When Michael Lee left high school in Hopkins, he thought he’d be a boxer. He trained hard in Northeast Minneapolis, sure that if he put in the work, he could make it as a pro. Then he blew his shoulders out. And they didn’t get better. He surveyed his choices and thought, Maybe college. He applied to the University of Minnesota. The shoulders didn’t get better. He was admitted. The shoulders didn’t get better. He started: a freshman, fall, 2007.
He was feeling stuck, a bit broken. He thought, Kinesiology. The study of human movement: physical therapy, rehabilitation.
Instead, he found a different way to move. Less than four years later, Lee, now an English major, was named the 2011 Best Individual Poet at the national College Unions Poetry Slam, leading the University of Minnesota team to a fourth place finish. He received a 2011 Verve Grant for Spoken Word Artists, the only spoken word grant in the country. And now, in collaboration with Runner Runner, a Minneapolis production company, he has made a stunning video of his elegiac spoken word poem “Pass On,” which they’ve entered in the 2012 Vimeo online video awards.
“We’ve talked a lot about bringing poetry and filmmaking together,” he notes in an interview from Norway, where he’s studying spring semester, “to try to make spoken word more accessible, to try to make poetry more accessible. But this is the first time I’d done something like this, working with Josh Thacker and the guys from Runner Runner. He’s an amazing film director, and I just feel so blessed to work with him.”
Turning it up at the U
What happened between kinesiology and this kinetic video? In part, the U happened. His American literature instructor Dan Mrozowski, a CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation, of which the U is a member) postdoctoral fellow, agreed to read Lee’s creative writing, afterward inviting him into his office and praising his work. “He’s busy with grading papers and making lesson plans,” remembers Lee, “and here I am in his office talking about writing that has nothing to do with what he’s getting paid to do. That was really inspiring to see an educator who was just so excited to be there and was willing to get to know me as a person. And so I turned it up in school, and I turned it up in writing as well.”
Lee took writing classes through the Department of English's Creative Writing Program. In his Intermediate Poetry class, students were required to read a book of poetry a week. “I think we ended up reading 15, 16 books of poetry, as well as whatever I was reading on the side,” he recalls. “And that was the most I’d ever read of poetry at one time. When you’re reading that amount, you have no choice but to get better.”
Lee met the University of Minnesota students with whom he would be College Slam teammates through a course with HECUA (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs). This St. Paul nonprofit consortium builds relationships between communities and academia through off-campus courses: Of its 17 member colleges and universities, the University of Minnesota is a founding member. “I actually ended up meeting people in the community, at spoken word events, at poetry slams, and finding out that they went to the U of M,” Lee recounts. “Which just goes to show that one of the values of the University of Minnesota is its location and the community around it. We have an amazing, amazing scene here, and not just in slam. I happened to find the right crew of folks, and since then we’ve been best friends, we’ve been editors of each other’s work, we’ve been mentors to each other, and it’s been a huge, huge thing.”
From pain, poetry
It should be said that Lee was always writing. He started writing poetry specifically after an English poetry unit in seventh grade. “I always enjoyed telling stories in writing, and poetry just kind of came easily.”
But then something happened, the thing that would make poetry essential, the thing that would circle back to Lee while he studied at the U and eventually inspire the hard-won celebration of “Pass On.” Lee got to middle school one day and found out one of his best friends was dead. Stephen had been murdered. By his mother.
Troubled by schizophrenia, she had stabbed him.
“The next year I showed up for school, I was a lot sadder and I was a lot angrier at other people and at the world,” Lee describes. “And that led to problems with drugs and alcohol and depression and anxiety. I really didn’t deal with Stephen’s death for a long time.”
That he finally did confront the tragedy was a result, first, of getting sober, he notes, and, second, of his involvement with the slam poetry team. For the team’s initial practice, Lee performed a raw new poem about Stephen called “We’re Golden”: “I just fell over and started bawling when I finished; I just collapsed.”
Lee worked on the poem for weeks, until he felt he’d mapped its raging sorrow. Then he wrote more poems about his friend, quieter poems, for the page not the microphone. With time, the feeling in the poems became more celebrative, which led finally to “Pass On.” In the poem, the narrator finds aspects of his friend in the genius hands of a playground baller, in the wide smile of an Australian girl. “We are circuit boards,” the poem sings, “swallowing the electricity of life upon birth. . . . In our last moment it will come rushing from our chests and be given back to the wind.”
“Poems like that,” Lee declares, “or poems at all or pieces of art at all, sometimes just need to wait. I couldn’t have written ‘Pass On’ at any other time. I’m not capable of maybe even writing it now. It came out when I was ready. It was drifting around in the atmosphere, and I grabbed it. I’m glad I did, because it really helped me a lot.
“I think in writing it’s really important to explore,” he continues. “I was searching for Stephen for a long time, and I was getting so angry, because I wasn’t finding him. I think that’s what we do: We all search. And it was through giving up and just writing and exploring my craft and exploring the world that I ended up actually finding what I had been searching for.”
The word, on the page and off
The video was created in that spirit of exploration. Lee met some local filmmakers who invited him to perform spoken word at art shows they organized. Those filmmakers in turn were invited to help out with the Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project, in which people compete to see who can make the best short film in 48 hours. They got Lee on the bill, and he did “Pass On”: “I performed in front of a totally fresh crowd who had never seen spoken word. That’s always really fun.” 48 Hour judge Josh Thacker, a music video and commercial director, was in the audience. Soon enough they were trading ideas about how to respect the simplicity of spoken word (mouth and microphone) while adding filmic narrative to bring the words to a larger audience. “Poetry is one of those art forms that is harder to market than other art forms,” Lee admits.
Lee is also working on a novel, as well as writing short stories and what he calls “page poems”—that is, not spoken word or slam poems. He’s impatient with hierarchies of genre, whether it be spoken word artists feeling uncomfortable with the competitive element of slam, or the mainstream literary community (including academics!) not taking oral poetries seriously. “Spoken word is actually the oldest art form on the planet,” he states firmly. And for him, oral poetry is the surest way to a large and diverse audience: “I can literally get my voice heard by standing behind a microphone. With slam it’s just easier to get in front of big crowds and share my stories, and I want to share them. I think that written poetry is still . . . I think a lot of people are afraid of it.”
He’s not—and he’ll get to publishing someday. For now, he’s exploring Norway, the country of his ancestors: “I want to be able to reclaim those cultures and understand the traditions that are inside me,” he declares. “I’ve been thinking about Norway since I was a kid, since I saw the northern lights at my grandfather’s house." After his return, he’s planning on touring the United States with his former College Slam teammate Sam Cook, going to colleges and high schools and youth programs, doing workshops and performances. Putting poetry in the hands of people who need it. People like him.