Stanley Kunitz once implored all of us to become the person who writes the poem.
Every day, I am humbled and delighted by the community of writers, students and faculty, with whom I work at the Antioch University Los Angeles low-residency MFA program. My colleagues and students take risks on the page, write hard, read seriously, live lives of meaning, and are wickedly talented. But what wows me again and again is this community's vulnerability, expansiveness, and humility. This puts very big, wide margins around the possibilities for words. Margins so big that everyone has room to risk and learn. And dream.
When I was a young poet returning to Los Angeles, recently divorced, newly "out", child in tow, with a satisfying dot-com editorial job, low-wage but creative, and without many local literary connections, Eloise Klein Healy came into my life as a gentle can-do dynamo. I'd meet her at readings, and through mutual friends; and eventually, we began a conversation about poetry. I became aware that she had created and was directing the Low-Residency MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, the first low-residency program on the West Coast.
Fast forward seven-tenths of a decade to 2006. Around the time I began teaching at Antioch University Los Angeles, I asked Eloise about our program's special focus on literature and the pursuit of social justice.
Eloise's concept included experiential learning through the Antioch Field Study. Go somewhere you wouldn't have gone, except that you're a writer. Bring your ability to wordsmith into service to something. The idea is "to feel your way into real human experience". In my six years at Antioch, I've watched a community of elderly jazz musicians revitalize their careers through materials an AULA student created for them, I've seen the stories of Appalachia collected into a cookbook, numerous literary series and journals began, and continue, and a woman took the risk to try new art forms at her local senior center.
The first workshop I ever taught at AULA, as we sat in that small classroom, one student had fresh galleys in her bookbag, that she never took out, another had taught full-time at an arts institution for longer than I'd been breathing, and a third had won a serious national poetry award before beginning at Antioch. But everyone around the table was too focused on language to let a single flaming moment of ego show through. There was an incoming student in the group as well, who had never published--I mean not even a single poem in a single journal, and we all fell in love with a draft he was working on from a class freewriting assignment. Each day, one of the students had a new suggestion about how he might work on it, where he might send it. The poem had been completed and accepted by a journal before the workshop had finished. We encouraged one another. We questioned one another. Twice I sat down to let someone else stand up and walk the board and do the talking. I was young enough still to be embarrassed by that. I should have been even humbler, but I was too desperate to prove I had a right to be there too, that I belonged.
My colleagues and students are so good at what they do. Good in raw ways. Good in polished ways. Good at heart. I wake up in the morning, thanking my good luck, wishing I could be more like the people I teach and teach with and know.
Stanley Kunitz once implored all of us to become the person who writes the poem. I know no better description of how AULA's special focus on community engagement, social justice and the education of literary artists functions. We get out a bit. We are a community--good to ourselves, and to one another.
And in response, the poems themselves change. Not through dogma. Through experience.
I am just a lucky so-and-so!
* "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity" is a famous quote by Antioch University founder and educational reformer, Horace Mann.