By Joe Sacksteder
Both the Honors College at Eastern Michigan University and our interdisciplinary Creative Writing Program put a lot of emphasis on community involvement. So, when I was given the privilege of teaching two honors sections this semester, I decided to design a writing assignment that would encourage student engagement with the community using Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead as a model. Although there was a lot of leeway, I listed four “field work” possibilities – service-based, community-based, research-based, and ekphrasis-based – and asked students to represent their experience via one or more pieces of non-fiction, poetry, or cross-genre work that somehow touched on three themes: place, history, and voice.
Rukeyser’s poem “The Backside of the Academy” indicts the removal of poetry and art from the everyday world. The monolithic engravings on the academy building seem decent sentiments (“ART REMAINS THE ONE WAY POSSIBLE OF SPEAKING TRUTH” and “CONSCIOUS UTTERANCE OF THOUGHT BY SPEECH OR ACTION TO ANY END IS ART”), but Rukeyser frequently references the “closed bronze doors” that separate the artists from “the street of rape and singing, poems, small robberies.” One of Rukeyser’s goals in The Book of the Dead is to open these doors, to permanently take them off the hinges, so that street and art and academy flow into each other freely. She most directly calls out poetry’s distance from the everyday world in “Gauley Bridge”:
What do you want—a cliff over a city?
A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here.
I used “Gauley Bridge” in particular for the “Place” aspect of the assignment. As Rukeyser sets up her camera lens of poetic consciousness in the small mining town, this was a chance for the students to describe their unique experience’s setting. We also prepped for this task by reading from George Perec’s Species of Spaces and deconstructing our classrooms and academic building (again, figuratively taking the doors off the hinges). I used Rukeyser’s complex, wry, polyphonic history lesson in the poem “West Virginia” as a model for the “History” part of the honors assignment. Rukeyser’s work is very invested in unearthing the buried past, and I’m looking forward to what my students teach me about my local community. The “Voice” aspect of the assignment asked students to somehow bring other people’s words into the poems, whether it was public language like the engravings in “Backside,” testimonials or interviews like Rukeyser’s “Absolom” and “George Robinson: Blues,” or even overheard conversations. Disrupting the monophonic tendency of “personal expression” poetry was my major goal here.
There was also a reflection aspect of the assignment, which used Rukeyser’s experience in the poem “Mediterranean” as a framework. In 1936, Rukeyser was evacuated from Barcelona, where she was covering the People’s Olympiad, due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. She writes of her voyage:
Escape, dark on the water, an overloaded ship.
Crowded the deck. Spoke little. Down to dinner.
Quiet on the sea: no guns.
The printer said, In Paris there is time,
but where’s its place now; where is poetry?
I think Rukeyser saw this question as a crisis she would spend the rest of her life trying to answer. This relates back to my first post, about whether poetry can have real importance in the world. Class evaluations of the past that have suggested I omit the poetry unit of Intro to Creative Writing altogether would seem to be agreeing with the viewpoint that poetry is not vital or relevant. Students are totally free to take more of an “art for art’s sake” stand, but my hope is that they will confront an issue that is sometimes easy to neglect in the infamously insular workshop setting: what is the role of art in the real world? How do you approach this question in reference to art you’ve encountered or that you yourself have created?