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Exploring Democracy–poets confront obstacles—and possibilities

In this presidential election year, 100 years after women won the right to vote, what does a government of the people, by the people, and for the people look like?

Williams College is taking on questions like these—what it means to have a democracy, to be a citizen, and to act with civic responsibility—and is inviting the community.

“A community needs to draw from all of its members, or it isn’t a democracy,” says Neil Roberts, chair of Africana studies and the W. Ford Schumann faculty fellow in democratic studies at Williams College. In times like these, with environmental crises across the globe and a fractured body politic, Roberts says the study of democracy is vital and “a poet and multi-faceted thinker may help us.”

This semester, Williams welcomes award-winning poet, scholar, and journalist Rowan Ricardo Phillips as the W. Ford Schumann Distinguished Visiting Professor in Democratic Studies. He has described his latest work, his third collection coming out in March, as “civic poetry.” In Living Weapon, he speaks to a time when he sees challenges to democracy and possibilities.

And he will be reaching out to the community in a series in talks and events. On March 4, he will hold a conversation, “Silent Poems, Talking Pictures and the Infinite Playlist,” with two internationally recognized writers—novelist, essayist, photographer and Harvard professor Teju Cole and Jamaican poet and Cornell professor Ishion Hutchinson. The three will discuss literature’s relationship to democratic ideals.

“Emily Dickinson says I dwell in possibility,” Roberts says, and they will explore the challenge of rule by the people—what democracy literally means—in a country where some have historically defined others as not “of the people.” He looks to James Baldwin, who wrote powerfully in the mid-20th century of himself as a writer, as a man, as a black man, a New Yorker, an ex-pat, “and his relationship to society in a complex social environment that lacked the nuance to understand and fully accept him,” says Roberts. “He had that language before most did, and it still resonates.”

They will meet with the community and ask how this country can go forward as a people, and as artists, reckoning with obstacles and opportunities, says Phillips. “What can we do now, when so many questions are rising about democratic values and art’s responsibility?”

This conversation accompanies a course Phillips is teaching on Democratic Vistas. Through poetry, fiction, non-fiction, photography, and film, students will ask what a democracy is, what it has been in this country—and what it can be. Phillips recalls Octavia Butler, a writer he is teaching in this course. In Parable of the Sower, in a not-too-distant future, at a time of economic, social and environmental collapse, a young woman is trying to create her own structure for a new society. That is the kind of reinvention he hopes this class will explore.

“If you’re not ossified, what will be your founding documents? What are the ideals, the grains of salt we bring to it? What becomes essential in a canon? How do you form it and carry it forward?” says Phillips. Talking things out together is an important part of being human.

Phillips is getting to know the college and the community and the town, the museums and vistas. “I met a friend for drinks last night who said, ‘I can see you at the Clark Art Institute in one of those Adirondack chairs, gazing at the cows and wondering, is this freedom?’ ”

Roberts sees freedom and democracy as connected and changing. “I’ve always made the case that freedom, how we understand it, is constantly in motion.”

He explores their convergence in the second annual Democracy and Freedom conference this spring at Williams, and in a series of talks on race and democracy. He also supports activities like the Williams Forum where students can follow debates and talk about current events.

What does it mean to be a citizen, Roberts asks, and what does it mean when citizenship can be taken away? A poet can speak directly to questions like this. A poet can understand events that rock the country, not in political theories but directly, finding deep and emotional meaning. And, in a time when the political climate feels sharply divided, a poet can connect with people.

Phillips feels a pull in his own work to consider contemporary events and national currents that shape people’s daily lives.

“If I could define civic poetry, I think it would call to me less,” he says. “It’s feeling in the darkness for the tether that connects us and making that a public offering.”

Poetry becomes a place where he and readers can stand together and search for a sense of the world and what’s vital and important to all of us living in this fraught space, he says. Civic poetry steps into a public place, and in trying times it can give expression to the pain and chaos people live through.

“One thing I love about poetry,” Phillips says, “is that it is a visual art. You can read a sentence, a page, and revisit it, cracking something open and finding new possibilities. Like democracy. We can stare at it and find new possibilities for language, in the way Baldwin does. But, hopefully, we will be less alone when we do.”

Come One, Come All

›› On Wednesday, February 26, 2020 Nikole Hannah-Jones, who covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine, will talk on “Reflections on 1619 and the 400 Years that Built a Nation” at Williams College.

›› On Wednesday, March 4, 2020 Teju Cole photography critic of the New York Times Magazine, Ishion Hutchinson recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and Rowan Ricardo Phillips recipient of the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, discuss “Silent Poems, Talking Pictures and the Infinite Playlist” at Williams College.

›› On Tuesday, March 10, 2020 Saidiya Hartman, 2019 MacArthur Fellow, Professor of English & Comparative Literature, Columbia University, will read from and discuss her book, Wayward Lives at Williams.

›› On Monday, March 30, 2020 MCLA’s Hardman Journalist in Residence BoB Davis with The Wall Street Journal will hold a campus talk at MCLA.

›› On Friday, April 17, 2020 the second annual Democracy and freedom Conference at Williams College will focus on political theorist Hannah Arendt.



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