Corey Hall teaches English composition at Kennedy-King College, and is the editor of Expressions from Englewood, an anthology of personal writing. Expressions, which collects poetry and prose from “people who live, work, and/or go to school in this community,” was sprung from the belief that writing from life had a place outside the classroom, and that writing in the public sphere serves a purpose, if not a definite one. “It’s just giving people a voice who deserve it,” he says. “Because otherwise they might not have it.” Hall, who is currently editing the seventh volume, told me he takes around eighty-five to ninety percent of the essays from his classes, and the rest from writers he knows. I talked with him in his office at Kennedy-King, in the late afternoon, just before his first class of the semester.
What do you look for in the essays, in other people’s writing?
Personal voice. A story that people can either relate to or have an interest in. Because you’re not going to be able to relate to everything.
If you let people express themselves, you’ll be surprised with what you get. And tell them, you write what you can, you write what interests you to the best of your ability. There’s one guy, I have an essay of his, it was confidential [in the class] but it was very good. I’m going to ask him for it soon—he had to deal with coming out, and he knew his mother wasn’t going to accept that.
So he wrote this essay, this beautiful essay with the confidential clause, and I said, “Hey bud, we gotta get that essay.” And I don’t want to do “by anonymous.” I hope he doesn’t have a problem with it; I’ll send out a group email to a certain section of writers, and let him know that this essay is worth publishing. I don’t think he’ll say no, because I told him I wanted to take it, but I hope he doesn’t say no at the last minute. It all just comes down to letting people be themselves and express themselves.
You use the word “expression” a lot, in the title of your project for instance, but also in your introductions to each volume, where you call every contributor an “Expressionist.” What does this term mean for you?
I’ll go back to Von Freeman, who had the South Side jam session for many years; when someone would get up to play, he would say “Express yourself. Be yourself, show us what you got.” And I use that because I want them to feel comfortable expressing themselves even when they talk about topics that make them uncomfortable.
I tell my students, when you do this kind of writing, it’s like that cartoon Tom & Jerry, where Tom is always chasing Jerry, just chasing him and chasing him. And then there’s that sign that says “End of Technicolor,” and then they go into black and white. And so it’s like that area. I tell them, I say, “You’re going to get to that point where you’ve never been before. And you’ll say, ‘What is this?’” And I tell them, “Keep going, keep swimming, don’t stop and look around and survey this new scene. You got there some way, keep going.”
These books prove that, when you allow people to express themselves, honestly, and without judgment, you’ll be impressed with what you get. These come out of a Composition 1 class, most of the essays, Comp 1 and Comp 2, but there’s no class for Expressions. This originated when I was a part-time teacher, seeing really good essays and thinking, “This essay deserves attention.” We’ve had this class for sixteen weeks, but I want you to be thinking outside these four walls. It’s not just, “Okay, let’s do this book thing for 16 weeks and then, ‘Next…’ ”
It’s called Expressions from Englewood because that’s where they’re from. But not every story is about Englewood; if I did that I would have an awfully small edition. They take place in the world, that’s what it is.
Who’s your audience—people within Englewood, people outside…?
Whoever wants to read it.
A lot of [the students] have not been told that they write well or they’re smart. When I told one writer, who’s in here twice, and I gave her the books—a tiny woman, she’s probably about 4’10’’—she went through a shock this big, and I was like, I hope she didn’t just pass out in my office. I told her, “It was good so I published it.”
It’s doing more than just teaching a course. People can carry this around. And one of the best things of the books is that people pass it around and say, “Oh there’s a friend of mine in there.” Well you can be in there, too. You know, we have all these textbooks and stuff, and you’re not going to meet these people. I pull my essays from “outside” sources—the Internet, anthologies—and what I call the “inside” source, a book like this. And I say, “You might know these people.”
What do you want the stories to expose? Are you interested in showing the positive aspects of the community, things that have gone underexposed, or not necessarily?
It’s the underexposed aspect that has always existed here. It’s just being written out. Now this is not the Good News Journal, there are some stories in there—there’s a story, I think in either book five or book six, where this student of mine, she had shot somebody. So, there’s some of that, it’s there.
There was one essay where the writer was going to give her daughter up for adoption, and then she changes her mind. We had this reading at the library, and when she was finished reading her daughter came over and hugged her. This was a kind of “get me over” essay.
After that, [the next story begins], “At eight years old she did incest by my sister.” And then after that, I didn’t realize that the next essay, “Choices,” says: “I recall sitting in the lobby of the abortion clinic.” And I’m like, are you trying to kill people? Do you want everybody to start committing suicide? But that’s just the way it happened. The heavy, heavy essays just happened to be concentrated like that. But the whole journal isn’t like that, the whole journal isn’t bleak like that. But that’s life, those things happen.
I write from time to time for Newcity, and they had the top five lists at the end of the year. I had the top five things you want to hear on WBEZ, and I said, a black person, without a criminal record or a social dysfunction on This American Life. As good as that show is, I’ve listened to it enough to know that if there’s a black person there’s going to be a problem. Even a station that’s supposed to be refined like that and educated, they do the same thing as the so-called mainstream media. They rarely come here to expose good things.
Like I said, this is not the Sunshine Journal. It’s presenting people. It shows the talent that exists in this community. People are going to think what they’re going to think.