Poetry and injustice

I don’t have anything wise and insightful to say about our epidemic  losses of African-Americans to police violence. At the “Black Lives Matter” rally at Washington & Lee on Friday—yes, a rally here, and the crowd was big!—I didn’t speak. African-American undergrads, law students, and community members bore witness to fear and humiliation that are offensively common in their lives: being pulled over without cause, followed around department stores by security guards, challenged in their right to walk their own neighborhood streets. Their testimony was more moving and convincing than anything I could contribute.

I don’t know how much of my slowness to chime in is my scholarly training (don’t speak unless you’ve read EVERYTHING) versus an ethics of carefulness or just personal insecurity—but I tend to keep my strong political opinions on the quiet side. When you speak, you risk being stupid, wrong, even hurtful. I have certainly said my share of seriously dumb things over the years. Not speaking, though, has a huge social cost. The difficulty/ urgency of speaking for others has been a contentious topic in my mid-century U.S. poetry seminar lately, as one of my students reflects in a recent blog post for Shenandoah. I’ve been attracted to Adrienne Rich’s work for decades—I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis partly on her work—because of poems like “Frame,” in which she negotiates between her responsibility to bear witness and the dangers of using others’ trauma as material. Many privileged poets don’t get the balance right, in my opinion, or if they do, they don’t manage to transform the balancing act into poetry. On the whole, though, it seems better to try and fail than not to try at all.

There’s also the perennial question of what poetry can do to help in any case. So many people are talking and writing, and yet so little changes. I am deeply moved by Gwendolyn Brooks’ strategies in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” She imagines the white woman with whom Emmett Till was supposed to have flirted changing her mind—recognizing the links between the brutalities white women and African-Americans of all genders endure. Brooks had such a generous imagination and such amazing skill at inspiring others, but we still live in a world where African-American boys are murdered without legal consequence. When I read Danez Smith’s recent and much more fiery call to arms, and to song, I remember: art is a powerful answer to the stupidity of the world. Poets see. It gives me hope, as heated classroom debates give me hope. Hope is small and personal, though, and while it does save lives, violence and suffering still rages in the world around the reader.

“How can a person make poems out of anger?” a student poet asked me recently. He’s hurt and furious and he craves practical advice on how to turn his experience into something positive. I don’t know, I said, but practicing compassion helps me, because it generates complicated language to match a complicated world. When I think compassionately, I know children of any race are seldom loved well enough and may grow up broken; our schools and communities are full of damaging injustice and rarely teach us how difficult it is to be good, how much hard thinking it requires; our biggest decisions are often made in the blink of an eye but can have terrifyingly wide implications; and intensely hierarchical institutions bring out the worst in people.

Recognizing how those forces may act on police officers as well as kids on the street doesn’t mean the abusers shouldn’t be held responsible. I think even fierce, polarizing language can have positive uses. Ultimately, though, I’m on the side of breaking down “us” and “them” into messy complexity. The fact that nothing is simple, though, is cause for another kind of sadness. When the causes are so manifold, where do you start?

So, it was a hard week. I’m grieving, too, for my long-ago colleague Claudia Emerson, killed by cancer. One poison in the early years of that friendship was an institutional one: I had the privilege of being tenure-track while she was hired year-to-year as an “adjunct” professor, a disparity that definitely did not map onto merit, even though in those early days her greatest accomplishments were still ahead of her. She was one of the most important role models in my poetic and teaching life, but our relationship suffered strains because of systemic injustice. Several people told me last week that W&L treated her badly. I know individuals did, and I’m sure in my own panicky obliviousness I missed a lot, but W&L’s badness, if you can describe it that way, is common and persistent. She was undervalued as other contingent professors, here and elsewhere, remain undervalued. W&L hasn’t risen above the deeply unfair system that permeates U.S. academia, but our version is not unique or especially egregious. Even twenty years later, as a department head, I can’t see any fix except to keep saying “the system isn’t right and it damages all of us.” I have an essay to write, I think, but I’m trying not to get too far in until I have time to reread Claudia’s first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh—the one she finished in an office downstairs from me, with fewer resources than those I enjoyed.

