Berkeley Talks transcript: A Poetry for the People conversation

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #137: ‘A Poetry for the People conversation.’

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks , a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.

[Music fades]

Nikki Jones: Good afternoon. I’m Nikki Jones, Professor and H. Michael and Jeanne Williams Department Dhair of African American Studies here at Cal. And I am thrilled to welcome you to our fourth conversation in this year’s series, Critical Conversations, Catching Up With June. This is the first conversation of our spring semester, and it is right on time as always learning from June Jordan, a Poetry for the People conversation.

Although we meet today in virtual space, I want to begin with the acknowledgement that the Department of African American Studies in UC Berkeley sits on the territory of Huichin, the ancestral and unceded land of the Chochenyo speaking Ohlone people, the successors of the sovereign Verona Band of Alameda County. This land was and continues to be a great importance to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe and other familial descendants of the Verona Band. We recognize that every member of the Berkeley community has and continues to benefit from the use and occupation of this land since the institution’s founding in 1868. Consistent with our values of community inclusion and diversity, we have a responsibility to acknowledge and make visible universities’ relationship to Native peoples.

As members of the Berkeley community, it is vitally important that we not only recognize the history of the land in which we stand, but also that the Muwekma Ohlone people are alive and flourishing members of the Berkeley and broader Bay Area communities today. And we thank UC Berkeley Center for Educational Justice and Community Engagement and the Native American Student Development office for crafting this acknowledgement. As I said at the top today’s conversation, Learning From June Jordan: A Poetry for the People Conversation is the fourth installment in our yearlong celebration of the life and legacy of writer, activist and longtime UC Berkeley faculty member, June Jordan.

Building our successful spring 2021 year celebrating Dr. Barbara Christian and exploring the concept of abolition democracy, our Critical Conversations series continues to ask, “What are the lessons of the Black feminist, Black radical and Black intellectual traditions for our moment? And what is the role of Black studies in building more just futures?” The Critical Conversations series is supported by the Abolition Democracy Initiative and you could read more about the ADI on our website. We appreciate the support of the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, the Office of the Chancellor and the dean of social sciences, Raka Ray.

I also want to acknowledge and thank the members of the ADI leadership team professors, Ula Taylor, Leigh Raiford and Tianna Paschel for their leadership and the vision that helped to create the Abolition Democracy Initiative. You could find a full schedule for the remaining events in this year’s Critical Conversations series on our department’s website. Today’s event is being recorded and will be posted along with other conversation in this series on the department’s YouTube channel. A live transcript of this recording is also a generated on Zoom, you can use the CC button for closed captioning.

And another logistical point, as we move through the conversation, please submit questions through the Q and A feature. Let’s leave the chat for the shoutouts and the love and the appreciation and use the Q and A to post questions. Also, if you’re having any AV trouble, you can use the chat for that as well. Just a couple of final thank yous before I turn to my introduction of our moderator for today, professor Chiyuma Elliott. I want to thank Rachel Anspach and Keanna Pajaro for the administrative and logistical support for today’s event.

And throughout the entire year, Rachel has been outstanding in helping us to organize the Critical Conversations series. Thank you to our colleagues at ETS for supporting the webinar for today’s event and again, throughout the year. A big thank you to all of you who are joining and watching this conversation live or who are going to be watching this or recording the conversation and our deepest thanks to the panelists for taking the time to be here today. I’m looking forward to sitting back and listening and learning from this conversation.

So, let me now turn to introducing my outstanding and brilliant colleague professor Chiyuma Elliott. Professor Elliot is associate professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly work in teaching focused on poetry, visual culture and intellectual history from the 1920s to the present. Before joining the Berkeley faculty, professor Elliot was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, an assistant professor of English, creative writing and African American studies at the University of Mississippi.

An alumni fellow, she has also received fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, the James Irvine Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College and her Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Elliott has published four books of poetry, Blue and Green, published in 2021; At Most in 2020; Digital in 2017; and California Winter League in 2015. Her creative work has appeared in the African American Review , Callaloo Ecologist, the Notre Dame Review, the PM Review and other journals.

She’s the co-editor of several poetry chapbooks, including African American Poetic Responses to Faulkner and Of Rivers . She is currently work on a poem cycle called Hamlin and a scholarly monograph about rural life and the Harlem Renaissance. And I cannot think of a better person to help us usher us into this conversation. I turn it to you, professor Elliot.

Chiyuma Elliott: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m Chiyuma Elliott. I have the honor of curating the spring series of the Critical Conversations reading, celebrating the life and legacy of a fellow poet and former UC Berkeley faculty member, June Jordan. Professor Jordan died in 2002 and is still keenly missed around here. Today we’ll be talking about her revolutionary program Poetry for the People and hearing the work of two of its alums, Samiya Bashir and Solmaz Sharif. But before I introduce them and give you a little bit of background about P4P, I want to put one of June Jordan’s poems into the air. It’s called “These Poems.”

These poems
they are things that I do
in the dark
reaching for you
whoever you are
and
are you ready?

These words
they are stones in the water
running away

These skeletal lines
they are desperate arms for my longing and love.

I am a stranger
learning to worship the strangers
around me

whoever you are
whoever I may become.

So, audience are you ready? Poetry for the People, affectionately known as P4P, was formally established here at Cal in 1991 by June Jordan with three guiding principles in mind:

One: that students will not take themselves seriously, unless we who teach them honor and respect them in every practical way that we can. Two: that words can change the world and save our lives. Three: that poetry is the highest art and the most exacting service devoted to our most serious and our most imaginative deployment of verbs and nouns on behalf of whatever and whoever we cherish Poetry for the People created a community that celebrated human connection attested to the significance of each person’s struggles and defended the idea that anyone could take the course without any prior writing experience.

And Jordan made that idea a reality by creating writing workshops that were accessible and welcoming to writers of all levels. Students in Poetry for the People crafted their own original poems, as well taught poetry for other university students, high school students and community members. At the close of each semester, students produced an anthology of poetry and students showcased their work at community and on campus public poetry readings. The program also brought visiting poets to campus and the surrounding area for readings and lectures.

Under professor Jordan’s direction, Poetry for the People expanded to sites at Berkeley High School, Dublin Women’s Prison, Glide Memorial Church, Mission Cultural Center, Center for the Arts and other community venues. Led by Aya de Leon, Poetry for the People continues to the present day in African American studies here at UC Berkeley. And it also will continues in all the colleges and high schools and churches in community centers where P4P alums continue to use Jordan’s pedagogy as an inspiration for their own writing workshops.

Our two featured poets are part of that broad P4P community. I’m going to introduce both of them, then they’ll each share their poems. And then the three of us will have a conversation about Poetry for the People in June Jordan’s creative legacy.

