by Max Sparber in

Let me introduce you to two poems. The first is titled “Swingset,” and is by a poet named Andrea Gibson. As poets go, Gibson has some cache – she was the first winner of the Women’s World Poetry Slam, and, to quote her bio, Gibson’s poetry “has been featured on the BBC, Air America, C-SPAN, Free Speech TV and in 2010 was read by a state representative in lieu of morning prayer at the Utah State Legislature.” She has a CD of her poetry out just now, called “Truce,” and it is her fifth.

Her poems often address questions of gender and sexuality, and “Swingset” addresses both. She is a former preschool teacher, and the poem addresses her recurring experience of children questioning whether she is a boy or girl, and deciding it doesn’t matter. She parallels this with adults, whose challenges have a sense of real threat to them. She describes being challenged when she uses a women’s bathroom: “Sir, sir, do you realize this is the ladies room?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do,” she responds. “But … I didn’t feel comfortable sticking this tampon up my penis in the men’s room.”

The second poem is called “Same Love,” which is a Macklemore song about growing up and performing in the shadow of homophobia that begins “When I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay, 'Cause I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight.” You may have heard it recently – it was performed at this past year’s Grammys, and has repeatedly been remixed and revisited, its message becoming a conversation. There was Angel Haze’s version, as an example, which replaces Macklemore’s abstract fears of being gay with the more direct experience of it:

"At age 13, my mother knew I wasn't straight / She didn't understand but she had so much to say / She sat me on the couch looked me straight in my face and said / You'll burn in hell or you'll probably die of AIDS."

I mention this because both have become news in Omaha, but, in the manner of a lot of news, the controversy is reported at the expense of the content. The story is not terrifically complex, and I quote the World-Herald: The Nebraska School Activities Association has asked a state champion from its speech contest to change the content of his poem before recording it for a television program.

Here, I suspect the word “asked” is misused; I would guess it was not so much a request as a command. The student in question is Michael Barth of Gordon-Rushville High School, who was a first-place prize-winner at a state high school speech tournament. This would ordinarily net the winner a spot on Nebraska Educational Television’s “Best of the Best” program; in this instance, with these poems, it won’t.

"We don't want to use a showcase for the best of the best to promote personal agendas," the World-Herald quotes an administrator, a sort of official statement that masks more than it reveals. Is this really the policy of the Nebraska School Activities Association? Will they exile all speech that promote personal agendas, whatever that nebulous phrase means?

She is paraphrased later as saying broadcasting the speech might give the indication that NSAA endorsed the speech and this might cause controversy.

And that second part, I think, is the crux of it. It’s a decision rooted in cowardliness, and I think it is shameful. You cannot on one hand encourage students to explore the power of public speech and then deny them that speech when its power becomes controversial. You cannot reward them for their excellence in speech and then tell them that the public will punish, in some ill-defined way, if that speech is heard by too many, or by the wrong sorts.

And I mention the content, because I think it is useful to discover what, precisely, the administrators find so threatening. A poet whose work was read in lieu of morning prayer at the Utah State Legislature. A popular hip hop artist whose work has been at the top spot on the Billboard chart – and the very song that NSAA find too challenging has worked its way to #11 on those charts. The very song that has been on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, and, as I mentioned, the 56th Grammy Awards.

(Note: There is the possibility that Michael Barth performed something other than the Macklemore song of the same title; news stories haven’t been very detailed in this regard. However, given the description of the contents, the Macklemore song seemed the most likely match for the banned poem.)

I cannot imagine the reasoning behind disallowing these pieces from the “Best of the Best” show. They already have met the NSAA’s standards for community decency and excellence; the Lincoln Journal-Star notes that the versions performed by Barth removedany offensive language (one imagines the penis reference was absent). There may be a reason beyond fear, but, if there is, it hasn’t been clearly articulated. These are relatively mainstream poetry pieces, challenging only in that they directly address homophobia. The likeliest people to object to these poems are homophobes, and should we be capitulating our sense of excellence in speech to them?

No, there is a message being communicated here, and it is one that the NSAA would do well to consider very carefully. And that message is, speak freely, until people who hate you and hate what you have to say object, and then shut up.

It’s a terrible message for an educator to communicate. It’s a terrible message for a speech program to communicate.

It’s a terrible message for anyone to communicate.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at

1 comment:

  1. OH MY EFFING GOD!!!!!! I am more and more disgusted by things everyday. Who. are. these. people?