Writing and Teaching in a Time of Crisis with Kay Ulanday Barrett
Kay Ulanday Barrett offered the following thoughts 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. Kay was joined by Taiyo Na, Sofía Snow, and Bill Zavatsky 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. The event took place as part of What Is It, Then, Between Us? Poetry & Democracy, the third annual initiative of the Poetry Coalition, which aligns over 20 poetry organizations in themed programming.
I am most grateful for June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint; this work offers guidelines. The guidelines begin: 1. Read it aloud. 2. Is it a poem? 3. What is its purpose? Critique from the get-go, about PURPOSE. She cultivated rooms of poets who could be themselves unapologetically, and that has purpose. This guide investigates poems as living creatures of influence and ramification. Her work is considered by QTPOC as the front line of movement-building and poetry—when each is respected, there is the deepest truth-telling. In crisis, I am blessed by her multiplicity as Black and bisexual and woman and soldier and academic and witness. Jordan has taught me her entirety expands basic boxes of poetry norms. In fact, she demonstrates a schematic to undo the truths force-fed to us. Her poignant quote emphasizes political engagement: Jordan states, “The first function of poetry is to tell the truth, to learn how to do that, to find out what you really feel and what you really think.”
I did not discover queer Black and women of color poetry as a young non-Black queer of color. I was told to choose in poetry even in Chicago, both in literary and slam poetry—do you have the race poem? The gay poem? The migrant poem? Therefore, parse sections of truth to what end? Show of hands—how many of you have been asked to choose to prioritize who you are? This ranking system is hella problematic and gouges at Jordan’s mission. I didn’t find work that moderately reflected me in poetry ‘til college. Jordan’s work facilitated immersion. Work that dares us not to take ourselves or our actions for granted. She fervently gave a bigger ferocity to poetry. Offers a poetic work of the insatiable—justice-thirsty, voice-hungry, a barrage of questions in each poem. All this, with stealth surgical precision to sew and stitch all the parts of humanity. Not in the Kumbaya sense, but the actual sense of Ella Baker who says “Who are your people?” All parts of you have purpose, have connection to social change, to your neighbors, to countries across the globe, to someone at the bus stop who is hungry.
Jordan taught me complexity. What matters about poetry is the promise of it, the cultural strategy of it, what can it actually do? Poetry isn’t written for the sake of a poem. Poetry and teaching = do your students have food in their bellies? Poetry and teaching = a ravaged water supply affected Palestinians in Lebanon. Poetry and teaching = brazenly epistolary confessions and odes that guide us to dialogue how we inhabit and inherit the world. Jordan’s work gives us something greater than even democracy, something tender and sweet even if momentary in this onslaught of U.S. empire, if we refer to “Poem for Haruko.” In “Poem for Nana,” there’s a growl of agitation with her own American privilege. She begins this poem with presence that lingers and haunts us in our current world affairs. Her first stanza posits “What will we do / when there is nobody left / to kill?” A simple enjambment after “do,” calls for action and swells up our desperation. There is little punctuation but the question mark. She is invested in the question. Remarkably, in the lines of this poem, she weaves the genocide of indigenous tribes, naming them, and the collusion of climate change as she peacefully checks out the beauty of California poppies. This musicality of the world shows us how poetry connects with the globe, from the air to the earth, to the personal and politics imposed on both.
Jordan emboldens a faceted movement beyond theoretical exercise or ego stretch—a praxis to generate collective uprising, vigor of constant critique for answers, even when we ourselves are weaponized and have internalized colonization. What’s instrumental is the embodiment of Jordan’s radical love. Her way forges trust to build a poetry event at the mic. Poetry is an event, in flux. In this current sound-bite, fast-paced, did-you-like-my-post?, 280-word-limit tweet, social-media bustle, Jordan demands we do not remain in struggle simply because we want the roar, the shine, or because we are right. We continue to struggle for more compassion. Our goal by Jordan is to pivot imbalanced power, not to be confused with absorbing or regurgitating it; ultimately, how do we navigate to decenter power?
Jordan’s era of Black queer political arts movement offered blueprints, and we overlook those roots today. I am referring to Jordan’s dedicated sense of culturally dynamic care, where no one is disposable. This care transforms the existence of people, for people, for those most impacted to be the pulsing center. She reminds us how we have lived, how we have loved, how we survived, and, most crucially, what is our lineage through a time of anti-Blackness and Black death, healthcare policy threats and pharmaceutical industrial rampage of the sick, queer and transgender non-binary hate crimes, a Muslim ban, young children being attacked for wearing hijab, a dictator who corrupts borders and mandates the rounding up and separation of families. How do we center those facing annihilation and utilize our privilege as an effort?
If we consider the literary milieu currently, we cannot afford to be disconnected. It is my job as a transgender brown poet and educator to imagine beyond hazardous constraints of binaries. It is my duty to be a conduit for compassion and confront my students and myself with an intimacy that revels in whole complicated brilliance. Jordan compels us to make poetry a drive, a messenger, a solace. She dispels the too-long-outdated irrelevant myth that you are alone, singular at your desk, great poet.
In my work as an advocate for the sick, disabled, in-chronic-pain mad community, I’ve learned grave impacts of isolation. In the essay, “Disability Justice—a working draft” by Patty Berne, a Black mixed-race femme organizer states:
A Disability Justice framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met…. Disability Justice holds a vision born out of collective struggle, drawing upon the legacies of cultural and spiritual resistance within a thousand underground paths, igniting small persistent fires of rebellion in everyday life.
