Power of the Pen Poetry Plays 2017 Week 5 Part II Prageeta Sharma


During our class videos, you may hear our poets and playwrights use terms that are new to you. We have created a list of
key terms and definitions that you can refer to at any point during our video lectures. This list is available on the
videos and readings class page where you can read it
or download it as a PDF. If you would like to find
and review these terms while you watch each class video, you can stop this video, go back to the videos
and readings class page and download the PDF. There, you can play this video and each of the following class videos. If you have any questions
about these terms, we encourage you to ask your teaching team in the weekly class discussions. Prageeta Sharma is
the author of Bliss to Fill, The Opening Question, Infamous
Landscapes and Undergloom. She is recipient of the
2010 Howard Foundation Grant and she has taught at
the University of Iowa and the University of Missouri. – Hi, my name is Prageeta Sharma and I am going to just read to you a modification of an essay I wrote for the poet- Joshua
Marie Wilkinson’s book on pedagogy and teaching and the title is “Exploring
Bias in the Writing Workshop and Engaging in Social
Practice Through Poetry.” I’m hoping that this essay will
easily convert to a webinar and that my audience
will be able to engage in how we conduct a virtual workshop that connects our creative self
to a variety of experiences, related to our diverse identities which could be understood
to be loosely shaped around themes that affect
us and form our experiences: economics, poverty, age, race, culture, gender, sexuality and disability and thus, to explore the idea
of social practice in poetry. Social practice is an art medium that focuses on social engagement, inviting collaboration with individuals, communities and institutions and the creation of participatory art. In this case, we are talking about poetry and the idea of defining
the varieties of communities we participate in and
generate work out of. Often and historically, we are in spaces that don’t always acknowledge
the oppressions we face, and that shape the content
and style of our work. My particular focus today
will be around gender and race and then other ideas as well, and the writing practice as it relates to an understanding of certain selves and the theme of privilege that might inform some writing practices. The biggest pedagogical
takeaway from this talk is how exploratory we can be. How can we convert some of my questions, which I’ll get to at the end of this, into prompts for you to think
about with your own work? And also move away from judging our work based on very biased ways of workshop exchange among students. And I will start with personal stories around my teaching practice and my experiences in the classroom. Entering the classroom, I’m a short, 4’10” South Asian woman. I’m a child of immigrants,
a first generation American. But I’m also a poet, a calling
that has given me a voice and the opportunity for a kind of freedom that would not otherwise be possible. Sometimes, as a teacher, I’m forced to conflate both identities and thus I am and have always been set on empowering and supporting
both the study of poetry and the power for students of poetry to transform their own
histories, identities, and difficulties into forms of resilience. Because of who I am and what I look like, I have often found myself over the years, attuned to difference, bias,
and racism in the classroom. In response, I’ve thought a lot about ways to not perpetuate cultural hierarchies, hierarchies in the workshop setting, in order to have some
practical pedagogical models to connect to the act of creative writing, a writing practice inherently
caught up in voice, perspective, stamina, perseverance,
and sometimes, talent. Race and culture come up
directly in the workshop setting in a lot of, and also in a lot
of writing settings that we, in our community settings. But often in odd and
seemingly innocuous ways. I had a student once comment,
“We’re all white here.” No, indeed we’re not. I’m not, and there was
also another student who appeared white but who was not. Another student said to me affectionately, “I don’t think about your ethnicity.” I thought to myself, “I know.” I know this student
didn’t intend this comment as a kind of erasure. Neither student understood
that their whiteness historically positions them to tell others what they are and are not. I can also recall a class where the students earnestly said, “Isn’t it better “that we couldn’t identify
the poet as black?” The notion that it was a good thing that this poet was being
read outside of his, in this case it was a he, race; that it was therefore, not limited to being
defined in terms of race and consequently, more accessible, does not sit well with me. What is at the heart of this
tendency to universalize, and from poets who should know
better than to universalize? Could this desire to move beyond race be an unconscious effort
to keep it at a distance? And could this mark a disengagement because there is no personal connection? In fact, I often find such a
lack of personal connection to race and culture arising
indirectly in a workshop setting and also in many settings in the classroom in the guise of disinterest, as in “This poem was not interesting to me,” or “I can’t relate to it, so
