Meditations on Poetry, Leaving, and Fleshy, Porous Communities

Emily Ronay Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

I have just left Illinois—Spoon River’s homeland, my home of the last six years, a land of stalky grasses shuffling together the demons that have followed me from previous homelands of Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, California, Montana, Alaska, Nevada—for a new job in Delaware. I am already grieving the loss of a place that has nurtured my very best self—one that isn’t really “self” at all, but a humming of connections, of delicious community. The Midwest has allowed me to experience my demons not as disparate embodiments of inevitable torment that amount to an impossible wall of emotional ick, but as a congealed mass of stories that the mind compartmentalizes, for purposes of survival, and that I can, if I choose, rupture.

As the now-congealed mass of narratives that is my mind skitters across all of the tasks and excitements and sadnesses that come along with moving, I return to these lines from Bruce Bond’s essay, “The New in the News: Poetry, Authenticity, and the Historical Imagination,” featured in the current issue of SRPR: “Poems thrive on the new in the old, the old in the new, how each lies embedded in the other in dissonant dialogue” (p. 109).

While Bond is discussing the nature of poetry here, his words also express the dissonance of change, movement, birth, and death that are intrinsic to the human condition. Just as poems “thrive” on blending the new and the old, humans also “thrive” on the endless task of dissolving what no longer serves us and gathering close what does—even (and perhaps, especially) when we cannot fathom the connections between the two. How can we, when change inevitably and consistently arrives, keep our demons from scattering back into their traumatized disconnectedness where they fester and rewound? How can we see the past anew? How can we make the unknown familiar? How can we, indeed, thrive on our embeddedness?

Leaving is a process of returning to what matters, a coming undone, a shapeshift into some new body—a fleshy animal body, an earth body, a body of water, a mass of enmeshed bodies no longer resembling their disparate parts, having, together, become something entirely new. For many writers (and certainly for me), what matters, what moves our work beyond ourselves, is our relationship with “community.” Art, at its core, is a momentary materialization of community.

Case in point: The Word Bombing Reading Series. Curated by a collective of Central Illinois-based writers, past and present—Jordan Cox, Alan Lin, Evan Nave, Xuxa Rodriguez, Eric Longfellow, Brian Hedgepeth, Jeffrey Higgins, Michael Wollitz, and Laurel Perez—Word Bombing enacts the very momentary materialization of community that is art, over and over again (at least once every season). Held in an old homeless shelter-turned-art-gallery now known as ComeTogetherSpace, Word Bombing is a celebration of language, performance, and ultimately, of community. As local writers take the stage to perform 3-5 minute “word bombings”—from poems and short works of fiction and nonfiction, to improvised explorations in sound—Word Bombers “promote positive verbal vibrations” and “send them out” to the Bloomington-Normal, Illinois community and beyond (as founders Evan Nave, Jordan Cox, and Alan Lin explain).

“The general openness to experience and trust of one another” that is Word Bombing’s core philosophy has allowed many writers to experience a profound sense of belonging, says recent Word Bombing Curator, Jeffrey Higgins. For 35 year-old Jeff, Word Bombing was “the first time” he felt part of a community of his own choosing.

Emboldened by this sense of connectedness, Jeff initiated The Illinois House Project, a poetry-based multimedia documentary of sorts that attempts to understand the past and its relation to the material present, to really inspect what has come before (for examples of how this project is currently materializing, see Things Are Tough All Over, published by PRESS 254, and Jeffrey’s current video projects, described on his GoFundMe page). The Illinois House Project is “an archaeology of my own past, whatever that amounts to,” Jeff says.

Yet as The Illinois House Project has unfolded, the inadequacy of “personal experience” becomes glaringly obvious. “I am only one gnome/node/note (you pick) in a whole field of gnomes/nodes/notes,” Jeff says. In allowing for experimentation, ComeTogetherSpace has given many like me, like Jeffrey, permission to delve into our pasts, to not quite know what we’re doing as we’re doing it, and to do it anyway.

How can I leave Word Bombing behind? Central Illinois? The so many people I have loved and still love there? How can I, by leaving, return to what matters? I can’t participate regularly anymore in the Word Bombing experience of coming together in random chairs (everything from your average metal folding chair, to cozy velvet antique chairs and old wooden church pews), in a wide open space with a faux wall-fan at the front and a spacious wooden stage—itself, an enactment of community, of art. I cannot use the bathrooms reminiscent of elementary school, peruse the upstairs gallery space, or graze at the table of hodgepodge snacks (whatever Word Bombing’s minimal budget allows).

Regular visits. Phone calls. Skype sessions. Donating to Jeffrey’s current filmmaking project on Route 66, part of the larger Illinois House Project. Donating to ComeTogetherSpace via GoFundMe to help keep their doors open, after the City of Bloomington required them to install an expensive new sprinkler system. Money is communal.

Practice, cultivate what Illinois has offered me: the desire, the wherewithal, to rupture those thoughts and feelings that have long-provided an illusion of separateness. We all leave, only to come together again in some new, unforeseen way. We are all, constantly, arriving.

