On Thursday, Oct. 19, poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs spoke to a packed Rose Hills Theater at Pomona College on the topic “Remembering Joy,” exploring what it means to hold onto memories of happiness and loved ones.
The second guest of the Humanities Studio’s “Joy” Speaker Series, Gumbs began with a guided breathing exercise. She spoke in a soft, gentle voice and led audience members with deep inhales and exhales. Presenting to a relaxed room of 7C students and faculty, Gumbs opened with the key message of her presentation.
“There is an expansive, interspecies, intergenerational joy that we can have access to at any moment,” Gumbs said.
Gumbs’s work expands beyond her poetry. She is the founder of multiple organizations, projects, and online networks centered around Black, queer and feminist artist community spaces. According to her website, she believes her work in this lifetime is to “facilitate infinite, unstoppable ancestral love in practice.”
After the breathing exercise, Gumbs opened up the space to the audience. She asked for everyone to dedicate their experience that evening to a person in their lives who wasn’t in the room. Many picked their hometown friends, family members and parental figures. Gumbs decided to dedicate this talk to her late father, who heavily inspired her work as a writer and artist.
“I’m really honored to have him with me, and I’m present to the fact that an inclusive joy actually transubstantiates,” Gumbs said.
This dedication exercise led to the premise of the evening’s talk – an oracle text exercise and what Gumbs called the “Inner Child Summer School.”
She showed the audience a computer folder she had filled with photos of her and her father from when she was an infant. Each photo was labeled with a letter of the alphabet (A to Z) and a word or phrase that began with the letter. Using those images, she asked the audience members to think about what curiosities of joy they had in that moment.
“[My dad] was also a poet who wrote from photos, so I wrote from these childhood photos,” Gumbs said. “We’re gonna work from the photos that are of him and me.”
Throughout the evening, various audience members volunteered to share their dedication, curiosity and the letter of the alphabet they associated with their responses. Gumbs then found the photo that corresponded with the given letter and read out the corresponding literature she had written inspired by the photograph.
“It was a fresh breeze to see Dr. Gumbs step out of a linear academic presentation format and into an oracular, visual, poetic call-and-response with the audience,” Gretchen Rognlien, associate director of the Humanities Studio said. “It was also moving to witness the willingness of Dr. Gumbs’ listeners to share their own impromptu and intimate musings about joy with a roomful of potential strangers.”
Nikia Chaney CG ’23 was one of the first volunteers for this exercise. She dedicated her time to her daughter.
“I dedicated this to my daughter, who is going through a tough time right now and I chose the letter ‘B,’” Chaney said.
Gumbs found the photo in her folder for the letter “B,” titled “Better my heart.” It was an image of her as a child, her father and her grandmother, all swimming at Dunn’s River Falls. She read a poem that centered around the word “better.”
“Blink and think and carry on, forever. I will live and laugh in your eyes,” Gumbs said.
Another volunteer, Khimmoy Hudson PO ’25, dedicated his time for the evening to his parents. He explained his identity as a son of Jamaican immigrants and growing up navigating the experience of observing his parents work in America. His chosen letter was the letter “P” for “parents.”
“My understanding of remembering joy is rooted in me trying to figure out how much I can separate this idea of what the ‘American Dream’ is and simply finding a joy that exists outside of that,” Hudson said.
The photo in Gumbs’s folder for the letter “P” was one from when her parents had first taken her to Jamaica. The word associated with this photo was ”plot.” She recited a poem she wrote inspired by it.
“I long for home, a tree on land that owns and dusk that reached,” Gumbs said.
The letters and photos, in relation to the literature Gumbs read, answered many of the volunteers’ curiosities about joy. The evening’s topic of “Remembering Joy” became that of paying homage to the joy that centers around people and community.
Gretchen Rognlien, associate director of the Humanities Studio, described her favorite part of the event.
“It was a fresh breeze to see Dr. Gumbs step out of a linear academic presentation format and into an oracular, visual, poetic call-and-response with the audience,” Rognlien said. “It was also moving to witness the willingness of Dr. Gumbs’ listeners to share their own impromptu and intimate musings about joy with a roomful of potential strangers.”