Features

A Republic of Letters: Promoting social change through poetry

March 6, 2014


Christina Libre and Noah Buyon

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. ….

The parrot / said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. 

 

From “The Colonel,” by Carolyn Forché

 

——–

 

At the end of a long hallway with a low-hanging ceiling in the English Department, the Lannan Center office has little visibility in the larger Georgetown community. Even though several award-winning authors are part of the center, including Director Carolyn Forché, recipient of a the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and, most recently, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the program has been struggling to find its place within Georgetown’s policy-centric atmosphere geared toward immediate action and tangible results. Carolyn Forché is the director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown, a center dealing with the role of poetry, art, and literature in the contemporary world.

In 1981, Forché published her second book of poetry, which addressed her experiences in El Salvador leading up to the civil war. In The Country Between Us, Forché’s poetry calls the American public’s attention to the situation in El Salvador. Forché has dealt with conflict for her entire career, which has included four books of poetry, another fourteen that she edited, authored, or translated, and social advocacy work around the world.  “The controversy of poetry and politics erupted. … Conflict has been with us since the beginning of literature,” Forché said.

 

——–

 

Mother – when you go

to the store, if you

would, buy me

 

those little chocolate squares,

silver-foil wrapped, the ones

I can’t find

 

anywhere. The ones

I still taste on my

tongue, a taste that

 

lingers, a taste like

nothing else.

Mother – when you go

 

“Lingers” by Alex Myers (GRAD ‘16)

 

——–

 

J. Patrick Lannan Jr. (CAS ‘60) is the president of the Lannan foundation, which was founded by his father in 1960. According to the Lannan family foundation, it is “dedicated to cultural freedom, diversity, and creativity through projects which support exceptional contemporary artists and writers, as well as inspired Native activists in rural indigenous communities.”

Lannan first returned to Georgetown to create a branch of his family foundation in the early 1990’s, establishing the Lannan Poetry Series. Lannan has continued to fund a variety of initiatives on campus, including the annual Lannan Symposium, Graduate Fellowship, and the Visiting Writer-in-Residence and Distinguished Reader series.

In 2004, Lannan brought the disparate campus-wide initiatives together by funding the creation of the official Georgetown Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. The Lannan Center’s first director was English Professor Mark Morris.

“There was a grant, and it was modest at first, but it grew over the years,” Forché said. “It has has been more generous every year for a good while. We’ve had extraordinary support from the Dean, Chester Gillies, from the provost, Robert Groves, and from the President, John DeGioia.”

With a $3 million endowment in 2007, the Lannan Foundation Chair of Poetics was added to the English Department. This position is a revolving appointment held for as much as three years by an international writer. The first Lannan Chair was Professor Ammiel Alcalay, a poet and prolific translator of Spanish, Arabic, Bosnian, and Hebrew. Dinaw Mengetsu (CAS ‘00) is the current Chair of the foundation. Mengetsu published his first novel in 2007 and was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2012.

 

——–

 

It all started when

the blood orange sun

cracked

and ran down, tumbling, into the valley

When the floodlight caught us

When the parents snored

When for hours we debated

good bands with bad names

It always starts again 

when the place we meet

is the same as the place we met before

and we talk in a script

only our eyes can read

 

From “How Things Run Out,” by Anonymous

 

——–

 

In spite of the participation of many renowned authors in the Lannan Center’s activities, it remains relatively unnoticed by the Georgetown community. In 2010, the Center found a home in the remodeled New North 408. It was opened with a reading by Fanny Howe, who, at the time, was the Lannan Chair of Poetry.

Students from any undergraduate or graduate program are able to take part in the seminar. Forché encourages this diversity of students herself—she studied international relations in college even though she knew her vocation was poetry. Forché noted that there are obvious intersections in the work done by the Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Lannan Center, but a lack of exposure makes it hard to reach those students.

Yet even without campus-wide popularity, the center’s profile is growing. “We’ve grown tremendously in terms of our participation and interest,” Forché said. “The seminar now in the spring is full. There are more applicants than I can accommodate.” The class is currently made up of 21 students.

Lannan Foundation Chair of Poetics Dinaw Mengestu (COL ‘00)  has also noticed the increased interest in the program but acknowledges that lack of resources might limit the number of students the program is able to accept.

“I think the problem is how much the physical space [the center] has on campus. But there is something to be said about the psychological space,” Mengestu said. “The ultimate goal is to start a conversation within other schools [and not just within the English department]. … There are conversations in the Lannan Center that aren’t happening anywhere else, but I think they are starting to be heard elsewhere.”

 

——–

 

Why I write? I write because you told me to

Because you encountered history and literature but never met a pen or page.

You were right.

Right hands lernt motions of creativity

creating a script that spelt first person accounts of the most complex memoirs

memories of every character leaving inkprints

imprints on the soul.

So boldly marked in ageless pages, it’s as though you wrote and marked infinity with some poetic prose

But you did not write

because your hands that raised nations never did learn to caress a borrowed pen

 

From “Paperless Poetry,” by Vivian Ojo (SFS ‘14)

 

——–

 

The center puts on three kinds of events open to the public: poetry readings and talks, the annual symposium, and a special series called “Matters of Urgency.”

“Matters of Urgency” brings dynamic figures to campus. Last fall, Jake Conroy and Will Potter spoke in New North. The two are better known for their characterization as “eco-terrorists,” a term usually used to refer to radical environmentalists who use violence in the name of their cause. Through a conversation about their book Green is the New Black, the two discussed the semantics of terms like “eco-terrorism,” noting the dangers of such propagandized language.

