Earlier this semester during one of our think tank sessions, we brainstormed our associations for the terms “classroom,” “spaces where learning happens,” and “activities for learning.” For “classrooms,” I listed physical objects: desks, windows, whiteboards, static configurations, doors that are hard to open. But for “spaces where learning happens,” my terms shifted to more of a creative, craft-based space: airy, atrium, dirty hands, messiness, music, collaboration, sharing work without judging. My responses for “activities for learning” were in the same vein: sharing, discussing, reading aloud, listening, mapping, staying lost.
As a creative writer, I often return to the strengths of creative writing pedagogy as a resource for possible solutions to the composition issues we discuss in class. For Krista Ratcliffe, the practice of rhetorical listening is comprised of four moves, the first of which is “promoting an understanding of self and other” (26). Ratcliffe cites Alice Rayner’s definition of this type of literacy as “perhaps a borderland more than a boundary between the capacity to hear and the obligation to listen to what one cannot immediately understand or comprehend. And it leads to the learning of community” (30). Creative writing programs, especially those that take place outside the evaluative structures of school, allow students the time and space to learn about themselves and gain empathy for other people, to spend time together in the borderland of hearing and understanding.
One of my colleagues, David Kruger, has recently started a new program in Milwaukee that offers students a community space to write and share their stories. The Milwaukee Queer Writing Project (MQWP) is a program that offers free creative writing workshops to LGBTQ+ youth in the Milwaukee area. I asked David some questions about MQWP’s beginnings and future.
Q: What inspired you to start MQWP?
A: I had just passed my prelims, which was a really solitary and concentrated endeavor, and I wanted to find a way to reconnect with the community around me. I more or less took it as an opportunity to reset and reorient and to embark on new projects.
I don’t know what spurred the initial thought. I queried a handful of other graduate students at the UWM English Dept., and as we began collaborating a lot of things sort of clicked. On the one hand, there are a lot of LGBTQ+-identified creative writing teachers at UWM who were interested when we started. Additionally, I know a good number of LGBTQ+ high school teachers (I bartend at a gay bar).
So, while I am not exactly sure why I thought to do it, as soon as we got a group together and began working through some of the logistics, things began progressing at a fairly steady rate. The puzzle pieces were there in front of us (so to speak), and all we had to do was sit down and begin organizing.
Q: Why do you feel it is important to connect young queer writers with more seasoned writers?
A: Someone asked me once why LGBTQ+ students and why not just students in general? And, I think answering this first might help me better answer your question. Currently, we are interested in working with Gay Straight Alliances (the pilot program we launched this fall is with Riverside High School’s GSA). So, anyone and everyone is welcome to attend. However, I wanted to create a space that is markedly queer and specifically for LGBTQ+ students because writing creatively often requires a degree of emotional vulnerability and honesty. And, in straight and cis spaces, LGBTQ+ people tend to self-censor as a survival mechanism. I think this is incredibly prevalent in the high school setting (at least it was for me and a lot of people I know). So, I didn’t want to make a creative writing program that “made room” for LGBTQ+ students. Rather, I was interested in making a creative writing program that was for LGBTQ+ students to safely express themselves in writing.
So, I think that this is a space that affords LGBTQ+ students opportunities for expression that are plausibly unavailable elsewhere. Speaking directly to your question, one of the qualities of the space MQWP creates is that it enables LGBTQ+ MPS students to interact with LGBTQ+ UWM instructors. I think this goes a long way in modeling the fact that queer kids can grow up to be happy and healthy queer adults. This serves to demystify the process of growing up for LGBTQ+ kids. When I was a kid (granted I grew up in a small town), the lack of queer role models was extremely isolating. I don’t think this is as prevalent today because of mass media’s embrace of the LGBTQ+ community, but this vision of the community is fairly normative.
Two final notes: 1) creative writing (poems/short stories/creative essays) is a really useful tool for discussions of identity. We do bring in examples by published authors, but primarily we are focused on getting the students to generate work. And, affirming student’s work through positive feedback is one way we affirm the validity of that student’s identity, which might be particularly critical if that sort of affirmation isn’t happening elsewhere. And 2) hopefully this program gets high school students thinking about college and gets them excited about the kind of spaces and teachers they might encounter there.
