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Writing & Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from June Jordan with Taiyo Na

Writer, musician, and educator Taiyo Na 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. Na was joined by Kay Ulanday Barrett, 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. In this second annual panel celebrating Jordan’s work, poets and educators explored her essay “For the Sake of a People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.” The event took place as part of What is It, Then, Between Us? Poetry & Democracy, the third annual initiative of the Poetry Coalition, a national poetry coalition working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and the important contribution poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.


And didn’t that weird white father predict this truth that is always growing:

I swear to you the architects shall appear without fail,
I swear to you they will understand you and justify you,
The greatest among them shall be he who best knows you
and encloses all and is faithful to all,
He and [the] rest shall not forget you, they shall
perceive that you are not an iota less than they,
You shall be fully glorified in them (10)

Walt Whitman and all of the New World poets coming after him, we, too, go on singing this America.

—From “For the Sake of a People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us” by June Jordan
We’re On: A June Jordan Reader (Alice James, 2017). Previously published in Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays by June Jordan (Basic Civitas Books, Perseus Books Group, 2002).



I first discovered June Jordan’s work through Suheir Hammad, a familiar star in the New York City poetry community in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She was a friend of my good friends Ishle Yi Park and Beau Sia, and Suheir exalted June Jordan as a literary and polemic mother. That was enough for me to buy a used copy of Poetry for the People, and I used to imagine myself as her student at a class at UC Berkeley. This was twenty years ago, and I’m here again. June Jordan, the internationalist-activist-artist, seemed ahead of her time, and yet right on time, all of the time.

My poet friends and I talked much of Walt Whitman, too—how he was self-published, selling his Leaves of Grass around the streets of the Village or Brooklyn like we did with our chapbooks, how he was a Union nurse during the Civil War, how he was this great bisexual lover—all descriptions of what we poets thought of ourselves in those days. Whitman: the saint / sinner who wrote with the humanity of a heart wide open. His poems: abolitionist and environmentalist. His legend, ratchet and raw. He was one of us, or who we aspired to be.

On the occasion of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday, it’s a joyous honor to reflect on Jordan and Whitman’s legacy, and about what it means to write and teach a people’s poetry. In an age of forgetfulness, it’s comforting to know we remember and celebrate the “Rest of Us” in the context of ideas like democracy, liberation, and language. Not all of us are here, of course; we always have yet to arrive, fully glorified, fully represented, but “I swear to you,” like Whitman, Jordan, and Hughes, we shall work “to not forget you” and go on “singing this America.”



In my work I have lived at the intersections of poetry, music, and education. When I met Maya Angelou when I was 18 years old, she held my hand and told me, “keep doing what you’re doing,” and in my darkest hours, her words have echoed and carried me forward. Like her, “I’m not a writer who teaches. I’m a teacher who writes.” If the poetry, or any work for that matter, doesn’t teach, doesn’t shed light, doesn’t attempt to heal our pains, then it’s not me and it’s not worth it.

Teaching a people’s poetry is an act of creating sanctuary, especially for the last, least, and lost amongst us. It’s knowing not everybody will be a poet, but everybody is a poet because music and metaphors are how this world works. Everybody is muscle and movement, bone and beats, and everybody needs symbols to bridge what’s here to there and to feel how what’s out there is really in here. It is a great and deep joy. You cultivate an environment where students can testify to and share with each other their survivor stories and refugee stories, be they from Gambia or Cambodia, the PR to DR, Costa Rica to Fujian, Bangladesh to Haiti, to all five boroughs, through traumas and trials of police violence, incarceration, rape, foster care, abusive partners and/or parents, broken school systems. They have to believe Audre Lorde when she said, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

I first shared my poetry with my peers in performance when I was 16 years old. I was a shy kid then, with a heart full of poems no one knew about, and when it was finally shared, I felt like I’d thrown myself outside of my skin, and I never went back. Transformative justice in action. I’ve been trying to pay that experience forward ever since.

I’m also a basketball coach, and there goes Maya Angelou’s voice again: I’m not a writer who coaches basketball, I’m a teacher who coaches basketball who happens to write. If you love the game like I do, you see that balling is poetry in motion. When it’s done right, you move like water, like dancers in unison, rowers in the tow of a current.

During one basketball game I was coaching, an Asian American student player on our team was on the free throw line. Racial slurs started being hurled from the opposing crowd in the stands towards him. It makes me flash back to twenty years ago in the 90s when I was a high school baller, always being the only Asian American basketball player on the court and hearing the same racial slurs and gestures, and looking to my own coach or team or crowd and seeing their silence and how that silence seemed to echo. This all happens in a matter of a few seconds. I flash forward, go right onto the court and talk to the referees who call in the opposing team’s coach. Without a beat, they agree to handle it, and the opposing coach roars into those students of his school, “You need to cut that racist shit out or you leave right now!” The crowd quiets. The game continues. They learn to use a different language. We all draw a line. This is also a people’s poetry.

Have you ever heard a group of young basketball players in a circle or huddle right before the game, sharing their dedications to someone they love so they play their best that game? That’s poetry, too, ancestral invocation, the indigeneity of circles, huddles, passing the mic, rituals and more rituals.

But it’s not over, right? There’s way more healing to do, and as Malcolm said, the knife’s still in our backs.

