Traumatic Emplacement: Poetry Emplaces Violence

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.

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 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).

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