All writing begins in ignorance and separation; the writer is trying to know someone else, trying to understand someone else’s point of view through the act of writing.
In 2008, I worked for a year at an alternative high school for at-risk youth. Most of the students with whom I worked either had been expelled from the public high schools or were transitioning from juvenile detention facilities. They’d been diagnosed with various emotional and behavioral disorders; many had been abused as children. To say the job was challenging is an understatement; the immediacy of my students’ dilemmas and the complexity of their home lives troubled me both as a human being and, more specifically to this essay, as a writer. Like so many of us whose passion for teaching is intricately linked with our vocations as writers, the happenings and enigmas of the classroom could not help but make their way into my writing. However, even as the pages of my journal brimmed with material from the classroom, I felt silenced. What right, I asked, did I have to write of these students? In my journal entries and fleeting attempts at poems, I struggled to navigate my role as an observer and a participant in the lives of my students—to give them dignity and voice while still revealing the realities and limitations of my experience as a teacher. Although I realized that I, as a writer, was not restricted to what actually occurred in the classroom, my writing from and about that year was unsettling on an ethical level. So much of my job at the alternative high school was to help my students understand the ways in which their choices affected their futures—to help them claim their own agency and voice. What, then, would it mean if I, who was not raped, starved, or abandoned as a child, wrote a poem that spoke to their experiences? Wouldn’t my poems merely perpetuate the relationship between privilege/oppression and the ability to speak?
For more than a year, these questions hovered over my journals, resulting in what might be called a crisis of permission. At first, I avoided the material altogether. I kept myself busy with teaching. I wrote about the weather. Yet, as I continued to read poetry, I began to realize that by directly addressing those ethical questions in my writing rather than evading the topics altogether, my work could grow stronger. Fady Joudah’s book Earth in the Attic proved particularly influential in this regard. Though Joudah’s book, based on his experiences with Doctors without Borders, addresses witness on a more globally complex level, I nonetheless learned much from his careful handling of others’ lives. Joudah’s images of poverty and oppression are sharp and startling, yet they also are compassionate. For instance, in “Pulse,” a fourteen-year-old girl, told to undress in front of a man, “Stepped out / Of her body” instead of out of her clothes (8), while in “Scarecrow,” a refugee’s mother “weave[s] [her] new underwear from flour sacks” (45). Such details reveal the harsh realities of the subjects’ situations, yet the language is so compassionate and imagistic that the subjects retain their dignity. Joudah manages to evoke subjugation without seeming voyeuristic—an accomplishment that I hoped to imitate when writing about my experiences teaching.
I also learned much from the way Joudah handles his role as an observer. The speakers of his poems recognize the challenges of their positions as “outsiders.” In fact, many of the poems treat this exact issue, often in haunting ways: “If you come, they will watch you. / You will love it, watching back” (10), Joudah writes at the end of the sixth section of “Pulse.” The tension between subject and observer (which also applies to the tension between poem and reader, as well as teacher and student) is uneasy here, as it is in life. The poem recognizes and names the eerie fascination we have with difference. Even more enlightening, however, is the very last section of this long poem, in which Joudah writes:
Or maybe another child is a poet
Who will write the two strangers
In one of his famous pieces
For who we really are…
And we would call it even. (19)
Not only do these last lines correctly assess the un-ideal in the relationship between “we” and the child, but they also give the authority back to the child. The child is no longer the subject of the poem, but an individual capable of reaction and response. The turn Joudah makes here affected me greatly when I first read it, and even now the move awes me. By treating its subjects with such dignity and honesty, Joudah’s book gave me a template of sorts to use when approaching my own work. From his book, I realized that I had often been trying to do too much at once. I could not place all of the tensions and complexities of my work at the alternative high school within a single poem. Instead, I needed to see it as a larger project. A series of poems, perhaps. Or even a book.
The poems I write about past and current teaching experiences result from necessity. The immediacy of the material and my own deep need to understand provide the impetus to write. The material is something I have to work through, and, as a writer, writing lets me do just that. Even more important to my growth as a poet, however, the material pushes me to stretch the bounds of my own style, voice, and perspective. When writing about such ethically difficult subjects, I constantly look to other poets for guidance and inspiration—whether for moves that would help me handle particular memories or for forms that would help me approach the subject matter from a different angle. For instance, Lawrence Raab’s “Once Something Must Have Happened Here” lyrically evokes an indescribable trauma while overtly referencing the speaker’s innocence. “Was there a child? Was the child hidden, / but watching? Perhaps the trees interfered” (7-8), the poem claims, before quickly moving to question the very scene it has set:
Later, no one wanted to remember,
which is why we know so little.