Samiya Bashir is a poet, writer, theist performer and multimedia poetrymaker. Her work has been widely published, performed, installed, printed, screened, experienced and Oxford-cometh from Berlin to Düsseldorf, Amsterdam to Accra, Florence to Rome, and across the United States. Sometimes she makes poems of dirt, sometimes zeros and ones, sometimes variously rendered text, sometimes light.

Bashir is the author of three poetry collections. Most recently Field Theories, winner of the 2018 Oregon Book Award’s Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. She also received the 2011 Aquarius Press Legacy Award given annually in recognition of women writers of color who actively provide creative opportunities for other writers. This year is an associate professor of creative writing at Reed College, where she teaches poetry and creative nonfiction. Professor Bashir holds a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was part of the Poetry for the People program and an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she received two Hopper Poetry Awards. She’s the recipient of numerous grants, fellowships residencies prizes, and is a founding or organizer of Fire & Ink, an advocacy organization and writer’s festival for LGBT writers of African descent.

Born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, Solmaz Sharif is the author of Look , a finalist for the national book award. She holds degrees from UC Berkeley, where she studied and taught with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People and NYU. Her work has appeared in Harper’s , the Paris Review of Poetry , the Kenyon Review , the New York Times and other venues. She has been recognized with a Discovery, Boston Review Poetry Prize, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a Holmes National Poetry Prize for Princeton.

She has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Landon Foundation at Stanford University. She is currently an assistant professor and creative writing at Arizona State University, where she is inaugurating a Poetry for the People program. Professor Solmaz Sharif’s second poetry collection, Customs, will be published by Graywolf Press in March. I’m so looking forward to that, Solmaz, so excited to see that new book. So, a big welcome back to virtual call to both of you. And it’s now my pleasure to turn over the mic to Samiya Bashir.

Samiya Bashir: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m really grateful to be here. I’m going to just begin in poems and then we’ll move around from there.

“HOW NOT TO STAY UNSHOT IN THE U.S.A.”:

EAT GARLIC. GO TO ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. ATTEND A COUNTRY MUSIC FESTIVAL. SEE A POP STAR SING. GO TO THE MOVIES. TEACH CREATIVE WRITING. PLAY LOUD MUSIC ON CAR SPEAKERS BUT BE BLACK. ATTEND MIDDLE SCHOOL. ASK SOMEONE ABOUT THE LOUD MUSIC COMING FROM THEIR CAR SPEAKERS BUT BE BLACK. SWIM BUT BE BLACK. LAY ABOUT A POOL NOT SWIMMING BUT BEING BLACK. BE BLACK. SHOP. BE WHITE. HUNT. BE NOT-WHITE. RIDE YOUR BIKE. BE AT HOME. BE IN HIGH SCHOOL. BE FROM THE STATES. BE FROM ANYWHERE ELSE. GO TO TEMPLE. PLAY OUTSIDE. PLAY INSIDE. HAVE A GUN. HAVE BIBLE STUDY. DON’T HAVE A GUN. JOIN THE ARMY. HAVE A PARTY. BE GAY. BE STRAIGHT. GO TO WORK. WATCH FOOTBALL. HAVE WAFFLES WHERE THEY HAVE A HOUSE. MAKE SOCIAL MEDIA. BASICALLY BE ANYWHERE NEAR AN AIRPORT. VISIT THE MALL. CHILL AT THE BAR. GO TO THE BEACH. PLAY IN THE PLAYGROUND. BE PREGNANT AND MAYBE WANNA NOT BE PREGNANT. GO TO SLEEP IN YOUR OWN DAMNED BED. STOP FOR GAS. GET GROCERIES. GO TO CHURCH. BE A VETERAN. BE A NURSE. BE A COLLEGE STUDENT. TAKE A SPA DAY. SIGHT-SEE. AIR TRAVEL. SERVE AN ORDER OF PROTECTION. JOIN THE NAVY. PLAY SANTA. SIT SHABBAT. STOP TO GET A COFFEE. BE A JOURNALIST. LIVE ON THE STREETS. CALL THE POLICE IN AN EMERGENCY. WORK IN CIVIL SERVICE. WAIT FOR A BUS. TAKE THE BUS. DIE, THUS MAKING SOMEONE SAD. BE MAD. PARENT. BE PARENTED. BE ALONE. HAVE A FAMILY. WATCH TV WITH FAMILY. BREAK UP WITH SOMEONE. TAKE AN UBER. TEACH IN ANY SCHOOL, ANYWHERE. ANSWER YOUR FRONT DOOR. KNOCK ON SOMEONE ELSE’S FRONT DOOR. BE MAYBE JUST A LITTLE BIT CRAZY, NO HARM. BE A MARINE. MAKE NEWSPAPERS. BE SOMEONE’S GIRLFRIEND. HELP. GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL. DANCE AT THE CLUB. GO TO THE BANK. WRITE. READ BUT OUTSIDE. BE TAKEN HOSTAGE, WHICH USED TO BE KIND OF SAFE? GO TO COURT. BE SOMEONE’S WIFE. DELIVER PACKAGES AND/OR FOOD. BE A NEIGHBOR. ROAM YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD. NEED YOUR NEIGHBOR. ATTEND A WORKPLACE TRAINING. CONGRESS. HAVE EITHER WALLS OR DOORS. BE A SPORT. DRIVE A CAR. EAT PANCAKES WHILE SITTING IN THEIR VERY OWN INTERNATIONAL HOUSE. BE A REFUGEE, HAVING ESCAPED GETTING SHOT SOMEWHERE ELSE. CHECK OUT A LIBRARY BOOK. PAUSE AT A REST STOP, HOPING TO REST. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE. BE A DOCTOR. GO TO A PARK. TAKE A TRAIN. ATTEND MOSQUE. BE A COP (PLEASE, STOP). IMMIGRATE. HAVE OR BE AN IN-LAW. WALK ACROSS CAMPUS. PROTEST. SELL CARS. McCHILL. SHARE SOME FROYO. SPEAK WHATEVER LANGUAGE YOU WANT TO SPEAK. WALK DOWN THE STREET, ANY STREET. WANT SOME CHICKEN. BE A SECRETARY. STAY IN A HOTEL. BE A PATIENT. LIVE ON THE RESERVATION. STAY IN A DORMITORY. HANDLE YOUR POST-OFFICE BUSINESS. RUN FOR OFFICE. HOMECOMING. BE IN A PARKING LOT. FISH IN THE RIVER BY THE ROAD. FIND YOURSELF IN DESPERATE NEED OF HELP. EAT ICE CREAM. LIVE IN AN APARTMENT. TAKE THE KIDS TO A PIZZA SHOP RUN BY A GIANT MOUSE. LIVE OFF THE RESERVATION. SEEK CUSTODY OF YOUR CHILDREN. GO TO LAW SCHOOL. CRAVE CHOW MEIN. TRADE STOCKS. SAY “MA’AM, THIS IS A WENDY’S” BECAUSE YOU ARE, INDEED, AT A WENDY’S. ANCHOR TELEVISION NEWS. DATE, LIKE, ANYONE REALLY. MARRY, LIKE, ANYONE REALLY. RUN OUT OF GAS. HAVE A CHILD. BE A CHILD. LIVE IN A HOUSE. LOVE A CHILD.

