Writing and Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from June Jordan with Suzanne Gardinier
Poet and professor Suzanne Gardinier offered the following remarks as part of “Writing and Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from June Jordan,” a panel presented at Poets House with the support of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate. Gardinier was joined by Joshua Bennett, Donna Masini, Aja Monet, and Jan Heller Levi in honoring June Jordan (1936–2002), the acclaimed poet, activist, essayist, and teacher, whose projects included Poetry for the People, a workshop model for bringing poetry into diverse community settings.
I’m going to suggest four pathways by which I’ve come to the miracle of June Jordan’s work, through which you might either visit or revisit what she made—pathways that are connected to teaching but not confined to it. “Education as the practice of dreaming together,” as Joshua Bennett put it. “To dream up what we might not yet have the words to describe.”
Pathway #1: My introduction to June Jordan’s work was hearing her read “Report from the Bahamas,” the year after it was written. I was twenty-two years old and four months sober—so barely born—and I remember how small she looked at the podium, and the enormity of what she was saying, and the contrast between those orders of magnitude.
I had already stepped into what Joshua, quoting Ms. Brooks, gracefully called the whirlwind, and what I would crudely call the shitstorm, of American racism. I had already stepped into the work of resisting it enough to know that all its plans depended on division. To divide everything: to divide body and mind, to divide you from the earth…as if those things were separate. As if what happened to somebody else didn’t have anything to do with you. Those were the values “Report from the Bahamas” was leaning against. And what she did when she read that essay, in a way I had never seen, or heard a hint of, was to make something else. To make that other cosmos. Not based on division. Based on connection.
I’ve been giving my students the beginning of Raymond Williams’ beautiful book The Long Revolution, and what June was doing was exactly what he’s talking about there: to get away from the illusion of those splits, of those values based on division. Williams says that whether you want to base your ways of seeing on physics or on the wisdoms of every indigenous people who’ve ever existed, however you come at it, that way of seeing is false. It’s a lie. It’s a distortion of perception. And he talks about, as he puts it, “the substantial unity.” That’s reality. That’s what is. And that’s what June was putting together in “Report from the Bahamas.” It was just dazzling. And it gave you the sense that the colonial proyecto, as they call it in Cuba, that project, could be undone. That you could “stop/the bleeding,” as Joshua Bennett says in his poem for Renisha McBride. June says something about that in the essay itself, as she’s watching this happen and making it happen in words at the same time: “And then everything changed, and I watched all of this happen so I know that this happened. This connection.” Prism shift. Just like that.
And there was an aspect of this that had to do with language. I remember the literal things that happened in the essay, which will move you—but I remember also that the way it was made, the way it followed the track of her mind, had something to do with changing what English is. She leaned against the rigidities of that subject-object structure in English syntax and she changed it, in that interval of time. She says in that beautiful essay “Nobody Mean More To Me Than You and The Future Life of Willie Jordan,” which was written right around that same time: “Once we arrived at rule 4,” as she’s remaking the world with her students, “we started to fly, because syntax, the structure of an idea, leads you to the worldview of the speaker and reveals her values. The syntax of a sentence equals the structure of your consciousness.”
Pathway #2 is courtesy of Abby Lester, the Sarah Lawrence archivist, who was kind enough to find me the course descriptions from when June taught there. June Jordan and I came to Sarah Lawrence at about the same age, she in the revolutionary year of 1969 and I deep in the counterrevolutionary year of 1994. In one of her collaborations with Sweet Honey in the Rock, she says that “a way out of no way/is too much to ask/for any one woman”—but she made a lot of those ways out of no way—and if you look at these course descriptions you can see some of them.
So among the course titles from Sarah Lawrence we have “Forms of American Prose,” with Mr. Harnack, and “Comparative Drama” with Mr. Kleinman, and “The Literature of the Bible”…and then we have “Literature and Social Change,” with Miss Jordan.
“This course of study will carry the class,” how beautiful is that? (Everyone else says, “This course will stuff down the throats of the class x y & z…”)—
“This course of study will carry the class into poems and prose evolving from the creative experience of revolution.”
So that’s what she was bringing to Sarah Lawrence. “Black & white literary artists will provide the basic material for consideration.” There may be 40 names of authors and thinkers who will be consulted in all the classes on this random catalog page. In her course description are the only people of color on the whole list. She says, “Political realities and individual concerns of class members will determine the emphasis of the progress of the course.” Quite a different way of looking at things than that of anyone else around her.
Pathway #3 to June’s work for me these days is via a course I’m teaching at Sarah Lawrence called “To Tell the Truth,” a non-fiction reading and writing class focused on how to distinguish lying in prose: whether one’s own, in a draft, or when reading someone else’s. I could not imagine teaching this class without the influence of June Jordan’s teaching, and of her ways of looking at the world.
There’s a particular “To Tell the Truth” class called Taste and Power, where we read about the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the ways these various U.S. military intelligence projects have tried to frame our literature and how it’s made and read and received, here and all over the world. And there’s a gesture people are starting to make in that class—they push back from the table, duck and slowly shake their heads back and forth.
It suggests you just can’t, it’s too ugly and too pervasive and it’s gone on for too long and you can’t deal with it. At the end of that Taste and Power class is “Report from the Bahamas,” as medicine, to get us through.
Pathway #4 is something I stumbled on by accident: a segment of William F. Buckley’s television show, Firing Line. (I’m not sure we’d be at exactly this stage of shitstorm without Buckley’s Firing Line, which ran for more than 33 years, mostly on public television.) William F. Buckley, who worked for the CIA, would invite various people—and ¡por milagro! by a miracle! he invited June Jordan, to discuss “free speech.”
He also invited lawyer Harriet Pilpel, an ACLU free speech purist. So the idea was clearly that the two women would hate each other’s guts and get into a public fight—and it’s so beautiful what June does instead. If you want to see the work of an organizer, check it out.
There’s a point as the two women are arguing—Harriet Pilpel for anyone to be able to say whatever they want, June for the integrity and protection of the body on which the consequences of all this “freedom” are visited—for the real body politic to be considered in the argument, not the straw version—where June just lowers her gaze and looks at Harriet Pilpel. Sees her. Can’t quite believe they’re not sisters. Tries to make that be true. And you can see Harriet Pilpel transform. June fixes her with the love-beam and they become allies, who have their differences but are basically together, and Buckley is kind of flickering around meaninglessly on the edges. It’s glorious. She said at Barnard, “I’m always hoping to do better than collaborate with whoever or whatever means me no good.” It’s such a vivid example of that.
My beloved friend Arlene is here, whose friend Banu told me once that in Turkish when you say Thank you, some of it translates literally as Bless your hands, or Bless your mind. So I’ll finish by saying, Bless June Jordan’s hands, without which I would not be standing here, made the ways I am. Bless her mind.
Suzanne Gardinier is the author of 12 books, including Amérika: The Post-Election Malas 1-9 (2017), Notes from Havana (2016), Carta a una compañera (2016), Homeland (2011), Iridium and Selected Poems (2010), Today: 101 Ghazals (2008), and Letter from Palestine (2007). She teaches in the creative writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.