Friday, August 9, 2013

Home and Place: some of my homes have been ideas & some of them have been poetry

Check this out.  It's a story about how ideas and poetry infiltrate life.  It's the journey that went from the private to the public, from a kind of undefined writing life with a few turns along the way, and ultimately affected by circumstances.  And people.  Others who cared to challenge and call out Wendy to bring forth her ideas and poetry because there was just so much there.  Sorry to be so abstract.  You have to read this, because it brings up different ideas about home and place and incorporates authentic learning from the Hip Hop in the Heartland Institute, and puts it into this really wonderful and original contemporary space.  I love Wendy's voice - unassuming and unpretentious - and just downright interesting.  This piece is worth every single word so grab a drink and read on ... That's what I did!  

My oldest homes are stories and voices and and books.  Poems read out loud.  Ideas came later.  And performances.  And crowds.  I don't like parties, but I do feel at ease in a roomful of people I don't know, if they are speaking about new ideas, especially if they are talking about their projects or performing.  That's one of the things I liked from the first about the Hip Hop in the Heartland Educators' Institute, which I went to last summer and then again last month.  It wasn't always comfortable for me, especially the first year, which I wrote about in a short intro to Verse Wisconsin's feature on the 2012 Institute, "A bit about 'Hip Hop in the Heartland,'" and then at some length in a personal essay for the feature, "swaggacity in the heart land, or the hart that crosses a city street." I did, however, learn a lot and not just about poetry.  I went because I'd already ventured out to a few First Wave performances and, as I mentioned in the essay, the "Getting Real" lecture series that the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI) coordinated: 

Walking into Gloria Ladson-Billings' lecture last spring (part of the Getting Real series), I feel at home. She speaks educational anthropology with a Philadelphia accent.  She plays a new release by Jasiri X about Trayvon Martin, recently murdered.  She performs a poem herself, as does a student from First Wave.  Newly written poetry performed and embedded in an academic lecture?  I am surprised and arrested in a good way.  

Poetry, voice, social justice, knowledge, performance came together in Dr. Ladson-Billings' classroom, welcoming and calling me.  The Hip Hop Educators' Institute, and all the other events I've been to involving First Wave, have been welcoming, above all else - energetic, creative, thoughtful.  People from the community come together with students.  You see different ages and races, different skill levels.  Different kinds of poetry and poets are welcome, too.  The Institute allows you to connect with other like-minded educators and to build community, but also to go deeper into your own heart and mind - necessary work to make anything better, which is where the calling part comes: you can't just sit and soak it up; you can't just go back to your books and your house.  

In 1990 I finished up my Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, writing a dissertation on the representation of home in 20th century American multiethnic autobiography.  Then a funny (or not so funny) thing happened: I didn't get a job.  I guess I wasn't all that surprised.  When I interviewed at the Modern Language Association's annual conference (held in those years between Christmas and New Year's), I was eight months pregnant with mine and my husband's first of three children.  Though the interviewers went through the motions and chose to ignore my enormous belly, when they saw me, let me tell you, they were not impressed.  And in truth, I was not that impressive.  To start with, my thoughts were scattered.  It was an easy pregnancy, but I was teaching and trying to finish a dissertation, and by that point, I was freaking tired.  Not to mention that I hadn't had a lot of guidance regarding this weird mash-up I was writing --- one part folklore and ethnography, having collected autobiographies from my students for several years; one part pedagogy and teaching; one part critical theory about semiotics and canon formation and aesthetics; one part pop culture studies; one part personal narrative, my own autobiographical musings also in the mix; one part readings of books that most professors at most English departments had never heard of, like Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone and The Way to Rainy Mountain  by N. Scott Momaday.  Or if they had heard of them, in the case, say, of The Autobiography of Malcolm X or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, they were suspicious either of the idea that these books should be taught in an English department or of the idea that I should teach them.  Other things about me were off-putting from an English professor's point of view.  For one thing, I came to graduate school with an engineering degree -- how scattered was that?  And I felt, like so many of the authors whose words I loved, more at home in books and with characters than in classrooms or with people, more comfortable writing than speaking.  I never developed glib conversation, was always tongue-tied.  Heck, most of the time, I don't know what I'm thinking unless I can write it down.  That's the reason I take a lot of notes then write stuff.  I also couldn't really explain why all of this stuff was important, exactly, or why it was important to think about it simultaneously. 

