In the last year, we have all practiced the art of losing: we have lost being with family and friends, lost a bit of our independence, lost time. We’ve become pretty good at it, actually. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the last year as I recently celebrated my second Pandemic Birthday. Soon, my wife and I will celebrate our second Pandemic Anniversary.
April is National Poetry Month, so I’ve been revisiting a lot of poetry – Elizabeth Bishop is a favorite, and I’ve always loved “One Art.” From the relative safety of our homes, it’s been hard to watch so much disaster all around us while we lived happily during the pandemic – I’m borrowing from Ilya Kaminsky here and his poem “We Lived Happily During the War.” (By the way, Ilya Kaminsky will be our featured poet at the 13th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival later this month.) It is true though – my wife and I have been more or less content during the pandemic. We have each other, and work keeps us busy; I’ve practiced guitar a lot. We’ve read and re-read books. Netflix has kept us pretty entertained – we resisted Tiger King but watched every bit of Bridgerton, rewatched all of The Office. Our dogs love having us constantly with them, especially our senior chihuahua who takes up his perch every day on the couch in my wife’s office while she teleworks, unwitting guest star of all her virtual meetings. We miss our friends, but we have done Zoom happy hours (which got old fast), we’ve missed our families, we’ve missed baseball games and theater and going out to a nice dinner inside a restaurant. But none of this has been a disaster; I think that is because we knew that staying home, practicing social distancing (avoiding the politics of it all and following the science), and waiting for and then taking the vaccine as soon as it was ready was the only way to get back to normal again. And normal is worth waiting for.
I’ve also reflected a lot on what I cannot bear to lose and who cannot bear to lose me. I cannot bear to lose my wife, so it was kind of an emotional thing to get our vaccines together and know that we’ve done what we can do. I cannot bear to lose my family, so I pray every day for their safety. Same with my friends – I rejoice every time I see those updates that another one has gotten the vaccine – I high-five the air. I miss my students and my campus and can’t wait to walk across the quad again, write on a whiteboard, see a student in office hours. I feel hope’s feathers growing inside me a bit more every day.
There is another side of this too. I have no intent to be lost; I have a responsibility not to be lost. I know that my wife cannot bear to lose me – having lost her parents already, I cannot leave her alone in this life, so there was no question at all that I would get the vaccine immediately. No question that until it was available I would do anything and everything I could to make her feel safe. I don’t think my mom could bear to lose me either – having lost one child already, this would be a disaster. There isn’t much – there isn’t anything – that isn’t worth delaying to keep them from feeling that loss.
A year ago, I wrote a blog post on my birthday, and 1001 American lives had been lost to COVID on that day. Just over a year later, that number is an astonishing 553,000 and counting. That really is unbelievable except that we’ve been watching it unfold day by day. It’s hard to emotionally, mentally fight against all of this loss – but we have to. We all have people who can’t bear to lose us. Spring feels so much different this year than last. Renewal seems possible, but only if we act on our intent not to be lost. I can’t wait to see you all again someday soon.
I know this blog is a bit later than the first Friday, but I was asked to write a guest post for HoCoPoLitSo (Howard County Poetry and Literature Society) to mark LGBTQ History Month, and I wanted to let that post get published first there before I published a slightly different version of it here – so much has happened since I submitted the blog to them, and I kept thinking/writing. Now that it’s up there, here it is. You can also check it out on HoCoPoLitSo’s blog.
October is LGBTQ History Month. When I think about LGBTQ history, I am of two minds and the poems included in the LGBTQ collection on Poets.org perfectly reflect that split. Some of the poems are so absolutely ordinary in their subjects, like the poem, “our happiness” by Eileen Miles, and on one hand, I think, that’s progress: the lives of LGBTQ people are written and expressed in the same way as other lives. That’s equality, right? Being a gay poet doesn’t mean that you have to write every poem about the experience of being gay. Not every aspect, every moment of my life is about that, but my experience is most definitely shaped by it and so is my view of history.
