author of The Dear Remote Nearness of You
Solstice Consulting Poetry Editor
Interviewed by Ben Berman
Solstice Poetry Editor
Ben: Many years ago, when I was teaching high school in Hyde Park, you visited my class as a guest speaker, and I remember being struck by how immediately you connected with my students and how they all wanted to be poets after you left. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your role at Lesley working with future teachers. How do you help teachers think about the role of arts (and poetry, in particular) in the classroom?
Danielle: It was a pleasure to be in your classroom. I saw what great work you were doing with your students, and how engaged they were in their own learning. I think my job on such visits is to activate students’ prior knowledge, hear them, leave them with something to think about— ideally, inspire them.
At Lesley I help students gain an understanding of poetry through the writing, reading, and discussion of it. Students also learn how to integrate poetry into their classrooms and educational settings, and across academic disciplines. Writing is often considered a key activity of school learning. Poetry often enhances the approach to writing, in addition to being valuable for its own sake. What I believe I offer students—in addition to lots of resources and the tools with which to create the best poems and narratives they can—is in-class writing time; permission to write; and the validation that deep thinking and writing (and creating space for this) are not selfish, but necessary and vital to them as critical thinkers, educators, and human beings.
I believe in the power of writing and language to name, define (and self-define), identify, witness, and create new visions. My philosophy of education involves sharing this belief—by example, and through the work—with my students. I believe that if they develop interest in and enthusiasm for an art form (poetry is this case), they will have no difficulty translating that enthusiasm to their own students, and working with the form to support and enhance student learning.
Art and art production, for me, carry a number of positive principles—the valuing of inquiry, reflection, consideration, skill, crafts-personship, how to make a product (a poem), how to connect that product to society; understanding the traditions out of which forms come; having aesthetic points of view; being able to articulate those points of view, and being able to enter into dialogue with others regarding those positions. What is especially useful is art’s allowance for complexities, for the mixing of seemingly disparate genres and things (for and as the conjunction of choice, over but)—and for the carrying of culture, and the subterranean or submersed.
That said, I am also aware that art (and poetry) doesn’t come without struggle—and I appreciate what can emerge through difficulty in understanding a work, in how one engages and confronts one’s own ideas while producing, and as one’s work finds its way into the world and enters into dialogue with others. Content can be provocative, and in some cases upsetting or annoying. The conditions under which art is produced, and by whom can be up for discussion, as can the traditions one works in, against, or through.
Poetry’s power to provoke and promote thought, and to explore and transmit ideas in compelling ways are why I find it an extraordinarily useful learning tool. Teaching and art, in my opinion, share the notion of the exploration and transmission of ideas.
There you have it, my pedagogical creed. Did you not solicit this, Ben?
Ben: The title of your latest book, The Dear Remote Nearness of You, offers us an immediate tension between the words Remote and Nearness. How did you see these tensions playing out in different ways throughout the collection?
Danielle: With the book’s title I hope to convey the sense of being near and far at the same time (to something or someone). The experience of the virtual world within the ‘real’ world is an example; the knowledge of the immigrant, of being of a place but no longer in it is another. A long-distance relationship can be yet another illustration. I am interested in the walls and screens that allow or impede connection. I’m interested in simultaneities, and the pluses of doubleness, and the mixing or merging of seemingly disparate elements. I am interested in and as the conjunction of choice, over but. I find art especially useful in its allowance for complexities, for space in which things that are not supposed to go together, can and do go together.
The concepts of space, and location and perspective are threads in this book—as well as how we understand and situate ourselves relative to current and historical events. I am a Haitian-born American poet, and so wrote and included poems that were written in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and how we move forward from it. Identity and race within the context of the United States are recurring themes for me, and these make their way into the book too, and how much farther we have to go here.
Ben: You have been a lightning rod for success over the past few years – an MCC Fellowship, a new book, a Brother Thomas Fellowship, the Sheila Margaret Motton Book Prize, the appointment as Boston’s Poet Laureate – in what ways have these honors and awards changed or affected your work as a poet?
Danielle: Yes, some good things have happened. These awards and honors have served as encouragement to keep creating and collaborating. I’m grateful for the time and space they bring. In general I feel such honors and fellowships are statements of recognition of the social and civic value of the arts and the value of poetry to the vitality of Boston and the region. The fellowships have allowed me to create new work I might not have otherwise made, and the Laureateship allows me to enter into dialogue with Bostonians and all kinds of people (here and beyond the city), ultimately expanding my knowledge of the human experience and the world. The experience has been a great education and gift to me as a poet.
Ben: What has surprised you most since becoming the Poet Laureate of Boston? What have been some of the more delightful aspect of the position? What have been some of the stranger – or more challenging – parts of the job?
Danielle: I was surprised at how challenging it could be to write an occasional poem—one meant for a particular moment or event. There are lots of considerations with such poems: the intended audience, the gravity or not of the occasion, the history associated with the occasion, and so on. These are assignments, and great opportunities for research.
My role is to serve as an advocate for poetry, language and the arts in the city. The role involves raising the status of poetry in the consciousness of Bostonians, serving as a poetry ambassador. How I do that is by participating in civic events, by presenting poetry in a variety of venues for a variety of moments, and by creating programs for Bostonians of all ages. I have found all of this exciting, and most of it delightful—particularly the programs and events that bring poetry into public spaces.
Ben: You are currently on sabbatical from Lesley – I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what you’ve been working on and what’s next for you in terms of poetry.
Danielle: I’ve just completed a chapbook to be published this year by Central Square Press, a fantastic small press, and returned to a project I had to put on hold around the time of the illness and loss of my mother. I’m also working on a third manuscript of poems.
DANIELLE LEGROS GEORGES is the city of Boston’s Poet Laureate and author of two poetry collections, The Dear Remote Nearness of You (Barrow Street Press, 2016), winner of the New England Poetry Club’s 2016 Sheila Margaret Motton Book Prize, and Maroon (Curbstone Books, 2001). She has received recent fellowships from the Boston Foundation, the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is a professor in the Creative Arts in Learning Division of Lesley University.