I’m not sure how to respond.” When the poem being read or workshopped is intact and does not exhibit any unintentional grammatical
errors of any sort, but is to some degree,
exhibiting the imaginative and experiential space of the student, it is often at this point, a place to reckon with the content. The poem enacts or is trying
to do something unknown. It does not constitute a readily shared personal or literary experience. When the student reading the poem cannot put certain cultural
symbols in place as signposts, the poem becomes unrecognizable in their peer’s sense of the world, or the reader’s sense of the world. Responses are guarded with
students unwilling to explore what, at the first or second reading, makes the poem unknown or disengaging. While this also happens when
teaching established poets in the classroom setting, then the students do have an innate sense of the authority of the poet being taught. But this is not necessarily
the case for peer critique and response in the workshop environment, nor, I think, online as well and in forums and when we’re sharing poems. Expectation and as in tokenism or reductive representations
of identity, which I don’t, I don’t need to necessarily
talk about here, right now, also inhibits engagement. Expectations and a willingness to engage in someone else’s identity are important for an individual to deepen her understanding
of her own identity. More so than ever, poets are
consciously and unconsciously connecting their aesthetics to ideas about their environment, socialization and identity. Discussions about aesthetic
range and inclusion are particularly valuable when
students are able to discern the motivation behind with
what their tastes look like in relation to their
schooling or aesthetic bents. It is important to think
about classroom pedagogy in relation to aesthetics so that false hierarchies are not made to disengage students from their ideas about aesthetics or poetry. And I, I guess I could say that a lot of times, when we talk about poetry, we talk about what we like
and what we don’t like but it’s really interesting to figure out what shapes that idea of liking? And can we get beyond
liking and disliking? Really, that’s my point. Furthermore, I think it’s important to establish a set of
outcomes for students as well, that they don’t seek to dismiss each other out of a kind of intolerance
of cultural diversity in the name of aesthetic diversity. I’ve seen workshops divide
around aesthetic biases and I’ve also seen them come
together because of them too. I can get more concrete here. When bias in the classroom arises, I try to use the workshop
as a place to explore ways that we, as poets and
thinkers, are inclusive. As a way of forming our
styles, nurturing our voices, and also exclusionary, as a
way of protecting ourselves from what is unknown and
potentially threatening. Because what I’ve found is that students need to say something about where they come
from and who they are. It is damaging to their
psyche when they cannot. Oftentimes, it is the
individuals in the group who do not find a way to
represent their cultural places, to talk about how it
informs their aesthetic. And if a majority of the group
is privileged in some way, those outside the majority
may not be granted a certain essential credence
to the direction of their art. Which leads me to
strategies in the workshop. Some years after I was teaching, I encountered Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking
the Invisible Knapsack.” In it, she creates a list of biases based on the daily effects
of white privilege, in order to discuss the kinds of invisible
forms of dominance play, out in academic environments. I would also say that we have them in virtual
environments too and in the media. Here are some examples
from McIntosh’s article. She has a list of advantages
and disadvantages. “One, I can if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of
my race most of the time.” “Two, I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to
mistrust my kind or me.” “Three, if I should need to move, I can be pretty sure renting
or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and which I would want to live.” “Four, I can be pretty
sure that my neighbors in such a location will be
neutral or pleasant to me.” “Five, I can be, go shopping
alone most of the time, pretty well sure that I will
not be followed or harassed.” “Six, I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my
race widely represented.” “Seven, when I’m told about
our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of
my color made it what it is.” And then the list goes on. But we, like McIntosh, are able to create a list of the kind of biases
we bring to the classroom, based on our perceived notions of race, class and gender et cetera, in relation to aesthetic. I’ve seen McIntosh’s
list work successfully in a variety of academic settings
and in community meetings to improve understanding of
our cultural differences. I’m just starting to explore
this approach in the classroom by brainstorming a list of daily effects and also prompts for my students, in order that we can explore what in their content and in their form, relates back to particular
socializations, biases, or even a positive or negative resistance to their own socialization. I’m also finding that
