As the writer asked to speak at your graduation, I took the assignment very seriously. I analyzed the form of the “graduation address” before I attempted it. I annotated a couple of famous graduation speeches (those of David Foster Wallace, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mindy Kaling, to name a few), and developed a working definition of its structure, rhetorical purpose, etc. I submitted a few drafts to myself, and, as it is with all writing, I will likely never really feel finished.
Class of 2020, I’ll be honest, I had hoped that having 2019 in the can would begin an upswing, a reevaluation of priorities, but as we all know, the news is not good. Let’s all think about 2020 as a year of sharp vision, of developing clarities, and actions towards the future we want and need. One of you graduates prefaced your reading by calling it an initiation, a ceremony, a ritual. That’s right—by being here we acknowledge a culture and practice older than written language itself. For that, we are lucky.
And congratulations! I must express how humbled I am to be before you as a fellow teacher, writer, and, also, to be with your beautiful families, families made, born, discovered, discovered here and all of whom are so lovingly present for your graduation in body and/or spirit. While we are at it let all of us writers express gratitude to our families. These are the beloveds who will look at you staring off into space and tenderly remind themselves that yes, this is our working. They will put you onto some task, eventually, such as dishes, bill paying, the managing of toaster oven fires, but they understand that whilst you doodle on a pad or reread a thousand-page novel, that you are working. The Program for Writers wishes to acknowledge our families with this ceremony as well. We thank you in advance for putting up with the serious leisure involved with creative production. We see how that represents your support and respect. How lucky we all are for the likes of our beloveds.
Graduates, your achievements amaze and astound us already! What great readings you’ve given, what thoughtful classes you’ve taught, and, those thesis interviews! How seriously you’ve loved and shared as writers. Know that this continues—it’s the first consolation of graduation. The encouragement and connection you graduates provide for each other (at conferences, in other cities, online) is sustaining and at a scale truly unique in the world of creative writing programs. You have this gorgeous future, among others, to look forward to. Wallies abound and we are a fierce, smart and wily crew. We become another kind of beloved to each other, and let us be thankful for that, too.
I believe that as readers, which we all are, we enter into another writer’s works as if entering a friendship. I don’t think we’d be here if we didn’t feel this way. As with friends, our writers’ books sustain us, wound us, please and frustrate. My current beloved writer is the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (thank you bookshop for reading her with me). She writes in her poem, “The Explorer” a crucial message about why people like us wish to make things like books. It’s a lesser known poem of hers, and also an ars poetica, a poem about the role of a poet or the job a poem should do. I’ll read the first stanza for you, because it is beloved to me:
Somehow to find a still spot in the noise
Was the frayed inner want, the winding, the frayed hope
Whose tatters he kept hunting through the din.
A satin peace somewhere.
A room of wily hush somewhere within.”
“To find a still spot in the noise” might describe the search we’ve been practicing during our time at The Program for Writers and I mean this in the most communal way. The search for hope is complicated. It might be what we are doing as writers, rebuilding our frayed world, says Brooks. You might say “Connie, I am not hopeful” or “Connie, that is corny,” or you might say “Gwendolyn Brooks, show don’t tell.” (I know we don’t say that here)! Hang on, Brooks will not let you down. She gives us two ways at hope in this stanza. First, it’s “a satin peace somewhere.” That “still spot,” that peace, is satin in her poem, a luxurious, shining, fancy fabric, satin, which is also rare and occasional, like a graduation. Second, in one of my favorite lines, Brooks offers another possibility for an end to our search, “A room of wily hush somewhere within.” Think about that word wily, how much it changes our idea of the hush. “Wily” is sly, trying to work an advantage, any angle, with some furtiveness, some concealing. After all, Warner Brothers did name a coyote Wile E. That “room of wily hush within” is what the explorer is seeking. And since I call this poem an ars poetica, it could be said it’s what we are seeking too, as writers.
