There is a tantalizing thought that has been eating at me for a while and I still am not sure I have worked it out fully yet. It started to get at me in the middle of my tribute of sorts to the community of African American staff folks at the University of South Carolina who helped to make me feel valued as a professor and as a necessary part of the community as a poet. Something occurred to me while I wrote that piece, and it had to do with the growing realization that as a writer, as a poet, I was not sure exactly what my place in the university is. And by this I mean that as an institution, the university does have the ability to embrace its artists as voices that speak for it, that find creative expression for its identity and place.

I think of what Virginia Tech did in the wake of the shooting some years ago. At the center of their effort to heal stood a poet, Nikki Giovanni. Someone at the university felt that a poet’s voice could some how give voice to the experience of the community—the university community. I am not entirely convinced that all universities would instinctively do the same thing. I think, for instance, of the use of poets during the presidential inaugurations.

This is a ritual that was not always enacted. Some presidents have done it and others have not. But the rationale for this act is rooted in the idea of the poet laureate, the individual being called upon to speak in verse on an occasion because that person, that poet, is indeed deemed as a voice that speaks on behalf of the community. The thing is, I am not convinced that many universities regard their poets in that light. Indeed, I have heard administrators speak of the way they view artists on campuses. They say that they don’t see them as artists first, but as faculty first. And by that they mean that their ambitions and their focus is on securing tenure and teaching.

When administrators begin to look at artists in that way, I suspect that something does happen to the artist. Of course, the administrator is struggling with something quite difficult. After all, the administrator is faced with the challenge of somehow assuring that the faculty member who happens to be an artist, manages to complete all the things necessary to make them of equal stature and place among their peers—namely the History, Chemistry, Pharmacy, and Criminal Justice professors. The artist thus represents the university in fairly conventional ways. If the artist wins accolades they accrue to the university and they are rewarded for this. If the artist puts together a good tenure and promotional file in which they manage to meet all the criteria for the position, they are rewarded with tenure and promoted.

In that sense, what many have started to call the most elaborate and generous patronage system for artists ever—namely the MFA programs—in a decidedly problematic one for the artist because the artist must pay a price to secure that patronage. Here, though, the expectation is not so much that the artist create work to please the patron—work that flatters the patron and that speaks for the patron; but that the artist somehow finds a way to somehow make the work of the patron easier by becoming someone other than the artist—at least in small gesture of compromise.

The problem, of course, may well be that the university, as a community, is not sure of what it is, really. And when it is assured of that, it may actually have difficulty justifying the presence of the artist in that context. Technically speaking the university might well be a place for the study of knowledge. When artists become a part of a university, their primary role is deemed as one of teaching, training others to do what they do.

The poet, for instance, is not employed to study poetry, per se, but to help others to write poetry. But the poet is expected to do more than that. The poet is also expected to produce poetry, and to produce enough of it to justify promotion based on a series of criteria. The poet who does not want to engage in such activities is unlikely to be welcomed into the hallowed space of the tenure track, but is often welcomed as a visiting writer, as visiting poet in residence—thus as someone who is not part of the academy, but who constitutes an interest and tangential force in the academy.

And yet, universities do understand the role of their intellectuals as going beyond their capacity to research well, and publish well, and teach well. They occasionally regard these intellectuals as leaders, as individuals who offer a moral and ethical compass for their students and ultimately for their university community. At commencements, the content of these speeches tends not to be “academic” in any way, but largely “inspirational”, engaged in some act of speaking to and for the community at large.

Is it possible for the artist to be more than the source of entertainment—that is a figure committed to satisfying the need for artistic consumption in the university community? Can that artist become more than that? Can that artist someone become a source of wisdom, guidance and intellectual and emotional sublimation for the community and still be a part of the academy? This has to be possible, but does it require that the poet, for instance, must write poems about university life to carry out the role, or is there a way for the poet, writing as poets do whatever they write, can start to see his role as a necessary part of the body politic of the university, and thus as somehow playing a more organic and necessary role in the life of that community?

I imagine that the example of Virginia Tech is a telling one, and I would argue that what is learnt there is that the poet somehow became understood to be a source of language—the right language—for the occasion. Someone felt that way. Some administrator felt that way. I just don’t think others have that understanding, and I believe that in many ways, this is why artists have a peculiar time on campuses.
Yet we must find a way to stay on campuses because we enjoy teaching, or because we enjoy the security of the position, or we have come to believe that what we do as writers deserves to be in the academy.

Some years ago, I conjured up a program called “Towards the Poetry Friendly School”. And by school I meant grade school. I arrived at multiple reasons why a poetry friendly school was a good thing for a school and for society as a whole. I then developed a long list of things that schools could do to be poetry friendly. At the heart of this idea was the notion, I believe, that the poet, by being a poet, gave something to the community of the school and was an important part of the life of that community. The poetry friendly principle, for instance, would always find a way to share a poem a day with the students. The poetry friendly principle would create poet laureates to write poems to the school and for the school. The poetry friendly principal would find a way to show that poetry enriched the lives of the school community and that everyone deserved to enjoy that enrichment during their school life.

Can this happen at a university? I suspect it can. I don’t see this as a push to get poets to write on certain subjects, but I do see it as institutions starting to think of the value of the poet as a necessary voice in a community.
I have placed a lot of the responsibility for this on the administration, but I suspect that the poet may have to rethink how he or she understands the idea of community and the concept of being an artist in what is called an academic institution.

I will end this with an admission. All my employment at universities has been as an academic. I have written, I have taught writing, and I have even worn the title poet in residence, but my journey through tenure and promotion has been as a academic faculty. In a strange way, I wanted it that way, because I enjoyed my scholarship, and I also felt that I would write anyway, and this circumstance gave me a certain freedom as a writer that I am opt sure I would have had with a creative writing appointment. But as a poet in the community of a university, I am starting to think more about what my role should be, about how I can conceive of the university as a community and about what my art does in that space.

I read today a disparaging statement that as an artist at a state institution I was depending on government handouts and subsidies to do my work. The writer then said that such subsidies should end. Finally the writer what Van Goff would have done with government subsidies like that. The comment was deeply sarcastic. No doubt there is a way in which the university is a patron for the artist. But the university has to start working out what it means do be such. And the artists have to start working out what it means for them to be patronized. The answer lies in the issue of how we value art in society.

Like I said, I am not sure I am settled on this question, but I am thinking about it a lot.

Originally Published: April 15th, 2011

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...