Flagging

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In the screenshot above, a racist organization celebrates my university president. It’s been quite a week.

Backstory: in August 2017, as neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, W&L’s then-new president set up a Commission on Institutional History and Community to study how we teach and represent our history here. “Here” is Washington and Lee, a highly selective liberal arts college with a law school attached, named after one of our early benefactors, George Washington, and another university president, Robert E. Lee, who held that role for five years after the end of the Civil War. The violence and hate displayed in Charlottesville is relevant to W&L not only because of proximity, but because our campus and small town  have been strongly shaped by white supremacy. Three buildings on campus are named for Lee–who for 150 years has been the focus of Lost Cause nostalgia–as well as a city street, a nearby highway, a church (until very recently), and lord knows how many other institutions I’m repressing memory of. The Confederate general is buried on campus and his right-hand man, Stonewall Jackson, is buried in town. Confederate reenactors regularly march down Main St. and pool in sullen groups at intersections, protesting local resistance to displaying Confederate battle flags on city flagpoles. The KKK periodically leaflets the neighborhood, soliciting membership. Ground zero for much of this is our college chapel–Lee Chapel, of course–which is full of Lost Cause memorabilia and sits atop the Lee family crypt. If you think these conjunctions are terrifying, eye-rollingly stupid, offensive, pernicious, a tempting target for more neo-Nazi rallies: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

In May 2018, the Commission issued a long report recommending many changes, some of which involve altering the role of the chapel in university life; renaming buildings and changing the balance of what’s memorialized; and correcting myths to present a far more complex picture of Lee. After 24 years of being upset by the way W&L presents Lee, I appreciated much of the straight talk in the report, although I know plenty of people who didn’t think it went far enough. The Commission included stakeholders from many generations, backgrounds, and political persuasions, so its consensus surprised me and gave me a little bit of wary hope.

Well, the president just issued a response that started the flaggers cheering (and presumably plenty of deep-pocketed conservative older alums, too). Basically, he was very specific about keeping intact the tradition of whitewashing Lee, and very vague about how other report recommendations might one day, possibly, very quietly be partially adopted. I’m not surprised, but like all the other professors I’ve been talking to, I’m sad and disappointed. What a waste of momentum towards change. What a way, too, to disrespect an already demoralized teaching community. I feel particularly bad for colleagues and students who put hundreds of hours of work into the commission, many of which involved fielding bile from enraged right-wingers, who are invariably louder than anyone with a moderate or left-of-center perspective.

Am I angry? Not really; too tired. I am mad at myself for signing up to moderate diversity discussions during first-year orientation, which will add up to 10-12 hours of unpaid labor, some of them over this “holiday” weekend. Why volunteer to facilitate those conversations when the larger organization won’t support the values behind them? I am worried about the students, though–the first-years moving in this morning as well as my returning students and advisees. I want everyone to feel welcomed, supported, and able to be full participants in the intellectual and artistic community we try to foster. I know many students who felt disenfranchised and demoralized last year; I’m afraid the president’s letter just made things much worse. What DOES seem utterly worthwhile, and what I’ll try to keep my focus on, is continuing to give students what help I can in my classrooms and office hours. Aside from the extra dose of complicity in white supremacy (!!!), I like teaching here a great deal: small classes, great resources, talented students, talented colleagues. It’s not the worst corner a poet can get backed into.

Plus, in meetings yesterday, I saw a revolutionary glimmer in some colleagues’ eyes. Roanoke College professor and general education expert Paul Hanstedt was leading an outstanding workshop on general education and I think the hard-core university citizens in the room were realizing: maybe donors will win all the debates about names, statues, and institutional rhetoric. But the FACULTY is in charge of the curriculum. We can make CHANGES that COUNT.

In the meantime, I loaded some extra protest poetry into fall syllabi. More on poetry teaching soon, and on reading poetry for Shenandoah, which, it turns out, I LOVE–it’s so much fun to read new work pouring in. W&L’s distinguished literary magazine, currently being redesigned by a new Editor in Chief, Beth Staples, is open for submissions now, all genres, no cost to submit, and if you’re accepted, it pays actual money! We’ll do good work with W&L’s resources yet.

