Man, I’m nervous. Y’all nervous before giving a talk? Because I’m nervous. And I’m nervous for three reasons.
#1 is because I love this conference. I get excited every time it pops up. It gives me a chance to see people I know and respect more than once a year. And it gives me a chance to get to know new people that I will come to respect and look forward to seeing again, too. And I think there’s a lot of good, honest work happening at smaller, regional, low/no-cost conferences like this one.
#2 is because of my co-presenter, my co-keynoter. Whether he’s aware of it or not, Donnie Sackey’s been a solid influence on me, particularly in my thinking about cultural and environmental rhetorics. Having had the chance and pleasure to witness a couple of his prior talks, I consider him to be an engaging, enlightening speaker. I’m humbled to share this space with him.
#3 is because I’m going to be talking about Flint. This isn’t something that comes easy to me. As writers in Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology and in the Spring 2016 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review attest, many city residents harbor skepticism and defensiveness toward anyone defining Flint and its problems. So, I’m nervous about falling into speaking for them, into speaking about them, particularly when, from my perspective, they’ve proven very adept at speaking for themselves. It’s the fault of others for not listening.
I want to believe that I’m listening, though, even as I make my daily commute from the Lansing area to the University of Michigan campus in downtown Flint. It’s a drive similar to the one once made by Jerry Ambrose, who lives in Mason and was the fourth in a succession of emergency financial managers for the city. Of course, our degrees of influence in Flint are very different; while his time in the city is over, mine is still beginning. To some degree, I’m dealing with the ramifications of his and every other emergency financial manager’s decisions. It’s not a responsibility I’m happy about, but it is one I accept. This acceptance may mark a difference between me and Mr. Ambrose.
And I want to believe I’m listening, because I want to talk about a problem in Flint. It’s a problem that continues to color my experience there. It’s the only lens through which I’m able to see, no matter how cloudy the resolution. Of course, I’m talking about the Flint water crisis. But I want to talk about it in a particular way. I want to try and talk about the Flint water crisis in a way that addresses the framing question of today’s conference. And if this talk falls flat on its face, it’ll be because of my inability to see past this ongoing crisis for which there is no end in sight.
Coleridge: Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink
There are many common refrains in the Flint water crisis, and I think these lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner are among them. And I share them here in part to divest myself of the anticipation, of the expectation, of the irony. But I also share it because “water water every where nor any drop to drink” might not be the most apt allusion. I’d argue that “day after day, day after day, we stuck” is more appropriate, given that not even 1% of city pipes have been replaced, given that city residents still can’t drink city water without a filter, given that there’s a bacterial outbreak because some have so little faith in the water coming from their faucets that they don’t wash their hands.
And I say this, and I say this with a tinge of annoyance if not anger, not to get political, but to get it out there, to get it on the level, which I see as the least, the absolute least I can do. Some might call this slacktivism, i.e., “a low-risk, low-cost activity via social media, whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity.” It’s what I do with Twitter now. It’s about the only thing I do with Twitter now. And I still don’t know how I feel about doing it, or about Twitter really.
However, I do know that the level I seek through writing calls the following into question: that a flood of email signals transparency, that a sip of water signals empathy, that a concession of the Flint water crisis as Michigan’s “Katrina” signals acceptance of responsibility. Because each action is a kind of erasure, a silencing. Such actions give the crisis an unwarranted air of inevitability. Such actions allow celebrities to respond in kind with provocative tweets and plastic bottles of water. Such actions collapse multiple failures, just two being the state’s oversight of the switch and its much-delayed response to the ensuing crisis. Such actions invite upon Flint residents the same unfair, uninformed criticisms and questions leveled at those who were in New Orleans when the levees broke. Such actions give greater weight to the short-term address of what are more systemic problems. Such actions blame the environment, which we continue to pollute, for harming and killing us.
Atwood: Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water.
But getting it on the level, or at least seeking it, is what I try to do in the classroom, too. In January 2016, I asked students if we should take some time to talk about the Flint water crisis. This was a long overdue inquiry on my part. And it had already been in the news long enough that I thought students might want to spend a single 75-minute session talking about it. They had so many concerns and questions about every aspect of it, though, from health and history to infrastructure and policy, that we decided to make the crisis our focus for the rest of the semester.
For many of them, the Flint water crisis was more local and relevant than anything else at the time. It likely still is. So, we took the rest of the semester to seek our own level. We watched the congressional hearings and read and talked about blame and responsibility, about environmental justice and infrastructure, about emergency financial management and lead. The writing that came as a result of those readings sought its own level, too, as students argued for pipe replacement and against abandoning Flint, identified potential solutions in majors as diverse as aerospace engineering and urban policy. Through the encouragement and offering of space, students found their way and made connections; through writing, they found their level.
Vitanza: There is something about “writing” that not only “we” hide from ourselves but also that writing itself hides from us. Though hidden, “it” cannot be found. If supposedly found, “it” is easily lost again. Actually and Virtually, “it” is not hidden! Nor is it ever found.
In the wake of Vitanza, I hope it is safe to say that writing wants as water wants. Water seeks its own level, and I think writing does, too. What we see in water we also see in writing. Water and writing can reflect and reveal the toxicity in an otherwise pristine environment.
In water and in writing, we have the necessary and the mundane. We possess (or lack) concerns about access and infrastructure, and such priorities are among the highest/lowest as well as the most (in)visible facing us right now.
The words we write today are, to a degree, the same words used by writers centuries ago. The water we drink today is, to a degree, the same water used by dinosaurs.
And it’s entirely possible that, through all of this, I’m conflating desire and state, wanting and being. But I think I’m okay with that. Maybe you are, too.
Melville: Surely all this is not without meaning.
Thank you for your time and attention this afternoon.