Learning by Going # 4: Lucille Clifton, won’t you celebrate with me

won’t you celebrate with me

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

 

…come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

 

You can find the full text on poets.org

 

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

Rita Dove, Heart to Heart, Chocolate

Langston Hughes Suicide’s Note, Harlem

Lucille Clifton, lesson of the falling leaves, homage to my hips, I am accused of tending to the past

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.

New online lit journal advances dialogue about mental health

A couple of my poems were recently published in Amygdala, a new online literary journal dedicated to changing the conversation about mental health in this country.

I really resonate with Amygdala and their commitment to literature that can make a difference.

Here’s a bit more about Amygdala, from their website:

“Amygdala’s goal is to build a sense of community by creating a platform for people to bring mental health issues into dialogue. We seek to achieve this through original works including: creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and art. We are looking for work that elucidates the wide range of issues and emotions mental health disorders evoke.….  It is our hope that Amygdala will de-stigmatize society’s view on mental health and create deeper recognition of the importance of mental health services.”

You can check out my poems (part of a series of poems I wrote when I was struggling with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders as part of my masters in family therapy)  at:

The Blanket and the Rats

and

The Woman Who Can’t Leave The House

 

Isn’t memory obsolete?

If you’re old enough, you may dimly recall a quaint time when people remembered each other’s phone numbers.  To contact my true love, I had to do something more than speed dial 1 or tap a screen.   Once upon a time we used to have to remember things because we didn’t have everywhere-access to the internet to tell us where to eat, how to find the hospital, remind us what nasty thing our BFF just said about us on Facebook. We didn’t have apps to tell us the Costa Rican bird we just heard was a three-wattled bellbird

And once upon a time before that people used to have to sing epic poems because they had no means of writing down their history and myths.

But beyond a certain contrarian steampunk retro silliness, why bother to commit things to memory, to know then by heart?

1) I think it’s just a shame not to use all that brain-jelly that was set up to store memory, to remember, to do its work of shuttling sparks between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain.  I still think it’s useful to remember how to walk, even though I’m grateful for trains, planes and automobiles.   

(For a highly readable account of current research on just how the brain stores or encodes memory, look at Terry McDermott’s 101 Theory Drive.)

2) It’s a way to keep yourself entertained when the power goes out. If you’ve committed a few things to memory, you’ll never be bored.

3) It’s a way to claim what matters to you:  A piece of your culture, your history, or something that inspires you. Not something that was beaten into you like the times table or an obligatory prayer, but the things you choose to take the time to commit to memory

So is human memory optional? Perhaps; perhaps not. You choose.