Shapeshifting in the Classroom: An Interview with Cynthia Hogue on Poetry, Race and Privilege

In this darkness, I have been re-imagining what it means to live as a black being. Blood has become the landscape as the days shorten to mourn or fall. Still, I continue to wake up and read any disruption that wills my body to put forth love.

I fell face first into an interview with co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Patrice Cullors, especially when she declared:

“And I think the last thing I’ll say is Black Lives Matter is a re-humanizing project. We’ve lived in a place that has literally allowed for us to believe and center only black death. We’ve forgotten how to imagine black life. Literally whole human beings have been rendered to die prematurely, rendered to be sick, and we’ve allowed for that. Our imagination has only allowed for us to understand black people as a dying people. We have to change that. That’s our collective imagination, someone imagined handcuffs, someone imagined guns, someone imagined a jail cell. Well, how do we imagine something different that actually centers black people that sees them in the future. Let’s imagine something different.”

As a human being fighting to wake up every day — it’s been essential to also eat by reading love in this midst of white anger and violence.

However, I work in academia — an institution that sways from knowledge to epiphany to suffering. How do I remain fixed to advocate for students and work with other allies/accomplishes in an incredibly precarious environment? How do I engage these questions as an administrator and writer?

I have been reading quite a bit on researchers examining issues of diversity work like Sara Ahmed and bell hooks but as always — poetry remains.

Especially now, it’s imperative that in the midst of protest, I must re-imagine the definition of origin and death — particularly as it relates to inheritance and race. But how can the academy integrate Patrice Cullors’ principles of creativity and blackness? How are white educators considering their accountability in the classroom — how can they foster an environment where students can begin re-imagining?

This leads me to my interview with writer Cynthia Hogue.

I reread recently Flux, “a collection exploring the natural world and the self in it — from the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest to the far north of Iceland.” I found kin in such work that I considered with American racial lore. Although I knew about Hogue’s poetic work I was not familiar with her scholarly and intersectional work in the classroom until I actually read her bio from Flux.

She is a trained mediator specializing in diversity issues in education. Her work examines class and race through such collections like On Consequence (listed as one of the 2014 “Standout” books by the Academy of American Poets) and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. Her critical work includes the co-edited editions: We Who Love To Be Astonished: Experimental Feminist Poetics and Performance Art and Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews.

I became particularly invested and curious in her advocacy work within the academy. How is she processing language and agency? What is her mediating work?

Given her accolades and investment I took a chance, reached out — curious on her thoughts on negotiating diversity work in the classroom, with privilege and poetry on her back.

Kimberly Williams: Can you describe your mediation and diversity work? What are the practices? How did you get involved in the work?

Cynthia Hogue

Cynthia Hogue: I’d like to respond by sharing a thread of the story of my involvement with diversity work. I have over the years written a good deal about race, but for a long time, I didn’t realize it. The realization had a lot to do with why I got involved in diversity work and sought out training in mediation. In 1995, a professor in the Communication Department at Tulane University, Dr. Marcia Houston,[1] whom I’d consulted about mediating student conflict, very generously shared with me some guidelines for classroom discussion of diversity issues, which I’ve followed all these years.

The first is: Assume people always endeavor to do the best they can.[2]

Since that time, I have very occasionally been asked to facilitate workshops on issues of diversity in the college classroom.

At one particular workshop, I shared the Houston guideline #1 with participants, as well as #2: Assume everyone at the table is well-intentioned and here to learn (even though, as I recall, many of the white faculty were there mandatorily, and were initially very resentful of that fact).

“As editors, we wanted to intervene in received racial and gendered accounts of the history of experimental poetry, and enlarge the definition of “innovative” in order to include women poets not usually included in that category.”

To illustrate my point that we were all in this together, I shared a poem of mine that dated from 1985. I’d been living in a homogeneous country, Iceland, into which I (as a Scandinavian American) had assimilated. The poem retold a well-known folktale in the North Atlantic of a selkie, a shapeshifter in the form of a seal who becomes a woman in order to marry the sailor she has saved from drowning. As in the folktale, my poem had her stepping out of her racially unmarked but implicitly black seal skin to reveal that she is (unconsciously) racially marked: both human and white inside. I recounted my own process of developing the capacity to see that the poem was racially marked, in order to illustrate the point that this process is ongoing. It was only in preparing for the workshop a decade after I wrote the poem that I had looked at the poem critically, happening upon the occasion to see it so unexpectedly that I was astonished into insight.

Some part of my astonishment was located in the fact that, following Iceland, I lived in two very multicultural American cities (Tucson and New Orleans). I had been learning many things about the real challenges of being a truly diverse and integrated country, and for me as a writer, to write a more racially-aware poetry. To discover that I was oblivious to the obvious was disheartening, and among the things included for me in what Alice Fulton calls an “inconvenient knowledge,” with which poetry can confront us.

