Don’t be confused by my starting this with the first line of Clifton’s poem, which also stands as its title.
The poem’s final lines are
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
I’m learning how important it is to make poetry and “everyday,” every day thing
The American Academy of Poets has a nice weekly feature called Teach This poem, geared toward K-12 classroom teachers. While the suggested lessons don’t usually fit my “classrooms” or my “students” who tend to be in their seventies and eighties and often have more to teach me than vice versa, I still enjoy the weekly poem selection.
On Monday, November 16, 2016, in honor of MLK Day, Teach This Poem featured Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” I smiled to see it, it’s a poem I count as beloved. I’m far from the only person to know it by heart, in whole or part. (And I keep finding more and more people who do, most recently David Mura and Margaret Hasse)
And another piece of my response was, yes, Clifton’s voice is a wonderful one to lift up in honor of the national holiday. And lifting up her voice should not just be a once-a-year thing.
I’m learning what I can do
I don’t say this from a position of having this all figured out. Clifton says she was
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
I wasn’t born in slavery, literally or figuratively. I’m a middle-class white woman, learning to live with the chronic condition of whiteness, constantly blundering around with my privilege and implicit bias. Like any chronic condition, sometimes I manage okay, other times I screw up. Only this is a chronic condition whose symptoms hurt others more than myself. I do the best I can, knowing I will often fail.
As a teaching artist/poet organizer I am still learning, struggling to figure out ways to bring my personal concerns for promoting equity with the realities of my classroom.
While I often fail, I care about undoing racism. I also care about undoing ageism. These two concerns sometimes bump up against each other in interesting ways in sessions. I am still figuring this out.
Poems keep teaching us.
In the mean time, I know one thing I can do is bring in a variety of voices, and not just on MLK Day.
It’s a commitment that’s pretty easy and enjoyable to live. There are so many gorgeous and useful poems out there. Below is a very short sample of some poems I’ve used in my own teaching. For those of you that like or need to focus on craft in your teaching, in this short list you can find form example (pantoum and haiku), metaphor/comparison/figures of speech, image and writing from the senses, diction, and a whole lot more.
Natasha Trethewey, Incident
Langston Hughes Suicide’s Note, Harlem
Donte Collins, what the dead know by heart
Ross Gay, A Small Needful Fact
Gratitude to Clifton, these poets and every other writer who, through their words, helps me stand for a moment in their experience, and understand it a little better.
Whoever you are, whoever you teach or work with, I hope you will fold them into your own session plans or reading or knowing by heart. And I’d love to hear about the voices you are lifting up. Every day.