June Jordan Symposium Highlights Love as a Revolutionary Life Force: Panel 2
By Aria Bracci | Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Hundreds of people, dozens of tables, and countless ideas were gathered for the second panel of the Feminist Poetics symposium, having just taken recess for lunch and discussion over a short piece by Kai M. Green, a filmmaker who cited Audre Lorde as inspiration for his creativity. His film, “Triggers,” was one of many discussion points throughout the nearly nine-hour event, and about to begin was the second panel, “‘The Paradox in Rhyme’: Feminist Poetics as Theory and Praxis,” moderated by WGSS Professor Mecca Sullivan.
This segment of the symposium paid tribute to the full title of the event, “Feminist Poetics: Legacies of June Jordan,” and Professor Sullivan opened with a quote from the title poet. “To tell the truth is to become beautiful,” she said, as Jordan had written for an article in Essence magazine. Not only did Jordan showcase her true emotions, said Sullivan, but she was able to create “multiple meanings from language, in multiple ways, all at one time,” a testament to the power of an intentional voice seasoned in “genre-crossing.”
Opening panelist Evie Shockley of Rutgers University-New Brunswick revisited the latter point. “I don’t remember exactly when or how I was introduced to the work of June Jordan,” she said, which she hypothesized “says something about how many places her work can be found, and on how many lips her name could be found.” In both her essays and her poems, Shockley said, since Jordan was known for both, “we hear the same resonant urgency…the same flashes of intelligent wit,” which Shockley lovingly celebrated as the “writing practice of a boundary-crosser.”
More politically, Shockley highlighted Jordan’s consistent assurance that Black English is not “substandard and wrong,” as many children are taught to believe as early as first grade. She also mentioned Jordan’s dissection of the work and life of Phyllis Wheatley, who struggled to thrive in a “freedom-loving but not black-woman-loving America.” Shockley then concluded with an original poem, which was written in the voice of Topsy from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was also dedicated to Sandra Bland.
The next panelist, poet and activist Che Gossett, followed seamlessly, opening with their own poetic words and expressing their appreciation of being in the presence of “magic, politics, [and] collective brilliance.” Utilizing their background in archival analysis of queer history, they explained how, particularly through the lens of disability justice, the current world is rooted in eugenics and slavery. However, Jordan’s work as both a writer and an international activist, Gossett noted, worked to deconstruct this.
Gossett continued by citing systems like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as applicable to the current “carceral military complex” that, in combination with movies like Stonewall and The Danish Girl, “repeat a certain violence of trans-visibility”—namely, erasure. They concluded positively, though, relating back to Jordan, who participated in the Freedom Rides in addition to other activist work, both in writing and in person. Before passing the mic to Kevin Quashie, the next panelist, Gossett chose to quote Jordan, thanking the audience for contributing to the creation of “living room” together.
Quashie, who opened with the sentiment “everything I know I learned in the company of black women,” continued by reciting Jordan’s piece “These Poems,” explaining how only through deep investigation did he realize the true mysticism of some of the lines and syntax (through the use of the subjunctive), which speaks to the far-reaching scope of Jordan’s mind.
He specifically cited the “shapeliness” of her book Who Look at Me as a larger representation of her boundary-shifting language. He then guided the audience through several word-by-word, line-by-line analyses of pieces in Jordan’s book.
“The subjunctive is the syntax of possibility,” he explained, one that can “skip past the tedious ‘now.’” Finally, and playing on Jordan’s control of subjunctive, he hypothetically addressed Jordan herself, saying “you are ‘if’ itself….thank you, black woman, human-maker, maker of things,” to which the audience generously offered a standing ovation.
Lastly, Gumbs, who Professor Sullivan facetiously introduced as a “black, queer troublemaker,” took the stage, beginning by asking audience members to turn to their neighbors and say “love is life force,” urging them to yell, to smile. “When I say, ‘love is,’ you say, ‘life force!’” she shouted, to which the audience enthusiastically responded.
“We are engaged in an intergenerational poetics,” she continued, and distinct from the prior panelists, she emphasized “our brilliant listening…our openness to love” as underused—yet unfathomably powerful—tools to cultivate connections and understanding. Gumbs also referenced Jordan’s relation of people to lilies in a field, which bloom in unison because of their “receptivity to how love causes us to grow right where we are.”
Gumbs concluded by reading two original poems, their deviance from rhyme schemes, she said, a testament to the diversity of June Jordan’s own words. She dedicated the second poem, “Become,” to the state of North Carolina in reference to the recent bill passed against LGBT rights (and to the legislature as a whole, which has also historically opposed raising the minimum wage), as well as referenced the anti-abortion House Bill 2. “I must become a crossroads that is visible from space,” she read. “We must become the action of our fate.”
At the conclusion of the panel, and in the style of Gumbs’ interactive approach, Professor Sullivan invited the audience to talk amongst themselves rather than direct their energy and questions at the stage—to instead share their ideas, and, as Gumbs repeated, utilize love as a life force.