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From Poetry Magazine

Toward a Politics of Mere Being

By Carl Phillips

carl-phillips

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Carl Phillips’s poems “Stray” and “Wild Is the Wind” appear in the March 2016 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.

When my first book of poems came out in 1992, I learned what it could mean to be seen as a political poet for no other reason than because of who or what one is. Rachel Hadas, who selected the book for publication, wrote a wonderful and uncannily accurate introduction, from which the publisher excerpted the following for the back cover:

Internal evidence would seem to indicate that [this] is a poet of color who is erotically drawn to other men. The reductiveness of such terms is one lesson of In the Blood, with its … constant dissolving of one world into another.

I say uncannily accurate because I had yet to acknowledge to myself, let alone others, my being gay; about the color part, I’d been pretty aware of, of course, all my life. Sexuality would end up being the primary lens through which my early work got read; and given how relatively new it still was to speak of queerness openly, and given the relative newness—and unknown-ness—about HIV and AIDS, the poems were seen as particularly relevant: political, let’s say.

As for color—blackness—there are only two poems in the book that speak to this issue specifically (or as others have put it, there are only two “black poems” in the book). The first, “Passing,” is a kind of resistance to being told that black experience has to come down to a single experience:

The Famous Black Poet is
speaking of the dark river in the mind
that runs thick with the heroes of color,
Jackie R., Bessie, Billie, Mr. Paige, anyone
who knew how to sing or when to run.
I think of my grandmother, said
to have dropped dead from the evil eye,
of my lesbian aunt who saw cancer and
a generally difficult future headed her way
in the still water
of her brother’s commode.
I think of voodoo in the bottoms of soup-cans,
and I want to tell the poet that the blues
is not my name, that Alabama
is something I cannot use
in my business.

In the other poem, “Blue,” the child of a biracial couple—one black, one white—(aka, me) speaks of a space between the two, a space of individuality, where it becomes possible to be left alone to pull “my own stoop-/shouldered kind of blues across paper.”

But at no point did I think of myself as having an agenda that could be called political. Rather, my agenda, to the extent that it can even be called that, has always been to speak as honestly as possible to my own experience of negotiating and navigating a life as myself , as a self—multifarious, restless, necessarily ever-changing as the many factors of merely being also change—in a world of selves. Which is to say, I was simply being myself in those first poems—what other choice is there? But I became a poet who, according to reviews, spoke unabashedly—daringly, even—of what many wouldn’t, in terms of sex; as for race, I’d unknowingly thrown a gauntlet down to a long tradition of assumptions as to what blackness meant and especially as to how a poet of color should speak, and about what.

 

*

 

“I liked it when you were still a gay poet.”

 

*

 

There are countless aspects to a self; race and sexual orientation are only two of them, it seems to me, neither the least nor the most important. It’s more accurate to say there’s a constant shifting of hierarchy, depending on any given moment in experience. Am I a gay black man when roasting a chicken at home for friends? Sure. But that’s not what I’m most conscious of, at the time. Am I necessarily, then, stripped of political resonance at that moment? Or is not the sharing of food with others a small social contract analogous to the contract of giving and taking—of interaction—that we call citizenship in a democratic society? Is this a stretch? Can we only be political when we are speaking to specific issues of identity, exclusion, injustice?

Resistance might be the one thing that governs what we think of as political. And in that light, I’d hardly call roasting a chicken a political act (unless perhaps I were to roast a chicken and serve it defiantly to my vegetarian friends…). But who determines what the things we choose to resist should be? We’ve heard the term “politically correct” forever, it seems. But increasingly there seems a push to be correctly political. How this translates is that there are a small group of things that we—by which I mean poets of outsiderness, of whatever kind—are expected to write from and about, and it comes down to an even smaller group of identity markers, race, gender, sexual orientation, as I’ve mentioned, when in fact there are so many aspects by which identity gets both established and recognized. This is in no way to say that the identity markers I’ve mentioned aren’t immensely important; they just aren’t solely important.

 

*

 

“Why is the dog in your poem, “White Dog,” white?”

 

*

 

“Once you’re in, you’re in forever,” says Kevin Young in the March-April 2016 issue of Harvard Magazine (the quote excerpted from Young’s nonfiction book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness). He is speaking of the deservingly famous Dark Room Collective, of which I have been here and there listed as an early member. What the article in Harvard Magazine doesn’t mention—nor does any other piece I’ve read on the Dark Room—is how I was ousted from the group after roughly six months of having been asked to join. I wasn’t officially kicked out; I’d say it was more that I was informed that I wasn’t welcome, and—this is a little fuzzier to pin down, but I felt it—the reason had to do with my not really being in step with the group’s agenda. (The moment I fully understood that I was no longer a member was when we were all at the original Furious Flower conference at James Madison University, and I learned that the Dark Room Collective was reading as part of the conference and that I was not on the program.) My takeaway, as they say, was that I wasn’t writing the kind of poems that were correctly “black,” a problem, presumably, for a group whose purpose, among many, has been to make a space for black voices—for black sensibility—in a space (Cambridge, MA, at the time) dominated by a white establishment that has historically tried to keep all others out. But, as with the Black Arts Movement, a black collective that arbitrates what blackness must be—excluding, for example, a Robert Hayden—is not so different from an exclusionary white establishment. Same game in the hands of new players.

