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Delusions of Progress

By Daniel Borzutzky

Cathy-Park-Hong

It is not enough to suppress the adversary if you do not erase her memory and her ability to organize an alternative project… In the face of this strategy, we can understand that the three primary functions of the testimonies are to accuse the executioners, to record the sufferings and the epics, to inspire the other combatants in the middle of retreat. A fourth function…is to carry out a rational analysis of the problems and the reversals that are being suffered… Above all, to accuse.

Ariel Dorfman, “Political Code and Literary Code”

Like half the poetry internet, I read Cathy Park Hong’s “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde” in the last issue, the folio on the avant-garde, in Lana Turner.

And I thought: yes, she is right about many things.

And I thought: there’s something surprising, interesting, about how many people are reading and talking about this essay. Google “Cathy Park Hong Delusions of Whiteness” and the hits are still streaming in on pages 9 and 10.

And I thought: I really like this essay, but the argument she is posing is not really a new one (which I don’t think is something Hong would argue with); it’s one that poets have been making in various forms for decades.

And I thought: well, what’s {sort of} new perhaps is the avant-garde she is pointing to as being racist (the Conceptualists), but I also thought: she is careful to link this racism to a tradition that more recently goes back to Language Poetry but that can be traced through its modernist white guy antecedents.

And I thought: I’m surprised by something. I am not surprised that others agree that “Delusions of Whiteness” is a good and valuable essay. I am, however, surprised by the volume of the response, especially given the similar and equally cogent arguments that have been previously articulated and which did not receive this whopping level of interest.

And I thought: did this essay have such resonance because many people did not actually realize, or were not actually able to articulate, or had not yet heard someone say that this particular UnitedStatesian avant-garde is racist, xenophobic, and sexist?

And I thought: there’s something strange happening here and I wonder what the overwhelmingly positive reception of this essay says about our current moment when the rage and resistance to the police murders of unarmed black men is so alive and visible.

And I also thought: this is a discussion about identity politics and poetics on one level. But on another level it’s a discussion about why people write poems, what poems as a form of public discourse can achieve, and what poetry as a public discourse means to different communities.

Writes Hong:

The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be“post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are. But perhaps that is why historically the minority poets’ entrance into the avant-garde’s arcane little clubs has so often been occluded. We can never laugh it off, take it all in as one sick joke, and truly escape the taint of subjectivity and history. But even in their best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject—and beyond that, the specter of the author’s visage—and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless.

And I thought about the following passage from Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s essay “Political Code and Literary Code,” which serves as an examination of a handful of testimonial novels written during the early days of the Pinochet dictatorship. It’s a quote that has helped me figure out what writing can do amid the most violent forms of political and social oppression. And it’s a quote that has helped me form a poetics, a point of view from which to write; a commitment to a form of speaking; and empathy for those who do not get to speak. Dorfman writes:

It is not enough to suppress the adversary if you do not erase her memory and her ability to organize an alternative project…In the face of this strategy, we can understand that the three primary functions of the testimonies are to accuse the executioners, to record the sufferings and the epics, to inspire the other combatants in the middle of retreat. A fourth function… is to carry out a rational analysis of the problems and the reversals that are being suffered…Above all, to accuse.

And I thought: I can’t read this discussion of race and the avant-garde outside of this lens, outside of my acute awareness that in authoritarian and oppressive environments, the poet and writer is a figure who puts her life at risk, who sees her public platform as a responsibility to exemplify courage through analysis, accusation and critique.

And I thought that while she is not writing testimony in the way that Dorfman describes, what Hong is doing in “Delusions of Whiteness” is accusing, recording, inspiring, and analyzing.

And I thought about these strategies—to accuse, to record, to inspire, and to analyze—in complicated ways. That inspiration happens through accusation and recording and analysis. That analysis is a form of accusation. That the avant-garde’s squeamishness about identity poetics has to do with what happens when we move beyond recording, and into the subjective and perhaps populist realms of accusation and inspiration.

