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Talking About What We Don’t Talk About: Roundtable with Eunsong Kim, Amy King, Lucas de Lima, Hoa Nguyen, Héctor Ramírez, Metta Sáma, Nikki Wallschlaeger
Poetry, Careerism & Institutions: These concepts are often talked about but usually behind closed doors. The writers in this roundtable haven’t necessarily reached solutions or conclusions, but we wanted to publicly articulate some of the taboo details involved in such discussion. We hope our efforts spark larger conversations, foster awareness and enable writers to make connections. We also hope the risks we take empower people who have been afraid to speak up. Finally, we hope that those who misuse or abuse their positions and power will think twice about entitlement and address. This roundtable is a call for accountability and proactive participation in the communities we all move within.
Amy King: I’m reaching out to you all today because your voices have been in my head on various counts, and I wanted a chance to come together & chat candidly about the poetry world, perhaps at risk to our poetry careers (is that an oxymoron?) …
Nikki and I were just talking about what doesn’t get said in light of who is perceived to wield career-making power, most especially because I was recently reminded of how David Lehman penned an essay that appeared exactly three days after Amiri Baraka died–one that was tone deaf to the mourning poetry community, especially the black community–that felt exceedingly cowardly as Baraka was no respecter of power & likely would have publicly eviscerated Lehman for writing: “He chose to use poetry as an instrument of propaganda – his poems became not only questionable in their truth content but ineffective on the base level of reader response. His work was, of all things, boring” (Best American Poetry blog). He goes on to pseudo-lament missing Baraka when he wrote plays as LeRoi Jones—before he became the radicalized black man, who Lehman also links to being a mugger.
Stacey Harwood, Lehman’s partner & co-editor of the BAP blog (part of a masthead that seems to consist of only white people) goes on to support his opportunistic ‘assessment’ in a lengthy comment, and then a few others decry Lehman’s piece. Later, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie wrote an indirect response at VIDA, “The World Is Much Less Safe,” but, unlike the recent Kate Gale debacle, very few took Lehman to task for publicly lambasting Baraka upon his death with racial implications. Perhaps it was out of disinterest, but I think there’s also the obviousness at play: Lehman is the long-standing editor of the Best American Poetry series, and that has served to give him a large microphone and a free pass. I’ve heard grad students confide concerns over “networking” and expectations they must meet in order to garner an audience for their work that extend beyond the poetics they learn in their courses. The quiet confidences, to me, are indicative of a larger understanding at play in the poetry world, and Lehman is only one example of such ‘powerhouses’ who seem to take advantage of that power boldly and blatantly.
The implications of such seemingly small nepotistic happenings in the poetry world feel larger than are speculated on. The minute one broaches such subjects as interpersonal relations and abuses of power, we are dismissed for caring about ‘drama’ or are writing “propaganda.” But networks are made of people, and while we certainly hope that meritocracy matters, nepotism works industry-wide at all levels and can be a vehicle for sentiments like misogyny and racism. A poem in the Best American Poetry series matters for poets getting jobs, for editors creating anthologies, for classrooms using an issue of BAP–these are all connected. Does poetry world model the capitalist mode? Aren’t there poets resisting that trend? Is their work taught? Do the poems that resist or convey anti-establishment critiques, like Baraka’s, make it into BAP and anthologies taught in classrooms? Am I committing poetry-career suicide by talking about this?
Hoa Nguyen: I thought Chris Stroffolino’s piece on Baraka hit on this in the title and opening with the comparisons of death headlines between Baraka and Pete Seeger: “Amiri Baraka: A Legacy Beyond The Racist Obituaries.” Democracy Now called him the “Poet-Playwright-Activist Who Shaped Revolutionary Politics, Black Culture”. Hmph.
Lehman clearly has an ugly ax to grind here and to grind it in the wake of Baraka’s death is not only insensitive, it is tacky, misplaced, and just plain wrong. Baraka’s poems are BORING? Has he read his Low Coups, the small poems among his later works? They are hilarious, biting, and insightful. I’d take AB’s Why’s /Wise or his poem, “Why is We Americans?”, over a tired stack of BAP 2013. Please.
And now, with that critique, let us predict that I shall never ever appear within the august pages of BAP!
Yes, I do think people watch the power, kneel to it, grovel even. Which is why Lehman was not called to task on that hit job.
I’m at a place (age?) where I won’t play nice—and yes, I think this will make me a target. But hell, just being an Asian American woman who is confident and claims space has made me–trying to be “nice” or not. Whisper campaigns, hit jobs, passive aggressive and aggressive treatments–carried out by poets who feel they can single me out with cruelty because I’m a woman of color and not Ivy league. I’ve experienced this keenly.
