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POETRY IS A SMALL VESSEL BUT IT CAN BE A FREEDOM VESSEL | A CONVERSATION WITH DR AMY SHIMSHON SANTO

POETRY IS A SMALL VESSEL BUT IT CAN BE A FREEDOM VESSEL | A CONVERSATION WITH DR AMY SHIMSHON SANTO

Dr. Amy Shimshon-Santo is a writer and educator who believes that creativity is a powerful tool for personal and social transformation. Her art and community work nourish inclusive cultural ecologies for planetary justice. She is the author of Catastrophic Molting (Flowersong Press, 2022), Even the Milky Way is Undocumented (Unsolicited Press, 2020), and the limited edition chapbook Endless Bowls of Sky (Placeholder Press, 2020). Amy has penned numerous peer-reviewed essays published in Urban Education; GeoHumanitiesEducation, Citizenship, and Social Justice; The Journal of Imagining America, SUNY Press, UC Press, the Journal of Writers Project Ghana, and Illinois Open Publishing Network. She has edited two books amplifying community voices: Et Al. (co-edited with Genevieve Kaplan, IOPN, 2022) and Arts = Education (UC Press, 2010). Amy led the equity policy work group for California’s Blueprint for Creative Schools, and was a founding member of Create CA linking the CA Dept. of Education with the CA Arts Council. She has been recognized on the National Honor Roll for Service Learning, and been nominated for an Emmy Award, three Pushcart Prizes in poetry and creative nonfiction, a Rainbow Reads Award, and was a finalist for the Nightboat Book Poetry Prize. Her teaching career has spanned research universities, community centers, K-12 schools, arts organizations, and spaces of incarceration. Recently, she has been a guest artist and speaker with the UAM Creative Placemaking Program, UNESCO Rumbo Mondiacult Mexico, UNEB Bahia Brazil, PaGya! Festival of Ghana, and the Lagos International Poetry Festival.

Hello, Amy. We are beyond pleased to have you join us.

Thank you for inviting me. It is a joy to be together. 

Can you talk about the ways in which your own cultural background has influenced your use of language and the way you teach?

My cultural background has been shaped by migration, history, and place. I was born on the unsucceeded land of the Tongva and Chumash, in the region of Aztlan (a Nahuatl word for the place of herons). This territory was colonized by Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Located in the Pacific Rim, we are territorially, culturally, and linguistically connected to the Americas (North America, Central America, and South America) and to Oceania and Asia via the Pacific Ocean. African presence has been recorded here since at least the 18th century (half of the LA founders were Black, half were Native American, and two were Spanish). Today, the African diaspora is around 9 % of the population, and one third is foreign born. LA is now a mosaic of communities who speak around 200 different languages at home.

My mother was born in Jerusalem, and my father was born in Newark. Our ancestors fled Aryan nazism, or were annihilated. Raised in LA, I had children with an Afro-Brazilian person of the Candomble faith (an offshoot of the Yoruba Ifa tradition). We made a polylingual, interfaith, multinational family. My Egun, or ancestors, are Jewish. We’ve been nomadic for over 1000 years. Our  languages include Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, and the host languages of every place that we have lived. In our tradition, the Hebrew letters speak directly to the divine and are spiritual tools for world making.

Polylingualism and translation help my family and friends stay connected across continents. As an artist, I play with how to bring these qualities onto the page and into performance. As a professor, I strive to create inclusive classroom ecologies so that students can be themselves, innovate in their research and artmaking, and study truth from multiple perspectives.

From a diversity perspective, how do you think cultural differences and nuances impact the way we approach poetry?

We all have poetic roots. Poetry flows through song, prayer, rhythm, dance, image, and movement. With that said, I never saw Jewish or African poetic forms mentioned in any craft book or in any poetry classroom as a student. I knew of individual poets, but our legacies of form were not discussed. This is a kind of erasure that I am trying to change. Form matters because It dictates what might be considered, or not considered, poetry. I had to ask my elders, “Do we have any poetic forms?” “Of course we do,” my mother said, and she started to sing over me:ברוך אתה יי You see? We are made of poetry. Poetry has always been with us.