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Germinant

My daughter spent the weekend in Budapest, an eight-hour bus ride from Prague, where she’s studying abroad. My son spent the weekend at the state chess tournament, at which he played well and scored a couple of upset wins against higher-ranked competitors. I spent the weekend honing a PowerPoint concerning faculty survey results for the program directors’ plenary at the AWP, which is not my cup of tea, although many cups of tea were consumed in the process. My workload has definitely been tilted too far towards service lately. On the bright side, even as I struggle to meet all those commitments, poems are spraying out of me wildly like water from a damaged spigot. It’s a spring thing–the light comes back and so does the poetry.

I enjoyed editing the “Process” column for Modernism/ modernity, but I’m grateful to be handing that patch of earth to another gardener now. For my last post, I interviewed one of the contemporary poetry scholars I most admire, Jahan Ramazani. “Isn’t that one of the glories of rich, complex, multidimensional poems,” he writes, speaking my language, “that they keep emitting light long after much else in their time has gone dark?” I hereby raise my teacup to scholars and critics everywhere doing good work in service of rich, complex, multidimensional poems. May it keep mulching new poems and reinvigorated conversations.

The other publications poking out of wintry soil this week were two poems in the new issue of Barrow StreetThe shorter one, “Recumbent Lee,” is pictured above, photographed in Payne Hall at W&L. Lee Chapel rises in the background, a building that’s basically a shrine to Lee; Valentine’s statue is housed centrally within it, and the general himself is buried in the crypt. My poem was written and accepted well before the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville last summer, but in a way, it’s overdue. I have a lot of problems with Valentine’s well-rendered work of art. The graceful way it whites out cruelty–that’s not what I wish to teach and honor.

A waxing gibbous moon rising over the rear of Payne Hall, however, after a wonderful lecture by Robert Macfarlane about language and the more-than-human world–that’s a brightness I’d amplify. It’s funny how I can feel so stressed about everything happening outside my classrooms but pretty good about what’s happening within them. But as I prep pantoums, ghazals, blues, and documentary poetry for tomorrow, I do feel nourished by the work of helping their writing and thinking grow. It’s decent ground to stand on when the wind is high.

Our Declaration and our declaration

An interesting coincidence: after an intense conversation about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, my department commissioned a group of volunteers to draft a public statement. I was among the group of, at various times, six to eight people crafting the text collaboratively over Labor Day weekend. The brief we received from other professors who attended the English Department retreat was not just to decry neo-Nazi terrorism, but to point how Robert E. Lee, one of our college’s namesakes, is a hero to white supremacists. If the institution we gladly teach at doesn’t address this–if we don’t address it in our classrooms and office hours–we’re giving cover to the haters.

At the same time, I was preparing to lead a discussion section of our first-year reading, Our Declaration by Danielle Allen. One of Allen’s main arguments concerns the collaborative composition of the Declaration of Independence. She traces the negotiations that, over months, shaped that document, and holds it up as a model for how a group of citizens can reason their way towards a political judgment.

I wasn’t always persuaded by Allen’s book, but I was often moved by it–not just by her personal stories, but by her evangelical passion for “slow reading,” democracy, and equality. I enjoyed discussing it with our very smart students, who walked away still in debate, and then hearing Allen’s speech at Convocation. I sat up high in the auditorium and watched shock ripple through the audience when she suggested renaming the institution “Chavis, Washington & Lee” (in 1795, John Chavis was the first African American to graduate from a college or university in the US, and that was from an earlier version of W&L, Liberty Hall Academy). One of my first thoughts is what a former student said later: “Sounds like a law firm.” Reasonable people can differ on whether our institution, which has already had a few different monikers, should be renamed. But it is time to talk about it, so I appreciated Allen’s provocation.

Likewise, I found the process of composing our English Department declaration inspiring. I know our document is trivial. But although the co-composers had various backgrounds and temperaments, urgency united us, as well as what I think of as the core values of my profession: openness to respectful debate; honesty; precision; and a belief that words matter. Across differences in rank, too, the writing process was democratic. I’m sure I’m being sentimental, but our wrangling over words felt like one of those rare moments a university lived up to its own idealistic rhetoric. I remain happy to have been a part of it.