So I figure, hell, I’ll just say it out loud now.
I do think that there have been poets that resisted the trend that emulates a world of capital, this culture. Poets that have refused to collect the “right “badges of entry, or prizes or other awards, who have instead devoted themselves to the art in every way they can, most often in a community of like minded artists. And from here it seems that it has meant It’s meant a degree of obscurity, poverty, and/or delay in getting works recognized (if at all or after death).
I’m coming back in here to add that the response to Amy’s post about literary activism here, a jointly written response that underscores a need for non-separation of art with activism would perhaps be responded to by Lehman as choosing “to use poetry as an instrument of propaganda” which of course ignores the activism of Baraka to organize against, speak back to, and attempt to dismantle systems of oppression. As Baraka says later in his life, [But when I started to say] “Black and white unite and fight, destroy capitalism, then you suddenly become unreasonable.'”
Nikki Wallschlaeger: The first time I was introduced to BAP was in a poetry workshop I took in college. We were assigned to find a past issue of BAP and do a final paper on it, also the Oxford Anthology of American Poetry edited by Lehman was a required text. I remember wondering where all the poets of color were in the Oxford Anthology. I still wonder now. That didn’t seem to bother any of the students, who were mostly white; I was usually one of 2 or 3 other POC in the class. I was also a “nontraditional” student–I was in my early twenties married with a child. So here we were, going over poems by, say, Marianne Moore, and I’m participating, but I’m not really participating because, despite the claims of white universality, I know those poems weren’t meant for everybody. Or if I wanted to be like the “everybody” I had to write by the standards set by BAP, which I wouldn’t be able to access anyway. It just felt tiresome. I’m used to being the only person of color in a classroom and in my own family growing up. So this familiar feeling of isolation was unfortunately a part of my poetry education, like the rest of my college experience…I wanted to hold art to a higher standard, that creativity would be more welcoming to POC voices, but not so much. So I’ve learned I’m going to have to carve my own way in poetry, because I’m not going to compromise my own voice–I mean it’s mine after all. So I took the tools I learned about form and made them work for me. I think I’ve entertained the idea of being published in BAP a handful of times in the beginning before I decided that someone who edits an anthology of American poetry and forgets (or intentionally leaves out) writers like Wanda Coleman and Sonia Sanchez likely isn’t a place I could trust… especially now after reading Lehman’s post published days after Amiri Baraka’s death.
Amy: I hear that. I’m starting to realize how unusual my education was, including something of an exceptional undergrad experience. That is, in high school I was one of only a handful of white kids among a predominantly black population. Nonetheless, our English teachers were mostly white, and what we read was the usual canon you refer to, Nikki. I just saw this article today called, “10 Ways Well-Meaning White Teachers Bring Racism Into Our Schools,” which pretty much does what it says by outlining a bunch of ways white teachers are often unknowingly racist in the classroom, and after reading it, I thought, “I don’t even recall my teachers tokenizing literature to include African American lit.” Maybe they had to follow the curriculum, but this was a Baltimore City public school, so it was strange. But then my literary life popped when I went to college, and now I’m realizing all of these amazing literature courses I took as an undergrad back in the early nineties at Towson University existed because the woman who directed the Women’s Studies program there was a pioneer in conceiving and developing the program. Apparently other WMST programs around the country are modeled off of Elaine Hedge’s. She was careful to make sure it was an inclusive program. I took classes that were explicitly on African American literature, Native American lit, etc. I mean, I was reading the standard white male literary canon in my survey English literature courses; then I would go to these Women’s Studies courses that also fulfilled literature requirements and read This Bridge Called My Back, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ntozake Shange, etc. These were writers I would never encounter in the English courses that didn’t overlap with Women’s Studies, which is a shame–not simply because it meant we weren’t reading across cultures, but also because without diversity, the standard curriculum was anemic. The classes that got me excited were where I was reading a range of authors, not a homogenous sheaf of dead white men. While there is certainly value among that stable, all of the Updikes and Hemingways and Fitzgeralds would eventually blend together and bore me, especially without contrast in the form of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, etc, who I met in the WMST classes. I don’t know what the program is like now, but it was certainly atypical and had a huge impact on my outlook. So when someone tells me that the real activism is in the streets, as if economic equality will correct all of the -isms, I wonder what their educations offered them. Because all of the theory in the world won’t help you see a person; literature does that, in part.
Eunsong Kim: I really appreciate Hoa mentioning that she isn’t going to play nice anymore. We are taught to play nice (play nice to be included in prominent anthologies, play nice to be published, play nice to xyz) and in the long term, this is advice that neutralizes us and keep us silent.
