The Personal Is Political

“The moment when a feeling enters the body / is political.” —Adrienne Rich, “The Ghazals”

“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?” —Claudia Rankine, from Citizen

11/22/16: SOTA teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students and Willa and me after our workshop.

11/22/16: Teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students, Willa, and me after our workshop (Photo by SOTA Teacher Marcy Gamzon)

This morning, poet Willa Carroll and I co-taught a creative writing master class to high school students at the Rochester City School District’s School of the Arts. Willa is a proud alumna of the school and I often wished, while growing up, I had also been a student there. Happily, I’ve been able to be a part of the larger SOTA community through the many alums I have as friends and acquaintances—and these master classes.

Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Poet Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Willa and I last visited SOTA as guest writers in June of 2014 (here’s my blog post about that visit). She and I have known each other since high school and it’s been rewarding to continue our friendship through writing and our various moves for school and work.

We focused today’s reading and workshop on “political writing”—writing the political, and thinking about the relationship between what is personal and what is seen as political. Willa and I both chose to frame our readings and writing exercises with words by, among others, Adrienne Rich, a groundbreaking poet, public intellectual, and second-wave feminist. The phrase, “the personal is political,” was important to me as a writer, particularly in college, when I came further into a feminist consciousness I had only begun to articulate in high school. I just googled “the personal is political,” and Wikipedia offered this handy history and context for the phrase:

The personal is political, also termed The private is political, is a political argument used as a rallying slogan of student movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s. It underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. In the context of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.[1] The phrase has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, Women’s Studies, or feminism in general.[2][3] It differentiated the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s from the early feminism of the 1920s, which was concerned with achieving the right to vote for women.

The phrase was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title “The Personal is Political” in 1970,[4] but she disavows authorship of the phrase. According to Kerry Burch, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, and other feminists given credit for originating the phrase have also declined authorship. “Instead,” Burch writes, “they cite millions of women in public and private conversations as the phrase’s collective authors.”[5]Gloria Steinem has likened claiming authorship of the phrase to claiming authorship of “World War II,”[5] although the invention of the phrase “World War II” can in fact be traced to a Time editorial published in September 1939.[6]

The phrase figured in women-of-color feminism, such as “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde‘s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, and the anthology This Bridge Called Home. More broadly, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw observes, “This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others.”[7]

Before beginning my reading, I mentioned that there have been a handful of events in the last fifteen years, which have shaped the direction and ideology of our country. In my opinion, these events include 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis, and our most recent presidential election. The election showed me that the most misogynistic, racist, and incendiary speech and behavior by a presidential candidate not only did not take him out of the running—it likely helped elect him. This shocked me. And also that some Americans were likely not OK with a female president. Much more to say about that, but back to our workshop, which we began to plan before the election (and its results).

Willa read the two quotes at the beginning of this blog post. Before getting into my lesson on “making the invisible visible” and using forms such as lists as a writing prompt, I read a short excerpt from Rich’s essay, “Invisibility in Academe”:

When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard…to make yourself visible, to claim that your experience is just as real and normative as any other.

I think this is an incredibly powerful passage and one I’ve come back to again and again over the last 20 years.

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Sejal Shah (photo by Willa Carroll).

We then looked at “25 things, post-election version,” a sort of  list “essay,” which my former MFA classmate, Noria Jablonski wrote and posted on Facebook the day after the election. I also read my lyric / list essay, “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps,” which was published in September in Brevity’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization.

Student Writers Hard at Work

SOTA Students writing hard, heads bent, pens moving.

A couple of the students shared their list exercises, and they were wonderful. The SOTA students were lively, focused, and wrote terrific responses to the four writing exercises we brought to them—even on the day before Thanksgiving Break! Speaking of thanks, we are thankful to have been able to return to work with these talented writers. Thank you also to teachers Marcy Gamzon and Bradley Craddock for hosting us, and to Friends of School of the Arts for sponsoring our visit.

None of Us Really Left: Reimagining Rochester

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Poets Cornelius Eady (reading from his iPad), Marie Howe (of the fabulous hair), and Philip Schultz (a poet’s poignancy in his countenance) read in Rochester, with local poet and MCC Professor Tony Leuzzi (far right) moderating the conversation.