Really, I don’t have to try very hard as far as not-writing is concerned! This will be the last week of classes, followed by a week of exams and meetings, and my schedule is chock-full of student conferences and other obligations like reading job applications and oh, maybe decorating a tree or two. This Wednesday my class will put on a Haiku Death Match in the Elrod Commons Living Room at 11:15 a.m.—if you’re local, stop by. I don’t expect any of the students’ little poems to rock the world, but there will be coffee and good cheer. Poetry is a good church in which to worship, even if when you step out again, the streets are as messed-up as ever.

Forgiveness, gratitude, and other things I suck at

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday—historically, emotionally, even logistically. (Reason #647 to be grateful: I don’t have to get on the highway this year.) And yet I love all the rituals leading up to the feast. Last weekend, I made stock and baked pumpkin bread to freeze. This Saturday I scribbled out long lists and laid in ingredients. Now homemade cranberry sauce is chilling in the fridge and cranberry-orange bread is perfuming the kitchen. Wednesday is for pies; Thursday morning I embark on an elaborate plan that will theoretically get all the food hot in time for dinner with Chris’ brother and his family. This orderly sequence—a crazy amount of work for one meal, but carved into small steps doable over time—seems all the more beautiful because I know it will have to change before too long. My daughter goes to college next year, and who knows how our traditions will need to alter as our children’s lives expand?

thxA sense of loss, prospective and retrospective, permeates the rituals. I scored some challah bread at the market because two decades ago, my friend Gayle taught me that it makes the best stuffing—but I haven’t seen Gayle for ages. Some of the recipes, like a maple-glazed sweet potato and apple dish, are from sticky old copies of Bon Appetit, to which I subscribed in the early nineties when I was a grad student learning how to cook. Those first attempts at domesticity are hazy in my memory now. The pumpkin bread recipe was transcribed in a neat hand around the turn of the century by my departmental partner in crime, Suzanne, whom I see much less of since she moved to the dean’s office, although she emails me generous notes of praise after I submit departmental reports. The cranberry bread instructions are scrawled less precisely on a soft green index card given to me by another now-distant friend. She broke off contact with me in long-nursed anger over something I’d said years before. I apologized but couldn’t remember making the harsh remark, or even secretly holding that opinion; I suspected misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, my apology didn’t help either of us—another friendship faded out.

And people near to me are managing much harder losses. I’m giving a poetry reading the week after Thanksgiving at VMI and only belatedly realized the date coincides with a terrible car accident at W&L last year. Over the mountain, the University of Virginia is in the news after the murder of a young woman earlier this fall and more a recent Rolling Stone article about gang rape in its fraternities. In class we’ve been discussing anger in poems and essays by Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and others—how rage can liberate, how it can harm. This is in the context of our own campus troubles with assault. You want a university to be a place where everyone can discuss their differences passionately yet respectfully, where good arguments can change minds, where everyone is safe to pursue their intellectual curiosities. But it is very, very difficult to cultivate and maintain even a temporary bubble of safety around one seminar or workshop, much less a college that has a million points of intersection with a dangerous world.

What I am truly most grateful for is that my spouse and children are safe and well, that my son can whine about his World History project and Chris can get so obsessed with his works cited list that, after shopping, he leaves the groceries in the car overnight (at least it’s cold). But my relief is so small it feels almost mean-spirited. I always want to hedge my thanks, too. I do feel very lucky, for instance, to teach great students in this lovely college town, but I want to add “where the campus culture can be toxic and good morale is fragile despite splendid resources.” Not very gracious, am I?

And forgiveness! I was so moved by my colleague Deborah Miranda’s reading from Bad Indians last week. She excerpted a passage about her dad coming home from San Quentin—a honeymoon of cooking and woodwork and gardening—but then segued into their alienation and his death. Deborah’s childhood was vastly different from mine, but my father was also an alcoholic and unpredictably mean, so as I listened I resonated like a bell. She finished on a passage about holding in her mind an image of her father as a child, still innocent, and feeling a wave of cool forgiveness wash over her. I’ve been meaning to ask her since: did the wave ebb, or does it stay with you? I have forgiven my father many times. The feeling seeps away, floods in, seeps away again. That night I sat down opposite a baby picture of my father I’d put up shortly after his death. The frame suddenly smashed face-down, though the room was still and the shelf unjostled. That’s how I feel: peaceful most of the time, but subject to sudden crashes of refusal.