In addition, the Lannan Center partnered with the Georgetown Solidarity Committee and the GU College Democrats in 2011 to present an event entitled “I am Troy Davis: The Execution of Troy Davis and the Death Penalty.”

“[The] audience was people of the District [of Columbia], exonerated inmates, Georgetown students, Amnesty International, and people who were interested in the death penalty issue … people who later became active in the death penalty abolition in Maryland, and they were successful. That night was electric in Copley,” Forché said.

In 2008, Professor McMorris planned “Let Freedom Ring: Art and Democracy in the King Years, 1954-1968.” The Lannan Symposium brought together civil rights leaders who had not seen each other in years.

This year’s symposium has another compelling lineup. Entitled “Living in a Precarious World: Art, Labor, and the New Economic Precarity,” the 2014 symposium hopes to answer the questions of what it means to be an artist in the new “precariat,” a social state of instability. The webpage describes the event as also seeking to ask, “How do [artists] challenge the rise of precarity, and what, if anything, does it offer as the basis for resistance?”

The symposium will be led by four English professors and one professor from the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Among the topics to be discussed are the penal system, the living wage, and how all this fits into the scope of D.C.

——–

 

He was addicted to those things we are all addicted to:

The sibilant near-silence of walking on snow at 3am to visit your mistress.

The elusive inevitability of orgasm and, afterwards, soundless technicolor of contentment, and smiling

like a saint seeing God.

 

A pouting, frightened face on billboards,

he seemed to regret having left the womb.

Under the unwavering gaze of his unapplauding 

wife who took the kids,

he groaned all the way to the dealer.

 

From “Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Dead” by Michael Mungiello (COL ‘16)

 

——–

 

Inside the classroom, and within those already involved in the program, the Lannan Center’s mission is thriving.

“Our formula is to get people in, have a meal, talk to each other, hear other peoples’ experience, it’s just to get people to listen to poetry, which I think has just been lost in the last forty years of english learning,” Jessica Williams, the center’s executive assistant, said.

Alex Myers (GRAD ‘16) is the first year Lannan graduate associate. To him, poetry, together with music, has long been used “as a means of communicating values and unifying a cause. “Poetry can be very much a social expression in addition to being an art form,” he said.

Revolutionary, Myers’s first novel, was published in January to many positive reviews, including one from the New York Times. Myers, who has taught high school English and holds an M.A. in theology and an M.F.A. in fiction writing, is also a student in the Lannan seminar.

“In the past, I’d been wary of what struck me as certain vagueness about the study of poetry and somehow the Lannan program made it seem concrete and approachable,” Myers said.

The class put together by the program is a poetry workshop that hosts distinguished poets and fiction writers once a month, in the last year alone including Ben Marcus, Tope Folarin, Mark Doty, Marie Howe, and others.

“The true worth in the Lannan Center is in its openness to introduce writers to the Georgetown community. Attending last year’s symposium was one of the highlights of my illustrious … Georgetown career,” said Mack Basham (COL ‘14), who is taking the Lannan seminar.

Others share Basham’s appreciation for the course. “The work I’ve done in the seminar and the readings [and] comments from visiting poets and writers has made me much more aware of how language can be used. I don’t think it has affected my subject matter as much as the way that I think about words and syntax,” Myers said.

Myers sees the center taking him even further in his writing career. “I think the work at the Lannan Center makes me confident that I could teach poetry writing as well.”

Katherine Mitchell (COL ‘15) felt a significant change in her thoughts about writing after taking the course. [Disclosure: Mitchell is a former Voice contributor.] “At Georgetown, [writing is] something that’s kind of hard to justify: wanting to write or anything that doesn’t feel immediately involved in the rest of the world or something like that. But it is. And that’s part of what the Lannan Center does—is say that writing is inescapably involved in the community that you’re involved in and the rest of the world. You can’t get that out of your language.” Her experience as a Lannan Fellow led to her transfer from the School of Foreign Service to the College to major in English and Philosophy.

——–

 

We walk home across

rocks in an aperture of time

 

Out there, in the black

trees, feral hearts beat staccato,

the same way starts blink,

regardless, seen or unseen

 

A depth to this wild,

an ocean unmapped,

woods this size could hide

whales. Baleen ferns

whisper, soft-mouthed, 

against our skin.

 

From “Sierra Nevada” by Sophia Stid (COL ‘15)

 

——–

 

So far, the Lannan Center has brought over 300 speakers to Georgetown’s campus. As the visibility grows, so does the conversation. To some members of the Lannan community, Georgetown’s Jesuit identity play an integral part of the Center’s relevance on campus.

“Because of cura personalis, because of the Jesuit Mission: there is a space here for work in social justice, for the development of critical analysis, and for the development of conscience,” Forché said. “It just seemed I came to a place where everything could be possible.”

“The Lannan Center is helping students to deepen their understanding of the role of culture as they go forward. I’m still in touch with Lannan Fellows from previous years. One went on to found a library in South Sudan in a refugee camps. Others have gone to Teach for America. There’s a whole book to be written about what the Fellows have gone on to do,” Forche said.

Sophia Stid (COL ‘15), a Lannan Fellow, is grateful for how the center has helped her develop as a writer and find herself as part of a community passionate about the intersection of literature and social justice. “It’s very encouraging to see how Professor Forché has supported the poets who come and read with us, and how it seems like they all inspire and help one another. … It makes the writer’s life seem less lonely.”

 

——–

 

There is no other way to say this. He took one 

of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As 

for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground. 

 

“The Colonel,” The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forché, May 1978


Dayana Morales Gomez
Dayana Morales Gomez is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. She graduated from the School of Foreign Service.


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    THIS IS THE BEST FEATURE I HAVE READ IN YEARS.

    -A pharmacist


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