Leftist politics and righteous anger from a queer, South Asian perspective are what drive the performance poetry of DARKMATTER, a talented and explosive duo consisting of Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon. Both performers identify as trans, but that designation marks more than their gender. As Alok states in one of many beautifully worded poems, being transgender “is a tactic of survival.” It is a way “to reclaim our bodies from the genders that stole them from us.”
The pair presented an electrifying one-night-only show at The Club at La Mama on Friday, September 26 as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival. Their passion and rage were focused on a number of topics ranging from imperialism and the War on Terror to a bourgeois gay political agenda that values marriage equality more than the lives of people of color.
In one of the most impactful poems of the evening, Janani describes how New York is the metaphorical heart of the U.S., which was broken during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But the poem questions the militaristic response that ensued from a politics of victimhood: “America is a place where we are all afraid of our own grief so we keep killing everyone else.”
Many of the poems have an introspective quality that links the performers’ own lives to larger issues of cultural hegemony. Not only do they speak out against oppression, they also question their own privileges. This is particularly true of a poem by Alok that also serves as a critique of Asian American complicity in racism directed towards African Americans.
While DARKMATTER’s poetry gravitates towards serious subject matter, there’s still plenty of humor involved—often of the bitingly satirical variety. Janani has a series of short poems that rework classic nursery rhymes through a queerly leftist lens. And together Alok and Janani deliver a dual-voiced poem from the perspectives of Padma and Parvati Patil, the two witches of Indian descent in the Harry Potter books, that was delightfully acerbic.
Each performer has a distinctive style of speaking. Janani tends towards measured phrasing while Alok has a vibrantly manic delivery that is more recognizably influenced by slam poetry. That kind of energy carries over to the poems they speak together, which are quickly paced and sharply worded.
While the performance at La MaMa was only for a night, DARKMATTER has an ongoing #ItGetsBitter spoken word tour with upcoming gigs at places such as Wesleyan University, the University of Utah, and Tufts University. They also have a New York City gig booked at the Bowery Poetry Club on October 19. Check out their schedule for more details, because they are definitely worth catching live.
For more information on DARKMATTER, visit www.darkmatterrage.com.