Family Portrait: J. Mase III: Anti-Cupid poet, activist and twin

    I don’t know if there is an equivalent to “bah humbug” for Valentine’s Day, but if there is, you’ll probably hear it this Saturday at “Cupid Ain’t @#$%!,” an annual anti-Valentine’s Day event featuring the bitterest of poets talking about failed relationships, love, sex and bashing that little cherub Cupid. Hosted by event organizer and local poet J. Mase III and featuring a special performance by Def Poet Regie Cabico, poets are invited to share anti-Valentine’s Day musings and compete for a cash prize.

    PGN: Tell me about J. Mase III. JM: I was born in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey in a small town called Atco. I lived with my mother, off and on with my father, and I have an identical twin.

    PGN: What was it like there? JM: It was quiet living in the woods.

    PGN: Did you commune with the animals? JM: Kind of. I went to kindergarten on a farm with about eight other kids. By the time I got to high school, we’d moved to a slightly more suburban area so I graduated with almost 900 kids in the class.

    PGN: What was a favorite thing to do? JM: As a kid … just writing, and then in high school, I got into the ROTC and attempted to play a few instruments, though I can’t play anything now.

    PGN: Favorite poet as a kid? JM: I had two: Phillis Wheatley, who was considered America’s first black woman poet, and Emily Dickinson. I was a very quiet kid and there was a poem by Emily — “I’m nobody! Who are you?” — that I really liked. I look back at it now and think, how depressing! [Laughs.] I try to have more fun with poetry now.

    PGN: So what is your twin like? JM: She’s also gay but very different from me: She’s high femme! We both work with LGBTQ issues, but aside from that we don’t have a lot in common or any weird twin things. She lives in Brooklyn and, no, I can’t feel it if she gets hurt!

    PGN: Were you dressed alike as kids? JM: Ugh, until we were 12. And you can just imagine what that does to the psyche of a child trying to find an individual identity. [Laughs.] I’m not sure our extended family even knows our names, they’ve called us “the twins” for so long!

    PGN: Who came out first? JM: She did, and she reminds me of it all the time.

    PGN: So was it easy for you to come out after that? JM: Oh! Ha! I thought you meant literally came out! As in which twin came out first. No, I came out first as LGBT: I came out at 15 and she didn’t come out until we were 20. When I asked her why she waited so long, she said she wanted me to make all the mistakes first. She’s smarter than me.

    PGN: Where did you go to college? JM: I went to Arcadia University.

    PGN: Formerly Beaver College. JM: Yes! When I used to see information about it, I remember thinking, who would go to a school called Beaver College? Then, when I was in high school, I got all this info from Arcadia and thought, wow, that sounds like a great place to be!

    PGN: What was your major? JM: One of the benefits of being at a liberal-arts school is that they let you make up your own major, so mine was multicultural relations.

    PGN: A favorite teacher? JM: I had two: Dr. Angela Gillem, who I’m still in touch with, and Dr. Ana María García. They were the first queer women of color that mentored me. They’d let me hang out in their offices and let me talk, laugh or cry when I needed it.

    PGN: How long have you been doing poetry? JM: I’ve been doing performance poetry for about eight years. I love using humor to get a point across.

    PGN: How did the anti-Cupid event come about? JM: In 2008, I was sitting in a hookah bar with some friends and I was lamenting the upcoming Valentine’s Day. I was single at the time, and thinking, I want a day to celebrate how angry I am at Cupid. A friend of mine said, “Cupid ain’t shit,” and I thought, I want to use that! A number of the people at the table were poets and I asked if they would want to do a show about it. Next thing I knew, we had a venue and did our first anti-Valentine’s Day show at the Bubble House. Now it’s my favorite show to do. We’ve done several performances everywhere from here to New York and even Michigan.

    PGN: What makes it special? JM: I love that so many people become invested in the humor. A lot of times spoken word can be pretty serious. As activists and artists we forget to laugh. It doesn’t help the movement if I’m miserable about something every day. Life is too short: We need to loosen up sometimes. PGN: And what draws you to poetry? JM: It’s really a way to educate and entertain at the same time. Not just the words, but for me, it’s also about bringing different factions together. I always try to intentionally engage with multiple communities, from gay people and trans people and straight people and folks of different colors and ages.

    PGN: What’s a funny piece you’ve heard? JM: Well, people do all sorts of things around sex that are funny. We have one guy, Brian Omni Dillon, who does a piece called “Hey, Thanks for Dumping Me,” which is one of my favorite pieces in the history of the world, and another guy who has a poem about being a gay man who people mistake for straight. They’re both really hilarious, even if I’m not making them sound that way!

    PGN: Are you involved now? JM: Yes. It makes people question why I still do this, but I have enough bitter left over to keep it going for a while. I always tell people when I date them, remember I’m an artist, so whatever we do may not be confidential!

    PGN: Your worst date ever? JM: There are so many! But one I wrote a poem about was with a girl I was dating in Toronto. I went up to visit her over the holidays. I’d never gone out for New Year’s Eve and we made all sorts of plans for the night. We were going all the way out with matching outfits and everything. Right before were headed out, she broke up with me. It was too late to make any other plans so I was stranded at her house. We ended up going out together but separate: It was very awkward.

    PGN: Who would you choose as your partner for ”The Amazing Race”? JM: Probably my friend Cheryl. She actually wants us to apply for it. She’s really hyped about it. Me, not so much.

    PGN: What’s an item you probably should throw out? JM: My phone! I am terrible at keeping up with technology and tend to use things until they die. To this day I still have never owned an mp3 player of any kind.