In your experience as an educator, what are some of the most effective ways to teach students about poetry and help them develop an appreciation for its importance?

Start by establishing a devoted relationship with your own creativity. Tell yourself, I will show up for you. I will listen to you. I have faith in you. My creativity is limitless. 

There is a lot of strain on us to care for the material needs of ourselves and families. If you come from a working class family, poetry might appear frivolous. But, writing is a way to change our worlds. Welcome writing and reading into your daily life, your routines, your home, your relationships, your dream life, your imagination. Create rituals that satisfy your curiosity so you don’t become stagnant or defeated. Bring poetry into the spaces that you touch. Advocate and organize for book sharing, digital access, music, dance, and media making. Develop ways for communities to connect, perform, and publish. Grow mutualist friendships and leverage your collective resources to expand what is currently possible. Your voice and powers of communication are infinite, and are of tremendous value to the world.

What do you hope readers and audiences experience when they encounter or interrogate your work?

I hope that they feel things. I hope that they feel less alone. They may realize that women are dynamic human beings with complex inner and social lives. We are culture makers, not just reproducers of humanity. I come from a lineage where women did not have many opportunities to speak about their lives publicly through writing. No one I am aware of in my lineage wrote. Women have been positioned as the yud — the smallest letter of the aleph bet. (The yud looks like this: י ) We are not inconsequential. I hope that readers feel invited into the worlds that I inhabit, and feel inspired to write their own stories. 

How important is research to you when writing, and in what specific instances has it been a defining factor?

The first and last person who I must teach is myself. Research lets me move forward and backward in time across space. It lets me learn from the living and the dead, from people I have never met, and from the natural environment. It helps me touch things beyond my reach. I enjoy diving into archives and libraries. I like listening to people; talking with people.

A big part of research is filling in the gaps where hegemony has erased or misrepresented so many of us. Performing research has pushed me to think for myself, center my own values, create new terminologies, and shift the narrative of hegemony. Rather than spending my life feeling disempowered or alienated, the trick has been to bring myself, my communities, and the ideas I care about, center stage on the page. Thinking and feeling better seeds different futures in this very moment.

From your perspective, how do you think poetry can be used as a means of exploring and expressing issues related to social justice, empathy, and inclusivity?

Anything can be a tool for justice. A dinner shared. An ethical work environment. A safe place to sleep. Better legislation. Kindness. So can poetry. Poetry is a way to rehearse freedom of speech, practice self authorship and truth telling, and think critically while cultivating empathy, authenticity, and courage. Through unique language, we can challenge the respectability of how things are to be told.

Poetry is a small vessel, but it can be a freedom vessel. Everything expansive starts as something small. Change could begin with your mark on the page, your voice speaking up. We cultivate empathy and the ability to listen or be heard. We reimagine our lives through language. Our words are how worlds are made. 

What do you think is the relationship between language and identity, and is it a theme you enjoy exploring through your poetry?

I feel the necessity to explore language and identity in my poetry. Very specific worldviews are held in place by monolingualism, or even bilingualism. I am a homosapien living on Earth who believes in planetary justice. The human species will swiftly perish if we don’t address climate change, and stop over producing plastics and toxic waste. This is a global issue that we have to face translocally. This means we have to come to know each other as we really are. It is impossible to accurately imagine the world in one language. 

I enjoy being linguistically playful. I recently titled a poetry presentation: “everywhere you go, the land always has more than one language.” I spoke primarily in English, but included parts in Hebrew, Ladino, Spanish, Portuguese, and Yoruba because I’d been asked to speak about writers who had shaped me. This approach may make me a bit of an anomaly, but it makes me happy, very happy. 

In your opinion, how do you think educators can help immigrant MFA students develop their voice as writers, without altering the unique writing style and cultural perspective of the students?

