November 15, 2017KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiteratureReadingWriting

Christopher Soto on the June Jordan Teaching Corp

DM: Dr. Joshua Bennett and The Center for Justice at Columbia University have invited you to teach a community-based writing workshop that serves both the Columbia University student body and also members of the surrounding community in Harlem (as part of the June Jordan Teaching Corp). You’re about halfway through that course right now, which seems like an interesting moment to reflect on both theory and praxis in this context. Thank you so much for taking the time to reflect with me in a more public way!

CS: Of course, thanks for providing the space to talk about June Jordan and the work being done in her honor.

DM: My first question is about your own relationship to June Jordan. Can you expand on this?

CS: Yes, I first read June Jordan’s poems online years ago. I was looking to read more from queer of color poets and more political poets and her name slipped into my line of sight pretty quickly. She is a queer black woman and leftist who grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I eventually moved to Bed-Stuy (while studying at NYU) and felt such a deep connection to her, reading her poems and walking the streets, imagining her youth. The first collection of hers that I picked up was “Haruko/Love Poems.” I sat forever on the floor in “Giovanni’s Room Bookstore” (a queer bookstore in Philadelphia named after the work of James Baldwin) with that book before finally purchasing it and having it mold me. Her tenderness, her love, her demand for respect move me so deeply. As I began to write poetry more publicly, I also began to edit and teach and write essays. June Jordan, too, was someone who dabbled in many forms of self-expression. I often think of a video interview that I once watched of her where she is discussing journalism and essay writing. She says something along the lines of “Even when I’m writing essays, I am a poet first. I am a poet who happens to be writing essays.” This is also how I feel when I am away from poetry, as a poet who is visiting another medium. I think my relationship to June Jordan is spiritual first (as opposed to aesthetic or political). She feels like a guide to me, someone who has opened the door and allowed me to write political poems about race, class, gender, etc. After years, I am still reading June Jordan. A new book of her work was just released this year too, its called “We’re On: A June Jordan Reader” with a introduction by Rachel Eliza Griffiths (from Alice James Books). I’m happy to see her legacy continue.

DM: Columbia states that the workshop, focused on poetry and protest movements, is in memory of June Jordan’s work as a political activist and poet who founded “Poetry for the People” workshops while teaching at UC Berkeley. I’d also like to ask about the course’s relationship with the work and legacy of June Jordan?

CS: June Jordan believed that poetry was an accessible and easy to use art form that can be used to educate and empower communities. She wrote about poetry being able build cultural literacies and reshape literary canons. I used this as a framework for building the syllabus to the course at Columbia. I want the work that we as a group are doing to be accessible, to build cultural literacies, and also to be a place of communal unlearning and relearning. She once wrote “The first function of poetry is to tell the truth, to learn how to do that, to find out what you really feel and what you really think.” This is one of the goals for the workshop- emotional intelligence, tapping into our own unique voices and experiences and growing together from there, to become authentically us. I think we are very much subverting the traditional workshop model as an apolitical, unemotional, overly theorized, hierarchical space (though, I say with respect to other educators who do not perpetuate the aforementioned criticisms). I think we are using her model of communal learning, political ferocity, and spiritual truth telling to create poetry together.

When building my syllabus for the course, I also made sure to look at “June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint,” which discusses her educational and literary and community work at UC Berkeley. Below are some goals that the book sets out to accomplish and many (but not all) of those are goals that my students and I are trying to accomplish as well.

DM: I know you already felt an affinity with Jordan’s work, as I remember you lecturing, in Spring 2016 at Johns Hopkins University, on her provocative “Poem About Police Violence” when you visited the “Poetry & Social Justice” Community-Based Learning course I lead (in a collaboration with Writers in Baltimore Schools). Can you talk about teaching June Jordan’s work?

CS: Yes, I think teaching her work is much different than using her work as a guide for my teaching. Though, after a student suggested, we are now ritualistically opening every class by reciting a poem of June Jordan’s aloud. . . . When teaching June Jordan’s poetry, I usually like to partner her “Poem About Police Violence” in conversation with Audre Lorde’s “Power” and Ai’s “Riot Act” and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops.” These poems are all responses to police violence and questioning the concepts of justice and retaliation and protest. I also love how these poems fit into one another tonalistically and aesthetically. I haven’t had the opportunity to teach her work more in depth yet, but its something that I yearn for.

