May 29, 2020

Graduation 2020: What a Year!

Wheatley with her niece at the 2018 Foothill release

Sitting in the corner of my one-bedroom apartment in East Hollywood, I finished my English master’s degree program at CGU. Fighting horrible internet speeds and frozen Zoom screens, I was able to finish the semester successfully. I am now the first member of my family to graduate with an MA. I am so proud of my fellow cohort and myself for getting through our programs during this time. I know we are all heading into unprecedented uncertainty, but I wanted to take a little bit of time to reflect on the amazing feat we have all just accomplished. Without libraries, without physical classrooms, without the creature comforts we could rely on, we were able to finish our degrees!

As I look towards the future, I want to remain proud of this accomplishment. I find myself terrified yet oddly hopeful about what lies ahead. As everything is completely shaken to its core, there is an opening for change. There is a hope that people will find a renewed value in the arts, humanities, and writing in a way that has not been seen in quite some time. There have been multiple articles I have found that show the ways in which poetry has affected people’s lives during this time. I believe that there is a place for writers in this new world we are entering—a place that was lost in recent decades. I hope we can all fill a portion of this newfound space.

On another note, I have discussed with friends the amount of publicity that graduation has gotten this year. Maybe it is because I am home more often and paying more attention, but have you ever seen so many celebrity addresses to graduates? They are everywhere! Multiple addresses on television, podcasts, and social media from everyone from Barack Obama to Anthony Hopkins. Whether these various speeches speak to you or not, they seem to reflect that the American public is pretty damn proud of us!

CGU’s fall colors | Photo by Jordan Wheatley

Looking towards the immediate future, I plan to move forward with this blog over the summer. I am so grateful to the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards for allowing me this opportunity. I find solace in poetry, and as I voyage out into the unpredictable waters of employment in the time of COVID-19, I will retreat to the warm embrace of poetry as a way to get me through. As I continue to write about poetry post-graduation, I believe I will find an even deeper appreciation for it. Without the boundaries of classroom discussion, poetry takes on a different sort of infinite nature that I am looking forward to exploring further.

I am drawn at the moment to “Cuplicking,” an essayette by Ross Gay, the 2016 Kingsley Poetry Award winner, that appears in The Book of Delights (buy it from your local bookstore!). It speaks to the (sometimes uncomfortable) acclimation process one goes through in graduate school. However, this initial discomfort can lead us to discover lasting relationships and important aspects of ourselves and our writing:

Today I found myself (I adore that construction for its Whitmanian assertion of multitudinousness) licking the little remnants, little stains, from the coffee dribbling down the rim of the cup. More fastidious than lascivious—kind of cleaning the cup. Like a raccoon.

The first time I noticed someone doing this it was my friend, my professor, Susan Blake. I was back at Lafayette College on a teaching fellowship, and we were meeting over lunch to talk about me co-teaching the Invisible Man unit. She got a warm-up on her coffee as we were eating dessert, pumpkin pie I think, and I noticed her lick the cup, unselfconsciously removing the dribble stains. I can’t recall if she looked to see how thorough a job she did, though I usually do, and will touch up where I’ve missed. Nor do I recall if she licked the cup more than once, though I assume she did, since I do, and she was my teacher in licking the cup. I think I wondered, when she licked the cup, dragging her broad tongue against the porcelain, if she was flirting, if cuplicking was a way middle-aged people communicate desire.

Being a middle-aged person now, it’s no surprise that I worry that any odd gesture might smuggle with it the possibility for misperception as flirting with beginning-aged people, some of whom I teach, and that, friends, is a losing battle. By which I mean to say, I don’t think she was flirting and, if I lick the cup while in the presence of students, I do it surreptitiously and never, god forbid, while making eye contact. When Professor Blake, which she forbade me from calling her and so made me a kind of adult—when Susan generously read the first two chapters of my dissertation, she asked me, without meaning to hurt my feelings, if I spent anywhere near as much time on my prose as I do my poems. When she handed the sixty or so pages back, all sliced up with red-penned comments, she also handed me a handbook kind of book called Writing Prose (ninth edition) with the ugliest teal cover ever. How do we thank our dead teachers?

—Ross Gay, The Book of Delights, pp. 176–7

Finally, I want to address those students who are continuing at CGU in the fall and for the foreseeable future. You can absolutely do this. You made it through this utterly bizarre semester, and this experience can and will make you stronger. As difficult as it may look, I know that you will carry the flame and navigate your remaining time at CGU with great success. Please make sure to demand what you need from your faculty and the administration if you feel that you are drowning in this new, uncertain environment. In fact, there is a fantastic group of student organizers who are demanding what is essential to academic success for students during this time. @CGUStudents on Instagram has started a petition to address student concerns, and help students get the aid they need now. Please sign their petition, and if you can, help spread the word to your fellow classmates. We could also use some extra support right now.

Once again, congratulations to all my fellow graduates and I wish all the very best to those continuing at CGU!

—Jordan Wheatley

P.S.: Gay’s newest collection, Be Holding: A Poemis forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press. Preorder it here.