Poet’s Platform: Janet E. Aalfs
This recurring column highlights the work and lives of our poets beyond their Perugia Press books, whether it be teaching or other creative professional pursuits, visual artistry, community involvements, activism, their reading suggestions, and/or their current writing projects, processes, and proclivities. The third installment comes from Janet E. Aalfs (Reach, 1999), who writes in memory of June Jordan and “the intergenerational work of being in service to poetry and liberation and positive change” on the twentieth anniversary of Jordan’s death.
CELEBRATING THE WORK OF LOVE
In Memory of June Jordan, July 9, 1936 – June 14, 2002
We need, each of us, to begin the awesome, difficult work of love: loving ourselves so that we become able to love others without fear... striving for a safe, sunny afternoon near to flowering trees and under a very blue sky. - June Jordan
One of my first encounters with June Jordan’s poetry was in No More Masks, an anthology of women’s poems published in the mid-1970’s. I had just entered college and come out as a lesbian. The civil rights, women’s, and LGBTQ movements were cooking deep within and around me. The last ten syllables of Jordan’s “What Would I Do White?” (1967) could not have been more pointed: “I would do nothing./ That would be enough.” With stunning artistry she addressed an ongoing challenge – to face the danger and damage of white supremacy, and to do something about it. Her brave example of the personal as political spurred me on. Hers was one of the powerful voices that I listened to for direction at that pivotal time in my life. Her fiercely compassionate language touched me to the core.
Twenty years since her death, Jordan’s work continues to offer ways in which a poem can inspire us to travel more deeply within ourselves and the world. Drawn both to and from the roots by her unflinching language that moves, we are more likely to expect, and to work for, fertile ground in which the poisonous seeds of racism and other forms of violence cannot grow. Dedicated to constructing and traversing bridges from self to community and back to self in ever-widening spirals, a poem can offer insights that cross even the most daunting barriers. As a teacher and performer of poetry and movement arts, a combination that I call Poemotion©, I keep noticing how creative engagement of all kinds truly transforms the world in ways that benefit all.
The program June Jordan founded in 1991, Poetry for the People (P4P), offers blossoms and skies of every kind. Light through shadows woven we meet, strangers becoming known. During workshops at Split This Rock 2012 in Washington, DC, I listened as presenters spoke about the many ways that working with Jordan had transformed their lives. I recognized their deep sentiment and sense of connection. “Poem About My Rights” appeared in 1980, the year I was awarded a black belt in Shuri-ryu Okinawan karate (kara: open; te: hand), a poetic gestural language designed to communicate between the human and spirit realms. Jordan’s lines ring as clear and true today as they did then: “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name/ My name is my own my own my own…” In the pulse of powerful language of all forms, their visceral shapes and rhythms, we have the ongoing possibilities of re/claiming our bodies, emboldening our voices, and finding assurance that the truth is worth everything we have to give.
Compassion, fearlessness, interconnectedness – some of the many ingredients of peace. A radiant poem lingers on the tongue and in the heart. The savoring of its gifts promotes peace. Like the scent of wild grapes that leads to the hidden vine, it can give me back something I didn’t even know I was missing. The tenacious roots and stems of P4P continue to spread. In the collaborative spirit of community programs around the globe, I have the good fortune to learn every day from people of all ages, backgrounds, and perspectives about the specificity and universality of human language. One of the many programs that I have enjoyed facilitating was for a group of teen girls in Holyoke, MA. Through activities that included free writing and self/collective protection skills, they composed and performed poems that addressed social justice issues of all kinds both witnessed and experienced – teen pregnancy, school drop-out, racism, homophobia, misogyny, broken families, poverty, sexual abuse… Using words and interpretive movement as tools of resistance and advocacy, they learned that a poem can become the catalyst for taking the next positive risk. Their performances expressed hope, rage, openheartedness, and knowledge of the world – “Mi lengua, es lo que yo digo/ Mi sueños, son realidad/ Rota, pero completa…My language, is what I say/ My dreams, are reality/ Broken, yet whole…”
Performing arts teaching exchanges between U.S.A./South Africa in 2008/2009 and 2018 have been life-changing for me. One of my Cape Town teaching partners who became a dear friend, Malika Ndlovu, continues to share her shining spirit through arts activism. She writes, “We are light beings/ some slumbering some awakening/ to the truth of who we are, / indestructible stars/ housed only for a while/ in these temples of flesh…” Toni Stuart, another Cape Town friend and poet activist, has expressed the sense of vastness, inclusion, and compassion this way: “Every voice has a tune. Every heart has a beat. And the world is large enough to hold all of us side by side drumming in unison and in cacophony… But what happens in the silence… do we like what rings out…or do we run away from it?” Speaking, writing, welcoming, returning – a truth-filled poem opens over and over into the next question. Skillful questions help us face and move through fear into greater courage. A group poem composed by Cape Town’s Hout Bay high school students during the three-week workshop Toni Stuart and I co-facilitated included: “Art is all about the way we live, the way we see things./ We should believe in ourselves,/ don’t listen to the negative things people say about us./ We would read our poetry and sing/ and everyone would just burst into tears/ and we would comfort each other./ This time my dream of being an artist/ seems like it’s already come true.” Young people all over the world need and want to feel regarded. They are averse to hypocrisy and have an innate ability to notice whether or not the words and actions of adults express integrity. June Jordan’s contributions affirm that the intergenerational work of being in service to poetry and liberation and positive change is holistic.