Let me begin with a word for graduate students. Value yourself and your dreams. Find trustworthy friends and mentors. Put your leadership traits to work. Advocate for what you want and hope for. You may need to create spaces for support that don’t already exist. This could be as simple as a study group, a student run or community press, or a fundraising campaign. Find ways to create a culture of connection, whether on campus, in the community, or online. Your health and wellness is the foundation of your future success. So, rest. Get fresh air. Nourish yourself. No matter how busy you become, you get to set boundaries, say no, and create safe spaces for yourself.

I’m not convinced that students enjoy their education. That is crazy to me. As an educator, I put a lot of effort into developing an inclusive curriculum. I also like to meet with students individually early on to get a better sense of who they are. My aim is for each student to see their cultures reflected in the curriculum. Most of us are denied this. I was denied this. This is something I’ve focused on changing by making my classes student-centered. The class flow and assignments can provide ways for students to practice self leadership and responsibility, make creative choices, and practice ethical collaboration. I often require students to connect with people and places outside of school. This helps us be attentive to both academic methodologies and real world conditions and everyday knowledges.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your writing? What personal experiences have influenced your writing the most?

I’m always writing about some aspect of reality. The imagination is real. Whether poetry or creative nonfiction, I use writing to tell stories, amplify, interrogate, or reimagine my life. Intuition, memories, and dreams coexist with historical and geographical facts. 

I’ve written a lot about womanhood, mothering, and healing in my poetry. Catastrophic Molting is a book about repudiation, mourning, anger, and recalibration. It interrogates a very specific time and place of hyper violence in the US. Writing Even the Milky Way is Undocumented helped me make sense of single motherhood, and be in a better relationship to myself after my kids had grown. Endless Bowls of Sky was about illness, fear, and recovery. My creative nonfiction essays have been about the arts and culture in relation to education, family, and place.

What was the process of writing your book “Catastrophic Molting” (published by Flowersong Press, 2022), “Endless Bowls of Sky” (Placeholder Press, 2020), “Even the Milky Way is Undocumented” (Unsolicited Press, 2020.” like and how long did it take you to write the book?

I wrote many of the poems in Even the Milky Way is Undocumented while pursuing an MFA, and some of them in Puerto Rico while visiting my daughter. It took about three years to complete that book. My chapbook, Endless Bowls of Sky, took over my life for a couple of months while I was ill. This book was unexpected, and wanted to be made immediately. I wasn’t sure if I would live or not so there was nothing to wait for. If that was my last act, so be it. Catastrophic Molting was one of two collections that I wrote during the pandemic. Having a daily writing practice helped me make it through.

You are an accomplished poet and educator. What is the biggest difference you have noticed between both worlds and how do you navigate it?

Both teaching and writing begin with the solitary process of research. Teaching quickly becomes an extroverted activity. Teaching worlds vary depending on the context. In the community, we could be anywhere from a park to a community center, or a kitchen table. In the neoliberal university, there are numerous institutional requirements. I’ve directed two university programs, taught in higher education for 20 years. Universities are highly structured worlds. ON the scale of the classroom, my job is to fabricate our starship, take students on a quick spin around the galaxy, and let them take charge of our journey. Writing poetry is a more personal and vulnerable world. It exists less in my head, and more in my body. Even though I love both, I can’t always easily switch from one to the other. This quandary is not as simple as time management. It requires navigating different aspects of your own being. 

How do you see the role of technology in education, particularly in terms of promoting linguistic and cultural diversity?

To begin with, I view traditional art and cultural forms — such as dance, music, song, poetry, fashion, and textiles — as technologies, or techne (making and doing). New technologies have made it possible to teach online, and to facilitate learning spaces between people in rural and urban spaces across regions and countries. This absolutely lends itself to cultural, economic, and linguistic diversity. For example, I recently hosted an online class for people across three time zones with participants from various cities in the U.S., Mexico, Ghana, and Nigeria. I’d love to do more of that, but in person. I fantasize about hosting arts and culture residency experiences internationally where we can meet, create, and collaborate face-to-face. We need to be able to experience what is just outside the device or zoom box.