Last night I went to a terrific reading in town through Rochester Arts & Lectures, featuring Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, and Philip Schultz—poets all originally from Rochester. MCC professor and poet Anthony Leuzzi did a wonderful job moderating the reading and conversation. Eady, Howe, and Schultz addressed the role Rochester played in their lives as poets and how they think of home now (none of the three stayed in town, but draw from their time there in their writing).

Each described a different Rochester, a different sense of place, a different home—Eady described his street in the city neighborhood now called Corn Hill; Howe spoke of growing up in the suburbs in a fake Tudor stone house with a swimming pool in a neighborhood of Irish Catholics, but did not specify which town or area (I found this especially interesting—the absence of detail here; as a product of the suburbs myself, I have always been acutely aware of the distinctions between the different towns and suburbs, and even neighborhoods within the same municipality—I don’t see them at all as all the same).

Schultz spoke about growing up on a street of immigrants in the city, and at some point moved to my hometown / suburb, Brighton, which borders Rochester. Eady and Howe both talked about the same block on Prince Street, which played an important role in their lives. Howe read poems from her first book, What the Living Do, which was written largely about her brother John’s death from AIDS in 1989; John died on Prince Street in Rochester, and some of the poems are set there.

Eventually, all left home. Eady and Howe spoke of wanting to be where people were—where everyone was—all together on the streets. And this place was New York. That resonated with me and with others I know who grew up here. Schultz said it was more that he was fleeing where he was—that he had to leave the pain of his situation in Rochester more than getting to New York.

I just jotted down some notes, because I found the conversation and poems so inspiring. Not only are they all beautiful poets, they read poems grappling with identity, place, and the lost worlds of their childhood and adolescence in Rochester. All stuff I think about often. I had heard Cornelius read before, and have some of his poetry, but weirdly enough, was not familiar with Howe and Schultz.

Some excerpts from the conversation:

Marie Howe: [On the power of poetry]: “What poetry can do—turn our lives into myth.” From the elegiac title poem of What the Living Do, written to Howe’s brother John, these last lines stayed with me: “I am living. I remember you.” I woke up two days later still thinking about these words and the relationship between those of us still living with ones we love, long passed.

Cornelius Eady: [On coming back to Rochester]: “Driving around the neighborhood, looking at things that aren’t there.” Also this—worlds gone by, vanished, lost, another era, another time.

On Leaving Rochester:

Eady: Described a kind of “adolescent panic” to get out—“the larger world was calling to me and I to it…Writers are ambitious. New York tested and pushed me in different ways…and I needed NY for that.” Eady mentioned an important mentor, poet Shreela Ray (who has since passed). Sadly, I never met Ray, but I have her book, Night Conversations with None Other, and have had it for a long time. I need to read it again.

Philip Schultz: “None of us really left. Our imaginations were created here and exist here still.” (How I related to this! I left Rochester for 18 years, but I never really left and it never really left me…and eventually I did move back.) The title of one of Philip Schultz’s book, Living in the Past, appeals to me for obvious reasons if you know me or my writing at all…

Howe: “I never would have met Cornelius and Phil had I stayed in Rochester.” [The worlds they inhabited in Rochester were different and they may never have crossed paths.]

Schultz: [Quoting from what his wife has called the best or truest line of one of his poems]: “I left town, but failed to get away” (from his poem, “Failure”).

This last line reminded me of a sentence in Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine, which has stayed with me for nearly 25 years: “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.” I appreciate that Schultz’s words suggested something perhaps more subtle and complicated than Mukherjee’s distinction. (However, I think what the narrator says in Jasmine has a great deal of truth to it as well.) Reader, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on staying versus leaving (in life and writing), should you have any you’d like to share.

Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls

Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

A labyrinth near Amethyst Brook and the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst, Massachusetts. My dear friend, poet Holly Wren Spaulding, suggested this walk in Amethyst Brook on the equinox, which is also her birthday.

September is the month of the autumnal equinox—the time when summer ends and autumn begins. In the weeks before this, I was thinking about goals for the fall and mourning the end of summer a bit, especially for R, since his life (and mine) change dramatically once the school year begins. But not all change is bad. He loves teaching middle school and coaching tennis, and I love the fall.

My fall classes at Writers & Books begin next week, in October, so I’ve had the chance to do some meaningful traveling and attend events related to art and writing in September. For that, I’m exceedingly grateful…especially since we’ve had health issues in our family, and our summer was mostly spent with parents, my grandmother, and extended family who had come to visit my grandmother.

