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Hey, erica kaufman! (Part I)

By Simone White
Fish, photographed by Anthony Leslie

Fish, photographed by Anthony Leslie

I suggest reading and re-reading Kevin Killian’s posts here on Harriet (which led me to think about an old post of Alli Warren’s, “On Failure”

Instead of lack, why not write about joy? I had an idea to write about the role of music in the Bay Area poetry scene I find myself in. The dance parties at after-parties, the dance parties for no reason, the sing-alongs around a piano or a beat up acoustic guitar, the jukebox at Luka’s, 45s played at the syrupy speed, our songs, our lyric reinterpretations, how quickly these songs enter our lives, make a huge dent, and then waft away to be later captured by nostalgia.

which led me to think about the time I heard Divya Victor call out “hey, erica kaufman!” in the middle of her reading).

In Kevin’s writing I am struck by—I don’t quite know what to call it—this casual absence of anger that suggests, not that he doesn’t know anger (a quality he assigns to every poet, even Huck Finn), but that he’s not writing in it. It’s a power of tonal absorption—as if what mattered in the instant of the writing and projected reception of the writing were the sensuous call to the reader to enjoy, no matter how hard the content.

I’ve been stopped in my tracks trying to make sense of the many responses to my last post, many of which were very moving because they were intensely personal. I’m not used to responses of any kind because I’m a poet, and I’m aware that the piece leaves room for an experience of catharsis that runs counter to its aims. I had a sense that I didn’t have anything else to say here and that it would be better to take in the conversation and think. But if I’m honest, I’ll take any excuse not to write. So, I’ve been trying to move forward from a place of appearing to have, as one friend wrote to me this week, “almost no solid answers” to a place where it might be possible to persuade myself and others that solid answers were uncalled-for and undesirable when it comes to figuring out how to be and who to be with and how to do that with the kind of love that Kevin has shown in his posts this month.

In “‘Thinking Serially’ in For Love, Words and Pieces,” Leslie Scalapino writes of Robert Creeley’s work:

The mind space that is ‘created’ which is the form of these poems is the geographical space of that love; where one is most oneself, and thus alone in the heretical sense/of our Puritan Ethos.

It is actually where relationship between people can occur, heretical for that reason: in that specificity is the world unraveled from ‘that’ mind imposition.

I thought one way to continue might be to talk about two people I love very much and how it is that caring for them grounds any answers I have about how to care for others or how others would care for me. The boundaries of my love for them bleed into other kinds of love, which inevitably require introduction and exposition here, which inevitably, lead to writing too much.

for Anthony

In terms of patriarchy, my partner of ten years (almost to this day) is the son of a painter; I am the daughter of a dead man.

When I met Anthony, my father had recently been identified as the principal target of a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation in Philadelphia, and I had begun to experience the family and work life that I had always known—both of which became acutely visible in the dark light and at the mercy of a complex play of listening devices, FBI agents, indictments and Assistant U.S. Attorneys—as things fundamentally of the past. My previous life ended the moment I watched my father walk through the doors of the law firm he built, the law firm that paid my bills in one way or another for thirty-one years, enter a conference room where fifteen FBI agents waited for him and close the door behind him. I knew what he would do in there: he would tell the Government to go fuck itself.

Such is the curiosity of my previous circumstances, ending with the end of the presumption of the innocence of my parents’ class position about which I am not allowed to say “———-rich.” ———-richness shall be the topic of another day. (See Thomas Sayers Ellis, “Baby, That’s Backatcha [On Not Looking at the N-Word]”.)

Anthony and I told each other origin stories obsessively in our first months together. I was trying to explain why I kept having to flee pursuing photographers, why it was necessary to sell the tiny yellow mill house I owned and loved in Germantown, why the wisest, most sophisticated people I knew, people who had known me since birth, were telling me to get out of Philadelphia as quickly as possible and never come back. In his own effort to explain, Anthony told me that he had come up in a no-class position, ostensibly from the art class of people but without any personal connection to or investment in art or artists. I’m sure he had said the same thing dozens of times to dozens of people, probably in the same sentence pattern (he is on his own at a fierce, beautiful spot on some spectrum of obsessive emotional/cognitive response), and I don’t know whether he realized at the time that he had uncovered and spoken to my best and worst kept secret sadness; that I belonged nowhere, to no class of people.

My parents squeezed through a little space just as the post-riot open admissions windows were closing. Before my father blew up his own ascent, if you looked only at the numbers (you shouldn’t) or if you are Kenneth Warren, my folks were rich and getting richer. I was nothing but the beneficiary of their work. There was no intellectual or professional tradition in my family on either side. We worked. I would work, at something, one day. It didn’t seem to matter that much what. My parents were the only examples I knew of black professionals who seemed unconnected to any desire to join the upper-middle black classes, such as they were, socially. They warned me against that desire. I was forbidden Jack and Jill, Martha’s Vineyard, all those bourgie cotillions and gathering places. The black bourgeoisie were truly, like Baraka says, “the worst negroes in this nightmare” and plus they were square. I was to reject the values of rich black people even while I was trained and expected to become one. The money was to give myself a little polish but not no paper bag kind of polish. In my family, there was no sexist conservatism—until it came “time for me to marry.” No one blinked an eye if I went off into the night looking for a real party, as long as I looked good. I was to be fierce, independent. I was never to hide my intelligence or be cowed by ruling class people. I wrote about this once in a poem: My first year in law school I called my father on the phone really scared, probably because I had just realized what Harvard Law School was all about. He said almost exactly this: “You’re going to be hearing how so and so’s daddy is a big time lawyer or a federal judge or whatever, but just remember that your daddy is big time as anybody. You ain’t got to be intimated by none of those motherfuckers.” That’s what it was about for him.

I don’t want to give the impression that my parents were/are self-loathing rich black people. From my vantage, they seemed, mostly, intensely relieved and pretty joyful that my experience of having or not having money to do things with was nothing like theirs and for all practical purposes entirely original, since they had never seen anything like the possibilities that money created for me and for my siblings; they didn’t know too many people who lived within the horizon of those possibilities from the very beginning and the ones they knew they didn’t or couldn’t take seriously. I’m just saying they definitely didn’t understand shit about what kind of “class experience” they created for their children. I don’t think they thought of themselves as belonging to a class at all as their lives became, over time, products entirely of the combination of their own creativity and whatever structural barriers to their projects of economic improvement. If my experience of class was uncertain, sometimes chaotic (certainly chaotic after my father’s death), ill-defined, unprotected, if it was hard to find allies based on shared expectations about what life would bring, familiar home traditions, or the long trajectory of family history, well, that was too fucking bad. My parents simply had no interest in a dialogue about the strangeness and isolation of our family life, which was indisputably safe and luxurious by any standard and looked, so every one told me, like something fake and on TV.

Until I met Anthony, no one would talk to me about any of this, not even my siblings, whose narratives might suggest that we were raised in different families altogether. No one had ever invited me to think privilege with him in more than one dimension, as more than a mea culpa echoing in a cul de sac. If I say that I am critical of certain kinds of privilege and cannot even see the constantly shifting giveth and taketh away of those I enjoy, what good am I? (Thanks Camille Rankine for thinking through another aspect of this question.) With Anthony, I’ve been able to get healthy in my wariness of “privilege” as that term is used as jargon that stands in for a whole bunch of practices and ways to avoid being with the experiences of another person, as in “I am so privileged to be _______.” It seems to me that you are probably getting fucked just like the so-called underprivileged by thinking you are “so privileged,” most of the time. That is one of the things Anthony has given to me, just one of the ways he has held me up.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Thursday, May 1st, 2014 by Simone White.