Over 50 people gathered in the Mackenzie Room at Huang Engineering Center on Oct. 20 to hear Mohr Visiting Poet A. Van Jordan read his poetry.
Not only is Jordan a prolific writer, but he also works as a film critic and has taught at various institutions, including The University of Texas at Austin, where he was tenured as an associate professor, and Rutgers University-Newark, where he served as the Henry Rutgers Presidential Professor. Jordan incorporates research in history and film studies into his courses and work in order to foster an interdisciplinary approach to creative writing.
The reading — organized by Stanford’s Creative Writing Program — was introduced by Program Director Patrick Phillips. Phillips stated that Jordan’s work has “the poignancy of the blues,” and, in reference to a quote by William Faulkner, serves as a reminder that “history is always with us.”
With that, Jordan began his reading, happily remarking that it was his first in-person event in two-years. Using a Prezi presentation to structure his reading in reverse chronological order, he started with new work and worked his way back to older collections.
The first group of poems centered on Tamir Rice, whose story Jordan said has served as a “muse” for him. Rice was an Black boy killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio — not too far away from Akron, Ohio, where Jordan is from. Using a video to recount Rice’s murder by police, who defended their actions by claiming Rice had a pellet gun — though he was shot on sight, before the cruiser could have seen a gun — Jordan lamented that Rice “was just a kid.”
He emphasized this in the poems “Bored—Tamir Chooses to Dream” and “Fragments of Tamir’s Body.” The former imagines the moments before Rice was killed, during which he sits under a gazebo head cast-down, appearing bored. Jordan narrates what Rice may have been thinking and the possibilities that were open for his life before the tragedy. Jordan then captivated the audience with his poem “Fragments,” which contains no complete sentences and juxtaposes violent imagery with child-like images, showing that Tamir “died before his time.”
In the poems “Hex,” “Grandfather the Noun” and “Grandfather the Verb,” Jordan recounts several events of the past year. “Hex” is a “conversation with Shakespearean themes,” through which Jordan intends to “clarify the [social justice movements] of the past couple of years” by cataloguing them in the distant voice of Shakespeare. In the latter two poems, which consider two definitions for the same word, Jordan tries to make sense of and find language for the past year, with its devastating “pandemic and uprisings [for social and racial equity].” Each of the poems fit into the bigger picture of art’s importance as a tool that provides insight during turbulent times. With historic events and movements that impact many, we often lose individual stories such as that of Tamir Rice. Jordan ensures we don’t forget.
The next group of poems was from Jordan’s chapbook “I want to See My Skirt.” The collection was a collaboration between Jordan and interdisciplinary filmmaker Cauleen Smith, who created the eponymous original work (a film). Inspired by the photography of renowned Malian artist Malick Sidibé, this collection’s poems celebrate the life, agency and dynamism of Black men and women of West Africa in the decades following the region’s independence from French colonial rule.
My favorite of these poems were “The Dance” and “The Tailor,” which both have a dreamy and humanizing aspect to their language. In “The Dance,” Jordan creates an evocative yet touchingly realistic party scene, as if describing a memory. He not only comments on who the people are at “The Dance,” but considers what they mean in that space, calling the peoples’ bodies “art” and the music “language to get them on the [dance] floor.” As for “The Tailor,” the speaker, a tailor, weaves hope for his people into their clothing, saying “you’ve come to me and asked for a dream.”
The last group of poems were read from his poetry collection “Cineaste,” which includes works about Jordan “placing himself in films, [examining] protagonists and antagonists within film, and changing the endings to films [he didn’t] like.” (The last bit earned a laugh from the crowd.) The first poem in this collection, “Metropolis” — which serves as a prologue — discusses what it feels like to walk into a theater, bringing experiences from one life with you as you indulge in another life. Jordan also noted the beauty of theaters, showing a picture of a particular theater in Akron, which appeared normal from the outside but was like a cathedral inside.
Another poem from this collection, “Do the Right Thing,” was inspired by Spike Lee’s 1989 film of the same name. Lee’s film explores a Brooklyn neighborhood’s hot racial tension between its African-American residents and the Italian-American owners of a local pizzeria, culminating in tragedy and violence. One character, Raheem, has a fate similar to that of Eric Garner, a Black man who died from police brutality in 2014. In this poem, Jordan explores the relationship between the two men and the many others who have died at the hands of injustice.
In an interview with The Daily, Jordan shared a bit about his writing process. Jordan first thinks of a subject, then considers what he wants to say about the world through this subject and finally decides upon the images he wants to use to communicate these ideas. The question of form also impacts the early development of his works.
“I’ll ask myself what is important about what I am saying and why am I doing it as a poem,” Jordan said. “Why a poem rather than another medium, such as a tweet?”
His advice for undergraduate students, specifically those of marginalized identities who want to pursue writing, is to think about what’s important to them and read the work of others. “You don’t have to read everything, but read what you can with an annotative mind.”
When asked what he hopes people get from his work, Jordan gave a simple yet powerful answer:
“I hope they felt something.”