Originally uploaded by tutam
By Oscar Bermeo
[In response to Claudia Rankine’s open call to move “toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race” after her Dialogue on Race and Poetry was presented at the Associated Writing Programs Conference on February 4, 2011.]
First off, I want to applaud Ms Rankine and her thoughtful course of action with dealing with the racism in po-biz. She identified a problem, went to the source, engaged in conversation, wrote a response, and then presented herself in an open public forum. All these actions are well worthy of praise especially when one considers the fact that many authors are more than happy to just rest on their laurels and harp about these kinds of issues behind closed doors or, even worse, their private web feeds.
I’m even more thankful of Ms Rankine’s follow-up by posting her presentation (again, in an open and public forum) and then opening up a new forum for writers to share their own individual thoughts on racism in creative writing circles. Please link over to claudiarankine.com and click on AWP for the presentation or OPEN LETTER for her call to responses.
But, as Nas reminds us, some intellectuals only half listen and would prefer to rehash the territory Ms Rankine already traversed by referring over and over again to one racist poem.
So here is what I don’t understand: Why do poets-of-color insist on reinforcing the Ivory Tower (the literal and figurative one) by constantly paying deference to it? And if they think they aren’t doing that, then I respectfully disagree. To put it plainly and name the harm: I would rather not teach/share/discuss Tony Hoagland’s “The Change” and instead focus on the wide body of work from so many other poets who successfully and respectfully discuss racism in their poetry.
Here are some poems I would rather refer to:
• “Skinhead” by Patricia Smith
• “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in the War Between Races” by Lorna Dee Cervantes
• “Talk” by Terrance Hayes
• “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans” by Jimmy Santiago Baca
• “Niggerlips/Negro Bembón” by Martín Espada
• “About the White Boys who Drove By a Second Time to Throw a Bucket of Water on Me” by Patrick Rosal
• “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton
• “The crowd at the ball game” by William Carlos Williams
This is an incredibly incomplete list but a good start for anyone who wants to start talking about how hard and complex issues can be dealt with craft and tact in poetry. I’m open to more suggestions but will shy away from reading any poems that are presented with disclaimers such as “This poem does a lousy job of dealing with racism,” or “Here is an example of a white privileged dude talkin bout his white privilege but trying to dress it up as a poem.”
And why will I shy away from it?
1) Because if I want to read what Anglo-Centrics thinks about the issue of racism as seen through their personal prism, I can go to the thin Poetry shelves of (insert name of national book selling chain) on my own and easily find multiple copies of that book .
2) I don’t need to eat a crap sandwich to know it doesn’t taste good.
3) Every time you expose your friends/students/colleagues to a “change” poem that isn’t really about change, not only does a cat die but, more importantly, a much better poem goes unread. See list above.
wi u hate kittehs so much?
@K Silem: Allergies.
Say word. Thank you.
If I was teaching a literature class with a unit on racism, I might teach any of these. But if I was teaching a poetry class with a unit on racism, I would only teach two of these. If I was going to suggest one poem to add to this list (i.e. poems that address racism with “craft and tact”,) I’d suggest the incredible poem “Work” by Yusef Komunyakaa.
I’ve always found that I’ve gotten a good response teaching Rachel McKibbens’ “After a Magazine Named Elizabeth Smart One of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.” Taught it it to a mixed-grade group at an all girl’s school in California, once, and the discussion through as they unraveled the poem and began to grasp it was amazing. You could see minds beginning to open as the girls talked. It was beautiful.
@Matthew: Great points about effective teaching and thank you for the Komunyakaa recommendation. I’ll definitely look it up and spread the word.
@Victor: Rachel is one of those poets that always can name the harm, enact compassion, and leave the reader with a lasting image; all without compromise. Another great example to add to the list.
Lauren, thanks for reading the piece. Always appreciated.