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Those Pesky Minority Poets

By Rigoberto González

You know, in light of the recent Poetry Society of America ruckus, in which board members Walter Mosley, Rafael Campo, Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter resigned after comments made by the now-former board president William Louis-Dreyfus (after the contentious selection of the controversial John Hollander as this year’s recipient of the Frost medal), I had to step in and say something, namely, that expressing discontent, protesting, indeed making noise, is the only way to enact change.


I’m reminded of the resignations not so long ago at the Academy of American Poets and that movement begun by Fred Viebahn’s now-famous letter addressing the fact that the Academy chancellors were mostly-white. Year after year.
The response to the concern then, as it will be today, is that those threatened by these statements will use the same old argument: “It’s about the poetry.” I wish that those who say this would really sit down and examine what they’re actually saying. I do agree that talent is color-blind, but I do know for a fact that I’m not, and neither is anyone else.
So now the statistic is out at PSA: “Since 1941, out of 38 winners of the Frost medal, only three have been nonwhite.” Because it’s all about the poetry, you see, not about who writes it, you see. Do you see?
And Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, accused the resigning board members of exercising “McCarthyism.” Wow, interesting word choice. Link to article.
If anything, I hope that with the new leadership at PSA, former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn, there will be an effort to “see” the talents and contributions of poets in other ethnic groups.
Well, now everybody’s watching. And I hope everybody sees.

Comments (15)

  • On September 28, 2007 at 8:35 am Ange wrote:

    “Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, who runs an international commodities trading and shipping firm and dabbles in writing poetry…”
    Rigoberto, why is it that no one asks why the *backers* of these prizes are all white men?
    After all, someone endows them.
    Prizes themselves are merely symbolic. You might get representation at the symbolic level, but it doesn’t mean anything until you get representation at the money level. Period.
    Economics, economics, economics.

  • On September 28, 2007 at 10:03 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Wow–I had missed this. Yes, a lot of turmoil in the poetry world, and more changings of the guard. What is the Poetry Society of America exactly? Judging from the highly unscientific sample of the poets who resigned, I’d say it has more gender and ethnic diversity than most boards! I am interested in the concept behind these big prizes to begin with–why so many go to so few, and what their purpose is–just to confirm each other? (It is as though once you win one big prize, it is just a matter of time before you have a complete set. There’s never a real surprise. Natasha Tretheway’s Pulitzer for Native Guard, I suppose, bucks this trend.)

  • On September 28, 2007 at 10:14 am Rigoberto wrote:

    Times, they are a-changing, indeed. Despite this, literary organizations don’t necessarily keep up. And I do agree with Ange, money talks, and I’ve heard over the years (from minority writers) that if there was an award established by and/or for minority writers with the buck to back it up, minority literature would be hard to ignore, by anybody.
    But it also seems to me that if an organization is going to call itself THE POETRY SOCIETY OF AMERICA, then the responsibility falls on it to reflect the truth of its own name. Or they can avoid all this burden and change it to THE POETRY SOCIETY OF WHITE AMERICA.

  • On September 28, 2007 at 7:36 pm Francisco Aragon wrote:

    Thank you for posting this, Rigoberto.
    Back in April, I casually noted that the Poetry Society of America’s “Festival of New American Poets”, which featured a number of “first-book” authors was quite diverse, save in one area: not a single Latino/a author.
    In October, they are slated to start a new initiative called: “The New Salon: Readings and Conversations with Emerging Poets”. First one up: Dan Chiasson.
    I sincerely hope that the Society will venture to see what wonderful Latino/a talent there is right there in NYC, let alone the rest of the country. It will be interesting to note if the absence of Latino/as in these various initiative that showcase new voices will continue.
    I sent Ms. Quinn a copy of the The Wind Shifts a month ago.
    I hope she opens her mail.