June Jordan wrote a poem called “Kissing God Goodbye or Who’s in Charge.” I’m going to share it with us. I feel like I also need to bring her into the room. I’ve been following this series and again, thank you so much chairman Nikki and the whole crew — Black Studies, ADI — I’m so excited to hear you.

But I was fortunate beyond fortunate enough to work with Barbara Christian and June Jordan at the same time, which as you can imagine, changed my life. “Poem In the Face of Operation Rescue,” which, because this poem is copyright 1994 and because in 2022.

You mean to tell me on the 12th day or the 13th
that the Lord
which is to say some wise ass
got more muscle than he
reasonably
can control or figure out/some
accidental hard disk
thunderbolt/some
big mouth
woman-hating/super
heterosexist heterosexual kind of a guy guy
he decided who could live and who would die?

And after he did what?
created alleyways of death
and acid rain
and infant mortality rates
and sons of the gun
and something called the kitchenette
and trailer trucks to kill and carry
beautiful trees out of their natural
habitat/Oh! Not that guy?

Was it that other guy
who invented a snake
an apple and a really
retarded scenario so that
down to this very day
it is not a lot of fun
to give birth to a son of a gun?
And wasn’t no woman in the picture
of the Lord?
He done the whole thing by himself?
The oceans and the skies
and the fish that swim and the bird
that flies?

You sure he didn’t have some serious problems
of perspective?
for example
coming up with mountains/valleys/rivers/rainbows
and no companionship/no coach/no
midwife/boyfriend/girlfriend
no help whatsoever for a swollen
overactive
brain
unable to spell
sex

You mean to tell me that the planet
is the brain child
of a single
male
head of household?

And after everything he said and done
the floods/famines/plagues
and pestilence
the invention of the slave and the invention of the gun
the worship of war (especially whichever war
he won)
And after everything he thought about and made 2 million
megapronouncements about
(Like)
“Give not your strength to women”
and
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman”
and
“An outsider shall not eat of a holy thing”
and
“If a woman conceives and bears a male child
then she shall be unclean
seven days … But if she bears
a female child, then she shall be unclean
2 weeks …”
and
“The leper who has the disease
shall wear torn clothes and let the hair
of his head hang loose
and he shall cover his upper lip
and cry, ‘Unclean,
unclean!’”
and
“Behold, I have 2 daughters
who have not known a man,
let me bring them out to you, and do
to them as you please”
and
“I will greatly multiply your pain
in childbearing:
in pain shall you bring forth children”
and
“Take your son, your only son Isaac,
whom you love,
and go to the land of Moriah, and offer
him there as a burnt offering”
and in the middle of this lunatic lottery
there was Ruth saying to Naomi:
“Entreat me not
to leave you or to return
from following you; for where you go
I will go
and where you lodge I will lodge, your people
shall be my people
And your God my God;
where you die I will die,
and there I will be buried. May the Lord do so to me
and more also
if even death parts me from you.”
and
David wailing aloud at the death of Jonathan who loved him
“more than his own soul” and David
inconsolable in lamentation
saying
“… very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women”
and
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver
my body to be burned,
but have not love,
I gain nothing …”
and this chaos/this chaos
exploded tyrannical in scattershot scripture
(Like)
“… those who belong in Christ
Jesus have crucified the flesh
with its passions and desire”
and
“Cast out the slave and her son”
and
“If in spite of this you will not hearken
to me, then …
You shall eat the flesh of your sons,
you shall eat the flesh
of your daughters. And I will
destroy your high places … I will
lay your cities waste … I will
devastate your land … And
as for those of you that are left,
I will send faintness
into their hearts in the lands of their enemies
the sound of a driven leaf
shall put them to flight …”
etcetera etcetera
That guy?
That guy?
the ruler of all earth
and heaven too
The maker of all laws
and all taboo
The absolute supremacist
of power
the origin of the destiny
of molecules and Mars
The father and the son
the king and the prince
The prophet and the prophecy
The singer and the song
The man from whom
in whom
of whom
by whom
comes everything
without the womb
without that unclean
feminine
connection/
that guy?

The emperor of poverty
The czar of suffering
The wizard of disease
The joker of morality
The pioneer of slavery
The priest of sexuality
The host of violence
The Almighty fount of fear and trembling
That’s the guy?
You mean to tell me on the 12th day or the 13th
that the Lord
which is to say some wiseass
got more muscle than he
reasonably
can control or figure out/some
accidental hard disk
thunderbolt/some
big mouth
woman-hating/super
heterosexist heterosexual
kind of a guy guy
he decided who could live and who would die?

And so
the names become
the names of the dead and the living
who love
Peter
John
Tede
Phil
Larry
Bob
Alan
Richard
Tom
Wayne
David
Jonathan
Bruce
Mike
Steve
And so
our names become
the names of the dead
and the living who love
Suzanne
Amy
Elizabeth
Margaret
Trude
Linda
Sara
Alexis
Frances
Nancy
Ruth
Naomi
Julie
Kate
Patricia
And out of that scriptural scattershot
our names become
the names of the dead

our names become
the names of the iniquitous
the names of the accursed
the names of the tribes of the abomination
because
my name is not Abraham
my name is not Moses/Leviticus/Solomon/Cain or Abel
my name is not Matthew/Luke/Saul or Paul
My name is not Adam
My name is female
my name is freedom
my name is the one who lives outside the tent of the father
my name is the one who is dark
my name is the one who fights for the end of the kingdom
my name is the one at home
my name is the one who bleeds
my name is the one with the womb
my name is female
my name is freedom
my name is the one the bible despised
my name is the one astrology cannot predict
my name is the name the law cannot invalidate
my name is the one who loves

and that guy
and that guy
you never even seen upclose

He cannot eat at my table
He cannot sleep in my bed
He cannot push me aside
He cannot make me commit or contemplate suicide
He cannot say my name
without shame
He cannot say my name
My name
My name is the name of the one who loves
And he
has no dominion over me
his hate has no dominion over me
I am she who will be free
And that guy
better not try to tell anybody about who
should live
and who should die
or why
His name is not holy
He is not my Lord
He is not my people
His name is not sacred
His name is not my name
His name is not the name of those who love the living
His name is not the name of those who love the living
and the dead
His name is not our name
we
who survive the death
of men and women
whose beloved
breath
becomes (at last)
our own

(Bashir reads her poem, “Here’s the Thing.”)

