Knowing My Place

November 14, 2013

Rick Benjamin, poet laureate of the State of Rhode Island, is a community artist who currently practices art-making and learning at Brown (Environmental Studies & Public Humanities), RISD (Literary Arts), Goddard College (in their MFA program in Interdisciplinary Arts), and in many other learning communities in and around Providence. He is involved with the Engaged Scholars Initiative, a Swearer Center initiative that celebrates faculty and students who seek a purposeful integration of teaching, research and practice, with a goal of advancing scholarship and producing a public benefit.

Where I am writing this I can see the Japanese maple in full flower, at least in autumn: red leaves blooming out some short-lived fire. I am sitting in a house that has so many windows in it that it’s hard not to find some light somewhere on a Sunday afternoon. There is a lot of glass in that statement, and I do like spinning glass, which reminds me that our own lives, as if at the ends of blow-pipes, are also always in a state of becoming. It is hard to talk about my community practice without first noticing and naming things, and also placing myself in this particular moment.

Knowing my place is at the heart of any of my impulses toward community building, whether through art or the humanities or some thinking about ecological addresses. We need to know where we stand or sit or, as Mary Oliver might say, fall down into the grass. At the same time, everything changes from moment to moment. We are all of us always in flux: writing always brings me closest to this essential truth, but so does any interaction I have that involves building relationships in community with others.

It occurs to me that I have always been involved in “engaged scholarship” in one way or another for most of my adult life. As a doctoral student in literature, my orals and dissertation committees, one time and then another, discouraged me from continuing my full-time work directing an HIV/AIDS project in order to encourage me to get my scholarly work done.  Instead, entirely unable to compartmentalize my life anymore, I convinced my dissertation committee to let me write on what I called the “AIDS Elegy,” in my last chapter, convinced that it represented a new treatment and testament in the form. I had then and have now a need to connect the dots of what might seem to others like diverse pursuits: of language-making to relationship- and community-building, and both of these to love.

Just now, at Brown, I am involved in poetry & community, urban ecology; in the larger community, I am working with elders, thirteen-year olds, with arts mentors & high school students at New Urban arts; in the community that is also my family, I am adjusting to two fewer loved ones in the house (my sons are off to college) and to the short-lived daily presence of another, my daughter, who is in the process of applying for next year. All of these feel of a piece: I helped my daughter with her early action applications this week, visited one of the elders with whom I have become intimate through our poetry workshops in an assisted living center for the past four years. Just this moment I am writing something for the Swearer Center blog on community and academic engagement in no more than 500 words: you see, it is all also a language game, this work I am privileged to do. And that’s 500!