DM: I’m also curious about how this workshop came together; has Columbia offered Jordan-inspired community workshops before, and will it continue to do so?

CS: From what I know about the program’s creation—Dr. Joshua Bennett was in contact with a foundation that had a sum of money up for grabs. He pitched the idea of creating socially and politically engaged artistic workshops that would bridge the gap between over-resourced universities and the under-resourced communities that surround them. He basically wanted to leverage resources from the university and use them to serve communities in need. He is not getting enough credit for the vast amount of work that he is doing right now to create space for youth of color who want to engage in the arts. He is not getting enough credit for his vision and action towards redistributing resources to youth of color and investing in their future. He is not getting enough credit for helping to carry on the legacy of June Jordan and provide incentive (via fellowships) for emerging art-activists who want to teach or are looking to take the next step in their careers. I’m very grateful for the silent and powerful work that he is doing with the Center for Justice at Columbia.

Pertaining to the program structure – there are three June Jordan Fellows (Aracelis Girmay, Afika Nxumalo and Amanda Saviñón) who will begin their workshops in Spring 2018. I applied to that fellowship and was a finalist but was not selected as a recipient. Myself and a handful of other finalists (maybe four of us) were instead asked to be part of what is called the June Jordan Teaching Corp. I think of the Teaching Corp as a smaller version of the full June Jordan Fellowships. I think of it as a stepping-stone and preparation to reapply for the full fellowship next year while still being honored with the opportunity to serve to community and teach our respective arts. This semester, I am the first and only person (out of the fellowship and teaching corp) who is leading a group. Thus, I think my group is a bit of a test-run. This is the first year of the June Jordan Fellowship and Teaching Corp, I think the program and myself are doing a lot of culture shaping together right now. I know they want to continue and then expand the program in coming years. I’m grateful to be the first person to be part of this effort.

DM: This was an application-only workshop, with youth ages 16-18 in the Harlem area given strong consideration. Were there challenges in the process of getting the word out, and in the process of selecting applications?

CS: Yes, since the June Jordan Teaching Corp is fairly new there were some struggles in getting word out at first. It takes years to learn about the organizations that are already serving the community and gain their trust and support in disseminating word about available resources. It takes years to build a collective culture and develop routine for a new social justice program. I think myself, Dr. Bennett, and the Center of Justice did a pretty great job in getting word out, for our first time around the block, but I know the June Jordan program will continue to grow and become even better and more refined as it continues its efforts. For this first try, we filled all of our workshop slots and had to turn away some people, even in the weeks after the workshop had begun. There is definitely a need for this space to exist.

DM: What responsibilities or opportunities did you see in this process of gathering individuals together for the course?

CS: I felt a responsibility to prioritize youth of color in admittance to the space, especially emerging queer and trans poets without an MFA. This is the brownest / blackest and queerest and most differently gendered classroom and the most lefty classroom that I have ever been in. After four weeks together I think we all have a good amount of love and respect for one another. I think this group that I’m working with is really special, in a way that I can’t even fully comprehend yet. We have people of such wide age ranges and such different relationships to writing and of such interesting social and political perspectives. With the June Jordan Teaching Corp, I saw an opportunity to curate an interesting syllabus and work with the community. I had no idea that I would be gifted with such an amazing groups of poets to be in dialogue with.

DM: Can you give readers here a window into the actual readings and writing prompts or assignments that shape the course?

Yes, the first week we asked, “what is poetry?” and we looked at various closed forms, poetic movements, and poetic terms. The second week we asked, “what is protest?” and we looked at various protest movement in the US, what tactics they used, and what objectives they were attempting to accomplish. The third week we read international revolutionary poets – Roque Dalton, Vladmir Mayakovsky, Zbigniew Herbert, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others. The fourth week, we are talking about identity-based politics and the literary communities that support poets of marginalized identities in contemporary United States. In the coming weeks, we will be reading work by incarcerated poets, creating our own literary activist campaigns and doing public facing activism for the changes we as a group want to see, and we will also be editing a small anthology of our poetry (that we’ve been workshopping together along the way too). I feel we’ve learned and laughed and loved much together in a short amount of time.