Since I’m an unforgiving obscenely lucky ingrate, you’ll know it must be genuine when I say that I’m recently able to feel a little less angry about something that has chewed me up for years. About a month ago I responded to a small-potatoes bit of bullying in my department—by a guy whose previous behavior added up to gangantuan, ugly, poisonous potatoes that still lurk around campus unacknowledged—by publically saying cut it out. (You’ll forgive that potatoes metaphor, I hope, for getting so mashed up.) A tiny act of self-expression has made a big difference in my sense of well-being. I’ll try to make a habit of it.

I’m also feeling unhedged gratitude to have Deborah and other friends around, giving me recipes for sustenance. Thanks to a long-distance poet-friend, too, Jeannine Hall Gailey, for a shout-out last week on her blog. Thanks to Gordon Ball, soon retiring from VMI, for asking me to read there (Weds. 12/3, 7:45 pm in Preston Library). A generous writer from Ghana contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago to interview me for his blog, Geosi Reads–I talk about anger and forgiveness there, too. And thanks to magazine editors who recently turned on their personal amplifiers on my behalf: the people at Crazyhorse, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Gettysburg Review, as well as guest editor Anny Ballardini at Truck. Tahoma Literary Review just nominated a forthcoming poem of mine for a Pushcart, too. Does that sound like trivial po-biz stuff? It’s not. All my poems are love-letters, solitary broadcasts, petitions for human connection. I am so grateful to feel heard.

Poems and chapels

When Alice Te Punga Somerville walked out of Lee Chapel a week ago Sunday, she looked around for water and ended up rinsing her fingers in a puddle, flicking the water back over her head. “Don’t want to take anybody with me,” she remarked. I had forgotten that traditional gesture upon leaving a burial place. Robert E. Lee is below the chapel in his family crypt, his horse interred just outside; their graves are just a few steps from my office, and my office is above the room where the former confederate general was inaugurated president of Washington and Lee. It didn’t seem worth rinsing my own hands. I live with these ghosts. Each night Alice was here, in fact, I dreamed of the afterlife—in one case an eternal poetry conference on the beach near Nelson, New Zealand, run by Bill Manhire.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the chapel on my own for a memorial service for Severn Parker Costin Duvall III, a W&L professor of modern poetry who retired in the mid-nineties, when I was hired. Learned, eloquent, and sharp-witted, not to mention tall and good-looking, Severn could be intimidating in the classroom. To me, he was utterly charming, always greeting me with a cry of enthusiasm, inquiring about my well-being in a wonderful Tidewater accent, and reflecting on what a brilliant hire I had been.  When I was researching the history of literary readings in the U.S. for Voicing American Poetry, I interviewed Severn, who had been hired to start the Glasgow series, bringing Muriel Rukeyser, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others. Severn spoke of standing-room-only crowds in that same chapel for James Dickey, and how the all-male student body was riveted in 1973 by a symposium of women writers: Mary McCarthy, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kips, Barbara Deming, and Penelope Gilliat. He sipped coffee in Elrod Commons while I scribbled furiously, feeling star-struck, for a couple of hours. I would have loved to listen longer.

And a few days later, news of Adrienne Rich. The space in which I’ve been mourning her couldn’t be more different than Lee Chapel. I’m hearing testimonies through Wom-po, a virtual space full of women from different generations, backgrounds, life paths. It’s impressive how many of these poets felt authorized and inspired by Rich’s work. Many of them are already writing essays. I’ll leave them to it. My own experience of Rich isn’t unique or interesting. As a university student in the late eighties, I found her work, fell in love with it, and wrote an honors thesis partly based on “Twenty-One Love Poems.” I heard her read once at a Whitman centennial in Paterson, New Jersey. I teach her work in a range of classes and it always fully engages me—heart, brain, conscience.

What compelled me as an undergraduate reading “Twenty-One Love Poems” were her thoughts on the ethics of telling, of making one’s interior life exterior through words. There’s one scene of two women touching one another as they vomit over the rail of a ferry; diction linking love to pregnancy; and of course that sexy female volcano (which I finally climbed myself this past summer, thinking of Rich). Lots of pain and destruction in those metaphors, but in the end telling is better than keeping secrets.

I’m sorry Severn is gone. It was good, though, to hear one of Severn’s grown-up students talk to us about what he learned from his tough, generous teacher; he vividly conjured up one particular seminar in a room where I’ll teach this spring term. I’m one of Rich’s students, although I never met her, and I can still inhabit the space of thinking she made through poetry. Sometimes the virtual rooms are as vivid, as important, as the real ones.