An interview with Dawn Lundy Martin by Noah Eli Gordon (page 7)
NEG: I’m thinking about your phrase “the self in the fringes of blight-filled urban America” and its relationship to our shared vocation of teaching, specifically teaching in an MFA program. I was recently lucky to land a job at an R1 university, and though I’m thrilled with my new students, and nearly everything about the job, I can’t help feeling—in having left an extended position at a commuter campus, where many of my students were older, held fulltime jobs, or were first generation college students—that something is now off, that there’s a potentially problematic distancing from some of the blight you mention. I wonder how you square up your multiple roles as writer, teacher, and activist. How is teaching tied into your other activities?
DLM: The answer to this question is simple. Things are not squared up. I wish I could do everything. I wish I had a job where intellectual work—be it creative or scholarly—meshed up with activism. Teaching. Well, although I love it, I wouldn't mind less of it. The truth is: I've made a choice that I'm not (yet) sure feels quite right. I've chosen the relative ease of an academic life so that I am provided with the time necessary for me to write poems. Unfortunately for me, writing poems is not something I chose, but an art form that seems to have chosen me. I started writing as some young people sit down at the piano and just start pushing keys, drawn to a certain activity for whatever reason. At some point the writing began to feel like life, or life sustaining, or something like that. Still, at least several times a year, I seriously consider other possibilities—possibilities whereby I don't feel as if I'm leaning against the wall resisting the strong sense that I should be doing something. I look from the security of my office, my 6th floor window, past the meandering students on Fifth Avenue—and a periodic mysterious waft of freshly fried bacon—and see a world of intense injustice and suffering and pull the blinds shut. Of course, the work of the poems is political; they are in the world, work on the world, but I am not yet convinced that the kind of writing I've been doing thus far will be the extent of my political work.
I think I've strayed from your question a bit, but felt a little overwhelmed by what it brought up for me. Regarding teaching, PITT sometimes has the feel of a commuter school. I'm often surprised to find out how many of my students are from the towns surrounding Pittsburgh, how many of them are the first in their families to go to college, how many of their families struggle to pay for their education, how many of them still live at home, etc. This is not a place of privileged students, which I like, because they, more than any other students I've ever taught, seem to take the work of being in college seriously. As a teacher of poetry writing and literature, that makes my job a lot easier, as I don't feel as if I have to convince my students why this work might be important; they just accept that it is. Some of the more rewarding moments for me happen when my seniors get accepted into graduate school and I watch them leave the Pittsburgh area on their own for the very first time to go to bigger cities and/or more cosmopolitan places. At the very least, the mentorship that writing teachers often enact can affect a radical change on individuals, and there's something really satisfying and important about that.
NEG: Was this radical change something you yourself experienced? This is to say, were there any particularly influential mentors in your own career as a student?
DLM: I always positioned myself a bit on the outside of whatever center had been formed. What I mean by this is that especially from the very limited purview of my home city, the place and its happenings didn't really feel a part of me as much as I felt misplaced. And, being a New Englander intensely interested very early on in the cultural sophistication happening in the other cities within driving distance, I can't say that ever felt bound by class/race/gender in ways that might be expected. I was fourteen, for example, the first time I (secretly) hopped a train alone and made my way to Manhattan. There was a way in which I needed reminders of worlds outside of the one I happened to be inhabiting at the time.
I did, however, have intellectual and creative mentors in college. The feminist humorist, Regina Barreca, was very important to me as a model. She was the first professor I ever met whose rigorous investigations were fun and sexy. And the poet Myung Mi Kim continues to be a strong influence on my work and my thinking. I come back to her work again and again—not only as a poet, but as a teacher. Her articulations around poetics inform my approach to teaching and student expectations, the latter of which is often bound up with the traditional workshop models I want to resist in my classroom. They were both catalysts for shifts in my engagement with what has become my Work. Something in my working with both of them felt liberating, an opening in my imagination.