Author: Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor
Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of American Writing Programs (AWP), Washington D.C. February 9, 2017
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Published online at http://www.teachersactup.com
Once a public educator and now a poet and teacher educator in the field of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia, I’ve heard some unkind academic attitudes toward public audiences: ignorant until proven otherwise. “They don’t read,” “they can’t write,” “they don’t buy books,” and “they’re so busy texting, they’ve forgotten how to spell!”–these and other dismissive comments assume that a wide section of the public isn’t prepared or even interested to enter the world of great literature. We groan, we bemoan–the public isn’t attending our poetry readings, ordering our books, or even browsing our shelves at the library. Our response? We wouldn’t want “that” public reading our fine literature anyhow! But to dismiss a public that is actively resistant to literature alongside those who may not feel compelled by it or welcomed, is a costly mistake. As the famous educator, Paulo Freire, reminds us, “No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” To become a reader, much less a writer of poetry is a process of becoming, one in which I believe poets must actively nurture as part of a public poetry pedagogy. We can and do worry about a disinterested public. The question is: what are we writers going to do about it? What have we been doing or not doing as poets and writers to invite larger, more diverse audiences to literature’s small “fine dining” table?
As a poet, I’ve been told to just accept small audiences: after all, poetry “doesn’t sell.” Before publication of my first book, I met with a noted professor and poetry critic who warned I’d be lucky, like most poets, if I sold more than 50 copies of my first book to anyone other than friends and family. We engage the public with our work, grateful to have a few seats filled, maybe a lady in a blue sweater taking a snooze in our front row (yes, this did happen during my own reading at the Writers’ House in Philadelphia). Wislaw Szymborska’s opening stanza of “Poetry Reading” conveys it best:
To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare
it’s time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,
the rest are relatives. O Muse.
complete Szymborska poem
Should we poets content ourselves with slender audiences, tiny book sections in the few remaining bookstores, an occasional poem at a wedding or funeral? Do we politely laugh or nod when a friend or neighbor tells us they “don’t get poetry” or that it intimidates them–so they don’t read it? Shall we continue to shrug our shoulders and dismiss findings from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Participation Survey that reported in 2012 that fewer than half of all U.S. adults surveyed (47.0 percent, or 110.5 million), had read a novel, short story, poem, or play that year; of those only 7% said they’d read poetry (SPPA, 2012, p.24). Poets and writers, if we want our work to matter to readers, we have to think more creatively. What might we do differently? What lessons can be learned from public school teachers about how to consider the act of producing literature also an act of public education?
A public poetry pedagogy not only means we can’t assume an audience for our work, but also that it is incumbent upon the poets themselves to make our craft relevant, accessible, and meaningful for new and continuing readers. Some might read this statement, and worry that I propose to “dumb down” complicated verse or create “Hallmark card” appeal to the masses. Poets should pen all the experimental, dense poetry we like, that we’re trained to do–but lacking official curators for our readings and books, I believe we share the responsibility to help a lay public to feel more welcomed and less intimated; more footholds and less dangling. How might we transform those we presume to be “adverse” to literature, to verse?
In 2016 the National Endowment for the Arts celebrated the tenth anniversary of the “Big Read,” a federally-funded program designed to help communities read and discuss a single book of literary merit. I have been fortunate to receive two of these grants and learned a great deal through constructing community-wide events to celebrate two of the four American poets who had made it to the list: Robinson Jeffers and Edgar Allan Poe. For the anniversary, the NEA launched a new, radically wonderful new list with three vibrant living poets –Joy Harjo, Kevin Young, and Claudia Rankine. Although I was sad that Jeffers and Poe had left the list, I was thrilled to read a list of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction books that included more poets and writers representing tremendous linguistic, racial, and national diversity. While the list is newly contemporary and diverse, public readers may still fail to live up to our hopes and expectations.
With all the recent exclusionary political rhetoric of this past election season and with the 50th anniversary of AWP celebrated at the annual 2017 meeting, I propose these three small and larger considerations of action we can take to promote such a public poetry agenda: changing locations, translations, and micro-validations.
- Location, location, location: From Bookshops to Bus Stops.