And I thought that like Hong, I have little patience for the dismissal of identity politics and identity poetics: a dismissal that is so central to the UnitedStatesian avant-poetry’s subjectivity-masking, first-person denying, retro-1970s-we’re-not so-into-narrative-and-emotions-because-they-are-subjectively-fabricated-phenomena-whose conservativism-needs-to-be-combatted-with-revolutionary-anti-subjectivity-or anti-creative-‘texts’. I have zero patience for those who dismiss what gets referred to identity poetics without even a minimal discussion of the historical and societal contexts out of which arose the need for identity politics: the institutional infernos of racism, xenophobia, homophobia and sexism that we can never quite laugh off, as Cathy Park Hong writes.

But what’s also problematic is the refusal to care about or acknowledge that poetry, within oppressed and silenced communities (both in the US and abroad) can and has served as a means of critiquing, empowering, interrogating, accusing, and reckoning with the larger structures of the state and of social and political and cultural and educational institutions that criminalize poverty, that criminalize people of color, that normalize rape, misogyny and sexual abuse, and that would disappear and silence those it finds inconvenient and disposable.

And I thought: is this a discussion about poetry? Or is this a discussion about how you position yourself in the world, about how you want to live your life?

(Or is that simply the discussion that I personally and didactically want to have?)

Which is to say that the politics of form is really a discussion about the politics of content.

And thus I thought about Hong’s critique of how Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith frame (in the anthology Against Expression) M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong! And her assertion that for Goldsmith and Dworkin the historical and political content of Zong! (“slavery and mass slaughter”) is only justified because of the formal innovations and restraints in the writing. She writes:

Without such formal restrictions, Philip’s Zong would be in danger of being dismissed as “identity politics,” a term that has turned into quite the bogeyman of a moniker, gathering an assortment of unsavory associations within the last few decades. To be an identity politics poet is to be anti-intellectual, without literary merit, no complexity, sentimental, manufactured, feminine, niche-focused, woefully out-of-date and therefore woefully unhip, politically light, and deadliest of all, used as bait by market forces’ calculated branding of boutique liberalism.

And I thought, as I have written about elsewhere that writers of certain identities can’t win. If you’re Latino, certain communities will embrace you only if you articulate markers of communal identity; while on the other hand, other communities will dismiss you as opportunistic for doing the same.

And I thought: that last sentence, about directly addressing issues of identity, apart from being stupid and poorly formed, speaks to the fact that this conversation, my participation in this conversation, has already been shaped by a certain ingrained, institutional dismissal of identity politics and poetics.

And I thought: this is tiring. It’s exasperating. It’s boring and tiring and exasperating to continuously have to make these defenses.

And I thought: there are moments in my life where I have actually seen poetry have a transformative effect on individuals because of a poet’s willingness to speak, directly and honestly and vulnerably, about ‘identity,’ about political and social experience, about what it means to survive in a world that wants to kill you.

Old world expectations for new world aesthetics.

And I thought: what world do I want to live in?

At the Dodge Festival of Poetry in 2012, I was with Raúl Zurita and I was continuously struck by how emotionally and personally people responded to his work. One very moving moment was at the end of a panel, when a woman in the audience, an American woman, stood up and talked about her experiences living in Chile in the 1980s and how important it was to her to hear Zurita’s writing over the past few days. She ended by giving him a gift, an embroidery that she had bought in the late 80s in Santiago at an art-stall run by family members of the disappeared. The embroidery had several women marching around holding posters (of pictures of the disappeared) with the words “donde están?” written on it. She was in tears by the time she stopped speaking and gave Raul the gift. Another very moved man came up to us and told us he had been a friend of Frank Teruggi, the young American journalist who was found dead in Chile’s National Stadium days after the coup (and whose story is partially told in the Costa-Garvas film Missing). His personal response to Zurita’s poetry, his desire to share his own story, a story with great historical resonance: these moments mean a lot to me, and they are ones I try to hold on to when I think about how small and incremental it feels to write poetry in our over-saturated, a-political landscape.

