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.

I am suddenly a senior scholar.
My body is marked
As… well. … Old. White. Female.
Not the most endangered species
Though I have had some skirmishes
My share of mansplains, some hashtag me toos,
And spilt far too much sweat and ink
Explaining to those who sit in judgment
What, for instance,
Performance has to do with performance studies.
Or what bodies have to do with knowledge,
Or doing with learning.

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.

Meanwhile my nation went insaner
And I woke up ashamed, aghast, angry,
Called to new dances of resistance.

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.

As the statues begin to wobble
When you hear the cries, “But history!” “Our legacy!”
Holler back deeper histories.
Cry foul! Insist, “exactly what kind of legacy?”
Who put that statue up and when and why?
Insist that history isn't a matter
Of pedestalled men of stone and steel
Who are a form of saying
“These bodies, up here on these horses—
Not yours, are marked as valued.”
Push back, push hard, push them the hell over.
Insist the way Michael Harper does
Entwined in Dr. Hastings's first stanza.
Say it over and over and over
Until the only statues we have
Are made of voices singing who we really are,
Sound and new and tight.

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”:

A University

A University
You are holding up a ceiling
with both arms. It is very heavy,
but you must hold it up, or else
it will fall down on you. Your arms
are tired, terribly tired,
and, as the day goes on, it feels
as if either your arms or the ceiling
will soon collapse.
But then,
something wonderful happens:
[a student—a colleague—]
walks into the room
and holds their arms up
to the ceiling beside you.
So you finally get
to take down your arms.
You feel the relief of respite,
the blood flowing back
to your fingers and arms.
And when your [colleague's] arms tire,
you hold up your own
to relieve [her] again.
And it can go on like this
for many years
without the house falling.4 

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:

Make this house sound—of sound—and new and tight.
That's our legacy. That's our relevance. Thank you.


For accounts of the history of performance at NCA, see Paul C. Edwards, “Unstoried: Teaching Literature in the Age of Performance Studies,” Theatre Annual 52 (1999): 1–147; Tracy Stephenson Shaffer, John M. Allison Jr., and Ronald J. Pelias, “A Critical History of the ‘Live’ Body in Performance within the National Communication Association,” in A Century of Communication Studies: The Unfinished Conversation, ed. Pat K. Gehrke and William M. Keith (London: Routledge, 2014), 187–206.
Damion Searls, “Write Tight,” The Paris Review, 21 April 2015, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/04/21/write-tight/, original emphases.
In 2016, Louisiana State University (LSU) adopted the cloud-based financial and human resource management system, Workday. Workday is a publicly traded company with assets of some $3.16 billion as of November 2017. “Workday,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workday,_Inc., accessed 17 December 2017. The implementation of this accounting system, developed for businesses but not in my experience an easy fit with universities, imposed additional workloads on faculty members and caused considerable controversy. LSU's Faculty Senate subsequently passed a resolution describing the problems and proposing actions to address them. Louisiana State University Faculty Senate, “Faculty Senate Resolution 16–12: Regarding the Workday Implementation,” www.lsu.edu/senate/files/16-12resolution.pdf.
Michael Blumenthal, “A Marriage,” in Against Romance (New York: Pleasure Boat Studio, 1987), 16. This is the entire poem, with a few changes to replace the institution of marriage with the institution of the university; my changes are indicated with brackets.
Searls, “Write Tight.”