I want to address something that’s been bothering me this summer, that has been theorized by thinkers such as Lisa Lowe and Rod Ferguson. And what I have been bothered by and will state is fairly obvious. Often I feel like I’m writing the most rudimentary, basic statements. But it’s important to point to the obvious, as Don Mee Choi states, “I need to state the obvious because the obvious is what is often omitted and erased by the empire’s memory making machine.”
There seems to be a deliberate misunderstanding and mistreatment of discussions regarding race and literature. When we “complain” about whiteness in literary spaces, in literature, in representation, when we critique this oppressive normalization and rogue count when we point out that no poc were featured/asked/published—we’re not asking for the gatekeepers to find the two writers of color that for whatever reason, cannot disagree with the premise of the project, agrees with the premise of the project, or are not positions to reject “inclusion.”
In such cases, mirroring the structural establishment in place, people of color are brought in to uphold hegemony—this is neoliberalism, which is fundamentally multicultural (this is Rod Ferguson’s argument). They exist not to interrupt whiteness but to protect it.
Often when I see or a collection with a ‘chosen’ few poc—their existence has no impact. They do not deviate, they do not disagree. They do not rupture the scene, they enact its violences. Perhaps this is what is being asked of them. Perhaps they understand this.
But just to be clear I ask directly to the organizers, friends and managers of such collections—why did you “include” them? Do you ask poets and writers that have been critical of your previous projects and works, poets and writers who you know disagree with you? What are you asking for in your “inclusion”? Are there to shield you? To make your collection appear better and appear more ‘diverse’? And if so, do you really think we don’t notice?
FYI: When you do this it’s transparent, and those of us who notice, we don’t get over it.
Amy: I think your point on tokenizing is a really important one that should be explored more honestly and openly, especially by white people. It raises so many issues as one becomes more aware, like, Oh shit, my journal/panel/syllabus/reading series has no POC in it! The temptation, as a white person, is to locate the closest POC who has been friendly / who was on a syllabus once or assigned in a reading group / the most palatable one whose book was made into a movie we liked—and invite them to join whatever it is we’re organizing. Then the same white people—and I’m not exempting myself here—start to learn what tokenizing is. We then start to realize, Oh, but I don’t know more POC to invite to my reading series / to join my panel. Then we get stumped. Problem is, the default is to blame the POC for not being friendly or for not writing well enough to have been part of the canon one was assigned in undergrad days, etc. The effort white people can make—and this isn’t easy—is to figure out how to connect with and support POC, writers especially, since we’re talking about panels and such, how to locate literature by POC that isn’t just towing some status quo line, and read beyond so that we can figure out how to stop tokenizing and connect and listen. That includes reading work we think we don’t “relate to.” With that effort also comes the idea of recognizing that those differing experiences don’t get dismissed in the usual racially-charged ways: the too angry person of color. The irrational, loud person of color. I mean, if we see white people angry, we don’t instantly discount their anger. We want to know what the source is. It doesn’t take a lot of common sense to realize that POC don’t want to simply walk around angry at regular intervals just to upset white people. There are causes, like it or not. Anger is stressful, and we all know that. So when I say listen—and I’m talking to white folks here—I mean, figure out a) what the source of the problem is for that person (and that leads to recognizing and learning about white supremacy) and b) try to fathom ways to either support, intervene or help in situations that make us uncomfortable. Because the truth is, if we, as white people, are totally comfortable, then we’re probably not affecting much change. White people have a lot to lose and need to be willing to risk something in order to even out the playing field, so to speak. And that means seeing how we fill the “whiteness” in those literary spaces you are referring to, Eunsong.
Eunsong: Amy yes, I think it would be more fruitful if gatekeepers or white writers who have previously been in positions of power and leadership—become part of the support team. Everyday I am am alerted by a woc writer of a situation where a well intentioned white mentor or friend speaks over them. Rather than stating: how can we help? What do you need from us? Or even perhaps the more frightening: you should be in charge—they are given instructions, passively or aggressively debated with and doubted. I have noticed that non-white positions are often thought of as insolence, and disagreements are taken as acts of betrayal (why aren’t you betraying whiteness though?). This is why I wanted to problematize inclusion that demands obedience or adherence to what was previously set up. Perhaps rather than freaking out that one’s collective/collection/journal/project is all white and then asking for a last minute POC, they can be more thoughtful and critical in their blueprint stages. Perhaps even the blueprint stages is not led by previous white gatekeepers or organizers, but by a group of writers where the only clear similarity is that they are different–as Audre Lorde calls for: difference-based coalitions.
