The Value of a Literature Course

At Chronicle Vitae, Rob Jenkins has written about the ways he tries to sell students on taking literature courses. I quibble with the idea of literature as “a record” of what people thought: while the ideals, lifestyles, and assumptions of a time can be read into and with a work of literature, the connection is not straightforward enough to call a literary text a record of historical thought. It is within this quibble that much of the value of a literature course can be found for those students who may never pursue literary studies again: these courses help students develop their abilities to understand how a story or other expression is designed to act upon them, to understand what is shown, what is hidden, and what lies somewhere in between.

I am not talking only about a hermeneutics of suspicion: I am talking, too, about how we understand the relationship between teller and told, between creator and society. Practicing thinking about these questions will allow students to make better future judgments not only about texts that already exist but also about those that we cannot yet anticipate. How do we think about a politician’s narrative or about a rambling monologue from a guy at the pub? How do we think about the uses of poetry by the State?

For my students in the Marshall Islands, the role of literature in cultural survival is also urgent. It may not seem to be so important for the vast majority of American college students. However, when we consider the survival of marginalized subcultures, the importance becomes greater. There is also the question of how the perspective of the strange or marginalized individual on society survives, which I think is how I got started with poetry and other forms in the first place. (The line between literary studies and creative writing has never been especially bright or wide for me.)

Sometimes it seems frustratingly utilitarian to have to justify the value of literature courses, but as long as we refuse to reduce it to “employable skills,” we are doing both ourselves and our students a service. Remembering why we do what we do can only make use more careful thinkers and writers.


Poem: Neutral Buoyancy

an orange kitten with a copy of Hawai'i Review: Occupying Va

Shem approves of this publication.

At fifteen, I started taking courses at the local community college full-time through Running Start—Washington state’s dual enrollment program. Except for my penultimate quarter, when only a 6:30 am Composition II had space, I would usually arrive on campus hours early because I would come straight after swim team practice or else get a ride with my dad who would catch his bus into the city from the park and ride next door. I spent those mornings in the library, building my first website on GeoCities and reading through the back issues of literary journals. I can still smell their cardboard file boxes.

One of these journals was Hawai’i Review, so it is a special joy to see my poem “Neutral Buoyancy” appear in HR’s 85th issue, Occupying Va: The Betweenness. The poem is also the first in a sequence of SCUBA-related poems that I am currently working on.


2016 in Review

The last half of 2016 almost seems like a different year from the first. It is that the resurgence of rightwing populism was sudden but that the power it has amassed became suddenly undeniable. The danger no longer looms: it is fully present.

Resistance, however, should not be purely utilitarian until it has to be. If we begin to shape all our actions with the question of how it responds to monsters, then we allow monsters to limit who we are. Resistance also means continuing to build the culture of art and inquiry we want, without ignoring what goes on outside the areas in which we can build it.

How have I contributed this year?

  • I published my doctoral dissertation as a book.
  • I started moving my literary inquiry beyond that first major project by:
  • My own creative writing has fallen back as a priority. I have been incubating an idea for long fiction and trying to find homes for poetry books that keep coming up as finalists. I need to refocus here. The recent death of David Meltzer is a reminder that poetry always already has a power outside the self that puts it into words.
  • I have taken up the challenge of serving as department chair. For me, it is an opportunity not just to teach but to support the pedagogy of others and to find the millions of systemic ways small and large that an institution can contribute to learning. There are times that point of view feels impossibly optimistic, times when I can barely keep up with the rising waters of assessment and paperwork.

Then again, I can breathe underwater.

When I think about how I will move forward into 2017, the most important thing I did this year, however, is not something I did or gave. This is the year I learned to SCUBA dive, and I’ve managed to gain a fair amount of diverse experiences since being certified. There is something sacred under the surface, about remembering first of all to keep breathing as you pass through the cities of coral, the only cities more readily threatened by climate change than the ones that humans have built by the shore. The project that I will pursue as I return to my poetic work comes out of these experiences—and the first piece is forthcoming in Hawai’i Review.


