Cheryl J. Fish is a New York-based author, poet, and scholar who is a professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where she teaches courses that emphasize environmental justice issues in literature and film, and in women’s and gender studies, as well as composition and intro to literature. She also teaches research methods and feminist theories at the CUNY Graduate Center and has been a visiting professor at Mt. Holyoke College. She was a Fulbright Lecturer in Finland in 2007, where she lectured in American Studies on topics ranging from Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes to travel writing, to contemporary literature and film.
On Thursday, August 19, Cheryl gives a presentation at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center entitled “Towards a Poetics of Race, Space & Place: The Harlem Skyrise Project,” which will focus on a 1965 collaboration between poet and activist June Jordan and architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller. The “Skyrise for Harlem” project was Jordan and Fuller’s challenge to “slum clearance” — an early example of environmental justice and the importance of connecting dwelling space to the psychic and social well being of a community. Her presentation is based on her essay “Place, Emotion, and Environmental Justice in Harlem: June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller’s 1965 ‘Architextual’ Collaboration,” which was published in Discourse: A Journal of Cultural and Media Studies. Recently I spoke to Cheryl about her influences, her upcoming talk at the Black Mountain College Museum Center, and her other ongoing projects.
Dan: Who are some of your influences, in terms of poetry?
Cheryl: My poetic influences were many — New York school poets like Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley were influential, as were modernists William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, H.D., and others.
Dan: How did you first get interested in writing poetry?
Cheryl: I have written poetry and short fiction since I was a child. I wrote throughout my youth and adolescence, and at Michigan State took Diane Wakoski’s workshop and saw readings by Robert Creeley and others.
Dan: What are some things that you like about Diane Wakoski’s poetry? What’s a highlight of that workshop with her, when you were at MSU?
Cheryl: Wakoski at MSU was the first poet I met who had poetry as a vocation. She used the quotidian in her poems, which were bold and confessional. It sort of legitimated that approach for me, and then at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York I was to find it again and see many varieties. She also used American myth and pop culture, such as presidents and motorcycles. She also wrote from a woman’s point of view and wrote of heartbreak, sometimes putting herself down. She could also be tough with her critiques, and it was the first workshop where I saw students cry.
Dan: How did your interest in poetry develop later?
Cheryl: In the early 1980s, I had my apprenticeship at St. Mark’s Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church — Anne Waldman, Bernadette Meyer, Patricia Jones, and Eileen Myles were leaders there who created a dynamic atmosphere. I took workshops with Alice Notley, Maureen Owen, and Jack Collom. All these wonderful poets were around — Allen Ginsberg, John Godfrey, Lee Ann Brown, Paul Auster, and many others. Great writers passed through there! I volunteered, read my work, and was part of the East Village arts and poetry scene.
Dan: How did your interest in poetry develop when you were in graduate school?
Cheryl: I wrote my first paper in graduate school on Gary Snyder’s poetry, while taking Allen Ginsberg’s class at Brooklyn College. But I got my MFA there in fiction writing, studied with Jonathan Baumbach and others. Later his son Noah directed the film “The Squid and the Whale” which referred to the workshop.
Dan: What’s an early example of an early piece of writing of yours that got published?
Cheryl: I published an early short story in a renegade journal that was packaged on computer printout paper, the kind with the corrugated holes on the side, and you bought it in a paper bag. It was called Between C&D: Neo Expressionist Lower East Side Fiction Magazine and the editors were Joel Rose and Catherine Texier. Other writers who published there were Gary Indiana, Darius James, Lois Elaine Griffin, and Mark Leyner.
Dan: What are some experiences you have had as an editor?
Cheryl: I co-edited a mimeo magazine called Ahnoi, with New Jersey poets Joel Lewis and Ed Smith.
Dan: Is that magazine still active? What would you say are one or two highlights of your involvement with that magazine, in terms of what was published in it, your editing style, or your collaboration with Joel and Ed?
Cheryl: No, it wasn’t a long run, but we published many good poets of the day. It was my first collaborative editing experience.
Dan: Have you edited other magazines?
Cheryl: Yes, I co-edited Poetry New York with Burt Kimmelman and Tod Thilleman, and a few year’s later I co-edited a volume of Women’s Studies Quarterly. Collaboration is one of my favorite activities in the writing and editing world. You never know what will transpire.
