The Poetry Society of America and Hunter College presented a tribute to the poet June Jordan last week at the Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse in New York City. The tribute included readings of Jordan’s poetry by various poets including Jan Heller Levi, Donna Masini, Bob Holman and Cornelius Eady. They spoke of Jordan’s powerful personality, poetry and activism and read her work affectingly to a full auditorium.
Donna Masini talked about Jordan’s heritage as a West Indian born in 1936 Harlem, New York. According to Donna Masini, Jordan’s father abused her and she was constantly taunted by other kids. Her uncle taught her to fight these “bullies” as a child and Masini quoted Jordan: “I lost a lot of fights as a kid … but nobody fought me twice.” Jordan learned to fight dirty and to hate, but later realized the value of Fannie Lou Hamer’s words: “Ain’t no such thing as I can hate anyone and see God’s face.”
Instead of living out her life in hatred, Jordan adopted the righteous and productive anger of an activist. Everyone that spoke at the event acknowledged, in their own words, her commitment to art and activism as well as to her personal “light.” Celebrated poet and speaker Adrienne Rich spoke of Jordan’s poetry as “making love and war simultaneously.” And, truly, her poems run the gamut. In a single work, she can address desire and politics … and make this transition seamless.
Laura Flanders, Air America radio host and one of the most memorable of the participants (for her booming voice and theatrical readings of the poems she chose) began by speaking of June Jordan’s answering machine message in which she said: “Calling on all silent minorities… we need to have this meeting at this tree ain’t even been planted yet.”
Jordan’s activism didn’t stop with cute phone messages. Jordan taught at various New York Colleges (including City) before taking up a position at UC Berkeley in 1989 where she created the undergraduate program “Poetry for the People.”
In an article about June Jordan on SeeingBlack.com, Mark Anthony Neal discusses the invisibility of Black intellectuals and artists in the media and Jordan’s particular place as a black woman — cursed with “double minority” status. Neal writes: “She was a Black woman, who chose to be an activist and an intellectual in a society that seemingly has little value for Black women who aren’t taking off their clothes, while celebrating their ‘bootilicious’ reality.” He also writes of Jordan as a feminist, unwilling to compromise her “radical” views or minimize them as “simply identity politics.” Rather, Jordan asked women to “‘revolt against our marginalized, pseudo-maverick status and assert our majority, our indispensable-to-the-species’ power …'”
Jordan’s political and literary significance is heralded within the world of poetry and literature. Her personal significance to the poets that paid her tribute on October 6, seemed equally important. Junichi Semitsu, a professor, former director of Jordan’s Poetry for the People former student of Jordan’s, was among the evening’s best participants. He spoke of Jordan as one of poetry’s “most reliable voices” and one of the most “unpredictable people” he had ever known, a woman who would bounce around in conversation from recommending a Tom Cruise film to discussing Chinese politics. All the readers seemed to agree that one thing Jordan consistently stood for was love in her political, personal and professional life.
Semitsu read two of the evening’s funniest and most affecting poems. One is “Poem for the New York Times” in which Jordan appeals to the pope, as a celibate man, to stop talking about sexuality. Another is “Ode to Eminem”, which Jordan wrote in her last few months referring to herself as “the real slim lady.” Both of these — particularly the last, owing in part to the academic-looking Junichi Semitsu’s emphatic rapping, had the audience laughing and remembering Jordan in a way she surely would have appreciated.