Interview: Into a "Withness"

Sara Jane Stoner& Ariel Yelen
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This interview was recorded on August 10th as part of Sara Jane Stoner’s residency on futurefeed. Click here more information about Critical Poesis and her teaching.

Ariel Yelen: So tomorrow is the last night of our seven-week long workshop, Critical Poesis. As a participant in both this workshop and also the first iteration of Critical Poesis that you taught at the Poetry Project in 2019, I feel so curious about your pedagogy. There doesn’t seem to be that much emphasis on the art or practice of teaching in the literary world and I'm not sure why that is. We talked about this a little bit before—teaching appears very much to be your calling. 

But first, I’m curious about the class I’ve been taking with you this summer—why Critical Poesis? What led you to teach it, and how did you come up with that term? 

Sara Jane Stoner: OK, I already feel grateful because I think I'm going to learn a lot in this conversation with you… 

I do think that one of the features of my self in language that relates to my calling as a teacher and as a poet I guess, as a that I'm generally always speaking on the edge of what I understand rather than from a place of having said the thing before and feeling well rehearsed in it. So I'm already grateful to you for asking this question. 

One of the amazing things about the last five months has been that I’ve felt increasingly affirmed by the fact that I never bothered to finish my PhD, and I’m still understanding why I'm feeling that way now...something about wanting my self to remain unfinished, forever. But I do want to say that I think that Critical Poesis is probably one of the clearest expressions of what I was desiring when I put together my orals lists—which were focused on intersectional queer theory, manifestic writing (much of it feminist), and reading contemporary writing kind of as pedagogy, or toward pedagogy. What came out of my orals reading was a sense of the ethical imagination required for any “we” (like, say, in the “we” of a workshop), that a lot of necessary political questions are approached through the forms and practices discovered in contemporary writing, and that a lot of the queer theory that I was reading had a critical formalism that seemed to isolate the subject of the text from embodied feeling, and that had something to do with the way it’s supposed to function to assure the reader that the person writing it was a “good doctor.” 

One example: I just recently picked up a book published by Duke in the last year, and I read a page of it and then I threw it across the room, because I care so much about what they're talking about, but the kind of dance of the writing is so prefab that really I don't understand why I'm reading it.

And then I think that, a little bit selfishly, I read everything like a poet, like I read everything for sound. I read student essays for sound. And that is a slow reading with a lot of slipperiness of the signifier in it, wherein I'm reading for possibility in the sounds of a person whose writing has only recently departed the five paragraph essay. And it's brought me closer to, you know, understanding why it is I feel, for instance, passionate about Fred Moten’s writing and the function of sound in Moten’s critical writing, and the ideas that live in those sounds. Thinking about that from the position of a practicing teacher is kind of another thing. And, this was something I was writing about yesterday, it is that for me the problem of being a writer and the problem of being a teacher are not resolved in conjunction. [LAUGHTER] I'm not like, “Here's my good writing,” you know what I mean? “You should do good writing, too.” That doesn't—that doesn't work for me at all. I think a lot of my writing is bad.

And I also think that much of my writing is so private because I think I'm writing myself into having a self that I can use in the world. And that writing doesn't actually need to be shared. You know, that writing is really for me to remain alive. 

But anyway, I think that for me the idea of “critical poesis” names an impetus to explore writing as a practice of movement in sound, both in terms of the writer's ability to move themselves and also potentially for a reader to find themselves moved in relation to the sounds of the writing and the sense that what is critical should be writing. Like I think that the time that we live in is not a lyrical time. This is not a lyrical time. That fantasy does not survive for me. And so I found myself wanting to bring the kind of like, you know...rigor viva of thinking to the forms of attention that poetry brings to the world and of the self in the world.

Ariel Yelen: You mentioned Fred Moten as someone that you're looking to as embodying that critical poesis.

Sara Jane Stoner:  Yeah, I think Wayne [Koestenbaum] does too. But Wayne’s sense of poesis is about how a certain kind of charm or seduction and perversion express an unfolding potential, and listening to him speak in class after he’s run an idea through his body you can hear and sense the body in the thinking. I think of both Wayne and Fred as being vital speakers, and that listening to them live I learn so much about the embodiment of ideas in sound. 

AY: Anyone else? Living or dead.

SJ: I keep going back to Patricia Carini’s book, Starting Strong. She was a part of the founding of the Prospect School in Vermont, which actually used a kind of practice of collective description by teachers of students, that still has currency as a charge, and other teachers in the U.S. still practice her process of descriptive review, and it is kind of about the way that she views a person and the unfolding of a person in relation to the wisdom that's contained in the work that they make as a real kind of foundation for pedagogical discovery and motivation. It's like the work contains the wisdom, the person is in process, and they're becoming. This critical perspective on learning makes me wonder if the ways we teach writing allow for that wisdom to emerge or even just be visible to us as teachers. 

And Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself. I mean, that book taught me so much about the ethics of language and writing as a vulnerable thing as opposed to a projective or penetrative thing... that actually writing an account of oneself, or acknowledging language as providing an account of oneself depends very intensely on an other to acknowledge it and to give it a hearing and to receive it. When I make language, I give it away, you know, I'm giving part of myself away.

This summer, in Critical Poesis and also Being to Teach, I felt my debt to Black feminist and queer writers and scholars and poets (some of which we studied): Audre Lorde, Sylvia Wynter, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, bell hooks, Dionne Brand. Somehow, as an “English major” who thought of herself as never wanting to leave “school,” I came to a critical consciousness around the problems of a colonial canon, of narrative and disembodiment in writing, of institutions as engines of inequality, a consciousness of my political desire for syntactic disruption or the ethical value of the concept of a multiplicitous self in time—but so much more present and massive to me is the fact that these writers meaningfully foreground and precede and exceed my grasp and expression of these ideas, and meet me and challenge me.

I think trying to name a model for critical poesis creates...problems for me. It’s more like everybody exists in relation and tension to certain beings and writers, and “critical poesis” names the process you might undertake to understand the sound of your own ideas, your position in relation to subject-objects, what kinds of recursivity emerge as absolute necessities when you engage in analysis, particularly with respect to your own subjectivity in writing.

AY: What experiences have helped define the way you teach Critical Poesis, or the way you teach in general? What teachers or experiences have helped define why you teach the way you do, or why you came to teaching?

SJ: Thank you for asking these questions. I've been thinking a lot about this idea of anti-social reproduction. So...what are the practices? What are the practices related to writing and related to education that reproduce anti-social identities, ways of being, life purposes, goals, careers (though of course I never use that word because I don't even know what that is). And I think the fundamental practice of professors lecturing and being brilliant in their individual voices (even, really, any teacher who talks more than they listen), is actually one of the most rarefied and fetishized forms of anti-social  reproduction that exists. I think that the pursuit of individual success is the most common anti-social identity. And we see different intensities or degrees of that in different areas of the world. The people who believe that to make the most money is to live the best life and, you know, need to reduce as much of the world to abstraction as possible so as to serve their...what must be absolutely raging cognitive dissonance.

When I was in undergrad, I remember having professors who were so brilliant and I loved listening to them talk, I loved settling into that quiet, like my body kind of fades away into abstraction. But it is isolating in a certain kind of way. And it wouldn't feel real until I got to sit down with some friends and talk about what was said. That was when it actually became real and it became more a part of me.

I think Professor Kevin Quashie, who was at Smith at the time and taught 20th century African American Lit, gave me my first experience being in a larger room with many students where I felt like his way of lecturing was a form where I was being called by his ideas as a body in the room, and that there were moments where I felt like he was speaking to me just as he was speaking to everybody else that had this kind of like intimate address, or a personal address with stakes, where he's like, what I'm saying to you actually matters for who you are in your life. And I think that that really electrified me.

He was the first person I studied Toni Morrison with, among others, like Jean Toomer. Jean Toomer’s Cane became one of my favorite books that semester. I could keep going. He was also the first person who said to me, you know, “you're so good at speaking but your writing is so weird.” And that has been a theme, where other people acknowledge this kind of disjunct between my writing and my speaking.

I’ve always loved teachers who make being together with a text a kind of sacred, erotic thing. Sharing a text is such an important event to me, like when I send a text to you, I take enormous responsibility for the fact that I have called upon you to give your attention to this thing. And so it is my expectation or it is a demand that I place on myself that we will engage with it substantially enough that you will feel like whatever attention you have been able to give to it will be rewarded by a collective experience that gives you energy through the opportunity to feel your difference in reading from other people. And also to feel the kinds of like limitless tensions that exist in a text, as long as you imagine it being collectively read by many different kinds of people. And that’s a sense of audience that we maybe don’t know how to learn and teach toward, or need to recover or discover some practices for.

AY: What draws you to want to create that kind of collective learning experience? Not everyone wants to do that.

SJ: What do you think everyone wants to do? You tell me. 


AY: My sense is that you're drawn to teaching for reasons that are not just related to an interest in reading and writing. Being the one to help, to do the work of translating a difficult text is also what you’re interested in...I guess what I mean is that it seems writing, reading, and teaching are all contingent on each other for you. 

SJ: I think it was probably maybe around five or six years ago that I thought to myself, the project is not to make people better writers. I'm not really sure what good writing is, actually. Though I do think everyone in our class has made amazing writing this summer. I don't know how narcissistic that evaluation is, it might be a little bit, but I also feel like it's loving, like I just feel love toward the writing. But yeah, I'm not really sure what good writing is. 

AY: And figuring out how to make people better writers isn’t the project.