Here’s the thing: things fall apart.
I am sort of sleeping then
I am on fire. Undone. Burned.
Stripped of skin I feel so
raw these days. Flattened.
Full of doubt. Numb.

Rats thrive in sewers so
maybe I’m thriving. It may seem
simple enough but my dreams don’t
say so. This I think I know: no one
notices me. Lost. Alone. Blind
as a sewer rat. Six feet back. Gelatinous.
Raw as a baby rat. Shook. Under-done.
Too-full rat still hungry. Rich rat swimming
sewage. Breadline rat. Baker rat. Transformed. Stuck
in a well. Thriving. Burned into brick
road. Milepost. Sign.

Triumphant. I scream but
words burn like skyfire. Clammy.
Street rat. Fell in a hole. Stuck
in a well. I rattle the cages of our
children. Everywhere else
is empty. I am fluent
in fire. Fluent in indigo miseries.

I am fluent in the absence of heat.
A rat on the street. Sudden and melt.
I am fluent in how time presses
a body. Here’s the thing I’m not
supposed to say I saw others skulk
the dark like me. Simple enough.
I skulk away a little more each day.
Maybe there’s intelligent life
but I’m not it. How will we survive this

having a body? Trying to be
intelligent life. Fireball struck and stuck.
I study the crows who know this—having
a body to fly.

Almost a dream. A sign
you’re not supposed to notice. A path.
Who can I be? Blame the apocalypse.
Its melt. Its bends. It never ends.

Thing is: things fall apart.
I am not saying I’m a prophet but
I know the meaning of a moment
like ours. Burning. I’m almost sure
I’m here. Transformed. Torn apart.
Average. Boring. Humdrum. No sound
stays innocent. Numb. Everyday

the end of the world is now again. Normal.
I burn and remember having a body. How
it feels. Cold. If I hold no beauty in this slapdash
world, then tuck me away from the heat of the day.

Alone. I burn. Blame the humdrum
numbness of the end of the world. I listen
for the wind. Intelligent life: where is it? No sound
an innocent means. Route. Way. I am

not saying I’m a prophet but I always travel
slightly singed. Pressed by time. Six feet back
I find the me who’s tall as a gum tree, the me
with copper hair. Causeway me. Opening.
Expanse.

Eyes open, heart full of doubt.
I strike my fireballs and burn. Sort of
dreaming. Now volcano. Now oil-slicked
river. Stripped of skin. Fluent
in the press of time. Body clammed. Voice
raw and syrup stripped. Eyes open. Sewer rat.
Thriving. No sound stays innocent. Rats.

Footpath. Corridor. Clearing and
yes the bushes burn like skyfire. And
I decide to survive. Claim every sunrise.
I am dark as earth. Now I am me with the
bright yellow hair. Me with a normal
girth – wait –

Normal? Do I know that word? Did I ever? Is it
normal to hang from a tree? Is normal an ability
to breathe? Are normal these panic attacks?
Does normal stand whole bodies back? Tucked
away from the heat of the day, listen for how to survive
this body. Face twisted. Slightly singed. Fueled
by my own crisped flames. Condemned.

I know the meaning of a moment but here’s the thing:
Am I intelligent life? Pffft. How could I tell? The crows know.
I know I’m not road. I’m doorway. And when things fall apart
again I’ll be here—my rectangular shade of blue. I’m not
supposed to talk about transformation though. Not the me
with the hollow cheeks. The me with the blood-red stride.
Fluent in the need to dance.

Me with moles in fourteen places. Here.
Having a body. Me with three nose rings. Normal.
I grasp for a branch. Normal. Me with the war wounds.

I thrive. Gutter rat. The burning quiet of stars.
Who else can I be? The crows know.

I’m going to close, I think. “Some days of wine and pastry.” I wanted to share all pretty new things, so we’re going to live in that P4P in progress.

Blah blah blah… There was a plague again. Listen, I’m too old to have lived through so much pestilence already, but grandmother called it better than the alternative to live. You’d never know that so many of us do, despite ourselves, everyone has a story. And when June asked us what we should do, those of us who did not die, I can only imagine what she’d say if I answered, “Lie around drunk and bake bread, make cookies and never quite spread the too-tight space that crushes us to put my foot in the grass, pressed toward grounding, pulled back flesh like hot ice on the boiled side of melt.”

It was cold, it was hot, it blazed, and that was before the plague. Again, ran across our viral land, everywhere people with all the anger, all the guns feel outnumbered. Listen, they are. I guess he did promise to build a wall. I guess we’re just supposed to talk about all this bullshit now, but believes this autumn, how they too flaunt their flames deep into December like they know how fast we forget our own spilled blood. The canopy is me. See how I hover, how I don’t so much block light as scatter it, how I kitten yarn, batter it. When I come back around to me myself, what will I say? Will I just assume I can swim until the current pulls me down? I guess.

Great. As would say, if for just one day, we didn’t have to earn, if for just one day then who do we want to become? Browning and greening in the wetness of the recent rains, the way they set everything a light, the untoward way, the rain drops flash to prick its bit of waning sunlight for that feeling when you know horrible things happen, but you can’t remember them. That feeling when you remember horrible thing after horrible thing and still you think, nope, that’s not the one. That feeling when there’s nothing left, but feeling no thought just paralysis and feeling.

That feeling when there’s nothing left to feel and nothing in the lap for breakfast. So it turns out I’m allergic to society as a whole. When in doubt they say go back in time. I mean, whiteness, I guess. When I want to feel safe, I figure I should want something else. Everywhere I go, everyone I see could be a shooter. It’s stressful, very stressful. My breasts don’t fit into Bulletproof vests, so.

Six. Tomorrow is another country. Even here the philosopher stone ain’t stone, bottoms out unexpectedly. Tomorrow is not another country, tomorrow is not even there.

I can’t forget waters while I drown. So why does this silence engulf unseen and unsmelled?

Seven. This did not happen here. We insist through all that happened.

Eight. Maybe this quiet is a star. Our outer space treaties are older now than my whole generation just as outdated, just as orbited by garbage and left to rot from our every epizootic breath. It is our leaders say what it is.

Nine. In a room. I had a red feather bone. I tickle your nose with my loosey-goosey feathers. I ruled the stage, honey. Now it’s long gone.

Thank you.

Solmaz Sharif: Wow. Wow. Wow. Thank you. I start right, right with June. “Poem for a Young Poet,” dedicated to Irwin Sherwoods, May 27th, 1997.