Lucas de Lima: Amy and Hoa are absolutely right to point to the less visible ways in which poetry networks enforce white supremacy. In the week or two following Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading at Brown University, I was disturbed by how many prominent poets and scholars of poetry—some of them my former mentors and professors—remained silent on the issue. It was equally upsetting to see non-black writers of color—some of them Goldsmith’s former students—using their positionality to speak over those who were enraged by his performance (a parallel situation arose re: Vanessa Place’s anti-black work). Whether at the top or bottom rung of the institutional hierarchy, the members of the U.S.-American avant-garde cared more about their careers than they did about the memory of Michael Brown. I wish to say this again, now in the present tense: the members of the US-American avant-garde care more about their careers than they do about the memory of Michael Brown.
I also share Eunsong’s exasperation at being questioned when merely referring to texts and histories anyone can look up. Last year I wrote a critique of an article by Stephen Burt on the baroque after Burt had failed to mention that the tradition is central to Latin American art and literature, and has been theorized and discussed south of the border for literally centuries. While many folks appreciated my blog post, I had to keep defending my claims about the ethnocentrism and provincialism of Burt’s article while pointing to definitions of the baroque in comment streams and on social media. It’s not like these were Latin@ poets or Latin Americanists questioning me—they were folks in English departments and the boards of U.S. venues and feminist writer organizations who took issue with the “unfair” assertions of my piece regarding U.S. poetry’s imperialist gaze. (I guess they imagined themselves having access to a perspective outside of that gaze?) In other words, it wasn’t enough for me—a PhD student working on Latin American lit—to do racialized labor just once. I was repeatedly called upon to provide evidence in the form of names and summaries from the canon of my field. And even that labor ended up proving dubious, insufficient, when it threatened U.S. poets’ cosmopolitan pretenses as well as the authority of a well-known critic and Harvard professor who surely had the resources to do a little research beyond his scholarly purview.
Throughout these debates, something the late José Muñoz wrote has sustained me:
Whiteness claims affective normativity and neutrality, but for that fantasy to remain in place one must only view it from the vantage point of U.S. cultural and political hegemony. Once we look at whiteness from a racialized perspective, like that of Latinos, it begins to appear to be flat and impoverished. At this moment in history it seems especially important to position whiteness as lack.
What do gatekeepers fear most? Our ability to expose white fragility, whiteness as lack—to assume our racialized perspectives not for inclusion but to push back against their violently inadequate frameworks.
Héctor Ramírez: First off I just want to repeat Lucas’s repeated assertion, because it bears further and further repeating: the members of the US-American avant-garde care more about their careers than they do about the memory of Michael Brown.
I got sort of a crash course in the nepotistic & white supremacist inner workings of the American literary/academic world pretty recently (by the way, I think it’s key to identify this conflation of the “literary” world with the “academic” one, or at least to admit that when one thinks of the “literary” in this country one is probably thinking of the kind of writing that emerges from, is housed in, or is patronized by academia in some way or other). KG enacted his racist exploitation “performance” at Brown, which is my alma mater, and VP recently had a brief summer appointment at my current institution, CU Boulder. Then on top of that you add all of the other awful shit that me and my writer of color friends were going through at the exact same time (and the shit that is still going on), and it really felt/feels like we all had/have some kind of stormcloud of racist bullshit following us around everywhere we went/go.
Seems to me that there can be one of two explanations for this series of bizarre coincidences: either my mother is right and I really am at the center of the universe, or, hey, institutions of higher education are complicit with white supremacy too, and the writers who benefit from this system of power are wont to abuse that power (consciously or unconsciously) in defense of themselves and the friends that they can use for careerist ends. The latter seems way more likely.
So what do you do in the face of all this conspiracy? Me, I tried mouthing off against KG & VP & their ilk, I tried to pressure my administration to get VP the hell away from my students, I went to bat for my friends the best I could—but the shit just keeps coming back. And if there’s anything that being plugged into the literary/academic world (however briefly) has taught me, it’s that you simply cannot publicly say “FUCK NO” to racism in art without being called: a censor, an oppressor, a fascist, a rabid dog, a call-out-culture opportunist, a worthless piece of shit who does nothing but tweet all day, a reckless and insensitive child. Direct quotations, all. Except for the “child” one—that one I had to use my close-reading powers to get.
So to sort of go back to what Nikki was saying earlier with respect to BAP, I don’t want a career in this terrible amalgamation of literature and higher education if it means not only that I’d have to work with racist assholes (what line of work is free of them, after all?) but also that I’d likely have to defend these assholes with my brown body just to fight over their scraps with other people like me (or else, try to keep my head down, bite my tongue, clench my fists, and ignore the assholes as best I can while still keeping my job and my name and my dignity intact). Nah. I want to carve my own way too.