If we’re really talking about history, the conversation is incomplete unless we acknowledge that nothing is really the same. Some might say, hey, you won the right to get married, so what are you complaining about? That reminds me of the poem, “On Marriage” by Marilyn Hacker where the poet talks about the way in which LGBTQ people “must choose, and choose, and choose / momently, daily” to affirm their commitment to one another, “Call it anything we want” when society doesn’t quite know how to accept or handle this kind of “covenant.” We talk a lot about “White Privilege” in cultural discourse, but we don’t talk a lot about “Mainstream Heterosexual Cisgender Privilege.” It exists. MHCP allows folks to do very ordinary things like hold hands in public without having to do a quick check of their surroundings. MHCP allows you to use whatever bathroom you want without being harassed or shamed or threatened. It allows you to feel “normal” out in the world. Put it this way: there are times when showing affection to my wife in public – just a peck on the cheek – feels like a dangerous political act.
It hasn’t always been this way for me. In fact, I enjoyed MHCP for most of my life. I went to a conservative Christian high school, and though there were probably gay people around me (I’m pretty sure a few of my teachers were/are), since none of them were out, I feel as though I didn’t meet a gay person until I went to college. Riding through my high school years and my twenties as an MHCP was easy. Being white made it even easier. Realizing I was gay later in life when I care less what the world thinks has made the sting of discrimination sting a little less. Still, it was surprising to realize that the world had changed. Is it weird to say that I want to have it both ways? As Uncle Walt says, “Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” I want everyone in the world to see LGBTQ people as just normal, and I want everyone to know that our experience is different.
If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that being an LGBTQ person is a unique and still unequal experience in this country. There are subtle and unsubtle ways that society is set up to exclude and marginalize us. And some of the poems I browsed on Poets.org do address that fact. I find myself drawn more powerfully to these poems because I do want to acknowledge the difference that exits. A great example of this is “A Woman Is Talking to Death” by Judy Grahn. The poem was written in 1940, and the lines that jump out to me are:
“this woman is a lesbian, be careful.
When I was arrested and being thrown out
of the military, the order went out: don’t anybody
speak to this woman, and for those three
long months, almost nobody did: the dayroom, when
I entered it, fell silent til I had gone; they
were afraid, they knew the wind would blow
them over the rail, the cops would come,
the water would run into their lungs.
Everything I touched
was spoiled. They were my lovers, those
women, but nobody had taught us how to swim.
I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down
when I signed the confession of what we
had done together.
No one will ever speak to me again.”
LGBTQ history is a history of fraught silence. A friend of mine, Rob, hid the fact that he was gay the entire time he was in the Navy – it wasn’t just that he feared for his job, he also feared for his life, that other soldiers might threaten or harass him for being openly gay. He hid it until he completed his tour of duty, and then he came out to all of his friends. You might think that passing a law abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would end this discrimination, but you would be wrong. This discrimination still exists in the military – though now the target has shifted from being gay or lesbian to being transgender. Grahn’s poem was written in 1940; it is 77 years later, and we are not there yet. And because we live in the age of vindictive executive orders, we are too afraid that the next step in the movement will be a step backward.
If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that we’re still in the middle of the story right now. What started with Alan Turing, Barbara Gittings, Christine Jorgenson, Alan Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, the Stonewall riots, James Baldwin, and Harvey Milk has led us to the defeat of DOMA, the rejection of Proposition 8, the victory of Edith Windsor, the success of Tammy Baldwin. But this complicated history also continues with events like the shooting in the Pulse nightclub and pronouncements that threaten the rights of transgender soldiers and that reinterpret Civil Rights laws to exclude protections for
LGBTQ employees. For all the poems that are out there, some things about the LGBTQ experience just defy expression. Not everything is just about the right to get married or or what sports we can play or what bathroom we’re allowed to use – those things are important, but there are even heavier questions on our minds than whether you see us as equal – like whether you see us as human. We’ve seen in the last week or so of our history that LGBTQ youth are not safe on college campuses around the country. At Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio, flyers have appeared encouraging LGBTQ students to commit suicide, taunting them with the statistics that mock the loneliness and desperation that LGBTQ people feel with the disgusting tag “Fascist Solutions.” There is no poem that expresses what I want to say to the monsters that distributed these flyers. There is no poem that says want I want to say to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, the men who have given these monsters a voice in our society. This history is so raw, so painful, so new. Current events are going to write these poems, and I want to read those poems too, not just the ones that try to normalize our experience.