Most people search all of their lives
for someplace to belong to
as you said
but I look instead
into the eyes of anyone
who talks to me

I search for a face
to believe and belong to
a loosening mask
with a voice
ears
and a consciousness
breathing through
a nose
I can see

Day to day
it’s the only way
I like to travel
noticing the colors of a cheek
the curvature of brow
and the public declarations
of two lips

Okay!
I did not say male
or female
I did not say Serbian
or Tutsi
I said
what tilts my head
into the opposite of fear
or dread
is anyone
who talks to me

A face
to claim or question
my next step away
or else towards

fifteen anemones
dilated well beyond apologies
for such an open centerpiece
that soft
forever begs for bees

one morning
and the birdsong and the dew-
struck honeysuckle blending
invitations to dislodge
my fingers tangling with my sunlit
lover’s hair

A face
to spur or interdict
my mesmerized approach
or else
my agonized reproach

to strangulations of the soul
that bring a mother
to disown
her children
leaving them alone to feed
on bone and dust

A face
despite a corpse
invasion of the cradle
where I rock my love
alive

A face
despite numb fashions
of an internet connection between nobody
and no one

A face
against the narcoleptic/antiseptic
chalk streaks
in the sky
that lie
and posit credit cards
and starched de facto exposés
as copacetic evidence
that you and I
need no defense
against latrine
and bully bullet-proof decisions
launched by limousines
dividing up the big screen
into gold points
cold above the valley
of the shadow of unpardonable
tiny
tiny
tiny
this breathing and that breath
and then
that and that
that death

I search a face
a loosening mask
with voice
ears
and a consciousness
breathing through
a nose
that I can see

I search a face
for obstacles to genocide
I search beyond the dead
and driven by imperfect visions
of the living
yes and no
I come and go
back to the eyes
of anyone
who talks to me

Thank you so much to Dr. Jones and Dr. Elliot and the African American studies department at Cal for having me here today. It’s such an honor. It’s such an honor to be back, to be able to celebrate June Jordan and think of her work.

And really, I think I’m just going to read a few poems of mine and a few of hers and move back and forth in between and leave as much time as possible for conversation. But I’m thinking of faces, and I wasn’t planning on reading this poem, but the world, I don’t know. Poem is called “Look.” And it’s the title poem of my first collection and the U.S. Department of Defense has its own dictionary. And in it, they redefine the word “look” to mean and mind warfare that the period during which a mind circuit is receptive of an influence.

So, “Look”:

It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me.
Exquisite .

Whereas Well, if I were from your culture, living in this country ,
said the man outside the 2004 Republican National
Convention, I would put up with that for this country ;

Whereas I felt the need to clarify: You would put up with
TORTURE, you mean and he proclaimed: Yes ;

Whereas what is your life;

Whereas years after they LOOK down from their jets
and declare my mother’s Abadan block PROBABLY
DESTROYED, we walked by the villas, the faces
of buildings torn off into dioramas, and recorded it
on a hand-held camcorder and I said That’s a gun as I
trained the lens on a rusting GUN-TYPE WEAPON and
That’s Iraq as I zoomed over the river;

Whereas it could take as long as 16 seconds between
the trigger pulled in Las Vegas and the Hellfire missile
landing in Mazar-e-Sharif, after which they will ask
Did we hit a child? No. A dog . they will answer themselves;

Whereas the federal judge at the sentencing hearing said
I want to make sure I pronounce the defendant’s name
correctly;

Whereas this lover would pronounce my name and call me
Exquisite and LAY the floor lamp across the floor so that
we would not see each other by DIRECT ILLUMINATION,
softening even the light;

Whereas the lover made my heat rise, rise so that if heat
sensors were trained on me, they could read
my THERMAL SHADOW through the roof and through
the wardrobe;

Whereas you know we ran into like groups like mass executions .
w/ hands tied behind their backs. and everybody shot
in the head side by side. its not like seeing a dead body walking
to the grocery store here. its not like that. its iraq you know
its iraq. its kinda like acceptable to see that there and not—it
was kinda like seeing a dead dog or a dead cat laying—;

Whereas I thought if he would LOOK at my exquisite face
or my father’s, he would reconsider;

Whereas You mean I should be sent MISSING because of my family
name?
and he answered Yes. That’s exactly what I mean ,

adding that his wife helped draft the PATRIOT Act;

Whereas the federal judge wanted to be sure he was
pronouncing the defendant’s name correctly and said he
had read all the exhibits, which included the letter I
wrote to cast the defendant in a loving light;

Whereas today we celebrate things like his transfer to a
detention center closer to home;

Whereas his son has moved across the country;

Whereas I made nothing happen;

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow . For what is
your life? It is even a THERMAL SHADOW, it appears
so little, and then vanishes from the screen;

Whereas I cannot control my own heat and it can take
as long as 16 seconds between the trigger, the Hellfire
missile, and A dog, they will answer themselves;

Whereas A dog , they will say: Now, therefore,

Let it matter what we call a thing.

Let it be the exquisite face for at least 16 seconds.

Let me LOOK at you.

Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.

June again. “Poem about Police Violence”:

Tell me something
what you think would happen if
every time they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
every time they kill a black man
then we kill a cop

you think the accident rate would lower
subsequently?

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby
comes back to my mouth and I am quiet
like Olympian pools from the running the
mountainous snows under the sun

sometimes thinking about the 12th House of the Cosmos
or the way your ear ensnares the tip
of my tongue or signs that I have never seen
like DANGER WOMEN WORKING

I lose consciousness of ugly bestial rabid
and repetitive affront as when they tell me
18 cops in order to subdue one man
18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle (don’t
you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue and
scuffle my oh my) and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn
street was just a “justifiable accident” again
again

People been having accidents all over the globe
so long like that I reckon that the only
suitable insurance is a gun
I’m saying war is not to understand or rerun
war is to be fought and won

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby
blots it out/the bestial but
not too often

tell me something
what you think would happen if
every time they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
every time they kill a black man
then we kill a cop

you think the accident rate would lower
subsequently?

My new book, which is coming out tomorrow, officially. “Social Skills Training”:

Studies suggest How may I help you officer? is the single most disarming thing to say and not What’s the problem? Studies suggest it’s best the help reply My pleasure and not No problem . Studies suggest it’s best not to mention problem in front of power even to say there is none. Gloria Steinem says women lose power as they age and yet the loudest voice in my head is my mother. Studies show the mother we have in mind isn’t the mother that exists. Mine says: What the fuck are you crying for? Studies show the baby monkey will pick the fake monkey with fake fur over the furless wire monkey with milk, without contest. Studies show to negate something is to think it anyway. I’m not sad . I’m not sad. Studies recommend regular expressions of gratitude and internal check-ins. Enough , the wire mother says. History is a kind of study. History says we forgave the executioner. Before we mopped the blood we asked: Lord Judge, have I executed well? Studies suggest yes. What the fuck are you crying for, officer? the wire mother teaches me to say, while studies suggest Solmaz, have you thanked your executioner today?

I studied with Poetry for the People from the spring of 2002 through 2006. And it happened because I searched the schedule of courses. I searched the word “poetry” and the first course that came up was this course called Poetry for the People was being taught by someone named June Jordan, and it was in the African American studies department, 156 AST. And all these words sounded like exactly where I wanted to be. And then I had only read one poem of June’s, which is a poem that is called “Taiko Dojo” for and it’s just the word no kind of repeated in this percussive way.