    PGN: If you had a theme song that played whenever you walk into a room, what would it be? JM: That would have to be “The Cupid Shuffle.” I work with the kids at The Attic and they’ll all tell you I love step music. It makes me excited when everyone loves a good step.

    PGN: What do you do for a day job? JM: I work part-time at The Attic Youth Center and I also work with Soulforce. We’re currently organizing the 2012 Equality Ride.

    PGN: What’s the story behind your name? JM: Mason is my last name, and when people ask me what the J is for, I usually say, “Just Mason.” Me, my sister and my dad all have names that start with J, so since I’m the youngest, I go by J. Mase the III. It makes me feel hipper than I am.

    PGN: If you had to be handcuffed to one person for a month, who would it be? JM: Oh, that’s serious. Probably Dr. Angela, because I think we’re both a little OCD. She’d probably be able to handle my quirks better than most.

    PGN: What do you miss most about being a kid? JM: The colors. Growing up in the woods, there were so many colors from different plants and animals, flowers and blue jays and bright greens in the springtime. You just don’t see that in the city.

    PGN: I’m known for … JM: Using foul language and making it seem like I’m not. I try to be polite with my cursing.

    PGN: Movie that makes you cry? JM: Anyone who knows me knows that I love “The Wiz” in an unnatural way. Every time I see it I learn something new. I made the kids at The Attic watch it almost every day for a month! I think it says something about people’s lives, especially people of color. The other movie would be “Across the Universe,” especially the scene where that cutie sings “Let it Be.” That little boy messes me up whenever I see it.

    PGN: Favorite clothing? JM: Well, I do like to dress up on occasion, so I enjoy my sequins and bright colors and a little tie every now and again. But my favorite piece would be my black sequin sneakers. They’re shiny and I like to put different neon color laces in them. They make me happy.

    PGN: In your piece, “Neighbor,” you reference the short life expectancy of a trans person. It was astonishing. JM: Well, I identify as transmasculine. In the piece, I speak about encountering my ex-partner’s neighbor. I try to use humor to get people to buy in a little before hitting them with something serious. When we talk about LGBT issues, we gloss over a lot. We all want to be seen as nice people, so we give a nod to the T in LGBT, but don’t really do anything or understand it. Unfortunately, worldwide, the life expectancy of a trans person is believed to be about 23. In the U.S., it’s about 37. That’s pretty crappy. Trans people are some of the few people who can be legally denied health care. A lot of the systems and facilities intended to help at-risk people are sex-segregated, and that alienates people who don’t comply with state-imposed categories. If your paperwork doesn’t match your face, they don’t have to help you. For example, a trans woman may not be able to secure a bed in a homeless shelter. After Hurricane Katrina, a lot of transwomen really had trouble getting any kind of care. They were invisible, weren’t seen as people. So I try to make people aware of things they might not know about.

    PGN: And what’s the “Start Rhymin’ Stop AIDS” program? JM: I believe it came through Louis Ortiz and the Youth Health Empowerment Project. Louis is a great poet himself under the name Lou Rok. It’s a great way to get people together to express themselves. Poetry saves lives. When you’re doing an art piece, people are listening with different parts of their brain and so you can engage them and give out information without it being a lecture. You can massage the words so that people can really internalize them.

    PGN: You’re also the author of “If I Should Die Under the Knife, Tell My Kidney I Was the Fiercest Poet Around.” What was that about? JM: Well, my friend Cheryl — who I said I’d do “The Amazing Race” with — has one of my kidneys. The left one; his name is Shamus. A few years ago, Cheryl sent out a generic email to all her friends saying that she was going into kidney failure. We hadn’t really spoken for a while but when I saw it I felt compelled to get tested. I’m someone who doesn’t like needles, so if you’d asked me five years ago if I’d be willing to donate a body part, I would have laughed at you. But when the request came from a friend, I thought, Well, I’m healthy. Why not at least get tested? I did and I was a match, a better match than even some of her family members, so I did it. I wrote the book because I felt I could raise awareness about donor options as well as raise money for the Gift of Life Foundation. The book has poetry and stories about my own journey of becoming a donor as well as banter between me and Cheryl and some thoughts from my family. I also include resources in case people want to learn more about becoming an organ donor. Especially as people of color, we have the least access to care and yet have high rates of diabetes, etc. I always talk about it in my show because you never know when someone will come up and say, “I have kidney disease,” and it gives them a chance to speak frankly about it and share their stories. Who knows, someone in the audience might be a match that could save someone’s life.

    PGN: Are you a religious person? JM: Yes and no. I love talking Scripture and about the Bible and the Quran, especially around LGBT issues. I work with a lot of churches on being LGBTQ inclusive and do a lot of workshops through The Attic Youth Center and will be doing a lot of stuff around that subject with Soulforce. The resiliency of a lot of people, kids and adults, is very dependent on them having access to religious spaces that are not only affirming, but are from their own faith background. I was able to write an article about gay teens and the church for Vanderbilt African American Lectionary Online with a colleague of mine. So to answer your question, I would say I’m compelled by a belief in God. For me, I feel like I like to go wherever I feel that God is, and sometimes that is not just one specific type of religious building. I feel like a lot of the reason I get up every morning and do art or poetry or do my work or socialism or activism is because of my faith and wanting to get a good message out to people. Even if I do curse too much …

    Catch “Cupid Ain’t @#$%!” at 8 p.m. Feb. 11 at A Poet’s Art Gallery, 4510 Walnut St. For more information, visit www.jmaseiii.com.

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