reminding us of the reality millions of sexual assault survivors face on a daily basis. It holds a fiercely important distinction, one easy for the average friend, parent, or co-worker to miss: you don't know how it feels till it happens to you. Gaga's "Til It Happens To You" is an evocative reminder that support is not synonymous with understanding. Because understanding is impossible, and the idea that it is remains dangerous—it is a factor that silences, a hand over a survivor's mouth, a counter-productive force that builds walls around the already-coddled misconceptions of sexual assault and consent in America today. Indeed, true support comes when we recognize that there is only one path to truly understanding the interior landscape of sexual assault survivors, and that resources and education must be made available and open so those who are survivors may connect with each other and obtain help from those who do understand. 

             The video showcases a Gaga that's a far cry from the "Just Dance" songstress of years ago. The song itself was composed by Diane Warren for the incredible documentary "The Hunting Ground," which has been making steady rounds among college students and others since its January debut. Says Warren of the project in an interview with the Huffington Post, "I didn't want to sugarcoat it." In a statement, video writer and director Catherine Hardwicke added, "I hope that this PSA, with its raw and truthful portrayals, will send a clear message that we need to support these courageous survivors and end this epidemic plaguing our college campuses." 

             Brava, Gaga. Brava, Diane Warren and Catherine Hardwicke. This is the exact discussion topic that needs to be raised. This is the exact awareness that needs to be spread. Thank you for using art to open society's ears and give voice to the millions of students silenced right in our own homes, right in our own schools, right under our own caring watch. It is not enough to hope for, pray for, or envision change. This song reminds us of that. 

             The song's haunting lyrics are as follows. Please read them and remember the world of college campuses, and society's treatment of young adult men and women, needs to change, and it needs to change now.



You tell me hold your head up
Hold your head up and be strong
Cause when you fall you gotta get up
You gotta get up and move on

Tell me how the hell could you talk,
How could you talk
Losing till you walk where I walk,
This is no joke

Till It happens to you, you don't know how it feels, how it feels
Until it happens to you, you won't know, it won't be real
No it won't real
I know how it feels

Till your world burns and crashes
Till you're at the end, the end of your rope
Till you're standing in my shoes
I don't wanna hear a thing or two from you, from you, from you

Till it happens to you
You don't know how I feel, how I feel, how I feel
Until it happens to you, you won't know, it won't be real
No it won't real
I know how it feels
Till it happens you
Happens to you
Happens to you
Happens to you
Happens to you
Till it happens you
You won't know how I feel

HumanWrites: Interview with Richard Lubben of the South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit by Amanda Silberling

By Eloise Sims, Human Rights Correspondent

South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit

South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit

The South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit is an annual exhibition of human rights art from around the world, which has been running for ten years, seeking to express beliefs and ideas on human rights, social justice, and environmental issues through the powerful medium of art. Richard Lubben is the juror and coordinator of this annual display. We caught up with him to ask a few questions about this exhibition’s achievements, aims, and hopes for the future.


Eloise Sims: So, what inspired you to create this exhibition?

Richard Lubben: So, I was having a conversation with our Women’s Studies Committee President- who is a political scientist, and an activist- and she organizes human trafficking and human rights conferences, every year, at our college. She’s a photographer and an arts enthusiast as well as what she does in her discipline, and we were talking and you know… I just said, “Well, I can throw together an art exhibit in a couple of weeks, just with the people that I know.”

This was about ten years ago. So there was really something last minute, just, you know- “Let’s do it!” And it worked out!

The first one was about women in war. And then we started finding ways to include more artists, and broaden the conversation, and so I decided to expand it to human rights in general. Next year, I want to expand it even further, and focus a little bit more on environmental issues- to just broaden the conversation again.

So it was really just a collaborative project that started in a casual conversation that just took people who wanted to do something collaboratively. It just really was an unexpected blessing, I guess, because it began to involve a lot more people than what I anticipated.

Not My Country,  Bart Vargas (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 

Not My Country, Bart Vargas (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 

ES: And with this involvement of lots of different people, what would you want to achieve through your exhibition?

RL: That’s actually a fairly common question. Ideally, of course, you know, change the world and everything! And then everybody will be happy and work together and world peace and everything…. But realistically, you think about it as if you just plant a seed sometimes. Just starting a conversation, having someone thinking about an issue or a topic from someone else’s point of view. Something else that is interesting when I think about art is that you can often diffuse anger to some extent, or prejudice, or hate, or many things. We all have very strong opinions about politics, or religion, or many other things, which these artists are talking about. But often in a clever and very unique way, artists can open a person’s eyes or their heart to an image through originality. And they start to plant that seed to start thinking about, you know, “Maybe this person might have a good point of view” or “Maybe I’m not necessarily right about something” or “Maybe my prejudices are outdated and no longer needed in this world.”.