And I thought about what happened in October of this year when I invited Edwin Torres to perform at the community college where I teach in Chicago, where I teach courses in Latin American and US Latino Literature; and the Latino students in these classes consistently say that our course is the first time they have had any exposure to Latin American and Latino writers. “Until taking this course, I didn’t know there were important Latin American artists and writers,” I remember one student saying at the end of a semester. And these are students who may have gone to a Chicago public school that was over 90% Latino (and largely impoverished).

And I thought about how many of these students reacted personally and emotionally at hearing Edwin Torres perform in English and Spanish and Spanglish. For almost all of these students, it was the first time they had seen their language, Spanglish, turned into art, or at least the type of art that you see in a packed auditorium in a college. Torres’s hybrid multilingualism allowed these students to find a sense of beauty and genius and possibility in their everyday language, which has been scorned by their teachers, their family members: a sense of shame that they have internalized about who they are and where they come from.

And I thought about how such encounters can literally be life-altering.

And I thought about how Torres’s work embodies traditions that come out of so many different circles of influence: performance; US avant-garde writing; the Nuyorican movement. In one reading we heard music; we heard non-linear sound-based language experiments; we heard traditional identity narratives about being a Puerto Rican with long hair; we heard poems written for his son. And we witnessed something that could not be contained in the limited little boxes we put our poetry in.

And I thought about what happens when, for example, we discuss Ilan Stavans’ essays about Spanglish along with Gloria Anzaldua’s writings about the many language she speaks in Borderlands/La Frontera.

And I thought about how there are always some students who respond to these readings by discussing their own shame about speaking Spanglish. It’s uneducated, they’ll say. It’s improper. I don’t want my children speaking it. My parents hated it. I felt useless not being able to speak proper Spanish, etc…

“So, if you want to really hurt me,” writes Anzaldua, “talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.”

And I thought about this line that Anzaldua quotes from Ray Gwyn Smith in her essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”: “Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?”

And I thought about these lines of Anzaldua’s: “Yet the struggle of identities continues, the struggle of borders is our reality still. One day the inner struggle will cease and a true integration take place. In the meantime, tenemos que hacer la lucha.”

And I thought that part of this discussion is about who gets to speak what language and in what context and who gets to evaluate its validity.

And I thought: I’m going to write an essay for Harriet where I discuss a variety of different essays that have been written by poets over the years who make an argument that is analogous to Hong’s argument about the racist and xenophobic core of the UnitedStatesian avant-garde.

And that’s what I did.

I spent days writing this essay.

I created a dialogue between Hong’s discussion of Zong! and Evie Shockley’s 2013 Jacket2 essay “Is ‘Zong!’ Conceptual Poetry? Yes, it isn’t.”

In a discussion of how both Harryette Mullen and M. NourbeSe Philip’s writing have been categorized, Shockley writes that

Just as Mullen’s experimentation is sometimes portrayed as indebted to Stein, Oulipo, and Language poetry in ways that downplay or distort important legacies of African American innovation upon which she draws, Philip has seen her most recent work, the book-length poem Zong!, claimed for the category of conceptual poetry in conversations that divorce it from the postcolonial Caribbean traditions with which her poetics are equally — or perhaps even more — engaged.

And I thought about the ways that both Shockley and Hong, to different ends, speak to a perception that the avant-garde values form at the expense of content.

(I wrote more about this!)

And I thought about Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s essay “Shock and Blah: Offensive Postures in Conceptual Poetry and the Traumatic Stuplime” from the May 2014 issue of The Volta:

I think this ambiguity regarding ‘the joke’ of conceptual poetry is what has rankled so many readers in the contemporary writing community. The supposed ‘joke’ lies in its use of procedures or systematized parameters of composition which imply a “stupid”5 virtuosic control over the text. It has also come to define what gets framed as ‘conceptual,’ which is increasingly synonymous with writing that invokes the stuplime, such that writers who aren’t interested in this mode are left out of the equation. I’ve noticed that these “left out” writers are predominantly writers of difference: Craig Santos Perez, Myung Mi Kim, and Dawn Lundy Martin all utilize systematic or procedurally based approaches

In other words, white writers get to be considered conceptualists while writers of difference who use “conceptual”: approaches aren’t quite invited to join the club.

