Using Multimedia in Teaching Contemporary Black Women Poets

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Poet Nikky Finney

This term, I have been teaching a new course on contemporary Black women poets. I developed my course as an intervention in a literary canon (and a college course catalog) where Black women are under-represented—perhaps particularly Black women poets, and definitely contemporary Black women poets. I also selfishly wanted to teach a course in which I could teach some of my favorite books. Most of all, I wanted students to get a sense of what Black women are writing about now, and how they’re writing about it. Because of this, I wanted the class to be very contemporary—so instead of beginning with the Black Arts Movement and going forward, as I think many classes like this would do, I decided to impose a ten-year radius on the books I chose for class. Thus the books we read could not have been published before 2007. I reasoned that that students could learn about the Black Arts Movement in another class, but might not have another chance to read, say, Ashley Jones’s 2017 collection Magic City Gospel. In limiting the books in this way, I wanted to explore a couple of questions: What does our current poetic moment have to say to our cultural and political moment? How do issues of subject and form and language in poets intersect with issues of gender and race now, rather than 20 or 30 or 40 years ago? These are a couple of questions we have been exploring this term.

Here are the books I ended up teaching (in this order) in our ten-week course:

  • Monica Hand, me & nina (2010)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Thrall (2012)
  • Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015)
  • Erica Dawson, The Small Blades Hurt (2014)
  • Ashley Jones, Magic City Gospel (2017)
  • Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (2008)
  • Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split (2011)
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • t’ai freedom ford, how to get over (2017)

(My original list of possible books for the course had about twenty more books on it! Let me know in the comments section if you’d like me to send you this list. This list represents a great deal of formal variety, which is the main reason I chose this particular slate of poets. There are also some other great choices here and here.)

A class like this is so different from the nineteenth century American literature courses I often teach. In those courses, our interactions with the authors are literary-critical and archival. There are established critical lenses we can look through, but what we can know about the writers themselves is limited to their works and to the archives they left behind (or didn’t, in many cases). In a course on contemporary poets, however, I knew that while our biggest challenge would be finding good critical sources, given that the work is so new, we would also have particular opportunities. We would be able to find resources that would give us the poets themselves, speaking aloud to us, reading their poems to us, and in some cases even directly answering our questions! It seemed a foregone conclusion to me that I would be making great use of multimedia in the classroom.

Video

Discussions of Black women’s invisibility have permeated the classroom all term long. I knew it would be powerful for all of my students, particularly my female students of color, not just to read but to see and hear Black women poets, so with this in mind, as I put the class together, I knew I wanted to emphasize the poets’ performance of their own poems. (An even more excellent idea, which I have not yet tried, is Howard Rambsy II’s idea about using the poets’ performances as primary texts! Thanks to fellow PALS blogger Shelli Homer for sharing Rambsy’s blog with me.). One thing poets take for granted (but that students may not always consider) is that the performance of our poems is important. Performance adds a layer of meaning to the poems printed on pages. Using video resources, then, is an obvious choice for a class on contemporary poets.

For example, as our class read Natasha Trethewey’s stunning poem “Miracle of the Black Leg,” from Thrall, we did not fully tap into the rage undergirding it until we watched this video of Trethewey reading the poem at Rutgers University:

After playing the videos, I would ask questions like, “What nuances did the poet bring out in the poem as she read it? What words did she emphasize? Where did she grow louder or softer, faster or slower? Where did you notice rhymes or changes in rhythm? What new things did you notice in the poem that you didn’t notice before? What surprised you about her reading of this poem?”

While most of what you will find online are videos of poets giving readings, you might also find, in some instances, poets who have created art videos of their poems. Claudia Rankine is the best example of this, since her “Situations” videos (collaborations with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas) are all available on her website. These are easy to find, but in my experience, students don’t go looking for them, so they are an excellent resource to bring into the class. Students who had imagined Claudia Rankine’s voice as loud (one student said, “I imagined her giving a spoken-word poetry delivery until we watched the video”) were surprised by her calm, even, and therefore exceptionally chilling delivery in the video for the poem “Stop-and-Frisk” from Citizen. (Go to “Situations” and choose #6 for the full video.)