In Pennsylvania, where I moved in 1995, I had the chance to train with the Mennonites, who are world experts in what is now called “conflict transformation.” It was with the Mennonites that I received the training as a mediator that I’ve drawn on in my work as teacher, poet, and arts administrator. The main tenet of the practice of conflict transformation as the Mennonites teach it can be distilled into a simple principle: the practitioner develops her skills in attentive listening. That principle is the key to transforming conflict into communication. When someone else feels heard, deeply and wholeheartedly, the physiology of the conflicting parties shifts and the possibility of finding common ground emerges. After that training, I began very organically to develop approaches to writing and teaching that included some of the Mennonites’ training.

KW: Is there a connection with your poetry and mediation or diversity work like the development of Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews? How does writing inform your role as a mediator or vice versa?

CH: I haven’t ever put it this way to myself, but thanks to your question, perhaps I can say that the way I’ve approached the editing work I’ve done, my concern to bring voices into juxtaposition and dialogue that have not previously been associated, exemplifies my training in mediation and diversity issues. The co-edited (with Elisabeth Frost) Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews and the earlier co-edited (with Laura Hinton) anthology, We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics both chart a course among the various schools of poetry that does not fall on one side or another, but rather is more multicultural and representative of a broader range of aesthetics than I’d previously addressed in my critical work. To give a brief example, I had interviewed the experimental poet, Harryette Mullen, who mentioned the major African American performance poet Jayne Cortez, and I was horrified to admit I had never heard of her at that time. Well, my co-editors and I took pains to ensure that Cortez was included in both anthologies. As editors, we wanted to intervene in received racial and gendered accounts of the history of experimental poetry, and enlarge the definition of “innovative” in order to include women poets not usually included in that category.

“I wanted to individualize evacuees from New Orleans who did not have a voice — not to “give” them voice, as I’ve put it elsewhere, but to create a forum in which their voices might be audible, particularized, and dignified by the poetic measures that I came to hear as I worked on transcribing the interviews.”

KW: Can you describe the catalyst and fruition of When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina? Why was it important to have the visual aesthetic included in the collection? Does this collaboration connect to the political?

CH: The short answer to your last question is yes. I wanted to help counter the unconscious stereotypes of those stranded in New Orleans, as purveyed uncritically by many journalists. In the sense that I learned so much about race relations in this country from living in New Orleans, a truly multicultural (if troubled) city for four years, I really wanted to contribute something to the artistic responses. Creating the pieces in the book was an inductive process of exploration and discovery. Each poem arose from the apparently simple act of sustained listening to someone being interviewed about what they had gone through, after which I then transcribed the spoken words, and transformed them into what I called “interview-poems.” I used only the words of the evacuees (with their permission), and worked carefully with each one to ensure that everything in the poem was accurate to their experience. I wanted to individualize evacuees from New Orleans who did not have a voice — not to “give” them voice, as I’ve put it elsewhere, but to create a forum in which their voices might be audible, particularized, and dignified by the poetic measures that I came to hear as I worked on transcribing the interviews.

By the same token, I invited the photographer Rebecca Ross to join my project, not to “illustrate” my poems (as in the “words = visual image” equation), but analogously to intervene in the stereotyping of diverse subjects, including African American residents of New Orleans, both in the news and in the white American Imaginary. The more presence with which the speaking subject can be conveyed, the more the sense of the person speaking — with all their human hesitance, heartbreak, grit, courage, and insight — can be apprehended. When I conducted the interviews, I became aware that I was consciously practicing “attentive listening,” and I’d like to add at this point a few words about this practice: it is an ancient form of offering respect by inviting another to share his or her deepest feelings, his or her story. I was very aware that each of the interviewees had given me a great gift, in telling me their story, also in opening up in all their vulnerability and dignity to the photographer, in order that their portraits and stories be available to others — to inform, perhaps to instruct, and hopefully, to enlarge the reader’s world and her capacity for compassion.

KW: How do you consider elements of your book — Scheming Women: Poetry, Privilege, and the Politics of Subjectivity into your pedagogy and mediation techniques (e.g. Lorde’s ‘Master Tools’, intersectionality, ‘oppressors language’)?

CH: In Scheming Women (drawing on poststructuralist theory), I explored how quite privileged white women poets dismantled and unsettled such unified subject positions. I went on to examine with my students how writers dismantle received constructions of race, gender, class and sexuality, and like many feminist educators, I began to develop pedagogical positions that deconstructed classroom hierarchies. That position really is very much like the mediator, the teacher who listens carefully but cedes the space to students, sometimes moving into the center to set guidelines of practice, sometimes taking a stance of authority if necessary, but often refraining from being “the one who knows.” In fact, the approach doesn’t reconstitute the “oppressors’ language,” but models an alternative to positions of mastery. But it’s an inductive process, and I don’t claim to have taught intersectionality as a theory per se.

