Making It New

April 1, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

Making It New

A “queer lit” class starts out like any other. Instructor Jaime Weida writes homework on the board—finish reading The Color Purple, by Alice Walker—along with a reminder of when the students’ midterm essay is due, and dates for spring break.

Where the class begins to feel less typical, maybe is here: in the “queering” of a work of literature, which includes, Weida explains, “the comparison of censored and unaltered works by authors whose homosexuality was deemed unsuitable content, in their day.”

In other words, says her student, Liberal Arts major Ricardo Perrin, “in other classes they might mention there’s a rumor that a writer is gay, but they still examine it from a heteronormative [promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation] standpoint.”

Walt Whitman, says Weida, is a good example of a gay writer whose biography has been suppressed and work altered, to accommodate heteronormative views.

“When he was writing in the mid-1800s,” she says, “a lot of his poetry was explicit about his sexuality,” but when it was published, pronouns were changed to mask its homoerotic nature.

A new theme
Projected on a large screen are two versions of Whitman’s sensuous poem, “Once I Passed Through a Populous City.”

A line from the first version reads, “I remember only a woman I casually met,” while in the second, published after Whitman’s original manuscript was found in 1925, female pronouns have been restored to male.

Weida relates this sample of Whitman’s work to the Ray Bradbury story, “Long After Midnight,” which has homosexual content and “is less anthologized,” she says, as is Langston Hughes’ poem, “Café 3 A.M.,” which tells of a police raid on a gay bar, a common occurrence in the pre-Stonewall New York that Hughes lived in.

“This brings up a larger class theme,” she says, “and that is, how queer literature gets marginalized.”

Shining light in those margins is one of Weida’s passions. This year at the CUNY Graduate Center, she’ll complete her doctorate in English with a focus, she says, “in 20th-century literary feminism, and less canonical texts and literary formats.”

One of those texts, a short story by Caitlin R. Kiernan, appears in her syllabus for English 346.

“Kiernan is one of the writers I discuss in my dissertation,” Weida says, “and I firmly believe her work should be widely read.”

A new era
“How does queer literature challenge the traditional literary canon?” Weida writes on the board, and introduces the “Great Modernists,” listing D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Elliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and others.

She describes the historical context in which they wrote; industrialism and the impact of World War I—the last war to use trench warfare, and mustard gas, prompting the Geneva Convention.

“The motto of the Modernist writers at this time,” says Weida, “was ‘Make it New’.”

For example, she says, Elliot experimented with poetry that didn’t rhyme, and yet, “there was also a sense of nostalgia and longing for pre-World War I and aristocratic society, a reinforcing of patriarchal heteronormative values cloaked in innovation.”

The students consider the influence of modernism on the time in which American poet and literary critic Adrienne Rich lived, and reflect on her famous anecdote of a male poet at a party telling a female poet, “Women shouldn’t write poems. Women are poems.”

They toss that one around for a while.

“It means he doesn’t trust women to write poems; he doesn’t trust them to be objective,” one student speculates, and they move to the mermaid and merman image in Rich’s groundbreaking poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” with its highly referenced closing image, the “book of myths in which our names do not appear.”

A new resource
Throughout this look at history, cultural values and literature, Weida provides practical tips, such as, “When quoting from a poem, use line numbers, not page numbers.”

She also has created a class blog that includes many of the shorter works they read, as well as related articles, and links to the Writing Center and the Library’s online journal database.

Occasional light-hearted photos (bunny with pancake on head), balance the blog’s more serious notes on plagiarism and midterm guidelines, and she clarifies in her syllabus that “aside from prerequisites, the only requirement for this course is an open mind and a willingness to learn.”

“Gay or straight, it’s a great class to take,” says Writing & Literature major Taylor Rountree. “She’s very hands-on with us, she makes it open for us to talk with her, and she gives us a lot of things on her website.”

A new horizon
In closing, Weida screens a YouTube clip one student brought, and which has attracted over 17 million hits; a young man testifying before group of legislators on “being raised by two moms,” and advocating for gay marriage.

She ties the video back to Walt Whitman’s time, when it was illegal for people of different races to marry in the United States, framing the day’s discussion as students begin packing up their bags and pulling on their coats.

“Taking ‘Queer Lit’ expands your horizons,” says Liberal Arts major Amber Rosa, “because now we see literature from a different perspective, a homosexual perspective.”

Weida stresses that she designed the class with her colleagues at BMCC.

“The whole English department put it together,” she says. “I put together the proposal, and other professors made recommendations for course content. It was a paper-heavy process, but there was no opposition whatsoever.”

In fact, given the college’s support for the new class, “I along with many other people thought we already had this course,” she says. “We checked and it was very surprising to find we didn’t.”