And speaking of Craig Santos Perez, I thought about his 2010 essay (originally delivered at an AWP panel) published on Harriet entitled “Whitewashing American Hybrid Aesthetics.”

Written in response to the anthology American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (ed. Cole Swensen and David St. John), Perez critiques (poignantly, humorously) the narrowness of the editors’ definition of hybridity as an aesthetic category rather than one which helps us understand race or ethnicity, or the multiplicities of languages and traditions and backgrounds which constitute UnitedStatesian poetry.

Citing the overall whiteness of the anthology, Perez asserts that the book’s presentation of hybridity comes out of “a white poetic legacy, a white reading of 20th century American Poetry…Thus it becomes clear that ‘American Hybrid’ should have more accurately been titled ‘White American Hybrid.’”

“I blame Ron Silliman,” Perez ultimately and sardonically concludes. “For many things, but most of all for propagating the simplistic binary reading of poetic history into quietude & avant garde…which necessitated the formation of an ‘ideal hybrid,’ the publication of a white American hybrid anthology, the establishment of this panel, and thus me spending time writing this paper.”

And speaking of Ron Silliman, I thought about Timothy Yu’s 2009 Jacket Magazine essay “Ron Silliman and the Ethnicization of the Avant-Garde” (later published as a chapter in his book Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian-American Poetry since 1965).

Writes Yu:

The elaborate formal structures of Ron Silliman’s work, from the repetitive doubling of Ketjak to Tjanting’s use of the Fibonacci sequence, have been read by Charles Bernstein as an ‘allegory for a society that is nonauthoritarian… and multicultural’ (Content’s Dream 314). But the content of Silliman’s writing, as well as his correspondence with his colleagues in the ‘language’ movement, suggests that Silliman’s avant-garde work has a greater particularity. In a political landscape increasingly aware of divisions of race, class, and gender, Silliman puts forth the tendentious argument that language writing is the form of avant-garde practice particular to politically progressive white men — a claim that allows him to see “language poet” as analogous to “woman poet” or “Asian American poet,” even as it has invited charges of racist and sexist exclusion. This “ethnicization” of the avant-garde — linking a particular poetic practice to a socially delimited group — has deeply troubled many of Silliman’s readers; but it also reflects a contemporary context in which the discourses of race and of the avant-garde increasingly intersect.

And on a different level I thought about Johannes Göransson’s valuable analysis of how US poetry’s suspicion of translation is really a suspicion of being infected by “the immigrant, the ethnic minority or the simply nomadic poet” who, by bringing in foreign “lineages, materials and influences can begin to corrupt American culture.” Which is not just a problem of aesthetics, but rather it’s a political problem that has to do with tainting the purity of traditions, with linguistic and cultural hybridity, and with exposing the hollow wretchedness of nationalism.

And for some real historical fun, I thought about the pre-internet, “culture war” days of 1994 and John Yau’s discussion in American Poetry Review of Eliot Weinberger’s anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (you can read it if you have access to JSTOR).

Yau’s review (which sparked a lengthy chain of letters both from Weinberger and other writers coming to his defense on the grounds that Weinberger was wrongly smeared for being exclusionary when his career in fact has been defined by an inclusionary commitment to Asian and Latin American writing) is complicated by a discussion of Pound and his relationship to Chinese poetry; Gertrude Stein; Charles Olson, and an accusation that the poets that Weinberger selected were all unified by their affiliation with Sulfur magazine (though Weinberger points out in his rebuttal that Yau was actually an editor at Sulfur for 8 years). But most relevant to my discussion is Yau’s critique of who Weinberger thinks are the innovators and outsiders, and why they are so white and male. Here’s Yau doing some VIDA-style number crunching:

American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators & Outsiders begins with William Carlos Williams and ends with Michael Palmer. There are thirty-five poets in all, five of whom are women. Denise Levertov and Susan Howe are the only women among the nineteen active poets Weinberger has judged important enough to include. Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka are the only African-American poets. As to other Others, forget it.