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Poet Claudia Rankine

This video is one among many videos in which Rankine reads sections from Citizen and other works but does not appear in the video herself. The videos are, however, all intimately tied to the text of the poems. Watching these videos allowed us to go from a discussion of the poem’s text to a discussion of the many ways Citizen demands a discussion of how words and images interact.

I was able to find videos online of all of the poets on the syllabus giving readings, and I incorporated these videos into my daily lesson plans. Students were also responsible for leading discussions in pairs, and I was gratified to see that nearly all of them incorporated videos of the poets reading into their discussion-leading sessions.

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Poet t’ai freedom ford
Audio

Although students love having something to look at, don’t discount audio. There are some excellent poetry audio resources online. More and more poets are posting sound files of themselves reading poems on their websites. I’ll be playing some audio of t’ai freedom ford reading from her book how to get over in class this week, and since there’s no video, it will force the class to really focus on the words and the words only.

You might find other interesting audio online if you dig around. For example, when teaching Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, I found a 50-minute craft talk called “Boarding the Voyage.” In it, Lewis discusses her process in creating the long, experimental title poem.

I assigned this as homework one day, asking students to take notes as they listened and to come to class with a quotation from the craft talk they wanted to discuss, as well as the time at which the quotation occurred (so it would be easy for me to go to different spots in the lecture). They also had to tie the quotation from the craft talk to a part of the title poem. Students put the quotations and times on the board (there was definitely some overlap), we listened to the relevant portions, and then students would point us to portions in the poem they wanted to discuss.

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Poet Robin Coste Lewis

The transcript of this is not available online; audio is the only format available. This is a good thing, even though it means as an instructor I had to listen to the craft talk three times, stopping many times to take notes, to be able to teach it. While this was time-consuming, it was also powerful. Lewis’s lyrical reading style mesmerized us as a class, making her words that much more powerful. Also, because we had to take notes on the talk, we listened much more carefully than we would’ve otherwise—always a good skill to work on.

Keep on the lookout for audio in unexpected places, too. One of my students, a classical musician, had recently attended a concert by a capella group Roomful of Teeth, which features an adaptation of Rankine’s “Stop-and-Frisk.” (Scroll down to listen to “You Are Not the Guy.”) This student shared this recording with the class when she led discussion on Citizen. None of us were prepared for our reaction to the music (I won’t spoil it for you), and we had a great discussion about how setting a poem to music can radically affect our experience of a poem.

Skype

In teaching this course, I wanted the students to have as much interaction with the poets as possible, but my budget only allowed me to bring one poet to campus for a reading. This is what Skype is for. I scheduled a Skype session with poet Erica Dawson, whose book The Small Blades Hurt we read in class. I know Erica, so it was easy for me to set this up, but even if you don’t know any poets personally, you can still make this happen.

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Poet Erica Dawson

If you’re teaching contemporary poets, you can always reach out to the poet via social media or a contact form on their websites (most poets are reachable by one or another of these avenues) and ask them to Skype with your class. If you have a tiny budget for poetry readings, you could offer a small honorarium for this. I always pay the poets a little bit for their time, but if you don’t have the budget for that you could ask anyway and see what they say. (Especially if you know the poet, or know someone who knows the poet.) There are three keys to a successful Skype: either 1) ask poets you know; 2) ask a poet who is a friend of a friend (and get the friend to help you set this up); or 3) ask younger or less famous poets who would have more time than, say, Claudia Rankine or Natasha Trethewey, and who would really appreciate the publicity. If you teach in a department with creative writers, use them as a resource to help you find poets!

I found a good way to structure the Skype was to do a brief reading plus questions. I asked Erica to read a couple of poems (I gave her the choice of what she wanted to read, but then she chose to take student requests, so the class voted on two poems for her to read). I also asked students to choose, close read, annotate, and prepare a question for Erica about a particular poem from The Small Blades Hurt. (I had students turn these in to me to ensure they did them!) This made discussion quite lively. This advanced preparation is key for a Skype session, I think, as otherwise there might be a lot of long, painful silences—boring for the poet and not helpful to the class, either!