In 1986, I attended a summer workshop that June Jordan led at Cummington Community of the Arts in Western Massachusetts. Her methods were full of questions – relevant, wise, engaged – and her responses were not designed to fix anything, but rather to construct a place of momentum for the next crucial step. From her I learned more ways to weave seemingly disparate elements – paradox – and to hold these elements in both hands without splitting. In the words of Adrienne Rich, “…such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence/ with such restraint, with such a grasp/ of the range and limits of violence/ that violence ever after would be obsolete.” As our work of human kindness both gentle and fierce proceeded, I soaked in Jordan’s offerings of generous determination and delicious music. The way she shared her own freshly written poem after a writing exercise was evidence of her humble trust. Though her tone did not ring Star! – her expert guidance shone steadily throughout the inherently risk-filled process. The seeds of transformation that she handed around the circle and helped us to sow are infinitely fruitful.
Poetry, on the page and in motion, can be a vehicle for moving through the pain of abuse and violence to greater ease, confidence, and overall health – at any age. Writing, reading, speaking, feeling, dancing, swimming, laughing, weeping – growing poems takes neither wealth nor status nor special tools to accomplish. We can become tigers in a single moment with our hands and our eyes. Spontaneous. Bodies striped in fire, hearts connected, a common language erupting naturally among us. Anything can involve a sense of play when it is approached with acceptance in the moment, and when we take what we’re doing seriously and ourselves lightly. Humor. Creativity grows not so much through teaching but by being given space and recognition. Just like you can’t pull on the stem of a flower to make it grow, or peel open the petals of a bud to make it blossom, you can’t force anyone’s hand, heart, and mind to thrive in the shape of a box or a desk.
As we enjoy making art together, we become known to each other, and more truthfully revealed to ourselves. June Jordan’s legacy has given us activist methods that make learning and sharing the power of poetry more possible. Her dedication, brilliance, generosity, and everyday courage continue to inspire people of all ages and from all walks of life to inhabit their natural artistic and leadership capabilities. “The art of telling the truth,” Jordan said, “is a necessary and healthy way to create powerful and positive connections among people who, otherwise, remain (unknown and unaware) strangers.” In the collaborative work of creating sites for revelation, especially where it may have once felt impossible, the next taste of meaning appears. Like how a single grain of salt on the tongue can be detected when you pick it up and place it there and take the time to notice. That’s what violence can destroy in us. That’s what a poem can restore.
Janet E. Aalfs, former poet laureate of Northampton, MA and 7th degree black belt, is the founder and director of Lotus Peace Arts at Heron’s Bridge/VWMA. She offers Poemotion© programs that weave poetry, interpretive dance, martial arts, self/collective protection strategies & healing movement. An integrative arts community educator and activist, she has shared her work locally, nationally & internationally for more than 40 years. Some venues at which Aalfs has performed include the Dodge Poetry Festival, Split This Rock, Power of Words, Po’Jazz/ Hudson Valley, AWP, Mass Poetry Festival & Guga S’Thebe Cultural Centre, Cape Town, South Africa. Her new collection of poems is What the Dead Want Me to Know (Human Error Publishing). Other books include Bird of a Thousand Eyes (Levellers Press); Reach (Perugia Press); Full Open (Orogeny Press); Of Angels and Survivors (Two Herons Press); and Lubec Tides, a finalist in the Bright Hill Chapbook Contest. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies, journals & online sites. She won first prize in poetry contests of The Boston Herald & Peregrine Journal & has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.