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).


A Few Thoughts on Language, Trauma and “And the Rat Laughed”

Emily Ronay Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

“The writer… decomposes the world into the most basic concepts,
But presents them the other way around.
You’ll sense it — the innards pouring out.”
– Nava Semel, And the Rat Laughed (p. 95)

This line appears at the beginning of a series of poems in Nava Semel’s And the Rat Laughed, a hybrid-novel that shapes the story of a five year-old Jewish girl whose parents send her into hiding to escape the Holocaust concentration camps. The girl remains unnamed throughout the novel, referred to as the “little-girl-who-once-was,” “A Little Holocaust,” even simply “Girl.”

The people who take her in, an anti-Semitic farming family seeking financial gain, lock Girl away in a potato cellar, “the pit,” where a rat becomes Girl’s steadfast companion. Over the course of the year that she’s hidden there, the family’s teenage son, Stefan, repeatedly rapes the little-girl-who-once-was.

The novel’s hybrid-form shapes Girl’s story across 150 achronological years, spanning from 1944 – 2099, and five different genres. Through story, legend, poems, diary entries and science fiction, And the Rat Laughed enacts trauma’s rearrangement of time, its scattering of narrative.

What’s particularly unique about Semel’s fictionalized Holocaust historiography is its sustained meditation on the relationship between trauma and language, and more specifically, on the relationship between what happened and telling what happened.

What happened to A Little Holocaust and telling what happened to her resist one another. Poetry makes room for us to, quite literally, read between the lines. Trauma’s un-tellability and its must-tellability converge, creating a new totality of experience.

Take, for example, the text’s poems “Why?” and “How Many?”:

Why potatoes? How many potatoes?
Because. This many.
Why lice? How many lice?
Because. This many.
Why darkness? How much darkness?
Because. This much.
And why the Stefan? And how much the Stefan?
(Pg. 101) (Pg. 101)

The subterranean innards lead us to the unanswerable “why” and “how” of the Stefan as the lines of these poems decompose the extraneous. Potatoes, lice and darkness can be explained: “Because” or “This much.” Stefan is left unanswered. The page becomes again blank, here at the poem’s end where we perhaps most what to know “why” and “how many times” he raped her.

The sequencing of images in these poems shapes Girl’s experience of rape as a kind of violent excavation, a festering-up of the earth’s innards. The potatoes, lice and  darkness mark where rape begins, ends and will begin all over again. What more do we need to be told of “what happened” to understand what did?

A few pages later, the poem “Lullaby” alludes to an answer as to why rape happened to her:

Once upon a time
There was a little Jewish girl
And she had
Little Jewish hands
And little Jewish eyes
And a little Jewish mouth
And a little Jewish body
And a big hole
(Pg. 110)

“Lullaby” renders each part of Girl’s body Jewish, thereby an object, a receptacle—“a big hole,” a vagina. This is not a lullaby that rocks the body to sleep, but into complacency. This lullaby is preparing the body for rape.

Time itself becomes flesh, feet—the part of the body that enables Stefan to come and go at will. Time becomes the anticipation of the perpetrator, the aftermath of his visits, their certainty of happening again—anything but naming directly what happened, rape.

The Stefan comes down
The Stefan goes up
Yesterday is what came before
Tomorrow is what comes next
Down goes the Stefan
Up goes the Stefan
That’s how time marches on
(Pg. 112)

Traumatic experience is often theorized as atemporal and preverbal, beyond the scope of a coherent, chronological narrative of what happened. What I appreciate in Semel’s poems, however, is their attempt to reverse this premise—to represent trauma as not so much atemporal but intratemporal, between the layers of “past,” “present” and “future.” Their attempt to represent trauma as not so much preverbal but intraverbal, literally between the lines. Among poet, language and paper, experience is remapped from bodies that endure rape to a world of bystanders who must remember, must witness “the innards pouring out.”

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).


Fragmenting Language, An SRPR Found Poem

By Emily R. Johnston, SRPR Blog Contributor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

Comprised of lines from poems in the 39.1 Summer 2014 issue by Chloe Anne Campbell, Bill Edmondson, Clayton Eshleman, Shawn Fawson, John Goodhue, Emily Grelle, Emily Hockaday, Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, Katharyn Howd Machan, T.J. Sandella, and Rachel Jamison Webster (SRPR Illinois Poet).

Inspired by connections I discovered across poems in SRPR 39.1—particularly in terms of imagery, color and sound—I composed this found poem about the traumatic intensity of childbirth. Having never actually given birth myself, I do not know this intensity personally. However, themes of violence and childbirth co-emerged organically as I read the current issue. So I selected, arranged and adapted lines to reflect that co-emergence. As traumatic events (such as childbirth) can produce dissociation, fragmenting memory as well as the language needed for describing the trauma, I tried to capture that dissociative state by presenting partial images that then, quite literally, bleed into the other images around them. This strategy effectively obscures the details of the actual traumatic event (childbirth) and focuses attention instead on the emotional, physiological experience of the traumatic event.