In the spirit of the ars poetica, I’ll point out that Brooks’s stanza is its own room. It’s been mentioned many times this residency that the word stanza means room in Italian, and so it goes. Each stanza in a poem might be the room in which you find a satin peace; any paragraph might contain that wily hush. You might find yourself in a room in where Toni Morrison’s Milkman is fighting to walk on a crowded street, struggling, growing, realizing that all the people were going in the direction he was coming from, or in Ben Jonson’s room where he mourns his boy who’s died too young, saying “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry,” or you might find your peace in a room where Roberto Bolaño’s soft hearted Detective Juan de Dios Martínez weeps in his car for all the victims known and unknown, or this room, right here, where I have found some satin in your poem, your poem, your story, and your story.
Allow me to expand this figure of the room and what goes on there. Likely when Gwendolyn Brooks wrote “Somehow to find a still spot in the noise,” she was in the same room as, talking back to T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” where he wrote: “the still point of the turning world.” Or maybe she was commiserating with the Wordsworth of “The World is Too Much With Us” which he wrote to complain about noise, also known as the industrial revolution. And maybe Robert Boswell is right, that Bolaño’s 2666 (that thousand-page novel everyone should reread) is in deep conversation with Homer’s Iliad, a 15,693-line poem, and certainly I am in conversation with Robert Boswell about this matter still. I am in conversation with Gwendolyn Brooks right now, and at any residency at The Program for Writers, all day and all night, we are conversing, commiserating and talking back to writers living and dead, the writer sitting right beside us, writers living in places we have not yet seen but can imagine, thanks to their beautiful words, our wily rooms of survival.
One expectation of this form of the “graduation address” is that the speaker offers some practical advice. I respectfully decline that element. Or rather, I’d rather call on Toni Morrison, who delivered such an address at Wellesley College in 2004. She much more eloquently suggests that writers create stories, of course, and that the story can alter or create the person,
“You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative—no author does, I can tell you—you could nevertheless create it.”
And so, this is my thought now, that the boundaries between what we write and who we are start to blur, and perhaps every poem or story that seemed to be a lesson in craft also becomes a part of our thinking of how to live: with attention, precision, understanding, and compassion.
So what are we doing, writers? Are we historians? We do think about history, don’t we? We write whole novels set in other times, but we are not historians, not really. Are we philosophers? I don’t think so, but we question knowledge, reality, existence, right? We are not politicians, though many of us engage with themes of justice and injustice. So, what is our job? I have a quick anecdote about a moment which illuminated something for me about what writers do, about our “job.”
When we lived in Northern Ireland, my daughter was in the fourth grade and had to write a report on a famous person. The only American on the list, Harriet Tubman, was assigned to the only American in the class, because, turns out our famous people aren’t their famous people once you remove entertainers from the list. She and I took out books from the library, googled, and talked about Tubman’s escape from slavery, her bravery guiding dozens of other slaves to the north, her work as a nurse, a commander and spy during the Civil War, and her later activism for women’s suffrage. FYI, as a parent who is a writer, my rough policy is that Alma writes what she will write and I enter only when invited.
But what had she written? I saw the paper when it was returned to her (an A) and noticed that she had spent most of her allotted pages describing two things. The first part was a very long description of when a slave owner threw a heavy metal weight and hit Tubman on the head, causing a traumatic brain injury, the effects of which affected her whole life. My daughter wrote mostly about the wound, describing the blood, where it went, what it looked like, and Tubman’s fall to the ground. In other words, this nine-year-old felt and understood that part of Tubman’s story and wanted her readers (21 fourth graders and a teacher in a small room in Northern Ireland) to feel it ,too. I am not sure that, as Shelley claimed, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” But we might well be its sensualists. We are as open as we can be to the textures, sounds and sights, the swells and storms, the smells and bells, the connections where we find them. By the way, the other information included in the report (which got an A, did I say that?) was that Tubman did not know her own birthday, something that had been unimaginable to a child of mine.
I will finish with a quote from a talk delivered by Mahmoud Dawish, perhaps the major poet of the 20thcentury Arab world. He was born in 1941 in Palestine and died from complications of heart surgery in Houston in 2008. Though he wrote in Arabic, he also read Hebrew, French, and English and has been translated into at least 20 languages and counting. A secular person, he wrote with his feet on the ground and his poems are loving, controversial at times, and often enact the struggle to sustain ourselves in this suffering and hope called the World.
“Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down.”
Go on, find and make peace, oh wily Graduates, teachers, writers, all us, Beloveds.