Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Monthly Archives: January 2018

You can get poems from the news.

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
― quotes from the famous American poet, William Carlos Williams

While one may not get the literal news from poetry, poets are often actively responding to the news around them through verse.  The pen, the keyboard, the performance microphone–these are some artists’ tools with which to navigate engagement in the public world. Sometimes the act of writing poetry can help one bear witness and bear the grief found in daily reports of the worst possible human behavior.  These are what I think about as I prepare a new poem this week alongside my students’ new poem drafts.  Responding to Theodore Roethke’s work as well as Larry Nassar’s abuse of young female athletes for decades, I use the poetry tools at my disposable to make artful sense of horrifying abuse and those who were complicit around him.


~after Roethke’s Dolor


I have known the dizzying rush of deep tissue

manipulations on my table; lean, muscular torsos,

young hips and barely breasts exposed, breathing

complaints of pain down sinewy calves through tiny

feet I lifted, like a god, to puckered cabin ceilings, teasing

ungloved fingers at ball and socket joints, measuring

downy beginnings with classic “thrust” techniques

to diagnose, reduce inflamation, prepare for the win.

And I’ve worn jackets in the team’s white satin, cock-

tails with coaches, university presidents, eager-to-please

parents begging for my time to poke and prod,

fill medal and trophy cases with gymnasts,

dancers, rowers, runners, swimmers, figure skaters.

Ghazal and wild language

Inspired by reading Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals, Stephanie (Stephen) Burt’s essay on Ali, and Natasha Trethewey’s ghazal “Miscegenation,” I decided to try my own.  I invited students in my poetry class to also write a Ghazal, one that navigates any aspect of linguistic, racial, and cultural identity.

I must also add this ghazal-draft is inspired by an email I received last night from a young student from Puerto Rico who’d found and liked an old poem of mine, “What you are.”  She wrote, “honestly, you have no idea how much this means to me. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to express my thankfulness.” And then she wanted to know: “hope you wouldn’t mind me asking but where are you from or your parents?”

“A place of universal exile,” I wrote back to her.  Latinidad is a perfect place for that, Latina or Jewish or otherwise.  Here’s my answer in a poem draft form.

Símon Manifesto

                                                  ~for Dayhath Marte-Herrera

A language you never learn in classrooms: Spanglish.

First and second language, “both/and” borders Spanglish.


Standard English, a blazer-dressed, distant uncle;

Tía Castellana, black laced aunt to Spanglish.


Puro amor tatooed on a gangster’s knuckles.

¿What recourse nos queda? Gloria asked in Spanglish.


El Paso, Los Cruces, La Brea, indelible

stains tar our place names in original Spanglish.


We’re creating languages of implied exile:

Ching, Hing-, and Kong- lish, Franglais, and, of course, Spanglish.


When certain consonants appear between vowels,

they’re left out (mojado/mojao), speaking Spanglish.


Díaz writes culocracy, governing culos,

a neologism coined in perfect Spanglish.


It defies collapse into single syllables,

but still it hurts boys and girls to malign Spanglish.


Oy vey, kinnehora, my grandmother grumbled.

Yinglish is my own variety of Spanglish.


Tranquila, Melisa, conjugating struggle’s

easy, si aprendes bien, lessons from Spanglish.


Translingual writing and Imperfect Tense (an interview)

What a lovely post to receive on MLK 2018.  This interview with one of my great anthropology heroes, Alma Gottlieb.  She asks me great questions about the links between ethnography and creative writing/poetry–here are my answers with some fun pictures



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