In the department’s passion to make a joint statement, however, we didn’t agree on a process or timeline, and we all came out of the retreat with different expectations as to what would happen next. Things got messy. We voted to put it on Facebook, where it generated an extraordinary range of responses (although angry voices quieted somewhat after one right-winger identified himself as a Thor-worshiper), and also on the department web page. A senior member of the administration asked us to take it off the latter and we did so (screen shots below).

english statement capture part 1

english statement capture part 2Ever since, people have been asking me some version of the question, “so why is this controversial?” Sometimes it seems impossible to to describe to those outside the W&L bubble what the view looks like from here, and vice versa. And I can’t speak for the whole department–these answers are my own.

But what seems plain and honest to me personally is that W&L has a history of celebrating Robert E. Lee without acknowledging the context or consequences of that legacy. In the mid-nineties, I attended a baccalaureate ceremony in which the speaker, a minister, commended Lee to us as a proto-Civil Rights leader, because he’d taught his slaves to read. My Yankee jaw dropped right to the well-groomed lawn, but eventually I picked it up and got back to work. I had apparently time-traveled back to the Confederacy, but I just did my best to ignore the crazy rhetoric and teach my heart out. After all, I’m helping to provide a top-notch education to deserving students, and that’s work I believe in.

Yet how is it honorable to commend the good without acknowledging the harm? W&L is academically stellar, but it’s also the least racially diverse top liberal arts college in the country. Lee made laudable contributions to our school, but he also dedicated his military genius to defending the dehumanizing violence of slavery. To praise him without, in the same paragraph or page or oration, admitting the damage he helped cause–it’s ethically indefensible. See W&L’s “Our Namesakes” page for one of many public failures to get the balance right. Or look at our art and architecture. To hold school events in Lee Chapel, as if it’s normal to celebrate academic achievement with a portrait of the general in Confederate gray in the background–that damages the spirit of inclusiveness many of us work daily to foster.

Many community members have grown up with or just become used to this soft-focus hero worship of Lee, while also considering themselves anti-racist. Those positions are inconsistent in a way that becomes more obvious daily. I do hope for better, but we’ll see. Change comes slowly. In the meantime, here’s an article from The Lynchburg News I found during unrelated research yesterday. It turns out that the centennial of the Civil War was much celebrated in these parts, starting in 1960 and 1961. While the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, The Lynchburg News ran an intermittent “Confederacy Column” so that no one would forget to honor those southern soldiers.

It’s the partial forgetting I worry about.

Radioland, an outtake

The world’s going to hell, but my writing is going well…Mostly revising and submitting, these days. I now have THREE projects under submission: 1. Taking Poetry Personally: Twenty-First Century Verse and the Multiverse; 2. a chapbook-length long poem, Propagation; 3. and a first novel, The Changeling Professor, although that one is just at the beginning-to-query-agents phase. Meanwhile I’m keeping poems under journal submission, and in the process I keep finding verses I drafted quickly and then forgot about. Whenever you put together a poetry book a LOT ends up on the cutting room floor.

I think the poem below was just too specific to my life at that moment–it didn’t seem inclusive enough of readers outside my bubble. I’d just attended a memorial service for Severn Parker Duvall III, the grand, legendary, reportedly cranky old poetry professor whom I’d replaced at W&L (I say “reportedly” because the man left behind some astonishing stories, all of which I believe, but he was always beautifully genteel to me). The immediate scene is the lawn in front of Lee Chapel on campus, where I was leading a workshop in a writing prompt (and doing some drafting myself, obviously). Like a lot of poems, though, this one has a heterotopia, an other-place: I’d been back from my Fulbright in New Zealand for less than a year and clearly missed it.

I’m looking forward to reading from Radioland at Washington College in MD next week. In the meantime, a poem for the road. Maybe it’s about running out of time and not entirely minding.

The Opposite of Elegy

The shadow of a chapel spire ticks over
my shoulder; the students write. Severn said,
“Do you mean of my departure?”

when his granddaughter asked, “Are you scared?”
Struck like a bell but finally amused
by the notion of fearing death.