Twitter

Now, I’m not on Twitter (or actually any social media), but of course my students are. In one class discussion about a Patricia Smith poem from Blood Dazzler, the class could not decide who the speaker of the poem was. We debated for about twenty minutes. Then finally one student asked, “Can I get out my phone and see if she’s on Twitter? And then just tweet her the question if she is?” I thought, why not? To our surprise, Smith responded to the tweet a few days later, confirming one of the three possible speakers we had been debating. The class loved this informal interaction with a famous poet, and it was a nice moment (since their research papers will be due soon) for me to reiterate that when you’re working with living poets, you have to get creative with tracking down information.

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Poet Patricia Smith
. . . or a good old-fashioned poetry reading

The last type of multimedia I’m advocating may not seem like media at all . . . although it’s the oldest poetry medium around, that of an oral reading. It’s where poetry began! There’s no substitute for the electricity generated in the room when a poet steps up to the mic and begins reading her work. This obviously requires a lot of planning ahead (I booked Ashley Jones a year in advance), but if this is financially possible for your department to arrange, I would highly recommend it.

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Poet Ashley M. Jones

If you are a creative writer, you may run a reading series yourself, as I do on my campus, or you may at least have a hand in planning each year’s roster of readers. If so, reach out to your literature colleagues as you plan, letting them know what poets you are considering (and who knows, they also might have ideas about poets for you to consider), as they might be interested in teaching these poets in their own classes. (For example, a couple of years ago, I brought poet John Murillo to campus. I taught his book Up Jump the Boogie in my creative writing class, and my colleague taught his book in his literary analysis class.) This kind of overlap is great because it exposes more students to the work of contemporary poets, and it also ensures a good turnout for the reading!

If you are not involved in scheduling poetry readings on your campus, find out from the creative writers in your department if there is a budget for bringing poets to campus, and if so, see if they would like to collaborate. Perhaps they have their reading list set for who they’re bringing to campus next year—perhaps there’s a poet on their list who would be perfect for a class you’re teaching. Alternately, perhaps they would be open to hearing from you about which poet(s) you might like to bring to campus. See if there might be room for a visiting poet to visit your literature class. I brought Ashley Jones to campus to work with both my creative writing class and this literature class on Black women poets I have been discussing in this post. Both sets of students flipped out when Ashley Jones came to class—there’s no other way to put it.

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I have loved teaching this class, and I can tell that really seeing these poets has been meaningful to my students. You can of course use any or all of these approaches when teaching any contemporary poets—not just Black women poets. If you teach any of these poets or try any of these tricks, let me know how it goes!

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This blog post is written in loving memory of my friend, the amazing poet Monica Hand.

Campus Birds: Making American Renaissance Poetry Accessible through Birdwatching

I am lucky enough to teach on a small campus in upstate New York where the wooded areas, shrubbery, and native plant and flower species attract a wide variety of birds, especially in the spring.  These avian neighbors aren’t shy either.  When living, foraging, and breeding in campus environments, they become accustomed to seeing and hearing people around. The birds on my campus are a visible and audible presence.

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Black-capped Chickadee

Once the snow melts, it’s common to see American Robins hopping across the quad, White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and Black-capped Chickadees foraging around bushes, House Sparrows nesting on the ledges of buildings, Blue Jays and Red-winged Blackbirds calling down from tree branches, and Northern Mockingbirds gliding from perch to perch. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a huge Pileated Woodpecker tapping away in the tree right outside of my office.

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White-throated Sparrow

So how does observing these “campus” birds help my students understand American Renaissance poetry?

One of the most common obstacles that I encounter when teaching American literature before 1900 is the student struggle to connect or identify with literature produced in such a drastically different cultural context from their own.  I can easily understand why students might have trouble engaging with and relating to what seems to them to be a totally alien culture.  However, despite all of the socio-cultural differences, the birds that fascinated American writers in the 1800s are the same birds with the same personalities that zip through the trees and forage outside our classroom windows today.