Q: What is your goal for MQWP in the future/ where would you like to see the program a few years down the road?
A: We launched our pilot program with Riverside High School this fall, which we are using as an opportunity to fine-tune some of the logistical and operational facets of MQWP. We are very interested in expanding this organization both in terms of the number of institutions but also the kind of institutions we partner with. We are primarily interested in building more bridges between additional area high schools and UWM (and are currently in contact with a few). Partnerships with other kinds of organizations are also hopefully in our future. Currently, MQWP is formed in partnership with the UWM English deptartment and Woodland Pattern Book Center in Riverwest. Our collaboration with Woodland Pattern has been immensely helpful in terms of their support and getting us off the ground (shout out specifically to Alexa, their education coordinator for her invaluable support). We have contacted a few local organizations (such as the Courage House of Milwaukee and the UWM LGBT+ Studies program) who have expressed interest in working with us, and we are excited about the possibility of these collaborations in the future.
Q: What else would you like to share about the program?
A: If you are reading this and want to know more or if you work at a local high school and are interested in a partnership, please reach out! Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
David Kruger is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee English department. He teaches English literature, creative writing, and LGBT+ studies. He is also a poetry editor for cream city review.
This past week, we discussed Eric Darnell Pritchard’s Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy. While I will not and cannot speak for my peers, I will not hesitate to say that the book was an absolute tour de force. Pritchard grapples with the immense pain and hardships of those who lie outside of our heteronormative society’s “acceptable” lifestyles (particularly black people who identify as queer) with both an astute understanding of dense theory and a refreshing, unwavering optimism. While our conversation of the work was soul-stirring (a term I borrow from Rachel’s own reaction to the book), the main takeaway of our conversation was the question we closed on: Can Pritchard’s approach to literacy save lives?
Literacy’s different forms
Our discussion began with a brief exploration of what, exactly, literacy is. We reached the conclusion that traditional perceptions of literacy are outdated and inaccurate: people can be literate in all sorts of subjects and in all sorts of ways, and perhaps most importantly, just because a person is literate does not mean that they will magically be catapulted into a better life. In fact, literacy normativity, as Pritchard calls it, is “the use of literacy to create and impose normative standards and beliefs onto people whom are labeled alien or other through textscapes that are experienced as painful because they do damage or inflict harm” (28). To combat these damaging literacies, Pritchard introduces a concept he calls restorative literacies, a way of using literacy to create a space of one’s own, a refuge away from oppression where one can heal wounds and come to practice self and communal love. These spaces and literacies are not constructed in opposition to oppression, but completely outside of it, creating a space solely for those who have been hurt by literacy normativity.
Love and Revolution
Something that really stood out in Pritchard’s work and our class discussion was his focus on love—not necessarily romantic love and desire, but self care, self-worship, and communal support. While most theoretical texts come from a good place—certainly the texts we have read throughout the semester have been written with the intent of improving the lives of students, educators, and various other communities—it is refreshingly unusual to have a book like this so explicitly and unapologetically focused on self love and care.
Another term that gave power to Pritchard’s work—in fact, it’s the last word in the entire book—was revolution. Pritchard closes his book by writing, “And what this theory might do is nurture, illuminate, and enact the very self- and communal love that fuels the very literacy actions examined throughout this book. In short, a Black Queer Literacies is what I would call a revolution” (252). There are many words he could have used here, but revolution, to me, feels the most powerful. This final line feels like a true call to arms, an invitation to reject literacy normativity and encourage others to do the same to create a world where literacy does in fact live up to its traditional definition—a skill that betters the life of everyone who acquires it, not just a privileged few.
Can This Approach Save Lives?