And I remember being really confused by the poem when I saw it, it was 16, and it was an anthology. And I remember that I read other poems in that anthology and that I forgot them all. That was the only one that kind of stuck with me even as curiosity or an irritant of not quite getting it or not knowing what I was supposed to be hearing. And when I came into class that spring, June wasn’t there, it was being directed by a man by the name of Junichi Semitsu. And we were told that, “June might come next week to give a guest lecture, but anyway, she’s on medical leave.”

And then the next week came and went and they came and went and week by week, it kind of went on like that. And then on the very last day of our final reading, our big final reading June was still not there and she requested this poem be read in her absence. And so I think I walk close with it, but I also want to say what a particular honor and joy it is to be here with Samiya today because one of the great gifts for me of Poetry for the People was having real live living poets next to me and working alongside me or ahead of me. And her name was a constant in our classrooms.

And so I never studied with June, I studied with her students and I studied her work on my own. And my correspondence with her continues in that way and I know that I’m not alone in that. So I’ll close, I guess, with this final poem that she asked to be read, which I always found so moving to think if you’re looking back on decades of work, this prolific writer and scholar and thinker, what do you pick?

And for the P4P group, she picked this poem, it’s called “On a New Year’s Eve.”

Infinity doesn’t interest me

not altogether
anymore

I crawl and kneel and grub about
I beg and listen for

what can go away
(as easily as love)

or perish
like the children
running
hard on oneway streets/infinity
doesn’t interest me

not anymore

not even
repetition your/my/eye-
lid or the colorings of sunrise
or all the sky excitement
added up

is not enough

to satisfy this lusting admiration that I feel
for
your brown arm before it
moves

MOVES
CHANGES UP

the temporary sacred
tales ago
first bikeride round the house
when you first saw a squat
opossum
carry babies on her back

opossum up
in the persimmon tree
you reeling toward
that natural
first
absurdity
with so much wonder still
it shakes your voice

the temporary is the sacred
takes me out

and even the stars and even the snow and even
the rain
do not amount to much unless these things submit to some disturbance
some derangement such
as when I yield myself/belonging
to your unmistaken
body

and let the powerful lock up the canyon/mountain
peaks the
hidden rivers/waterfalls the
deepdown minerals/the coalfields/goldfields
diamond mines close by the whoring ore
hot
at the center of the earth

spinning fast as numbers
I cannot imagine

let the world blot
obliterate remove so-
called
magnificence
so-called
almighty/fathomless and everlasting
treasures/
wealth
(whatever that may be)

it is this time
that matters

it is this history
I care about

the one we make together
awkward
inconsistent
as a lame cat on the loose
or quick as kids freed by the bell
or else as strictly
once
as only life must mean
a once upon a time

I have rejected propaganda teaching me
about the beautiful
the truly rare

(supposedly
the soft push of the ocean at the hushpoint of the shore
supposedly
the soft push of the ocean at the hushpoint of the shore
is beautiful
for instance)
but
the truly rare can stay out there

I have rejected that
abstraction that enormity
unless I see a dog walk on the beach/
a bird seize sandflies
or yourself
approach me
laughing out a sound to spoil
the pretty picture
make an uncontrolled
heartbeating memory
instead

I read the papers preaching on
that oil and oxygen
that redwoods and the evergreens
that trees the waters and the atmosphere
compile a final listing of the world in
short supply

but all alive and all the lives
persist perpetual
in jeopardy
persist
as scarce as every one of us
as difficult to find
or keep
as irreplaceable
as frail
as every one of us

and
as I watch your arm/your
brown arm
just before it moves

I know

all things are dear
that disappear

all things are dear
that disappear

Thank you.

Chiyuma Elliott: Oh my gosh. I just feel so incredibly, just overwhelmed and just honored to get to be in this space with you, honored to be in this space with the audience. I don’t know if y’all were following the chat as you were reading. So much love coming to both of you. Audience members, hey, send questions via the Q and A function so I can ask these fabulous poets what you want to hear them talk about.

Let me kick off the Q and A with this one. This is for both of you that responds to this. So both of you were lucky enough to be part of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program when you were undergrads here at Cal, what was learning in P4P like, and what’s something that you remember vividly from that experience? Samiya, do you want to go first since Solmaz has already sort of started sharing a little bit about this?

Samiya Bashir: I’m mute. There we go. Hi. I mean, I think, too, that June Jordan is why I was at Berkeley. I heard her read a poem, some poem, “A Place of Rage.” And this was 1992 and we were in the middle of riots in LA. And I figured I was going to go to UCLA or something, but then I had to changed everything. And what was it like to learn with her, to teach with her? I mean, it was a nonstop, I feel like climbing up the steps of the rose garden like it’s sunny and freaking gorgeous and you’re surrounded by roses. And you’re climbing though, and you’re climbing, you’re getting stronger as you’re climbing and you’re climbing and you’re climbing and you’re reaching back and you’re grabbing people and you’re pulling people up and you’re surrounded by roses and it’s beautiful out and a little too hot after a few steps, but then you get some water. It was very challenging and nourishing and exciting and filled with aroma.

Chiyuma Elliott: I love that. I love that so much. Solmaz, you want to share a P4P…?

Solmaz Sharif: I love that image, too. And I think of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s essay on coalitional spaces and coalitional politics, and there’s the line where she says you feel like you might keel over and die at any moment if you’re doing it right. And there’s this way that that space was so incredibly alive with possibility and change and commitment that it required the very best and most open likeness of all of us in ways that I thought it would just be even that then I would get to go out into the world and that’s what it would be like everywhere.

I thought it was just going to be rose gardens and that climb, the difficulty of the climb, but coming out, I see how incredibly rare it was and how the fear of it, in fact, the threat of it, which is real. But then the threat being read as such a mortal danger that we should avoid it, it really kind of forecloses that space from existing and in so many other ways and places. And so there’s that, and then there’s also the fact that I was just so terrified of workshop and I was just so terrified of every step of the way. And I almost dropped out, I almost dropped the course.

I just stopped showing up and it was my student teacher poet, Marcos Ramirez, who called me and I had an answering machine in my dorm room it was blinking and I pressed play and my STP was asking me where I was. I thought I was in trouble, but he just wanted to make sure that I come back and I read a poem. And that’s also a really rare thing. And I don’t know what my life would’ve been like if he hadn’t made that phone call and P4Ps really one of the series of those interventions upon my life. And I know many others as well.

Chiyuma Elliott: There’s a question in the Q and A about teaching, both of you in addition to being poets are also professional teachers. So, one of our audience members wants to know how has studying June Jordan’s work changed the way you teach now? I know it’s a big question.