As a postscript on poetic praxis, I’ll add that when I came to write a poem like “Ars Cora” (in Or Consequence), the kernel of which is a story of the last slave to have access to the antebellum courts in Louisiana to sue for manumission, I was very aware of the issues of (narrative) “mastery” and “the oppressor’s language” — so aware, in fact, that I researched the history and thought about the story for a decade before I could sit down and write it. The poem was not — and I felt could not be — narrative or linear, and I as the narrating subject hovered at the edge of Cora’s place, which was empty, silent. The fragmented, collaged form of that poem was profoundly linked to the question of who occupies the position of speaking subject at the center of the poem. In “Ars Cora,” Cora’s absent voice is at the center of this racially-marked history, both erased and e/raced.

KW: What are your thoughts on Adrienne Rich’s essay, Legislators of the World in today’s climate?

CH: I really appreciate this question, as I hadn’t read Rich’s essay, and I’m happy to have had the occasion to do so. It reminds me of what a great and moral and necessary voice and inspiring vision she had. I was recently reading in Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water a line that asks a question I think dovetails with Rich’s essay: “What does it mean to live a moral life”? The poem, of course, doesn’t answer that, but it makes us think about what it’s asking. I was moved by how directly the question is posed, how it confronted me as a reader, reached directly into my life, and touched me. As well, it reminded me that poetry can very directly and movingly address large philosophical and ethical issues, as Rich notes that Shelley intended.

“I began to realize this past year that such students are bringing a revolution-in-the-making into the educational system, which in turn is helping them learn how to cross borders guarded by class and privilege.”

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Hillman’s book also references Shelley as revolutionary thinker, and contains a number of poems about the direct actions on the part of the women’s anti-war organization: CodePink, for example, attending Congressional hearings on post-9/11 government surveillance and the Iraq war as a way “to resist official versions that are devastating the earth & its creatures.” The call Rich issues for poetry in these turbulent times is in one way answered by what Hillman describes as poetic “activism,” like writing reportorial poems, which work to undeaden the language of Congressional hearings, but also to keep a poetic record of what usually doesn’t reach the public sphere. Long after the hearings are history, the poem will be read and its response affect future readers. Such engaged poets — now more than ever, I would say — bring the poem to the public so that its careful words touch the world with care.

To think about poetry/ poetries today is to acknowledge both that the art form has a limited sociocultural reach in its day, but the chronological potential to reach into the future. It is also to acknowledge that the world over, poetry abides precisely because it houses voices and words that matter, and visions that have not been subjected or mastered by time-bound, political issues.

One of the points the Mennonites make about conflict is that it carries the potential of producing change. It transforms us, changes minds and views, if we don’t shut down from defensiveness and fear of the angry other. When people shut down from fear, old inherited hatreds, reactive thinking, conflict can remain irresolvable (there are both historical and recent examples that come to mind). Poets don’t shut us down, however, but open us up, because they must remain open. That seems to me to be part of the nature of being a poet. They have the capacity to open us up as well as make us see otherwise invisible forces. As Rich writes, “Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see.” Poems may present us with what we don’t want to see — the “inconvenient knowledge” of which Fulton writes — but must, in order to live moral lives. We should change, or act, or break the silence, or simply stop and be in this very world fully present and engaged and compassionate. Can we live with ourselves if we don’t?

I’m thankful for Rich’s defense of poetry. Daily, as a teaching poet at a large public university, I work with a range of students who often come to the poetry classroom from their engaged involvement in the public sphere. There, poetry is a verbal, oral, and performative art that reaches people beyond the university, helping to create a sense of community, a place that “hears” them and represents their experience. The college creative writing classroom becomes, then, a part of this extended community, a part even of the kind of “revolutionary-mindedness” for which Rich honored Shelley. Although these young poets, especially in Arizona from the communities of color, are already of the people, they have, in my observation, rarely come from privileged backgrounds. They are pragmatic and resilient, and they carry their protest of the status quo into the classroom. I began to realize this past year that such students are bringing a revolution-in-the-making into the educational system, which in turn is helping them learn how to cross borders guarded by class and privilege. In that, as their teacher and ally, it was my privilege to serve for a time to facilitate such crossings. This is also what I have been thinking about in “today’s climate”: that we are in a time of climate change.

“So, for those writers enjoying some kind of privilege the first challenge is to become aware of it, so one can act from awareness and not blindness, and make conscious choices.”

KW: What advice can you give to poets who would like to get into similar work?

