For our Education Week series, Atom Evie Atkinson interrogates her teaching experiences and how she learned to write past queer melancholy in the classroom.
The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be
Mullen goes on to detail how her divestment from a consistent poetic voice across books—or even across pages—as well as her preoccupation with word games, are conscious efforts to write toward the readers she can only imagine. In the case of word games, rather than guiding a reader to the satisfaction of a “solution,” she is drawn to “the possibility of scrambled words and syntax, of secret or alternate meanings.” Different readers, she points out, will find different meanings in her work. And if every reader is invited into the poem’s game as they like, could any of them feel like the “excluded” reader?
Like many queer teachers, I was a teacher and a queer person before I could ever be a queer teacher.
When I read this passage from Mullen, it helped me see that I could do something with my alertness to the problems of the role model: I could teach more like the way Mullen wrote, with unimagined readers in mind, only now it would be in service of the unimagined queer futures of my students. When she wanted to keep in mind something she literally couldn’t keep in her mind, Mullen became a tinkerer, a craftsperson of strange poetic and critical machines that produce unexpected outcomes, that train the mind against the norm so something more like a divergent truth can be envisioned.
I am still tinkering my way toward success as this kind of teacher, but at the time one of the very next exercises I planned was the “poetry molecule.” We each picked a favorite page from Anne Carson’s Sappho translations in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, selected three to five of our favorite words on the page, and transcribed just those few wordsonto pages in our notebooks—reproducing the arrangement and spacing as proportionately as we could. Then we began adding more language, now our own, around Carson’s/Sappho’s. These additions hung off the original text like barnacles on the hull of a ship, growing until they might collide, read onto each other, create something as far from literal—or figurative—linearity as we’d yet put to page.
For another exercise, in a class that kicked off two months after the 2016 election, I mapped out a process to help my students pivot from the inadequacies of their past intellectual and creative educations and mentorships to something more like a utopian future of their own design. (You can try out my “Speculative Artist’s Statement for Queer Writers” here.) You could say I was training them to do better than I had done, offering more than what I had been taught, and encouraging them to use this exercise repeatedly and for many years down the road. Once I concluded that a good deal of my queer students’ work might deal in imagining more than what I could offer, I started to focus on giving them tools for that work—tools for navigating whatever lack they felt from learning with me.
One day we were reading a passage from Keith Haring’s journals about the burial of his friend and art collector named Yves. Haring painted the coffin with the message “FOREVER + EVER” but, in misjudging the width of his canvas, produced the line breaks “FOR / EVE / R AND / EVER.” Haring wrote with exhilaration and gratitude about how much Yves would have enjoyed the accidental homophone “FOR EVE” on his coffin, and for a moment I think we experienced an appreciation for the material limits of our lifespans and the excitement of what Haring called a “directed accident.” Time and death are pretty darn extreme forms of liberating discipline, propelling meaning in too many directions along too many conduits of space and time to let any of us think we can imagine, let alone model, the futures of our writing students.
When I miss the classroom, as I often have in my subsequent years in arts and education administration, I come back to these strange machines and think of them as my own queer teachers. It was around the time I was first creating them and using them that I started to believe a trans future was available to me, which is maybe a coincidence—but just as likely a bit of scrambled syntax I only needed a little means to decode.