Poetic Justice

May 16, 2018

Poets Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, and June Jordan fought for equity on the page and at CUNY, as revealed by the GC student editors of Lost & Found.

Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, Series VII
 Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, Series VII

The latest series of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative — the award-winning editions of genre-bending work edited by GC doctoral students and published by the Center for the Humanities — includes previously unpublished materials by six 20th-century poets and writers, including several who taught at CUNY: Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and Paul Blackburn.
Among the selected writing in Series VII are Lorde’s teaching materials and an excerpt from her unpublished novel, Deotha; Bambara’s memoirs and pedagogical texts; and Jordan’s essays, speeches, and reports about housing struggles. The series also includes Jack Forbes’ autobiographical poems and efforts toward establishing Native American and Indigenous Studies, and letters exchanged between New York‒based poet and translator Blackburn and the exiled Argentine novelist and translator Julio Cortázar.
“Each series comes together a little bit differently,” says Professor Ammiel Alcalay (GC/Queens, English), who last year won an American Book Award in recognition of his work as the series’ founder and general editor. Yet the process is always collaborative. “The ways we were able to work together says a lot about how we were being taught by the materials we were looking at,” said Iemanjá Brown (English), one of the editors of the Lorde chapbook. “We really wanted the materials to move through us and inform the work, and I think the collaborative spirit among us is testament to how that was able to happen.”
The editors recently spoke about their work on the series and their subjects.

Audre Lorde

Brown, on Audre Lorde
“I was surprised when I found out she taught at John Jay; I can’t stress enough how intense it was to read her work about police violence at the same time as reading about her experiences teaching at a school for police science. She was so brave, and so overworked, and so consistently engaged with her students. I think we can all learn a lot from the stamina that she had: the ways she refused to back down from her beliefs, even when she was in the minority.”

Miriam Atkin, on Lorde
“I hope that chapbook readers will recognize the real sense of urgency in Lorde’s commitment to teaching. It comes through even in her handwriting. It’s not at all about doing her job well, it’s about doing life well. The all-consuming quality of her investment in particular principles —seeing the facts of history for what they truly are, practicing what one preaches, the intelligence of the marginalized — was eye-opening to me. I could see how her intellectual work as manifest in the classroom wasn't a job but a way of being that originated in her private, domestic self and spread to her various identities as teacher, activist, and artist.”

Toni Cade Bambara

Makeba Lavan, on Toni Cade Bambara
Toni Cade Bambara is most known for her fiction but there was a surprising amount of pedagogical materials. I was most surprised by the number of drafts for different syllabi there were. Bambara was very thoughtful about her teaching and she was an educator in every community she inhabited. For her, education went beyond the classroom: she taught in living rooms, community centers, wherever there was a need and desire for information. And that’s very CUNY: teaching as a community endeavor.
Conor Tomás Reed, on Bambara
“Toni Cade Bambara’s expansive visions on how to create black studies as an entryway for transforming the entire university, and her radical mentorship of black and Puerto Rican students at The City College of New York, are rarely celebrated in CUNY historiography or recognized as foundations for her intellectual legacy. Bambara’s generosity in sharing about her compositional practice, and her efforts to nourish multiethnic communities of writers, are also abundant themes in the chapbook. I hope that people will gain inspiration (and strategic guidance) from Bambara’s focus on these tangible transformations — in schools and neighborhoods — alongside her students, campus workers, and community comrades.” 

June Jordan (photo by Sara Miles)

Talia Shalev, on June Jordan:
“Jordan’s archive is vast, and her teaching career spanned several decades. Focusing on her first decade as a teacher gave us an opportunity to highlight her work in the CUNY system and in New York City in general. Choosing archival materials that include addresses to students, fellow educators, and administrators allowed us to share the ways Jordan developed and worked to proliferate what she called ‘life studies,’ a designation encompassing Black Studies, Urban Studies, and Environmental Studies and relating to the learning that makes a self-determined life possible.”
Ammiel Alcalay, on Lost & Found Series VII:
“Part of this series was an outgrowth of an earlier project that featured poet Adrienne Rich’s teaching materials from her years teaching at City College. We’ve always been interested in further exploring the extraordinary legacy of writer/poet/teachers who have spent significant time at CUNY, and this brought together the projects on Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde. In fact, one of the important pieces in the Bambara project was first located in the Adrienne Rich archive, a not unusual happening when doing archival work.”

The editors of the latest Lost & Found series spoke about the issue and their work at a launch event this spring.