And so I think, realistically, if you can just open your eyes and your heart to some subject that you didn’t before, which would be something great out of the show. Ideally, the more people that collaborate in these exhibits, the more likely it is that something on a large scale could happen. I am working with some really great advocates for human rights, with scholars and artists, and some of the things that people in this show do is just amazing and brave.

I imagine you have heard on the news about the border here- between Mexico and the United States- the cartels, and the human trafficking. It’s a very dangerous area in many ways. When you challenge these subjects that are connected with huge amounts of money and power- corruption is pretty rampant when you would think, “We’re in a modern world”. You would think that there isn’t that much corruption but there really is, even in developed countries.

So I guess, in short, any positive step or opening the minds of anyone is something I would like to achieve, but of course, ideally, something more grandiose would be excellent as well.

Set Up,  Ellie Iranova  (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)   

Set Up, Ellie Iranova (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 

ES: I guess that makes Texas a really great place for the exhibition, firstly because it’s so close to Mexico, with the border disputes.

RL: That’s a good comment.

ES: Where do you see the exhibition going, ideally, in the future?

RL: It seems to get bigger every year. The quality of artwork, I think, is getting better every year as well, as more people hear about it. It is judged, so not everybody gets in. It’s interesting because I think there’s not a huge group of artists working in human rights and social justice issues. However, it is growing. Ten years ago, I think there were fewer artists, now, I think, in contemporary art, more interest seems to be opening up in human rights and social justice art, as well as environmental art, of course. So I see it more as in, maybe, traveling exhibits in the future.

We have a pretty large permanent collection of over 50 artworks from generous donations from human rights artists, and so, in the spring, it’s travelling to Texas Tech University, which is a major university in Northern Texas. We displayed it at the Human Rights Centre in the University of Ottawa, in Canada, last year. I’m running a grant to hopefully bring it to Mexico, and ideally focus more on collaborating with local communities- civic engagement. I think if we leave it here, where I am, at the border, that’s fine- but going back to your first question, it really has a lot more power if it travels, and when it involves more people. When you have the local people of a community involved in an exhibit, it becomes a much more interesting conversation, and a much better collaborative project. Ideally, I would like to travel the exhibit internationally, if the funding ever happens with that. That’s always a bit difficult.

ES: Does your exhibition center on a particular annual theme or do you just display what you think is suitable?

RL: It started out with an annual theme. Like I said, the first one was about women in war, the second one was focusing on human trafficking, and then on the third annual exhibit we opened it up to general human rights. I don’t focus on any particular theme- I do like to include the biggest variety of subject matter possible, just because not everybody is interested in one particular theme. There are so many different subjects to consider and talk about. But I would really like to focus a little bit more on environmental issues in upcoming years- not necessarily to put a priority on that, but to encourage more conversation about the environment. Particularly here, on the border, as we’re in Texas, and it’s a big oil state. We’re not really the best when it comes to environmental concerns, unfortunately. I would like a little bit more of a conversation about sustainability, and the environment, but of course not taking away from the human rights issues.

Raw Edges Dresses of Emotions,  Deborah McEvoy  (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)   

Raw Edges Dresses of Emotions, Deborah McEvoy (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 

ES: That’s great. So, the last question is- and this is sort of one for our readers, as they’re young artists themselves- do you have any advice for young artists, particularly those who are really interested in human rights art?

RL: Yeah, sure. I mean, in general, with any artist, its important to be faithful to what you want to do. I remember, when I was a student, I was always thinking about- what to paint, what to create, and what would sell. Every artists needs to make money and a living and everything. But what I found throughout my life and seeing other artists, is that, if you’re faithful to yourself and what you believe in, as far as subject matter and concepts that are important to you- and if you are interested in human rights and social justice themes- then continue with that. Don’t try to find something that you think will sell, because often it will show that you’re not interested in that subject matter. But if you are interested in something that is very profound and important, such as human rights, continue with that. You will find a market and a way to survive, or a future job. I think that’s good advice for any art student or career. If you’re in a field that you really enjoy, and that you have passion for, you’re most likely not going to have a miserable career and life.

All Images Courtesy of Human Rights Art Exhibit

If you would like to learn more about the South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, please visit

HumanWrites: Sofia Roberts of Amnesty International Writes Letters for Justice by Amanda Silberling

By Joanna Moley, Human Rights Correspondent

Here at Adroit, we are passionate about supporting organizations that use the arts to promote change and further the pursuit of global human rights. I was lucky enough to speak with Sofia Roberts, a student at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, who uses art and writing to try to change the world for the better.  

