On the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we heard from two poets who describe how primary sources from the disaster can and should be used for art. This is Part II. Read Part I: What are the ethics of poetic appropriation?
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When the Poetry Foundation approached me about writing an essay that addressed my process in writing Saltwater Empire, my initial response was to decline. I thought they were asking me to do the impossible. I don’t know what I did; I only know what I tried to do, what I wanted to do. And as everyone who has ever published (or even shared his or her work with another person) knows, the gap between what you think you did and what other people think you did is wide, and from that discrepancy proceed many surprises, some pleasant and some less so. One way to characterize this breach between intention and effect is failure—if you want to achieve X but instead provoke not X but rather Z and perhaps even 8 and even *, then you can, from one perspective, be rightly said to have failed.
For instance, in composing my collection of poems called Saltwater Empire, I wanted to manipulate my own experiences in a way that approximates autobiography without the deficiencies of that genre, but I also wanted to include other experiences without putting words in the mouths of people who can speak for themselves. Subsequently, I’ve been praised for the ventriloquism of those passages that are purely autobiographical and damned for using the words of others in alternative passages, even when I’ve acknowledged having done so.
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I resist autobiographical writing. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to practice the art; I just don’t trust that it provides what it advertises. I don’t often try to write within its protocols, and thus I’m not very good at it. A reader won’t emerge from my poems with clear confidence in either backstory or the “thoughts” and “feelings” of the speaker who may or may not approximate me. My first and third books—Murder and the forthcoming Special Powers and Abilities—rigorously exclude any first-person speaker who acts as a stand-in for the poet. But for Saltwater Empire, at least, I’m in there, if in complicated ways, the explanation of which goes to what the book desires, and what I desired in making it.
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I’m always homesick. This isn’t a motivation with much of a critical pedigree, although I could tart it up with a Freudian unheimlich or ideas of abjection. In homesickness I desire an impossible condition. I grew up along the coastal regions of north Florida, not destitute but poor enough to live in constant fear and uncertainty. This kind of fact usually informs autobiography, but also leads to mistakes that drive me away from the practice. I don’t want to be identified as poor or Southern or white, not because I need to deny those things, but because each category provokes a response that obscures more than it reveals, because all categories, by definition, are prohibitive and thus often inaccurate even when technically true. I also don’t want to capitalize on those attributes, because growing up where and how I did afforded me a sharp insight into how ugly the concentrated force of those attributes can be.
But my resistance springs primarily from that sense of inaccuracy, and that qualifies homesickness. I long not for the material conditions of my childhood (spare), nor the social ones (stark), but rather the state of being categorically indiscriminate. If ignorance is a form of failure, then this too is welcome in that I miss ignorance, if ignorance allowed me to see and hear more clearly than its remedy would.
What kind of ignorance am I talking about? A form of awareness that acknowledges a collective belief in categorical distinctions but does not allow that belief to determine what is possible. An ignorance that knows the impossible is the commonplace. For example, it’s believed categorically impossible to simultaneously renounce and profess religious faith; to be both black and white; to talk fancy and talk plain without faking one or the other. These so-called logical impossibilities simply disguise what we prefer to be true. Binaries are clarifying, and again, we often prefer clarity to accuracy. Maybe the things I’ve listed aren’t impossible, but you aren’t supposed to do or be them, and you certainly aren’t supposed to actively seek to dissolve the boundaries without which we cannot make easy sense of the world.
But that’s the point. Easy sense of the world is not the world. The world is everything, and it occurs simultaneously. We deny this because it’s easier, simpler, to do so. And we see evidence of this denial in every community we occupy; poetry is no exception. Indeed, it offers a peculiarly toxic example of the rule. Are you one of us, or are you one of them? Traditional? Experimental? Post-avant? Neo-lyric? School of Quietude? Conceptualist? Flarfist? Formalist? I speak for none of these, though I’m often amused to find that enemies of one approach will frequently stuff me into the category they most violently oppose, with no acknowledgment that the self-professed practitioners of that form wouldn’t have me for kisses and strawberry jam. I once got roughed up twice in one night, the second group seeking to save a person they thought of as their racial comrade from the depredations of the first, only to turn on me for what they asssumed was my homosexuality. Homesick.
* * *
When I was in my early 20s I lived in the Florida Panhandle in a tiny apartment complex that catered equally to alcoholics, folks on their way out of state assistance, students on shoestring budgets, and a catastrophically eloquent cast of drug salespersons. For me, the primary appeal of this complex was that it sat adjacent to a far better pedigreed set of apartments that featured a pool to which nonresidents were denied access, a rule we regularly ignored. One day in late August I was sitting out by that pool when it started to rain. The rain was the exact temperature of the air, as was the water in the pool. I couldn’t distinguish them by degree of heat; I could distinguish them only by form and pressure. All three—water, air, rain—felt like different shapes of the same substance. Different, yet the same. Impossible.
The desire to reproduce this effect with language is the aesthetic and ethos of Saltwater Empire.
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When I started writing poetry in a social context, as a member of a community rather than in isolation, appropriation was the devil-word du jour. I understood why. Appropriation meant theft, but theft exists on a moral spectrum; appropriation was an exercise in unearned privilege, and thus the most reprehensible theft of all.
In terms of writing, and of art in general, most people respond to this idea programmatically. Some believe the superimposition of the idea of ownership on creative activity is absurd; they often claim that art cannot exist without appropriation. Some cast a cold eye on the long history of who these ideas have served and who they have silenced, and mandate strict regulation of appropriation for the sake of justice for those for whom justice has always been in short supply. These positions seem radically opposed, but some adherents of each think the issue easily resolved. I’m not so sure.
