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by Roxanne Banks Malia
When I taught high school English, I used to invite Jake Adam York to spend a few hours with my classes and talk with them about writing. One of the discussions about literature that inevitably surfaces with teenagers is whom these authors really write for and if literature even matters. The common thought among my classes at the beginning of a term was that an author is probably just writing to express him or herself and that literature, poetry especially, is primarily the end product of the cathartic or therapeutic act of writing. The author does not make choices for a particular effect or intent, conscious or subconscious.
Students would ask Jake questions that sought to confirm this idea, questions like why a poem was in couplets, or if there was any significance in a particular word used, or for whom he wrote. Jake’s answers often surprised them. He said things like he chose this particular word instead of another because the first one means 1), 2), and 3), and alludes to 4), while the other has fewer possibilities, and he wanted all of the possibilities to hang out at this place in this poem because Emmett Till deserved every one of these possibilities.
As we continued to work together, Jake brought visiting authors with him, including the fiction writer Daniel Alarcon. When questions of why write and if literature matters popped up, Alarcon—who noted he used to teach 8th grade and was thus prepared for the question—said only one word: empathy. He writes, we write, he said, to imagine life as someone else lives it. He reads, we read, he said, to know that particular life—one we can never possibly know—intimately. Without the story, he asked, how are we to understand one another? Jake echoed Alarcon’s point with a brilliant comment that went something like this: Making literature, after all, isn’t only about the writer; it’s about all of us.
This discussion inspired me to share Adrienne Rich’s poem, “XII (Dedications)” with my students. The poem, like Jake’s visits, makes the whole business of reading literature more significant and relevant to students’ lives than what we so often do in school. The poem addresses the reader through the repetition of “I know you are reading this poem,” then imagines several different lives encountering the poem. One contemplates escape “in a room…where bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed/and the open valise speaks of flight.” Another is losing her vision but reads on “because even the alphabet is precious.” Still another, a mother warming milk, “a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand/because life is short and you too are thirsty.”
When discussing which parts of the piece moved them, the students spoke to yet another life the poem imagines: the one reading “by fluorescent light/in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,/count themselves out, at too early an age.” Rich is talking about us, one said. She’s talking to us, said another.
In moments like these—where readers see themselves in a poem or hear an author speak directly to their circumstance, where they feel validated or simply acknowledged—these moments are where education really happens. Like my class determined after our literary encounters with Jake and Alarcon and Rich: literature matters because we matter.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Roxanne Banks Malia is the outreach coordinator for Lighthouse’s Young Writers Program. Her work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Connotations: An Online Artifact, Coldfront, and elsewhere.