"Even before a gunman killed five people and injured several others... at North Illinois University, a small but growing movement had been underway at universities and state legislatures, to allow students, faculty and staff to carry guns on campus." -- USA Today, Feb. 15, 2008
I sing of arms and the campus.
As a poet and professor of English/Creative Writing, I can imagine it now: the cold sheen of gunmetal gleaming beneath my desk, the carefully-stacked deadly stockpile of weapons at my feet. The AK7 and the Uzi, the semi-automatic assault rifles.
Before I pass around the roll sheet, I pat my live ammo belt, that lifebuoy of bullets slung around my waist. The students adjust their shoulder and hip holsters. Class begins.
So what will I teach, while checking out students through the cross-hairs? No doubt the same curriculum as always, the same questions of character, metaphor - the same poets whose voices we listen to now. Emily Dickinson, for example:
"My life had stood, a loaded gun..."
Students are naturally drawn to poetry, to literature, to creative writing. The need for expression is in all of us. And students with troubled minds and suffering spirits (what we might call the human condition these days) have sought out courses in Lit and CW, looking for answers, looking to learn the art of creative expression. But then there are those other troubled minds and suffering spirits -- students who are clinically depressed, even suicidal -- among them the rare student who is experiencing a break with reality so convincing that he will acquire a weapon - and use it.
It has happened that many of the "shooters" on campus in recent years, have been students of creative writing or reading in a literature course. Many teachers of the art combine exercises in writing with creative reading. To most young imaginations, this is liberating -- a combination of the analytic and the expressive which inspires the "new" voice -- entering the great conversation of literature. News that Stays News - with one's own well-crafted report from the soul!
But in the case of a student with a true psychotic break - the same need for clarity and catharsis is desperate and unbalanced -- and without the satisfactions that a committed study of aesthetic self-expression can offer.
In fact, for someone tortured in the mind, this may be the last "stop" -- the last hope in trying to describe indescribable bleakness and a sense of impending doom. Professors of writing and reading, though not psychologists, are students of human behavior -- and the study of literature, after all teaches us the lessons of life.
Those of us who teach and are also writers, work at recognizing and staying sensitive to trouble in the mind, trouble in the soul. And it often doesn't take a great deal of experience or an "educated" awareness to pick up on signs of potentially violent behavior in a workshop, seminar or one-on-one conference.
Years ago, at the country's most famous writers' workshop at a Midwestern university, I had a graduate student in my poetry seminar who stopped taking his lithium medication (he had come to me at the beginning of the term to explain that he was taking regular meds for manic-depression). After he quit his meds, he began to document, in writing, the disintegration of his "Self", as he said - even as he began to threaten others in the classroom.
When I spoke to the administration about him, I met with what has become fairly standard unwritten policy - I was told that this student "had to hurt somebody" before the university could take any action to restrain him.
The student's behavior (and psychological disintegration) worsened -- and he did indeed hurt somebody. He tried to cut the throat of a bartender at a university hangout, a bar near campus. Witnesses said he was shouting violent threats as he was restrained and taken to a local paychiatric clinic, a treatment center which I later heard bore the nickname "Workshop East".
Poet Nikki Giovanni, who taught creative writing to Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, saw something deeply alarming in his writing. She shared her concerns with a department head, who informed university administrators, who ultimately did little to closely monitor or follow up on a psychological time bomb - with the resulting horror of recent headlines.
Images of death and despair are familiar to teachers and students of writing and lit. Great literary moments gleam darkly with melancholy. When Milton writes, "Within him, hell he brings," he is turning his experience of a tortured sensibility into eloquence - emphasis on the "turning into", the transformation.
"We die soon" cry the gang members in the pool hall in Gwendolyn Brooks' famous poem, "We Real Cool".
A student who is falling apart mentally and potentially violent may attempt or even succeed at expression -- out of this intense and tragic need to communicate. But there is a very significant difference between Milton's and Brooks' transformation into art or successful self-expression -- and the need to keep indicating the wound, building the torture chamber -- and the fantasies of "revenge" on paper. Finally, the failure to articulate the torment, the incapacity to successfully explore in language the minefield of mental anguish and dreams of aggression - will blow back into the "real" world.
James Joyce brought his daughter Lucia to Carl Jung to be psychoanalyzed, and when Jung described her dark and violent fantasies to him and pronounced her schizophrenic -- Joyce protested that his own reveries were identical to Lucia's. But the difference between the two, Jung responded, was that Joyce dived into his fantasies then re-surfaced. Lucia, he said, fell into the depths of her imagination and drowned.
Clearly, when the necessity for psychological detection and clinical diagnosis and assistance are at least a partial answer to this firestorm of campus violence -- along with strict across-the-board gun control -- why are some legislatures and universities bent on creating High Noon on campus, encouraging, in fact, the possibility of "legal" massacre of our students and faculties?
Not everyone on the "front lines" of university life agrees with me. There is an organization called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus" which champions legislation that would allow licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on campus -- these students have "protested" the lack of enabling legislation by showing up at class with strapped-on empty holsters.
On January 29 of 2009 a Senate Bill ("82") which would "provide for the right to possess a firearm on campuses of public institutions of higher education"- - thankfully failed.
" You may hide in the caves, but they'll only be your graves
But you can't get away from the guns."
-- Rudyard Kipling
OK, here's a creative exercise for the gun lobbyists and the opponents of gun control supporting these suicidal measures: Instead of turning teachers into gunslingers, how about listening to Emily Dickinson again - and imagining what she has imagined?
She is calling up, in her poem, a voice we have never heard before. It is the voice of the gun itself - here are its chilling cryptic syllables, the Loaded Gun with a message:
"For I have but the power to kill"
Without the power to die.
-- Carol Muske-Dukes
A version of "My Love is Like a Sweet Revolver" appeared in the on-line blog, WOMEN'S VOICES FOR CHANGE on March 3, 2008. www.womensvoicesforchange.org