The Poetics of Witness: An Interview with Caits Meissner

caitsCaits Meissner will be teaching the upcoming class “The Poetics of Witness: Writing Beyond The Self” beginning June 14th. This class will investigate “the power inherent when other people’s stories enter our hands” and will explore persona pieces, manifestos, odes, and our own stories to explore different ways to witness the world around us. Here is a short interview with Caits about the class:

TLA Blog (TLA) Why might this class be important at this time in the world?

Caits Meissner (CM): We live in a society that is both increasingly intersectional, while also spiraling backwards into profoundly oppressive, repressive and unjust terrain. It is a frightening world to wake up in everyday. I often think of the quote from poet and activist June Jordan, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” No one will write the books for us. We must tell history through our unique perspectives. We must drum up the courage to write for a future we cannot envision yet. It is our duty, as well as a healing force for self and others, to find a way to express, push up against, expose, archive, grapple with and bear witness to the difficult times we are living in as a service to the world.

But constant exposure to the injustices proliferating around us can be overwhelming, and as a writer, knowing where to enter the conversation can be intimidating, especially when writing across lines of identity. It is worth unpacking what makes us worried or uncomfortable about this act of witness, and examining how to engage with respect, tenderness, care and ethics. This work alone, the personal questioning process and journey, can begin to create the necessary work of changing our world before the poems are even written.

TLA: How did you discover, learn about and experience the topic that you’ll be teaching?

CM: I first learned the phrase Poetry of Witness after falling in love with poet Carolyn Forche’s work, specifically her book The Country Between Us.  That is her phrase for poems that bear witness to injustice, and her own are exceptional examples. Learning about how to write this way (and I’m still learning) was/is trial and error, immersing myself in conversations and communities that challenged me to look at my positionality, ask questions about my own motivation in the writing and encouraged me to stick out the path, to not shy away or become so fearful of “getting it wrong” that I ignored issues and stories I found deeply important. I was also influenced by my work in various classrooms – public school, prison, needle exchanges, working with people with intellectual disabilities, etc. – and struggled with how to share what I was experiencing without exploiting or stealing the stories of others. Walking these fine lines is an ongoing process in the life of a writer, and certainly in my own.

TLA: Who would benefit most from taking this class?

CM: I believe anyone interested in storytelling that includes the stories of others would benefit from our examination, practice and dialogue. This might be a poet seeking to engage our current political landscape, or a practitioner looking to translate their experiences in the field ethically. It might be a traveler who has witnessed a scene that jarred them, or a reader moved by an account of injustice across the world. It is for anyone interested in approaching the page and the subjects of our writing with deep honor. But one thing is a requirement: must be open to self examination and a process of understanding the journey and perspectives of other people.


TLA: What can students in this class expect?
 

CM: Students can expect to write weekly within provided containers, engage difficult conversations and reflections about our task as writers of witness, find inspiration and challenges in incredible master work, determine the stories that intrigue and call to them and build the beginnings of a possible new project/collection. Some may use this process as a reflective tool, others as a generative engagement. Either, or both, orientations are valuable.

 

TLA: Who are your top 3 favorite poets (and why)?
CM: That is an impossible question! In truth, I cannot answer the question of all time favorite, I am too inspired by too many writers, but I can share who is inspiring me right now:
1. Natalie Scenters-Zapico, who’s book The Verging Cities writes about love and borderlands. I don’t know how to describe it other than aching poetic memoir infused with magical-realism and it is deeply affecting to my heart and senses. I just love it and find myself spending hours in the worlds she builds, returning over and over to her rich poems.
2. C.D. Wright did a lot of really interesting work with poetry before her too-soon passing. I’ve been kind of obsessed with One Big Self, a kind of collaged poetic impression/document of a Louisiana prison experience, and One With Others, which uses oral history, journalism and poetry to examine the civil rights era south through her fierce mentor’s life.
3. Claudia Rankine blew the roof off of poetry and nonfiction alike with her recent book Citizen, which brilliantly addresses race, pop culture, self identity and micro-aggressions through prose poems, criticism and art strewn through out the book. It is absolutely crucial reading.

Caits Meissner is a multidisciplinary writer, artist and community facilitator. She is the author of the hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry (The Operating System, 2016), and The Letter All Your Friends Have Written You (Well&Often, 2012), co-written with poet Tishon Woolcock. With a long history in community arts, Caits currently teaches in prisons, public school, and at CUNY and The New School University. She is a Spring 2017 MFA in Creative Writing candidate at City College of New York.
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