CH: With the caveat that my own efforts have been very modest indeed, I’ll share some of the resources I found meaningful and helpful over the years. At the time that I first sought training, in both Tucson and New Orleans, there were community organizations setting up workshops and seminars, but I was at the time about to move, so the organizers didn’t accept me into their programs, because I would not be around in turn to give back to their communities. Anyone interested in training in this work, though, might look for it first locally. Sometimes religious groups, or as with Dr. Houston’s work, activist groups working with diverse communities and university peace studies programs develop this training for people interested in exploring this direction of activism. Once I discovered that once a year, the Mennonites offer conflict transformation training to those outside their faith, I was able at last to do this work! One goes initially for a week’s intensive and receives 40 hours of mediation training and practice along the way. For anyone seeking to explore the role of mediator (and/or the possibilities of peace-making), understanding ways that conflict can be transformed — or not, and learning how to recognize the difference — is a good place to start.

Later, I sought further training with another important group specializing in what they call “nonviolent communication,” following the thinking of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, who built on notions of conflict resolution to expand ways of responding to conflicts on the macro — race relations, the Middle East — and micro-levels.[3] That was superb and difficult work, beginning with attentive interpersonal practice, which could later be used to bring compassion and empathy to larger arenas. Training is available in intensives all over this country and actually, in many places in the world; the center is in New Mexico.

None of this work is obviously poetic, but it seems to me that poets from all perspectives are always thinking through how and why poetry matters, as Rich’s essay exemplifies, and when one thinks about the craft of poetry, how every word carries the weight of the careful attention the poet brought to its use, to its ability to touch the wor(l)d, the connections between the dynamics of mediation and the craft of poetry emerge.

KW: How can writers who share spaces of privilege support other writers from disenfranchised groups? This could mean in the classroom, editorial, or publishing field, etc.

CH: There’s definitely a need for more thoughtful leadership in this area! I want to speak just briefly and for the most part theoretically, but if you look around, there really are many examples — not of privilege abused, for that is an old norm, but of privilege unsettled and reconfigured or transformed. Because of recent events and the consciousness that all the violence has brought about, there are many more people stepping up to enact change:

The first challenge with privilege is that if one enjoys it, one has very little motivation (other than the moral and ethical) for sharing it, or even for being aware of it. Second Wave feminists observed that very few men realized the privilege they enjoyed because they are men. The same can be said for whiteness, class, and heterosexuality. So, for those writers enjoying some kind of privilege the first challenge is to become aware of it, so one can act from awareness and not blindness, and make conscious choices.

The second challenge of privilege is not incidentally to re-install the structures of privilege. For example, there are ways to give that, as the French feminists theorized, carry strings with the gifts, which in essence leaves the hierarchy between donor and recipient in place. Then, there is the “gift that gives,” as Hélène Cixous put it, free and clear of all debt to the donor. Lewis Hyde has written eloquently of this concept in art in The Gift as well. Emily Dickinson called such gesture “munificence” (from the Latin for gift). It takes vigilance to unsettle one’s own privilege in order to make a space for others, and you have to choose it consciously.

The third challenge is finding ways really to share the power that privilege confers, to pass it forward instead of hoarding it for one’s own, and to ensure that the sharing is accompanied by awareness-raising.

The fourth challenge is that deep and attentive acknowledgment of the other, when one detaches from one’s own privileged position. Poetry itself exemplifies this structure (the “face to face encounter,” of full presence and parity, as Susan Stewart writes). Teaching as an avocation might be said to model this as well. Certainly, the work that teachers of poetry do has the potential to change people’s minds and lives.

It’s really quite spiritual as well as political work. But — you may never have the satisfaction of seeing the results. That’s the fifth challenge. As Alicia Ostriker put it some time ago, the struggle may not be resolved in any individual’s life time, but nor are we ethically free to abandon it.[4]

Cynthia Hogue has published thirteen books, including eight collections of poetry. She was awarded two NEA Fellowships, the H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, a MacDowell Colony residency, and the Witter Bynner Translation Fellowship at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Hogue served as the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University in the Spring of 2014.

[1] As the award established in her legacy at the University of Alabama, where she chaired the Department of Communication, stated, “Dr. Houston merged her scholarship with on-the-ground service to improve the ways that the communication studies discipline has re/considered un(der)represented groups and to motivate empowering ways that our local, regional, national, and global communities have attended to issues of diversity.” I direct anyone interested to her important work.

[2] There were eight in all, designed to create an environment of mutual respect and communal endeavor in diverse classes addressing diversity issues, from which I distilled five used in any kind of discussion setting.

[3] I have unfortunately discovered that Dr. Rosenberg recently passed away, but his center — and the global work it does — is continued by those he trained. See his Center’s website for more information: https://www.cnvc.org/.

[4] Alicia Ostriker, “Beyond Confession: The Poetics of Postmodern Witness,” APR 30.2 (March/April 2001): 35–39.

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