In this Field Notes entry, writer and educator Lisa Cohen, together with the students and faculty at LaGuardia Community College, joins up with 10 Tries, 100 Poems mini-series founder Alexandra Juhasz to continue the dialogue on the role of truth and falsehood, facts and fake news, media and media literacy in the digital age. Using poetry to access and communicate their own felt responses to news both real and fake, and to unpack the presence and influence of media in their lives, the students create space for a meaningful and critical discussion of these realities in the classroom and beyond. [2018 series editor: Adrian Silbernagel]

A view of Alex’s web site, with Lisa and Professor Tuli Chatterji’s students, English Composition 101, “Sharing Stories, Making Connections”

When Alex invited me to be part of this project, it was still early in her thinking about what poetry might mean for the website she had composed and curated in the first 100 days of the current U.S. presidency: #100hardtruths-#fakenews. She had an instinct that collaborating with poets might usefully transform her online primer of “hard truths” about fake news and digital literacy, and she had one definite plan for a workshop; much of the rest was still to be decided and enacted. I said yes, because it was in sync with my decades-long thinking about how ideas about factuality intersect with constructions of gender, sexuality, and race. I wanted to join her, too, simply to continue our conversation (elsewhere, but not unrelated, we have been talking about and showing each other what it means to make work about HIV/AIDS and friendship). Most of all, I thought of it as a way to be part of an extended experiment — always exciting. A leap.

For three days in late April 2018 — in a poetry workshop, a literary club meeting, and an English 101 class — we reconnoitered with the brilliant students and faculty of LaGuardia Community College. We had met in person and on the phone over the previous months with English department faculty Tuli Chatterji, Ian McDermott, Lucy McNair, and Chris Schmidt, and with librarian Ann Matsuuchi, who coordinated our visits and co-sponsored them with Poets and Writers. (Thanks to Poets and Writers for the grant support of this project.) All were generous and welcoming. Each day, students streamed in, on time and late; they stayed after class to talk, or left early to get to their jobs or other classes. They offered their attention, insights, and histories; taught us and one another. Many were first-generation college students. For a significant number, English is their second or third language.

Professor Ian McDermott in foreground, English Composition 101

We began, as I often do in workshops, by asking everyone to name one true fact about themselves. Students shared physical and familial facts, talked about their immigrations and emotions. I’m a softball pitcher, said one woman. I have social anxiety, said another. I left the Philippines at age two. I came to the U.S. in 2016. I am gender neutral. I clean when I’m stressed. I don’t like school. I love music. I was raised by two women. I have seven tattoos. I am a science major. I don’t like my given name. It was a rich and vulnerable mix.

Alex then refined the question by asking how the rest of us might verify each of these facts — using what technology, broadly defined (to encompass the many tools we use to extend ourselves into the world). Students mentioned confirmation through conversations with their intimates; looking at various documents, or for missing documents; internet research; chats stored on their phones. In this first part of the workshop, Alex was inviting us to think about how we judged the truth values of our utterances, and about how our uses of social media have shaped and been shaped by them. She noted that “fakeness” is now being mobilized constantly to create distortion, and emphasized that the effects of these utterances about the “fake” are quite real, and often experienced in our bodies. As one student put it: “Everyone knows our social media is fake, or rather kind of fake and kind of real.” Alex also reminded us that the primary purpose of social media platforms is profit.

Alex, students, and Tuli Chatterji (second from right)

One of the pleasures of this experiment was the shared experience of teaching undergraduates together — fairly rare for me — and of being in a classroom with someone who listens to and challenges students in ways that I value and practice. Although we divided the time between us and asked different questions, there was a porousness of style and more between the two parts of each encounter; in each, we emphasized connections between political, emotional, and rhetorical realms and utterances. The hinge between them was the 10–15 minutes that Alex asked participants to spend looking either at her web site, or at a distilled paper version of it, choosing one or two hard truths that they might want to write about.

Why poetry? one faculty member had asked initially, after listening to Alex propose the project at an early meeting — bristling a bit (or so I thought) at its privileging. To me teaching means making something together in a room, is always situational, sometimes also situationist. I said that I interpreted the exercise broadly as a chance to have a conversation with students about their experiences of language and art-making and their personal and political truths; to hear about their writing and reading practices; and to invite them to make work that related somehow to their socially mediated lives. I imagined that thinking about poetry with them would mean offering ways both open and constrained that they might use to respond in class and later to the issues Alex was raising.

