Writing and Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from June Jordan
Poet and professor Donna Masini 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. Masini was joined by Joshua Bennett, Suzanne Gardinier, 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.
Here are some verbs that come to mind when I hear June Jordan inside me: Listen. Imagine. Interrogate. Write. Pay Attention. Work. Study. Love. Read. Celebrate. Show up. Practice. Fight. Act. Believe. Love. Write.
Write something, June said. No matter what’s happening. Write something every day.
Those of us who’ve had great teachers—for me this means June, Audre Lorde, James Wright (these are just the famous ones)—believe in teaching. Hey, I hear June say, how do you know what I think and feel?! So, let me revise: I believe in teaching. As a vocation. Part of myself as a writer—even when it gets in the way of writing. What is it these great teachers did? I suggest they insisted we pay attention. Insisted upon the integrity of our language. (June’s “Problems of Language in a Democratic State” should be—along with Orwell’s “Politics in the English Language”—required reading for any class.) These great teachers taught us to interrogate our assumptions. They treated us with respect. They demanded our passion and rigor. They wanted us to locate the sources of our power, to understand the sources of what we experienced as our powerlessness. Each in their own way asked us to enter our imaginations.
June dedicated Passion to “everyone as scared as I used to be.” It’s no accident that she and Audre Lorde spoke directly about fear. Do not ever suppose I am fearless, Audre said to me more than once: Everything I’ve done in my life I have done in spite of great fear.
I’m not going to argue about whether or how this is the worst of times. But I’ve been teaching at Hunter College since 1994. And I’ve noticed disturbing changes. Something I believe we face now on a larger scale is the despair of our students—a despair that comes in many guises. For some it’s obvious—suicidal ideation, serious depression, anxiety, distress. For others it’s more easily missed or misunderstood. Forgetting assignments, missing class, repeated lateness. An inability to focus or pay attention. Texting. Texting. Texting. Even among those whose anger has made them increasingly active, politically and socially, there can be this insidious distractedness.
What can we give them, ask of them/ourselves, to help them/us live, to help them/us survive, thrive, and write out of this awful time? To counter the despair in whatever guise it takes? The dissociated automisms that are often the result of repressed anger, rage, fear, grief.
These are some of the things I find myself thinking about:
Many of us poets are teachers of writing and literature. If we’re lucky, our classes are smaller, intimate. Here we can create what Winnicott calls the “holding environment.” Together, we and our students can make what we read and study, discuss and create and revise into tools to counteract despair and create a sense of agency. Put this in your arsenal, Audre Lorde used to say, when she showed us various poetic devices. Metaphor, enjambment, anaphora. Put that in your arsenal.
We can listen to them—and ask them to listen to and respect one another enough to be able to disagree with and question one another. And themselves. To think and investigate out loud, fearlessly. Or at least in spite of fear.
June listened: Intent, leaning forward, active look-you-in-the-eye listening. It could be scary to be listened to like that. You got away with nothing. June was about subtext. What was not being said. She demanded specificity. It was her pitch-perfect ear, so hooked to pulse/heart/mind, that made her the poet somebody called “a lyric catalyst for change.” This listening that kept her acutely aware of the musical possibilities of language, the ways language could distort, equivocate, erase, or obscure. Or lie. The ways it could delight us, transform our suffering, rage, joy into poetry—this very listening was what made her a teacher who helped us listen to ourselves as we groped and revised toward “meaning.”
We can encourage our students, in whatever they choose to write “about,” to listen to themselves. To honor their own interiority. To find the quiet inside that will lead them into their imaginations. And to show them it’s not about active vs. contemplative. It’s about acts of attention—what some might call reverie, others states of prayer—that will allow them to surface more fully alert, revitalized, writing. And yes, perhaps as a result they will feel more—so we can make sure they find the counseling services in our schools and communities that will help them.
As writers and teachers we can ask them to look more carefully: Hopkins says to look and look at a thing until it looks back at you. That is imagination. When you truly see a person, a whale, a tree, village, it’s harder to violate it. Looking, listening, attending. I/thou relating. These are acts of imagination. As teachers, this is what we cultivate. We can help them see it’s a dialectic. Active—June, like Shelley (her great love) and Blake, believed poetry could change our lives, our minds. “What is now proved was once only imagined,” Blake says—even as it involves the drift, the reverie that gives us poems of great associative leap like June’s “Free Flight.”
June taught by the power of example: For her, writing and poetry are the first line of defense, response, action. No matter what was happening, no matter what abomination this country—any country—was committing, June was out there writing. Passionate, thoughtful, informed, necessary. Dimensional. Like her beloved Whitman confronting the horrors of slavery, the Civil War (of course Whitman, too, must be interrogated, but that’s another story), June tried to address what she saw. Believed she could address—or attempt to address—the unspeakable. That it was possible. Not just possible, a responsibility. She asked the same of us. And let us know that we would each discover our own way of doing this. She urged us, required us, to write out of our raw, struggling, original thoughts and feelings. That, too, is the Craft of Poetry.