Through the silent snarls of thick blood,
Fertile flesh pitted with bullets that bloom red,
She hears the soft earth harden, shrink, stifle all pulsing.
Fear widens the space around her.
Night folds back into its bruise—
Every color epileptic dark,
A box filled with thousands of years
That burn and burn until the world begins
To gain a hue again, like an old wound.
The corn rises up, the tomatoes redden.
Her birth hole, a tangle of dream thoughts,
Spends eight hours screaming you out of her body.
A circle of twelve dead birds,
Broken bodies, silhouettes,
Strips of light trying to get where they need to be.
Tell no one this is your life.

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).


A Rape Poetics of Emplacement

Emily R. Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

As a rape survivor, I often wonder about the value of writing about rape in a culture both saturated in and compulsively avoidant of representations of rape. Who benefits? Does the writer? Do others? And if so, how? We often think of writing, particularly writing about traumatic experiences like rape, as an individual (albeit political) act of breaking silence, of telling one’s story. But approaching writing about rape through a poetics of emplacement might help us understand such writing as a public and social act of situating ourselves “in and through language, the earth, and each other; in and through our histories and our blind spots; in and through our protests and complicities” (“About SRPR”). So in this blog entry, I will explore how the language of survivors (and perpetrators) bolsters my own act of telling, just as I hope that my acts of telling will bolster the voices of other survivors.

The fear of recognition, of identifying myself as a rape survivor, often inhibits the production of language about rape in any form whether written, spoken, thought, or heard. Language, ironically, brings me face-to-face with moments where language (a verbal or bodily “No!”) has failed. Language reinvents the wheel with each violation, endowing it with its own particular details, smells, timings, and dynamics. At the same time, language gathers those violations under one inevitable word: rape. Language conveys the heavy surrender to another’s twisted pleasures, the utter abandonment of one for another, the belief that force forces one to choose, to render her body a possession of one doomed love / connection / alliance / institutional dependence after another.

Many millions endure rape on a daily basis: curious teenagers; battered wives; wrong-place / wrong-time inmates; children; slaves; trafficked adolescent girls; sex workers; church members; prisoners of war; military active-duty, members, personnel. So where do the words go when they’re not heard, not asked for, ignored, used against, bludgeoned out? Who listens to the “please don’t do this,” the whispered “fuck you,” or the throat choking on semen? Where is the linguistic revenge? If not now, when do we speak?

In each others’ stories, we hear our own anguish, anger, and terror at the darkening rooms or the lightening spaces, the next morning: the tousled beds, the cold linoleum floors, the gutters where this happens. We revisit the raw skin, stubbed-out cigarettes, twisted condoms, spots of blood. Language throws us back there, at the same time as our healing bodies sit in the same light that once ruined us forever and has, somehow, kept us alive.

Once, I had a dream: A bleacher full of faceless women, blurred out by rape and battery. Faceless, they had no mouths to speak, but their stories were alive inside them as they turned, in unison, to face me walking toward them, to join them.

Together, our faces returned as we heard each other say what happened. “Darkness, a pit, potatoes, and the War was over.”[1] “I remember feeling sick, an overwhelming sense of guilt.” “His bars were made of metal. I can’t break free.” The water was still running in the bathroom sink. He said I didn’t turn it off when I got up to pee in the middle of the night. The steady “shhhhhhh” of the running faucet as he pushed himself into my asshole, barely awake after the fight the night before. “Was he going to kill me? Had he already done it?” “The sweet birds sing for you. Good morning, blackness. Good afternoon, stillness. Goodnight, silence.” “Enter, the earthen ground is rough.” “How much more can I cry? First love– his hands so sure. I wish I could believe it was just a dream. I want to go back, back before. I just need him to listen.”[2] Poetry emplaces you into me, me into you. Language shows how rape displaces responsibility onto the violated, away from the violator. He is heading off to work, another party; to fathering, partnering, counseling, preaching, trafficking, warring, defending his country.

What is the language of perpetrators? Survivor poetry attempts to slough off the burden of guilt, anger, “if only.” The yellow stars, the ghettos, cattle cars. “She put out signals,” so many say. “I forced myself on her in her own bed. I remember she was crying, a flashback from her father raping her. My hormones were going insane. I asked her to finish me off.” “I don’t remember what happened, I never asked her. I didn’t want to know. But I know I got off.” “You like it in the ass, don’t ya,” he said after he finished, lifting a dirty towel from the floor and wiping himself off. “I was horny. I ignored her. I did it. An erect dick has no conscience.” “Most girls don’t really understand how guys are. Women have to be careful. We never talk about what happened.” “Enthusiastic consent!” “Well she never said no. I could see how she froze up with fear, but it wasn’t rape. She keeps saying she’s fine, but I went and partied with the other girls instead.” “She was 16 with huge tits. I just had to touch her. I knew I could never be with her.” Language of denial, language of selfishness, language of power and control. “The bizarre intimacy with the man who raped me. No place anymore. They just don’t give a fuck. They get off on knowing.”[3]


[1] From Nava Semel’s And the Rat Laughed (pg. 61).