  • On September 29, 2007 at 12:43 am Robert J. Clawson wrote:

    Couple things: Alice Quinn has been a mover and shaker at PSA for years; William Louis-Dreyfus is a Frost fanatic.
    The Frost Prize is just one of PSA’s honors and programs. I’m not hip to the FP guidelines, but they may be at PSA’s website. They could, for instance be restrictive re form and content, although Ferlinghetti won it a few years back.
    I’m not sure that the Society deserves the implication of bigotry for one prize. It would seem likely to me that writers such as Derek Wolcott, Lucille Clifton, and, perhaps, Martin Espada, have at least been considered for the prize.
    Bob

  • On September 29, 2007 at 2:03 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Rigoberto,
    Thanks for your post. I agree that change often requires rabble rousing and peskiness. I’m wondering, though, how we can move beyond labeling people and organizations as racist as a means to change. Does fear of that label impede including race in our aesthetic debates and in our poems? For example, in the lively conversation happening about the avant-garde on this blog, race has not yet been mentioned, while gender has.
    In a major essay on race in the American Poetry Review (thanks to Nick Twemlow for directing me to it), Major Jackson accomplishes what Obama is accomplishing in today’s political debate—he moves beyond the old arguments. He begins by acknowledging how acutely aware the poetry world is of race, but goes on to ask whether “such hypercritical vigilance actually endangers writers’ freedom to fully characterize with great candor the complexity of their full humanity?” He points out that contemporary fiction writers are much “more willing than poets to take risks and explore reigning racial attitudes of today and yesterday.” To prove his point, he contrasts portrayals of African-Americans in contemporary white fiction with those in contemporary poetry by C.K. Williams, Tony Hoaglund, Sharon Olds, and others. In assessing how these poets treat race, and in wondering about the louder “mystifying silence” around it in contemporary white poetry, Major Jackson is creating “a space for us to discuss race.”
    That said, I think it’s absolutely critical that prizes, awards, readings, books, and journals represent the range of poets and poetries being written today. No one editor, organization, publisher can predict which poems and poets will resonate with an audience in the future, or which poem or conversations will trigger another poet to write a great poem. And as Major Jackson points out, providing this “fuller account” is to move beyond professing “the value of a diverse ethnic and racial populace,” to actually being that plurality.
    Emily

  • On September 29, 2007 at 2:41 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    P.S. Without such representation, I don’t think any meaningful discussion about race can occur, especially because the poetry world seems to me to be so Balkanized. That’s certainly the case on this blog. As soon as Patricia Smith and Kwame Dawe’s tenure ended, comments from other African-American poets largely ceased. And until Rigoberto’s raised race as an issue, it had, for the most part, ceased to be a topic. So do we need to ensure better representation? Yes. We’ve been figuring out who else to invite to achieve that. All suggestions are welcome.

  • On September 29, 2007 at 3:29 pm Scott Hightower wrote:

    I applaud Rigoberto for the posting…. and, with all due respect to all involved in the recent PSA situation. Racism IS an issue when it comes to publicly bestowed awards. Small cliques can mechanize awards… but once the thing goes public…. other voices are going to drop out… rise up… comment. (There is a long tradition for wanting to throw tomatos at the Red Carpet!) The organization has to go on notice… But I hope no one is pushing against this organization just with malice….. PSA’s efforts in giving awards simply for poems is–and has for many years––been suspect, rather country clubish….but I rather like the PSA work with PRISON WRITING.
    As well, there are some very complex issue of CLASS… but it is an open membership organization. Writing–like all of the arts–is a semi-social activity. So I guess along with that
    come issues of POLITICS and ECONOMICS and REPRESENTATION.
    ONE hopes the issues of WRITING do not get engulfed.
    I might also suggest, PARTICIPATION is a two way street. I attended the last PSA Award night. Kimiko Hahn was honored. Major Jackson and I spoke briefly. After speaking with me briefly, he went on to a conversation…with Alice Quinn. I don’t recall much other minority representation at the gathering. (I can understand the other side of the coin… if none like me are going to be featured…why attend?)
    I would like to see the PSA, like many national organizations, come further and put more resources specifically toward Latino representation.
    I can recall other PSA nights when people of color were honored. I think it might be interesting
    to what per cent of the PSA membership is poc. I suggest a very appropriate form of action would be for many of the writers of color–especially in the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania area get dolled up and attend the next PSA event at the New School auditorium. I don’t recall if the evenings are free…. but if they are not, I am sure they would negotiate for students to come free. Organize and bring students. Interest creates interest… and there is no LOUDER voice than being present. Rather than this deplete PSA’S ranks, I might suggest flooding it with membership, negotiation, and participation. It is an open Society. It is an accessible society. All one has to do is pay one’s dues (or negotiate) and take one’s place.
    Poetry is served best by more and full societies with broad memberships.
    Again, I applaud the action of those who resigned their positions. I sincerely hope those who replace them will be as diligent… and better heard. Again, I applaud Rigoberto for the posting.
    scott hightower, nyc

  • On September 29, 2007 at 8:23 pm Ange wrote:

    Emily, Reginald Shepherd stakes out a brave position here. His blog is terrific.

