When pitching the concept for this column, I knew that I could write on poetry and politics from a pedagogical perspective. I felt confident, which is something I am not accustomed to with regard to my teaching. But poetry is my thing. I’ve been engaging with poetry in the classroom for fifteen years, and my students routinely highlight our work with poems as their favorite element of my courses. But somehow, with the deadline nearing, I realized that I had no plan for how to begin.
Fancy that: a writing teacher attempting an essay without a strong introduction.
So let’s start there, with an introduction. I’ve never been comfortable talking about myself. This was always going to be awkward. I know that—now. But, now is as good a time as any for a little discomfort. Throughout my career as an educator, one of the hallmarks in my classroom has been poetry. I use it to teach everything from rhetoric and sentence-level constructions to civic engagement and writing as resistance. Poetry is something I love deeply, mainly because those from whom I have learned the most, personally and professionally, have been poets. I’ve never encountered a lesson that wouldn’t benefit from the inclusion of a poem or three.
All this brings us to this very moment. I’m writing this late on a Sunday night, a little less than twelve hours before I see my students face-to-face for the first time in 18 months. I work for a college now, but I teach exclusively dual-credit courses in local high schools. They decided to go fully virtual last year. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m scared. The first day is always anxiety-inducing. This year it’s different, though. I’ve never taught a face-to-face class during a pandemic. The past 18 months have been impossible to process, and now I have to stand at the front of a classroom in the red, red state of Texas with my mask on, desperately willing my students to follow suit but legally prohibited from asking them to mask themselves.
Let me back up. I should tell you that I’m a bit of a muckraker in the classroom. I have a reputation for stirring the pot, inciting controversial debates that discombobulate students lulled into the privileged comfort of conservative pedagogy. My goal is never, ever to impose my beliefs on my students. That’s just bad teaching. But I do expect them to engage with hard truths, especially those as present and pertinent as the pandemic. So naturally, I’m kicking off the year with “I’ll Meet You Anywhere,” a brief essay by Saeed Jones that speculates on what comes next, what fellowship looks like beyond the pandemic. Jones is brilliantly lyrical, balancing the fresh whimsy of being together again with the inescapable memory of what we have survived.
“I think but don’t say; a nudge is enough. It’s nice to have our silence back. We’ve had to say too much. For a forever-long month of March, every single thing had to be spoken in order to be known,” Jones writes near the end of the essay. These words have haunted me for months, and I’m buzzing with excitement about digging into them with my students. The trouble is, I work with a population that is incredibly sheltered, exceptionally privileged and woefully inexperienced at collective empathy. Not because they’re incapable, but because they’ve come up in an academic setting that simultaneously puts immense pressure on every student to maintain a perfect grade-point average and perpetuates the misguided principle of one right answer.
I know for a fact that my students can, and even want to, engage writing like Jones’ essay. They’re teenagers, after all. They contain multitudes. But they also have underdeveloped habits for critical inquiry. They need a blueprint, an Apple map. For me, the most obvious entry point has always been poetry. Poems are most often brief, reject superficial analysis and (my favorite part) there’s a poem for almost any situation. What to pair for Jones’ speculative essay, itself teetering on the edge of prose poetry? I suggest “Essay on Crying in Public,” by Sam Sax (Sax performs the poem here; CW; profanity).
The first thing students will notice is that it doesn’t look like a poem. There are no line breaks, but it’s also not purely prosaic; the backward slashes really throw students for a loop. When I teach this poem, the first thing we do is listen to Sax perform it. The performance is passionate, and it catches their attention. It also delivers the words without inducing the inevitable dread that students feel when they learn they will be analyzing a poem. Next, we take a look at the page. They always want to discuss the formatting first, so I try to lead them into a discussion about how slashes function in language (Hint: I’m guiding them toward the realization that slashes are not full-stops but instead suggest the presence of one continual idea often juxtaposed with competing ideas).