[2] These quoted passages have been lifted / adapted from survivor testimonies on Escaping Hades: A Rape and Sexual Abuse Survivor’s Site at

[3] These quoted passages have been lifted / adapted from perpetrator testimonies in “The ‘Reddit Rape Thread’: Insights Into the Minds of Perpetrators” by stavvers and can be found at


“their words make this possible”: A Roundtable Discussion of Poetics of Emplacement with poets from Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence

Emily Johnston (Sr. Editorial Assistant) & Women Write Resistance

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

In Emily Johnston’s previous blog post, “Traumatic Emplacement: Poetry Emplaces Violence,” she talks about pedagogical strategies for teaching trauma and poetry in relation to one another. Specifically, she writes about teaching with Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, an anthology of poems about gender violence in the United States by more than 100 North American women poets. That blog post helped to establish a relationship between SRPR, Laura Madeline Wiseman (the anthology’s editor), and several of the poets featured in the anthology, which prompted them to dialogue more about connections they see among teaching, resistance poetry, and SRPR’s poetics of emplacement. This roundtable blog is a result of that dialogue—hopefully one of many more results to come.

Emily Johnston: Spoon River Poetry Review defines poetics of emplacement as “writing that reveals the borders of our comfort zones as sites of connection rather than irreconcilable difference.” Speak about your experiences in teaching poetry that explores issues of gender violence and resistance. How have these pedagogical moments created connections, even as they moved the borders of such comfort zones? In your answer, also discuss texts that foster such exploration of a poetics of emplacement.

Jehanne Dubrow: One of the poems that I often teach (particularly to students in the introductory creative writing classroom) is Rita Dove’s “Adolescence II.” It’s a poem that explores gender violence through a set of terrifying images, which students often describe as “trippy” or “fantastical.”  Initially, students struggle with moments like “Then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round / As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines” and “I clutch at the ragged holes / They leave behind, here at the edge of darkness.”

This is a text that tends to divide the classroom along gender lines. Male students often reject the idea that the speaker in the poem has constructed a beautiful-grotesque idiom—surreal and alienating—as testimony to a violence she has experienced. They want to label the poem a dream or hallucination, rather than imagine that the narrative of a girl trapped with menacing men might be real.  Meanwhile, female students will frequently edge toward a cautious, nervous reading of the poem:  has something terrible been done to this young woman?

The poem doesn’t offer up its answers easily, which in turn teaches the students about the relationship between form and content. Poems about gender violence may appear to speak with difficulty, may stutter or stumble, may be forced to find a new language to communicate experience, and to reflect how violence simultaneously urges us toward silence and speech.

Emily Johnston: I can definitely hear, in your description of students’ responses dividing along gender lines, how Dove’s poem reveals the borders of our comfort zones and how those borders themselves are often divided along gender lines. My teaching experience has also revealed how female students often feel hypervigilant about protecting women’s bodies from an ever-present threat of violence, while male students often feel hypervigilant about safeguarding male identities as “protectors” and “providers,” which can make recognizing men’s pervasive violence against women nearly impossible for them.     

Lisa Lewis: This semester I am using Women Write Resistance in an advanced undergraduate poetry writing class.  I wish I could say it was easy to cross that border from the poems about gender violence to my students, who have mostly grown up in Oklahoma.  I have to find new patience and new questions to ask whenever the topic of discussion is one of those concerns that are held as if paralyzed in amber—visible, but untouchable—by the prevailing majority views here: gender, race, class.  The moments one hopes for, when a woman might, for instance, experience herself in the presence of enough empathic support to speak with understanding about the poem, or herself in its context, are fleeting, often hardly discernible.  One learns to identify small signs.  Students try to catch my eye when someone dismisses or denies on sexist grounds they dare not call “sexist.”  They’re not ready to fight, but they mean to encourage me.  That’s how bad it can be here: women still smile constantly—not convincingly—to buy their right to live in relative peace among people who want them to present themselves as living a perfect life.  What their eyes say is unsmiling, guarded.  I look to their eyes, the look in their eyes.

That’s why those of us who teach poetry—feminist poetry, any good poetry at all—in areas like this are doing such necessary work, if apparently uncommon ourselves.  Even in the face of discouragement, connection does happen.  Young women can find a way to escape what harms them.  They can make art that will open to them a way to speak, and then to act, to save themselves and others.  It is a lifelong process for us all—to recognize, to write, to push forward into action.