As I say, the details are fuzzy at this point. I might almost have come to think I’d imagined it all, if not for an email I received only a few years ago from one of the Collective’s co-founders, graciously apologizing for how the group had treated me. I am grateful for the apology and its corroboration of my memory, and I remain supportive of and I very much admire and respect the Dark Room—indeed, I count many members as my friends. My brief tenure with and subsequent exile from the Collective, however, stands as a sobering lesson to me about the dangers of naivete, or more exactly of assumption—on my part, theirs too, I suppose—that having color in common would mean we saw the world, and more specifically our craft and aesthetic, the same way, or that we’d have every cause in common.

 

*

“What color are the people in your poems? You don’t say.”

*

 

In the current issue of Poetry, there’s a terrific portfolio, curated by Francisco Aragón, called PINTURA: PALABRA, an ekphrastic project in which various Latino/a poets have written poems in response to a pieces of visual art. In his introduction to the portfolio, Aragón highlights three of the poets in particular, because their poems aren’t explicitly political—he wants to show how wide-ranging the poetry is, as opposed to being self-limiting:

I highlight these poets and artworks to demonstrate that where one might expect a more explicitly political poetry, that expectation is thwarted.  This is not to say that there aren’t any political works here—there certainly are—but Latino art and poetry are too often assumed to be exclusively political.

I take his point, and agree with it. Why should we be bound by the expectations of others?

But when I look at one of the poems highlighted by Aragón—Tino Villanueva’s “Field of Moving Colors Layered,” a response to Alberto Valdés’s abstract “Untitled”—I find a passage explicitly political where Aragón does not. Villanueva is here speaking of several shapes of color he sees in the abstract piece:

They are wayward energy, moving right
to left (the right one more sensuous than the rest)
about to dive
into the deep-blue waiting – call it the unknown.
I’d like to be there when they meet that blue abyss
head on.
Will they keep their shape, I wonder,
or break up and rearrange themselves
into a brighter, more memorable pose
… into a bigger elemental thing?

I’m really asking this:
When they run into the landscape of blue,
will these figures lose their logic of luster?
Will they lose their lucid argument of color,
their accumulated wealth of geometry?

To my mind, these lines are very much about the tension between being oneself and assimilation, also about the challenge of assimilation without having to be compromised—how to be uniquely oneself while engaging, necessarily, with a world of differences, those differences the gift, the dilemma, both at once. Speaking of this in terms of colors on a canvas allows Villanueva’s poem to resonate, for me, both with race and with queerness, though neither of these gets mentioned. The poem speaks to difference as a large, abstract, and very real thing, without being attached to particularity. There would be nothing wrong if it did speak to particularity—it just doesn’t. In this sense, the poem, as Aragón says, isn’t explicitly political. But it is political. For all I know, Villanueva has the specifics of racial identity in mind here. Or he is “merely” writing about what he sees on the canvas, and where that takes him. Maybe he’s “just” writing about the engagement of one imagination with another.

 

*

 

Me: I’m having some difficulty understanding the intentions of your poem.

Male grad student: That’s because when I write it’s mainly for a male reader.

Me: Uh, excuse me, but I am male.

Male grad student: I mean like a male male reader.

 

*

 

How is it not political, to be simply living one’s life meaningfully, thoughtfully, which means variously in keeping with, in counterpoint to, and in resistance to life’s many parts? To insist on being who we are is a political act—if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it. If the political must be found in differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus? I write from a self for whom race, gender, and sexual orientation are never outside of consciousness—that would be impossible—but they aren’t always at the forefront of consciousness. Others write otherwise, as they must, as they should—as we all should, if collectively we are to be an accurate reflection of what it will have been like to have lived in this particular time as our many and particular selves.

 

*

 

Here’s a poem, “Cathedral,” from my book Double Shadow:

And suddenly – strangely – there was also no fear, either.

As a horse in harness to what, inevitably, must break it.

No torch; no lantern – and yet no hiddenness, now. No
hiding.

Leaves flew through where the wind sent them flying.

Is this a black poem? A queer poem? Why or why not and who says.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Thursday, March 3rd, 2016 by Carl Phillips.