And elsewhere Yau writes:

The variousness of language to be found in the poems of African-Americanwriters is absent from Weinberger’s anthology. He states the decade of black nationalist poetry ‘brought in a great deal of African and African-American history, mythology and religion previously absent in American poetry,’ but doesn’t offer us much in the way of examples. The poems of Baraka’s are aggressive oral attacks. Since Baraka is the only active African-American poet Weinberger has included in his anthology, I am led to believe that his vision of an African-American poet is as limiting as Pound’s vision of the Chinese. African-Americans are angry screamers, rather than reticent fatalists.

And here is some of Weingberger’s response:

Let me make this plain: I believe that, in this society, all poets are Others; that any poem can be about anything the writer desires; that differences among poets be drawn along aesthetic lines regardless of race or sex. What John has done is to take aesthetic differences and turn them into politics. I prefer woman poet X; he prefers woman poet Y; therefore I am a sexist pig.

To Yau’s discussion of the African-American poets included in and excluded from the anthology, Weinberger writes: “I will not dignify his scumbag race-baiting with a point-by point response.”

It’s ugly, this discussion. And personal.

And I thought about how on his blog in 2007, Al Filries discusses this skirmish and, in what we might now see as typical avant-poetry behavior, attempts to whitewash it, to make it about poetry and aesthetics and not about race or gender: not about “the PC/anti-PC fights of this era.” I’m not sure how thirteen years later Filries got to discussing this incident, but his two cents are revealing in how they remind us of what Hong is critiquing. He writes:

Indeed, 1994 is on the late side for straight-out Political Correctness fights of this sort – the mode was well worn and easily comprehended by this point; the rhetorical patterns would have been very, very familiar to readers, so much so, I think, that the participants knew that witnesses to the contest would not need a scorecard to know the players, which is a perhaps too idiomatic (indirect) way of saying that the right-left terms of the debate about racism, sexism and literary-political multiculturalism did not need to be spelled out. Thus the larger ramifications of Yau’s apparent attempt to use a left position to outflank the liberal-left Weinberger from his left did not need to be described for them to be operative…..Okay, fine. But I still think this isn’t really, at bottom, a PC fight at all. It’s not left-right (or left making liberal-left into right). Yau doesn’t have a political bone in his body and nothing really explains his attack (unless, as Weinberger hints, Yau had just lost his sanity). I still think it’s about Pound – the Poundian mode. And who gets to describe what it is and which nexus of critics and critic-poets get to claim its lineage.

And I thought about what it might mean to so dismissively say that Yau “doesn’t have a political bone in his body,” and that “nothing really explains his attack” (read: certainly not race or gender). Which is not even me taking a position on this debate from 1994. It’s me simply pointing out that there is something inherently political about certain bones, especially the bones of a writer asking very political questions and making very political critiques. And that it means something significant to attempt to de-politicize them bones.

And then I wrote this long thing essay for Harriet and I thought: fuck, this is a mess. It’s not angry enough. It’s not coherent enough. It’s not focused enough. It’s part-manifesto, part-literature review and many parts unredeemable mess.

And then I thought: but I should do something with all this. It’s the end of the month, the end of the year, and my time here at Harriet is running out.

And then I thought: but I don’t want to write about any of this. What I really want write about is Yvette Siegert’s beautiful new translations of two books of poems by Alejandra Pizarnik, the great Argentine poet who published an amazing body of work before committing suicide when she was 36 in 1972.

And I thought about these lines from El Infierno Musical/A Musical Hell:

and what is it you’re going to say
i’m just going to say something
and what’s this you’re going to do
i’m going to hide behind language
why
i’m afraid

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, December 29th, 2014 by Daniel Borzutzky.