Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 19)

J. Michael Martinez (continued):

On another topic, I think there are a lot of hazards in employing, in poetry and elsewhere, the concept of “voice.” The rhetorical move of claiming “a voice” for a poem doesn’t excise that writer for responsibility for what that poem articulates. That poem was generated from a very specific writer and, despite any statement to the contrary, is generated from that specific writer’s epistemic vantage. Critic Walter Mignolo states, regarding the different epistemological vantages of the colonized and colonizer, in his essay “Delinking - The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-Coloniality”:

"A lake looks different when you are sailing on it than when you are looking at it from the top of the mountains surrounding it. Different perspectives on Modernity are not only a question of the eyes, then, but also of consciousness and of physical location and power differential; those who look from the peak of the mountain see the horizon and the lake, while those inhabiting the lake see the water, the fish and the waves surrounded by mountains but not the horizon" (466).

Replace “Modernity” with “aesthetics” and the Hoagland’s idea of “voice” is, to be democratic, “problematic.” Like others here, I get uncomfortable (and this could be good for me) when I see the appropriation of marginalized voices for aesthetic effect by a writer who comes from a privileged socio-economic vantage. To be fair, I’ve definitely appropriated Chicano mythic voices in my work; however, I’m tried to be conscious of what that politically represents and, in past work, what I was responding to within Chicano literatures.

I love Juliana Spahr’s statement, “that writing about race should be as odd and as peculiar and maybe even as frightening as anything else is allowed to be or can be. Something here about risk. About how it can’t all be good intentioned and well meaning and safe.” I think this is right on. I think the problem may come after the poem is written, in publishing and the poem’s subsequent consumption by the social body.

I was on a panel at the last AWP about “minorities” in the MFA workshop. We were expressing our experiences as minorities (a lot of folk, like me, were the only person of color in the room) in graduate workshops and, more importantly, what roles we played and could play in such an environment. The audience was composed mostly of “minorities.” One of the questions that came up after the panel presentations was about the ethics of writing: if there should be a policing of consciousness. I have to admit, my internal immediate response was “Hell no!” I empathize, like Farid, with the desire for, to use Hoagland’s words again, "elasticity, mobility of perspective" and "trouble-making, clowning, and truth-telling." I’ve come to some difficult and beautiful places in my poetry only through this certain mobility of perspective. Another panelist stated, and I’m not getting this right, something about acknowledging an ethical perspective before sitting down. I agree and disagree with this as I think its more complex. I have to admit I believe the unconscious manifests itself in someway in the work. With that in mind, the only way I could respond to the question was to say I write what I need, in the very act of writing, but after, in editing and working on/through the poem, I spend a lot of time thinking about what was generated and what it is communicating. It is damn terrifying sometimes. I certainly have poems I’ve learned from and, for various reasons, will never publish. Writing poetry for me, first and foremost, is about expanding my consciousness. Publication is a totally different beast. These are two different types of risks.

Veronica’s last statement parallels Mignolo’s and I definitely align myself with those perspectives. I feel it is important to recognize where one is situated or is situated by others in the complex social dynamics of US society and how one produces culture (i.e. history) in that complexity. Poets and writers aren’t excluded.

As far as any type of rules to be followed: I don’t believe in any policing of consciousness in the generation of language; however (I feel like I’m being overly repetitious in this), I do believe the public consumption of poetries demands an awareness of that public and, more importantly, acknowledging one’s own racial, socio-economic and geo-political position in the distribution of those poetries (who is included or excluded and how are they representing and/or being represented); all that to say, a consciousness of what audience is being addressed and created. That’s a lot to think about and, god knows, I don’t know if I’ll ever live up to that standard, but I think, at this point in US literary history, it's impossible to ignore.

     J. Michael

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