Talk about teachable moments

One poem in a magazine. The internet explodes.

Resources:
Here’s the original, which now has an editor’s note/apology.

The twitter apology from the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee.

Long, thoughtful response from linguist John McWhorter.

Former poetry editor at The Nation writing in the New York Times.

There’s twitter back and forth between Stephen King and Roxane Gay I don’t feel like screenshotting.

Times Literary Supplement here.

Two pieces from the National Review. One and two.

I would like to read this poem with a diverse group of thoughtful students.

Starting Inquiries

I would like them to respond directly to Mr. Anders-Wee. Does the poem give offense or does it poke all of us to think about homelessness? How do the different people in our room read the poem? How do we simultaneously listen to perspectives offered by our peers and formulate our own?

I would like to think about the politics behind a work of art. How do we manage representation of others in our work? Can a man write as a woman? As an old guy, may I write as a teenager?

I would like to think about when and how do we separate the author from their work. One of my favorite books for teaching about social class and race was authored by a now-disgraced writer. Should we stop reading that book altogether? Is it up to the reader to deliberate over the identity of the author?

(All of these are long-running debates in American literary criticism and politics. Amazing how one short poem can poke so many…)

Possible Activities
One
Read the poem once. Read the poem again with a picture of Mr. Carlson-Wee on screen. Read poem with a picture of a youngish black man on the screen. Read poem with picture of youngish Asian woman on screen. Read poem with picture of youngish Hispanic woman on screen.

How did the poem change as the picture of the author changed? Did it change? Should it change?

Two
In small groups have students write biographies of a young poet who just got a huge break by having poem published in major magazine. Mix them up. Read three of them plus biography of Mr. Carlson-Wee but don’t let on which is which. How did hearing the biographies change things?

Three
Risky but might do anyway. Most of my city kids have had interactions with homeless, mentally-ill and/or addicted individuals. Living in Philly since 1990, I have stories myself.

In small groups, how would you capture those stories artistically? You can describe a poem, a play, a work of art, but you must be able to explain:

  • why you choose this form of art?
  • why this is the most respectful way to capture this situation?

    As a group, we would talk about why you might want to make this art and what traps you might face in doing so…

    Four
    How do assumptions we make about people shape how we read their work? What would a checklist look like for someone trying to figure out their assumptions or biases? Is it different, the ways in which we read art versus other interactions?

    Five
    Taking these three days, what would you like to say to the poet? What would our group like to say? Maybe as a group poem to be sent to him?

    More to come…