Nor does it seem right, now,
to make something up so we can pretend
to understand. (20-23)
I admired how Raab handled the slipperiness of perception when applied to someone else’s trauma and found his technique appropriate for a poem I wanted to write, a poem about a student whose trauma was equally unfathomable. Similarly, Camille Dungy’s discussion of the need to include joy in her otherwise emotionally heavy Suck on the Marrow inspired me to explore the joys of my own students’ lives. Imitations and experiments with form and voice, then, have allowed me not only to enter my material from diverse and complex angles, but also to stretch my voice—something that is optimal for all writers.
Aside from reading widely, I have also benefitted from Naomi Shihab Nye’s and Richard Jackson’s comments on poetics. Early into my investigation of ethics, I latched onto Naomi Shihab Nye’s suggestion that the “job” of a poem is to “give us a sense of others’ lives close up”—to remind us of “who we all are and how we fit together” (395-396). These statements give me authority and encouragement as I consider the “so what” of my poems. I have found that my self-censorship eases when I can consider it my “job” to present these students’ lives to my readers and, more specifically, to present how the students’ lives “fit” with the speaker’s and readers’. As for Richard Jackson, a section from his essay “Why Poetry Today?” suggests specific techniques I can use whenever the ethics of a poem makes me uneasy. “The poem itself,” he argues,
must question its own procedures and perspectives—perhaps by shifting stylistic gears, asking questions, suggesting alternatives, changing tone or course in the middle, keeping an ironic tone, understating or overstating for effect. The technique of the poem ought to call itself into question, ought to turn its own revolutionary spirit on its own vision so that it does not become static. This is especially true when the subject of a poem with political aspirations does with others, with observations, with witnessing. (399)
Though I do not consult Jackson’s list each time I want a poem to question itself, I do implement many of these strategies in my work. “Record” and “In the Afternoon I Play Chess with the Students” both, to some degree, “turn” their spirits and perspectives in on themselves so that the doubt and self-censorship that initiated the series also becomes a part of the poems.
Because the ethics of writing has proven so central to my work, I was pleased to read Natasha Sajé’s article “Poetry and Ethics: Writing about Others” in the December 2009 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. In her article, Sajé argues for a responsible representation of people. Although she recognizes that writing often “begins in ignorance and separation,” as a writer tries “to understand someone else’s point of view” (something that is certainly true in my case) she also warns against a “superficial” treatment of others’ lives (15). Poets, she says, “must know their subjects better than their best readers;” they should not “[make] art of others’ suffering without any risk or consequence” to themselves (16). As I consider the poems that have come out of my teaching experiences, I hope (and believe) that they hold to Sajé’s criteria. My purpose is never merely to present the students with whom I work. Rather, I strive throughout to implicate the speaker, whether implicitly or explicitly, in the project’s ethical tensions. Thus, in poems such as “Once Something Happened Here,” a direct response to Raab’s “Once Something Must Have Happened Here,” the speaker questions her right to appropriate the subject’s stories and instead “wait[s] / for her [the student] to correct me.” Likewise, the tonal shift at the end of “In the Afternoon I Play Chess with the Students” forces readers (and writer) to reconsider the speaker’s perceptions. Much like Fady Joudah’s “Pulse,” which ends by imagining the child write a poem about the speaker and the speaker and child calling “it even” (19), “In the Afternoon I Play Chess with the Students” flips the power structure in the classroom: “Though maybe I have it all wrong. / They win and we all become human.” In this way, I never, as a poet, feel I can handle ethics merely by changing students’ names or altering details that could reveal the identities of the individuals that inspired some of these pieces. Instead, I work to make that ethically tumultuous relationship between speaker and student the core of the project.
Although I would not and cannot claim to be an expert in either teaching or writing, I find joy in both and I do believe that my writing makes me a better teacher, and that my teaching makes me a better, more observant and compassionate writer—as long as the poems address and overtly complicate those ethical tensions. The voices of my speakers must shift in order to question themselves; the poems must acknowledge the imperfections and dangers of interpretation. As in “Record,” perhaps the most significant poem in terms of how it treats ethical questions, my writing must address the flaws of perception but also that need to make sense of experience. These are necessary moves—both for me as a writer and for my work as a whole. “Record” does not provide definite, firm answers to the questions that silenced me when I first began writing about teaching experiences. I don’t believe it, or I, can answer those questions. But it raises them, and it raises them in ways that perhaps do justice not only to the experiences and students who inspired the project, but also to the writing act.