Technology has also helped access for students who benefit from audio, transcription, or translation services. Becoming familiar with audio, video, and web technologies is helpful for publishing, and for circulating orality and indigenous languages across time and place.

At the same time, it is also important not to romanticize technology. The inequities of our analogue worlds followed us into our digital worlds. We can remain critical and vigilant regarding the ethics and impact of tech. The internet was influenced by military intentions, and social media was structured around advertising and sales. In the US context, this has created new addictions and mental health concerns associated with a loneliness epidemic. There are new risks associated with AI, and selling people’s personal data has become an obstacle to basic democratic systems like voting. The same vigilance and commitment to justice we have in analogue spaces is required with new technologies. 

So, what are you working on next? What should we look forward to? Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?

Teachers may enjoy a new special issue about Freedom Schools that will be coming out soon in Urban Education. I also hope to have two new books coming out in the next year: one book of ecological poems, and one essay collection about community and place. The ecology poems include translations from Bee to Human, Code to English, and, in one spot, the English explodes into eight different languages. After a lot of productivity, I’m moving into an R & D phase with a bit of travel for language study. I need to refresh.

Finally, besides yourself, can you recommend any specific poetry collections or writers that you feel would be particularly valuable for educators to share with their students?

There are so many fabulous writers producing work these days, but I imagine that readers in Nigeria have better access to writers in the US than the other way around. I was so inspired by the literary worlds in Ghana and Nigeria when I visited in 2022. I hope that your readers check out the websites of Writers’ Project Ghana, and Lagos International Poetry Festival, and read every author listed that they can find!

One of my great concerns in education are our inequitable systems of access. In the US, conversations around access almost always include public libraries and public education. Local and regional public literary resources intersect with markets, but I don’t see how markets alone can handle the breadth of what is needed for every community to have access to being published and access to reading or hearing literature. We would need to expand markets for affordable books that also reimburse writers for their work, invest in small presses, and radicalize curatorial decision making among large presses. So, I’m curious about global roles for well resourced libraries online in terms of decolonizing their collections, better serving our diasporic populations, and providing international access to regions that have been under-resourced or exploited.

I’ve been lucky to be connected to the literary community of Writers Project Ghana (WPG) because of the kindness of Mamle Wolo, Martin Egblebopwe, and the Lagos International Poetry Festival because of Efe Paul Azino. They are doing catalytic work. In the US, there is more exposure to African music, fashion, and visual arts than there is to its vibrant literary cultures. Unless you have family or close friends on the continent you might never be exposed to African literature by living writers, especially literature written by African women. 

I returned home from Accra and Lagos last year wondering how public libraries in my city might increase access to literature by living African authors while simultaneously opening their archives to writers who did not have access to elaborate digital libraries of this scope. I mean, our libraries provide audiobooks, ebooks, print books, classes, events, ways to process citizenship or earn a high school diploma. They have come a long way. Our City Librarian, John Szabo, guided me to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, and to Electronic Information for Libraries. A friend who is a professor of information technologies also guided me to the Internet Archive. I also spoke with friends at Katuka Africanidades in Brazil, and the  Cineteca Nacional in Mexico, and the number of available books by living African authors in translation is miniscule. Most of the available translations in Spanish or Portuguese are coming out of Europe. The LA Public Library researched the number of living African women authors available in translation and found only 17. That is a paucity of access. How will anyone outside of Africa ever come to read African authors if this doesn’t change? This, I think, is one of the challenges and possibilities of our time. We tried out things like granting library access to authors abroad, and hosting a reading for International Women’s Day Reading curated by Mamle Wolo with Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Boakyewaa Glover, Petra Aba Asamoah, and Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah hosted by me and A’bena Awuku-Larbi. It is wonderful to send stories back and forth across the Atlantic. I appreciate all that you are doing at Libretto Magazine. It has been an honor to connect for this interview. Thank you!

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