  • On September 30, 2007 at 3:37 pm Todd Sullivan wrote:

    Old habits die hard. This reminds me of a analysis of race relations that my father has been uttering lately. He recently made his 70th birthday, so he was around when America was overtly racists, instead of subtly, as we generally have it today. My father has always made the argument for greater rights for minorities, as he is black and grew up in one of the worst urban ghettos in New Orleans; he knows that racism is like a cancer to those subjected to it, eating them alive and leaving them barely human. Yet the last several times I’ve seen him this year, he’s admitted something I haven’t heard him say before: “Why would whites want to willingly give up their privileged status? They are the elitist class in America, and it is only natural that they would want to retain that position. In the known history of mankind, has there been many times when people with power willingly shared this power with those without power? Do the kings, queens, and aristocrats often give up their titles and the benefits that come with these titles in order to fairly compete with the ‘lower’ classes?”
    It’s sad to read that even the world of art is affected by bias and prejudice, but unfortunately, it is not surprising. If these organizations mentioned have been regularly ran by white people, and have regularly awarded prizes to white people, then it is only realistic to assume that whites will continue to benefit most unless noise is made, or a ruckus started. It is simply too rare that anyone willingly gives up their unfair advantage to those without the same advantages.

  • On September 30, 2007 at 9:39 pm Steve wrote:

    What– if any– arts organizations historically dominated by white privilege have now moved adequately to address that history of injustice? What did they do, and how long did it take?
    Both the Independent article linked above, and the NY Times article on which it’s based, have some howlers (inaccuracies, confusingly sourced bits, even some misspellings). I might address them in a future post.

  • On October 2, 2007 at 12:27 am Robert Vasquez wrote:

    Rigoberto,
    Thank you for your posting.
    Far too many poets and writers side step this issue even though institutional racism affects all of us on a daily basis, from poetry and fiction we read–and don’t read because of mostly all-white editorial boards’ decisions–to the awards given–and not given–by mainly all-white committees.
    I remember being on a panel forum that focused on California literature, and one of the participants gave me a rather odd stare when I questioned whether or not we indeed have such a California legacy. If writers of color are habitually ignored by mainstream presses, how can we point to collections by primarily white authors and say, “Ah, here is the definitive canon,” if writers of color aren’t included in the literary tableau?
    If anything, the history of letters for most people of color is one of absence and exile, a kind of literary diaspora that’s evident in most literary journals, presses, and awards.

  • On October 2, 2007 at 2:25 pm Bob Clawson wrote:

    What: Poetry reading with Kwame Dawes, Mary Karr, Yusef Komunyakaa, Patricia Smith, and Rachel Zucker
    When: Wednesday, October 24, 7:00 p.m.
    Where: Housing Works Bookstore Café, 126 Crosby St, New York City
    The PSA’s faster on its feet than Savion Glover.
    Bob

  • On October 2, 2007 at 2:34 pm BOB CLAWSON wrote:

    Oops, sorry Rigoberto, that’s the Foundation’s program, not the PSA’s.
    Bob

  • On October 3, 2007 at 7:39 pm John wrote:

    I agree with what Robert Vasquez says about writers of color being habitually ignored by the mainstream . Even if PSA, and others like it are not guilty of bigotry, they most definitely ignore writers of color when handing out the big prizes. To me it feels like writers of color get minimal recognition, thus minimal validation as writers of true merit, when prizes are handed out to the same handful of “white folk.” Like Todd Sullivan’s grandfather said, “Why would whites give up their status quo?” Thus I understand why the prizes continually go to the same poets. What boggles me is why, despite seven years into the 21st century, do these organizations not get with the “diversity” program? And why do they still get bothered when they get called out on it?


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, September 28th, 2007 by Rigoberto González.