In years past, I have used this poem to introduce the power of careful sentence structure and symbolism. I mean, just look at the use of “+” instead of “and” or even “&.” Why is it there? Did Sax hope to illustrate the way grief compounds, not unlike a math problem? Perhaps the “+” isn’t a plus sign at all, but a positive sign. The catalyst for the grief does seem to be a positive HIV test, and the speaker acknowledges that he “can’t see [his lover] now without also seeing [him] dead.” That certainly implies that the speaker is constantly, overwhelmingly aware of the positive HIV diagnosis.
Now, some students will have trouble with this next part. They’ll need a bit of context to understanding that a) HIV positive tests really did feel like a death sentence inside the gay community throughout the 80s and into the 90s, and b) HIV began as a transmittable virus with high mortality, high infection rates, and virtually no medical research to combat it. And that’s why this poem jumped out when I was thinking of a way to introduce Jones’ essay. I want students to appreciate and invest in the conflicting feelings of grief and relief in Jones’ essay, but they understand the gravity of Jones’ assertion that we have had to say too much lately.
Sam Sax may be writing about HIV and infidelity, but at the root of the poem is the same conflict that Jones wrestles with: the desire to be close with someone and the grief of knowing that an infected person faces death in very real terms. There are parallels throughout the poem that can assist students with this reading. The lover uses personal protective equipment (a condom) only for it to malfunction, for example. In essence, the lover pursues desire unfettered by the potential dangers, lulled into believing that protective measures are enough to keep him safe. The speaker is overwhelmed with rage and grief as he watches the man he loves contract a virus that may very well kill him. And in so doing, the speaker must also come to terms with the fact that two of them can long be intimate without the speaker also risking infection.
And here’s where we zoom back out, into the present. Masking is politicized, or at least anti-masking is grounded in political ideology. There is a sense that wearing a mask violates an individual’s freedom. Others lament that refusing to mask puts everyone else at risk. Our students may be young, but I suspect that many faced the same surprising and heartbreaking realizations that many adults did as they learned how to navigate the pandemic. Many students probably gained and lost friends based on their ideas around the vaccine and masking. I wonder, though, how many young people were able to articulate the very specific grief of watching the ones we love engage in practices that put them at risk.
Sam Sax gives language to that grief. Saaed Jones gives language to that grief. By the time we’re done, the students give language to that grief, too. We start with a poem. We end not with an essay, but a response to the essay. 250 words on friendship and COVID-19, informed by the reading, to be exact.
The law says I cannot ask my students to mask. Even if I could, how quickly would defenses go up? How many students would I alienate with one simple sentence? The goal was never to get them to agree with me. Rather, I want them to engage their own beliefs, their own griefs, to harness the impossibility of this moment and give it a name.
Resources for Deafness Awareness Month:
September is Deafness Awareness Month, which is an excellent opportunity to introduce students to writing from deaf poets and facilitate discussions about visibility. One of my favorite pieces to teach, by the exceptionally talented Ilya Kaminsky, is a memoir in essay form about his return to Odessa, Ukraine as an adult. “Searching for a Lost Odessa – and a Deaf Childhood” includes themes of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, as well as a touching investigation of the father-son relationship. Kaminsky delves into the ways in which sound alters the human experience, and how his return is affected by the hearing aids he wears. It pairs brilliantly with a multimedia suite of poems from his most recent collection, Deaf Republic. In this suite, students will encounter poems centering a fictional town during military occupation and the people who resist by pretending they cannot hear the soldiers. The poems are juxtaposed with graphics illustrating various signs the townspeople might have used to communicate with one another. Another deaf poet, Raymond Antrobus, has poems “I Move Through London Like a Hotep” and “maybe my most important identity is being a son” that align with the themes from Kaminsky’s writing in interesting ways.
Sara Novic has an insightful essay about ableism during the pandemic which offers an important perspective on personal safety equipment and its impact on deaf people that would line up nicely with the discussion of Jones and Sax included above.
Meg Day writes a near perfect sonnet about gender identity, “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God,” as well as a complex look at deafness and belonging in “i am not deaf.” Day’s poem, “10 a.m. is When You Come to Me” provides students with a nuanced poem exploring the ways in which sound affects intimacy and how deafness alters that dynamic.