Emily Johnston: Thank you so much, Lisa, for your inspiring vision of teaching poetry as activist work, particularly in a global moment when so-called social advancements (technologies, economies, etc.) threaten connection at every turn.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: One text I’ve taught is Anne Sexton’s Transformations, a collection introductory poetry students seem to be able to approach because they feel they can grasp the content. Having a text in common—Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, Twelve Dancing Princesses and it’s various contemporary depictions in Disney, cartoons, children’s books, toys, contemporary flicks, etc.—and whether or not the students have read Grimm, allows most to connect on the level of story and then to move to other questions such as delivery, craft, allusions, form, and interpretation. Some students stay there, in the retellings and the craft, not probing into interpretation, why Sexton might portray Sleeping Beauty’s father in a given light, while others question the imagery and word choice, asking, “Is this poem about incest?” It is these questions that move the edges of border zones and allow the class to connect on various ways to read poetry.

Another tool I bring into the classroom to help students grapple with larger issues of gender violence and its representation in literature is the Power and Control Wheel, asking students to find examples (e.g. emotional abuse, using children, making her think she’s crazy) in a text that illustrates the ways in which an abuser maintains control before resorting to physical and sexual abuse. It’s always a powerful discussion because students examine the edges of their knowledge of what constitutes family violence and what it means to the reader of poetry and literature. Students are often shocked to compile the examples abusers use to maintain power, a process and discussion that gives them the opportunity to rethink their interpretations of texts such as The Twilight Series, Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acers, Joy Castro’s The Truth Book, and Sexton’s Transformations.

Emily Johnston: Yes! I too find the Power & Control Wheel helpful for teaching students to think about gender violence as a manifestation of power and control. I’d be interested in talking more about “what it means to the reader of poetry and literature.” Perhaps a future blog topic…

Grace Bauer: I like this word “emplacement” as a descriptor for that transformative thing that poetry can do. Poetry doesn’t just give us information about an experience, but can also recreate experience in a way that allows the reader to enter into it, even if that experience is beyond the scope of their own lives. As a teacher, I’ve seen this happen many times – especially with undergraduates who may be new(er) to poetry that deals with violence or controversial issues.

The poems that first come to mind are not about gender violence, per se, but an aspect of (some) women’s experience that tends to polarize – namely, abortion. Most students will readily identify themselves as pro-something or anti-something on this issue, but then we’ll read poems by Anne Sexton and Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks – and I’ll ask “Are these anti-abortion poems or pro-choice poems?” and most of the students will recognize that they are neither, that the poems don’t so much take sides on this highly politicized issue as put you inside the speaker’s mind, the woman’s dilemma, the can’t win of this particular hard choice.

I also think of books that focus on large-scale violent events — like Brian Turner’s Here Bullet (about the war in Iraq) or Bob Hicok’s Words For Empty, Words For Full (largely about the Virginia Tech shootings). Students have read about these events, they have watched reports on the news, but many of them will say that the poems do a better job of conveying what the lived experience must have felt like, even better than the graphic images they may have seen on the big or little screen.

Students — all readers — know that gender violence exists. We know – intellectually – that it’s a terrible thing, but poems like those in Women Write Resistance can take us inside that experience. “Emplace” us there. And, hopefully, elicit empathy. And further resistance.

Emily Johnston: So well said, Grace. Healing—especially from such an isolating trauma as abortion—becomes possible when others bear witness to our lived experiences.

Monica Wendel: As a professor of composition and creative writing, my course load is primarily English 101 and 102 classes. It’s the class where, among other things, you learn to read in a new way – not just for answers, but for understanding, nuance, and analysis.

It is also the case that resisting gender violence also involves a different way of reading: a different way of reading catcalls and whistles; a different way of reading Huffington Post articles on war; a different way of reading sexual assault prevention tips; a different way of reading advertisements for children’s toys.

In a perfect world, one act would lead quite simply to the other. Analyzing literature would lead to analyzing the world around us, and vice versa. However, any piece of writing that treats women as fully-formed, dimensional characters, capable of independent thought and action, is writing that discomforts a large number of my students. Before students can explore issues of gender violence and resistance, my challenge is for them to acknowledge that gender violence exists, period.

We dive down “into the wreck,” as Adrienne Rich says, or trace the fairy tales and nightmares embodied in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” We find the diamond “in a knot of flame,” as Audre Lorde writes.

I have no idea if, or how, these pedagogical moments create connections or move the borders of comfort zones, but they are necessary in order for students to look at all characters as human, first and foremost. As Henrick Ibsen said, “Whatever I have written has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda. … I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general.”

Emily Johnston: The theme of reading keeps surfacing in our conversation here. Before students become ready to accept the deep roots of patriarchy that continue to anchor our political, economic, medical, and educational systems (in addition to countless other social institutions), they need to understand the central role that reading (texts, body language, media, casual conversations, etc.) can play in transforming the world.

