Memorializing enslaved people at Washington and Lee

WandLMy seriously talented students are justifiably proud of their liberal arts college. The academic opportunities are excellent. Professors are dedicated to working closely with undergraduates in small classes and frequent office hours. The campus itself is lovely, staffed by friendly people, set in a charming small town, and surrounded by soft blue mountains. So the members of my winter course on African-American Poetry had mixed feelings when, as a January homework assignment, I asked them to read this timeline of African-Americans at Washington and Lee. They expressed pride about some entries, particularly the opening paragraph about John Chavis, the first African American to receive a college education in the United States; he completed his studies here in 1799, when we were still Washington Academy. Most entries dated from the 1800s up through the Civil Rights era, however, are shocking.

While my students read in and wrote about a rich poetic tradition–so much of which concerns history and memory–I asked them also to blog about a set of connected questions. Some of them came into the room already acutely aware of how race affects their academic and social lives, but I hoped everyone would begin to tune in to the prejudices that remain poisonously present here, not necessarily because we’re a southern institution but because we’re an American one. Wanting them to perceive also how racism can root deeply in a place, even in the bricks and mortar, I instructed them to take a walk, look around the physical campus, and analyze what implicit lessons art, architecture, and other elements teach about race at Washington and Lee. I limited blog access to class members, hoping to allow greater frankness. At the end of the class we decided to keep those limits. Students submitted lively posts I wish I could share more widely, though, on the sometimes-blinding-whiteness of this place–the “iconic white pillars” of our colonnade looming up out of the snow. “Whose tradition is it?” they asked, stepping back for a critical consideration of our buzzwords, and “Where’s the love for John Chavis?”–noting the prominence of statuary of white male slaveholders. One student remarked that the fraternities and sororities resemble plantation homes. Many of them noticed, too, that race isn’t the only elision: start counting portraits, for example, and you see how overwhelmingly white and male are the figures whose contributions we honor.

So how could we modify the implicit curriculum delivered by Washington and Lee’s physical campus? In particular, what commemorative work should we be doing on behalf of the enslaved African-Americans in W&L’s history? The timeline is an outstanding contribution, but most students have never seen it. It seemed to us that we need a range of monuments and events: some fixed or recurring, like statues and MLK Day programs, and some changeable. Student tour guides and Lee Chapel docents could have more to say about race here. There is curricular work to do and perhaps orientation programming. I’d love to see a permanent video exhibit in a major building, sampling a range of visual documents and texts (even poems–plenty of writers have studied here, including Christian Wiman and Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon). Our neighbor, the University of Virginia, is working on commemoration.  A pamphlet, some exhibitions–I know they don’t right the wrongs of the past. But they feel important to me just the same.

Of course, my class shouldn’t decide the scope or kind of remembrances we construct. That should be a big conversation involving many different constituents. On the other hand, the best work isn’t always done by committees. Sometimes artists and activists need to jolt the conversation. For now, I’ll let my students do it.

Junior Gingy Dixon observes: “On the lawn of the Colonnade stands an obelisk in honor of John Robinson, a man whose ‘donation’ of slaves is central to our university’s history. In Washington Hall, many artifacts and pieces of art related to George Washington sit in shiny display cabinets or hang below tasteful spotlights for visitors to admire. I take no issue with our school honoring its namesake benefactor and this nation’s first president, but I do take issue with the negligence of the people who built this hallowed institution and those who dared to bring about change… Wall plaques in Washington Hall bear etchings of influential monetary donors throughout the University’s history, which is fine, but it should also bear the names of the slaves who provided as crucial (if not more crucial) a service. They were treated as objects and not people because of their skin color, and therefore deserve to have their names displayed as prominently as the people who freely donated their money. Being a veritable institution of honor means honoring the past – ugly as it may be… if we own our history, we maintain our honor. Doing anything else is just weak.”

And from senior Brittany Lloyd, a Civil War buff and former Lee Chapel guide as well as a pretty damn good English major: “Remembering sometimes has to be gory and brutal and uncomfortable. It is easy to forget. It is vital to remember.”

AWP Haiku

Note to future self:/ skip panels on publishing/ and self-promotion.

I used to wonder/ how to break in. Now I want/ to write good. Backwards?

Rita Dove talking/ about anything is worth/ ten hummus buffets.

That’s as far as I got with seventeen-syllable crystallizations of my experience at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. You can tell I’m still delirious.

I missed a lot, having suffered some airport disasters en route and arriving twelve hours later that expected, but the thing is, you ALWAYS miss a lot at AWP. Attractive panels and readings are nearly always running simultaneously, and besides, there’s the bookfair, and the fact that human neural tissue rapidly becomes saturated–outdoor walks and episodes of hotel room decompression are crucial if you want to absorb even a fraction of the events running from early morning until midnight. Even if you pace yourself you at some point end up staggering through the exhibition room, arms full of books stored up for solitude, like a “drunken squirrel,” my friend Ellen aptly observed. Ellen was exuberant, though, her red hair lighting up the bookfair, and she even knew just where to go for lunch (Lotus for fabulous and cheap Vietnamese food).

I found myself thinking a lot about this during all those fragmentary conversations with friends in noisy rooms: who was thrilled to be at the AWP and who was thrown into existential crisis by the weird parade of it. One rhapsodized about getting her book signed by Ann Carson (to which I say: damn you, Chicago storms!). Another smiling, successful poet said, “Inside I’m…” She put her hands up next to her head like a specter from Munch and screamed, discreetly.