Samiya Bashir: Well, I mean, I think Poetry for the People has always informed my teaching. It began my teaching and doing the student teacher poet teaching in the schools and in the streets and all of the places that we went. And then when I graduated, that’s what I did and I kept doing that for years. And when I moved into academia, there’s something about the need for openness, the need for more than this is not just you’re going to class and maybe you’re writing poem like that. It’s an engagement, we have to do readings, we have to make things, we have to work together, we have to rely on each other, we have to press each other, we have to congratulate each other, we have to build something, and we have to respond to each other and to the world. And so that’s just the baseline.

Chiyuma Elliott: How about you, Solmaz? I mean, especially as you’re just about to start a new iteration of Poetry for the People at Arizona State.

Solmaz Sharif: Right, yeah. No, I mean like Samiya, I think, I mean, it’s affected my teaching in any classroom, any workshop, any space I kind of enter. And a lot of it actually goes back to one of the lines that Samiya also quoted about, “What shall we do? We who did not die.” Some of us did not die and let’s get on with it. And having that sense of urgency and precarity in any kind of shared space and behind any speech act really has been central to my work and to my teaching.

And I think it’s also been central, it’s been fascinating to watch those of us who have gone out and aren’t necessarily teaching or aren’t necessarily writing in these public facing ways or whatever, but are practicing so many of these modes and values and principles in whatever fields and lives that we find ourselves in. And so that is another thing that’s kind of affected my teaching. Poetry means taking control of the language of your life as June Jordan said. And beyond that, it’s what will you do with the language of your life, wherever you find yourself.

Chiyuma Elliott: There’s so many amazing questions that folks are really resonating with the things you’re saying. So a question from a former GSI for P4P, who actually was on connecting in with what you just said, Solmaz, about vulnerability, wonders about how you’ve brought that part of the pedagogy from P4P into your own classrooms. For both of you, vulnerability, what does that look like in practice?

Samiya Bashir: I’ll start, Solmaz.

Solmaz Sharif: What’s that? All of a sudden I’m blanking. I mean, it looks like so many things. It looks like so many things for me, so I’m still thinking. Samiya, if you want to go.

Samiya Bashir: Well, I think, there’s a kind of terror that has to be acknowledged first and also 17th, I think. There’s a space where, I mean, in one of the poems, when I want some safety, I think I might need to want something else. And I might need to want that in studying poetry or making poetry, there’s a way that you have to kind of crack things open, I mean that aren’t always not messy. You get egg yolk everywhere, whatever, and to be clear about that from the very beginning, especially when and where you’re in atmospheres where that is unexpected or less encountered to just be like, you’ve walked through the tree, we’re in a different place right now. And a lot can go down and we need to create space that’s like the pedagogy of care, this is our circle of care. I actually have one of quotes from June at the top of my intro syllabus just about every year. That’s what we’re doing here, and so not only can anything happen, but we have to round up and love on it. It can be hard.

Solmaz Sharif: Yeah, absolutely. And I was thinking, I realized a specific thing or I’m thinking of a specific way that this kind of plays out. And it’s this constant, in my case, request for greater specificity, actually. There’s this, so much of June’s work and the teaching of Poetry for the People it’s about moving beyond the kind of surface level abstractions or abstract nouns that go on our lives and trying to be more concretely what we need. And that might be a noun, even like war or colonialism, or it might be a noun like silence or love or whatever it might be.

These kinds of words that we look toward when we’re first writing poems maybe. And with that greater specificity, there is a greater vulnerability. Because you are naming more and more clearly in a way that you and only you can kind of singularly stand behind what you just said. You’ve abandoned the shelter of whatever decolonial might mean and then you’re standing within your own kind of ecosystem of imagery or of music often too. And there’s a great vulnerability in that.

Samiya Bashir: Yeah, that’s such a really great image for that cracking open, too. It’s like you could think like, I mean something so metaphysical, but also this is poetry, I mean, the word, the word language, what that means for you. I mean, I feel like we had a conversation about beauty and just like, you wrote that word there, but what does that mean?

And do we have to deal with the fact that does not mean the same thing to probably anyone in this room and so then what’s the word under that? What’s what do you actually mean? And to have to kind of dig into that space, just at the level of language, then everything else that the poem is bringing, I think is really an important clarity of that.

Chiyuma Elliott: I feel like both of those things that you both said have answered another question and a set of questions that are in the chat. It’s about, how do you encourage emerging poets to speak their truth when we live in times where certain truths are not supported through traditional routes? How do we protect ourselves and also the poets who continue in the wake and legacy of work, like Jordan’s poem about police violence? I have a question I want to sort of piggyback on that and ask another question about pedagogical values. So one of the core pedagogical values that professor Jordan championed in P4P was beloved community, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of that term. So, what I’m wondering is what does beloved community mean to both of you?

Solmaz Sharif: Central to it would be a kind of radical and rigorous honesty toward each other. Beloved community does not necessarily,  to my mind or reading feel comfortable all the time. But it does feel loving, that real love reveals the lover to themself. The accuracy and the truth of that, of that kind of reckoning across each other and with each other, can again feel threatening, can feel like you might keel over and die, all of those things. And a lot of it is, yes, arrived at through that kind of specificity through coming back in Poetry for the People’s case to the language that we’re using to describe, to make sure we’re saying what we mean to make sure we know what we mean to say. And then once we’ve gotten that right to talk around that and make sure that is like as loving as it could be, which is kind of a rare conversation, I’d say in other workshops.

Samiya Bashir: Yeah, it’s critical. I mean, I think say the love part, I mean really literally, but again saying it not because Pollyanna, but that can be really hard, we can get on each other’s damn nerves, too, and also to enter that space and not just provide that vulnerability, but to open it and to know that I’m bearing my soul and what I have to also be open to is the possibility that I might wrong. I suddenly might realize I don’t even agree with my damn self! What did that do to how I even existed or moved through the world and in front of everybody? And you know what I mean?

If we can’t actually interrogate whatever it means for us to bring and show up lovingly there. And I just mean it like whatever, when you go outside, be nice to each other, but don’t bring me involved in it. But right here, what this is, and ideally outside, because I’m going to make you all work with each other the whole time, you have to learn how to be uncomfortable… And be like, “Yay.”

Chiyuma Elliott: So, I’m getting a question in the chat, because some folks are having difficulty with the Q and A, if that’s you go ahead and post in the chat, I’m going to toggle to look at both of these. So, here’s the question I hear across today’s readings today, a confrontation with state violence in the most intimate and public of spaces. How does your work and the work of June Jordan speak to the contemporary conversation on abolition?

Samiya Bashir: Well, I’ll say that’s a big question because I think, I mean before I begin my work, I can even imagine June’s work without abolition. I think there’s something that’s not even about a given, but an insistence so much. Solmaz, does that make… Do you feel…?