Dan: What are some things that you find compelling about environmental justice in literature and film?
Cheryl: I have always been interested in place-based writing and how language captures a sense of our environment, our surroundings, and the psyche. I got interested in environmental justice as a social movement that was an intervention into traditional environmental organizations that had ignored urban concerns and people of color, and film and literature have the power to educate, inform, and entertain us while guiding us to ethical action. After 9-11, I became aware of the insidious toxic exposures that many of us are living with.
Dan: How did 9-11 affect you, in that regard?
Cheryl: As a professor at a community college with many minority and low-income students, I saw how the media ignored the plight of our students, some of who died that day or had family who died, as well as our lost building (Fitterman Hall was contaminated and damaged on 9-11).
Dan: What are some other things you did, to deepen your understanding of environmental justice in literature and film?
Cheryl: I found a group of scholars who had done pioneering work in a book, The Environmental Justice Reader, eds. Joni Adamson, et al. Also, I started to attend the meetings of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and presented early works in progress there.
Dan: How did you get interested in women’s and gender studies?
Cheryl: My work has always been informed by gender and by questions of social class, race, and power. My first two scholarly books were about women travelers and mobility as a way to help women enter the public sphere to raise critiques of society as well as develop their voices.
Dan: What are the titles of those books, and what are they about?
Cheryl: The titles of the books are Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations, and A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African American Travel Writing, which I co-edited with Farah Griffin. Nancy Prince and Mary Seacole were a free-born African-American and Afro-Jamaican who traveled and wrote in the antebellum period about their work and insights into society and culture. They both went to Russia for different reasons, and were fascinating women who broke with many conventions when they traveled and wrote.
Dan: What are some things you’ve been interested in lately?
Cheryl: I’m looking at environmental justice work through film and literature, and how some of the narratives by women are informed by their concern for the body and the body politic. I am interested in the film Toxic Trespass, by the Canadian filmmaker Bari Cohen, which shows how children have elevated levels of chemicals in their blood and how they are trying to raise awareness of unbridled industrial toxicity and auto emissions. Also I published an essay recently in the journal MELUS about Ruth Ozeki’s novel My Year of Meats, and Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold’s documentary Blue Vinyl.
Dan: How did you work Ozecki’s novel and Gold’s film into that essay?
Cheryl: In both works, there is a DES daughter at the heart of the story, and having been exposed to a chemical their mothers took while pregnant with them caused their own medical disorders. Both bring that sense of awareness of how toxicities cross many borders, bodily and societal and scientific, and obviously spatial. Both also draw on their ethnic traditions and sense of injustice to ask hard questions and challenge the status quo, and both use humor to delight us even as they tell us of troubling policies.
Dan: How did you find out about June Jordan’s poetry? What are some things that you really like about her writings?
Cheryl: I knew some of her poetry — “Poem about My Rights,” for instance is one of her poems that I’ve been teaching for a while. It is powerful, eloquent, angry, far-reaching, loving. She has extensive political outreach and transnational concerns, but when I started to read her essays, and the letters and other works in her archive, I was blown away. June was brilliant and so engaged with so many issues and ideas, and she was so open to people from many backgrounds. She was a truly gifted artist and friend who would ask hard questions. I feel like we are only at the beginning of understanding this woman’s power, talent, and beauty.
Dan: How did you first find out about Buckminster Fuller? What do you like about his work?
Cheryl: I once dated a man who was a fanatic Bucky Fuller disciple. I was attracted to Bucky’s ideas about synergy and using design to promote sustainable living, to eradicate poverty through innovation, and his far reach to others around the world. Bucky’s poems are also fun.
Dan: What would you say are some things that you noticed about June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller’s friendship? What would you say are some ways by which they were ahead of their time?
Cheryl: Their friendship was surprisingly generous, expansive, and exciting. Both Bucky and June were global citizens before globalization became widespread; they are the internet and hypertext before it exists.
Dan: What would you say are some other things that they have in common?
Cheryl: They are always present, always have their minds into multiple actions and cross-pollinations to generate relations between humans, nature, and environments; they find the emblematic correspondence in thought, action, spirit, and place. In that way, Bucky is like his great, great, great (I forget how many greats) aunt, the Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, who was so brilliant and misunderstood as a women of ideas in the 19th century. I also am a scholar of Margaret Fuller, and have published two essays about her.
