J.D. Scrimgeour: Finding Inspiration in the Classroom

J.D. Scrimgeour: Finding Inspiration in the Classroom

“Classrooms can be some of the most intimate public spaces.”

by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor

Emily Jaeger
Emily Jaeger

J. D. Scrimgeour is the author of Themes For English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of Class, which won the AWP Award for Nonfiction. Recent nonfiction has appeared in African American Review, biostories, Brilliant Corners, Pangyrus, The Quotable and Solstice. He’s also the author of three collections of poetry: The Last Miles, Territories, and Lifting the Turtle. With musician Philip Swanson, he formed the performance group Confluence, and released a CD of poetry and music, Ogunquit & Other Works. He runs the Creative Writing Program at Salem State University.

“Columbia Elegy,” J.D. Scrimgeour’s essay appearing in June’s issue, begins with a family trip to Columbia University and moves into a meditation on economic class and contemporary politics. These seemingly effortless movements between the personal, global, and then back again—the essay ends with a tender memory of an overworked nurse falling asleep on the speaker’s shoulder on a bus ride home—are signatures of Scrimgeour’s colloquial and insightful prosody which spans multiple genres.

Whenever I take a bus, like we did to get to New York, I think of the times I’d take a bus back to Connecticut when I was in college….[one] time I sat with a Latina nurse in her late 20s. I don’t recall exactly what we talked about—her long work days? my girlfriend?—but there was a good feeling between us, and when she got sleepy, she put her head on my shoulder and I sat there, her forehead so near my cheek, her black hair pulled tight in a bun.”

The Columbia University setting and his recollections of life as a student in “Columbia Elegy” touch on a common theme in Scrimgeour’s work: “exploring what constitutes authentic learning in the exchange between student and teacher.” In his poetry and essays, the student-teacher relationship applies not only to the classroom, but also represents connections across difference, whether age, class, or race. As Scrimgeour explains in a recent interview, “teaching at Salem State helped crystalize amorphous, nearly unconscious feelings about class that I’d picked up on my own educational journey. I think this is because classrooms can be some of the most intimate public spaces.”

Cover of Lifting the Turtle by J.D. Scrimgeour
Lifting the Turtle by J.D. Scrimgeour

Snatches of overheard conversations and stories students have shared with him are the foundation of his most recent collection of poetry, Lifting the Turtle, forthcoming in November from Turning Point Books. Although there may be some risk of exploitation or appropriation when writing in others’ voices from a place of privilege, Scrimgeour attempts to address these issues head-on. In pieces based on students, he always shares his work with the subject before publication. 

in “Territory,” a thirteen-page monologue in the voice of a young gay man who was kicked out his house at sixteen, Scrimgeour combines others’ stories with his own inventions:

Homeless. I never thought of the word
that summer I would sleep in the park

near Harvard. Gabe had found someone else,
and one day I just loaded up a dufflebag,

grabbed a couple oranges and bagels
and left. I haven’t seen him since.

Homeless. I never thought of it in Buenos Aires,
Austin, L.A., Newark—all those cities

after Capilla where I hustled myself
for a bed, a room, food. Some stories

I won’t tell, even now. The shade
of the overpass, the raid on the shelter,

all the men with broken teeth, the blood
on the blade, drops crusting the dirt.

When the word came up in Sociology
this year, I mentioned that I’d been homeless,

and the professor treated me like I was
an expert. I told her I didn’t know

much, had never studied it. It turned out
she just wanted to hear my stories.

I started to share one, and the other students
looked at me like I was on a reality show.

Who needs that? “You don’t want to know,” I said.
I couldn’t explain it then, but now I get it:

I’m in school to find out what happened to me.”

Here, the theme of education structures the poem. The speaker’s exploration of the word homeless, especially in an educational context, allows the poem to address the speaker’s harrowing experiences while maintaining some distance. This is not a laundry list of grievances but rather an analysis that draws the reader in until the punch of the last line: “I’m in school to find out what happened to me.”

Many authors who write across cultures or other societal boundaries are hailed as writers of witness. In “Columbia Elegy,” “Territory,” and much of his work, Scrimgeour insists on moving beyond witness to engagement: a conversation between teacher and student, entering a story in first person, or giving a shoulder for the tired nurse as they talk. His no-frills prosody rejects romanticizing these moments. Rather with occasional humor and a sharp-shooting voice, Scrimgeour attempts to bridge the divides of daily life and invites the reader to come along.

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