Solmaz Sharif: Yeah… I return to that, the poem about police violence often and I think about it often and the kind of obvious connection between that poem and my work is the moment where she’s questioning the language of the powerful, but the other thing is this feeling I have of like, I can’t believe she just said that, I mean how dangerous is it to actually say that? And what is that courage, and who’s saying that right now? So, in the insistence right there, too.

Samiya Bashir: To say the thing.

Solmaz Sharif: What’s that?

Samiya Bashir: To say the thing and name it again and again.

Solmaz Sharif: Again and again, repeatedly. And then within it, too, have flights of felicity and let the music come in and enjoy yourself, too. So it’s not just argument, argument, argument. It’s like these things, so long as structurally, they cannot be kind of disentangled, so long as a poem about my rights must be written, there’s no way to just move through my day. I will move with pleasure, with central pleasure and pleasure and language within it also and I think that is the other part of her work, and assist upon that. And space it, how much is she cracking open for all of us? There was an earlier question about protection or how to protect ourselves. I don’t know how to answer that question, to be honest. Samiya, I don’t know if you have senses around this, but I don’t know that protection’s definitely not a solitary act I’d say, I don’t think.

Samiya Bashir: That part. And I think there’s something about protection that I think one can assume, but also never assume. If you’re going to do the thing, you kind of have to do the thing even if something’s horrible or not. But if you’re aiming for protection from a super unprotective space, then you’re just really kind of just going to be sitting around for a long time. And sometimes you’re the one that’s creating the protection.

Chiyuma Elliott: I love this because I feel like we’re in a workshop. We’re doing live exactly what you’re saying is the important thing to do. It’s like, what do we mean by that word? Let’s see if we agree with ourselves, let’s talk through this. In that spirit, in the Q and A, from June’s former partner, Adrienne Torf, who it is an honor to have you here, she asks, “Did June ask for vulnerability or did she ask for honesty?”

Samiya Bashir: Honesty.

Solmaz Sharif: Yeah.

Samiya Bashir: That was a quick answer. There is a difference.

Chiyuma Elliott: Well, I want to pivot a little bit to thinking about school, again, thinking about these pedagogical spaces, these place where we’re being vulnerable or we’re being honest or we’re being both or we’re thinking about risk, we’re thinking about how to encourage other writers, how to be truthful, all of these things.

And I’m thinking about June Jordan’s own memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, an amazing, amazing book. In it she described school as a place where she was rewarded for copying and for memorizing things without understanding them, including poems. So, here’s the question for both of you: How did your own childhood experiences, your childhood learning experiences, shape the way that you experienced the P4P workshop, or poetry learning in general?

Solmaz Sharif: I have long pauses between questions, but I think that there is… I might regret this answer, that’s okay. There’s a sense I had in childhood, and this has to do with being Iranian and moving around constantly and being an only child, which is one resonance I had with June in her memoir and of not being spoken to and not being taken seriously either. The things I would say just kind of dissipated, and so I stopped saying much. But it’s out of that kind of, and I found that I had to kind of turn my pitch further away from where I was, and further down the line, so to speak, and I have all kinds of structural explanations for this.

What else would happen if you’re the only Iranian kid in a white school in Birmingham, Alabama? For example, you know what else would happen. All these ways, I can kind of understand this. And yet it’s the pressure of that speech and the kind of wonder behind it that I found also really alive in June’s work, to be honest. And those moments of kind of felicity or flight in between the argument, too, I’d say, come from a similar space maybe.

Chiyuma Elliott: How about you, Samiya?

Samiya Bashir: There’s so many interval answers there. So, my mother was a teacher and loved language and so I’m very fortunate that I had access to poetry from the beginning and language. So being with my mother with her Detroit sound and that family and my father, the Somalis, it’s just I just feel like they’ve batted around six languages with their heads, like a football, and it was just like being in the back and forth of these spaces, all of which were always laced with poetry. And honestly, I feel like by the time I get to high school, high school tried to kill… It’s one of those things that whenyou think about the pedagogy that I took and take with me is that the real aggravation I have toward the way we teach poetry as like this puzzle you have to solve or this thing that’s really hard and you’ll never get it, but you can try to get it and you’ll get a good grade.

It’s like, that’s not what this is at all, that’s not how any of this works. It’s a deadening that I think June when I even heard, broke a lot for me somebody who’s also grew a very kind of come from space of performance. And at the time that’s what I was doing, and the way she brought the language back alive in a way that it had been cut from poetry, I was writing other things. Just the sound of that and how much it means I really have to break all that stuff away from teaching. Because I know my students come, it’s just like the five paragraph essay, but it’s like the poem version, you now? No, wait, wait, wait, wait, what did you just feel like? Where’s the beat?

Chiyuma Elliott: Alright. We have time for one final question. So here’s what I want to ask y’all. So, Maya Angelo, a contemporary of June Jordan’s famously wrote that quote, “People will forget what you said and they will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel.” How did June Jordan or her work make you feel and what’s something that you want the rest of us to remember about her?

Samiya Bashir: Alive. I mean, a lot, like the screeching alive. The thing I always insist upon in terms of what to remember about June is that her laughter, she had the most infectious giggles that you would ever in your whole life hear. And then you’re cracking up and then it’s about the silliest things. And it’s just like she could crash. And she was really, you could fight and make up, and you could agree and disagree and then she would talk about the randomest things and you’d be like, “Really, June Jordan?” But really the humor, her laugh was everything. and well, but I ask everyone to take that insistence upon joy.

Solmaz Sharif: Alive was the first word that came to mind for me, too. But also this sense, I hear the quote and hearing it kind of through her I think people will remember what you say though. So I don’t know, there’s this kind of drawing the important and necessary distinction between vulnerability and honesty in the chat. So this constant active questioning and wrestling with what is actually being said. And are we sure it’s right, are we sure it’s true, before we proceed? And can we get people to remember what we say?

Chiyuma Elliott: I love that as the work. What a beautiful place to close out this incredible reading and conversation. Thank you again to our panelists, Samiya Bashir, Solmaz Sharif, just a blessing, you two are amazing. Thanks to our student organizers, Rachel Anspach and Keanna, who run things behind the scenes at the Abolition Democracy Initiative. The ADI funds this reading series with the help of generous grants from the executive vice chancellor and provost and the chancellor’s office here at UC Berkeley. So thank you, chancellor, executive vice chancellor, university of bigwigs, for funding this program.

Thank you, audience members, for being in community with us today. Please come back next Monday even, March 7th at noon, we’ve got a second online Critical Conversations panel titled “Black Writers and the Bay,” featuring Tongo Eisen-Martin and Tanea Lunsford Lynx. You’ll find details about that and about our future events on the African American studies website, african.berkeley.edu. Folks, thanks for joining us.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks , a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you listen. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.