One of the assumptions some readers of Saltwater Empire made was that because they heard a panoply of voices, I must have paid careful attention to the wide variety of people who occupy what was once my home. To an extent, this is true. But the assumption overlooks the more intriguing fact that I am that wide variety of people. As competitive as those dictions might seem, they represent a singular experience. I don’t think this is unique; I’m curious as to why people reflexively believe that one language is the language of the poet, and the remaining are languages the poet has imitated or stolen. And I’m especially curious about why they believe which is which, and what that suggests about class and how it influences assumptions about who uses the language, and how.
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I was in Florida when Katrina lacerated the Gulf Coast and laid bare the chicanery of the Army Corps of Engineers and much of municipal New Orleans and Louisiana and Mississippi. I’m certain that my reactions were those of anyone familiar with the city and the region, those of anyone with friends and family there. When I returned to Michigan, however, I realized it was foolish to assume uniformity of reaction, because in conversation about the events, a co-worker said that he believed “those people knew what they were in for, and if they didn’t like the risk they should have moved.”
I did not respond to this exchange diplomatically, but what I took away was the phrase those people. I knew what this meant, what it was code for, and while it invited self-righteous indignation, it also reminded me of the television coverage of the Convention Center and the Superdome, which oscillated between empathy for the people trapped there and a racially inflected revulsion at those people’s behavior.
Because of this, and because some of Saltwater Empire is set in New Orleans and all of it in the Gulf and Caribbean regions, and because it already concerned ambiguities of race and speech and class and crime, and because I had relied on metaphors of rain and flood, I thought it would be a conspicuous absence to not include Katrina and her aftermath. But because I wasn’t there, I didn’t want to ventriloquize those who had been; doing so would have violated the spirit of the book, and dangerously confused the argument I was tacitly trying to make about the breadth of language one life can contain. Because I still wanted to focus on speech and its uses, I began searching online for oral histories, and thus came across the extraordinary Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster and Oral History & Memory Project, begun and curated by the writer, poet, and activist Abe Louise Young. The archive is an inestimable set of records, both a vivid catalogue and a grim necessity. In reading through the transcripts on the site, I noticed first their variety: any five of them described a more nuanced portrait of the events than any 50 hours of television coverage. I also noticed a compelling pattern of referents, perhaps because they corresponded to the subjects to which I’d already committed myself. I copied several of these transcripts into a separate document. I isolated phrases, sentences, and clusters of sentences that touched on one of a set of referents (God, family, statements of inquiry, et al.). I began reassembling them into couplets which, in their final form, would become “Convention Centers of the New World”—a long poem broken into several sections and scattered across the manuscript, itself already made of several poems of consistent style or form likewise scattered.
I had two goals. The first was to provide a rhetorical counterpoint to the remaining sections, many of which were written in various combinations of the third and second person, both plural and singular. The transcript passages I excerpted and recombined were mainly in the first person, but I arranged them so that it would be impossible to confuse that first-person speaker with a singular character; for example, the first several pages of the second section of “Convention Centers of the New World” include first-person claims of having, alternately, five, nine and eleven siblings, as well as being both male and female, parent and child. No reader could believe this voice was singular, even if it spoke as such, even as I tried to make the transitions as seamless as possible. I hoped this would both ease and confuse the reader’s expectations of what it might mean to speak and be heard, especially since the poem regularly presents contradictory claims and convictions about its subjects. Those contradictions, and the degree to which they alone can communicate a whole, determined the sequence of the couplets and the reason for their arrangement.
Although it never occurred to me that anyone could possibly mistake how the poem was made, I cited both the source of the text and the methodology in the front matter of the book, as well as including an expression of thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and interviewees. I also encouraged readers to visit the site for themselves, a recommendation I’ve made in interviews and at readings since, because regardless of any controversy regarding my use, it’s an invaluable civic record and deserves greater attention and support.
I did not, however, ask permission to use the transcripts, for one very simple reason: I assumed that the records were public, that they existed to be public. “Please explore our new digital archive of oral histories. We encourage you to read, reflect, and respond to these stories,” reads the home page of the site; I did, and made any readers and listeners I may have had aware of the poem’s origin, conception, and execution.
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When disputes arise over the ownership of language, we can turn to the law, but copyright law is an irreconcilable muddle, and the law serves money first, organizations second, and justice rarely. And the question of justice can be reduced to questions of ethics and morality. Ethics describe rules, but those rules lack meaning if they don’t draw upon moral conviction, and so the issue finally isn’t what one can do, but what one should do.
But as we’ve established, it’s hard to know what you should do when the gap between intent and effect stretches wide. And we cannot really go to intent, either. Does it matter that I wanted to draw attention to a dangerously simplistic representation by making a more complex one if my methods cause offense? What if they offend some but compel others? No programmatic belief regarding what does or does not constitute appropriation, or what it even means, can adequately address all subsequent questions.
When Saltwater Empire was presented to me as using appropriation to blend the political, the private, and the public, my first question was: how can you tell? Does it even make sense to blend things already cast in the indivisible alloy of actual experience? What does it mean that we believe these things so discrete that any writing that fails to further such distinctions becomes unusual?
But these are a reader’s questions, and while I was once the writer of the book, or its compiler, or the agent of its assembly, or the means by which it occurred, that part’s over now. I could fuss and lament, and protest that what I wrote has been wrestled from my intent and transformed. But that would be a redundant and fundamentally inaccurate complaint. It would make it seem as if, once upon a time, the book belonged to me, and now it isn’t mine.
Of course it isn’t. It never was.