One of the happiest days in my life was November 6th, 2012. That was the day that voters in my home state of Maryland affirmed the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, and I knew that I would marry my wife. Then, on June 26th, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that we should be seen as equal under the law. In a stunning closing paragraph, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” To read
that, you’d think that we are living in a new era, but in reality, it isn’t quite true. We are living in a time that feels, in some ways, more dangerous than ever. In “Love Song for Love Songs,” Rafael Campo writes that it is “A golden age of love songs and we still / can’t get it right.” That’s what I think: If we’re going to talk about LGBTQ history and celebrate equality, we have to admit that, despite so much progress in the last few years, the last ten months have shown us that we still have so far to go. Sharpen your pencils.
I have taken a sabbatical from the blog for a few months now – in all honesty, the pernicious political climate defeated any desire I had to put together my thoughts for a blog post. Every idea I started with turned angry, and I generally believe anger is an impotent emotion.
It has not been easy to resist the tone. It has especially been a challenge at work, in the classroom. How does one teach in the time of Trump? It’s not easy. First and foremost, we have to tolerate things we disagree with and realize that opinions about Trump run a full spectrum. Despite how I feel about Trump, I have to model tolerant disagreement. Second, we have to acknowledge that everything we talk about in the classroom connects to the world around us, and the students certainly feel impacted by what’s going on out there. Nothing feels quite normal to students these days. They have anxieties and insecurities that get expressed in class discussion and in their writing. My students worry about their Muslim neighbors, their immigrant classmates, their LGBTQ friends, themselves. As much as we’d like to, we can’t shut the door and pretend that the world doesn’t exist; we have to talk about it. The only good way I can think to let the world in is by not focusing on Trump so much as what we read can teach us about ourselves. After all, even though a person like Trump seems new and unique in time, in truth he is not new but rather a regression. We can learn lessons from stories, plays, novels, and poems that show us who we do – and don’t – want to be. These past few months, I have found some solace in knowing that the things we study teach us about why truth matters, why bullies can’t win, what happens when we demonize others, and what happens when we fight for the best version of ourselves.
One of the classes I teach is called Ethics in Literature, and one of the things we confront in this course is the idea of what is true. There is a dangerous way of thinking out there in the world that says, “If it feels true to me or if it confirms what I believe, then it must be true.” In current political discourse, this is what is known as “Alternative Facts.” In plain truth, alternative facts are lies. One of the lessons we learn in ethics is that thinking so doesn’t make it so. “Many people are saying” is not a rational argument, and when we talk about big questions of right and wrong, objectivity is essential. Here is an example: Person A thinks chocolate ice cream is the best. That thinking expresses an opinion about ice cream. Is chocolate ice cream the best? Not according Person B who loves vanilla ice cream. Can they both be right? Ice cream is a low-stakes argument. But what if we apply that same process to a moral question? Moral questions can’t be decided based on a mere difference of opinion or preference. It may be Person A’s opinion that pursuing stem-cell research is wrong because it makes him uncomfortable, but that is not enough to declare it morally wrong. Moral questions require justified thinking, not just opinion or preference. And saying something like “stem-cell research is wrong because I think it’s messing with the natural order” is not a rational, justified argument. It may be how Person A feels, but that does not make it true. There really is a difference between facts and feelings, and one of the most important things we can teach students is to believe in the independent objectivity of facts.
As we read Macbeth, we see what happens when we give way to our darkest impulses, when we seek to win at all costs even at the expense of other people. The witches set the tone for this early on by declaring that “fair is foul and foul is fair.” Macbeth is a bully who decides to trash and destroy everything in his path. He wants power, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it. The gluttonous desire for power is all consuming, as he ultimately realizes that he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – in other words, he is in over his head. The paranoid pursuit of power leads him to threaten and murder everyone he perceives as a threat in order to try and maintain his grasp on the throne. Ultimately, the bully defeats himself as everyone turns against Macbeth, refusing to accept his fatalistic vision. Shakespeare’s dark play shows us that ambition alone does not make a great leader, and while it may inspire fear, it will never inspire love, admiration, greatness, or loyalty.