Reading some “bird poems” by canonical American Renaissance writers helps students bridge the cultural gap between American in the 1800s and America today because birds are dependable.  As the nation rapidly changes over time, birds remain consistent…well, for the most part. The populations and ranges may change, but each species looks and behaves the same way that it did in the 1800s.  So, when we read Emily Dickinson’s poems about American Robins, there is no “I can’t relate to what she’s talking about here” or “This is too weird and unfamiliar for me to visualize” because Dickinson wrote about the same American Robins that students see hopping around campus each day from dawn until dusk.

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American Robin

Dickinson’s “bird poems” are an ideal place to start when exposing students to American Renaissance poetry since she was, as Jo Miles Schuman and Joanna Bailey Hodgman explain, a “bird watcher” and a “bird lover” (xii).  Schuman and Hodgman tally that in her collected poems, Dickinson references birds 222 times (xvi) with reference to 26 different species observable around her Amherst, Massachusetts home (xiii).  Dickinson’s poems reference a number of birds that my students are likely to see daily on campus, including robins, jays, blackbirds, and sparrows.

Furthermore, Schuman and Hodgman acknowledge that Dickinson “knew their [birds’] habitats” and “was aware of their seasonal comings and goings” (xvi).  During spring migration, birds are likely to revisit the very same areas in which they foraged and nested in previous years.  Dickinson describes such dependability in American Robins in “I have a Bird in spring.” She writes:

Yet I do not repine
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown—
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return. (181)

The American Robin was a personal favorite for Dickinson, which works out well because they’re so populous on my campus from daybreak to nightfall, especially in the spring. Whenever possible, it is helpful to pair “bird poems” with famed nineteenth-century ornithologist John James Audubon’s bird commentaries.  He writes, “The American Robin must be the hardiest of the whole genus.  I hear it at this moment, eight o’clock at night, singing most joyously ‘Good Night!’ and ‘All’s well!’” (398).

In “No Brigadier throughout the Year,” Emily Dickinson describes the Blue Jay as a confident “warrior”:

The Pillow of this daring Head
Is pungent Evergreens—
His Larder—terse and Militant—
Unknown—refreshing things—
His character—a Tonic—
His Future—a Dispute—
Unfair an Immortality
That leaves this Neighbor out— (23)

Since students can hold Dickinson’s description against their personal observations of the Blue Jays on campus, close reading comes more naturally even when there might be some tricky language.  I make my students download the free Merriam-Webster Dictionary app on their phones, which they may use during class when close reading and annotating poems. When students look up the word “tonic,” for example, they discover an interesting contrast of definitions. On one hand, a “tonic” is a type of musical tone. On another hand, a “tonic” is something that refreshes or invigorates. So, when Dickinson describes the Blue Jay’s “character” as “a Tonic,” students immediately reference their individual observations: the Blue Jay’s loud, unmistakable call and the vigorous, energetic, and rapid ways that he moves around.

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Blue Jay

Of course, not all of my students are observant of avian life while walking around campus, which is why it is essential to present images, videos, and audio tracks of bird songs and calls alongside of the poetry in class. This is particularly important when reading poems about birds that students are less likely to encounter on campus. For example, I’ve spotted an Eastern Bluebird, our state bird, in a field nearby campus, but I’ve never seen one on the campus proper, so I rely on supplemental media as well as Audubon’s commentary as aides when discussing a poem like Henry David Thoreau’s “The Bluebirds.”

We start with Audubon’s commentary on Eastern Bluebirds: “Full of innocent vivacity, warbling its ever-pleasing notes and familiar as any bird can be in its natural freedom, it is one of the most agreeable of our feathered favorites.  The pure azure of its mantle and the beautiful glow of its breast render it conspicuous as it flits though the orchards and gardens, crosses the fields or meadows or hops along by the roadside” (494). We then compare Audubon’s commentary as well as short videos and audio tracks to the poem.

