‘Is the university prepared to teach us something new?’: June Jordan and the roots of Poetry for the People

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We know American violence, power, and success. Is the university prepared to teach us something new?

— June Jordan, “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person”

When you walk into UC Berkeley’s Poetry for the People, or P4P, class (African American Studies 156AC) you are walking into a revolutionary landscape that has cultivated and nurtured young student poets since its 1991 conception. Founded by the late poet and professor June Jordan, the lasting legacy of P4P as an accredited American Cultures course in the African American studies department is a testament to the profound and personal vision that Jordan made a reality.

During each spring semester, P4P is offered to students interested in reading and writing poetry. Constructed with democratic and social justice ideals in mind, students are required to read poetry outside the “standard” Western canon typically taught in English courses. The poetry written in this course comes from a vulnerable place — Jordan believed in confronting politics through the personal, and students are encouraged to take from their own lived experiences to create emotionally impactful work and take up space in a society that denies them that.

But as Jordan herself wrote in her introduction to “June Jordan’s Poetry for the People,” a “revolutionary blueprint” intended to outline how to start a P4P program, “I did not wake up one morning ablaze with a coherent vision of Poetry for the People!” 

What would eventually become this “coherent vision” begins with Jordan’s early life. Born in 1936 to West Indian immigrants, her childhood was spent in her birthplace of Harlem, New York and later in Brooklyn. Jordan’s 2000 memoir “Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood” discusses the adversities in her upbringing and her father’s abusive behavior, but the memoir is also dedicated to him. Through the making of radically honest and evocative art, Jordan sought to understand these adversities of her life, demanding answers from the systems that enabled them.

Through the making of radically honest and evocative art, Jordan sought to understand these adversities of her life, demanding answers from the systems that enabled them.

Her adolescence as a Black woman in the United States and the hardships she faced largely informed the groundwork that would later become P4P. When Jordan arrived at UC Berkeley in 1989, she taught in both the African American studies and the then-named women’s studies department. In the P4P blueprint, Jordan writes about immediately deciding that student writing produced in her classes would be assigned “at least as much imperative worth” as the assigned readings.

For Jordan, watching her students empower themselves was a deeply healing experience, giving her hope that an educational system that had failed her in her own youth could change for the better, no longer adhering to the status quo.

The enthusiastic response to her teaching lead to what Jordan called “Poetry November” — an opportunity for student poets to showcase their writing, made possible through fundraising conducted by both Jordan and her students. When the smash success of “Poetry November” made P4P possible, Jordan went on to publish P4P Press’ first anthology in 1991, titled “Poetry for the People in a Time of War.”

By the time P4P was established, Jordan had been teaching for more than two decades, was a published writer for the same amount of time and was vastly influenced by tribulations experienced by both her community and other marginalized communities during a time of social and political turmoil. Her identity was intersectional, or, as Jordan herself might have described it, plural: She was a woman of color, she came from a working-class family and she was openly bisexual. When she opened her arms to her first student poets, she made it clear that “the People” meant everyone, including the most ostracized.

When she opened her arms to her first student poets, she made it clear that “the People” meant everyone, including the most ostracized.

It also meant that, in her eyes, anyone and everyone could be a poet. Her first teaching appointment was at City College of New York in 1967, a position she attained despite having left Barnard College without a degree. She was troubled at Barnard, unable to shake the feeling of being an outsider at a school with a curriculum dominated by white male academics. Jordan shares the story of this appointment in her 1969 essay “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person”:

“In the fall of 1967, Herb Kohl called me at home … He was supposed to start teaching at City College the next morning and he had decided it was impossible … Would I, he asked me, take the job instead? I was sure Herb was kidding. I had never taught anywhere, had no college degree, and what in the hell would I be teaching, anyway?”

Having found a place in the academic world despite systemic hurdles, an important aspect of Jordan’s P4P vision was and continues to be the presence of community students — course participants who live in the area but are not enrolled at UC Berkeley. According to current P4P director Aya De Leon, this aspect of P4P endures today. 

“And within the tenuous experiment of a workshop: of a beloved community,” writes Jordan in her blueprint, “these young American men and women devise their individual trajectories into non-violent, but verifiable power.”

This “non-violent, but verifiable power” is the “something new” that Jordan brought to UC Berkeley at a time when it wasn’t completely prepared to teach it. For a poet who spent her life fighting for her rights and the rights of others, the lasting impact of UC Berkeley’s P4P program is Jordan’s continuing gift to our campus.

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alexluceli.