Many writers plan literature events to take place in libraries, bookstores, or on university campuses. These spaces make sense–they are often low-cost or free, welcoming, and easy for planners to arrange, attractive to audiences of continuing readers. However, if we want to take literature and place it into the hands of a wider and more diverse audience we need to think about locating literature in ever more public spaces. Mark Smith and Bob Holman’s Poetry Slam movement in Chicago and New York are great examples of bringing Spoken word verse into popular bars and nightclubs; The MTA debuted the Poetry in Motion program in 1992, placing poems on public transit; poet activists and laureates alike have helped more poems appear in parks, platforms, local radio shows, popular broadcast media, and in local papers. I think when poets plan our own readings, we might follow these good leads and consider alternative venues for sharing our work and to ask ourselves: for whom it will or will not be comfortable to attend? How might a subtle shift in “where” also affect the “who,” “how many,” and “to what end” regarding relevance to potential readers.
The first NEA Big Read project we had focused on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. In a university town with a majority African American population, I wanted the keynote event to focus on poetry in response to ecology but I worried about audiences looking too much like Robinson Jeffers himself, attractive to a majority of older, white men (and women). Having invited Camille Dungy, author of several volumes of stirring poetry and editor of the Georgia Press anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, it became even more important to me that the event be a comfortable place for African American attendance. We asked the historic African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church leaders if they would become partners and host an evening event. After checking to be sure Dungy’s verse wouldn’t be too “off color” in language, the pastor and congregation agreed. After Dungy’s event, many expressed deep gratitude for a writer who was able to speak with them in the languages “of home.”
While anecdotally it may appear to have been a simple switch from library or bookshop to A.M.E. church venue, but the creative relocation of poetry to this new space, involved numerous meetings, email exchanges and phone conversations to establish trust and organize the logistics. The changes weren’t simple, but the results were extremely rewarding, and have since lead to more dynamic invitations and open doors to future collaborative events. One cannot assume that diverse communities will immediately hop on board with new hosting responsibilities, but with persistence and care, great differences may come.
Translation: Keepin’ it Real
We think of translation as only necessary from one language to another yet the “language of literature”–whether it’s the modestly archaic English of Shakespeare or even Edgar Allan Poe to the experimental opacity of some contemporary verse, we who love this literature must think of ourselves also as translators from esoteric jargon, what may be perceived as high falutin words and experiences, into a public conversation. I have seen one too many poets learn they had 10, 15, or 20 minutes to read and fill that space entirely with poems themselves, overlooking or afraid of opportunities to tell an intimate story about any given poem’s trigger or composition. Audiences benefit when we “translate” the “inside story” shine–the things you couldn’t put in the book or didn’t put in the book, the funny anecdotes you accumulate by reading from the book–all of these are small gifts to your audience, ones which translate relevance and connection. I worry when poets expect their audience “to get” their work and/or feel they dumb it down if they were to comment upon the poems. Great art may be able to speak for itself, but if we want to break the perception Griswold (2001) described, that literature is reserved for those who possess educated, upper middle class status, then it’s incumbent upon writers, too, to take small actions toward change.
What does translation (as invitation) look like in practice? Ironically, one of the most startling moments of translation for inclusivity I have observed was at a reading of Ilya Kaminsky’s book Dancing in Odessa. Deaf since the age of four, Kaminsky has a strong accent to his spoken language. In order to facilitate the audience’s ability to fully understand the poems, he lent out copies of his then-new book so we could follow along with his reading. This small action modeled good “bilingual and disability citizenship,” giving access to listeners who might have a hard time comprehending his oral performance. What might it look like if more hearing or monolingual-English poets were able to bring written copies of their poems along with them as supports for audience members for whom English poetry may be a second and/or unfamiliar tongue? I don’t believe this dumbs down the experience of the art, but expands and enhances it.
Providing stories and intimacies, footnotes and end notes, sharing copies of the written poems or discussing the investment in craft that went with a poem’s making–these are some of the many ways in which poets can and often do assist readers and audience members in translating the complexities ad joys of making and sharing poetry.
Sue (2007) has written about a term called “microagressions” which was broken down into microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations. Microagressions refer to small, often unintended remarks that make a person feel underestimated or stereotyped based on a person’s color, ethnicity, language, or gender. Microagressions can also occur when there are gaps, when, for example, a social media discussion requests titles of “most influential first books of poetry” and the majority of names listed are those of male writers; or when a poetry conference is planned and the presenters make minimal or no inclusion of poets of color either on the panelist list or when making references to work of importance. If poets want to pick up new readers (and keep them), we must be trained to reverse this trend and pursue what I call “micro-validations:” small, often intended actions to be inclusive and validate diverse experience and perspective. What does microvalidation look like in practice? Aside from the illustrations above, including small and larger shifts in location and translation, another form may be that of caring and critical reflection. When publishing and presenting, forming writing groups online and in person, writers might continue to ask: who’s in the room (literal and figurative) and who’s not in the room (in the anthology, on the panel, listed in the conference brochure, and so on). Writers, like our host societies, are imperfect and we often live and write in homogenous circles. By asking ourselves who is here and not here in any given poetry context, we might begin to see our inclinations and biases and slowly consider microactivities toward expansive change. Such changes may also positively influence our own writing and thinking.
