Poetry News

'Open Letter to the New Yorker' From Brian Kim Stefans Points Out Structural Racism of Goldsmith Profile

By Harriet Staff

Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Poet and professor Brian Kim Stefans penned an "Open Letter to the New Yorker" this weekend, pointing out in no-uncertain terms the racism he's found to permeate the controversial Alec Wilkinson profile of Kenneth Goldsmith. There's a lot to pull quote here, as Stefans is a sharp writer, and has known Goldsmith for a long time (despite being almost written out of the history, Stefans had a hand in the early days of UbuWeb). Here are a few cogent points from the letter:

The racism expresses itself structurally: understanding that some readers will already be aware of the controversy around Kenny’s work, and that those unaware might be turned off when it’s revealed that Kenny is “beleaguered” due to the uproar around his reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy report – revised to end, consequently, with a note on the “unremarkable nature” of Brown’s penis – as a piece of “avant-garde” art at an Ivy League arts conference, the author sets the stage for a sympathetic reading of this obscenity by demonizing those who would critique it. The author seeds the text with subtle denigrations, largely through negative characterizations, of non-“conceptual” writers, targeting particularly Asian Americans.


No Seymour Hirsch, Wilkinson seems willing to publish whatever garbage Kenny fed him, including inventing a new origin myth, necessary for any proper hagiography, revolving around some clandestine meeting in a bar in Buffalo, which is pure horseshit (I was there, and know all the actors well). I’m also sure that it was Wilkinson who, clever man, threaded his article with such subtle, but clearly potent, racism to frame Kenny’s catastrophe in the best light. Wilkinson’s list of barbarians eventually grows to include CA Conrad (who if anyone could expose Kenny’s claims to be an “outlaw” as pure narcissism), Ken Chen (Asian American!) and the self-styled Mongrel Coalition (no fans of mine, by the way), quoting from one of their scattershot tracts. These poets are depicted as unfortunate victims of their own misunderstanding of the purity of Kenny’s desire to “provoke” in the name of the “avant-garde,” of the obsolescence of the discourse on ethnic identity, and of a narrow conception of poetic form, human creativity and the ubiquity of algorithmic culture (lyricists “allergic” to procedural poetics).

As much as Kenny would like to figure himself as the extension of tradition of Mallarmé, Beckett, Cage, Warhol and others, one would have to ask: when did the “avant-garde” tradition make it their business to target minorities? (Granted, in this tradition, anti-semitism and the exploitation of African art was commonplace, but this, I presume, is not the tradition Kenny or his defenders are identifying with; pictures of Pound, Eliot or Celine do not appear on ubu.com.) When did it become the job of the enlightened “avant-garde” artist to fuck with the minds of people of color (and not their classic targets, the bourgeoisie)? André Breton, one of the greatest provocateurs in the history of art, went to Haiti and endorsed the first publications of the Négritude in a sincere effort to encourage political change, to foment revolution, to transform the social order – now it’s the job of white artists to play vicious pranks on minorities for the sake of continuing a tradition, or just as something to do? Kenny G states: “I’m an avant-gardist. I want to cause trouble, but I don’t want to cause too much trouble. I want it to be playful.” That’s the artistic platform one takes into “appropriating” Michael Brown’s autopsy report?

(As a side note: no negative comments by black authors are recorded in Wilkinson’s article, even as they proliferated on the internet in the wake of the reading. John Keene is particularly notable in this regard in his writing on “the limit point of certain conceptual aesthetics.” This is mere cowardice: Wilkinson was quite aware that any screw-up by the New Yorker concerning African Americans would lead to a backlash from several quarters and puncture any possibility of redemption in the profile, whereas a backlash by Asian American writers has been traditionally easy to brush off as an extreme form of “identity politics.” The solution – to simply exclude black writers from a discussion of Michael Brown – is telling of how much he hoped to get away with.)

Stefans also speculates on just how much income one could earn from the poetry readings Goldsmith claims as his employ:

A final example: it’s noted around word 5,567 that “Goldsmith makes a substantial part of his living from readings, and over the summer he was concerned that fewer places would hire him.” This occurs after the unusually long note on his familial heritage. Kenny’s lived, for as long as I’ve known him, in a huge, at least 6,000-square-foot apartment (I don’t know anything about real estate and my eyes are bad – this is a wild guess) in Manhattan in the 20’s between 5th and 6th Avenues (I think his parents bought it for him after graduating RISD). His only other income, from what I know, is from his lecturer position at U Penn. How much cash could Kenny possibly draw from the poetry reading circuit – a not particularly flush segment of the civic population – to make a “substantial part of his living”? Does he subsist on water, oats and Chef-Boyardee?

“Before Goldsmith became a poet, he was a text artist,” your author writes. Though he might play one on TV, Kenny is not a poet. Kenny doesn’t even like poetry (bravo that he’s read Ulysses several times; and Chris Christie has never missed a Bruce Springsteen concert) and has always been disdainful of poets...

Read it all at Stefans's site, arras.net.