SJ: Yes, and so when that project goes out the window, what do you do as a teacher? When it's not, you know, “we're here to evaluate the success of this work as a group.” 

AY: Yeah. So what do you do?

SJ: So, I actually do think that literally everything is interesting.


SJ: And that so much energy lives in noticing and then asking, where is this coming from? Or like, what might this mean or how might it mean differently if you shift its condition this way or its context that way?

Thinking about space and time and who's included in that space and time, in the imagination of the writing, thinking about the posture of the writing, thinking about what are the critical questions that the writing is coming from, that's sort of the direction I've gone. And that's obviously away from genre. I've always had a really hard time teaching to genre.

This whole summer, teaching extra-institutionally, I’ve been asking myself the question, “Why are we here,” which is a question that I heard echoed in that recent Moten and [Stefano] Harney talk through FUC, which is part of the COLA striking happening there. The series of talks that they're organizing feel like such a vital gift in the present. And there was this really amazing question/statement [about 59 minutes in] about practices with respect to being entangled with racist institutions while presencing, while desiring institutional abolition and exodus. The person asked Moten and Harney kind of like, “what are the practices?” And Moten was like, “I shouldn't answer this question, but I'm going to do the bad thing. I'm going to answer it.” And I love that idea that the teacher, in this case a featured speaker, answering the question is like the bad move. I really identify with that.

One of the things Moten said, along with encouraging people to stop giving assignments and grading, was that what we should be doing is just asking that question every time we gather, “what are the practices,” and letting that question become the curriculum: what are the practices and what are the practices that we need? What are the practices that have been initiated in times past that answered needs? Why are we here? 

And I think finding ways to make that an individual and a collective question feels really urgent in my teaching.

AY: One of the things that I appreciate about being in your class is that there seems to be, and maybe this is kind of what you described Moten as doing in that talk, a kind of self-critique as a teacher while you're actually facilitating the class, as well as after class, as a kind of debrief. Often you write to us after class with feelings or you're like, this is what I thought was going to happen, but actually this other thing happened, and this is why I'm celebrating it! Kind of a disclosure of how the whole thing went for you. If I think about it, your self-critique as a teacher is one of the most thrilling parts of the class, I don't know how exactly to describe why, but something happens for's disarming, it also feels like we're engaged in something bigger. That isolation you spoke of earlier isn’t there if the teacher is kind of critiquing their own teaching that's happening, as it's happening.

SJ: I love your attention to this. It feels really loving. Yeah, this is making me a little weepy, which I’ve been practicing saying on Zoom since I think it’s hard to see. 

How can you be transparent about a process that is totally mysterious? One of my dearest beliefs about teaching is that...I do not know what is going on. And what a particular teaching act might mean in the short or the long term will only ever be maybe partially available to me.

So I go into it with a tremendous amount of like preliminary, or even maybe preparatory awe, because I really don't know what's going to happen. The class is alive with the possibility of difference, and it has to be to get us into a “withness.” And I think a lot of teachers go in with the fantasy that they can decide what's going to happen and that they will know what will happen and that there will be an outcome that they can predict, and that that's actually a value of institutional pedagogy—and my complicity with institutional pedagogy becomes thinner every day. 

I think I am limited as a teacher and as a person. And I think that acknowledging those limitations in the space of a discussion is a really necessary thing. I initiated these classes out of my own need as well as an imagining of the needs of others, you know? People whose writing I admire, whose minds I really admire, and whose persons I really admire, and who I don't know maybe. Inside of this opportunity to teach outside, but still in relation to institutions (because many of us are presently institutionalized in different ways), it’s still true that institutionalized people, which is all of us, bring forces which interpolate teachers as “teachers” into class spaces. And so I have to gently salute those expectations and then cut them into small pieces and leave them in a little pile and then work on gradually, like blowing them off the table, as I manifest myself as a person with limitations, doing a thing with you.

AY: You mentioned that you might be interested in writing a “how-to” for teaching outside of university or the institution. Would you be willing to share a couple of things that you might include? What are some pillars for you?

SJ: I think that everything that you do is connected. Literally everything. That fact is always waiting there for you. With its richness and with its manifest problems. And I think that realizing that everything is connected can become a reason to compartmentalize and privatize. And that we all have that conditioned instinct. With relational teaching, which is what I have discovered is what I'm doing, for example, my friends are in my classes and the people who have been in my classes that I didn't know before are becoming my friends. And that doesn't mean we agree about everything or that we know each other that well. That means conflict. That means tension. That means attending to conflict and tension.

It means time, spending time, unpredictable amounts of time attending to just people and like what their experience of living is in the moment, and how the work that we're doing and the writing that we're doing is calling upon or challenging a person's being in time and taking responsibility for initiating that process. It's the opposite of like a neat pedagogical formalism. But it does have a form. And I think anything can be an opportunity for the kind of writing that faces you with your own poesis—I think our class this summer has really taught me that.

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