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Ailish Hopper
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I. Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Statement presented by Adrienne Rich at National Book Awards, 1974 The statement I am going to read was prepared by three of the women nominated for the National Book Award for poetry, with the agreement that it would be read by whichever of us, if any, was chosen. We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain. We believe that we can enrich ourselves more in supporting and giving to each other than by competing against each other; and that poetry— if it is poetry— exists in a realm beyond ranking and comparison. We symbolically join together here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women. We appreciate the good faith of the judges for this award, but none of us could accept this money for herself, nor could she let go unquestioned the terms on which poets are given or denied honor and livelihood in this world, especially when they are women. We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women, of every color, identification, or derived class: the poet, the housewife, the lesbian, the mathematician, the mother, the dishwasher, the pregnant teenager, the teacher, the grandmother, the prostitute, the philosopher, the waitress, the women who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet; the silent women whose voice have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work. 2.Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in Salute, Olympics, 1968 3. from Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949 "Perhaps the first deep chasm in our Western culture was dug, the first separation made, long ago, when the church officially proclaimed asceticism the "superior" life. Perhaps it was this degradation of the human body, this segregation of inferior flesh from superior soul, this splitting of sacred from profane love---weakening love until it is no match for hate---that was the primal schizophrenic act that set the strange pattern which has caught up with the Western world now in the strange pattern of what sometimes seems a dance of death..." 4. Nikky Finney, Acceptance Speech at National Book Awards, 2011 One: We begin with history. The slave codes of South Carolina, 1739. A fine of $100 and 6 months in prison would be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature. The ones who longed to read and write but were forbidden, who lost hands and feet, were killed by laws written by men who believed they owned other men. Words devoted... Continue reading
Posted Aug 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
"A poet is somebody free" ---June Jordan To talk about race in America is, unfortunately, to often feel caught in a game of racial "gotcha," as we step around closed spaces in the present, kept that way by racial codes. And so, it's not surprising that many will do anything to avoid speaking, or writing, freely about race. Or, when and if they do, to feel exhausted and resigned by it. Many of us are concerned about being pigeonholed as one or another racial "types," or feeling like, as John L. Jackson calls it, a "racial sinner." As poets, how is it that we will use the same language that has run the errands of race to depict (and pick) the lock of bring free? And, how not to bring the diamond-headed needle of our attention into the dusty groove of, as Toni Morrison characterized our past, an "abused record with no chance but to repeat itself?" Because race is America is just like bad fiction, with two-dimensional characters, predictable plotlines, passive verbs, subject-less sentences. Even our remedy-stories constrain, or can, if they too become more narratives to race-patrol; stories of heroism or helplessness, identities that become narrow containers. But it is possible to rewrite---meaning, not merely "revise," but to write poems that neither ignore racial codes, nor give over their power to them. That, like all good art, expand our vision of ourselves----all that we are, all that we are not----to introduce the "another world," as Paul Eluard put it, that's "in this one." But in practice, this can feel a little like an enigma. We are fulfilling Stephen Dunn's "Little Essay on Form" (here, in its entirety): "We build the corral as we reinvent the horse." But what really do emancipated bodies and language look like? Partly, they look like us. Every anthology, an "iAnthology," a "myTOC." Like the maps from an earlier post, they take what is real---our real experiences, our real bodies, and the real encountered world---and use that to show that "another world" that is here, too, just hidden, by codes, from our view. The step in rewriting that is most controversial, but maybe most necessary, is what Bertolt Brecht called the "alienation effect," the gesture, on the part of a poem, toward the script and the stage that racial codes want to hand down. As its name suggests, this can thus make us feel, as readers, like the poem is messing with us. Because it is. Brecht calls this process "liberating the spectator," or, bringing the audience into the work of art by acknowledging not only the script and the stage, but all of the context---the backstage, the fact that they are pretending----all of the elephants in the room. For, as Major Jackson pointed out in his now-famous essay from 2007, part of the problem of racism in America is that it is a "spectator sport." Rashid Johnson's photo, above, uses this kind of effect, as did the map of the view from California.... Continue reading
