For vandal 1.1, Daniel and I are each composing a tribute piece to different activist artists that have greatly affected our own work. I have chosen June Jordan and have decided to honor her through an interview with the current staff at Poetry for the People, the collective she began at Berkeley in 1991. Following lifetime of battling inequality and injustice with words as her weapons, Jordan died in 2002 after a hard fought battle against cancer.
Below are some quotes from Jordan and the [rough] questions I’ll be asking. Please send your suggestions for questions that I could include in the interview, or answer as I author the final piece.
In “Besting a Worse case Scenario” Jordan wrote:
I do everything I possibly can every day,
I postpone nothing
I no longer procrastinate.
I give whatever I undertake all that I’ve got
I pay closer attention to incredible,
surrounding reasons for celebration and faith
I watch for good news.
I become hourly more aware
Of the privileges conveyed by human life . . .
ColorLines: You have written that “poetry is not a shopping list, a casual disquisition on the colors of the sky, a soporific daydream, or bumpersticker sloganeering. Poetry is a political action.” What is poetry to you?
June Jordan: Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth. In the process of telling the truth about what you feel or what you see, each of us has to get in touch with himself or herself in a really deep, serious way. Our culture does not encourage us to undertake that attunement. Consequently, most of us really exist at the mercy of other people’s formulations of what’s important.
But if you’re in the difficult process of living as a poet, you’re constantly trying to make an attunement to yourself which no outside manipulation or propaganda can disturb. That makes you a sturdy, dependable voice—which others want to hear and respond to. So, poetry becomes a means for useful dialogue between people who are not only unknown, but mute to each other. It produces a dialogue among people that guards all of us against manipulation by our so-called leaders.
CL: What does it mean to be a black radical in 1998?
JJ: It means to educate myself incessantly about the world around me. We need to fathom the varieties of oppression that have made human beings suffer not only in this country but around the world, and to battle against the competition of miseries, to instead search for connections among peoples who have suffered from white supremacy or capitalist obsessions or unmitigated power.
Suheir Hammad: “Moving Towards Home” was the poem by June Jordan that changed my life. I was eighteen.
MKN: What drew you to her work?
SH: Well, I knew of her poetry. I’d come across little things from reading because I was a voracious reader as a child. Then I did research on “Moving Towards Home” because she wrote it after Sabra and Shatila. I found out it had been printed in The Village Voice and that she had gotten death threats, and The Voice has never received as much hate mail as they did from that poem. She ends that poem–and you know, she really doesn’t talk about Palestine–I mean, she doesn’t talk about the Right of Return. She talks about Sabra and Shatila. And she tells the story about this woman looking for her husband, Abu Fadi, and she takes a quote from The New York Times, and then she asks “Where’s Abu Fadi?” Then she begins this poem. And she says: we’re not going to talk about the bulldozed earth and the limbs. She ends this poem by saying, “I was born a Black woman / and now / I am become a Palestinian / against the relentless laughter of evil / there is less and less living room/ … / It is time to make our way home.” And for an eighteen-year-old girl from Brooklyn to read this poem by this woman from Brooklyn–you know, she was an immigrant to Brooklyn–and to realize that it wasn’t about peace accords and borders and resolutions and justifications and rights. It was about humanity. This is what was dangerous–telling this story–that this woman would be looking for her husband. That’s what angered people. I love Audre Lorde’s work and it’s moved me on so many levels–but more and more I realize, God, the stand that June Jordan took to consistently bring up these people and in the eighties, you know–and to link it to Nicaragua, to link it to …
MKN: Guatemala …
SH: Guatemala–exactly. And to link it to all of these indigenous movements around the world–to link it to South Africa. Let’s talk about that! When the majority of the anti-Apartheid movement did not want to touch the resources that were available on the Israeli administration’s connection to South Africa–I mean reams!
MKN: I know, when everyone was divesting they were still there.
SH: Yes, and physical evidence of this relationship that the anti-Apartheid movement didn’t want to touch. So for her to stand up as a black woman, as an immigrant, as a lesbian, you know, as the daughter of working-class–all of the things that she was, and to take all of those things, and to say “I am now become Palestinian.” What is more powerful and transformative than that? To do that through a poem. And I was like, hey, I don’t really believe in hurtin’ nobody, you know, do what you gotta do, but me personally, I ain’t gonna pick up no gun. I’ll pick up a pen. I was moved and changed. And I am again and again when I read that kind of work. Not just June Jordan. There are people writing like that now. The time we’re living in [in] this country–it’s so important for progressive-thinking people to use their mediums whether it’s academia, scholarship, art, fashion. To understand how to renegotiate the dialogue, you know? To gain a footing in the conversation. To have a right to speak.
Tribute piece intro [again, rough copy]
June Jordan–poet essayist, journalist, dramatist, academic, cultural/political activst, teacher, and inspiration. Her work confronted controversial and critical issues with a clear-sighted passion and resilience, convinced that political conviction exists in the same space as love. In her lifetime, she broke through many walls, then carried over as many other people as she could through her work as a teacher, writer and activist, moving together from the side of oppression to agency, silence to strength. Her life has and continues to touch many of the contributors in this issue, and the dialogue would not be complete without a tribute to June Jordan.
Questions for Poetry for the People:
In the seven years since Ms. Jordan’s death, how has the program changed? and how has it stayed the same?
Is there a tribute aspect to the program that did not exist before? is her own poetry included more in the program now, and why?
Did you know Ms. Jordan? how did she inspire you in your work?
From what you know of other programs in the Bay area and around the nation, what other ways is Jordan honored?
In what way can individuals continue the struggles Jordan fought and won, time and again through her writing/activism?
Professor Jordan stated that the goal of Poetry for the People “is to make audible the inaudible, and visible the invisible.” What goals are for the programs? How do you decide, year after year, how to change them?
There are three guiding principles to P4P,
1. That students will not take themselves seriously unless we who teach them, honor and respect them in every practical way that we can.
2. That words can change the world and save our lives.
3. That poetry is the highest art and the most exacting service devoted to our most serious, and our most imaginative, deployment of verbs and nouns on behalf of whatever and whoever we cherish.
What does this look like in practice? how do students take to them? How do you feel it influences the experience and outcome of students further participation/action?
How is the curriculum decided on? what is taken into consideration? About how many students do the programs reach a year? Are there plans to take the program beyond its current setting, online?
The theme of the issue that will hold this tribute, is walls, and we’ve asked contributors to respond to a set of questions asking them what they do when the are facing a wall, how do they get to the other side and what do they do when they get there. What is the wall P4P faces? how does it get over it, time and time again? what is the most challenging part of the climb?
I hope to complete this interview by next Friday, so send me your questions/comments as soon as possible!