This directly correlates to Jordan’s work. We cannot succumb to the hubris of bootstrap success or accolades. If we seek justice as Jordan pursues it, we cannot afford to be in a vacuum. We cannot be conquered if we are not divided. We have our own systems of interdependence. She insists we are a network with implications that affect one another: who grows our food, whose land we occupy, who makes the clothes we wear, who gets to distribute the wealth, who decides who’s controlled under the state. It’s from these relationships that we can actually delve into how we still find joy amidst suffocation. How Jordan simultaneously embarks on nuclear threat and begins a poem with how she is with her wife and cats on some random day is a stroke of interconnection. There’s unabashed calmness even in pandemonium. I argue Jordan urges us that, yes, we are beleaguered with desperate and dangerous oppression AND we too deserve to generate care, tenderness. Dare I say, even in mentioning news headlines of crisis, we deserve, at least briefly, a moment, a beat.
Jordan puts us to work, to remind us that all the protests, essays, analysis, and heartache—for Black people, women, LGBTQ, and those living these simultaneously—are for people to still feel love and be loved. What is more needed in crisis? Frequently in dialogue with historical figures to map possibilities, she penned an ode, “1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.” Here, her journalistic swiftness illustrates carnage of white supremacy and ends poem beyond survivorship, with unadulterated joy, in Blackness and protest:
Again, we could get mechanical with cadence; subtle shifts in syntax offer us internal language, space that paces the reader to read as conducted. The way this poem ends harvests what I believe Jordan wanted for her people and for people of the world, what I long for, in the simplest terms—to understand the beloved in us. The liberation of us requires both/and. The staggering acknowledgment of how colonial conquest mustn’t seep through our veins. Jordan celebrates that we deserve a sharp insistence WITH a compassion that has the softness of petals. We are fully right to long for an essence of wholeness. Our whole selves will bring us to liberation, nothing less.
In my keynote titled “Poetry as Offering: To Practice in Poetry & Live in the Body-Mind” at the Poetry Foundation last summer:
Here are examples of some inquiries I received in this year alone via my students, young queer & trans people of color, disabled people of my communities, after 18 campuses, five conferences, seven workshops, four keynotes:
- I’m the first to go to college in my family, how did you make it?
- What did your parents say when you came out?
- My school isn’t accessible, the bathrooms are still very gendered, so I can’t really concentrate because of all the systemic dysphoria. Will it go away?
- I am the only POC in my class and all I hear are micro-aggressions, what do I do?
- I am working 2-3 jobs and going to school. I realize that I am surrounded by rich white and straight people. How do I find community?
- How do you stay alive?
- The chronic pain is so bad sometimes that everyone thinks I am lazy, because I am late to that class/meeting/event, but none of those spaces are built for my body.
- I see my people attacked or killed all the time, it is really hard to focus on anything else. I can’t get up out of bed. How do you do it?
- Would you take an IG video/story with me? I want to send it to my parents–they said they don’t know any other Transgender Filipinx and I want them to know we exist–so let’s do a video and I’ll send it to them, ok?
Jordan encourages us to ask the questions, not just as a goal for democracy, but as a goal for self-determination. Questions missing in classrooms, in publishing query letters, and even in our own relationships. I am delighted and frustrated to engage a thoughtfulness found in June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Pat Parker, all queer Black sick women poets who have all died from complications of cancer. They taught me to simply ask what is missing, who is missing, where are we in the gaps and in our offerings? How do we show up with integrity even if we make mistakes chosen and conditioned upon us? How do we move through pain and not let it consume us? Jordan communicates that poetry is not enough.
Jordan shares in the urgency that we must be protest poem AND love poem, that no part of us should be compromised for the sake of decorum or, most contemporarily speaking, for “diversity.” Her work elaborates on just how pivotal erasure can be to violence. To maneuver this world of what she calls “steadfast ridicule,” in “For the Sake of People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us,” she insists:
Let me define my terms, in brief: New World does not mean New England. New World means non-European; it means new; it means big; it means heterogenous; it means unknown; it means free; it means an end to feudalism, caste, privilege, and the violence of power. It means wild in the sense that a tree growing away from the earth enacts a wild event.
Fast-forward to the present: Here we are, honoring June Jordan and her makings that still, decades later, feel unparalleled. Let’s commit to Black, women, queer, non-binary, and sick community poets. Let’s use our privilege to move back & center them now, not posthumously. Let’s commit to shifting paradigms to alter narratives that silence freedom. Let’s embark on a politic that not tokenizes but amplifies voices because they are valid. Let’s brandish this archive of resistance ancestors bestowed us and beckon this New World, make new directions to grow poetry. Let’s, as Jordan incites, let’s go wild. Come, let’s be in everything we do, the wildest event any of us could ever imagine. Let’s make this our standard.
A Campus Pride Hot List artist, Trans Justice Funding Project Panelist, and Trans 100 Honoree, Kay Ulanday Barrett, a.k.a. @brownroundboi, is a poet, performer, and educator. They have been a poetry fellow at The Home School, Drunken Boat, and The Lambda Literary Review. Their other other honors include: 18 Million Rising Filipino American History Month Hero 2013, Chicago’s LGBTQ 30 Under 30 awards, Finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Open-Mic Award, and the Windy City Times Pride Literary Poetry Prize. Their contributions are found in RaceForward, Entropy, APOGEE, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, Poor Magazine, Fusion.net, Trans Bodies/Trans Selves, Windy City Queer: Dispatches from the Third Coast, Make/Shift, The Advocate, and Bitch magazine. Recent publications include contributions in the anthologies Subject To Change (Sibling Rivalry Press), Outside the XY: Queer Black & Brown Masculinity (Magnus Books), and Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices (Trans-genre Press). When the Chant Comes (Topside Press) is their first collection of poetry. Check out their work at kaybarrett.net