Iris bought me an absinthe cocktail at Ling and Louie’s called a Forbidden Dragon and beamed out positive energy: sitting next to her I was suddenly talking about how being here was a privilege and fizzing over with panel ideas. Another friend asked me how to handle people constantly overlooking or dismissing your achievements, and while I talked about making sure people know about your publications, and laughing merrily and referencing her eight peer-reviewed articles when they suggest that maybe publishing something would help her get a job, I know I answered her inadequately. After all, later that day I was in a post-teaching-panel Q&A and received an answer that I found a little condescending. I repressed my urge to stand up and shout: I’m a full professor at a teaching-based institution whose full classes receive rave reviews! Let me show you my state teaching award!!–This is one of my many reactions to AWP, every year. Seeing so many good writers striving to be seen, heard, and read fills me with cosmic despair. Any one of us is very unlikely to ever be the It-Girl.

The only thing that brings me back from the edge is refocusing my ambitions. Write as urgently and craftily as you can, I tell myself, so what’s on the page will hold up if the spotlight falls on you. Of course, NaPoWriMo is highlighting for me how poetry-writing is not really happening right now. The projects I feel most drawn to require archival legwork, that long slow hit-and-miss process of reading around for understanding and inspiration, and I’ve had little time for it.

So, what’s left? Service to poetry: buying, reading, listening, reviewing, celebrating, teaching, writing criticism. Cultivating receptivity.

Moments of clear, grateful reception: a fantastic panel on occasional poetry with Rita Dove, Richard Blanco, and others, who discussed how the challenge of the occasion redefines the how and why of poetry, tunes you to the intimate moments in public occasions, reminds you that people really do want poems, sometimes. A panel on black masculinities in which Tim Seibles read a new poem comparing a baby’s feet in utero to little crickets. A childbirth poem by Kevin Young in which he used “crocused” as a verb–he was really stunning. Carolyn Forche’s right hand fluttering over the podium to hypnotize us. Friends leaping from behind book tables to hug me, as if they were actually happy to see cranky me, swollen from travel and pho and poetry-bibbing.

 

Teaching Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Teaching a single-author poetry book is a different enterprise than assigning poems from an anthology. There’s a lot more information to sift and process: the future greatest hits are interspersed with poems that may be harder to absorb; ordering, epigraphs, and subsections suggest new meanings; there’s an arc to read for, a set of through-lines to discover. Those carefully composed slim collections, though, are my favorite way to encounter a poet. Maybe it’s all that intensive concept-album-listening I did as a teenager. I love to consider lyric fragments as part of a larger design.

In most of my undergraduate poetry courses, I assign at least a couple of these volumes, often recent ones I want to study more closely. I typically place them in the second half of the semester, after close-reading skills are sharp enough to stay in balance with the larger thematic readings students often prefer to do. One I taught recently was Evie Shockley’s 2011 the new black, a brilliant book to close a course on African-American poetry because it’s so historically-minded, so diverse in its strategies and affiliations, that it has a scholarly or critical quality.

The very last book we read together, though, was Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and for our last session I used an assignment I describe in the essay “Mapping Sea Garden,” collected in Annette Debo’s and Lara Vetter’s book Approaches to Teaching H.D. In short, I ask students to track some element of the volume and find a way to represent its recurrence on a single page. Then, for part of a class, each student brings his or her “map” (often a graph, list, or chart) up to the document camera, projects it, and talks through what he or she learned in the process.

I share a few visually striking ones below with the students’ permission, but they employed a wide variety of conceptual and graphic approaches, as fits such a complicated and visually-oriented book. The first presenter tracked animal references, which turn out to be quite prominent–he divided them into “predators” and “ruminants.” Others made lists of sensory references (there’s a full range, less tilted to vision than you might expect); emotions (they cool over the course of the book); or types of human interactions (strangers outnumber friends or colleagues). They were attracted to motifs such as rain, blossoms, and mouths. All of those strategies highlight important aspects of the book: its vividness, sense of danger, preoccupations with speech and wayward feeling.

citizen word cloud Cynthia Lam wrote down every woman’s name, counted its recurrences, and created this word cloud. “Serena” dominates, even when you count the possessive and the full name, “Serena Williams,” separately.

citizen stencil

The next, by Anna Kathryn Barnes, with its stencils and handwritten notes, seems to me to document a very personal process of reading–that experience of words and images lodging in your mind, haunting you, for reasons that may be idiosyncratic.

citizen skullsThe same is true of the third piece pictured here, with its temporary tattoos of flowers and candy skulls. Its creator was thinking of masks, pronouns, and personas, but the swirling quotes also convey an emotionally charged encounter with Rankine’s challenging book.

Citizen body

A final favorite is more intensely blue in the original than my photograph–the reader wrote down all Rankine’s uses of the word “body” and discovered how often the word “blue” appeared in conjunction with it.

Onto their last assignment now, self-chosen: each student has to write a review of a book published by an African-American poet in the last 15 years, and the poet has to be someone whose work we haven’t studied together.  I’m excited to hear their presentations today.

As far as my own work for National Poetry Month: oy. I did manage to get a poetry submission in, and I wrote an unusual number of words for a weekday during the teaching term, but my writing impulses were totally perverse. I worked on a hybrid critical-personal essay I’ve been cooking up concerning Claudia Emerson’s Pharaoh, Pharaoh. I started drafting this blog. I also wrote the first scene of what might be a NOVEL. Here’s hoping I’ll at least experience that phenomenon of accidental productivity through misbehavior…