Empowerment through Language...

Monday, February 07, 2011

Bringing Our Difficult Sunlight into the World

This past week, thousands of writers and educators who teach writing met at the annual AWP conference in Washington, DC to share practices, pedagogy, readings, meals, beverages of varied tastes, and many hugs. It was my third AWP conference and this time I sat on two panels, was an exhibitor on behalf of Comstock Review, and by some miracle of the universe, Quraysh and I were able to distribute approximately 20 copies of Our Difficult Sunlight!

The snows had buried Chicago yet the books managed to be delivered to the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (our hosts for the first of a series of book launches this spring) on Wednesday. My co-author, Quraysh Ali Lansana, was scheduled to fly to DC Thursday so he slogged through the slush and snowbanks to retrieve copies for each of us to hold with delight and the rest to sell. And sell we did! It was amazing to receive the enthusiastic support from colleagues and those who attended our panel on Saturday.

I sat on one panel sponsored by the national Writers in the Schools Alliance on Thursday while we discussed teaching writing in settings other than the classroom. The possibilities are unlimited when we engage students in new environments and the conversation was inspiring and well received. 

Saturday afternoon's panel on poetry and social justice was quite remarkable. The room was nearly full, something I had been concerned about since it was the last afternoon of the conference and I was not sure how many people would be experiencing burn-out or would have already left for home. We had lost a couple of panelists, as many had with the weather and budgetary concerns everyone is experiencing. Fortunately we were able to enlist Toni Asante Lightfoot of Young Chicago Authors and University of New Haven's Randall Horton to join us in the eleventh hour and what brilliance they brought to the session. 

As moderator, Quraysh read a brief excerpt from the book before introducing  each of the speakers, starting with our original panelist, Nandi Comer (now an MFA candidate at Indiana University and former program director at InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit). Nandi started the conversation with wise and well-thought out comments on the programming she has been a part of over her years in Detroit community efforts. Randall spoke to working with incarcerated writers with a depth of knowledge that was profound and highly respectful of those who are living in the American prison system. Randall reminded all of us that sometimes a poor choice is just that and humans have the power to turn their own course of life to positive outcomes. Toni Asante Lightfoot took the tenor of her years in urban writing programming to remind us all that we have troubles in our schools and it is a collective effort to reach out to perhaps save our youth but surely to remind them that they have voice that is valuable to us all.

The questions and comments after our presentations were remarkable. One woman spoke of her year with young women writers in South Africa, others addressed working with young people with Autism, the marginalization of students in countless ways, the pressures on teachers, among other concerns.

The most poignant moment of all was the last comment from the audience. A tall young man, trim in a tailored raincoat, short crew cut, and wide, bright face thanked us for offering this discussion. He elaborated by saying that as a teen, he was headed the wrong way on the life road, attracted to the world glorified by media and MTV. He said it was poetry that saved his life and he meant it quite literally. He was attracted to gang life and the world of the street but he had someone who introduced him to the pen and he said, "Without it, I would probably not have been here now..." 

We often never know the impact of our work. We can only hope and keep doing. Sometimes, someone shares that there is value beyond our expectation. I was one of those for whom poetry has been my lifeline. It continues to be this day, in which I celebrate my third book, the one for which I am most proud.


  1. That last story made me misty. It's important work that you do!

  2. This moment was quite striking. Our work is humbling and vital and I am honored that I am able to offer it. Thanks for reading. I hope you will return.


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