I mean don’t get me wrong, I am unfathomably grateful for the University faculty members who put up with this noise every day just so people like me can have a better experience. They are so incredibly necessary, and I could never thank them fully enough. But I feel like they’re just stronger, wiser, more patient than I ever could be. I used to think I wanted a career in academia. But right now? This moment? I don’t think I could hack it.
So yeah, these days I feel a lot more at liberty to mouth off whenever I have to (maybe even a little too much). I’ve got more confidence these days. But that’s only thanks to people like you folks, who have more on the line, more to risk than I do, but say “FUCK NO” anyway. And also groups like the Mongrels, who are using their anonymity and their brilliance to fuck up the game in the most inspiring way.
Hoa Nguyen: No matter how much prestige or how many accomplishments we have, we can always be put in our place and reminded that we are guests at the table. As I think we’ve seen just this month with the largest professional conference of writers and writing programs (AWP), no one is encouraged to ask whether representation or accommodation is equal but rather the opposite–the Executive Director of AWP chided, accused, and threatened Laura Mullen and her job’s standing with a letter cc’d to her department (update: now Fenza is gaslighting, calling members who protested his bullying tactics “conspiracy theorists”). Next we have Kate Gale, a member of the AWP 2016 sub-committee, writing a blog post mocking concerns and calls for transparency from communities of color, writers with disabilities, and LGBTQ communities. And now, of course, protesters of same are villainized as animalistic by commenters on social media. I’ve seen “rabid dogs,” “mobs,” “hordes,” “feeding frenzy,” “sharks” and “attacking.” These comments are most often uttered by white people.
Metta Sáma: Last year I went to the Furious Flower Conference, which takes place every ten years. I sat in a classroom and listened to a new band, Heroes are Gang Leaders, perform an exceptional tribute to Amiri Baraka. Thomas Sayers Ellis on vocals, James Brandon Lewis on sax and Luke Stewart on bass. It was belligerent, irreverent, smart, ecstatic, political, original, inimitable. It was, in a word, Barakaesque. You can listen to one of their songs at Paris Review, a much more low-key tune than they presented at Furious Flower. When I think about Amiri Baraka’s poems, I hold a lot of truths in my mouth at once. Boring has never been a truth of Baraka’s poems, but I can see how David Lehman may be bored by what he deems “propaganda” and what he deems, from Baraka’s earlier work, “the mugger’s cry of triumph.” I imagine, Amy, that Lehman’s blog piece didn’t receive much critical attention because there is not much there to contend with. He has opinions, which were not supported (what, for example, is “boring” poetry? He doesn’t define this. What is a “mugger’s cry”? He doesn’t define this.), and he published this blog a few days after Baraka transitioned, so a few days before Baraka’s funeral, which is crass. There’s not much more there. Lehman’s piece is only visibly visible because he is a so-called gatekeeper in the literary community. But he is only a literary gatekeeper because poets have made him so. He does not hold the keys to any gates I walk through. Having never been considered for publication in BAP nor, then, published in BAP, I have done fine in the literary communities in which I choose to participate & that includes academic institutions. & I say “choose” with purpose. The current (& ongoing) concerns voiced about AWP, too, shows how writers have given AWP power to be literary gatekeepers. AWP does not hold the riddle to any gates I approach. Having presented at exactly two AWP conferences (once in 2001 and once in 2007 or 2008) prior to going on the job market & being offered a job tells me that AWP is not the gatekeeper that people make it out to be. I know writer-professors who have never once attended AWP. We have done fine in the literary communities in which we choose to participate & that includes academic institutions.
Writers choose to make literary gatekeepers. Writers, then, choose, to give power to institutions, be they literary presses, writing organizations, or academic institutions. We also, then, have the choice to refrain from giving these organizations and institutions power.
Writers choose to make literary gatekeepers. Writers, then, choose, to give power to institutions, be they literary presses, writing organizations, or academic institutions. We also, then, have the choice to refrain from giving these organizations and institutions power.
The recent shake-up at Rattle serves as a good example of how writers, particularly poets, chose to give another so-called literary gatekeeper an opportunity to make amends for his racist remarks and to demonstrate his commitment to inclusivity. Some of these poets decided to withdraw submissions from this journal. Some chose to withdraw their subscriptions. Some chose to keep the emperor in his house. Each of these poets made a choice and each of their choices greatly affected the future of the journal. Again, this suggests to me that the literary gatekeeper does not have absolute power. The literary gatekeeper has qualifiable power & when he proves that he is not qualified to, in the case of Tim Green, manage a literary journal, which involves, for Rattle, maintaining a social media page, without being racist and unprofessional and ethically inappropriate, then he can have that power taken from him. (& just to be clear here, for Green, that meant losing the journal money.)”