it can serve to combat what we have all observed as the all too common phenomenon
of dismissal and disinterest among students in a workshop setting. I would also say virtually too. And in doing so, it can
create a forum in the workshop to discuss aesthetic and intention in relation to our own experience of race, class, gender, ableness, sexuality, age et cetera, in order to immerse ourselves within it, enjoy it, or redefine it if we so wish. And for example, what are some models we
can generate for ourselves, that are our own list of
questions that you know, that are prompts? Can I write a poem? And I just took McIntosh’s lines and I tried to convert them into prompts. Can I write a poem about what it means to be able to arrange to
be in the company of people of my race most of the time? What would this poem look like? What would it say about white supremacy and cultural practices around me? Two, can I write a poem about someone who avoids
spending time with people whom they are trained to mistrust and who have learned to
mistrust my kind or me? Three, do I write about poems
that explore my obstacles or my advantages? Such as, if I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of
renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and which I would want to live? Even thinking of poems that represent aspirations
and goals and dreams, it’s a kind of privilege and we can talk about
even poets from the canon, whose subject matter
signals a kind of privilege and a kind of leisurely, leisurely, themes of leisure. I can write a chronicle of
what it’s like for my body, size, shape and gender and
identity to do something mundane, like go shopping alone most of the time and know that I might
be followed or harassed. Five, when I turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race represented, what does this representation look like? What kind of poem can I
write from that experience? Can I write a prose poem, for example, about how the media tells me
about our national heritage or about civilization? Am I shown that people of
my color made it what it is? Or is it some other group of people? Will my prose poem explore my feelings? Ultimately, I wanted to think about what kind of social practice could we have in a forum like this,
where we start to look at how poems can allow ourselves to connect to different communities, what does our vernacular or
writing styles look like, what 20th century literary
traditions come out of it? I can even encourage, you know, you to think about imitation
of a certain kind of poem that you think resonates
with your vernacular. Can I translate another
vernacular to my own? For example, taking
Shakespeare, writing a sonnet but then taking it back to my community and my community’s vernacular. Can I, and so I, I tend
to think about prompts that allow community-building too. Can I have a friend tell me a story and I interpret it as best as I can in the form of a long poem and then can I try to use her dialogue or his dialogue and testimony and when I’m finished,
read it back to them and have them further collaborate with me. These are the exercises that I think can come out of a social practice, but also change the way
we talk about a poem. We get out of the binary of good or bad and we start thinking about how the poem itself is a social practice. In thinking about how I can use Peggy McIntosh’s example of
advantages and disadvantages and the list that she forms, and to think of how I, as a poet, and my students can interact with that is to think about a list
of questions or concerns. Actually, even the form of
the list poem does this, where a poet can list their own sets of
advantages and disadvantages that are very particular
to their experience so that they are listing inequities that are daily occurrences for example. And that, from that list, we get a sense of the voice
of a poet’s, you know, experience of inequity or
oppression or privilege. Well, I think back to a
poet like Joe Brainard, who wrote I Remember in the ’70s and when we have the
listing of I Remember, he goes, he starts from childhood memories and we end up building and accumulating these sensorial experiences as well as events that happened to him that explore his queerness, his otherness, his ideas of alterity, and how he is experienced by
his list of what he remembers and it’s, it’s anaphora, and it starts with I remember,
I remember, I remember. And that is one way to
think about Peggy McIntosh but also think about the
poetic form of repetition. I think, or what I’ve noticed in looking at modernism
to the current day, if we look at poets like
Gertrude Stein for example, or if we look at beat poets like Ginsberg and I would say he sort of is
in many different categories, if I look at the Black Arts Movement and I think about Amiri Baraka, if I think about Audre
Lorde’s work, I do see, the I speaking to the world, sometimes in repetition, sometimes the language returns constantly back to its subject in order
to work out ideas of emphasis around advantages and disadvantages. But it’s interesting to think about, about movements, literary
movements that are on the edges that use repetition as
a form of both protest and as emphasis. So they do explicitly
and implicitly articulate who’s in the center and
who’s around the center.

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