Lisa and a student at the meeting of the literary club

As Alex had asked about the textures of their online lives, I asked about the physical, temporal, emotional, economic facts of their writing lives: What did it mean to them; where did they tend to do it most happily; how and why. (A few answers: At home in bed; in quiet at the library; on the bus; on the phone; in a notebook; in chaos; in a place of solace.) I asked what impelled them to write and what got in their way, or scared them. I suggested, of course, that all these responses were true facts that could live in a poem: compulsion and impediment, fixed and fluid, known and unknown. Some of this was obvious to those in the poetry workshop, less so to students in the composition course. Several already thought of themselves as writers; one woman was a published journalist in Bangladesh; another was working on her first novel. Some talked about mixing their first languages with English in their work.

With the students of Professor Christopher Schmidt’s English 271, “Poetry Writing: Everyday Truths”

Even though our time was short, it was important to me that we read some varied work (poetry, talk, essay) by poets aloud together. Alex had posted (with thanks to Barbara Browning) Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars).” I passed it out and each person read a line, to hear a poet confronting the dailiness and insanity of the news of her time (the 1960s).

Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

Professor Lucy McNair, faculty advisor to the LaGuardia literary club and of the student journal The Lit

I also wanted to share work by a few writers who had connections to CUNY. And because it seemed important to suggest that the issues of online self-representation, misreading, and violence that students had been talking about have been around since the early years of the internet — and the concern of poets since then — I spoke briefly about Essex Hemphill and read an excerpt from a talk he gave at the “Black Nations/Queer Nations?” conference at the Graduate Center in 1995:

I was counting T-cells on the shores of cyberspace and feeling some despair …. I have miscegenated and mutated, tolerated and assimilated and yet I remain the same in the eyes of those who would fear and despise me. I stand at the threshold of cyberspace and wonder, is it possible that I am unwelcome here, too? Will I be allowed to construct a virtual reality that empowers me? Can invisible men see their own reflections? I’m carrying trauma into cyberspace — violent gestures, a fractured soul, short fuses, dreams of revenge… My primary public characteristics continue to be defined by dreads of me, myths about me and plain old homegrown contempt. All of this confusion is accompanying me into cyberspace; every indignity and humiliation, every anger and suspicion.

Together, too, we read a few sentences from Audre Lorde’s talk and essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” (she attended and taught at Hunter College, and taught at John Jay College), including these lines:

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.

What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?

we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us. …. for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.

Christopher Schmidt, students, and Lisa after the workshop

On each day, we made a collective list poem from students’ short responses to another few questions I asked them (a place where they find the news; a feeling about it; a significant or vexed part of their body; something they hoped for or wanted to change; more). We traveled around the room multiple times reading these responses sequentially. Time pressed. It wasn’t possible to have much discussion of these texts — those I had handed out and those we made together in the air (see example below; title and lineation by Alex). There were only some moments to make a few suggestions for noticing, notes, and journals they might undertake (some devised for this occasion, some borrowed from the long list assembled by Bernadette Mayer, a teacher important to me), and to offer a few possible assignments:

To write a record of their responses to their own time, using the form of the Rukeyser poem

To write a poem made of lies, or about a particular lie they had told or been told, online or elsewhere

To work on an erasure poem using text gathered online

To write in response to one of the “hard truths” from Alex’s site

To write a poem made of questions

To write about sounds and sights, and technologies old and new, encountered on the commute to school

Talking after class on the final day

Afterwards: One student said that she had “never heard a question asked like that before — so it made me what to stay and find out” what would happen. And she appreciated “the way the conversation took on a mind of its own.”

Afterwards, I asked the faculty what if anything was different or ordinary about class that day; whether it spoke to the ideas of their course; whether they noticed anything new about their students (individuals or the group); whether it affected anything they thought about poetry. Lucy McNair replied that she was “surprised and delighted by how effective the workshop was right from the beginning and how much we covered philosophically.”

Is sitting in a room talking in real time — about our lives, about poetry, about writing and reading of all kinds, about progenitors — a radical pedagogy? The way to a more viable media literacy? I don’t know. It is the only way I know. It was ordinary, necessary, exciting, awkward, moving, too short; a beginning and a continuation. I left each afternoon wanting to go on talking and reading more with everyone.

Hurt stress
List-poem composed during workshop. Title and lineation by Alex.

Hurt stress
Psychotic stress
Overwhelmed addicted planet

Cellphone, phone, cellphone plug
Cellphone, ipod, email, iphone, cellphone

Robotic rich blurriness
Expansive failure
Distracted attacked
Another life

Brain heart eyes mind
Stomach neck
Above my eyes

Lisa Cohen is the author of All We Know: Three Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle, PEN, and Lambda Literary awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Vassar Review, Boog City, LIT, Barrow Street, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Women in Clothes, Queer 13, BOMB, and other publications. She teaches at Wesleyan University.