393: “Arterial Ink” (Jenny L. Davis)

                “Academic nonfiction tends to create distance between the author and what’s being talked about, and between the affective experiences and relationships to it. Poetry is the exact opposite. Poetry cracks open the rib cage and makes you write with that arterial ink.” -Jenny L. Davis, Poet, Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies

                I wonder about the ways this manufactured distance between me and what I write functions to create distance between me and what I do. I wonder if, through this distance, I position myself to carry out a role that I’m troubled by, to treat people or communities in ways that “I” never would but that my place in a system says I should.
                For instance: education. The phrase, “I’m your teacher, not your friend.” The first time I had to assign my students semester grades, I felt angry and sick for days. I almost quit teaching. I didn’t want to rank these people who I’d come to know and care about. Even if I convinced myself I was ranking “their performance in the class,” I couldn’t believe a) that there was actually a single rubric by which I could rank them, b) that ranking them was more helpful than hurtful, or (a distant third) c) that I knew them in a way to say, “Ah, yes, you above you.” I wanted to see them as learners and companions, jokesters and thinkers. As friends. Then I assigned grades. For twelve years I’ve kept assigning grades, because I “have” to—or at least, because I want to be a teacher, and that’s what teachers do in the systems where I work. “I’m your teacher, not your friend” creates a kind of conceptual gulf between me and them, between what I felt about what I was doing and what I was doing, between the hurt of grading and grading. Which makes grading easier to do.
                Some people might say, “Sure, and sometimes we have to do things that are unpleasant in the moment but important overall. Get over it.” Maybe sometimes they’re right. Reading Professor Davis, I’m more interested in asking, Where can I write with my arterial ink? Where can I follow the opened-up chest of what I believe into deeper connections? A sense of why this matters to me might guide me through those hard moments, just like distancing myself was supposed to do. I trust more poets then academics. Could a sense of why this matters also bring us to the moments where we can break through a system’s have tos, and find another way?

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