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Crossing That Line

Yesterday afternoon was a day I’d been anticipating for almost a year — the high school students’ orientation for the joint Writers in Baltimore Schools and Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars “Poetry & Social Justice” course. The course is part of an inaugural Engaged Faculty & Community Fellows Community-Based Learning Program created by the JHU Center for Social Concern. Patrice Hutton (director of WBS, fiction and nonfiction writer, and a Hopkins Writing Seminars and Hopkins MA in Writing graduate), Shangrila Willy (poet, JD, WBS board member, and Hopkins MA in Writing graduate), JP Allen (poet and JHU Writing Seminars MFA graduate student), Jaida Griffin (poet and high school senior), and I have spent the last year meeting, planning, wrangling logistics, and learning about best practices for Community-Based Learning at the Center for Social Concern.

JHU Center for Social Concern. Photo Credit: Carter Harwood of Johns Hopkins University.

This is not a typical college course; it’s not even a typical “service-learning” course, in which college students “give back” to the community (in what can sometimes feel like a one-way street). The goal here is collaboration, engagement, and as much of a sense of equity as possible.

The class brings 15 – 20 Baltimore City high school students and 15 – 20 Johns Hopkins University undergraduate students together to explore the intersection of poetry and social justice. They’ll write and read poetry together, engage with visiting writers (Quraysh Ali Lansana, Tony Medina, and Sefia Elhillo of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop [Haymarket Books, 2015] will be visiting on February 8 for our first author visit and free public performance of the semester), interview local poets and activists (members of the Baltimore Adult Poetry Slam Team, LOVE the poet, Abdul Ali, Ailish Hopper, and others), and hold public performances of their own.

Yes, it’s a lot for one semester. Yes, we’re incredibly excited. Yes, the whole endeavor is incredibly fraught, as those “best practices” aren’t as clear-cut as one might hope. (How do we make sure that we break down, rather than reinforce, implicit biases? How do we attempt to dismantle, rather than reinforce, systemic inequalities? In what ways must we acknowledge white privilege and and systemic racism and inequality explicitly, before we can even begin to talk about poetry or justice? And — not an insignificant consideration — how do we balance the necessary and fruitful discomfort that comes with the territory with the fact that these students want to have a FUN and positive experience, and we want them to have the same?) Whew.

Yesterday, we met with the high school students independently, to make sure that they had a chance to ask any questions and make 150% sure that they know where the buses will be picking them up after school on Monday. The high school students are coming from all over Baltimore, and Patrice Hutton’s heroic effort to create a bus route that picks students up near their schools and drops them off at home is amazing — and a maze. (In thinking about best practices, we’ve already been unable to address privilege in one crucial way; the Hopkins students are already on their familiar campus, and the high school students have to take a bus ride and enter a new learning environment. Is it any help that the high school students will be able to take some ownership of a college campus by the end of the semester? I’m not sure. I know that we don’t feel entirely satisfied, but I also know that this is a work in progress.)

Along with answering the students’ questions, conducting a brief survey (Do you think of yourself as a writer? Do you think of yourself as an activist? Do you plan to go to college?), and getting to know each other a bit, we did a little writing.

First, we read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Crossing That Line”:

Crossing That Line

Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.

He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
that line.

Remind us again,
brave friend.
What countries may we
sing into?
What lines should we all
be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?

[You & Yours. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions (2005).]

After providing a bit of background about Paul Robeson‘s career, life, and activism to contextualize the poem’s narrative, we asked ourselves the same big questions that Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem asks:

What countries can your words and poems sing into?
Where do you want them to sing?
What are the lines in your world that you believe you or others should be crossing?
What songs travel toward you from far away to deepen your days?
These countries, lines, and songs can be literal or metaphorical, “real” or surreal.

We gave examples of what’s meant by literal (Choman Hardi, from “At the border, 1979”):

I was five years old
standing by the check-in point
comparing both sides of the border.
The autumn soil continued on the other side
with the same colour, the same texture.
It rained on both sides of the chain.

