This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching
Edited by Megan Volpert
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Elizabeth Kate Switaj
What stands out most about This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching is the diversity of perspectives, subjects, and, to a lesser degree, forms and styles it contains. An anthology that exceeds 200 pages will, of necessity, contain some variety, especially when each poet contributes three poems at most. In this case, however, variation becomes a stance: the alphabet soup of LGBTIQ cannot be reduced to a single subject or position. The boundaries of queerness are not easy to patrol or to define.
What emerges from this anthology, then, is not a single ideology or program for education but a multiplicity of voices and ideas. In the introduction, editor Megan Volpert states that “[t]he very existence of an LGBTIQ-identified teacher in the classroom is still an act of revolution” yet not every poem that follows supports the notion that the revolutionary potential of teaching-while-queer is always fulfilled. Hadar Ma’ayan, in “On Being a Queer Middle School Teacher,” describes the pressures and fears that lead some queer teachers to remain at least semi-closeted, causing them to miss out on teachable moments, as when a student, having been given a detention, retaliates with “I know you’re a lesbian:”
In that moment of choice, I could have said, “She’s right”
Or “Let’s discuss”
Or “Does anybody have any questions?”
But instead the fear rose in me.
The speaker’s lesbianism does not disappear in this instant, but neither does it lead her to act any differently than a straight teacher might. The radical possibilities of queerness do not exempt queer teachers from the same kinds of pressures that non-queer teachers face but, in fact, makes these pressures more acute. Any teacher might be accused by a student of behaving in a way that would outrage parents and administrators. Any teacher might thus have her job threatened. For queer teachers, however, such accusations involve their very identities. Any discussion of how to bring the radical possibilities of queerness to bear in the classroom must, therefore, discuss the forces that constrain them; describing these pressures, as This Assignment Is So Gay does, gives such conversations a place to begin without prescribing solutions that might impose limits on queer teaching.
By avoiding consistent ideological stances, this anthology resists restraining the possibilities of queer pedagogy. Even the idea that “[o]f course ‘it gets better’” with which Volpert begins her introduction does not always hold true. Insecurity and impostor syndrome recur as themes throughout the anthology, as the titles of Roma Raye’s “Big Fat Faker” and Sarah-Jean Krahn’s “Symptomatology of an Impostor” indicate. Shannon Parker’s untitled poem follows the thoughts of a lesbian teacher who ends up “feeling / like a middle school student / instead of a teacher,” embarrassed and ashamed when she hears students describe her sexuality negatively, while Daniel Gonzales’s untitled piece tells us that “A teacher’s lounge is no different / Than a lunchroom cafeteria / There are cliques and groups and gossip.” Douglas Ray says it directly in “Chaperoning:” “I want to say, ‘It will get better’ / in five minutes, in college, in x or y, but things might not.” Such contradiction strengthens the anthology by emphasizing queerness as a site of multiple experiences and concerns.
These concerns are not always obviously related to sexuality or gender. Volpert’s introduction notes that “[n]ot all the poems directly address queer matters, of course, because teachers have many things to do in a day besides pondering their own sexual orientation.” Queer teachers (and students) do not stop being queer because sexuality and gender identity are not part of the lesson plan for that day. A teacher’s identity does not change when, as in Miodrag Kojadinovic’s “A Workday in China,” he asks his students “. . . questions from the textbooks about / drugs and suicides and losing weight.” Such subjects do not necessarily take on a queer flavor simply because the teacher is queer, nor do the poems contained in This Assignment is So Gay, as a whole, take a position as to whether they should. While Ma’ayan’s poem expresses some sense of guilt at not addressing issues of sexuality, Kojadinovic’s does not, even if he doubts the importance of the subjects covered in the required textbook. Such issues remain open for discussion.
How to teach, whether or not one is queer, also remains an unanswered question. The teaching methods the poems depict or imply vary. Students take tests, write essays, and keep journals. Some teachers give lectures. Ron Riekki begins “Noon in the Garden of Queer Theory and Alabama” with a brief outline of one:
Judith Butler on the board, not allowed
in their heads. I explain performativity,
how they’re trick-or-treating right now
with their Dale Earnhardt Jr. ballcaps.
By contrast, the speaker of Benjamin S. Grossberg’s “Secret Admirer: An Essay” says “I have learned to teach by asking questions— / because talking on with no response terrifies me” even though he himself preferred to learn from teachers who, rather than leading discussions, taught “by saying brilliant things.”
Teacher-student relationships differ greatly depending on the poem as well. The speaker of Jeff Mann’s “Gallery, Virginia Tech” wants to be
. . . the ferocious
father totemic bear
furry and fanged
guardian of the tribe.
He wants to protect and fight for his students. By contrast, Ralph Malachowski, in “Adjunctivitis” describes an antagonist relationship with students: “Professor, you find all my mistakes, then mark them wrong. / You’re so mean.” For other teachers, the roles of instructor and learner may be reversed in the way Paulo Freire advocates in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In “The Introductory Poetry Class Defines Ranchera,” Ruth L. Schwarz records different students’ perspectives and definitions; they make meaning and knowledge together with their teacher. As their teacher makes careful notes of what the students say, instead of lecturing to note-taking students, they trade roles. Finally, the speaker of Megan Volpert’s “This Is Brown Bear Soup” says she teaches like she is “on one of those cop shows where a hardcase joins the force to avenge the fact that his sister was abducted when they were kids.” She will do whatever it takes—and use whatever approaches work—in the classroom. Queer teaching does not imply a single approach or pedagogical ideology any more than it suggests a simple unitary identity.
Variation in form and style occurs within a more restricted range in This Assignment Is So Gay. Neither traditional form nor experimentation take up much space, though Nathan Alling Long and D. Gilson contribute sonnets and Kenneth Pobo uses the spelling “str8.” There are a few prose poems. Several others make use of space—with indentation, gaps in lines, and columns of text—yet most do so conservatively. What differs the most, in terms of form and style, is the level of polish. Many pieces are crafted in the way a poem in The American Poetry Review or in Poetry might be. Amanda Powell opens “Wanting the Good” with lines that express gestures of love, only to conclude with cruel words that homophobic people might use to describe them:
My hand at your neck, perverse
our eyes finding each other along the pillow, unnatural
a smile begun before we’re awake, abnormal
our bodies milky and sallow, freckled and still, wrong.
The placement of these hateful words at the ends of the lines emphasizes the contrast between the meanings they carry and the love expressed in the gestures that precede them. Other poems partake in another kind of craft. There are printed versions of spoken word poems, such as Theresa Davis’s “Simon Says,” which concludes with capital letters simulating a shout: “Do this, and I guarantee /our young people, they will ROCK YOU!!” There are also poems that seem designed to declare that their content matters more than their form. Raye begins and ends “Big Fat Faker” with flat, straightforward language:
I’m a faker.
A big fat faker.
A liar liar pants on fire
The plainness of these sentences emphasizes that what matters here is the feeling of impostor syndrome, rather than its expression. That this message is sent with form makes it paradoxical, even as it signals the importance of political and social engagement.
The diversity of This Assignment is So Gay leaves open the form such engagement should take. This anthology raises more questions about teaching—queer and otherwise—than it answers. Because of this openness, the anthology could be used in the classroom to spur a variety of reflective discussions about education and learning. For this same reason, it also has the potential to ignite a variety of conversations among teachers about pedagogy, identity, and courage in the classroom.
Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s first poetry collection, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. She has also published a chapbook, The Broken Sanctuary: Nature Poems, with Ypolita Press. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Irish Pages and a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. Her website is www.elizabethkateswitaj.net.