In Praise of the Academy and So On
The grandson of German immigrants, a first generation college kid from a farm in Wisconsin, and the granddaughter of a Black professor walk into a student union in Central Iowa to read literature out loud. It sounds like a joke. But we’re completely serious. We’ve been doing this all week (all of our adult lives, really). Visiting classrooms, reading in student unions, answering questions about when we decided to be writers and why, how we put together our poems and why, how someone does what we do and why. We’re the guests of the Des Moines Area Community College Literary Festival, and our job, as visiting writers, is to teach the students here that dedicating a life to literature is a thing real people can do.
There’s been some talk on Harriet this month about the pros and cons of academic poetry. Maybe this is academic poetry we're espousing. We’re asking these students to read carefully, to think critically, to revise, to revise again, to read, to read, to write, to dream, to revise, to read, to write with care and purpose. Maybe that’s what academic poets do. I don’t know. What I do know is that here, in Central Iowa, on these little campuses, my visit to the classroom might be the last intervention that allows a student to seriously consider a life that involves reading and writing and paying careful attention to how she and the people around her use words.
Unlike my fellow DMACC Literary Festival visiting writers, I grew up in the academy. My parents, their parents, and their parents were college educated, and I was raised in university towns with the children of other university faculty. I am no stranger to the academy and its strengths and its flaws. But I am not championing the life of a poet in the academy because I never considered doing anything else (I made a conscious decision not to do something else). I am not championing the life of a poet in the academy because of the shelter it affords me (which, I will admit, it does afford me, though, in other senses, it does not). I am not championing the life of a poet in the academy because of the aesthetic it inspires (I teach at San Francisco State University, a Creative Writing Department in a creative city renowned for not playing by mainstream rules). I am championing the life of a poet in the academy because, as a professor, and as a visiting writer who visits other campuses on a regular basis, I have an unprecedented opportunity to reach people who are interested in learning new ways of considering life.
I get to walk into a student union and tell students who are busy studying for some “practical” career that whether or not they decide to become poets themselves, there are aspects of poetry that they can admit into their lives, that they can grow to love. In the academy I had the opportunity to teach composition for years, which was grueling, for sure, but which gave me the chance to organize essay writing classes around the analysis of literature, which gave me an opportunity to help students think critically and creatively about literature, which gave me an opportunity to help students who have since become police women and structural engineers and history graduate students and managers of the family parking garage empire, who might, in other words, otherwise never pick up a book of poetry again, teaching them in this way gave me a chance to help them learn not to be afraid of poetry. I helped them learn to like it, in fact. As Kevin Stein said the other night, “When a student of mine who’s become a banker writes years after I last taught him to tell me he read my work on Poetry Daily, I believe I’ve done my job.” This is not just about the quick pay off for us, the “academic poets.” For those of us who take the responsibility seriously it’s about grooming generation after generation of thoughtful readers, thinkers, writers, visionaries, and doers.
The academy is one of the prime places where we teach people. And why shouldn’t poets and fiction writers and playwrights be there teaching too? Why shouldn’t we be directly involved in teaching America’s citizenry about the power and beauty and grandeur and danger and glory of language well and ill used? I refuse to believe that poetry’s home in the academy is a bad thing. I thank Rigoberto Gonzales for his comments on the matter, and I thank Craig Santos Perez as well. As Craig said, we should be teaching our students there are places to go with their degrees besides right back into teaching in colleges and universities. For one thing, there aren’t enough jobs in those places to accommodate everyone. Furthermore, more poets in law office, and lobbyist firms, and corporate America, and national politics, and early childhood education administration, and parks and recreation administration, and pulpits, and advertising firms might mean more and more and more real beauty in this world of ours.
Maybe now I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I’m just dreaming the dream of what will happen when the citizens poetry touches here in Central Iowa, and back home in San Francisco, in Lincoln, NE, Washington, DC, Tucson, AZ, Lubbock, TX, South Lake Tahoe, and all the other places I’ve visited this spring with my Suck on the Marrow/Black Nature tour, maybe I’m just dreaming that the citizens in these places, when touched by poetry, might ignite some level of fundamental change. All I know is I regularly receive notices and emails from students who tell me they read something or remember reading something that fundamentally and positively changed the way they move through the world. That’s what I do. And the academy is where I do it.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications...