Last week I asked everyone to bring a poem they thought needed a lot of work. They swapped among themselves, spent the week writing feedback, and then, yesterday, presented their thoughts and improvements to the rest of the group. Almost everything I do is coloured by a book I fell in love with over the summer, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Friere, specifically the sections about giving up power. A zine I was reading put it especially well: in a piece entitled “Queers Kissing and Accountability” Shannon Perez-Derby states:
“Often we get power without asking for it and giving away power can feel counter intuitive because it’s something we’re not taught to do, and have almost no models for.”
With this grand old title of writer-in-residence, I’ve been given an awful lot of power over other people. The title suggests that I am more knowledgable, well-read, qualified and capable in the field of poetry than the people who attend my workshop. It is true that I have a few more years of professional poetry under my belt, and I am not going to deny that I was chosen to come out here because someone spotted some kind of talent. But I will say that much of my status – or anyone’s status – is illusory. It’s as much about how we respond to the title a person is given, as the expertise they have. And this response sheds a positive or negative light on our appreciation of our own knowledge. In school, for example, I got wise to the fact that teachers are mortals, but I can think of countless examples of when I deferred to their power, not their intellect. One especial bitch would end any kind of discussion with “okay, well we can talk about this after school if you like.” What that really means is, “Shut up, or I’ll detain you,” as I discovered when I agreed to come back to finish the conversation. I was a smart-arse kid, but I think smart-arsery is a role kids play to have the kind of dialogue they crave. Dialogue on an equal, respectful level. If you don’t give it, some kids will take it. What’s difficult is understanding how to start giving and not feel as though you’re losing face.
I have often been aware of how I try to block other people’s agency. I know that in response I try to adopt some of Friere’s ideas out of principle. Until yesterday, however, it never felt natural. I always had a niggling feeling that I should make it clear that I’m the one in charge and people beneath me should not contradict anything I say. My discomfort with this authoritative feeling might be why I am attracted to radical pedagogy in the first place. But it’s an eye-opener to know for the first time what it is like to detach myself from that authoritative feeling. It’s a bit like noticing that you haven’t thought about an ex you were once obsessed with. Very liberating. Noticing doesn’t result in regression, it makes you conscious of this new mental environment you’re living in. I know that the workshop wasn’t rocket science, nor is it going to spark a pedagogical revolution, except in my room when I’m planning workshops.