After that initial rejection of me, of my work, at the end of a grad school career marked by invisibility and a lack of interest in my ideas, I wish I could tell you that I picked myself up, turned my dissertation into a book, wrote some good articles, and went out on the "job market" again the next year.  But I did not.  I found a job teaching interdisciplinary writing when we moved to Seattle for my husband's professorship at the University of Washington, over-prepared every single class, hated it, quit after a few years to stay home with our then two children, and started (privately) writing poetry again.  I felt at home at home, observing my kids/doing projects with them and for them, and at home writing poems and reading about poets.  And that's pretty much what I did for the next decade - interacted with the kids, volunteered at their schools, wrote in odd hours, read books (always a home for me from the very beginning of a very awkward childhood).  

Seattle, the Northwest, leaves you alone.  The Midwest, on the other hand, does not, at least that's how it has seemed to me.  Almost as soon as we moved to Madison thirteen years ago, poets found me and challenged me, not just to connect in order to write better poems, but also to support other poets and poetry in general.  They challenged me to come out of my house and read in public.  They challenged me to make poetry public and to become a public poet.  They challenged me to think about what poetry and the arts do for people and why they are essential, both to ourselves as individuls who require purpose and meaning, as well as to democratic communities, which require active, thoughtful, word-wise citizens.  They challenged me, as did other artists and activists, to participate, and one volunteer gig lead to another.  

Participating has led me to some unlikely places, including two years of Hip Hop in the Heartland, as well as to being poet laureate of Madison with Sarah Busse.  I never considered myself a public person, and it's been a very long time since I thought of myself as an "educator," but that was one of the many valuable things I learned at the first Educator's Institute: we're all educators, no matter what our age, whether we are teaching -- or sitting in -- a K-12 or college class or prison workshop; parenting or being parented; supervising others, working, volunteering; protesting at the Capitol; putting on a play; publishing a poetry magazine or writing poetry.  Teaching is a job with an enormous amount of specialized learning and methodology that is involved, but it is also a way of living in the world.  Whether we know it or not, we have a pedagogy, and we teach (and write, work, parent, child, volunteer, citizen) consciously and/or unconsciously out of it.  Although I had taken course work in pedagogy and written about pedagogy, I became more consciuos of the work I do as an editor, as poet laureate, as a publisher, as having a pedagogical method, a way of teaching, and I started to think about that more fully and critically.

My dissertation back in grad school was aimed very deliberately at canon busting.  I really didn't even understand all of the ways I was doing that at the time, though some of them were conscious.  You'd think someone would have noticed for me, and you'd think someone might have valued the work, but they did not.  Not only did I want to look at multiethnic writing, by which I also meant white authors, but I wanted to look at equal amounts of male and female authors.  And I didn't look at novels or poetry, I was writing about autobiography of all stripes.  And I wasn't just looking at published or even collected autobiography, I was including the work of my students.  I was mapping the boundary between fiction and non-fiction; between personal and public; between the literary and the ethnographic; between American and immigrant; between home as an actual thing in all of its possible manifestations and as an imaginatively created metaphor that could be represented by anything and mean anything and would do either or both depending on your gender/ethnicity/political-historical realities.  Well that's what I know now, anyway.  At the time, I was studying a bunch of stuff that fascinated me, all held together by the word home and I'm pretty sure the English faculty at Penn just wanted me to finish up and find a new home.  I wasn't working on the classics or postmodernism or feminism or owning up to writing poetry or doing anything really that any of them cared about, and I wasn't doing it in a way that made any sense to anyone at all.  