Amnesty International is a global organization that uses various peaceful methods to fight injustice, and in particular, wrongful imprisonment. Sofia and her amazing, student-run Amnesty group show us what it means to take matters of human rights violations into our own hands. Through letter-writing, chalk-drawing, and other methods, Sofia and her peers are working to improve the world while embracing their creative sides. In our inaugural HumanWrites feature, Sofia speaks to us about the impact of snail mail, girl power, and the importance of her organization.

Joanna Moley, Human Rights Correspondent: How did you become involved with Amnesty International?

Sofia Roberts, Amnesty International: My mum joined our local Amnesty group when I was very young so I grew up around them. I started out just sitting at fundraising concerts stamping people’s hands, and helping out at collection day. The people in the group were hugely inspiring and really made me passionate about human rights.

JM: Is your AI branch student-run?

SR: It’s 100% student run. Occasionally we ask Amnesty International New Zealand’s head office for resources or permission to do something, but all the meetings are run by and participated in by university students.

JM: Letter writing is an art form. Do you have any advice for writing effective lobbying letters?

SR: Amnesty International has some pre-prepared letters on their website which I would recommend looking at. Essentially, lay out clearly what the problem is and what you think the desired outcome should be. Be firm but polite. Usually I say, “I am very concerned about [problem], [state why you think this is wrong, try using laws to back it up, e.g the Universal Declaration of Human Rights], I urge you to [clearly state desired outcome]. Also, if you’re writing to an authority figure, make sure to check the title you should use (your excellency, sir, etc).

JM: Do you think that the fact that letter writing/snail mail is a dying art form adds to its strength as a tool for lobbying/protest?

SR: I think there is something powerful about letter writing as a medium. Amnesty International mostly uses letter writing for prisoners of conscience (people who have been wrongly imprisoned, usually but not always on religious or political grounds). There’s something powerful about the captors being bombarded with hundreds of letters. It’s such a statement, basically making clear that the world is watching them and they won’t be able to unlawfully cut corners.

JM: Have you or any of your group members ever received responses to your letters?

SR: Not personally, but a lot of released prisoners do thank Amnesty International supporters for their efforts. Probably the most high-profile example being Aung San Suu Kyi*, who said that Amnesty International had “helped [her and fellow prisoners] to keep [their] small wick of self-respect alive.”

JM: Do you write letters to prisoners, government officials/prison administrators, or both?

SR: Basically both. It really depends on what contact details Amnesty chooses to put up on their website. We either write to prisoners letting them know that we know what has happened and that people are working on freeing them, or we write to the government officials calling for their release.

JM: How have your group’s letters and actions helped to enact change and further human rights?

SR: Amnesty International actually has a pretty good record of getting prisoners released via letter writing. One of the ones I remember was Ahmed Zaoui**. My Amnesty group back in Napier was one of the groups that had written to the New Zealand government urging them to release him. Though I was quite young, I remember him being released and thanking Amnesty supporters for their help.

JM: What has been your most rewarding or exciting experience as part of Amnesty International?

SR: Last year an Amnesty group at Wellington East Girls’ organized a chalking event, and they involved Amnesty groups from other high schools and Victoria University. It was part of Freedom Challenge week, which is basically an annual, themed event where young Amnesty groups fundraise and campaign throughout the week. Last year’s theme was women in Egypt, who had mostly been overlooked during the revolution despite incredibly alarming sexual violence statistics. Everyone met at the bottom of one of the main streets in town and we chalked drawings, slogans and statistics all the way up the street. For me it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had with Amnesty because it garnered immediate attention from the public and raised a lot of awareness. It’s nice to see a group of young people not afraid to just roll up their sleeves and educate people.

JM: Do you have any advice for young people who want to get involved with human rights activism?

SR: Amnesty International groups are a great way to start. Being an international organization, there are community groups all over the world, and it’s an amazing way to get educated and make a difference, even if it’s just meeting monthly to do some letter writing at a potluck dinner.

*Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese politician who was placed under house arrest by her country’s military leaders for almost 15 years because of her commitment to democratic government.  Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and has also received numerous other awards for her activism.

**Ahmed Zaoui is a member of the Islamic Salvation Front who suffered imprisonment in both Algeria and New Zealand (where he tried to seek asylum).  Zaoui and his party were persecuted by his government, which eventually led to civil war within Algeria.  Zaoui was granted citizenship in New Zealand in May of 2014, and his 2005 book of poetry titled Migrant Birds (containing poems inspired by his imprisonment) has received significant critical acclaim.