Posted Aug 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Kyle, Thanks for this. I'm glad that you're having these conversations with your students! And, we're actually mostly in agreement, in that we're talking about a poetics of freedom. But I mean something different by "rewriting" than what you caught here. And I think that the process of naming, of seeing, difference is important. At least, as long as it's important to the structures in the US that still use it to oppress and ignore some, while giving a pass (and goodies) to others. And as long as whiteness is still predicated on my /not/ seeing, and naming, it. But neither do we have to make it all we see about someone. In other words, even in those solutions---more dichoto-myelitis! Only way out is through. Ailish
Yes, I sidestepped the persona issue with Hoagland, along with a lot of other important points. Because the point stands: persona or no, our art plays in the world, in real people's lives. And there are consequences. I think there is a difference in our responses to, and expectations of, poetry and fiction, certainly. But when it comes to race....I don't know that we let fiction off the hook. In fact, in Major Jackson's great APR essay about race, he begins by relating a difficult experience he had listening to Barry Hannah read in the voice of one of his particularly racist characters. The whole formal question, though, of /how/ we bring that poison into the world, "how to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?" as Toni Morrison put it----that's tomorrow's post. :-)
Something that's fun to do sometimes is talk with white people about reparations for slavery. Well, it's fun---like a German Expressionist play. Fun---like an absurdist novel. Or, like Groundhog Day: the same show, over and over, with all of us seemingly unaware that we’ve been fed our script or our lines. Fun like ---the abyss. Here is Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert writing about the abyss, relating his older brother’s appearance, when home after the war: nothing was left him but touch… we walk together in the streets and he recites to me improbable tales touching my face with blind fingers of rain Because we’re not really talking about race, or writing about it, if the abyss, or the absurd, is not somehow nearby, even if it is not in the words, the tone, or the subject. Or, at least, if not, we risk writing about, and probably for, whiteness. Robert Lowell’s Colonel Shaw, in “For the Union Dead,” is “out of bounds” once he leads a “Negro infantry.” He is along the abyss: Riding on his bubble. He waits For the blessed Break…. Space is nearer. It’s always present, of course, but not always noticed, as Kevin Young’s riff on Lowell points out, in “For the Confederate Dead:” below sea- and eye-level a mural runs the wall, flaking, a plantation scene most do not see--- Young’s scene represents the closed spaces, in the present and the past, around which we all walk. They hold the unspeakable, the untouchable, the backed-up-in-the-body dichotomy, a dichoto-myelitis that courses through most of our interactions around race—including art. Below, John Lucas shows us an image, an embodiment of this ailment, from Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me be Lonely. Kate Daniels’ “Autobiography of a White Girl Raised in the South,” acutely illuminates this experience, of whiteness, a “profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is,” as Toni Morrison says: From the beginning, then, there were always two: me and not-me. The one I was, white and skinny, straight brown hair. And the one I wasn’t, but could’ve been---that black or brown girl, hair coarser… I didn’t even know where she lived, only saw her in public. Daniels reveals this sense of the color line (“me and not-me”), but, since she’s white, without the structural oppression, she has the option to stay only within her world (“I didn’t even know where she lived”), instead of having to understand and negotiate two worlds, as her black counterparts likely did, to stay safe. Part of the absurdity in a reparations conversation with many white people, or the illness of whiteness, or white power, is a “But I didn’t know!” or “I’m just saying…” phenomenon, a euphemistic disguise designed to keep the closed spaces closed, and the people who benefit from having to open up their metaphorical “wallet” by expanding their knowledge, or by including, publishing, hiring people who may not look, think, or be like they be. This is all known, written about in “diversity” conversations, whose own... Continue reading
Posted Aug 8, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.”