FACING DISPLACEMENT: Poetry as Praxis
2018-19 Teaching Transformation and Innovation Grant Final Report
Lee Peterson, Assistant Teaching Professor, English and WGSS, and Founding Director, Writing Commons, Penn State Altoona
This past fall I had the great pleasure of teaching "Facing Displacement: A Creative Writing Workshop" (ENGL/INART 297), a required companion course to Dr. Jutta Gsoels-Lorensen's English and comparative literature class, "Forced Migration and Displacement: Home and Human Rights in the Global Sphere" (ENGL 482/CMLIT 455). The joint courses explored the conditions leading to displacement and various forms of insecurity—political, social, economic, environmental—as well as the conditions displaced people face as they journey to and then try to resettle in a new home. As a poet whose subjects have included post-conflict experiences in a global context, for my part and course, I was interested in having students encounter and engage the topic of global displacement through the practice and lens of poetry.
Penn State's Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence provided funding which enabled our class of twelve Penn State Altoona students to travel to Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. This grant funded travel brought students into direct contact with people who have been, or currently are, displaced, as well as those who work with refugees. Students wrote on location as well as in class, interacted with found texts, interviews, images, and other outside sources as a way to connect with and better understand the themes and realities of refugees and migrants. Taking “displacement” as a foundational conceptual category, we pondered, as a group, a simple, but consequential question: do we live in the era of lives-made-insecure? And what might this precarious living mean legally, economically and politically speaking? In terms of conflict, war, and environmental degradation? As experience? As text?
According to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, more than 65 million people around the world were forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict or persecution in 2015; that is 1 in 113 persons (unhcr.org). We are all familiar with how this statistic plays in the political arena. But in these courses, students were able to explore what scholarly, legal, and literary voices have to say, voices which informed (and sometimes formed the basis of) students' own creative efforts and writing. Writing which, in turn, forced students to confront questions of the limits of representations as well as what artistic practice might reveal about the very real experiences of those living through and with the global crisis of displacement and forced migration (including ourselves).
These questions, textual engagements, and a steady creative writing practice accompanied students to Washington, D.C. one bright blue Saturday in September. That morning we met with Lindsey Wilkes, a lawyer specializing in asylum cases and a Genocide Intervention Network?Carl Wilkens Fellow. With us at Wilkes' talk was former Penn State Altoona colleague Dr. Lee Ann De Reus, founding director of Panzi Foundation, an organization created to support the efforts of this year's Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dr. Denis Mukwege, and Panzi Hospital, both dedicated to serving female survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We went next to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, hoping to expose students to images and experiences from one of the greatest instances of mass displacement and migration in recent world history. There were other, relevant exhibits, one of smuggled documents and images from inside a Syrian detention facility, "Syria: Please Don't Forget Us." The exhibit "Americans and the Holocaust" chronicled, among other things, a moment of less than heroic isolationism prior to the United States' eventual entry into World War II. Students wrote on site, collecting images, ideas and text at each location. Raw material that would later be reassembled and edited into finished poems.
Between Wilkes' talk and the museum, however, we stumbled on a parade—bright costumed marchers from every Latin American country celebrated in the street, walking or dancing or riding floats down a shut-down Constitution Avenue. The students stood and wrote, facing the parade, the National Sculpture Garden and Mall at their backs. It felt like a moment of synchronicity and no small gift to have happened on this celebration of a region so maligned by our current administration and to encounter such light between the darker realities bookending the day.
Our second class trip was to Pittsburgh. That rainy morning in October, we visited City of Asylum, a literary organization providing sanctuary to writers persecuted in their home countries. Students toured the so-called “house publications,” learned about City of Asylum and its mission and spent time with Tuhin Das, an exiled poet from Bangladesh and one of the current writers in residence. We found out during our time with Das that the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue had taken place earlier that morning. And so, while we had also planned to meet with Betty Cruz, founding director of All for All, a non-profit which supports immigrants and refugees in the Pittsburgh area, Cruz was called away to serve and support her community in the moment of crisis and need.
Needless to say, being in Pittsburgh with students studying and writing about issues connected to the experiences of immigrants and refugees, including xenophobia and violence against these populations, was quite jarring and resonant. The students spoke later, in class and in their final public presentation, about that day—about how shocking it was. Many also remarked that the experience was both hard to process and felt somehow surreal in that they observed life going on in the city—people shopping, eating, and walking on the streets, people going to major sports events—despite the profound tragedy and loss that had occurred merely hours prior.
Over the course of the semester and of our travels, many images were made manifest in the students' writing. Images emerged from the texts students were reading, the films they were seeing, from in-class discussions and writing exercises, from our travels and on-site writing. Some of these images were maybe predictable or more distant from students' own lives. There are borders, water crossed or wire barriers, detention, legal processes, and other challenges and triumphs refugees and displaced people encounter along their varied journeys. And yet it's easy to forget that when we talk about displaced people we aren't always talking about "bodies crossing borders," the title of one student's poems.
So I asked students to weave the details of their own bodies, their own histories into their poems and to consider how displacement looms near as well as far. When we talk about displacement, we are also talking about the victims of California's wild fires. We are talking about people in communities like their own, like Altoona, where our campus is located. Places where economies and industries have shifted, and sometimes collapsed, over time. We discussed how those who come from all these disparate places or who have lived through these histories carry in common the experience of a sudden pressure to leave home or a way of life, a pressure both urgent and beyond their control. How this common experience, in turn, leads to another, that of profound precariousness and vulnerability.
Indeed, one of the themes that wound through the students' writing and travel, through our discussions and readings, was vulnerability. We live in a time and place where the idea of strength seems to be defined, at least in the mainstream, as standing in opposition to vulnerability. So to be strong is to deny vulnerability. One thing the students experienced first hand, through the writing and the travel in particular, is that strength and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin, that the most tenacious and truest forms of strength (not brutality but strength) are built, at least in part, on a foundation of an initial and recurring willingness to experience vulnerability, to embrace uncertainty and the unknown.
In a collective sense, displaced people represent some of the most vulnerable populations on the planet. And how we treat the displaced, those crossing borders and those within our own, is a central question of our time. Because the global conditions leading to mass migration and displacement, like climate change, are not going anywhere. But to solve a problem you have to confront it honestly. This class, its sister course, and the work the students did in both are one tiny gesture at that confrontation.
It's been my experience that creative endeavor requires vulnerability. I talked on the first day of class about how, when I was writing poems for my own first book (poems about the genocide in Bosnia), that work, that writing felt like walking through fire, every time.
I think of American poet Mary Oliver's lines, from her poem "Sunrise"—
What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter
Creative work of any kind requires, at least initially, one version or another of a free fall, with maybe this one idea, this one line to hold onto, leading to the next. I told the students that if they were willing to keep moving, keep falling, they'd find ground, the poem, the piece. And then the cycle would start again. The students in "Facing Displacement: A Creative Writing Workshop" were willing to fall, to leap, some of them with little to no creative writing experience, to engage with difficult material in a process that they often found uncomfortable. I choose to take their work and words, much of it extraordinarily beautiful and moving, as evidence that they are stronger for doing so, for embracing discomfort through creative effort, for being willing to walk through fire.