PoetlikePoe, or Mitch Burns, who hosts Kalamazoo’s weekly “Put Up or Shut Up” show and is an active member of Speak It Forward, is a long-standing artist in the West Michigan arts and culture community. He performed at the Drunken Retort several weeks ago and charmed both old friends and new fans.
His writing is political, powerful, and touching. Here’s an excerpt from his rhythmic, sublimely-delivered poem “Politics”:
“Policies written simply to ignore them
The War on Drugs was a success in white America
The C.I.A. dealt crack
The D.A. dealt convictions
Paving the way to our Prison Industrial System”
“When did you start writing?” I ask him, curious as to how he grew into the hopelessly romantic, utterly raw writer he is today.
“I started writing in a [Superman] notebook…that my mom gave me when I was around 12,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what I was writing for [or] what I was going to do with it, but in hindsight, I was releasing the pent-up emotion left behind from losing my Grandfather. He got prostate cancer and spent the last stretch of his life on hospice care in our home. It was a difficult time in my life watching the strongest man I knew wither away into a man who was fighting for his life every day.”
From there, Mitch kept using poetry as both a means of speaking out and looking within. He continued to grow as a writer, despite many ups and downs that exposed him to the hardships of life. “I’ve [always been] influenced by life, as cliché as that may be. I try to reflect the world around me. I was mentored in spoken word by Azizi Jasper. He brought me from filling my notebooks with rambling nonsense to filling the pages with words that are worth standing behind,” he explains. Here’s one of those passages that is definitely worth standing behind. It’s from “Oranges to Bullet Holes”:
“I wonder what would have happened had the real
Americans stood on the clean shores of America
with signs written in their Indigenous languages
telling all the white people from Europe to “Go
back home” and “leave our jobs alone…”
Like many of us in the poetry community, Mitch’s poems sometimes knock on his door when there are more pressing things to attend to, especially since he’s a father. “I can’t set aside a chunk of time to write and successfully get the words out right. My poems come to me at very inconvenient times, [such as] while I’m driving, in the shower, [or] working… If I get the chance to get them down, they stay with me, but more often than not, I lose them to time.”
“The biggest struggle I’ve faced [in poetry] was figuring out where my voice fits in,” he continues. “Topics sometimes come up that leave me with a lot to say, but with a hesitation towards expressing them. I took great advice from Denise Miller, who told me that I needed to make my voice fit, that it’s doing an injustice by leaving the words I truly feel out of my poems and off of a stage.” Politeness or being afraid of hurting someone’s feelings cannot result in honest, relatable poetry. “I’ve done my best to not hold them back.” The following excerpt is from a piece which moved me to tears during his Drunken Retort feature, due to its topical relevance about divorce:
“I have to fight for time with my
daughter because I’m not her mother…
I’m tired of being compared to every
guy who walked in the courtroom
I can’t find a judge that’s willing
to give me my own identity
All I’m asking for is a chance for my
daughter to be able to stop saying
how much she misses me”
“Besides Put Up or Shut Up, what are you involved in now?” I ask.
“My accomplishments are wrapped up in the work I’ve done with the youth and communities. Teaching with Speak It Forward has helped developed me further as an artist and an aspiring educator. A milestone for my writing came when [The Diatribe] entered the first ever blind- and deaf-friendly art exhibit into ArtPrize a couple of years ago.”
What is Mitch planning to write this year? “My writing goals are in no way poetry-based… Not a day goes by that I don’t dream of finishing a novel.” He’s started many, but hasn’t (like many of us) been able to reach a satisfying conclusion. Beyond that, “I plan to get my yard in good shape by the end of the summer…I’m finding way more pleasure in the simple things in life. I’m blessed with an amazing wife and two beautiful children to keep me busy and focused. I’ve left behind the endless nights of drinking PBR and regretting my decisions.”
Even though he doesn’t take his own advice as often as he’d like, Mitch says, “Write without concern for what others may think of your work. I second guess my words because of how they might make someone else feel and in the end, I hold back more than I wish to at times. Beyond that, my advice is to find an open mic, make friends with other [artists], [allow them] to motivate your own art, contribute something to the community that allows you to use your art, and… write about love!”
He has two chapbooks available for purchase, Politics and Plea Bargains and Glass Pages. You can catch him performing every week at the Tuesday Put Up or Shut Up open mic in Kalamazoo.