Many of us have distinct memories of the exact place and time in our lives when we read a significant book. Where Was I is a regular series on the Poetry Center Blog in which we ask authors for whom this is true to contribute a story of such a reading experience. Patrick Rosal: What was the book, what were your coordinates, where were you “in your life,” and are the book and the place intertwined in a special way for you?
June Jordan’s Kissing God Goodbye came out in 1997. I was 28, living in New York for grad school, Westchester County to be exact. Every week I entered a workshop with people who were much more fluent in the poetry world, not just the literature itself, but the culture that surrounds it. Every week I felt like an imposter. I had been waitlisted but finally admitted to Sarah Lawrence’s MFA, having twice flunked out of undergrad and arriving very late (just a couple years earlier) to books, and even later to poetry. I was the son of an ex-priest, my parents immigrants from the Philippines. Though my dad had a doctorate in theology and had many books in our basement, I wasn’t a reader growing up. My extended family was almost entirely working class, and my poetic material would come largely from stickup kids, dishwashers, dancers, floor moppers, car thieves, devotees of the holy rosary and Santo Niño, gangbangers, raucous, blasphemous, sometimes vicious, and often soulful figures of my own neighborhood and friends. And then, I would take my seat in seminar or read one of the Famous Poets and feel like I was stepping into a completely foreign cultural current that consisted of so many quiet, restrained, dignified poems.
When Kissing God Goodbye came out, the predominant editorial tastes were very suspicious (actually, outright dismissive) of oral modes. They seemed to have a penchant for the presbyter’s sober ceremony. They were easily tickled by cleverness, irony, or satire. They seemed in love with the self-indulgently cerebral. They appeared to be soothed by poems that were distant and vaguely impersonal. Yes, a lot of beautiful poetry can be masterfully ironic or manage an elegant distance, but even then I knew I was after other expressive modes, richer historical reference, and more dynamic sonic range. (It’s no coincidence Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady published a couple of important poetry books in 1997—Tender and autobiography of a jukebox respectively—which were a huge influence on my work. They founded Cave Canem in 1996.) Especially as a writer of Asian descent, simultaneously emasculated and fully inscribed into American masculinity, how could I construct a poetics that made space for my anger and my affection? Kissing God Goodbye—and a set of somewhat unacknowledged books like it—offered me an important alternative to the mainstream mandates of the day.
June Jordan showed me that my own writing didn’t have to be docile or quiet or precious or well-behaved or a teacher’s pet. Poetry didn’t have to fit into a school or category or box. It didn’t have to dance for anybody in power, didn’t have to auction off my suffering. American poetry could hold both love and rage, but I’d have to fight to make space for it. In June Jordan’s poems, eros and politics were not divided from one another. In fact, their fusion was a source of examining one’s place in the world and deepening one’s delight. Rant and meditation, sermon and whisper. Her poems let me understand the unsettling discrepancies I felt between the performances of high intellect in academic culture and the sharp-tongued hangout sessions with my mixed-race crew of dudes in New Jersey. Kissing God Goodbye revealed to me the potential of the many narratives of the young folks I grew up with. She showed me that our speech and silence and bodies were the material and forms of literature and history. I had simply grown up in a time when our sensual lives and our intimacies were yet to be seen, yet to be written down.
It’s important to mention, too, that in June Jordan’s teaching, like her writing, she cast as wide a net as possible. She taught a course at Berkeley called Poetry for the People, a huge lecture course with brown and black students, engineering students, queer students, law students, some students who probably were disoriented by her radical politics. Yet she invited them all to listen, to compose, and to participate in the making of the course itself. She gave them a blueprint not for a career, but for gathering and engaging in language. In “poem for a young poet” she writes:
Most people search all
of their lives
for someplace to belong to
as you said
but I look instead
into the eyes of anyone
who talks to me
June Jordan wrote, finally, in a time when very, very few gatekeepers sensed potential in poetry and in youth. June Jordan chose a harder path. (In fact, Poetry for the People was offered through Berkeley’s African American Studies because the university’s famed English department wouldn’t have her.) But she found a way to be a poet on her own terms.
When I look at the politically-inflected poems that Poetry and similarly high-profile journals are publishing right now, I’m amazed, because in the mid-90s, there was little to no opportunity in those spaces to write about race, class, and gender. (In 1998, for example, a top-tier magazine published a now well-known essay by an esteemed literary critic who belligerently defended the elite position of the Western Canon and bashed any attempts to critique a white-centered literature.) I think it’s extremely important to draw continuities between poets currently being honored for their work as political poets or civic poets or socially engaged poets or subversive poets and June Jordan. My generation suffered the bleating hangover from the culture wars. Many stayed silent. Many of my generation thought an explicitly political project was trivial to Great Literature or lacked the fineness of craft. But some of us, risking being recognized by literary institutions and powerful mentors in the academy, showed up in workshop and wrote stubbornly against not just the prescribed MFA grain, but against the persistence of American brutality—even then, especially then. We wanted to learn the craft and the vision. Not just the tradition, but the disobedience. We needed June Jordan’s work badly.
I’d loved and been transformed by Plato, Shakespeare, Blake, and Emerson, but I also needed June Jordan’s dauntless interrogation, her openness, her funkiness, her revolutionary wit, and steadfast tenderness in Kissing God Goodbye. The wardens said, If you want to be a poet in America, you’ll have to prove yourself inside the established standards of great books. The masters weren’t going to let someone like June Jordan who hoots in high diction and curses Biblically and sings in slow-jam time to stroll up their walkway, let alone step through their heavily armed threshold. So we found her on our own—or she found us.
Epilogue: In 1998 or so, just after Kissing God Goodbye came out, June Jordan gave a reading in the student center on College Ave. at Rutgers University (the campus I’d flunked out of barely five years earlier). I’d never met her or heard her read so I decided to head down to Jersey from Yonkers. Well, I sat in the front row of a packed multipurpose room, maybe a couple hundred people in the audience. She opened the reading by clowning Rutgers for naming a lounge after its famous University alum, athlete, activist, singer, and actor Paul Robeson—“A lounge?... A lounge?” she quipped with a comic are-you-fucking-kidding-me twist of the face. And then she laughed and we laughed with her. And then she read poems and then was briefly quiet, listening to us, and then went on reading and we all listened and laughed some more and she was singing and she was thoughtful and gracious and open. And she stuck around for some of the open mic, which I read on. And before she left she came by my seat and kissed me on the head and said, “Thank you.” I wrote her a letter once and she wrote back. And we never met again before she died. (She signed my copy of Kissing God Goodbye, but it was in a storage space full of pretty much all my belongings—including hundreds of books—which I lost to auction when I couldn’t pay my rent. I think I can be happy to let it go; maybe someone is living on those poems.) June Jordan would have been 80 years old this past July 6. I’m four books into my own writing life and a couple decades into teaching. Somehow I can’t really imagine having the strength to do this work without June Jordan’s life making a way for me. It feels lucky and right to thank her here again.
Patrick Rosal is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Brooklyn Antediluvian (Persea Books, 2016). His work has received numerous awards, including the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, the Global Filipino Literary Award, the Asian American Writers Workshop Members' Choice Award, and a Fullbright Fellowship. He teaches at Rutgers University-Camden.