Voice, Form & Politics: Talking with Mecca Jamilah Sullivan about June Jordan

When I heard that Professor Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and her colleagues at Umass Amherst’s Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and Afro-American Studies departments were planning “Feminist Poetics: Legacies of June Jordan,” I was super excited. This one-day symposium sounds so amazing—it’s billed as “celebrating the work of feminist poet, scholar and activist June Jordan, and her legacies in contemporary feminist poetics.” The conference will feature panels on Writing Feminist Activism, The Combahee River Collective and Black Feminist Foundations, Feminist Poetics as Theory and Praxis, and more. Speakers, moderators and performers include renowned feminist thinkers Sonia Sanchez, Evie Shockley, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Cheryl Clarke and many others. And it’s all happening THIS Friday, March 25th.

For me, Umass Amherst is an extra-special place: I went to college there, and the Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies department is where I learned about the intersections of art and activism, and came into my own as both a writer and a feminist. When I learned about the Feminist Poetics symposium, I had to reach out to Mecca Jamilah Sullivan to ask her about how it all came together, why June Jordan’s legacy matters right now, and—because Mecca is an incredible fiction writer herself—how Jordan’s poetics influence her own work as a writer.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Photo Credit Marcia Wilson

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her scholarly and creative works on gender and sexuality in African Diaspora cultures have appeared in Best New Writing, Callaloo, Feminist Studies, Palimpsest, Crab Orchard Review, GLQ, Jacket2, Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, BLOOM, TriQuarterly, Public Books, American Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Ebony.com, TheRoot.com, Ms. Magazine online, and The Feminist Wire, where she is Associate Editor for Arts and Culture. She is the author of the short story collection, Blue Talk and Love (2015), a current finalist for both the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and the 2016 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. A current Pushcart Prize nominee, she is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Glenna Luschei Fiction Award, the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, and fellowships, scholarships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mellon-Mays Foundation, Williams College, Rutgers University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat, the Social Sciences Research Council, and the Center for Fiction in New York City, where she received a 2011 Emerging Writers Fellowship. She is currently completing a scholarly manuscript, The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora, which explores the politics of formal innovation in global black women’s literary and artistic cultures.


Marisa Crawford: Can you talk a bit about the process and rationale behind planning this symposium? What made you and your colleagues at UMass decide to plan a conference focused on feminist poetics?

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Sure. The brainstorming for the conference began in 2013, when the Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies [WGSS] department at UMass hosted a conference titled Critical Feminist Thought in the African Diaspora. I was on a postdoctoral fellowship at the time, and was preparing to come to UMass the following year. At that conference, I had a string of great conversations with Afro-American Studies chair, John Bracey, and WGSS professor emerita, Arlene Avakian, about June Jordan and how important her work is—and how striking it is that her work has not been celebrated more fully and more consistently than it has. Given all that was going on in social and political spheres at the time—and all that is going on now—we thought this would be the time to invoke her work and bring it to the fore in a broad and public context. This was especially exciting for me as a scholar and creative writer invested in black feminist theoretical work and creative praxis. For me, June Jordan is a model of politically engaged scholarly and creative work, and I was thrilled to learn that there would be support among my new colleagues for staging this kind of event.


MC: What was your role in organizing the conference?

MJS: About a year and a half ago, I met with Dr. Bracey to brainstorm and conceptualize the Symposium. Our earlier conversations about the possibility of a celebration of Jordan’s work had stuck with me, and I was excited to move forward in bringing the idea to fruition. During the fall semester of 2015, Tricia Loveland, also of the Afro-American Studies department, and my fantastic colleagues in WGSS, chair Dr. Laura Briggs, Dr. Kirsten Leng, Dr. Abbie Boggs, and our wonderful Graduate Student program committee member Martha Balaguera and office manager Linda Hillenbrand came onboard to help plan and organize the event. It’s been great to have the support of such a committed team in bringing this vision to life.

