As we begin our new cycle of A POSSIBLE PRACTICE, we welcome our nine featured artists to reflect on how the world keeps ending, and the world goes on. In this series of interviews, we’ll discover more about each artist’s work, their practices, and what it means to be making art during this time of intense global change. Devon Kelley-Yurdin is an interdisciplinary artist, designer, educator, facilitator, cultural organizer, etc etc etc. Creativity, communication and logistical prowess, network-weaving, and baby whispering are currently their primary tools for community care and collective liberation.
When we selected Franny Choi’s poem “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” in December 2019, we could not have envisioned the ways we would each be asked to accept new levels of grief and apocalypse into our daily lives. What initially drew you to this poem? How has your understanding of the poem changed since then?
I have to be totally honest—I didn’t actually read this poem until recently. I struggle with processing poetry, and it takes an incredible amount of concentration in order for me to feel present with a poem. It’s probably partially due to mental blocks I developed early on as a result of the way my brain works and the way I’ve always struggled with written text and reading comprehension. What drew me to this project was the opportunity to lean into that, and to actually sink in and connect with this text in a way that I probably wouldn’t otherwise (which is what my contribution to this project is about).
A thing I really appreciate about this poem, which feels really relevant to this pandemic moment, is the way it highlights scale of catastrophe and the way it’s experienced disproportionately in systemically marginalized and under-resourced communities. We have this cultural narrative about “The Apocalypse” as being this monolithic thing, but it’s like there’s privilege in that way of thinking. Because violent world-shifting and world-shattering has been happening in small and large ways for ages and ages, and that’s easier to ignore and/or become complacent about when it hasn’t negatively affected your personal experience.
What are you planning to create for this cycle? How does your work relate to the themes in “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”?
For this cycle I’m planning on hosting a series of gatherings, likely three over a three-month period, where participants will conviene (virtually, now) to read and re-read “The World Keeps Ending, And the World Goes On” many times in different modes. Although it’s definitely open to anyone, it’s specifically intended to be welcoming for folks who want to engage with poetry but don’t necessarily know where/how to start, and folks who learn/process differently than a traditional poetry reading allows. I personally have a hard time hearing poetry and feeling like it’s registering for me because of how I process information, so going to poetry readings has never really worked for me. This “reading” (for lack of a better word yet) would feature and center this Franny Choi poem multiple ways in different formats: spoken, written, discussion, bringing in other mediums, etc..
I’m interested in what emerges from a cyclical, slow, intentional reading and re-reading of the same things multiple times over multiple gatherings. How does it affect how you read it if you’ve thought about it for a month and then come read it again? What came up or happened in between? How does it change? Does it make you think about these pandemic times differently?
I’ve also been wondering, as things start to “reopen” and we find ourselves rebuilding our days and weeks, what have we learned about slowness and deep connection and attention that we want to bring with us? Also, I do not have kids and I don’t have an “essential” job, so I’m certainly not asserting that how I’ve experienced slowness within this time is a universal experience.
Going For It at Maine Mechanics Hall on February 5, 2020. Photo by Robyn Nicole.
Some of your projects have a performative, community-gathering component to them, like Going For It and Karaokish. As we’re now living in a time of physical distancing, what are your thoughts / hopes / dreams / tactics to create spaces of emotional and creative intimacies from a physical distance?
This time has both sparked the desire to connect with everyone I’ve ever known while at the same time spending a ridiculous amount of time alone and feeling completely overwhelmed by the level of digital communication. I am someone who is highly motivated and charged by quality connection and communication—I like to list “chatting” as a hobby—but there’s so much about the way connecting is happening right now that is feeling super draining to me. I feel depleted after like 80% of my Zoom calls. So I guess my questions right now are about what makes virtual connecting *not* feel like that? Or like, what are other options? I have no answers yet, but I do feel very resistant to thinking about all new ideas for programming at this time as needing to be purely digital. I’m thinking about online platforms as catalysts for tactile experience, or connecting with a neighbor from a safe distance, or whatever else. I guess that’s part of what I’m interested in exploring with this project. If anyone has experienced something really positive and nourishing through online meeting I’d love to hear about it!
I know for me, in this moment of collective grief and trauma, every moment varies and every day is both so different and all shmushed together. I’d love to help facilitate co-created spaces that feel relevant to what is actually true for folks in this moment. We’re still learning so much about what we even need right now.
We love the ways you center vulnerability, tenderness, and togetherness in your creative life. What draws you to these practices of gathering together, of inviting us to leave our comfort zones? What lessons have you learned while engaging with these practices?
I think a lot about how creative practice is a great place to practice and enact the skills that we need to build the world we want. It’s not the only way to practice these skills, of course, but I think it’s a pretty effective one. Moving towards something I can’t yet see, adapting to things as they emerge, trusting intuition, working collaboratively, letting go of trying to control other people’s experiences, valuing process over product; these are all tools I have acquired and exercise regularly through creative practice. So, for me, if we want to be moving towards a world that is, as you beautifully put it, more vulnerable and tender and together, then that’s the stuff I wanna work on in creative collaboration.