We gave examples of what’s meant by metaphorical/surreal (James Tate, from “Dear reader”):

I am trying to pry open your casket
with this burning snowflake.

And we gave examples of language that blurs the lines between the literal and the metaphorical/surreal (Allison Joseph, from “Xenophilia”):

Sing to me in a language I don’t speak
with vowels swirling round my ears like silk . . .
untranslatable lullabies lilting me into sleep
deeper than the rivers by towns now wiped
off any map, a disappeared cartography.

Jaida’s assessment of the activity was that the discussion that came out of the poems was really great, but the “next step” of writing one’s own poem was frustrating for some, as it felt like it there was implicit pressure to take some kind of fully-formed political stand. If we did it again, perhaps we’d focus the poetry exercise to emphasize that the “lines,” “countries,” and “songs” that engage us can be places in the imagination, not just those of Baltimore, or America (though they can be). I hope we have the opportunity to cross that line again. I’ll be blogging about this collaboration throughout the semester; please let me know how it goes if you try any of our readings or writing exercises in your own communities!

WBS JHU Orientation Sat Jan 30 2016
WBS/JHU Poetry & Social Justice Orientation, Village Learning Place, Saturday, January 30, 2016. Photo credit: Patrice Hutton


At the border, 1979

“It is your last check-in point in this country!”
We grabbed a drink-
soon everything would taste different.

The land under our feet continued
divided by a thick iron chain.

My sister put her leg across it.
“Look over here,” she said to us,
“my right leg is in this country
and my left leg in the other”.
The border guards told her off.

My mother informed me: We are going home.
She said that the roads are much cleaner
the landscape is more beautiful
and people are much kinder.

Dozens of families waited in the rain.
“I can inhale home,” somebody said.
Now our mothers were crying. I was five years old
standing by the check-in point
comparing both sides of the border.

The autumn soil continued on the other side
with the same colour, the same texture.
It rained on both sides of the chain.

We waited while our papers were checked,
our faces thoroughly inspected.
Then the chain was removed to let us through.
A man bent down and kissed his muddy homeland.
The same chain of mountains encompassed all of us.

Choman Hardi
[Life for Us. Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books (2004).]


Dear Reader

I am trying to pry open your casket
with this burning snowflake.

I’ll give up my sleep for you.
This freezing sleet keeps coming down
and I can barely see.

If this trick works we can rub our hands
together, maybe

start a little fire
with our idenification papers.
I don’t know but I keep working, working

half hating you,
half eaten by the moon.

James Tate
[The Oblivion Ha-Ha. New York: Little Brown & Co. (1970).]



Sing to me a language I don’t speak
with vowels swirling round my ears like silk,
fingertips lifting candied morsels to my mouth,

tidbits freed from multicolored tins, their labels
printed in the ancient hieroglyphs of pre-war
factories, machines like monarchs.

Sing to me of settlements, of dust you cannot
wipe from your family name, of carousels
and caravans, tiny stringed instruments in velvet

cases packed away in steamer trunks stuffed
with sepia photos adamant in their frames.
Whisper secrets only your people know,

untranslatable lullabies lilting me into sleep
deeper than rivers by towns now wiped
off any map, a disappeared cartography.

I need to hear click songs and umlauts,
trilled r’s and double “l”s, surnames
restored to multisyllabic glory from Ellis

Island simplifications. Share with me
your history’s hope chest–bibles and brooches,
parchment-thin letters with faded fountain scrawls,

recite epic poems until I swoon, shuddering
under blankets woven by women blackshouldered
beneath mantillas of gypsy lace, generations

of widows intimate with the world’s grace
–those tender of graves, singers of hymns,
prayer beads worried between leather palms.

Allison Joseph
[Love Rise Up: An Anthology: Poems of Social Justice, Protest & Hope. Edited by Steve Fellner and Phil E. Young. Hopkins, MN: Benu Press (2012).]