Favorite Poem—Poem About My Rights
January 8, 2021
By Margaret Rozga
Wisconsin Poet Laureate
How do I love the new year? With thanks to Elizabeth Barrett Browning for the framework question, let me count the ways.
• A new Wisconsin Poet Laureate will soon to be announced.
• A new book, my fifth collection of poetry, Holding My Selves Together, will be published in May by Cornerstone Press.
• A soon to be new U.S. President and Vice-President will take office.
• A new position, Curator of Community Dialogue, has been created at the
Milwaukee Art Museum.
• Kantara Souffrant’s return to Milwaukee to assume that position and the development of partnerships with Milwaukee’s art community and the community at-large that it entails.
• Dr. Souffrant’s choice of June Jordan’s Poem About My Rights as one of her favorites.
I first met Kantara Souffrant in 2017 when she volunteered to help organize events for the 50th anniversary of Milwaukee’s fair housing marches. A PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, she then took a position as Assistant Professor of Global/Non-Western Art History and Visual Culture at Illinois State University in Bloomington, Ill. She is delighted to have the opportunity to return to Milwaukee, her husband’s hometown, for this position at the Milwaukee Art Museum which aligns perfectly with her strengths and interests.
As early as her first year as a student at Oberlin College, Kantara found herself drawn to this intersection of the arts with social and racial justice. The Multicultural Resource Center at Oberlin that year organized a conference on that topic, using a key line from June Jordan’s poem as the conference title, “My Name Is My Own.”
The conference title abbreviates what in Jordan’s poem is extended and put into a context. “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own my own my own” For Kantara these two lines capture the essence of the poem and its importance to her.
Naming, she says, is both personal and cultural. Her parents named her in honor of the German philosopher and Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. She later discovered that her name is an Arabic word for “bridge,” a discovery that she embraces and that suits the role she is to fulfill at the Milwaukee Art Museum, understanding and working to eliminate barriers that keep many Milwaukeeans, especially African Americans and Latinx people, from experiencing the Milwaukee Art Museum.
For African Americans, she said, “Our names sometimes automatically identify us as Black. Our names can be a way to acknowledge ancestors. When you live in a world where you are invisible and people think you are a threat, your unique name marks you as someone who cannot be disappeared.”
The title of June Jordan’s poem, “Poem about My Rights,” puts naming in this political context. It begins in a way that allows the reader to enter the poem with Jordan, that I think of as a “pre-poem” way. “Even tonight I need to take a walk and clear / my head about this poem.” Poets are often advised to remove such “scaffolding” when they move from draft to finished poem.
Jordan, however, would decline such advice, if she were given it. Her choice of entry into the poem serves her poetic activism and her activist poetics as it connects to their source, the denial of who she is. The opening lines of the poem continue with this emphasis.
about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin
Kantara believes that the arts, including June Jordan’s poetry, “help us move beyond our comfort zones so we can be better neighbors.” She looks to her own “radical optimism” to serve her well as she works to build partnerships between the Milwaukee Art Museum and dynamic organizations in the community, especially with Black and Latinx audiences.
Best wishes to her in this new year and this new position in her goal and museum’s goal to create an equitable, inclusive, and supportive city.
Best wishes also to the new Wisconsin Poet Laureate soon to be named. Writing these columns on people and their favorite poems has given me the joy of furthering my understanding of the many ways poetry
enriches the lives of the people who read it and often commit a favorite poem to heart. I am grateful to editor Katherine Keller and the Bay View Compass for giving me this opportunity. I wish all the paper’s readers many things and many poems to love in 2021.
To read June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights” in its entirety, see