I’ve also experienced huge personal transformation through projects like Going For It, which I like to say is an exercise in bravery and community care disguised as an experimental/amateur talent show. For example, it wasn’t until like a year into the project that I realized I was healing some pretty deep relational wounds around not being able to speak my truth or say the things I needed to say. I think building our bravery muscles is a useful practice for a lot of important things; yes, let’s speak out when we see fucked up stuff even when it’s scary and yes, let’s enact bold visions and yes, let’s mess up in public and grow from it. But even on a very small scale, the fact that I can now muster the courage to tell someone that I have a crush on them is actually sort of revolutionary for me. Like that shit is really powerful! I don’t think I even really knew I needed it, and I certainly didn’t know I was going to get that from this project. And participants tell me similar things about their own experiences after attending, which brings me immeasurable joy and is just… well it’s just exactly the point.
How does your practice engage with processing personal and/or collective grief through art?
Our multi-layered oppressive society has harmed every one of us, even those who it privileges. Creating space to counter that conditioning and practice active unlearning is, to me, a sort of grief/healing practice.
I’m also guessing that we all have hidden corners that someone (maybe ourselves) hasn’t allowed access to, and I think there’s grief in that. Having an invitation and permission to access those spaces can be incredibly healing. So then, for me, it becomes about creating the containers and conditions where that feels safe and possible.
Who / what is currently inspiring you locally?
I’m just always so inspired (and also incredibly frustrated) by the way struggling folks are always the first to show up for struggling folks.
What is one important thing you’ve done for your creative practice / general nourishment lately?
I started doing a “tech Shabbat” every week. Friday sundown through Saturday sundown. It’s been a total game changer for my mental health during this weird ass time. It literally feels like I spend the week draining and depleting and then on Saturdays I refill. I feel so much more connected to myself and my immediate surroundings, more inspired, more spacious, and more motivated. And I don’t mean motivated because I want to be “productive” just for the sake of production. I mean motivated to do things that I know make me feel good and give me a sense of purpose.
Describe your practice space.
Everywhere I ever go? Ha! I have a studio (things-making) practice and a community/social practice and an everything-all-the-time practice, so I’m all over the place. I’ve always had a pretty expansive view on what constitutes creative practice. During this time I’ve been trying to be extra gentle and generous with myself about what creativity even looks like: gardening, dusting and rearranging shelves, a DIY haircut, a walk in the woods, literally any time I turn off my phone.
I’m also incredibly lucky in that I have studio space at home. I’ve been full-time freelance for the past year and a half so “working from home” hasn’t been as big of a shift for me as I know it has been for some. Even though this moment is totally precarious in that almost all of my gigs have been cancelled, it’s not new for me to make my own schedule or to wake up and not go anywhere right away or at all. (To be clear, that doesn’t always mean I’m “good” at it—there have been so very many days in the past month and a half that I just can’t even account for.)
I’m deeply missing in-person meetings and run-ins with people in my creative community, though, as so much of my practice happens within those connections and spontaneous conversations. I feel like my “practice space” has been greatly reduced simply by the elimination of very regular movement and dialogue, and also just simply by not being able to gather to see what emerges. I’m so hungry for it.
What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
I laugh out loud constantly, so I have no idea. But a thing that happened a couple weeks ago that I’m still chuckling about happened during the weekly Queer + Trans Commiunity Dance that I attend—formerly in person, now online. On one of the playlists was the Miley Sirus song “Party in the USA” and there was something about dancing really exuberantly to that song, alone in my living room during this pandemic lockdown nightmare, that was SO fucking funny to me. A truly absurd fiction. Like I’m laughing about it right now just thinking about it.
What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?
I had a professor in college say to us, “it is your job to figure out the conditions in which you are the most creative and to put yourself in that position as often as possible. No one else is going to do that for you.” I think about that all the time, even when doing things like planning meetings or phone calls. If I know I have a project I want to be working on and I know my best creative time is in the afternoon and evening, then I also know that making plans that evening is going to be super disruptive. Holding empty space was one of the hardest things for me before lockdown, but I know it’s vital to my practice and my well-being. When I think of it as my job (in the most expansive definition of “job”, i.e. work in the world) to protect that creative space then it becomes more of a priority to hold it sacred. ✽
Devon Kelley-Yurdin is an interdisciplinary artist, designer, educator, facilitator, cultural organizer, etc etc etc. They live on Abenaki/Wabanaki land in Portland, Maine. They are white, queer, nonbinary, jewish fey, elder-millenial from a middle-class background. Creativity, communication and logistical prowess, network-weaving, and baby whispering are currently their primary tools for community care and collective liberation.