Tyler Mills: I’ve had productive conversations about gender violence and resistance in workshop when teaching the poetry of Sylvia Plath. After asking students “what they know” about Plath’s life—her famous tragic ending—and letting them talk it out for a minute or two, I urge them instead to think about how Plath’s work functions on the level of motif, metaphor, even mid-twentieth century artifact. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it is really hard to get students to make this switch. “Irreconcilable differences” that many students initially bring to a poem such as “Lady Lazarus” (statements about how “messed up” the poem is, how “depressed” the poet must have been, even how she must “hate men”) begin dissolving. Students start analyzing the terrifying imagery rather than assessing it as something “other” to their experience in the world. It is when we acknowledge the well-known details of Plath’s life, and talk about what Confessionalism was and meant for a core group of writers like her in the mid-twentieth century, that we can instead turn to the speaker as a persona: one very much like the personae that speak from the position of the lyric “I” in many other poems that deal with violence. Acknowledging the life but then choosing to focus on the art shows students how brilliant a poet Plath was—a genius, really. She deserves to be taught that way rather than to have students hunt for her “head in the oven.” I like talking about Confessionalism in relation to (and in tension with) Louise Glück’s essay, “Against Sincerity” (Proofs and Theories). And the next time I teach Plath, I’d like to also assign B.K. Fischer’s fascinating contribution to the Los Angeles Review of Books “Poet’s Roundtable on Person and Persona” from this past October: “Proximity, Proxy, Practice.”

Emily Johnston: Again, the theme of reading surfaces—here, as a means of moving from othering to connecting.

Rosemary Winslow: Teaching a junior level course to majors from every discipline at the university last spring, I noted a sea change in greater understanding of the experiences of gendered cultural forces.  The evidence was most marked in responses to Adrienne Rich’s essay, “When We Dead Awaken.”  To my great surprise, and counter to my experiences of previous decades, students understood, with palpable compassion, the violence to the self as Rich considers having no place or voice for a female self.  One young man wrote in an essay of his own that he identified with Rich’s position as he and other men now have to forge their own identities in the economic and social domains.  He and other men, along with the women in the class, were highly vocal–often horrified–on reading poetry expressing gender violence. The women and the men in the class spoke frequently of the damaging acts recounted in such poems, offering at the same time ways the actions of characters in poems could have made a fine and loving relationship.  The poems opened up gender forces to view for response, discussion, understanding, change.  Poets whose work surmounted sheer violence with expressions of love and strong positive action were especially highly valued–Audre Lourde’s “Coal” and “Black Mother Woman” were favorites. Other poems that conveyed women’s strength and power included Adrienne Rich’s essay named above and “Diving into the Wreck” and “Power.”

Emily Johnston: Rosemary, what a hopeful message! I think that one of our biggest challenges—not just as poets and teachers, but as human beings—is finding ways to face violence with compassion; to allow violence to open us to recognizing our inevitable, irreversible connections with one another. I’m thinking especially of Judith Butler’s call for interdependence as the basis for global community in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.

Jennifer Perrine: “Course, Interrupted”: For nearly ten years, I’ve taught at least one course on poetry every semester. In these classes, poems that explore and resist gender violence often appear, but not because I assign them.  I don’t ask students to write about particular issues, and yet students write poems about gender violence every semester, every year. Perhaps some students feel safe writing about gender violence because they know that I also direct and teach in the women’s and gender studies program at our university. Mostly, though, I suspect they recognize, as Richard Hugo put it, that the “creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters,” so they share truths from their lives in a way they might not in other spaces.

When students write these poems, the rest of us are often pushed to a learning edge where we must reckon with a reality we’ve ignored, forgotten, or never recognized in the first place. Though some of us may have once believed our lives were not affected by gender violence, we are now touched by it, by this person who sits beside us for three hours each week. When one person dares to resist gender violence by breaking the silence around it, our classroom community always changes. We still read, write, and talk about poetry, but now we also question gendered assumptions, roles, and systems. We ask how poetry can be a form of witness, action, and resistance. One brave student writes a poem, and we all come to understand that the work of our class is not only to learn about poetry, but also to respond to the reality of violence in the lives of those around us with care, support, respect, and—dare I say it?—love.

Emily Johnston: Say it, sister… love!

Sarah Chavez: It was a first year rhetoric and inquiry class focused on the topic of American identity. For that particular day we read Lucille Clifton’s shapeshifter poems, a series about a young girl being molested by her father. The usually talkative students were quiet, squirmy, refusing eye contact. The resistance in the room was palpable.

They had no trouble talking about the graphic violence in Fight Club, no qualms about the joblessness, depression, and naked vulnerability in Philip Levine’s poetry, but this pushed their comfort level. Clearly a line had been crossed. Finally, a male student blurted out, “I just don’t understand what this has to do with American identity.” A chorus of “yeahs” erupted, vehement head nodding. His outburst broke the silence perfectly. It invited the question, what makes something American? That was safer to focus on.

“Because it happened in the U.S.?” someone said.

“Because the writer is American?”

“Sure,” one student said, “but who wants to talk about this stuff? No one.”

Another responded, “I guess, maybe, that’s what it’s about though, that the little girl can’t tell anyone.”

“Yeah,” said another. “It’s ‘the poem the little girl breathes / into her pillow” because “there is no one to hear.’”

Exactly, I said. But now you’ve heard.

