A Poet and Political Scientist Balances Her Passions

As an academic, Professor Celina Su (GC/Brooklyn College; Political Science/Urban Studies) focuses on participatory democracy. But she’s also a poet with impressive credentials: Her poem “JFK Airport” appeared in The New York Times Magazine this month, chosen by Rita Dove, former poet laureate of the U.S.

The poem, she says, was inspired by President Trump’s travel ban and anti-immigrant rhetoric. But it also crystallizes Su’s memories of arriving in New York as a preteen immigrant from Brazil. The poem’s words float in white space, like pieces of a puzzle scattered on the page, thrumming with the anxiety we all feel as travelers. But the first-person narrator also evokes the particular unease of immigrants seeking safe passage in a fraught political time.

“I am delayed   I am canceled  I have a license  I have a passport,” read the opening lines. The narrator’s agitation grows as the piece continues: “I have a purpose … please let me through.”

Su says it’s “especially gratifying” to be recognized for her poetry after years of focusing on research in another field. “I didn’t really spend time on my poetry or creative pursuits until after I had tenure,” she said. “I was afraid it would distract me from my quote-unquote real work. It’s a relatively recent development for me to be OK with the fact that it’s all real work.”

Yet her creative writing is “very much influenced” by her research on participatory democracy and political participation. "Poetry helps convey “the details, the contradictions, the stories that haunt me from people I’ve met in my fieldwork that would never fit into typical academic journal articles,” she says.

“JFK Airport” first appeared in a book of Su’s poems called Landia. The title relates to both “literal and figurative borderlands,” like the Thai-Burmese border, where Su has worked with refugees, and the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as to transportation hubs and systems. “I wanted to meditate on these sorts of places in lots of different ways, on how historical, social, and political forces affect us, but also what our individual stories might look like,” she said. “I’ve always had these contradictory feelings about airports as this place of possibility and adventure and also just momentous change.”

In addition to research, teaching, and poetry, Su has a 9-month-old baby, and her website showcases other talents like travel photography and paper crafts. On a recent sabbatical, she made a series of video interviews with residents of Chinatown. It wasn’t “formal research, but just a fun project.” She holds the Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in urban studies and just won a $5,000 award from Brooklyn College for “excellence in creative achievement.”

Any advice for others struggling to focus studies or balance passions? “Academia is such a wonderful excuse to engage with the world in so many different ways,” she said.  But while clarity is essential to academic research, it’s also “important and necessary for our sanity to not lose sight of what compels us to come to academia in the first place.”

Submitted on: MAY 21, 2019

Category: Diversity | Faculty | General GC News | Political Science