I remember asking a question about why universities require poets to have a book published in order to be eligible for a teaching job; writing and publishing does not give a writer the skills needed to teach, it only gives them the skills to write their own work. One person, who holds a high office in a college, replied, in part, “we are interested in credentials because we can be.” They can be because we allow this system to change, in the particular ways that it has changed. This morning, I had a rare moment of common sense logic enter my head: the first students to graduate from the first Masters in Creative Writing program in the U.S. were taught by faculty who did not have Masters in Creative Writing degrees. When I was an undergraduate student, faculty were not required to have a published book of poems in order to get a job teaching creative writing in the university system. Awards granted did not have much sway on whether or not a professor received tenure. A great number of those, then, who are currently teaching creative writing in the academy, were taught by (often great) writer-professors who, when they began teaching, did not have a book of published work, had not won any awards, had not presented at any AWP (which came into being some thirty years after the first Masters in Creative Writing program was established), had not published in the (then) handful of “top tier” literary journals. If they were to enter the job market now, they’d be unqualified. I’ve been watching, with great pleasure, one Creative Writing director refuse to allow their institution to make top-down changes in their program. Their insistence on using the institutional power they have is, again, proof that we, as individuals, are not only holders of power, we are also recipients of power and dispensers of power. What happens if more of us use our positions of power to not stabilize and uphold and invest in the white masculinity of these academic institutions, but use our positions to challenge and, as Grace Lee Boggs implores us to do, REIMAGINE EVERYTHING?
As Eunsong pointed out, quoting from Don Mee Choi, “I need to state the obvious because the obvious is what is often omitted and erased by the empire’s memory making machine.” When organizations and institutions stop functioning as gathering grounds for literary communities, as dynamic spaces for writers, and begin to become these things called “literary gatekeepers” that are invested solely in the commodification of writing, then this is an acknowledgement by writers that these organizations are no longer working for writers but working for careers. This is not to say community and career are mutually exclusive; this is to say one comes to dominate the other when we use the language of literary gatekeepers. So I will ask again and again and again: If writers are living in fear of being ousted by literary gatekeepers, what are these writers doing to challenge and change the systems that allow for something called literary gatekeepers?
Amy: Your question is so difficult, Metta, because it obviously ties in with a market that is narrowing and threatens livelihood. They can because they also know that your capital as a writer ties in, not just with marketing their programs but with ongoing financial security. Nonetheless, I think also implied in your primary point that we confirm that power by meeting those demands is also the fact that not everyone complies. Someone, or group, is bound to make an alternate writers conference—especially in light of Fenza’s very public gesture, which was a nongesture, to the people targeted in Gale’s piece—and there will be enough dissent and disgruntledness and conscious refusal that will create a smaller but maybe even more appealing kind of writers’ conference that involves an intellectual angle of exchange via panels as well as literary wares. I’ve heard a number of different orgs saying they want to initiate an alternative to AWP, and I’m currently seeing a lot of younger writers conceiving something larger than just “off-site readings.” It feels like AWP has reached a “jumping the shark” point perhaps, unless management changes some their problematic responses to public outcry (I.e. “[Fenza] told her he was sorry for the controversy now surrounding her.”
No doubt, people will still attend, just as there are feminists and POC, who are happy to play the token and offer up a pseudo-feminism that is about getting into the door—so long as I get access and benefits I won’t threaten your clubhouse or demand structural changes—but as you note, the structure is becoming more concretized with money and writerly capital being central. One can see that same centrality in what Héctor and Lucas have mentioned above, as implied when younger writers ask me how they can help because they recognize the problems with institutions that fund people who enact blatantly racist “performances” and get paid—but then those students express fears for their future careers and balancing how much they should speak out. Not only does that mean they’re scared, it means they’re aware that they have options that could be lucrative if they behave, which requires complicity with a system of privileges and entitlement.