Looking back on what I wrote, whatever its scholarly merits or lacks, certainly many, I see that I was creating a method that would become important to me again as the editor of a small poetry magazine, whose submission process and issues Sarah and I have viewed more by way of event-planning than gate-keeping.  We can't include everyone in every issue, but we try to include as many people as we can, at one time or another, and we try to meet new people -- inviting them to our poetry home and, even more important, visiting theirs -- finding new poets and new groups in our small corner of the poetry world and meeting them on their terms, whatever/wherever. 

In addition to publishing a magazine and books, we organize conversations and events about poetry.  We attempt to make poems public in unlikely places, such as the city's Common Council meetings on a quarterly basis, and we attempt to find out about kinds of poetry and poets, from spoken word and hip hop theater to verse drama and visual poetry, that we don't necessarily have much familiarity with.  We like bringing people from poetic neighborhoods together, and we like to think about how very different "poems" and "poets" can be, as well as how far we can stretch the idea of how to publish, or share, poems -- from home-based readings, conferences, talks, public meetings and book groups, to Facebook notes, blogs, and broadsides.  We also like to collaborate with other groups, bringing, we hope, people who don't necessarily know each other, together.  

A few examples of collaborations include "The Jawbreaker Project," with Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, involved putting free poems and candy in a gum-ball machine we called the Verse-O-Matic and sending the machine around the state.  With Wormfarm Institute we've published poetry road signs along their 50-mile "Farm Art DTour" and also helped to put together a "De-Composium" that brought together poets, musicians, artists, scientists and farmers.  Last year at the Wisconsin Book Festival (and this coming fall too), we worked with First Wave, to create serious discussion of poetry performances by student-artists among the performers and other poets.  With Forward Theater, we're making poems part of the production of Sons of the Prophet in November.  

The largest project we've worked on as poets laureate, the one we've fussed over the most, is an anthology, Echolocations, Poets Map Madison, due out this fall.  For me Madison has meant community and connection, even when, honestly, I would often prefer detachment and solitude.  My part of town, Dudgeon-Monroe, feels a little like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, especially for someone like me who doesn't drive and spends a lot of time walking and working in coffee shops.  But I know that's not everyone's experience of Madison, and my corner of the city can also seem pretty self-absorbed, smug, unaware of its privilege or patronizing --- probably many other things I'm completely unaware of.  

Not surprisingly, the connotations surrounding Madison and particular places in it can be very different.  Sarah and I soon realzied that, whoever was speaking, we preferred -- and this was our bias -- gritty  Madison, a story that acknowledged problems and wear, to pretty Madison.  While we attempted to capture a variety of stories, representing different people and populations, as well as different emotional connections to the same setting or place, that's a complicated, complex task, whose dimensions we only began to glimpse and appreciate fully while reading submissions.  As wilth so many projects involving reserach, narrative, and people, more knowledge has only made us more aware of our lack of knowledge, and often, our lack of connections to the people whose work we would like to include.  We are all too aware of how many voices we are still missing.   

Out understanding of place is inseparable from the varied stories people tell about it, and the stories we're willing to hear.  Working on the anthology has made us more aware of the importance of local poetry as it engages with specific times, places, and people.  Poetry as witness, poetry as ethnography, poetry as history.  Poems also give insight into the stories we inherit, and the stories we tell ourselves unconsciously, and help focus our blind spots.  Many of the poems in this book question and complicate narrative, rather than accepting dominant stories that sometimes sound good or not, believable or not (like "Most Livable City" or "77 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality") depending on one's economic and political realities.  We see this critique as invaluable as Madison changes, grows, and continues to diversify.  Can a poetry anthology help us to understand the coming challenges and better engage with our neighbors?  We believe so, and a number of poems write directly to interracial communication, white privilege, invisibility, lack of knowledge, and the difficulties of creating -- or recognizing -- that knowledge.  

