Last Thursday, when Jaki Shelton Green appeared at Lenoir-Rhyne as the first featured author in this year’s Visiting Writers Series, she spoke as both a poet and a storyteller, noting that her poems live inside her stories.
I found myself drawn more to her stories than the poems they linked, but my ears welcomed the sound of Green’s own voice reading her poem “i know the grandmother one had hands,” just a day after my students and I studied the poem and read it aloud ourselves in class. As she introduced the poem, Green recounted her stint teaching poetry writing to women on death row, giving them the assignment of writing about hands because of the acts that they had committed with their own hands. She didn’t say that the poem was her answer to the assignment, but it may have been, just as this blog entry and the earlier one on the poem, itself, are my answers to the blog assignment that I have given to my students.
Through her poems and stories, Green spoke of painful subjects on the eve of 9/11: the imminent anniversary, her great-great grandmother’s life in slavery, and the death of her own daughter. But her words offered hope rather than sadness. As I reflect on those words, I hope that the ones that my students and I write this semester will show us what Green’s showed us Thursday night: that writing gives us a way of making sense of the world.
Jaki Shelton Green’s poem “i know the grandmother one had hands” evokes images of a woman whose busy hands remain unseen as they perform a litany of tasks, some literal: “folding, pinching, rolling the dough” (3), others metaphorical: “growing knives” (14).
As my students and I read Green’s poem in class yesterday–in preparation for her presentation tonight as one of the featured writers in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series–I expected that the conversation that followed might be markedly different from the ones last semester in my Introduction to Creative Writing class. Those students, after all, were reading poems, short stories, plays, and narrative nonfiction as models for their own work. Yet even though my current students in Critical Thinking and Writing will not produce creative writing for class, their responses to Green’s work were similar to those of my creative writing students.
In retrospect, I realize that the similarities should not surprise me since I asked the students in ENG 131 (Critical Thinking and Writing) to begin their exploration of Green’s poem by considering her choices, just as I asked the students in ENG 281 (Intro. to Creative Writing) to begin.
I do not know why Green uses a lower-case “i,” or why she refers to “the grandmother one,” rather than a grandmother or my grandmother, but posing such questions and considering the effects of those choices places us on the path of writing, whether the destination is a poem of one’s own or a study of someone else’s.