Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a friend who had come over to watch the election returns, she said, “Oh, that happened to me, too,” describing hiding in a basement when a shooter attacked the university where she was earning her PhD. She always has a plan, now, for how to hide if another shooter comes through.

Nor is our remote small town any kind of a protective factor. We have offices in Washington and Lee’s historic colonnade, which is very much the heart of the embattled Confederacy for certain die-hard white nationalists, who are angry about the slightest possible changes to their sacred sites. Some of whom distributed KKK fliers on campus just a couple of weeks ago. Any place in the US is vulnerable to violence from well-armed disturbed people, but we have an extra source of risk without the security resources of larger universities.

In short, teachers now have dangerous jobs, students are always vulnerable to random violence, and nowhere is safe. So all together, now: let’s write pantoums! Seriously, teaching poetry during any of the crises we’ve been negotiating lately could seem frivolous, but I’ve been feeling the opposite. My poetry classes keep turning into spaces for analyzing and reflecting on disaster in ways that feel more emotionally useful than, say, reading the news.

words ofSome of that is chance resonance between syllabi and world events. Well, sort of chance. For a different course, my mid-20th-century US poetry seminar, we’re studying the usual characters–O’Hara, Brooks, Rich, and others–but I replaced a session I used to devote to Vietnam war protest poetry with several readings from an anthology I’ve really come to admire: Words of Protest, Words of Freedom, edited by Jeffrey Lamar Coleman. It’s been clear especially since Trump’s rise that we remain in the middle of Civil Rights battles that defined the country fifty years ago, or perhaps in a never-ending backlash against them, so I knew it was time to represent Civil Rights poetry more robustly on my syllabus. Coleman clearly did his research, because while the book contains many famous poems by our best US poets, it also features more obscure work culled from little magazines of the era, and the friction is riveting. I’ve been so impressed by how eagerly and intelligently my students are working through material that is even more relevant than I intended. The KKK leaflets were distributed here on a Friday, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred the next morning, and for Monday, the assignment was to discuss poems about the KKK bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young girls in Birmingham in 1963. That synchronicity has definitely brought urgency to our discussions.

But is it synchronicity, now, or just the permanent daily texture of the world? Since I started drafting this post, there’s been another mass shooting. The election cheered me, but the administration immediately punched back with more ways of undermining the law. Poetry gives me access to other minds confronting related crises thoughtfully–it’s personally useful to read Giovanni, Hayden, Brooks, and many others as they work through anger and hope and grief–but it’s also providing small collections of us with a nonpartisan angle of discussion on the human toll of violence, the way it ripples out in space and time, and I’m grateful for that, too. It makes me feel warmly connected to other anxious human beings working through serious questions, and I hope it does the same for them.

Here’s a Lucille Clifton poem from the anthology, from a group of responses to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My students led a brilliant discussion about it: who is included in the “we” who held the “meeting” for which this poem offers a riff on the usually less-than-gripping literary genre of minutes? How are the “we” and the “you” related? What does it mean to be saved? Is the tone of the last few lines wry, disparaging, or sympathetic?clifton poem

We all had slightly different answers, and listening to Clifton reading the poem here (minute 7:14) can change your mind yet again. It’s centering to think about it when your heart needs rest after other kinds of activism. Who are we, anyway? Where are we headed?

Rebalancing hours and relineating Clifton

“How are you doing so much emotional work in September?” I demanded of my friend and office-hall-mate Deborah Miranda on Tuesday, after I’d read this. She’s an intermittent blogger, like me, but lately posts have been pouring through–here‘s another powerful story, from just this morning. I think she laughed and said something like “it comes when it comes.”

Over on my side of the hall, it’s stalled. I’m really struggling with being back to a rigid schedule. I worked hard during summer and my sabbatical, too, but most of the deadlines were self-imposed. The core of what I’m doing now is also rewarding: I’m teaching an upper-level seminar on modern American poetry, a poetry workshop, and a composition course. My students seem exceptional even by local standards. My classes are each full to the brim, but the “brim” is fifteen–cushy almost anywhere. Yet all this means my days are chock-full of classes, preparation for classes, office hours, meetings, committee work, grading, reference-writing, and a million flavors of professional correspondence. Deadlines are external and difficult to defer. I’ve been racing flat-out for several weeks now to meet my obligations to other people. I write the committee report Saturday after class prep, with more preparation and grading to do on Sunday.

I’m still exercising some and I halt whatever I’m doing if someone I love needs me. When my brain stops functioning in the evening I watch some TV or read The New Yorker before bed. But carving out any other downtime seems impossible, and I feel desperately sad about writing projects I finished recently that need to be pushed along towards publication. I just don’t have the focus, or the hours.

You know this story, and I do, too. The moral is: make time anyway. So I’m submitting the damn strategic planning white paper today, and I’ll refuse to take further leadership in committees. I’ve almost stopped looking at Facebook. After a hard stare at my schedule, I realized I can take Tuesday and Thursday mornings to work at home, where it’s quiet, so I imposed that regime this week.

Tuesday morning I labored over ms queries–a rational effort, the most urgent item on my to-do list. I got a few out. It felt terrible. Then my sister called with worrisome news about my mother’s recent blood tests and I got a couple of magazine rejections. I ran out of time to get my head together for my three o’clock class–it was fine, but not as energizing as the session could have been. The next day I pulled a muscle in my back at the farmer’s market, loading up the car with vegetables for the week. Back pain always seems so symbolic to me: I’m unbalanced, carrying too much.

So here I am on Thursday morning, when I’d promised myself to prepare queries for the other ms, blogging instead. This is an inefficient way to spend free hours, maybe, but writing just feels better than submissions. What’s the right math here–some aimless drafting, some submissions, some revisions, as the day seems to call for? Or should I focus hard-won time with laser intensity on what would really feel best in the long-run–delivering mss somehow, some way, to the world?

I don’t have the answer, but I can tell you the most fun I’ve had this week was preparing for my poetry workshop, very inefficiently. I was pondering how to get introductory students to see the possibilities of lineation, and I ended up retyping a Lucille Clifton poem: “the beginning of the end of the world.” For an unnecessary hour, I played out variations: what if I wrote out the poem as a single grammatical sentence, in prose (see below)? The poem turns out to be an open-ended proposition. Maybe the roaches are holy emissaries, not “dark” invaders, and our refusal of their presence will destroy us–she doesn’t quite spell that out, but it’s a resonant speculation, in this moment of hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric. Maybe the roaches break faith with us because we’re faithless–where might the commas go in that last bit, anyway? Would parentheses be better? I tried other versions, too–long lines to highlight the buried litany, for example (although WordPress won’t let me paste in hanging indents). Clifton’s poem is way better than my bowdlerizings but I learned the poem more deeply through the exercise, and I think discussing my revisions was illuminating for students, too. No answers. Just questions, and poetry, and play…I may often wish my life weren’t such an experiment, but pondering uncertainty seems to be the best survival strategy I’ve got.

Not Necessarily the Beginning of the End of the World (with apologies to Clifton)

Maybe the morning the roaches walked into the kitchen, bold with their bad selves, marching up out of the drains not like soldiers—like priests—grim and patient in the sink, and when we ran the water, trying to drown them as if they were soldiers, they seemed to bow their sad heads, for us, not at us, and march single file away; maybe then, the morning we rose from our beds as always, listening for the bang at the end of the world; maybe then, when we heard only the tiny tapping and saw them dark and prayerful in the kitchen; maybe then, when we watched them turn from us, faithless, at last, and walk in a long line away…

 

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