That is poetry’s power. Our classroom transformed into a place of witness. For at least half an hour, the students considered the trauma and sexual violation of one person as inextricably connected to our collective consciousness as a nation. It is impossible to truly teach witness, but we must create spaces where it is invited. I am deeply grateful for poetry like Clifton’s, as I am for Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Rigoberto Gonzalez, and so many others; their words make this possible.

Emily Johnston: What strikes me too, Sarah, is how even a student’s initial declaration, “I just don’t understand how this is relevant,” is both evidence of a pervasive, impermeable boundary around some new thing students encounter in the classroom (in this case, Clifton’s poetry), AND of a simultaneous desire and need to push beyond that boundary.

Thank you so much, Jehanne, Lisa, Madeline, Grace, Monica, Tyler, Rosemary, Jennifer, and Sarah. Your words have brought up some vital points about our roles and responsibilities as writers and teachers of poetry. I look forward to continuing our dialogue!

Emily R. Johnston is a Doctoral student in English at Illinois State University, and she is a Senior Editorial Assistant of SRPR. Emily earned her MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her creative and critical work appears in Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature, The Fourth River, and Dos Passos Review, among others. Emily eventually hopes to build “Therapy House” where victims of violence can explore arts, movement, and collaborative activities as tools for recovery.

Rosemary Winslow lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches at The Catholic University of America. Her book Green Bodies expressed and grappled with the complexities of love in troubled families, and sought understanding, forgiveness, and compassion for the wide circle of humankind. She has taught in shelters for women, and now enjoys yoga, hiking, swimming, kayaking, and singing in a choir.

Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, which won the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press, 2013). Her poems have received magazine awards from the Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Third Coast. A graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Maryland, she is currently pursuing a PhD in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Sarah A. Chavez is a mestíza born and raised in the California Central Valley completing her PhD in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found in various publications such as Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, the journals North American Review, The Fourth River, and others. Her chapbook All Day, Talking is forthcoming from dancing girl press in summer 2014.

Jennifer Perrine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry, and In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. In 2014, she will serve as a member of the U.S. Arts and Culture Delegation to Cuba. Perrine teaches in the English department and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University.

Grace Bauer’s newest book of poems is Nowhere All At Once, just out from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. Her previous books include Retreats & Recognitions, Beholding Eye, and The Women At The Well, as well as four chapbooks, most recently, Café Culture, from Imaginary Friend Press.

Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review Press, 2013) and the chapbooks Pioneer (Thrush Press, forthcoming June 2014) and Call it a Window (Midwest Writing Center, 2012). She is assistant professor of composition and creative writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

Jehanne Dubrow is the author of four poetry collections, including most recently Red Army Red and Stateside. Her fifth book of poems, The Arranged Marriage, will be published in 2015. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an Associate Professor of creative writing at Washington College.

Lisa Lewis’ books are The Unbeliever, Silent Treatment, Vivisect, and Burned House with Swimming Pool, as well as a chapbook titled Story Box. She was the 2011 recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. She directs the creative writing program at Oklahoma State University and serves as poetry editor of the Cimarron Review.

Laura Madeline Wiseman’s books are Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience, Queen of the Platform, and Sprung. She is also the author of the collaborative book Intimates and Fools with artist Sally Deskins, two letterpress books, and eight chapbooks, including Spindrift. She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence.


Traumatic Emplacement: Poetry Emplaces Violence

Emily Johnston, Sr. Editorial Assistant

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

This post of mine will explore a pedagogical strategy for teaching trauma and poetry in relation to one another—a strategy that might be used in a variety of learning settings, including but certainly not limited to classrooms. Just as the “new” SRPR is concerned with “writing that leads us to the limits of our comfort zones … so that we might experience the borders of our own known worlds… as sites of connection instead of sites of incontestable difference,” I am concerned, as a teacher, with writing that leads students to explore and extend their comfort zones as sites of recognition through which to identify their implication in the traumatic issues plaguing our planet.

This semester, I am teaching a literary and cultural studies course on gender with a particular focus on issues of gender violence across the globe. One of our course texts, Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, is an anthology of “poetry of resistance [that] acts as differential consciousness by allowing poets to use multiple strategies to challenge the powers that endorse gender violence” (Wiseman xvi). Editor Laura Madeline Wiseman identifies the following six strategies at work in these poems: breaking silence; raising consciousness and engaging poetry as an act of bearing witness; disrupting predominant, hegemonic narratives about gender violence; sassing language; strategic anger; and resisting for change and poetry as action (xvii-xxiii). In short, the poetry in this collection functions as activism.

I assign Women Write Resistance in hopes that reading the poems, alongside critical work and other literature dealing with gender violence, will allow students to explore the personal—the language of emotion, the body, and the deep psyche where trauma dwells and where language ultimately fails to tell our stories—as a political act of resistance to gender violence. As Wiseman states, the poets featured in the anthology “are actors, rather than reactionaries” who “resist by arming themselves with poems” (xiv).