Some videos reveal that today Eastern Bluebirds rely heavily on man-made nesting boxes during the breeding season. Students then instantly latch on to the opening lines of Thoreau’s poem, which reveal that “bluebird boxes” were common practice even in the 1800s:

In the midst of the poplar that stands by our door,
We planted a bluebird box,
And we hoped before the summer was o’er
A transient pair to coax. (173)

When a bluebird pair moves into the nesting box for the “transient” breeding season, the poem’s narrator claims, “Methinks I had never seen them before, nor indeed had they seen me” (174). Despite this initial unfamiliarity, a powerful bond between the narrator and the birds forms by the next spring when the narrator hears a familiar “sound” of which he claims:

It thrilled but startled not my soul;
Across my mind strange mem’ries gleamed,
As often distant scenes unroll
When we have lately dreamed.
The bluebird had come from the distant South
To his box in the poplar tree,
And he opened wide his slender mouth,
On purpose to sing to me. (176)

Here, the narrator views the bluebird, very likely the same bluebird as the previous year, directly addressing him, acknowledging that the bluebird remembers him in the same way that he remembers the bluebird.

This type of human-bird bond or kinship is pervasive in “bird poetry.” In American Renaissance poetry, it is common to see birds personified and described as “brothers,” “sisters,” and “neighbors.”  Shuman and Hodgman explain that when it comes to birds, “their behavior defines them and suggests similar aspects of human behavior” (xvi). The human parallel is why birds have always been—and will always continue to be—popular literary subject matter around the world.  The diversity of birds and their personalities reflects the diversity of humans and their personalities, and the dynamics of avian relationships often parallel the dynamics of human relationships.

For example, Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” demonstrates both the human-bird bond as well as the human-bird relationship parallels. The narrator recalls childhood memories of his “sad brother” (236), the Northern Mockingbird, who mourns the loss of his beloved mate when she fails to return to their nest containing “four light-green eggs spotted with brown” (237). The narrator, as a child, is keenly observant and describes himself as “peering, absorbing, [and] translating” (237) as the he-bird’s tragic tale unfolds.  The narrator states:

He called on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings of which I of all men know
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasured every note,

[…]

I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting in my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother. (239)

Italicized stanzas throughout the poem represent the narrator’s English language “translation” of the Northern Mockingbird’s lonely “aria”:

O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two altogether no more. (241)

Audubon Northern Mockingbird

The ultimate goal is for my students to be as observant and thoughtful as Whitman’s narrator when examining the poetry, which, of course, requires its own form of “translation.” When it comes to interpreting “bird poems,” I encourage my students to get outside and watch birds. I encourage them to compare bird species that they see around campus and think about the differences in the ways they behave and interact. I encourage them to search for parallels between bird personalities and human personalities.

As an aide for my novice student birdwatchers, there are several user-friendly free apps that I recommend. The Audubon Birds app offers comprehensive descriptions of North American birds. The Merlin Bird ID app, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers a more localized package. Students can download bird packages specific to a region. The app allows students who spot an unfamiliar bird species to plug in information such as size, color, and location to determine the specific species. This app also includes useful images, range maps, and audio recordings for each species. Additionally, students can search for birds they are “most likely” to encounter on any day of the year in a particular location.

Works Cited

Audubon, John James. The Audubon Reader. Edited by Richard Rhodes, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Collins, Billy. Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds. Columbia UP, 2010.

Dickinson, Emily. A Spicing of Birds. Edited by Jo Miles Shuman and Joanna Bailey Hodgman, Wesleyan UP, 2010.

Dickinson, Emily. “I have a Bird in spring.” Collins, pp. 181.

McClatchy, J. D. On Wings of Song: Poems about Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Schuman, Jo Miles and Joanna Bailey Hodgman. Introduction. A Spicing of Birds, by Emily Dickinson, Wesleyan UP, 2010, pp. xiii-xxiv.

Thoreau, Henry David. “The Bluebirds.” Collins, pp. 173-6.

Whitman, Walt. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” McClatchy, pp. 236-42.