Someone give me some money to fund this dream. I want to coach a professional basketball team called the New York Poets. They pass, dribble, shoot, and play like poetry in motion, of course. And they are a team comprising various gender and cultural identities. No gender segregation. They speak to each other quoting Whitman, Jordan, Rumi, Gibran, and other poets. They execute plays with the intensity of Maori war dancing. They meet losses with Ntozake Shange lines and love themselves fiercely. They visit schools during their mornings before practices and help run lessons with the teachers every day. It’s a nine-month season correlating with the school year, so they get around to all the schools in the city. Sports becomes truly one with education, especially basketball, since it was invented by Dr. James Naismith, a P. E. teacher. The New York Poets wear sneakers designed by STEAM classes where students use the most meticulous sustainability measures and textile design to create these kicks. Each game will open with a poem, not a national anthem, but only after the team huddles while their resident poet delivers a poem written just for them that night. There is no difference between art, sport, or prayer here.



“When you learn, teach; when you get, give.”

—Maya Angelou

Being a poet educator means I’ve been given a lot. My cup is full, and thus, I give. Artists like Fay Chiang, Jessica Hagedorn, Denizen Kane, Jason Kao Hwang, Bao Phi, and many more have given me friendship, mentorship, and generosity I could never repay.

For myself as an artist at the intersections of poetry, music, and education, there’s also the particular tool of the song as poem for the people.

As an Asian American artist, I anchor my own lineage with the songs of the A Grain of Sand trio—Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin—from the late 1960s and early 1970s. These songs were sung across the country at rallies and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, against racism, patriarchy, poverty, and imperialism, and for Ethnic Studies, self-determination, and the Third World Liberation of land, minds, and people. For me, it starts with songs like their “War of the Flea”:

Song of the night,
War of the flea.
Deep inside the jungle
You will find me.
War of the small,
War of the flea,
Where the strongest bomb is human
Who is bursting to be free.

The moon will be my lantern,
And my heart will find the way
To sow the seeds of courage
That will blossom into day,
To fashion up a garden
So green before they came.
Our joy will be the sunshine,
And our tears will be the rain.

Which led to my own songs like “Lovely to Me (Immigrant Mother)”:

You’ve been lovely to me
A dear mother to me
Like no other to me
Lovely to me, lovely to me
I got an immigrant mother
An immigrant mother
An immigrant mother
Lovely to me, lovely to me

She wakes up in the morning when the birds are loudest
Something about her feels like Mary
She needs strength just like anybody else
So when I see her in the kitchen I offer her my help

She wakes up in the morning when the birds are loudest
Something about her feels like Mary
She needs strength just like anybody else
So when I see her in the kitchen I offer her my help

And this led to the old songs and new songs being combined—Grain of Sand’s “Asian Song” combined with my “We Belong,” a song performed at the New York City memorial for Yuri Kochiyama in 2014.

Mr. Woo works in the laundry and his wife works in the shop
And each and every wrinkle tells a tale
A survivor of the hard times and a fighter all his life
But the twinkle in his eye has never failed
He puts a kettle on the table and he leans against the wall
He says, Excuse my English but his words speak for us all

Because these hands have washed the clothes
And these hands have served the food heaven knows
And my neck has felt the mob’s rope and it’s been behind barbed wire
My arms have nailed down railroad tracks, Our backs have been for hire
And these hands have fought injustice and this soul is still on fire

We’re still here, we’re going strong
And we’re getting tired of proving we belong
Oh, we’re still here, we’re going strong
And we’re getting tired of proving we belong

A letter to her kids was the last thing she wrote
at a place in the Bronx where she lost all hope
she tried & tried to survive & provide
but conditions she faced were too much to take
left her 4 children in the Philippines
to nanny in the states and send ’em back dreams
cuz that’s the way it works in poor countries
where there is no work and you have to leave
for little pay long hours no job benefits
fired if you tell or just the hell of it
abuse is what they call it and so is slavery
to be a migrant worker is to display bravery
i imagine the sacrifice it brings me to tears
to not see your children for so many years
Fely belonged in our land of liberty
but something went wrong when they took her dignity

Here, we’re going strong
And we’re getting tired of proving we belong

And song as an educator’s foundational text leads to songs like my “Prevail”:

they want you to comply
they want you to believe in them
when we don’t ask why
we just keep feeding them
but there’s more to the story
more to the winter’s tale
like those who came before me
the brave will prevail

strong people need no leaders
we lead our own selves
we are the movement and moment
it ain’t hard to tell
we’ll prevail
we’ll prevail

when I was a little boy I felt invisible
when father hit the boy he would feel miserable
he was a broken man a life full of broken dreams
it was a coping scheme to live through the stolen plan
this is stolen land nod first to contradiction
undo folded hands unpack hopeless systems
study heavy our vision built from fallen levees
our diction it connect me intuition won’t forget me consisten-
cy in application dreams or apparitions
we can build commitment
free your life for living
be a force of giving
the work is breathing breathe
standing rock breathe
clear that chatter
glass ceilings shatter
black lives matter
and realize laughter
inside the lie is an inner truth
a movement there as a bigger you
me and you

strong people need no leaders
we lead our own selves
we are the movement and moment
it ain’t hard to tell
we’ll prevail
we’ll prevail

In the spirit of the Oakland teachers’ strike, all poetry to the people.

Taiyo Na (Taiyo Ebato) is a musician, writer, and educator. His work spans two decades of cultural and pedagogical contributions to urban communities. He was honored in 2010 by Governor David A. Paterson and the State of New York for his “legacy of leadership to the Asian American community and the Empire State.” The short film/music video to his 2008 song “Lovely to Me (Immigrant Mother)” was heralded by MTV Iggy as “the realest thing seen in a while.” The 2010/2011 collaboration albums Home:Word & Home:Word [Deluxe Edition] with hip-hop duo Magnetic North included a number of chart-topping songs in Asia, and his “Artist Takeovers” playlist was featured on Spotify in 2017. His writing has appeared in Aperture, Hyphen, and Lantern. As an educator, his areas of practice include transformative justice, culturally responsive pedagogy, inclusion, and coaching basketball.

Posted In: Essays