Why Hamilton Isn’t Just a Distraction

Some have argued that Trump sent Pence to see Hamilton knowing it would provoke a reaction and thus distract the public’s attention from the Trump University settlement. There may be some truth to that, and certainly we should not overlook the historically unprecedented event of a president-elect spending $25 million to make a class-action lawsuit for fraud go away. However, whether planned or not, what happened at Hamilton, also let Trump do something at least equally sinister when he made clear to all who follow or would work with him exactly what he expects art to be.

“Safe and special” are harmless and seemingly positive words, but what do they mean in context? When he speaks of safety, he means a powerful man’s being safe from even the mildest of criticism or from the most reasonable of demands being placed on him. What is special, then, is the clean separation of Trump’s ideal theater from the world, from politics and social issues. No politics, no challenges to one’s ordinary perceptions. Neither Shakespeare nor Artaud would be welcome, though a zombified Shakespeare—an undead artifact representing high culture—might be staged.

Put another way, Trump is trying to delegitimize socially engaged art. Instead of banning it, which could backfire, he is suggesting that those forms of media which serve as nothing more than escapist entertainments are more valid. He is trying to neutralize art before it neutralizes him.

But we won’t let him.

Artist friends, what are you making right now?

A photo posted by Porochista Khakpour (@pchza) on


Why White Women Voted for Trump—And How Literature Can Save Us

All women live with a constant drumbeat of real and threatened violence against us. White women, however, are taught that the worst of that violence comes from men of color and that only the white supremacist patriarchy can save us, even if the men that system places us beneath sometimes hurt us. That hurt is assumed to be lesser, deserved, and legitimate. Rape is the threat of a shadowy figure hiding in the bushes, not the actions of the men we are supposed to marry. Take away the power of the patriarch, and we too will be destroyed.

But literature can show us how that patriarchy in fact destroys us. In Kate Chopin‘s The Awakening, a white woman who tries to escape the restrictions imposed upon her eventually succumbs to social pressure, not by returning to her limited domestic life but by killing herself. The poetry of Adrienne Rich can teach us to see the “Galaxies of women, there / doing penance for impetuousness“. She shows us, too, that by “Diving into the Wreck“, by leaving behind “the book of myths” we can find something new, something unexplored. We can survive and make of our survival a quest.

They led a writing workshop together in Austin...

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, and Adrienne Rich (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

And when white women come to see through the myths that tell us we can only be safe in white supremacist patriarchy, we can read the work of women of color in a spirit of solidarity. When we read June Jordan, we can follow how she has been damaged by the same system that has damaged us, even as it also elevates us above her. Her “Poem about My Rights” reads, in part:

I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and
whether it’s about walking out at night
or whether it’s about the love that I feel or
whether it’s about the sanctity of my vagina or
the sanctity of my national boundaries
or the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctity
of each and every desire
that I know from my personal and idiosyncratic
and indisputably single and singular heart
I have been raped

As long as white women remain supportive of the white supremacist patriarchy, the sanctity of our leaders will not be violated, even if parts of ourselves are.

It might be objected that not all literature opposes or deconstructs the white supremacist patriarchy, but that is where literary criticism comes in, whether formal, casual, academic, or public. This is why literature as a discipline matters: because we teach students to examine the narratives they read instead of consuming them passively. We can read Gone with the Wind for how it promotes false narratives about race and gender in the American South around the time of the Civil War. When we regard stories critically, we are analyzing what narratives and ideals are being expressed and evaluating whether to accept or reject them.

Literature, especially when studied carefully, helps us to understand the narratives that shape us. When those narratives become visible, their validity can be assessed. We can also better understand how those narratives shape both ourselves and those around us. This is something sharper than what is commonly called empathy, though some might argue it gets closer to the real meaning of the word.

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