Teaching poetry activism

Coffee at the RARA Benefit reading

Almost everything I do that might make the world slightly more kind and just, I do with literature’s help. Teaching feels like my main avenue for helping others; in writing and editing, too, I try to increase the general light. I’ve failed in those activities many times, but I’m also sure I’ve done good, perhaps in a more lasting way than by attending rallies, signing petitions, and writing letters to congresspeople or newspaper editors. The latter work is vital–my daughter wants to make a career of improving how the government works, and I am so grateful for her intelligence and commitment! But I’m personally better, I think, at kinds of activism that tap the deepest wells of my knowledge and skill.

Poetry’s usefulness can be exaggerated. Writing verses is NOT a particularly effective way of influencing politicians, getting a law changed, or (god knows) attracting money. So even though I created a new course for this term, Protest Poetry, in the deep conviction that poetry helps people, I brought some skepticism to the topic, too. The course is designed for exploration and experiment, and while I’ve done research into its central questions, I’m a genuine student here, with lots to learn. When literature does influence people, how does that work? What poetic strategies are most likely to affect someone’s biases or even, possibly, alter their behaviors? We read a suite of Civil Rights poems and are now working through The Ecopoetry Anthology, discussing (without agreement) the costs and benefits of writing angry poems, grieving poems, and poems of praise; drawing on personal feeling or using the imperative voice; creating works of sonic beauty, grammatical difficulty, or narrative force; and much more.

“Protest Poetry” also carries my college’s “experiential learning” designation, which means the students are creating a couple of public-facing projects. The first, a collaborative venture, happened this Wednesday. We began planning it a few weeks ago, after a tour of the Rockbridge Area Relief Association as well as reading poems about hunger on the Split this Rock database. The assignment was (for very low stakes, grade-wise) to raise money for RARA through poetry. I told them a benefit reading would work–I’ve organized them before–but it was up to them. We toyed with the idea of a Haiku Booth or poetry-related crafts, but decided on an hourlong event that would be organized, promoted, and emceed by students in the class. They chose and booked a campus space, issued invitations to the readers, created fliers, set up sound equipment, decided the flow of the event, and brought refreshments (I acquired a small budget for the latter).

My undergraduates also did some extra work I did NOT expect or require, because, I think, they became genuinely invested in the cause. Some of them made another trip to the food pantry with questions for the clientele, cleared in advance by RARA staff, such as “What’s your favorite meal?” and “If you had to describe RARA in one word, what would it be?” They constructed poems out of the answers, performing them at the event as well as interspersing information between the poems about RARA’s work. They also set up a fundraising table for three days in the Commons, where they offered soft drinks and home-baked treats. Talking to unsuspecting muffin-eaters about how much food RARA can buy for a dollar, they then sweetly solicited donations in any amount. All told, they raised $470!

When we talked about the event during Friday’s class, they were awed by the amount of money raised but also reflected that the event in itself felt good. RARA staff attended and my students watched them tear up during poems. I’m pretty sure a couple of my students choked up, too. They’ll be devising individual activist projects using poetry next, serving whatever cause they feel most invested in, and I’m excited to see what they come up with. I’ll give you an update at the end of term!

Raising money: a clear win. Did the poetry itself change anyone’s thinking? My gut feeling is that it’s way too early to tell. Nobody in my class spoke about having personally experienced food insecurity (not that they necessarily would have), so I’m pretty sure our readings conveyed new information about that flavor of suffering to many, as well as making space for deep thinking about our obligations to each other. Maybe the example of those RARA staff and volunteers mattered most of all.

Back now to more ordinary good works: responding to student writing, preparing for class, reading for Shenandoah, working on the search for AWP’s new director, and maybe, maybe, squeezing in an hour or two for my own writing projects. Whatever you’re up to this week, I hope it involves good art and good food. I’ll leave you with a shot of me reading a poem by Lauren Alleyne from her book Difficult Fruit, plus the poem itself: “Grace Before Meals.” It’s a nourishing one.

Me reading at the RARA Benefit