When we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we learn that how we treat others matters. When Victor’s creature wanders out into the world, he is not a monster. The creature seeks love, acceptance, and understanding. He looks for a place to belong. But it is his difference in appearance and manner that ultimately creates fear in others. Society can’t handle his difference, and they take out those fears on the creature. The creature learns that he is “solitary and abhorred” – alone and hated. This leads him to feelings of “hate and revenge” – the creature learns to treat others the way he has been treated. At one point, the creature tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” The lesson is simple: when faced with someone different from our norm, someone outside of our comfort zone, we can treat them with respect and create better humans, or we can create monsters. Sometimes, for all the talk of America being “a great melting pot,” we sure do seem to resist people who are different from our norm. Too often we regard each other with suspicion and derision – and the monsters we really create are ourselves.
But when we read The Hunger Games, we learn that we should not pit ourselves against each other. When we do that, we play the evil leader’s game. President Snow wants people from the various districts to distrust each other, not to talk to each other, and not to help each other. He wants them to see their survival as dependent on the demise of others. Peeta and Katniss refuse to conform to the image of “good tributes” in that while they understand they may have to sacrifice their lives, they refuse to sacrifice their character. Their resistance is shown in small and big ways. For example, on the eve of the games, Peeta says, “I want to die as myself” in the arena. He does not want to fundamentally alter who he is for the sake of the game. Snow is hoping that the tributes will all behave viciously toward one another once the games are underway, confirming the worst narrative Snow has tried to construct about the people from the districts. It is a small act of rebellion on Peeta’s part to fight for his character in the face of a truly horrible fate. In a much larger act of resistance, Katniss shows compassion to her ally, Rue. When Rue is mortally wounded, rather than run away to save herself, Katniss stays with Rue so she doesn’t have to die alone. Her rebellion is shown in the way she prepares a funeral scene for the fallen tribute and honors Rue’s district in an unprecedented show of solidarity. What Collins’ book tries to show is that cooperation is how we win, and we must fight to stay true to ourselves even when circumstances try to force us to act in ways that hurt others. We must always search for and nurture the better parts of our nature – and that is the only way we really win, the only way to make ourselves great.
When we studied John Rawls’ theories on social justice, my students did an exercise where they created an ideal society behind their own veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance assumes that you don’t know who you will be or what place you will have in society, so in creating society, the goal is to try and set it up as fairly as possible for everyone. I challenged them to think affirmatively – create the society they want by deciding on what was good. The point of the exercise was to discover what things we truly value. Their list was encouraging: they want freedom, they want justice, they want equality, they want peace, they want respect, they want education, they want opportunity. What is made plain by the list they created is what they don’t want: prejudice, injustice, inequality, fear, disrespect, lack of education, and lack of opportunity.
The exercise could be easily dismissed by saying it’s too idealistic, but during this week where we have celebrated the anniversary of our nation, it’s fair to point out that the Declaration of Independence was pretty idealistic too. America was a dream. It took some work to get it going, and we are still wildly imperfect. Does that mean we should cease to try? Perhaps the most essential benefit of studying the humanities is that art, literature, and philosophy help us understand how much bigger the world is. Too often, we are locked within a selfish bubble, only concerned with what is immediate to us. This isolationist thinking is dangerous. As much as anything else, my goal as a teacher is to say simply this to my students: try.Try to imagine the world you want to live in. Try to figure out how you can go about creating it. Try compassion. Try to live with honesty and dignity. Try to treat others the right way, to earn respect by giving it. Try to be the person you think you should be, even when it’s hard. Try in small ways and in great ways. Change happens in depressingly slow ways sometimes, but then sometimes it makes massive leaps. But none of it happens if we don’t try and just pretend that everything is normal, everything is okay.
This is how I have learned to teach in the time of Trump.
April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry. At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival. Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets. In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird. His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.
The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways. Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary. So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem. Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.
The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry. Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting. My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade. My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth. One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class. I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth. I still remember the entire poem even now. But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon. It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.
I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students. 1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it. Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this. Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.
I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks. In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry. When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.” In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that. Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia. For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.