In regard to the question I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the answer we reached as a group was yes, Pritchard’s ideas of restorative literacies, self love, and communal revolution can indeed save lives. Forgive me if I’m getting too personal here, but as we discussed this question, I was struck by an incredible wave of peace. Here we were, a small group of people with a myriad of different backgrounds, lives, interests, and goals packed around a table on a chilly Thursday night. Most of us are graduate students, not quite yet at the apex of our goals, many of us not yet immersed in the field we are drawn to. As we were discussing how we can heal and prevent damage caused by violent and oppressive literacies, how we can teach our students, our peers, our children, and ourselves, how we can construct our own worlds full of freedom and love and power—well, it certainly felt like the beginning of a revolution to me.
“Truth…..speaks…..out! Truth…speaks….out! Truth…” The chant of Prophetess Vera D. Nathaniel accompanied us as we walked out of the Riverwest Radio Station– an old alternative video store reconverted, as their mission explains, in “a community platform for education, advocacy and creativity, as well as an outlet for marginalized and alternative voices”. Riverwest Radio started to emit in March 2014 after President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act in 2011. This act was the result of a long battle led by several organizations, among them Free Press and The Prometheus Radio Project against communication corporate control and inequality in media access. Local eclectic voices follow one another from one display store window to the other, where the recording tables are tightly nestled. Anybody local (from the Riverwest neighborhood or its surroundings) can make a show proposal and become a producer. They can also suggest a story and the radio will try to match them with a producer or include the story in a special event programming.
Riverwest Radio is a promising project against dominant narratives, as a peek at its show title listing suggests: The Anti (anarchist show), AbilityMKE Now! (bring abled disabled together), Ayo Sis (drag queen show), Disability Rights, Bing Bong Crunch (collective search histories), EXPO: Ex-Prisoners Organizing, Young Black & Opinionated, etc. Whether the shows have a focused or more global interest, whether they have an informative or entertaining aim, they are overall presented by a great diversity of people, which reflects the neighborhood–-one of the most diverse in Milwaukee, but where gentrification happens quickly. In this context, Riverwest Radio can help render visible “the influence of cultural structures (such as race, gender, class, etc.) on everyone’s life,” structures that “whiteness in the US (in its desire for stasis) occludes” (Ratcliffe 129). It can offer a space where rhetorical listening can happen, where listeners can understand –or rather as Krista Ratcliffe defines it in Rhetorical Listening, where they can stand under discourses, “letting discourses wash over, through, and around us and then letting them lie there to inform our politics and ethics” (Ratcliffe 28). Riverwest Radio offers a platform where diverse community stories and voices can be heard and where their listening “with intent” can thus broaden our cultural literacy (Ratcliffe 28).
Eric Darnell Pritchard in Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy underlines the importance of literacy in creating meaning in socio-cultural contexts, in building identity and in creating community. He advocates for “restorative literacies” against normative literacies that create discourses “marginaliz[ing], ostraciz[ing], and condemn[ing] people for their identities and other ways of being” (Pritchard 28). Considering the tension resulting from the stark segregation in Milwaukee and the gentrification of the Riverwest neighborhood, I was surprised not to find shows at Riverwest Radio that offer “solely resistance to or defiance of oppression and marginality”–which would contribute to “reductive narratives”(Pritchard 35). Instead, I find shows that are just addressing everyday life, politics, sports, music, literature, art, video games, drag shows, etc. By offering a safe place for diverse voices, including queer blacks, to engage literacy on their own terms, “for one’s own desires, pleasures, fantasies, hopes, and needs,” Riverwest Radio can support “restorative literacies.”
As Prophetess Vera D. Nathaniel started her show by her usual chant, I left Riverwest Radio where I was interviewed for Rive Gauche (Interview #111), a show interested in French people and culture in relationship with Riverwest and Milwaukee. I felt welcomed by a community in a neighborhood I had moved in only two months earlier. At the radio, I was welcomed for who I was: a gay woman, a poet, an immigrant, without a raised eyebrow or that slight hint of discomfort when I mention my wife. I talked about my life and my poetry, with just the stumbling of words and thoughts due to the daunting microphone. It felt good.
Picture from Riverwestradio.com