Now that we are approaching the end of the semester and have finished reading the collection, I will be asking my students to write a found poem about gender violence by selecting lines from the anthology (lines that stand out to them, for whatever reason) and then putting them together into a poem of their own, adding and changing words as they see fit. I will ask them to choose and arrange; to bear witness to the stories of others and try to make some sense of those stories through engaging the poems in the poems’ language.

After writing, everyone will then read their poems aloud to a small group of peers who will be instructed to listen for what the found poem is conveying about gender violence. Rather than analyze or interpret the poems, a mode of reading students are thoroughly trained in doing already, they will simply make note of what they hear by scribbling it down on paper while they listen. Within their groups, students will discuss how what they heard aligns with and complicates what they know about gender violence. Trauma eludes language. So in this activity, the words of poets bearing witness to trauma (those poets featured in the anthology as well as the student poets in our class) are leading discussion and students are encouraged to engage the poems not through analysis, but through listening.

Here is a found poem I composed, based upon several poems in Women Write Resistance:[1]

Found Poem on Leaving

In the soft light of a Sunday morning,
I feel my husband’s hand creep under my silk teddy.
I stiffen, feeling the thud of refusal over the tingle of yes.

The dogs bark outside,
snapdragons, flowered tongues,
and all the wired faces of the past strung up.

Hear the silence. And then sing above it.

I have decided to leave him in the middle of a hurricane
while every front porch wind chime chimes a song to celebrate
my going away from ugly Sundays.

I have decided to drive off forever, away from him
to live on. I will be the fleeting
sound of a song he thought he heard, moved toward, and lost

to a sky full of signals split by wind. My hair will trail
and whip and tangle at seventy miles per hour – both windows down.
Away, the home no longer home.

Hear the silence. And then sing above it.

Even asleep, he would thrash and howl like a wounded animal,
the sky shattering, with stars.
This is the end of my dreams.

She sees herself rocking and rolling with him,
the man leering at the thread of women, stupid bitches.
But no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.

Hear the silence. And then sing above it.

Writing is hard inside silence,
words go round and round and fall away, out of sight, out of mind,
as for years you went round and round inside silence, sentenced to this.

The ax hangs on the porch, woodpile nearby,
each log plotted, uneasily entwined.
The wind drags its rusty blade back into earth.

The wild moon foams at the mouth.
The wild moon creeps softly at her feet.

Here is what I hear in my words:

It sounds like a letter I wrote (never sent) to my abusive ex-husband after I left. In it, the road, the traveling away from him, was a recurring theme—a fantasy of something better; of something new, not recycled from one generation of men to the next. Place provides a means of connecting back to the moment of trauma and of finally leaving the site of trauma behind. Place allows one to remember, in part, the experience of being violated, of trying to leave, of actually leaving, of finally leaving.

What do you hear? How does your found poem sound?

[1] This found poem includes excerpts from the following poems in Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman: “Marital Privilege” by Ann Bracken (33-4); “Going to Silence” by Marylisa Dedomenicis (48); “Schiller” by Jehanne Dubrow (51); “Whiskey Nights” by Susan Kelly-Dewitt (94); “Camera Obscura” by Lucinda Roy (158); “Take Back the Night” by Carly Sachs (159); “Silence” by Ellin Sarot (163); “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” and “A Story of Stonewall” by Maureen Seaton (166-7); “Sonnet for My Daughter at 9” by Cassie Premo Steele (174); “Splitting Wood” by Margo Taft Stever (175); and “Port Arthur, 1939” by Kathleen Tyler (180)

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).


Traumatic Emplacement: Housing Violence in Poetry

Emily Johnston, Sr. Editorial Assistant

Emily Johnston’s series “Traumatic Emplacement” explores poetics of emplacement, and the simultaneity of dislocation and enmeshment in traumatic poetry.

My last post talked about emplacement and Rumi’s call for us to house the guests and violence of emotions, let them sever and mend us. Allison Joseph, featured “SRPR Illinois Poet” in the current issue (38.1), echoes Rumi on this point and poses questions of how we keep violence in its place; how we house without becoming violence. It would be easy to answer, “Just write!,” as freewriting advocates might say. “Writing down the bones,” as Natalie Goldberg advises, puts us in touch with ourselves. But the trauma of violence erases memory; language fails. Joseph reminds us we need “something more than memory.” That is, we need witnesses. Bones aren’t enough. Indeed, poetry must “Remember to lie. The truth works for / traffic court, but not for literature.” Poetry is not “what happened.” It isn’t fact; it erodes, forecloses, and makes again. On the page, we do what we cannot with life: we make it into something worth remembering. The reader is here and now, ready to witness— “not sentences that ramble across the page, / lost, listless, unaware of how they should turn,” but what we carve those sentences into. “Because they must turn… reversals–forward / momentum, then a reversal back… until we end up / where we never thought we could–couples, // tercets, quatrains–moving boxes of poetry, / miniature rooms where you arrange the chairs/and sofa, dioramas of your own dramas.”

Emily R. Johnston

Emily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).