Last night’s dead-hour dream fused
everything I’ve been thinking of: I
visited an old hotel, beachy views,

near Nelson, New Zealand. Bill Manhire
was running a poetry conference
that was really the afterlife.

When told I had to jump back over the fence,
return to the living for a while, I cried…
My students are still writing. Present tense

continuous, sprawling all over a spikily
germinating lawn. Younger and smarter
every year. Sere leaves brushed aside.

I guess that’s spring for you. Clock for a heart.

April 2, 2012

roseoneill

 

The Head-Space of Revision

One more day in NaPoWriMo. I’m wondering: could May be NaPoRe(vision)Mo, and June NaPoSub(mission)Mo? Not sure I’m capable of it—the next few weeks are about as busy with teaching, domestic stuff, committee work, and miscellaneous deadlines as they could possibly be—but I’ll try. One potential snag: drafting is about openness and dreaming, restorative activities when your life is too busy. Revision, though, while it can be about receptive listening, also requires intellectual focus and decisive ruthlessness. The needle might be hovering around empty on those tanks, given this month’s grading, administrative, and report-writing obligations.

Whatever happens next, I’m shocked by the sheer amount and intensity of what I’ve written. Not one poem from the inventory below is ready for prime-time yet, but most of them contain interesting ideas, juxtapositions, and bits of language. It’s as if I squeezed in a writing retreat through random 30-60 minute blocks. The numbers refer to dates; I started storing drafts in an “april12poems” folder about three days in, when I realized I really was committed and would lose track of process otherwise.

1 He Likes Road Runner Best (sonnet treating Merrie Melodies, my son, Afghanistan)

2 The Opposite of Elegy (drafted outside Lee Chapel thinking about recent memorial services)

3 Acoustic Niche (terza rima about birdsong and creative writing workshops)

4 In Praise of Slogging (haiku expressing frustration about slacker students through an apple blossom metaphor)

5 OLD, Petersburg Virginia, by Gordon Stettinius (ekphrastic and syllabic, from a photograph in Staniar Gallery that made me think of my daughter’s recent birthday)

6 Past Meridian (fourteen word sonnet about middle age)

7 How Study Abroad Transforms You (couplet-sonnet depicting the Notorious New Zealand Paintball Outing)

8 Distractible (cruel and sexy April)

9 Semi-colons (extended sentence about teenage romantic drama)

10 Art Film (talked about that one in the last blog)

11 The Size of It (ditto; also 1989 cross-country trip)

12 Photoautotrophic (getting a little ecstatic, one of this month’s many long-lined free verse poems)

13 Working Assumptions (how I thought life operated when I was nineteen)

14 Powder Burn (remembering the guy who told me, “if you had long hair and a southern accent you’d be the perfect woman”)

15 Zut, Zut, et Zut (more melodramatic teenagers)

16 Earth, Air, Fire, But Mostly Water (looking at Deborah Miranda’s mountain, then pretty much on fire)

17 Chorophobia (look it up)

18 Reverberation Room (double sonnet that begins with the friendship between Liz and Jack on 30 Rock and ends up rhyming “obscene” with “feeling”)

19 Anti-Dinosaur Haiku (commissioned)

20 Enter the Wormhole (based on Janet McAdams’ rock-paper-scissors prompt from BookBalloon, though I broke the rules)

21 Science Fiction (I am definitely not done with this as a poetry topic)

22 The Sun Went Down Then I Felt Sad (response to a dare)

23 The End of Talk (using “talk” in epistrophe—does one say “in” epistrophe?)

24 Werewolf Arm (a sonnet referring to Chris’ birthmark)

25 That Small Item You Forgot Was In There (litany based on phrase “my first home,” the beginning of Robert Sullivan’s “Boyle”)

26 Lessons/ Reflecting Water (swimming pool haiku series, watching Cam splash after Sullivan glossed “waiata” in class)

27Aubade (playing with a three-step line)

28 Uncanny Valley (you know that theory about how too-lifelike robots inspire revulsion?)

29 Falling (lame title, but the poem uses trochees and dactyls to talk about marijuana)

30 ? (but what I’d like to pull off is a response to Craig Pleasants’ gallery exhibition)

Suggestions for tomorrow are very welcome, but you have about 11 hours until I’m at risk of starting to write without you.