At the New York book launch for Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

At the New York book launch for GOOD GIRLS MARRY DOCTORS: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, held at the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Some September highlights: R and I took a trip to New York—our first visit since we went there together at the end of 2013. It was a lovely vacation, instigated by an invitation from writer Jyothi Natarajan to moderate the Q&A for the book launch of the anthology, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion (edited by Piyali Bhattacharya), at the Asian American Writers Workshop. Piyali had invited me to submit an essay to the anthology, but it was due right after my wedding, and I didn’t have the mind space to be able to see an essay through to completion then. So I was especially pleased to be able to participate in this book project in some way. It was a wonderful event—moving essays, a packed house, and a chance to reconnect to some of my literary community in New York.

img_0531I’d vacillated on this next trip, but I am so grateful I went. Stephen Clingman, a former professor of mine at UMass Amherst, invited me to take part in a symposium on the life and work and legacy of my MFA classmate, slain American journalist Jim Foley. Besides his work as a brave witness of the suffering in Syria, Jim was also a talented fiction writer. We were honored to spend time with Jim’s parents, John and Diane Foley, who also attended the symposium.

Other writers on our panel included MFA classmates Erin White and Yago Cura; Jim’s friend from Teach For America, poet Daniel Johnson; our MFA professor, Noy Holland; and Jim’s close friend from Marquette University, Thomas Durkin. One of the writers for the documentary about Jim also attended—his childhood friend, Heather MacDonald. I read from an essay I’d started about Jim a couple of years ago and still need to finish.

img_0428September brought with it the Rochester Fringe Festival, which meant the chance to see my favorite hometown modern dance company, Garth Fagan Dance. They have been inspiring me my whole life, and R and I were lucky enough to have one of the dancers, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, choreograph our first dance at our wedding. Fagan created his own dance vocabulary using elements of Afro-Caribbean, ballet, and American modern dance—and this influenced me as an artist; he extended what was possible, or what seemed possible. We all have different stories to tell, complete with different vocabularies. You don’t have to use someone else’s—in fact, you can’t. How liberating it is, but it requires confidence—a certain strength of will and belief in your story.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

Rachel Hall (center) with Howard Solomon and Marijana Ababovic, 9.27.16.

September also brought with it the publication of an essay of mine in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization—“Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps.”  In addition, This week was the book party for my friend Rachel’s Hall’s debut collection of stories, Heirlooms. l was so pleased for her! In the last few years, we have talked a lot about the process of writing a collection and sending it out to find its home. I interviewed her about Heirlooms in my final column for the Kenyon Review Blog.

img_0717The day after Rachel’s book party, I had the opportunity to hear the venerable, acerbic, witty, and wonderful Margaret Atwood! (I can no longer say there’s “nothing going on in Rochester.”) Not only is the epigraph from my manuscript from Atwood, her essay, “Nine Beginnings,” is one I regularly teach and come back to in my thinking and writing. I’ve also been reading from a collection of interviews with her (books were generously given out at the event, held at The College at Brockport, The State University of New York).  Here’s an excerpt of an interview I read this morning:

Geoff Hancock: What do you think your strengths are as a writer?

Atwood: I used to say, in the usual Canadian way, ‘Well, aw shucks,’ I don’t know.’ We’re trained to be modest. But now that I’m middle-aged I’m going to allow myself to say, ‘Well, maybe I’m good.’ Not all the time, but enough times, I can get the words to stretch and do something together that they don’t do alone. Expand the possibilities of the language.

Hancock: And your weaknesses?

Atwood: Weaknesses?  We can’t afford to think about those kinds of things. Most writers are tightrope-walking over Niagara Falls all the time. Look down and you’ve had it. If I thought too much about weakness I’d block.

—From “Tightrope-Walking Over Niagara Falls” in Margaret Atwood: Conversations (edited by Earl G. Ingersoll)

Let me just say I want to be her when I grow up. In the meantime, I’m learning to be me as best I can. It’s the task of a lifetime.

