A means of survival: English professors share thoughts on poetry during KSUnite

Lisa Tatonetti, professor of English, speaks about queer indigenous poetry in a breakout session at the third annual KSUnite Nov. 6th 2019 (Dalton Wainscott I Collegian Media Group)

When associate professor of English Katherine Karlin began to hand out copies of a poem “I, Too” by Langston Hughes, she realized she barely had enough. There were more than a handful of people crowding in the small, dimly lit room sitting in the corner of the union.

Karlin laughed off the shortage and began her portion of the session, reflecting on a few writers such as Langston Hughes. But she began by speaking about Ernest J. Gaines, who had passed on Nov. 5. She spoke of his childhood — how he grew up in Louisiana and listened to the stories around him, sitting beneath his kitchen table. Eventually, Karlin said, Gaines decided he couldn’t write honestly until he wrote about these stories; he ended up returning to Louisiana as an adult in order to do just that.

“I think that that was his form of activism, to be a conduit for those authentic voices he used to hear growing up and turn it into poetry that appeals to millions of people,” Karlin said.

Gaines was just one of the many writers that was mentioned in the KSUnite breakout session titled “Poetry is Not a Luxury: Authors as Activists, Writing as Resistance.”

Maya Angelou, famed African American writer, was discussed when Tosha Sampson-Choma, professor in American Ethnic Studies, spoke about African American writers and their work. She provided copies of poems for the audience to follow along with. One of the Angelou poems she handed out was titled “Human Family.” Sampson-Choma said Angelou advocated for connection among all people in her poem.

“While she very much promoted having self love and embracing one’s identity in her work, she likewise advocates for this idea of human family, and what that means and how we’re interrelated and interconnected,” Sampson-Choma said. “And so, in spite of our differences, the joy is in celebrating who we are and coming together, and I thought this was just such a perfect example for a day like today when we’re celebrating K-State and all of all of its diversity.”

Tanya González, professor of English and faculty senate president, focused on Latinx poetry and writing. She spoke about writers José Felipe Alvergue and Javier Zamora as well as Roque Dalton. González read a few poems that reflected crossing the border between Mexico and the United States.

“The authors that I’m looking at what [have taken] this violence and this death on the border, and they’ve thought about it as elegy — as a lament but also as a consolation,” González said. “And I would argue that it’s a consolation, not just for the author and the writer, but for an entire community of immigrants who experience this violence in these crossings.”

González said poetry can be likened to a window for individuals to connect with experiences that they could not imagine.

“Poetry can be that mechanism to get us to think outside, and that is certainly in this era of activism, to be able to read these poems out loud, to share them with each other, to have poetry readings can be an activist move,” González said.

Lisa Tatonetti, professor in English, talked about the importance of queer Indigenous poetry. Because of an unplanned time crunch during the sessions, she spoke fast, but passionately.

“And so, I want to take us back to that idea of ‘poetry is not a luxury’ — poetry is not a luxury, it is in fact, I would argue, a means of survival.” Tatonetti said.

Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat. I'm the managing editor of the Collegian. In the past, I've served as an editor on the news and culture desks and worked closely with the multimedia staff. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.