Think about an experience you have avoided writing about because you did not feel you had permission—whether because you thought it was someone else’s story to tell or because you were uncomfortable with uneven power dynamics. Write about that experience honestly and vividly, but make the ethical dilemma part of the poem. Let the poem openly question its own procedures and perspectives. Perhaps even shift the agency to the poem’s subject at the end.
In the Afternoon I Play Chess with the Students
They abandon the skateboard
magazines they’ve stuffed
under desks, forget
the confiscated iPods, the fake
dew rags, and instead finger
their hair and whisper hints,
transforming from angry teenagers
who’ve seen too much into boys
who pump fists when they win.
Boys who skip down the hall,
lift arms to touch walls
and the tops of doorways,
which is moving and distressing
and painful, really—that fleeting spark
of fingers and yellow-tinged tooth—
which is why I want to keep them here,
forever, this thirty minute period
when even the students
that sneak out school doors fold their feet
under thighs to sit on their ankles,
lean forward to pinch
the white and black pieces—
no hard muscles on the arms, no scars—
just boys who play chess and scratch
at their scalps. Boys who sacrifice
pawns to protect their queens, boys
who balance my fallen rook
on the tips of their noses.
Though maybe I have it all wrong.
They win and we all become human.
Once Something Happened Here
Mornings, she kicked clumps
of frozen grass and counted cows
in the neighbor’s field. Sometimes
she moved a child’s truck with her foot
and perhaps she was jealous. She slept in vans
on the way to school and drew pictures of dogs
in the back of her notebooks. At night,
she said she read books thick with pages,
the flashlight glowing beneath the thin sheets.
When her foster mom told her to go to bed,
she didn’t. We knew she couldn’t read.
What happened there, to the girl
with the half-zipped backpack—the girl
who cried near the mailbox and gave me a mint?
What happened at the house with the long drive
and small doorbell, the three-legged dog
barking by the step? Later, when she slips
in and out of our lips, I will want
to imagine clouds, moving without shadows.
The near-silent breathing in the back of the barn.
And then I’ll feel guilty. I who know nothing
of the memories she carried—the stones she kept
in tin cans beneath beds. So I sit
in this chair at the kitchen table and wait
for her to correct me: No, the snow
did not fall over grass like a globe, but yes,
the crows dropped like acorns from trees.
It’s habit—the way I flip through police records,
looking for clues to the youth that aren’t named:
Sixteen-year-old arrested for possession of marijuana.
Fourteen-year-old questioned for the recent rape of a girl.
I’ll never know but they could be: the kid who sat in the back of the van and refused
to buckle, or the boy who plucked hair from his chin during lunch.
So much to say about memory. What I’ll remember. What others may not.
Smells like gum and spit in a drain. Sparking sockets, blackened walls.
Two states away and I click computer keys, rest elbows
on a desk filled with notepads and paper.
Yes, Ronald and his boxes of shoes, now in prison.
Zeda, pregnant, in that house with her aunt. How easy to assume.
While somewhere, two girls stand on a street corner.
They don’t wear gloves though cold chaps their skin.
They share earphones—one bud in the left ear of the girl with glasses,
one bud in the right of the girl with the scar by her eye.
That simple. Just the houses, the corner,
the two pairs of lips offering words to the dark.
And me, shrinking to all that I am:
The single acorn. The small stone.
Jackson, Richard. “Why Poetry Today?” Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics. Eds. Deborah Brown, Annie Finch, and Maxine Kumin. Fayetteville, U of Arkansas P, 2005. 397-400.
Joudah, Fady. The Earth in the Attic. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008.
Raab, Lawrence. The History of Forgetting. New York, Penguin, 2009.
Sajé, Natasha. “Poetry and Ethics: Writing about Others.” The Writer’s Chronicle. 42.3 (2009): 14-22.
Shihab Nye, Naomi. “Lights in the Windows.” Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics. Eds. Deborah Brown, Annie Finch, and Maxine Kumin. Fayetteville, U of Arkansas P, 393-396.
Jennifer Case is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, Fourth River, Third Coast, English Journal, and Zone 3, among others. She teaches at the University of Central Arkansas and serves as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org. You can find her at www.jenniferlcase.com.