teaching

Carolyn Hembree is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. She is a guest artist at Lusher High School.

 

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Open letter to my workshop students–
February 11, 2013

What brings us together? We are the strange, the estranged and, at times, even the deranged. The world hasn’t likely been very good to us. And if the world has been good to you, it won’t be for long because the world does not like what you do: the next time an unsuspecting stranger asks what you do, say, “I’m a poet.” At best, we’re dismissed as dreamers, fools, and idealists. At worst, our beliefs and poems cost us our homes as with Neruda, our lives as with Lorca.

It is said that winners write history books. Then poets are the true historians. We know ancient Greek culture, so like our own, from Sappho, Euripides, Sophocles, Homer. We know the Trail of Tears from the Cherokee singing “Amazing Grace” as they left their homes in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, singing the hymn of their oppressors in their own language—the only thing that still belonged to them. Yes, that is poetry and history more than any whitewashed account I learned from my coach/history teacher in high school in Alabama. Winners write history books. To know public and private mourning, read of Lincoln’s Springfield-bound funeral train in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Around the same time, Emily Dickinson preserved the private life—all women of the 19th century were allowed—of a singular genius who would be righted, tempered, and misprinted even a century after her death: “This is my letter to the World / that never wrote to Me—” History. In eleven lines, six questions, and one hint, Langston Hughes gives us “the dream deferred” of Black American experience. … What else?

It is our responsibility to know craft; to measure poems by standards and conventions, yet be wary of conventions; to be nimble enough to change; to praise genius that so often blooms in borderlands for which we have no map. You don’t need to like everyone here. And it’s okay if things get heated. It’s okay if things matter here. The stakes are high, individually and collectively. Still, we must honor and respect our communion and that of others like us: in academies, coffee shops, shelters, libraries, salons, roads, basements, office buildings, cars, and jails—wherever one poet hands another a little verse that might just change the world.

 

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CENTO 6163601
for and of my students*

Take my word for jewel in your open light
inferno: I fall from my mouth by thousands
through riptide of rhythms and the metaphor’s seaweed
and through the conversational spaces, after,
for the risk John! For the risk itself! It’s exhilarating!

Held in the globes of
thrash and torment, angelic harpy music,
this too is history—
what speaks in a stolen voice
they tossed at the stage.
(The boys think so at least.)

Error 404 not found refresh repeat error.
I do not wish to speak to your machine.

Call me by my first name—
O shit it’s already been published.
(No second coming when I’m gone).

This is for the shitkickers in the world who know how much liquid eyeliner it takes:
do not hate the sterile scentless crepe myrtle.

Just snakes
are my perfect mouthpiece,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
and binding with briars, my joys & desires.

They do not talk.
They speak to you in museum manifestations.
They’re waiting to be murdered.

Inscribed by [Redacted] bearing ghost marks of [Redacted],
the words won’t change again.
Throbbing amoeba, torn from nothing,
sad friend, you cannot change.

From well rested soils,
specifically that fire
where I can go to visit with my ancestors,
I climbed out, tired of waiting.

The garment took on an explosive sheen.
I found myself within a forest dark.

* I constructed this cento using two sources: my ten fall workshop students’ poetry and the “mentor” poets whom these students elected to study. We open with Lorde. Close with Dante.