Working on the anthology has helped reconect me to some of the ideas about home and place that I enjoyed working on in my dissertation, and being part of the Hip Hop Educators' Institute the last two years has been invaluable to the project as well as to the process of reconnecting.  Like the dissertation, the anthology is something of a mash-up, a word I didn't have back then: one part poetry; one part story and autobiography; one part ethnography; one part theory; one part practice; one part pedagogy.  It has also helped me get to know Madison better and want to know more.  There are so many places we can call home and so many different connotations those homes can have for us and for the people with whom we share our homes.  It's easy to want to frequent familiar places and ideas, but getting away from the familiar helps us to grow: to count new places as homes and the people we meet as neighbors. 

So what did I learn going to the Hip Hop Educators' Institute a second time?  

That reconnecting with yourself and putting together the fragments of past and present is an ongoing project.  That I am a lot more relaxed this summer than last.  That these people are my friends, my neighbors, even if we don't know each other yet.  That diversity -- culture, age, art forms, aesthetics -- is fun as well as interesting.  Content, of course.  Specific projects and ideas.  Practical tips on teaching in general and about working with young people, "shape shifters" and culture mashers who aren't afraid to make fun of the sacred or laugh at what's profane, preferably in the same joke (thanks, Gloria Ladson-Billings).  That the biggest and hardest questions, like How do we teach English in a way that people stop killing each other?  are the most important; that the empathy of mothers is one of humanity's best hopes, and that we must, as mothers reach out to each other across economic, linguistic, and cultural barriers, because any 17-year-old could be our child (thanks, Maisha Fisher Winn).  That I can cypher if I have to, and that cypher, like improv, teaches trust, deep listening and focus (thanks, Baba Israel).  That transformative circles are more important than poems (thanks, Sarah Busse and Margaret Rozga).  That tagging is fun (I always knew it would be, but thanks, Yako 440).  That flow is personal and has to do with finding your voice (thanks everyone).  That society/our families/schools/institutional structures/media can teach us that our lives -- life itself -- isn't valuable; that we internalize and pass it on, but that narrative medicine can heal; that communities do not make sense of the world through statistics (thanks Mark Gonzales). That poetry is more than poem/poet and that we need to validate each others' language/culture. That every educator's got to spit (aka write your reality); that I will avoid the replication of oppression (thanks, Chris Emdin). That role-playing games can be fun and informative and that people in seriously dire circumstances are also creative (thanks, David Kirkland).  

That what counts for success is also an othering strategy that divides people - in a society, a family, a city, an art form, a culture, a neighborhood.  That data does not commit suicide.  That counting is not accountability.  That art does not create itself and neither do artists.  That humanities and the arts are not the study of objects of numbers or even ideas and people: they are people.  That everyone, no matter how old, needs show and tell (I knew that, but it was nice to be validated).  That chaos.  That open. That playful. That local needs/knowledge. That radical love.  That humility.  That stories.  That Empowerment.  That Healing.  That Transformation.  That Public.  That Restorative Justice.  That literocracy.  

 That we already have what we need.  

Wendy Vardaman, has a Ph.D. in English from University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. in Engineering from Cornell University.  Co-editor and webmaster of Verse Wisconsin and co-founder/editor and webmaster of Cowfeather Press, her poems, reviews, essays and interviews have appeared online and in a variety of anthologies and journals.  She is co-editor of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets' 2013 Wisconsin Poets' Calendar and the forthcoming anthology, Echolocations, Poets Map Madison (Cowfeather Press).  The author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press, 2009), she has been nominated for numerous Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net Awards.  With Sarah Busse she is Poet Laureate of Madison, a volunteer post overseen by the Madison Arts Commission.  Poetry at Common Council Meetings; the anthology of poems set in Madison; and the annual Olbrich Gardens Poetry Marathon are some of their projects.  She lives in Madison with her husband, Thomas DuBois, has three children, and has never owned a car.  More information and links to her poems and prose are at  

1 comment:

  1. Reading this article made my day. The world of a poet seems lonely at times as well as hopeless but knowing that one of the Poets Laureate of Madison began her career with an engineering degree and created her own path to where she is now, building writing communities along the way, gives me hope. Her story also proves what one of my poetry mentors always said, "The path of a writer is never linear." Thanks for sharing this journey and insight.