Dan: How did you first discover the “Skyrise for Harlem” collaboration between June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller?
Cheryl: I had assigned Jordan’s short “Letter to Buckminster Fuller,” from her book, Civil Wars, in my American Studies seminar at Mt. Holyoke College when I was on sabbatical from CUNY. That led to finding the Esquire essay she wrote under her married name, Meyer. I visited the Buckminster Fuller archive at Stanford, and then I visited the June Jordan archive when it opened at Radcliffe. When I met with Shoji Sadao in Queens shortly before I finished the Discourse essay, he gave me more of the letters that he had in his private collection. I am grateful to him for granting me access to those letters.
Dan: How would you say that the “Skyrise for Harlem” project relates to some of your other ongoing interests, such as environmental justice and women’s and gender studies?
Cheryl: “Skyrise for Harlem” is related in many ways to my other work, and also different. Critical race theory and feminist theory is something I have drawn on in my work on black women’s travel writing, and concerns about how writing intersects with questions of how one lives in the world are always present. I think the fact that I come from a working class family in Queens is also important to me — I have lived most of my life in middle income housing projects. But now everything is being privatized, and that is scary.
Dan: How did you do research for “Place, Emotion, and Environmental Justice in Harlem: June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller’s 1965 ‘Architextual’ Collaboration,” which was published in “Discourse: A Journal of Cultural and Media Studies”?
Cheryl: I did research on built environments and urban planning, and I have to acknowledge two seminars I participated in at the CUNY Graduate Center as a faculty fellow in the years when I was beginning the project. One was Neal Smith and Ida Susser’s seminar on “Cities” at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and the other was a seminar at the Center on Philanthropy. Both enabled me to work across disciplines with a lot of CUNY scholars who were thinking about built environments and neoliberal capitalism, and they led me to important background materials or ways of thinking that scholars in English may not be exposed to. I also participated in the Nature, Ecology and Society seminar at the CUNY GC for several years, and mostly grad students in environmental psychology organize it. So I had exposure to many different ways of thinking in putting together this essay.
Dan: Have there been any recent developments with what you’ve researched regarding “Skyrise for Harlem,” since your essay was published?
Cheryl: Since it came out, I have found a few more letters and information related to the work June did to try to promote “Skyrise for Harlem” and some more of the reactions to it. When I give talks about it, people want to know what other project that had some of the ideas June and Bucky were promoting, have succeeded. It’s a good question and worth pursuing. I think a lot of the ideas they promoted in this project are very important to the environmental justice and green movements today — like biomimicry, traffic calming, mixed use aesthetics, sustainable energy and design, economy of scale, voluntary simplicity, etc.
Dan: What other projects have you been working on?
Cheryl: I am working on a number of projects, scholarly and creative. With Jana Argersinger, a journal editor at Washington State University, I am collaborating to hopefully publish or electronically work with a selection of unpublished letters that Sophia Peabody wrote home from Cuba in the 1830s before she became Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Dan: What did you do during the recent “30 Pulse”?
Cheryl: I was one of 12 writing fellows through the Springcreek Project at Oregon State University who attended the “30 Pulse,” a gathering of scientists at Mount Saint Helens Volcanic National Monument. The scientists study and document the changes in various habitat, flora and fauna since the 1980 eruption, and we writers shared their research and went on expeditions in the “blast zone,” and so now I am working on poetry and fiction related to what I observed and learned there.
Dan: What’s a recent scholarly interest you have been exploring?
Cheryl: After my Fulbright in Finland in 2007, I became interested in the film of a number of Sami filmmakers, who make documentaries and fictional films that raise important questions about preserving their culture, challenging environmental and social injustices, and creating art and narrative that can reach international audiences.
Dan: Have you written anything about those Sami filmmakers?
Cheryl: I have written one piece on a couple of documentaries by Sami filmmakers, and hope to continue to expand this project and go back to do more research in Scandinavia.
Dan: What else have you been working on?
Cheryl: I am working on my own poetry and a first novel! I have a lot of irons in the fire, and I think I am drawn to people that also have a frenetic energy and want to make a difference.
Cheryl J. Fish’s presentation “Towards a Poetics of Race, Space & Place: The Harlem Skyrise Project” happens at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center at 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 19. BMCM+AC is at 56 Broadway in Asheville, North Carolina. For more info call (828) 350-8484.
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