DarkMatter takes on politics through their poetry
With politics continuing to change progressively in the current world, many artists are using their craft as a way to express themselves.
Known for their quirky aesthetic and political panache, Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian are poets and spoken word artists based in New York City, who use their words to do just that. Together, they make up DarkMatter, a non-binary trans South Asian creative collaboration.
Much of their poetry, which is often radical and politically charged, cover topics such as the need of intersectionality in feminist, gay and queer communities, the complication of online dating when intertwined with progressive politics and social justice issues in America, India, and other communities in the world.
Before becoming and performing together as DarkMatter, the two of them met during their undergraduate years in college at Stanford University in 2009. Vaid-Menon was originally from the small, conservative town of College Station, Texas while Balasubramanian grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. They ended up in New York City after Alok received a fellowship to work with the Audre Lorde Project, a nonprofit and community organizing center for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, trans and gender non-conforming (LGBTSTGNC) people of color communities.
“[I] am from a long legacy of femmes subverting the patriarchy and existing and thriving structures and communities that we were never meant for us,” Vaid-Menon said when asked them to tell me about themselves.
The name for their collaborative project, DarkMatter, emerged from a lot of late night conversations, direct actions, community organizing meetings, and poetry slams.
“It was just a formal container to hold all the ideas, aesthetics, and politics we were already cultivating together as friends,” Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian said. “It’s not so much that we decided to collaborate, it was just kind of something that happened. Janani came up with the name because they’re a nerd. Dark matter, the stuff, and dark energy, the other non-stuff, comprise 90% of the universe but are only understood in their effects—the way they obscure the gravity of the ‘light’ objects around them.”
Performing at sold out venues throughout the country and on various college campuses, their most recent project is the #ItGetsBitter tour, which they said is the latest iteration of the show they’ve been doing together for the past few years. Their tour was recently featured in the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival last month. The #ItGetsBitter tour shines a light on the problems of racism and imperialism faced in contemporary LGBT communities.
When discussing the poetry scene in New York City, both Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian agreed that there are various facets when it comes to the arts scene in the city; it depends on which scene someone is referring to.
“On the one hand, there’s an institutional arts world which we’ve participated in to some extent that is extraordinarily white, CIS and ‘monied’ and then there’s all sorts of cultural production that doesn’t fit in that rubric,” they both said. “I think to be an artist [in New York City] you have to be a little slippery and be willing to put on different approaches, languages, acts, etc. in various spaces— while trying to be attentive to your core creative and political integrity.”
Regarding their poetry and where the inspiration for their poetry stems from, they said it comes from all over the place; from their lives, their friends, and histories of political and aesthetic struggle and they both go through different processes while writing their material.
“[I] grew up as an emo kid and like to write by sitting in the darkness and crying alone and writing one draft,” Vaid-Menon said.
“[I] have an overactive subconscious so I do a lot of writing and scheming in my dreams and pen it down into more formal language in the waking life,” Balasubramanian said.
They hope that their poetry and performances can encourage and inspire other students and youths to be aware of important issues and to become activists with the initiative to make a change in their communities.
“We live in a world that constantly tries to toss out “unprofessional” things like feelings, vulnerability, and femininity out of the public sphere,” Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian said. “I think our job as cultural workers, and particularly as those attentive to political transformation, is to give language, life, and space to that which is continuously cast out and evince the magic, joy, and pain of the ordinary.”