writing into the nonsense industrial complex: wading through a war of words
In this age of audacity, there is a real & present war on language. (Un)like the war on terror or the war on drugs, this combat is as archaic as colonization & is the constant backdrop for all of our political & cultural theatrics. Presently, this war has manifested in dizzyingly suffocating current events & mind-melting soundbites from celebrities to politicians alike. Our headlines both cry foul for Fake News while coding resistance to structural violence as “part of the problem.” Mental gymnastics abound attempting to make sense of how white nationalism has taken center stage as if the clear & direct efforts of these groups haven’t been documented & boasted about for years (yes, skinheads grew out their hair & became cops & elected officials). Liberals turn to the death machine of representation through capitalism as the answer, making killable tokens of any who dare attempt leadership or visibility.
Across party lines & political subcultures is a transparently fervent, though seemingly unaware, commitment to intellectual propaganda that almost universally reifies the anti-black, heteronormative, white supremacist structure of our nation. The myth that our two-party system is anything other than a failed binary has passed its radical nature & its common knowledge, which inspires little collective action. While we are most definitely seeing a hyper-visible bastardization of the political structure we were poorly taught in schools, this is in many ways how Amerikkka has always worked. Language as a tool of social control—see: The Amerkkkian Dream, Manifest Destiny, Democracy, etc.—disables most of us from interrogating & rejecting the aspirational & progressive gestures of language. Without trying to contextualize those with no investment in the nuance of semantics or the necessity of truth, how can we as poets (informed by & regardless of our political leanings) be accountable to this ardent debasement of language?
Before I continue, to answer that previous question, I truly don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be a collective justice politic in poetry, so trying to make one in a blog post feels futile. However, in mapping through two examples of what I would consider cultural violences, we can see how “good intent” is the birthplace for much of this impossible terrain.
In 2015, when Sherman Alexie chose a poem written by a white man in “Yellowface” (posing as a Chinese poet) for Best American Poetry, Alexie said a lot of words. One could call it an apology, but it was much more a defense. In an official blog post, Alexie intentionally overexposes some mythic ritual of process before addressing the cultural violence in which he was directly implicated. By the time he delves into the scandal, he admits that “brown nepotism” made him consider the poem & that because he LOVED it, it had to stay in the anthology even after it was revealed to be a con job. The love of poetry somehow superseded racial justice & coagulated that violence to the archive. Alexie decided it would be dishonest to remove it after finding out, to protect the white man minstrel from further ridicule. (I know several Asian diasporic writers had time for this reasoning & I am holding space for those who didn’t). In this age of audacity, an indigenous writer felt that protecting the violence of a white man was more necessary than standing in solidarity with justice for actual representation. It’s actually asinine to project that “brown nepotism” has any structurally comparable power to white nepotism (see: intergenerational wealth, wealth disparity, unqualified experts running the country, etc). This is nonsense. This is intellectually dishonest & abhorrent rationality. We can unpack what it is about writers of color that signal to the “white canon” but as editors & readers we can also reject that. We have no obligation to this colonial tongue outside of how we use it, how dare we weaponize some post-race, mythical justification for anything, let along minstrelsy. I use Alexie as example because of his elevated standing in poetry & because he has recently been named an abuser, so I feel compelled to question his poetic ethic as well.
Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess selected “Souvenir” by Todd Smith for Frontier Poetry’s Award for New Poets. The poem is innocent enough, I guess. As a Trans child of a cis-people (though I am blessed with a queer mommy), I am learning patience in real time for how cis-parents navigate care publicly. However, in a landscape where death & fetish riddle Trans bodies before celebrations & platforms, this moment only reifies the erasure. There is no indictment here around how much Smith may love his child. The issue is belief & verification that this voice is necessary or relevant in this day & age. Imagine the vitriol if a white parent described how hard it was to raise a child of color & the poem became award-winning (well, I guess that’s a terrible example if we look even remotely closely at our media). There is a normalization of this cis perspective on Trans life that supports our dehumanized commodification over our multitudinous humanity. Deeper still, some indictment falls on Jess & Smith as two cis people deciding very arbitrary value of a (rendered-silent) Trans body. But who can dissent against a Pulitzer Prize-winner & a well paying publication? When Hannah Rego, a white Trans poet, attempted to privately & publicly trouble this literary act of violence & call for accountability, a conspiracy of defenders rebuffed with attack & silencing. The cis parents of the Trans person immortalized in the poem publicly tyrannized Rego & mischaracterized the situation as a kind of undue meanness. This is nonsense. This is emotionally dishonest & devastating rationality. There is a familial guilt & cis-gendered timidness around Trans narratives but the solution is not more public dissection of Trans bodies, it’s allowing us to make & share our own work. I use this award-winning poem because of Frontier Poetry’s troubling name (beyond its etymology, the colonial coding of space between civility & savage) & the magnitude of silencing that happened around Trans folk’s call for action. (note: I submitted & was rejected from FP’s last chapbook contest, all before being educated on the implications of “Frontier” & hearing of this Trans-apathetic poem’s selection).
There is little to compare between these examples outside of how both of their defenses are nonsense, wrapped in earnestly saccharine hint at justice. If politics mean doing what’s right, political correctness could have actual value. But both these situations reveal the emptiness of political urgency from our poetic community. They are piecemeal examples of the larger incongruences between the fabled radical speciality of poetry & how it mirrors systemic violence through our culture.
In this age of audacity, I dare you to listen. I dare you to trace the ways dissent & arguments form. I dare you pause when educated on cultural violations. I dare you to also engage with literary violence directly from the entry points in which you can. I dare us to reject the foundational shackle of how things are done. Because honestly, I’m scared. I’m scared for poets, writers, any artist using language to survive in this world.
Words are not only unilaterally losing meaning (not shifting or evolving, which is how language is supposed to work), it feels like the entire nation is being gaslit. I’m scared poets are more comfortable fiddling with their diarist notions of how to get on in an ever-changing world without considering the political implications of their public work. I’m scared for writers invested more in defending their inadequacies around race, gender, ability, & class through performative allyship & rhetorical grandstanding than actually being silent or taking on the brunt of critique in stride. As someone who has been wrong & will be wrong again, I have no moral high ground to decree these examples any worse than what they are. My vitriol comes from the fear these innocuous acts of violence profit & benefit the enactors regardless of their position & what that signals to those still vying for those positions of power.
Literary and performance artist jayy dodd is a blxk trans femme and is the author of the poetry collections The Black Condition ft. Narcissus (Nightboat Books, forthcoming 2019) and Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press, 2017), and the chapbook [sugar in the tank] (Pizza Pi Press, 2016). Their work has been featured in Teen Vogue and Entropy. They are the...