Poetry as Public Memory: PCA&D presents first program in its 2021-22 Diverse Voices series

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Monday, September 27th, 2021

The Liberal Arts Department kicks off its Diverse Voices Speaker Series for the year on Thursday, Sept. 30, at 7 pm. That evening the College presents Composing Culture, Poetry as Public Memory with moderator Dr. Jennie Keohane, a rhetorician and scholar of public memory texts at the University of Baltimore; Joseph Ross, the author of four books of poetry and member of the Poetry Board at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., where he teaches poetry; and poet Steven Leyva, assistant professor at the University of Baltimore.
Poetry as public memory gives us a way, collectively, of remembering, ordering, and questioning history. We asked Leyva, Ross, and Keohane about this “time capsule” of sorts: Whether it’s possible for America in the 21st century to have a collective, universal memory, and what poetry first sparked a recognition in them that has led them into a love of poetry, and to look the way a poem can influence how we look at history.
Composing Culture, Poetry as Public Memory
Thursday, Sept. 30, 7 pm
Open to the public

Steven Leyva

It seems you’re a perfect candidate to address how poetry, specifically, can form public memory: Work like “Here is a Sea We Cannot Call Sea,” or “Gorgoneion: Ft Worth,” with their focus on specific places and experiences. Is it your goal, in work like this, to create a poetry of public memory, or one that is very personal to you?

Steven Leyva: To the degree that any poem draws a reader toward the sublime, toward a sense of wonder and awe in language, it creates a shared experience, but I think shared experience – even as literature makes connections across time – is different than common memory. When a reader can connect a heartfelt moment of art with a physical place or event then it can calcify into something like this: when you think of that place you think of the poem’s way of seeing that place. Or sort of what the poet Cavafy said, “You will know what these Ithakas mean”.

Do you remember the first poem that ever spoke to you, that really set a spark? 

SL: Mary Oliver’s poem “White Flowers” is one that comes to mind. She is a poet whose work has done so much to bring new readers and new writers into poetry. The poem begins, “Last night / in the fields / I lay down in the darkness / to think about death / but instead I fell asleep,” and something about the idea of I meant to do one thing, but another thing happened caught my attention, even in language that is fairly simple, and within a concept that is pretty familiar. It was as if that disruption of intention allowed her to see the natural world anew.

Have you ever combined your enthusiasm for anime and comic book culture with poetry?

SL: Well, I write a column for the Washington Independent Review of Books called “Nerd Volta” which is specifically about that topic, but if you mean have I written poems that do that kind of synthesis, then yes. One is being published in an upcoming anthology called  “The Future of Black” (https://www.blairpub.com/shop/the-future-of-black). It’s a poem about the character Static, which some folks will know from the cartoon Static Shock and his appearances on the animated show “Young Justice.” Additionally there is a poem on the Split this Rock website called “The Silver Screen Asks What’s Up Danger After We Enter,” about taking my two children to see “Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse.”

Joseph Ross

Your most recent blog post, about the return for a new school year, is accompanied by an image that reads “Read to understand the world. Write to change it.” In the accompanying post, you mention Leslie Marmon Silko — is she someone whose writing would fit the theme PCA&D presentation: Poetry as Public Memory? 
Joseph Ross: The image from my classroom, “Read to understand the world. Write to change it.” certainly has to do with public memory. Sometimes “changing the world” requires correcting the public memory, sometimes it requires recovering a history or telling it for the first time. Many good poets do this. Recent elegies I’ve written about martyrs in the Civil Rights Movement try to do this by recovering or remembering people whose histories are nearly lost. The two Black boys killed in Birmingham, Alabama on the same day the four girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, or the two Black sanitation workers in Memphis whose deaths sparked the “I AM A MAN” campaign which brought Dr. King to Memphis. Writing can save, repair, and correct public memory. 
Can poetry help build those bridges to find common ground in America? 
JR: Poetry can definitely help build bridges between people because it invites us to empathy, to feel for others. If one can slow down and be open to what some poems are doing, the poem can work on the reader’s empathy for others and their suffering. This can enable people to feel, and then act, for those whose plight they did not know about.
Do you remember what poet’s work first sparked a sense of recognition in you? 
JR: The poems of Langston Hughes opened me up in a profound way, as a young man. His use of rich images and jazz rhythms, new to me at the time, showed me the possibilities in poetry to lament, call for change, praise, and to love. I keep his poems close to me all the time.

Dr. Jennifer Keohane

Since your research, in part, focuses on the way activists use communication to inspire, engage, and involve: Do you have any favorite activist poets?
Dr. Keohane: I’m going to talk about my relationship to poetry a bit at the event, but I’m not a poet at all! In fact, Joseph and Steven have done more to introduce me to poetry in the past few months we’ve been working together than my entire education! I open the event with a brief rumination on Amanda Gorman’s poem at the inauguration of Joe Biden and how it participates in crafting a new vision of the meaning of the past few years. I also think Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery” is a powerful poem in that it makes a “plain, black boy” worth remembering. 
Is there such a thing as a common “public memory” anymore? Or is there just a dominant narrative and then those that do not gain as much attention in the wider public eye?
JK: I think you’re right to note that in a lot of ways, “public memories” is a more accurate way to refer to how we talk about the past. There a lot more competing narratives now, and activists, scholars, and others have done a lot to broaden our vision of who we are as Americans. That said, public memory often exists in memorials, monuments, and museums. When we build a memorial, we’re saying ‘this person is an important part of our history and here’s how we want to represent them.’ Of course, the process of funding and building memorials is VERY political, and we do revise our public memories, too. (As we’re taking down memorials to Confederate generals, for instance.) But yes, the memories in the public sphere are often what we might consider dominant. (They represent the interests of the powerful, the majority, and stakeholders.) 
Is that changing? As we hear more diverse voices, is that widening our understanding of “public memory”?
JK: I think we ARE broadening the stories that we tell about our past. Voices that might have been forgotten or not listened to 50, 100 years ago are now being reclaimed as part of our national story. (Historians, scholars, and curators are helping us broaden our visions.) I was recently in Montgomery, Alabama, where I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is predominantly a memorial dedicated to victims of lynching. Their names (there are thousands) are carved into metal blocks, and as a result, are preserved in our public memory. It’s hard to envision this memorial being built in the past. 
Photo: From left, Dr. Jennifer Keohane, Steven Leyva, Joseph Ross