Faculty voice:

Nancy DeJoy: The poetics of social justice

April 3, 2019

Nancy DeJoy is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures in the College of Arts and Letters.

I have been making poetry since I learned how to write. Poetic language can render the everyday — even the extraordinary everyday — in ways that generate understanding from observation and feelings explored.

At some point, I realized that the emergence of poetic language in response to the mysteries of life, to the depth of joy and sorrow we cause one another, to unexplainable cruelties and daily events was, in fact, not just a form of expression, but also a different way of listening. I became particularly interested in the ways that poetic listening is a way to hear the silences behind the prejudices and practices that accommodate injustice, especially those forms of injustice that normalize sexual violence. This led to my commitment to pursue new venues for poetry in public art movements, to invite others to listen poetically to themselves, one another and the worlds of their experiences.

This explains why much of my work appears only in gallery and other installation spaces rather than in more traditional publications and why I propose, fight for and curate sidewalk poetry projects that create public spaces for the voices of people in our community. It is also why when some survivors of sexual violence came to see me just over a year ago to express their frustration about not being listened to, I suggested that I listen poetically. I also promised to find a public space for their voices and for the call for people to listen to them that they had come to see me about. That work led to an exhibition titled “Illuminating Survivor Voices.”

Art for social justice does at least two things: it identifies clearly a source of injustice and makes a call for change. My exhibit was no exception. The poem itself identifies not the silence of survivors, but the silence of those who accommodate sexual violence as the source of the perpetuation of sexual violence in our community. It makes a call to listen to survivor voices as the source of how to stop sexual violence from claiming victims in the future.

In addition, the exhibit included some of the survivor statements that had been shared with me by survivors in face-to-face and online forums; they were projected on one wall and on the floor of the exhibit space in the Broad Art Lab.

The poem was constructed from metal and organic lighting panels. The whole installation was visible from both inside and outside the building, and it was lit up all night so that it was viewable even when the Broad Art Lab was closed. Overhead lighting was turned off and teal up-lighting lit the corners of the room to create a more soothing environment. The exhibit, then, put survivor statements in the context of the call to listen to them as illuminating our path to a future in which sexual violence is no longer accommodated in our community.

How we are heard is determined by how people listen to us. I hope that my current work will give people a way to listen to survivor voices not as speaking to the past, but as illuminating our path to a better future.