Teaching Trouble

Style is born, I told my students the other day, when writers lose themselves in writing they admire. Gay, urban, sex-loving Jewish Allen Ginsberg could and did recite all 193 lines of straight, bucolic, prudish, Christian John Milton’s 17th century elegy, “Lycidas.” Clicking my way to Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl,” I added, “And see—Ginsberg’s style is unmistakable!”

I read the beginning aloud. I’d forgotten it contains the phrase, “through the negro streets.” As I read, I wondered, “will some student report me to the Dean for saying an offensive, racist word?” I asked myself how often I think of a writer whom I wish to mention, then find, while I’m already reading aloud, some term that could get twisted into a meaning neither I nor the poet intend.

The problem’s worse when I teach Maya Angelou and Mark Twain, both of whose writings contain words this journal probably won’t print. Consider how much the euphemism “n-word” undermines their efforts. Angelou’s writing cannot be separated from her experience as a black person growing up in the Jim Crow South any more than Mark Twain’s experience as a white person growing up in a slave-owning family can be separated from his experience as a writer. These writers have the right to expect readers not to censor their language.  The words of those who have the literary power for these uncensored words to inspire sadness and joy in all of us should not be expurgated.

But if I use the word, and if a student complains, any discussion I might try to have about how I and the class vicariously experience the sadness, the terrors of either of their lives, about how I and the class, through our common humanity, feel identified with their writers, would be rejected—and would be rejected by a number of New York Times journalists who are writing, and printing, things like, “I don’t ever want to hear that word come out of a white person’s mouth.”

For writers, censorship and bowdlerizing remain signs of disrespect. I do worse than dishonoring writers by euphemizing their words. I create a fantasy dogma in which black people feel one thing and white people feel another, neither can understand the other, and both are filled with fear. The point of literature gets lost. Forbidden words become powerful, fetishized.

I know what Allen Ginsberg would say: “America, why are your libraries full of tears?”


Melissa Knox

Melissa Knox’s recent writing appears in Another Chicago Magazine, Image Journal, and WOW. Her book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren in 2019. Read more of her writing here: https://melissaknox.com

There Is a Temperature

Our clock.

Do you remember?  The one we bought at the edge of the world? The shop being pulled into the ocean ? She has rounded the bend. She’s played her song.

The crickets still chirp. The moon still shines.

Outside, the world is covered in silver dust. Outside, the trees and the stones are getting colder and colder and colder.

Let’s agree that pajamas are for puritans. We are of this world. We were made to sleep with feathers. We were made for open windows. We were made to be together.

Ask the scientists. There is a temperature perfect for sleeping. It’s the temperature of you and me close enough to warm, but not close enough to burn.

Pajamas, my darling, only get in the way.


Shawn Pfunder

Shawn Pfunder is a writer, performer, and creative coach. He studied poetry and fiction at the University of Montana. He is the author of the poetry book, I Believe in a God Who Roller Skates. Shawn lives in Phoenix, Arizona with a medium-sized dog.

Country Boy

When we were kids, in junior school

in Pembrokeshire, we didn’t do wild

or joyful, didn’t do great and glorious.

We wore limp ties, half-skewed,

over blue-green cotton shirts, grey shorts,

and tugged long, drooping woollen socks.

We hoarded foreign stamps, played marbles,

were drilled in tables, verbs and chalk,

hoofed at a soggy leather football.


There were a few quick early sallies

down the rapids of River Joy, first sounds

maybe of Elvis, first scents of dances,

first date .. but that was soon washed up

on the banks of embarrassment.

One first big joy, first rush of rhapsody,

was our trip to the London Planetarium,

the sunrise scene, to Morning from Peer Gynt,

and the sense of a wondrous opening-out.

The price, as I remember, was a shilling.


First weeks in university. Posters and politics

and arguments over midnight coffee

and then, with such a shot to the emotions,

the new black friends in the hall of residence,

Femi from Nigeria, Zac from Ghana,

Astley from Jamaica. Back home we’d read

of Windrush and Brixton and rioting

and landladies (no dogs, no blacks, no Irish).

Now suddenly these charming, genial men.

The fellowship. The joy of it.


That was October 1960

and it seemed absurdly simple.



Robert Nisbet

Robert Nisbet is a Welsh poet whose work has appeared recently in the USA in San Pedro River Review, Main Street Rag, Third Wednesday, Burningword Literary Journal, and many online journals. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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