Just take a look at the “blueprint” Poetry for the People that she created with her students.
Write, June said. No matter what is happening. Write. Write something every day.
I believe we have to demand more: To call our students out. That’s respect. This forgetting. Lateness. Not showing up. Missing a deadline. This writing an email without salutation or signature. Not standing up on the subway for an elderly or disabled person—because you never even noticed them! There’s a place in a classroom to say: Stand up on the bus or subway. What we do in our lives we do in our poems. We need to expect more, demand their rigor and passion and attention even as our universities move to push them through quicker and cheaper. Rack up another “graduation” on the spreadsheet.
This is integrity—to integrate the writing life, the personal life, student, teacher, activist life, the moral imagination. This is huge. Necessary. This is Eros vs. Thanatos.
As I write this, students from Florida are marshaling their grief and outrage, and, even as the funerals continue, getting on the road to speak out against politicians beholden to gun lobbyists for the likes of the NRA. They’ve woken up. But it shouldn’t take horrific violence in our own backyard to wake us up. To realize every life matters. Through the power of example, we, as teachers, can urge our students to wake up.
June asked nothing of her students that she did not require of herself. It’s not an accident she has a book called Soldier. Whether it was having us write sonnets and villanelles, to read more closely—a poem, a newspaper—June believed we train. (Imagine: some genius thought it fit to suggest training teachers to use guns as a solution to school shootings!) As part of this training I want to cultivate in my students a greater tolerance for ambiguity: This might mean modeling how to read, say, Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” or Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” in ways that are complicated and dimensional. To read June’s “I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies” and hear the reverberations, the shifts in meanings of those words throughout the poem.
We need to counter the dead end of either/or thinking. There’s no separation between what we ask them/ourselves to do in poems and in their/our moral, ethical lives. We study Keats: What does Negative Capability mean in the world of DACA? Our students are, quite literally, living in uncertainty.
In what we assign, we can enlarge their worlds/perspectives. Bring poems of many languages/cultures/structures/aesthetics. To give them more agency: Ask them to bring in what they love. Or, simply, during in-class writing, interrupt with a phrase like “somewhere on the other side of the world” or “somewhere in the middle of America” to see where the line, the shift in perspective, takes them.
Each of us responds/is responsible in our own way. Each of us has our own gifts. Believing this, June asked us to be sure our readers feel addressed. She asked us not to assume what another thought, felt, or experienced: There’s a difference between imagining our selves into, between empathy and investigation—and appropriation or violation. This, too, is part of the Craft of Poetry.
Here’s June: “Just because I’m absolutely committed to libertarian struggles all over the world, doesn’t mean that I can speak for the Vietnamese. I can speak from my understanding of their liberation struggle and how it relates to my liberation struggle. I can speak from that, but I cannot speak for them.” This, too, is the Craft of Poetry.
This we can teach them. That there are things we cannot know or assume about another. To honor the mystery and unknowability of others. Of ourselves.
For poetry, for imagination to transcend and transform feeling, Adrienne Rich says in her great essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” “we must be willing to believe that day might be night…black might be white.” That is, to question. Not to fear what we think/feel. Might think/feel. To do this, June would hunt down the killer detail, the right metaphor. Her metaphors are stunning because she loved discovering the ways in which things are unexpectedly like other things: E.g., “Poem About My Rights,” a poem about women and rape and the strange loopholes of legal defense she moves suddenly into: “Which is exactly like South Africa/penetrating into Namibia penetrating into/Angola and does that mean I mean how do you know if /Pretoria ejaculates what will the evidence look like…/and if after Namibia and if after Angola and if after Zimbabwe…/do you follow me?”
We can bring in “The Bombing of Baghdad”—that Beethoven Quartet of a poem—to talk about tone/texture/repetition/rhythmic modulation/pacing…and own our complicity. Thing about June: She’s never the “good guy.”
Here’s the thing: As writers/ teachers/students we have to trust—especially when a glance at any social media platform will show us otherwise—that we can rely on the good will of others to respectfully disagree or debate. Crazy to believe that? Yes. And we have to be smart about it, but I believe—try to believe—that we have to write/speak/act as if that were true. June did. “What is now Proved was once only imagined.”
“I have decided I have something to say about…” June would begin. And say she does. And listens for our response. Dares us to speak.
Donna Masini is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently 4:30 Movie, and a novel. She is a Professor of English at Hunter College, where she teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program.