The Turn, Or, Why I Wish They Taught Junot Díaz in English Class

By Emma Post 

A piece for ENG 300: Poetry Writing

November 18th marked the due date of our final poem. The prompt was individualized, based on each student’s work throughout the semester. My poem had to include more than one “turn” or “volta”: a poetic tradition wherein a line or lines signal a shift within the poem. The turn is a common tool used by poets as a way to create a condensed narrative arc. It helps us to feel like something has changed: the writer’s thoughts, sensory feelings, or actions. Hopefully, it alters the readers themselves, so that they feel something new simply by reading the poem. My assignment, to include two of these turns, coincided with a new sense of disillusionment I have felt about Lewis & Clark. This discontent stemmed from worries about the classes, curriculum, and material that were being presented to students. Actually, it stemmed more from what was not being presented to students. On November 18th, I read this piece aloud for class. At first it acted as a poem, but turned quickly into something else.

I couldn’t write the right

poem for today.

Flipping through old works,

trying to create the new.

Books on my shelf,

inspiration, consternation.

The turn is at the start,

the turn is falling apart,

a heart a heart a glowing heart

The intrusion, my inclusion, its falling apart.

maybe that is part of the sweetness of this moment

maybe it makes me bite my fingernails,

but that is amazing too.

I share this moment with you

because otherwise there would be

no juice left to drink.

The very bottom

where everything is more orange. The chalky

bottom where everything ignores us.

In which you are not so smart

as you are now,

not so enigmatic using words like enigmatic.

Ripping

rippling

rhyming and

just introducing:

words and absence.

Who ever understood anything:

the Anthropocene

the art world

the squirrel in the back yard

the turn.

So, in a poem (now, not so much like a poem),

I am angry.

Because I’ve done almost four years here and have only taken

one class that solely featured a black author.

I’m angry because I have only taken one English class that has focused primarily on women authors, when all the other choices feature, completely and prominently,

dead. white. males.

This is not because there are more or better white male writers. Let me repeat this, just so I can remind myself: This is not because there are more or better white male writers.

I am angry because the emphasis on old British literature has been justified to me too many times

I am angry because too many times the “classics,” have been explained to me as classics because they are the basis for all thinking,

the platform from which we, as students, can lift off to new levels of discovery and understanding.

This signals the next turn and twist:

What if that platform is built upon the thinking of dead. white. old. men? And if under that thinking lies the invisible lives/stories/writings/ and artwork of thousands of other people writing in English: black, transgendered, Indian, Jewish, Filipino, Latino. What if, by placing these Western-centric, white men as the baseline from which all other writing and thinking stems from, we are continuing a new and more insidiously invisible form of racism at our own institution?

I don’t deny the importance of reading works by Chaucer, Wordsworth, Milton, Jefferson, Plato, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Freud, Thoreau, Shakespeare, etc etc etc. But when that is the only option, when most English majors have become pigeon-holed into taking classes which skew the focus to an dead, male and white population, then what do we end up learning and thinking about? And how will we compare all other writing to this “norm”? By offering only these classes listed here next semester which emphasize writers outside this “norm,”—Medieval Renaissance Women Writers, Race and Performance, Major Figures: Ralph Ellison—what does that say about who and what we value at this place? None of the classes I just listed above are required, when perhaps they should be. In fact, most majors I know have not had time to take classes like these; they are forced to fill their semesters with other requirements (four alone in old British literature) that have never, at least in my experience, featured a black author.

That makes me, both as a woman and as an ally of people of color who have repeatedly spoken about their feelings of invisibility at LC, feel under represented and not pertinent. And I am scared that other students, particularly white males, unintentionally and only very deep down, feel that these more “diverse” authors are not pertinent either. When you are not exposed to and do not analyze poetry, novels and essays of differing origins than this one “norm,” you start to believe that all other writings are abnormal. And they become obsolete and invisible through their absence. Just like people do, when they are underrepresented and consequently devalued by the invisibility of their work.

This is why I find it hard to write a poem in meter or a poem about my mother’s apple pie or a poem about being in love or a poem with anaphora and perfect rhyme. This is why this has slowly disintegrated from being a poem. And when is it a good time to bring this up? When should we feel unashamed to speak openly to our professors? As Junot Diaz reminded me last night at Reed College, “Shamelessness, especially for a non-traditional student, needs to be developed. The temptation to get approval is vast and is antithetical to real learning. Real learning, which is discovery”. I wish there was a real turn in this story, I wish to see things actually change. When will the E&D curriculum shift? When will English majors be required to read Alice Walker, Louise Erdrich, Chang-Rae Lee, Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, Audre Lorde, Elie Wiesel and Junot Diaz? That would be a real turn, a real volta, the real transparency needed for us to be fully educated and perceptive students of literature.

Addendum: If you speak with authority to Professors about the academic material you find important, they will listen. After reading this in Jerry Harp’s Poetry class, and having a whole day dedicated to talking about race in his ENG 205 class, he tweaked the syllabi for both classes to include a greater diversity of authors. Now, in Jerry’s 205, you will read a piece of an autobiography by Olaudah Equiano. Equiano was an African-British author, whose work was integral in bringing attention to the African perspective of the slave trade. You will also read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her reactionary poem to Jonathan Swift’s satirical and misogynistic piece entitled “The Lady’s Dressing Room”. Both Montagu and Equiano were writing during the late 1700’s. Their work was amidst and also against an overwhelming tradition of white male writing. Reading them is like discovering invisible stories, the ones that are just as real, but not justly remembered. They represent the untold history, they represent the turn.

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