We might also exercise less defensiveness and more concern when oversights and gaps are brought to our attention. I have seen one too many writers state in defense that their intentions were good or rational–there are good reasons, not racist or sexist ones, for reproducing a stereotype, for overlooking diversity on a panel, for only including writers from one nation or language group, gender or race. There are lots of good reasons why we overlook inclusion or are mistaken for being racist or stereotypical. One strong form of micro-validation in such moments is deep listening that begins with an apology. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job with inclusion. I’m sorry and I thank you –for bringing this to my attention so that I might do better next time. There will be a next time and a next time.
Aside: This week we mourn the passing of Thomas Lux who through the Poetry at Tech program, always made small and larger movements in microvalidation–opening up his home to celebrate poetry with as large and diverse an audience as Atlanta could hold. He said yes to small and large invitations.
And yet, no matter what, we can always do better–even if we take the exact same action, maybe we can be more clear about our reasoning and intent and whom this might impact.
Recently, at the University of Georgia we celebrated the work of Kimiko Hahn, gorgeous poet as well as translator of Japanese verse. We were honored that the Consulate General of Japan accepted our invitation to accompany Ms. Hahn from Atlanta to our campus, to open the event. They shared a stirring video of the way poetry is honored and elevated by the Japanese Imperial Family and closed the event with special serving of Japanese tea. While our campus and community have a relatively small Asian population of less than 5%, sometimes the diversity that has the least representation “in the room” can expand everyone’s consciousness to new ways of being inclusively human in the world. All of us in the audiences benefitted from learning about the deference and public status poetry has had in Japan. However, I am still sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t do more to schedule the event at a time when even more members of our local and regional public might have been able to attend. I’m sorry I didn’t locate the event in a place that was more easily accessible to the public instead of on the university campus. I can and will do better next time.
Finally, micro-validations include micro-invitations which can vary from including diverse contributors to books and poetry events to considerations of where and how events are advertised and how novice audience members are welcomed at the door. Learning how to make an event more relevant and inclusive often begins with ground-floor planning–including mixing music with poetry and other art forms, inviting diverse participation in an event, advertising on a wide variety radio stations and public media that include the Latino and African American stations, and making accommodations for the disabled or hearing impaired. If we have ever been disappointed to arrive as poets to a half-empty, white room, micro-validation might be simply to stop and to ask ourselves what might be done differently the next time? We may already be “publisher” and “publicist” as well as poet so we might as well add “event planner” to our list. If we care enough to create literary experiences that are compelling to a busy, public audience, then we have to find small and larger ways to validate that audience, to reflect on what we are doing and what we might do better the next time.
As sensitive to diversity as one might be, each of us carries with us the limitations of time and our own experiences. We are bound to miss an opportunity to include everyone. Besides, including “everyone” would be impossible and exhausting. But helping everyone feel welcome and validated in the world of poetry writing is not only possible but imperative.
What Poets Can Learn from Teachers
Poets would benefit from thinking about poetry reading “at risk” in a similar manner to the ways in which critical educators address “at risk” students–the problem is not the readers or students themselves, but the systems that perpetuate poetry as an exclusive or elitist literary art. Students who struggle in school are often labeled “at risk” because the school curricula and structures themselves need changing. Rather than change the public’s perception of poetry, the focus ought to be placed on changing the locations, translations, and microvalidations that exist to help more of the public feel welcome and invited through poetry’s doors. This is already happening in the way our local elementary school hosts a “poetry picnic” for students and families; the way many poets post poems they love on social media; the way NEA literature director, Amy Stolls, initiated changes to the official “Big Read” list to encourage reading more books in translation and by writers of all colors, nations, and other forms of diversity. A truly public poetry pedagogy is composed of a diversity of locations, translations, and micro-validations. These changes may be large and structural or as small as placing a poem above a coffee pot in a workroom. What small or larger efforts have you experienced? What might you imagine? May the next 50 years bring greater public exposure and invitation to poetry of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Derald Wing Sue, Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B. Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquilin. “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life Implications for Clinical Practice.” American Psychologist, May-June 2007.
Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970.
Griswold, W. “The ideas of the reading class.” Contemporary Sociology, 30, 4-6, 2001.