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.

An Essay Asks a Question and Tries to Answer it: Introducing American Lit Students to Contemporary Forms of Creative Nonfiction

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When I introduce my field—nonfiction—to students of literature, I begin by setting simple yet strict ground rules. First, we use different vocabulary in referring to forms of fiction than in referring to forms of nonfiction. Therefore, the following terms are not interchangeable:

A story links a sequence of events. (Genre: “fiction.”)

An essay asks a question and tries to answer it. (Genre: “creative nonfiction.”)

In other words, the genre of fiction includes literature in story-form and novel-form. The genre of poetry includes literature in poem-form. And the genre of nonfiction includes literature in essay-form. What we study in this unit are essays, and I begin by coaching students to refer to them as such.

Genre

Of course, hard and fast definitions are a great point of entry to discussion as (perhaps all) definitions are problematic. My advice for the classroom: call genre into question as time allows. Then reiterate the above ground rules and stick to them, at least in this introductory sequence (hybridity and blending coming soon!).

Once we’ve considered the boundaries of truth and imagination and agreed the fiction/nonfiction genre divide might be a site of entangled expectations and double-entendres, I ground our discussion in history. This portion of the lesson goes, roughly, like this:

Q: why divide creative prose into genres at all?2460028088_a0baeb592e_z

A: for shelving purposes at the library.

(Read about the origins of the term “nonfiction” here: in short, the term is an organizational strategy by which to organize the relative placement of books on a shelf. Looks like it originated in Boston in 1867.)

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You can slow down your genre discussion by providing a list like this one that reviews all the genres covered in the course…

In an American literature course, it is important the students realize the truth debate (my take here) takes up much of the discursive space surrounding nonfiction. However, because I don’t find this conversation to be particularly rich, I choose not to linger on the topic. I remind my students of Robert Bringhurst’s argument (see how his thinking can figure in to teaching American literature here) that “myth is a theorem about the nature of reality,” and I suggest to them that writers of all stripes are concerned with reality.

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…and names the main form associated with each.

But I try to be transparent: it’s in my own thinking life and studies of literature that the dichotomy that [fiction=fake] and [nonfiction=true] isn’t particularly useful—others   find it an exciting area. So we could, in this course, give a great deal of attention to the central question of the genre, “how true is true enough?” However, limiting our discussion of genre affords us more time to plumb the depths of form. This course’s unit on nonfiction thus does not scrutinize the truthiness of nonfiction and focuses instead on the question, “what is an essay?”

So…what is an essay?

Essay: from the French, un essai – an attempt.

Or essayer to try.

16th-century France: Michel de Montaigne asks, what do I know? In his attempt to answer this question… he creates the foundation for the modern essay.

The essay often involves paradoxes, self-doubt, a winding path, and contradicting answers. The essay uses experience, research, and reflection. And the essay can use any and every literary tool under the sun. Including narrative.

But an essay is not a story. A story connects events. And an essay asks a question and tries to answer it.

(Students, by now, will get antsy: this definition is elusive and they want more solid terms on which to understand the form. But I keep repeating this formulation like an adage—an essay asks a question and tries to answer it—because this is the key interpretive frame they’ll use for close reading. I find it helps them interact with essays as essays, and sets them up for a more complex read than they produce about “true stories.”)

Survey of forms

I keep this part simple, giving brief definitions. And I make sure to let students know that the department at our university offers a three-course undergraduate sequence in nonfiction (intro, intermediate, and advanced) to emphasize that what we’re doing in this unit just scratches the surface.

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Here’s a sample overview showing five forms of essays and advancing a brief definition of each.
Texts we read in class

What I really want students to get out of this unit are the tools by which to approach and interact with any piece of literature that calls itself an essay. Since this is my priority, I don’t feel I have to dip into or expose students to all essay forms like a tray of hors d’œuvres. Students are best served by approaching just two essays: one in which it is relatively “easy” to discern the question the essay is asking (and relatively “easy” to locate its answer, as incomplete as it may be)—and one in which it’s much harder.

Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and Barry Lopez’s “The Raven” (both included in the Norton Anthology, if you use it) make one viable pair of essays for the above exercise. Beginning with Anzaldúa’s essay, I ask this sequence of questions (good for freewriting, for small groups to hash out, for the class to consider as a whole, or some combination of these):

  1. What is the core question this essay asks?
  2. What are some of the text’s restatements or variations on that question?
  3. What seems to be the essay’s answer? What gaps persist in its answer?

It’s not that Anzaldúa’s piece is “easy” per se, but students do find traction with these questions and generate solid answers.

Barry Lopez’s “The Raven,” on the other hand, is harder. It’s more difficult to pin down as common_raven_2a text that asks a question and attempts to answer it. This isn’t surprising: “The Raven” was initially received as a story, but is now generally understood to be an essay (lots to unpack there from a lit studies perspective). And the author’s own remarks also complicate this unit’s approach to “The Raven” as an essay.
Either way, reading “The Raven” as an essay means we must listen for the core question it seems to ask, and listen for the answer it seems to offer. Students have to stretch their interpretive faculties to figure out how to apply this interpretive frame. Some find it frustrating. Others find it exciting, as making discoveries in a challenging text often is. We then briefly revisit notions of nonfiction-as-truth, and note how flat interpretations of “The Raven” become when we point out what’s true and attempt to describe the essay’s significance based on its use of factuality.

An enjoyable follow-up exam question: Pretend a friend from outside this class just read Barry Lopez’s “The Raven.” How would you teach them to think about the piece specifically as an essay?