Appreciation: Defining June Jordan

Article excerpt

June Jordan (1936-2002) was the most amazing teacher. Ever. Period. Despite being one of the many fortunate students she transformed into a poet, I can't seem to conjure up a metaphor to truly capture her.

No twister or tsunami could match the force with which Jordan, a professor of African American and women's studies, used words.

Jordan began lecturing at the University of California at Berkeley in 1986, and founded and, for the last 11 years, directed an unprecedented academic and artistic movement on the campus known as "Poetry for the People." She focused on poetry written by people ignored in most other university curricula, giving unprecedented respect to the invisible, the misrepresented, the forgotten.

No mosh pit or parade or stampede could capture the energy June infused into the program.

Every semester hundreds of students - of every race, religion and rhythmic potential - signed up to take this course. She presented these new poets in standing-room only readings. She expanded Poetry for the People to Berkeley High School and Dublin Women's Prison. And she helped publish a primer so that others could develop similar programs. No superhero or healer or hallelujah could exemplify how Jordan single-handedly transformed her students' lives. In every classroom she entered, she lived up to her nickname of "Universal Poet," sparking discussions on everything from affirmative action to Jesse Jackson to babies to bisexuality to bombs over Baghdad to Buddha to Palestine to Valentine's Day. …