Finally, I wanted to share some essays I came across this past month, so as not to forget them. These are also some of my reading recommendations, if you are looking for any:

  • Holly Wren Spaulding’s thoughtful essay on art installations in nature.
  • My friend Meera Nair’s essay about food, longing for home, and the importance of cooking.
  • A smart NYT article my friend, writer V.V. Ganeshananthan, recommended about networking. It’s about more than networking though—it applies to literary citizenship, manners, and being mindful about paying the help we receive forward.
  • My friend, local writer Nate Pritts, on writing outside and the importance of spending time in nature.
  • Also flagged to fully read / listen to (I caught just the end on the radio): Mary Karr on writing memoirs on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
  • An essay on death, dying, and happiness, by Brooklyn-based meditation and yoga teacher, Jess Geevarghese. (I met Jess in a yoga class while in NY in September, and we ended up striking up a conversation at a cafe down the block from the studio…one of the most meaningful interactions of my trip.)
  • Last one: I heard Sarah Cedeno read this essay in July, but it stayed with me, and I’m adding it to this list to remind myself (and you) to take a look at her haunting essay about family, hoarding, and the stuff of life.

What are your reading recommendations? I’d love to hear from you about them.

Hin-Jews in the House

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At my Diwali party in 2001 in Amherst, MA. Both Monica and I lived in Massachusetts for many years and went to graduate school there.

Two months ago, my dear friend Monica Gebell and I read together at Writers & Books, the local literary center in Rochester where I teach. We grew up together, have known each other since middle school, and have both been writing for a long time. Time goes by so quickly and already much has happened between then and now—so I’m especially grateful Monica wrote something about our reading.  Read more here…

Assay@NFN15: “The Lyric Moments”

I had a wonderful time attending the NonfictioNOW 2015 Conference at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Here’s a write-up of the panel I was on — about “the lyric moment” in both lyric poems and the lyric essay.  I wrote poetry first and still think of myself (in many ways) as a poet who happens to work mostly in prose these days. Thank you, Heidi Czerwiec, for blogging about so many of the terrific creative nonfiction panels for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies — a true example of literary citizenship.

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

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Matthew Olzmann, Justin Bigos, Sejal Shah, Bojan Louis

Panel description: When Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off in pursuit of “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” the phrase “suspension of disbelief” entered the poetic lexicon. It can be argued that an equivalent poetic faith is at the heart of the lyric essay. However, despite sharing similar impulses and effects, the lyric essay and the lyric poem handle, develop, and court poetic faith in different manners. There is a distinct difference between the suspension of disbelief in poetry and the development or maintenance of actual belief in the essay. This panel of poets, essayists, and editors will discuss the lyric essay in relation to the lyric poem, and consider what constitutes a “poetic faith” in nonfiction.

Matthew Olzmann: This is a panel of…

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August

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Stone sculpture on the beach in Tiverton, Rhode Island.  Thinking about impermanence, beauty, and change this summer.

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My reading, on August 21, 2014, dedicated to my friend and MFA grad school classmate, James Foley (1973-2014).  The event took place at Roc Brewing Company as part of Writers & Books’ Get Lit Crawl (Rochester, NY).  Your writing and life touched so many people, Jim.  We will always remember you with the love and spirit you embodied.  There is only love.

Get Lit Pub Crawl Photo Credit :  Ivan Ramos

Master Class at School of the Arts (Rochester, NY)

I loved offering a creative writing reading and workshop this week at School of the Arts with my old friend (and beloved SOTA alum), poet Willa Carroll.  School of the Arts (or SOTA) is a fantastic magnet school in the city of Rochester.  Although I first encountered Willa through her poetry when we were both ourselves high school students a million years ago (at neighboring schools) and we later lived in NYC (where Willa still lives), this was, unbelievably, our first time hearing each other read.  She is a fierce and funny poet, with a command of language and sensitivity to the possibilities in words that I very much admire.  Thank you to Friends of School of the Arts for supporting our visit and to Eileen Scardino and Marcy Gamzon for making it happen and hosting our visit.

NYC-based poet, Willa Carroll, leading a writing exercise after our reading together on June 12, 2014.

NYC-based poet and performer Willa Carroll, leading a writing exercise after our reading on June 12, 2014.

This week was also the last day of school at the independent school where I teach; I think I am going to need to sleep for a week, as the kids say.  I attended my first Harley graduation yesterday, just hours after our master class. What a hectic year it’s been and how grateful I am to have had opportunities to read and or write creatively with students at the University of Rochester, the College of Staten Island, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the Harley School, Writers & Books, School of the Arts, and Pittsford Sutherland High School.  Rochester rises to the top of the pile of places to live as a writer and serious reader.

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Willa took this picture of me at the podium during our Master Class at SOTA on June 12, 2014.