Metta: I think often about how AWP changed direction (& this is reflected in the name change, from Associated Writing Programs to Association of Writers & Writing Programs) & how this change was a sign of the organization reaching beyond writers teaching and studying in writing programs. There are, possibly, hundreds of thousands of creative writers in the U.S. and only a small fraction of us are teaching or studying in an academic institution. A fraction of those writers attend AWP. There are, have always been and will always be alternatives to AWP. For those looking for writerly conferences, Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing, &NOW Festival, Furious Flower Conference, National Black Writers Conference are a few that come to mind. Some are brand new (TIP just concluded its 2nd year) & some have a solid history (NBCW will celebrate 30 years next year). How AWP became the go-to conference for writers may have something to do with its original mission, which was institution-focused and professional development for writers in the academy-centric. There seems to not be enough of us in creative writing programs who are “reimagining” and who, then, can provide students with the support they need to “reimagine” professional lives for creative writers as writers. I, for one, feel that I don’t have the time and space to untangle the messiness of the ways in which “credibility” means more than anything else. To, for example, not have been published by a “nationally recognized press” (whatever that actually means) could cost a good number of good teachers a gig in an university. When I sit still long enough to try and track these changes, I come up against the admin-poet who said “because we can.” I also think of the poet who called certain poets “mediocre” but who couldn’t define what mediocrity was in poetry, aside from personal readerly preference. I recognized this poet’s statement, this need to judge, as an attempt to establish “criteria” and “standards” for what is accepted as “good poetry” aka “awardable poetry.” In other words, the poet was trying to create a gate.
I read recently that we have hit a tipping point in wealth & resources. That we have enough now for everyone to receive equal shares. But, we live in a capitalist society, so we know that will not happen. That capitalism depends on hierarchies and hierarchies are dependent on the concepts of “inferior” and “superior.” Poets have allowed for poetry to be caught up in this capitalistic game. There are enough presses out there to publish each of us. But we need to believe in and support this thing called competition. And this thing called competition provides an opportunity for these things called gatekeepers.
I have no judgement about any of this, only questions about those who are stung by the thing they uphold who then rail against the thing once it stings them.
& don’t we all get caught up in it? I do. I have. I begin to believe I am losing my mind going back and forth in this system.
Héctor Ramírez: Speaking of resisting the gatekeepers and challenging various institutions: Dear Reader, if you’re feeling conflicted about attending AWP, if you’re looking to shake things up, rattle some cages, and do some good, check this out for starters: AWP Is Us.
Tanaya Winder, co-founder/editor-in-chief of As Us Journal and director of Upward Bound at CU Boulder, had the idea for carving out a space at the conference for underrepresented writers to convene and mingle and get their voices heard. So I’m helping her spread the word and make it happen. And in addition to that, we’re also extremely interested in helping put on an honest-to-goodness alternative to AWP in Los Angeles–a decentralized, no-membership-fee, fully inclusive gathering of diverse writers who want to discuss their craft and “the profession” without having to bow down to any institution or gatekeeper. Who knows what this alternate-AWP will wind up looking like, but we’re looking into venues and funding options right now. I have a hunch that there are enough dissatisfied, underrepresented, brilliant writers to pull off something truly exciting. And if you’re one such writer, please reach out to us through that event page! Especially if you’re already doing work like this and we don’t yet know each other–let’s join forces in some way!
Anyway, I also just wanted to echo Metta’s point–I feel like I sorta just defaulted to AWP as “the place you gotta go” in my first year of the MFA, without seriously wondering why it’s put in place, who runs it, who benefits, etc. And this shrugging acceptance on our part, I think, is how these institutions can wield their influence and power so cavalierly, flaunt their lack of care for the unheard, and yet still get bigger and bigger each year. We’re in a position right now where a lot more writers (particularly younger ones) are starting to ask (or are continuing to ask, loudly) the necessary questions about what exactly we’re buying into. How we can change it from the inside. How we can resist it from the outside. The kinds of questions I should’ve been asking from the start. And now we’re considering our options.
Metta’s observation that “community and career are [not] mutually exclusive” but that “one comes to dominate the other when we use the language of literary gatekeepers,” is a really crucial one to keep in mind. There’s got to be a way to detach/divest ourselves from the systems we’ve bought into, while also working toward the construction of both career and community. Hopefully if we get an alternate-AWP happening in Los Angeles, we can at least get something started.