---Oscar Wilde A poem has been likened to many things; here I’d like to consider how it resembles a map. Though maps are allegedly dutiful, accurate recordings of empirical realities---in some ways the opposite of a poem---as in poems one can “map” anything. Map-making can also show us the way that poems, too, reflect choices: what to leave on or off, what scale, and what orientation will prevail. Just as there are dominant maps, or published views of reality, there are maps that show alternative orientations. Here is one that overturns a North American orientation, to center it around Australia, in Stuart McArthur’s, “Universal Corrective Map of the World.” Of course, not only individual poems work this way; the same goes for literary journals’ Table of Contents (TOC), a publisher’s author list, or an agent’s “stable.” They are all, also, maps of particular “areas” that, to their inhabitants, probably just seem “normal,” “usual.” Here is a map that exaggerates this sense of a “usual,” or dominant, view. In Ernest Dudley Chase’s “The United States as Viewed by California” (1940), the rest of the country is compressed, its topographical, agricultural, and cultural details erased, while California’s are figurative and idealized, symbolized in the California-centric smiling sun, and the horn of plenty. It is playful, of course; it doesn’t attempt accuracy, but consciously plays on its own narrowness. & If it is narrow, its aesthetic and rhetorical choices are awake inside of, or pointing to its own, view. It was a map---or, a TOC—that was the center of one of last year’s race-related firestorms; namely, the one that Rita Dove and Penguin came up with, which Helen Vendler quite publicly critiqued. Vendler’s response shows another map, “whiteness,” one particular kind of unthinkable, or undiscovered country. But, however undiscovered---to some---this map might be, it is its boundaries that Vendler attempted to protect when she declared that, in Dove’s TOC, “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” and asks, “why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome.” “Multicultural” is used euphemistically here to highlight a border, to protect the aesthetically-valuable territory of “lasting fame.” Not that I don't have my own problems with the Dove/Penguin project, but I'm disturbed by the fact that, when she says, “there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff,” the undiscovered country appears. “Objectivity” is, of course, metonymy, for there is no neutral measurement; it is not time, but human beings, who “objectively” measure art. Power doesn't have anything to do with aesthetic quality; it just gets a stage, a spotlight, and, most of all, a guard to keep others from getting at that hot mic. But, hidden from Vendler's view---and many others'---is the observation that her map, this map, resembles so many other prominent maps (prizes, TOCs, back lists)... Continue reading
Posted Aug 7, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, Farid and Laura. Both really thoughtful contributions, & I'm glad to know them.
The last year or so have been eventful in American poetry, especially if you follow the conversations, in verse or prose, about race. The blogosphere, and many other spheres, have lit up on several occasions with differing opinions on Who is Right or Wrong, What the Problem of Race is Really About (or its variant, Why do People Have to Keep Bringing this Up). In other words, maybe not so eventful, maybe, The Usual and Familiar, Part Ad Infinitum. Meanwhile, the last two years have also brought some important new poetry that deals directly with race, including books by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Martha Collins, Evie Shockley, Douglas Kearney, Jake Adam York, and many more. This is from Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,” in Skin, Inc.: Or Oreo, or worse. Or ordinary. Or your choice of category or Color or any color other than Colored or Colored Only. Or “Of Color” or Other While many of these works have been understood for their role as “public” or “political,” I think they, like many artifacts and ideas about race, are more often seen as utopian, or even dystopian (utopia’s mirror image). Since utopia and dystopia are most often dismissed, ignored, or otherwise pigeonholed, poetry about race can be, too. Meanwhile, a whole unmapped, “unthinkable” territory within them beckons.This week in this series of posts I’ll be looking at this beckoning landscape, of the unthinkable, what Audre Lorde so famously described as poetry that “helps us name the nameless…so it can be thought.” Many so-called utopias have been realized, whether legal utopias, like blacks and women getting to vote, or technological ones, like talking to one another on little TV screens. This has lessened, rather than heightened, the word’s appeal; as utopias become “thinkable,” we distinguish even more between what is predictable or realistic (or, thinkable), and what is pie in the sky,” “wishful thinking” (unthinkable). Of course, there is also the twentieth century’s important contribution to its current meaning. Here is some of Wislawa Szymborska’s poem titled “Utopia,” her ambivalence emblematic of the harsh possibilities of utopia, in this case totalitarianism: Island where all becomes clear… The only roads are those that offer access… The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple, sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It. The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista: the Valley of Obviously. If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly… On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction. Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface. Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley. Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things... For all its charms, the island is uninhabited… Reading poetry about race in a similar way, as either utopian or dystopian, we might see its attempts to show the unthinkable as mere ideas (and Usual and Familiar ones at that), never something embodied or “inhabited.” Of course, when it comes to race, the “unthinkable,” both is different, and weighs differently, on each of us, depending on... Continue reading
Posted Aug 6, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 3, 2012