MC: Why did you choose to focus on the poetics of June Jordan? How do you see Jordan’s poetics as exemplary of a feminist poetics project?

Flier for Feminist Poetics: Legacies of June Jordan

Flier for Feminist Poetics: Legacies of June Jordan

MJS: As someone who studies the politics of black women’s poetics, Jordan has always been an extremely important figure for me. For me, June Jordan stands as one of many black feminist thinkers whose resistance of institutional, generic, and disciplinary boundaries has been inspiring and instructive. Jordan wrote over twenty five book-length works of poetry, fiction, memoir, and critical prose, each engaging crucial questions of race, sexuality, class, imperialism, and power. As a scholar, I find it important to acknowledge this multidisciplinarity and genre-crossing as key aspects of black feminist literary and theoretical traditions. And as a creative writer, I think Jordan’s work can offer us lessons in how important it is to bring our creative selves to all areas of our intellectual lives.

MC: Can you talk a bit about June Jordan’s legacy, and why it’s so important?

MJS: Absolutely. Jordan has been a major influence for so many writers and scholars. She’s a well-known figure in the pantheon of queer, black, feminist, and anti-imperialist thinkers of the last third of the 20th century. And yet, despite how incredibly prolific she was and the staggering scope of her work, in talking with friends and colleagues interested in these questions, there’s a general sense that some of our students and colleagues are not as familiar with her work as they should be. Jordan’s work was both right on time and ahead of its time. The poems and essays she wrote about state-sanctioned violence, U.S. imperialism, violence against women, the complexity of gender and sexuality, intersections of race, class and gender, and black women’s invisibility—to name only a few topics—those pieces she wrote in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are every inch as meaningful and resonant today. I think of her poem, “Apologies to All the People in Lebanon,” or “Poem About My Rights,” on race, sexual identity, and sexual violence, or her essay “A New Politics of Sexuality.” These are all works that we need to be reading now, right this minute.

Poem About My Rights

Corrected Typescript of “Poem About My Rights,” (June Jordan papers, MC 513, 64.47). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library (Via)

MC: In addition to your work as a scholar, you’re also a fiction writer. Do you see the poetic legacies of June Jordan at work/as an influence in your own writing? 

MJS: Yes, for sure. My approach to scholarship is very much informed by my fiction, and vice versa. In both mediums, I’m interested in voice and how it can illuminate aspects of identity, power, and social/political experience. Jordan’s poems exemplify this kind of connection between voice, form, and politics. Her essays often read as stories, and include wonderfully interior, poetic prose. I think of her essay “Report from the Bahamas,” which was the first piece of writing of hers I ever encountered. The essay narrates Jordan’s developing awareness of national and class privilege in an encounter with a black woman domestic worker while on vacation in the Bahamas. She uses a striking narrative frame to make this critique, inviting her reader into her process of self-positioning and self-interrogation—the same process which, by the end of the piece, she asks us to take up. She brings in song lyrics, dialogue, and other forms of text to bring us along in this experience. As readers, we’re both welcomed and implicated. It’s our responsibility to recon with what she’s saying, not at a distance, but up close—in the tight space between the experience she’s describing and our own experience reading the text.

In my scholarship, I write about how black women’s artistic practices develop these kinds of strategies, using form and voice to engage their readers in new kinds of interpretive practices that emphasize intersectionality and difference. I feel strongly about this because as a fiction writer, this is why I write—not only to show what happens in black lives, queer lives, and lives marked by difference, but to give readers a sense of what it is to experience multiple differences and multiple relationships to power from the inside. Highlighting black girl characters’ voices through fiction makes that possible. For some readers that occurs as labor and disruption, and for others it brings the joy of recognition. Either way, this is the work that art can do. And I think it’s extremely important.


See the full lineup and description for “Feminist Poetics: Legacies of June Jordan” here.

Watch a livestream of the event here.

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