Originally delivered as a response to Rachel N. Hastings's performance of “Black Human” at the Opening Session of the 2017 National Communication Association annual convention, this essay celebrates the reclaiming of the prominence of the practice of performing poetry in this organization as a vital part of its legacy. Tracing the significance of the term “poet” through the German dichter, the essay urges an understanding of the poet's ability to “push back against oppressive bureaucracy” in the academy as well as in the world, and to perform resistance against contemporary cultural tyrannies that insist our legacies are the exclusive property of those in power. The essay at times breaks into performative writing in the form of poetic diction in order to respond to the call of Hastings's poem.
I love that we are opening this convention with performances of poetry. I came to this profession when we called that practice “Oral Interpretation,” and the National Communication Association (NCA) was the Speech Communication Association, and it seemed full of people performing poetry—or maybe it was just beginning to shoo them away, for at least the second time in its history.1 Why is it that when we get nervous about rigor the first people we kick down or out are the poets?
Oral interpretation is an old term that we retired, but the beating heart of what it valued is still here, but transformed. Made new, sound, and tight. I'll get back to that.
So, to the poets opening this conference—thank you. And Dr. Amber Johnson and Dr. Javon Johnson, thank you.
In 2015 in The Paris Review, polyglot translator Damion Searls queries the meaning of the word “poet.” Tracing its etymology produces conundrums, dead ends, so studying the word's neighbors, Searls writes of the German:
And then there's a Dichter, usually translated “poet” but meaning a creator of poetry in the grand sense. The verb dichten means “to write poetically and well.” The good stuff. The writer as hero of the spirit. How do you say that in English? We don't have heroes of the spirit.2
I'll come back to that, too.
Lately more mundane things lap away at my legacy: cultures of suspicion and their accoutrements, their endless parade of assessment matrices, Workday accounting software, endless reviewing of everyone and everything.3 These are to me old dance steps, and frankly, I am far more interested in doing things that I know are valuable than I am in explaining that value to folks who think we just look like we are having too fine a time to be useful.
Then this year another chronic illness moved into this body—literally and figuratively.
It's mostly invisible, so I keep it to myself, not quite marked.
In their brief to the respondents for this session, Amber asked us to consider: “What is it like to use the body to push back against oppressive bureaucracy?” Dr. Hastings has just told you how it is to hit back with history.
Dr. Hastings sings this history and her call demands a response. She is Dichter: performer as “hero of the spirit.” In my privilege I have never had to push so hard, not like that, but rather more like this, from a poem by Michael Blumenthal, which is called “A Marriage.” But allow me a radical recontextualization: let's say his poem is called “A University”:
But I have to ask: What is the damned house in this poem? What is our legacy, our relevance, if we spend all our energy holding it up? What if our legacy, our relevance, were to renovate it? Back to Searls and Dichter:
Coincidentally, dicht in German also means “tight,” as in watertight or airtight … and the verb dichten is also “to seal, caulk, make impermeable,” as well as “to make more dense or compact.” Ezra Pound played on the pun in his second most well-known slogan for what poetry does (after “Make it new”)… “to write poetry is to condense and supercharge language.”5
Searls concludes: “Don't just make it new: make it tight.”6
And taking a cue from Pound, Searls, Dr. Hastings, and the Dichters of this Opening Session: