What Do I Believe?

When I approach the world, when I must make decisions and when I interact with others, I am always concerned with justice and equity. My favorite words are balance, moderation and fairness. I do not believe in black and white; extremism is dangerous in all cases. At a base level, this is the principle I use as my ethical foundation. I have come to understand the importance of balance – of always finding a middle ground – from my experiences abroad, my immersion in poetry and philosophy and my understanding of art.

One of the first times I encountered a stark contrast of lifestyles – a true black versus white experience – was when I studied abroad in China. Chinese culture, I learned, is collectivist. Individualism is a western ideal that the Chinese regard as selfish and inefficient. I spoke to journalism students who said their drive to become reporters stemmed from their drive to represent their country kindly and proudly. In their eyes, the journalist does not act as a government watchdog, but as a pedestal for which to tout the accomplishments of China.

From career choices to family relations to the dinner table, it is crucial for the people of China to share and to build a foundation with individuals acting together as one unit rather than each individual working alone to build her own tall tower.

In an interview for my summer internship last year, the president of the company for which I was interviewing told me he hated China because no one there thinks for himself.

I was shocked. In China, I saw cooperation, care, brotherhood and family everywhere. The president of this company, on the other hand, saw sheep trotting mindlessly along as the government controls them from afar.

German philosopher Hegel theorized that the development of one’s moral conscience comes from encountering what is “other.” He argues that when one confronts something unfamiliar – be it a strange piece of art, a confusing poem or even a person of another race – she has the opportunity to learn from it, to come to terms with it and absorb it as a part of her own understanding of the world. From this emerges a third self: a new consciousness more aware than the last. Hegel says that this process can continue all throughout life, with the emergence of many “third selves.” I found a third self when I experienced Chinese culture: a self that wished for a blend of two cultures.

When I encountered collectivist culture in China, I understood it as fairness. I found it refreshing compared to the cutthroat, competitive culture in America.

However, I also fear for a population so concerned with supporting its government that it forgoes its own rights and allows injustices to occur with no further thought.

American culture and Chinese culture are two extremes. Stark individualism is not effective because it teaches us to hurt one another for the benefit of our own success. Stark collectivism is not effective because it teaches us to abandon our own passions and drives for the good of protecting the “establishment.” An ideal society exists somewhere between these two points. It exists with a compromise between individual happiness and the well being of others. It exists with sacrifice, with some level of discomfort, but never so much that we lose our own selves in the process. In my own actions, I always search for my own ideal: a compromise.

The Wick Poetry Center Experience

This is a reflection of my first semester interning at the Wick Poetry Center in Kent, Ohio. I have become a better teacher and a better listener. I’ve loved every minute of it.

I promised myself for my entire life that I would never become a teacher. My mother was a teacher, and I watched her put in hours of work with little reward. I watched her plan lessons, grade papers, reach out to troubled students, cry, laugh, cry some more. She tried relentlessly to sway her students, to inspire them and teach them to love English as much as she did. Ultimately, the work she did in the classroom never mattered. The administration, the school board, and the county council didn’t care if her students grew to love Shakespeare or cried at the end of Of Mice and Men, they cared about standardized tests and GPAs.

Interning at the Wick Poetry Center has changed my perception about teaching entirely. I’ve learned about opportunities to teach outside the classroom. I’ve learned how to approach teaching as an act of kindness and even activism rather than a mechanical process intended to produce robots with high test scores.

My first teaching assignment this semester was at Walls Elementary teaching River Stanzas. I was nervous to teach as a part of River Stanzas because I knew nothing about the Cuyahoga. I am originally from Maryland, and have no fond memories or experiences around the Crooked River. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to answer questions or help the students connect to the poems we were asking them to write. It quickly became clear to me that the lessons didn’t have to be about any river in particular. I remember Ali, a student from a different country, talking about the river he grew up with. He wanted to write about this river in the middle of a desert that winds like a snake. He ended up writing many beautiful poems with tangible, powerful images that anyone could easily relate to.

This was also my first time working with this age group (fourth graders). I was blown away by their observations, their vocabulary, and the questions they asked in their poetry. They were childlike in their joy and confidence and innocence, but they were wise beyond their years in their curiosity and their freedom with language. Poetry was an act of play to them. They didn’t overthink their words like many adults do. They wrote freely and naturally, and the work they produced was beautiful. I truly had fun teaching them lessons, watching them write on their own, and reading their final poems.

I wish poetry lessons of this sort could be more heavily incorporated into classrooms. The students had natural talent and were always so excited to write. I remember one student asking, “Why can’t we have poetry lessons everyday?” It was an incredible experience to bring River Stanzas into the classroom, but once we leave, we can only hope that the students continue to love and appreciate poetry as they grow.

My other assignment was with the student organization More Than a Body. More Than a Body is a collective of young women—many of whom are survivors of sexual assault or other traumas—supporting each other and reclaiming their bodies and their voices. I got to lead four poetry workshops with these women and attend a public reading where all the participants shared their work.

I didn’t know what to expect from the first workshop. I didn’t know how much the group members would trust me. I was afraid of waltzing in and forcing these women to share their life stories with me and the other strangers in the room. I was even more afraid of asking them to tell said stories through poetry. I didn’t want to prepare lessons that might trigger horrible memories or traumas. I didn’t want to overwhelm the group by launching it head first into a form of self-expression that calls for extreme vulnerability.

Luckily, I had no reason to be afraid of anything. The members embraced me with open arms. Everyone was so excited to use poetry as a form of healing. Even those who admitted to having bad experience with poetry in the past were excited to try again. The first exercise—a Where I’m From poem, based on the work of George Ella Lyon—generated deeply personal pieces about relationships with mothers, beautiful childhood memories, and even explorations of traumatic experiences.

As we continued, I delved deeper into more emotional poetry that allowed the group to write more passionately and experiment more heavily with language. I was constantly blown away by each woman’s ability to write confidently and rebelliously. I am reminded or a particular poet who wrote Alternate Universe in which I Never Learned the Meaning of the Word Too, after Olivia Gatwood’s Alternate Universe in which I Am Unfazed By the Men Who Do Not Love Me. The poet wrote subversively about the power of language, about how simple words hold such weight over us. The poet writes: “She does not lie awake and wonder if she is too much or too little. She does not stop to try and figure out which is worse.”

In another lesson, when the poets were asked to write poetry about the women who raised them, I heard beautiful odes to mothers and grandmothers. They wrote passionate thank you letters and apologies. When it came time to share, more than a few tears were shed. One poet in particular could only read a few lines of her poem before becoming too choked up to continue. I told her after how much I admired her bravery for writing honestly and sharing with the rest of the group. I told her that her poem was important, and she should keep writing it until it’s finished.

I am honored to have met these women. I am honored to have led these workshops and heard their stories. Each one of them wrote loudly and proudly with strength, confidence, and grace. Poetry is not what gave them their strength, but it became a vehicle through which to show it.

Teaching this workshop showed me the healing power of poetry. These women were fighting health problems, struggling with classes, and battling traumas, and they still came every week to support one another and find their own solace in poetry.

When one poet told me she never liked poetry lessons in high school, but she loved coming to this workshop, I finally realized why my mother was so slow to give up teaching. We don’t teach because we want to be rewarded in money or admiration, we teach because we want to help—to make a difference. I love poetry, and I always have. Knowing that the work I did, the lessons I taught, changed one person’s perception of poetry made my heart glow. I knew now that this person had another tool in her belt. When she feels small or stuck, she can use paper and pencil to help herself feel big. She can find her voice and her power by reading and writing fearlessly. I only hope I can continue to teach and to show others the truth about poetry.

Miracle People

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve loved to take photographs. I remember carrying my Kodak disposable camera through Magic Kingdom in Disney World, the excitement of getting the film developed, finally seeing the pictures I took and marveling at the sudden tangibility of a moment already passed. The first time I got a digital camera, I made my Barbie dolls into models, draped their waxy blonde hair down their slender shoulders and slipped their tiny plastic feet into hot pink pumps. I followed my family around the house and bombarded them with camera clicks, played a syncopated beat with the capture button and counted the beats with the pictures I took. I locked my cat in my room, draped her in feathered boas, topped her head with oversized hats, forced sunglasses over her eyes, and played paparazzi. I cast lightning bolt flashes all over the bedroom until she learned to love the camera.

My camera became a second pair of eyes; I took it with me everywhere, always afraid my memory card would miss a moment. It was better than any toy or Barbie doll, better than any board game or movie. With a button and a screen, I could capture thousands of realities and pick my favorite ones to keep forever.

When I grew old enough to think realistically about my future, I picked up my camera and imagined a potential career: taking photographs for a living. From then on, I started playing with angles and flashes. I strayed from auto shooting and began manipulating the scenes in front of me. But still, I was only taking pictures. I was only freezing moments in time and brightening them on my computer. It felt more like routine, and less like art.

At thirteen I received an opportunity to travel to Europe with a teacher and a few students. My parents stayed home while I walked the streets of Florence, flowed down the Seine River, wandered a maze of art pieces in the Louvre, gawked at the Vatican churches, and stepped back in time in Pompeii. At thirteen I witnessed hundreds of worlds and cultures different than my own. I learned that language is a symphony of communication; I learned that art is emotion in different colors; I learned that people are more beautiful than any museum piece; and I learned that I wanted to spend my life learning. Photography became a way to make that happen.

No longer a routine, I saw something beautiful through my lens. I saw smiles tell stories of success and frowns tell stories of growth. I saw locals breathing life into statues on the street. I saw starving artists grinning wide at young admirers’ sloppy Italian compliments. I saw tiny pale faced boys tossing coins into flowing fountains and squeezing their eyes shut until they knew their wishes were cast into the bright blue water. People became portraits of emotion instead of skin and bones. I decided that I wanted the world to see what I see when I look at a person’s face—I wanted the world to see each other as miracles.

 

When We Eat Together

It was my second hot pot dinner of my trip to China and I had already fallen in love with this signature meal of the Sichuan province. The waiters brought out the familiar favorites (chicken, beef, noodles) and the Chengdu specialties (duck tongue, quail egg, lotus root), and, immediately, hands from every direction collided over the boiling broth in the center of the table. Chopsticks flew from plate to plate. Our Chinese friends dumped more food on our plates than on their own and spent most of the time searching on their phones for English descriptions of the mystery meats we were all devouring. It was then that our new friend Mike (I failed to learn his Chinese name) announced to the table: “When we eat together, we are like brothers – like sisters.” And for a moment – there was quiet (the most shocking thing to experience in a hot pot restaurant).

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss American food while I was in China, but it lacks a crucial element of Chinese dining culture: the community built at a dinner table. Ordering food was a discussion – a table-wide compromise determining what food would satisfy everyone equally. After that came the delicious chaos of actually eating. Elbows collided, food flew, broth splashed, chopsticks clamored, and everyone shared everything. Nothing was claimed by anyone. The food belonged to the table.

Not only was it a chance to share food, but also a chance to share ideas. With our friends from Sichuan University we talked politics, language, education, and even High School Musical. The food was a bridge over an ocean – a shared experience to shatter any cultural barriers we once had. After that meal, I really did begin to see these friends as family. Mike’s words were the truest words I heard in China. And that meal was the best meal of my life.

Months before I embarked on my trip to China, I was not so excited. In fact, I was mostly scared. Every time I shared with someone my plans to fly overseas and take part in Sichuan University’s Summer Immersion Program, I was not met with encouragement, but with confusion and fear.

“China? Why?”

“What do you expect to gain from that?”

I met with the unfortunate discovery that we live in a world of borders; we see the differences in each other rather than the similarities. We plug our ears and refuse to listen to the wisdom other cultures can offer. In this heavily globalized world, we have become more divided than ever.

Mike opened my eyes to the importance of learning from our friends across country lines. He taught me to drop my prejudices at the boarding gates and enter new countries with an open mind and an open heart. I owe it to him to hold this knowledge with me and to continue sharing it with my future friends around the world. I owe it to him to continue my travels abroad.

How Poetry Informs Journalism

“The skill of writing poetry – the skill of watching – is essential to journalism.”

— A poet-journalist at AWP, 2017

I have always been sure of the distinction between poetry and journalism. Between the structure, the style, the form, and the theme – surely there are no similarities at all. A journalist embodies fact, truth, and nonfiction. He is the unwavering boulder atop the hill, symbolizing that which is real. A poet embodies passion, emotion, and fiction. He is a flower just sprouting, flung about by the wind and the rain. He is impressionable.

But if the journalist is as tough and immovable as we are made to believe, how do we have such powerful and provocative stories as Seven Days of Heroin? If the poet is truly a whimsical fool always meditating on fiction, how do we have such grounded, realistic narratives as Kate Daniels’ In the Midst of the Heroin Epidemic?

The fact is the poet and the journalist are not as different as they may seem. Further, both forms thrive when they are in dialogue with one another.

I stopped writing poetry when I entered college and declared myself a journalism major. I am a serious writer now, I told myself. No more musing over heartbreak or changing seasons. It’s time to get serious. Two years later, when I took a creative writing class, my poetry was different than it had ever been. It was no longer cluttered with messy descriptions. It was grounded in specific, intentional images. It was real and it was true; my poetry was no fiction.

Suddenly I found myself backtracking. I wrote poem after poem about the sources that had long vanished from my life but continued to haunt me almost weekly. I wrote poems for the boxers I photographed for three months. I wrote poems for the Kent State maintenance worker who came out as a trans woman to me, a reporter. I wrote poems for a bubble artist in Florence, Italy, who was kind enough to tell me his story. I wrote poems for all the people I met and abandoned through journalism.

The good reporters are the empathetic reporters. But they are often the ones who struggle the most. How do we grapple with time? How do we push ourselves into a person’s life, memorize every detail, witness such vulnerability, and move suddenly onto the next source without thought?

Poetry is a space to answer the questions that journalism cannot. Poetry often exists in journalistic work for the sake of sanity. We need a space to write subjectively, to write our own truths and our own feelings.

I am a better poet because of my education in journalism. But I am also a better journalist because I grew up as a poet.

Poetry teaches us to find meaning in the absurd. It teaches us to watch, to listen, and to react. The number one rule in poetry is to write what you know. Though poetry is not always concerned with the absolute truth of a matter, it is concerned with honesty. Poetry is not mere fiction.

My life as a poet has taught me to observe. Every tiny detail from the smell of a room to a flickering fluorescent light to a man’s crooked teeth can inform the narrative I am constructing. Nothing should ever go unquestioned. Even when covering hard news, I try to paint a picture: Who are the characters? What is the setting like? What is the story here? Why is it happening?

At AWP last year I met Leorna LaPeter Anton, a journalist who started as a city hall reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. She said she always put storytelling in her stories in small ways. She said that even though she started off small, she made the most of it. In 2016, she won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Storytelling is an art, and it has its place in journalism.

Author and journalist Amy Goodman said, “Go to where the silence is and say something.” Journalism aims to uncover silence where there should be discussion. It offers fact and it broadcasts truth. Poetry gives us the power find the meaning under the silence. Poetry helps us make sense of the Whys in the world. Poetry gives us empathy. Poetry allows us to be kind to others and ourselves. A poet is a journalist without deadlines. A journalist should always ask the poet’s favorite question: why?

Hating Photography

Last spring I went to see my favorite band in Brussels, Belgium. It was a great experience to see an American band perform in a different continent at a very strange venue with a whole crowd of Europeans. It was easily the best concert I’ve been to, and one of my best experiences while studying abroad.

When I returned to Florence shared my weekend adventure with my photography class, my professor asked, “Did you bring your camera?”

Photographers can’t enjoy anything. We train ourselves to obsess over light and colors, over lines and shapes. We watch from shadows, silent and invisible, tracking like spies with our viewfinders. We think in shutter speed and f-stops, always balancing exposures in our heads, metering too loud to hear ourselves think.

Had I brought my camera to the concert, I would not have felt the bass, the drum beat, the rhythm and the flow of the guitar pulsing through the blue and green lights. I would not have felt the sweat from the wave of strangers all dancing together. I would not have lost my voice from screaming the words I used to sing out my car window on sticky July evenings.

Had I brought my camera, I might have snagged a shot of fog washed in green light, a greasy haired singer open-mouthed behind a microphone, energy in a single moment. I might have gotten that shot, but instead, I got to live it.

The problem with all art is that we make it our single identity. We dedicate our lives to learning the skill, perfecting the craft, and we give ourselves nothing in return. So many photographers live their entire lives loving nothing else besides their cameras.

My problem is not that I hate photography: I hate singularity. I hate being only one thing, having only one identity. Sure, I have spent my fair share of golden hours clicking away at subjects and ignoring the warmth on my skin, the breeze through my hair. I have stealthed through shadows at parties capturing laughter rather than sharing it. I have made sacrifices for my photos, and I have never regretted it. But I also know when it is time to put down the camera and just simply enjoy.

Photography is a language, an art form, and a virus. It has a nasty way of gripping at your core, of washing over you and never letting go. Those chosen ones blessed by the sickness get to see beauty everywhere they go, but they never get the chance to feel it. They are always on the edge of the moments, never in them.

When I talk to so many of my photographer peers, I feel bored. I so rarely hear them talk about hobbies or interests or even friends. Of course I admire their dedication, but so many photographers are cold, unfeeling robots programmed to click and capture.

My favorite photographer is Patrick Joust, a Baltimore-based film-photographer who is a librarian first and a photographer second. Because he splits his time between two professions, because he has multiple identities, because he sees the world as a human first and a photographer second, his work is honest and subtle. It is simple and emotional. Joust knows how to live, not just how to record.

I think of myself as a woman. A bisexual feminist who loves fire and hates dust. I am a poet, a daughter, a sister, a scholar, an artist, a cat-lover, and a coffee-drinker. I am all of these things, and all of these things combine to make me a human who happens to love making photographs.

Storytelling is Timeless

Before cameras, before newspapers, before journalists themselves, a different mode of communication existed. Not just in the form of anecdotes told by parents to calm their restless children before bed, but around bonfires, between the shelves of libraries. Legends, of heroes, of epic journeys, of comedy and of tragedy, all passed down through generations to tell the tales of those who walked before us.

We photographers hold no monopoly on storytelling.

Though most photographers do not claim to be the sole experts in the craft of the story, many carry a special side of arrogance in their camera bags. Photographers believe they are the torchbearers of a modern era in storytelling – that some prophetic god bestowed upon them the power of Composition to single-handedly document the world through a viewfinder.

I am no exception. In fact what drew me to photojournalism in the first place was the faultless blend of my two loves: photography and storytelling.

Before I ever picked up a camera, I picked up a pen. I climbed trees in the springtime and stayed nestled between the branches until I had successfully filled every page of a journal with stories. I read poems to my parents in the backyard. I took walks over dead leaves in autumn and wrote down words like crunch and crisp.

Somewhere in the last two years, that little girl who used to hide in trees and read dictionaries for fun lost herself behind ISO, f-stops and shutter speed. When learning the mechanics and the practicalities of photography, the art often finds itself shoved to the side while the numbers and figures and histograms take the spotlight.

Since my first photography class here at Kent State, I have become a developed photographer with exceptional technical skill. I learned to shoot in manual mode, learned the differences between lenses and have sold my soul to Lightroom. In doing so, I have also lost my passion – my voice.

I fear that photography nowadays is only ever judged on its ability to shock. Who can get to the crime scene first? Who can snap the most heart-wrenching portrait of a starving child? Who can walk with the ranks and show us what war really means? Of course all of these images hold a level of importance, but photographers are not merely record keepers. We do not exist only to incite discomfort. We must first understand ourselves as artists and as creatives. We must employ empathy and listen as much as we watch.

I am tired of being a photographer first and a storyteller second. More and more, I long for my pen, my journal and the tallest tree I can find. When I march out of this institution with four years of education behind me, I do not want to be another news-hungry photographer. I want to be loud and passionate. I want to be armed with three things: a camera, a pen and a great big torch billowing with the proud flame cultivated by the tradition of genuine storytelling.