Amy: On another note, I’ve heard pronouncements that the lyric is dead. That poetry is dead. That poetry cannot possibly be related to activism. When I hear these things, I feel like these pronouncements reveal a very unimaginative life of the mind in the pronouncer, and that they also are really talking about voice, which is in my mind a form of coded racism, especially as explicated by Cathy Park Hong in her insightful essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” On the heels of the recent posts on “What Is Literary Activism?” and the responses after it, what do you think the lyric is becoming? Is it shaping into something not noted to date by folks like Marjorie Perloff? Boston Review curated a forum to explore this idea, “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric” a few years back, but I’m not sure it hit enough notes to make noticeable waves among the poets I know (and there are great poets who contributed). I’m wondering if I missed something. Or if I lack the imagination to connect the dots regarding what is possible with poetry now. I think that desire to see poetry take a leap is part of why people looked at ConPo for a minute: it promised something else for poetry, but of course, that “else” was a wreck. It feels like with the changes in literacy itself via a technologically-based and image-oriented one that the shapes and forms poetry will take are somehow aligned or will resonate with those changes. I don’t know. Beyond, I feel as if I’ve missed so much poetry in the world simply because of institutions like schools, publishing houses, etc., not making it available and not pointing me to it. I’ve sought out a good bit of international poetry, but I am certain what I’ve read is a drop in the bucket. And I think this lack makes it difficult for me to envision the evolution of the lyric or of poetry in general. I think this lack also means I don’t see affinities among difference, I don’t learn beyond my western-conditioned mindset, etc. I’m not bemoaning and waiting; I continue to look. But of course, there are many who can’t afford such time and don’t have the resources for looking and, as well, are perhaps poets like Xu Lizhi, who end up forgotten or dead because they never had the means to escape circumstance or be heard.
Metta: I’m not sure that I’m going to leave this comment here, but just commenting, for now, to say that I find and have always found Perloff’s theories as an investment in white supremacy. Jed Rasula, too. That roundtable offends me, from the Rasula epigraph to the selection of poets given space to speak. Where, for example, are the SLAM poets & the spoken word poets who may not have necessarily re-imagined the lyric but certainly re-imagined the platforms in which the lyric speaks.
Lucas: Yes, I think we can read a kind of impoverishment—epistemological, imaginative—all over those defeatist pronouncements about poetry and the lyric. I don’t think we will see another Perloff anytime soon. The U.S. avant-garde lineage has shaped our criteria for too long and now it’s being dramatically dismantled from within and without. Hopefully this means institutionalized poetry will begin to catch up to the political reality of the poets who write to survive, whose lives and poems are nothing if not “experimental” by necessity.
Nikki: To add to Lucas’s comment about the political reality of survival: I feel if writing poetry gives the writer and/or the reader a reason to live, then poetry is valuable. Period. Especially writers of color who are already silenced by the dominant narratives of whiteness in nationalized culture. And these writers who write in order to live—they will find each other and create communities that will be nourishing to their audiences and most importantly for themselves, regardless of the literary gatekeeping and repackaging of canon maintenance.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately of the atrocious, criminal costs of college. Tution is out of control in both undergrad and graduate programs. Not to mention the emotional costs of the stress involved in order to succeed while holding down a full-time job and caring for families. And then add rampant and unchecked racism on American campuses, sexism, and misogyny. It is not easy to get an education! It can be a really toxic environment and maintaining a balance between mental and emotional health, work, and school can be really exhausting. Students need support systems that are tailored to meet their individual needs—not this one-size-fits-all mode where everyone is assumed to come from a privileged traditional background.
So while our college systems are being gutted, here are the poets. How do we navigate and respond to the devastation of white supremacist patriarchal capitalist-driven education models? Poetry is going to reflect the times like it always has. I personally want to read about how marginalized folks are holding on and coping, how they are hearing, seeing, being, destroying, questioning, loving, and hating while living in this trauma-messed world. I’m curious and deeply concerned by how people are being shaped. I want to listen and learn from the effort it takes just to get up in the morning to the processing of grief from the murders of POC by state violence. We exist here. We’re not dead.
Eunsong: There’s a group of young poets in Chicago in the collective Writers Never Die that I admire tremendously. The name of their collective really speaks to what Nikki says above. This is a film poem by one of its members Mariah Starks. Her poem and the work of the collective is important, necessary and ongoing.
I always wonder what it means for gatekeepers, professors and others in positions of power to assert that poetry/culture/art is dead or irrelevant—who are they speaking to? Because I am in academia, I understand the attraction to this statement. There’s so much awful poetry and art that we have been taught to revere, that exists and continues to be circulated with the clear goal of affirming state and structural violence that it seems better to move away from cultural production entirely. As revolutionary as this sentiment feels to the intellectually important academic (and I in no way am dismissing intellectual or academic labor, or am suggesting for those in academia to live “outside” of it, as the “outside” is often a fantasy of its own)—or those of us whose survival is not contested on a daily basis and partake in cultural formations—for us to repeat that art is excess, art is separate, poetry is useless and dead—this is an act of violent silencing and a denial of the emergent. There are narratives and dreams we are not apart of because we (those of us immersed in theory, and established culture already) are not the progenitors of the better and more radical things to come. I think it’s really weird to say literature is dead when narratives and politics we have yet to hear from are being articulated—I think the people who believe this and lecture on it should retire and stop taking up so much space.