Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 21)

Amy King: In my work as an editor, teacher, curator & reader, I strive to be inclusive with whom I solicit, whose works I assign on syllabi & whom I invite to read or participate on panels. The flip side of that coin is that I also point out, in public forums, those publications, readings, and conferences that don't appear to be inclusive. Both practices have proven unpopular, a condition I'm okay with. There is an unspoken expectation of loyalty that is to be betrayed, despite the risks -- and because of them. One woman, angered, recently told me that she was tired of hearing how white people are responsible for certain conditions, that we have evolved & shouldn't 're-hash the past,' etc. Her reaction is common & brings to mind James Baldwin's observation, “As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.”

It is a true privilege to know you can trace your family's genealogy without discovering your family was enslaved & held hostage with each successive generation by oppressive institutions & assumptions that still pervade our culture today. It is a privilege to feel comfortable in your own skin with an ID in your pocket that doesn't declare you an "Alien." It is a privilege not to notice that nearly all of the writers in your favorite journal are white, and yet another privilege to dismiss that fact as “objective selection” or simply the “best of” when such homogeneity is pointed out & called into question. It is also a privilege not to think about these issues -- to ignore them with no consequence to your own future access. These privileges are generally ascribed to, and bestowed upon, whiteness, and they are the seeds of expectation many would not like acknowledged or spoken aloud. The writing world remains an influential place where those privileges are enacted, and so such publishing practices call for interrogation.

Race & gender are two of the most obvious markers of identity our culture is conditioned to (see Farid Matuk's list of the Big 8) & some of the most easily, however reductively, identifiable. They are also the first most societies divide by. I solicit work with an awareness of those markers (though I try to keep abreast of others as well, including citizenship -- Farid, that should be number 9, as xenophobia makes its great comeback, esp as gays are 'accepted' & attention shifts). As Evie Shockley implies, the experiences & practices of racialized peoples manifest & are read in the work, like it or not, in intentional & unintentional ways; she asks, "Then, too, when is our syntax, imagery, speaker, or scenario problematic or unengaging because of the way race manifests itself in our poetry or in our audience's reading of it?" Because we are conditioned to think racially, such literary facets are often racialized by the readers’ lens, as language use is also gendered.

For these very reasons, my work as a poet who contributes to the poetry community is to find ways to populate the literary landscape in an effort to debunk / derail the unspoken / unexamined 'norm' (i.e. whiteness') & to engage works that do not simply reify that norm. As I have written elsewhere, I seek to feature a cacophonous symphony of works, rather than a homogenous grouping of what has become Poetry World's popular crowd. Contrary to the expected refrain, I don't limit myself to publishing poems or featuring poets because they are black or female. I include worthwhile work by writers who happen to be X or Y. This refrain is premised on the notion that if a writer is X, then she doesn't write well & I just included any old piece because she is X. The famous strawman fallacy is parroted as 'proof' of flawed editorial practice, which in turn implies that I am tokenizing, incapable of discerning good from bad writing, and all manner of "reverse racist" claims akin to criticisms of Affirmative Action.

Except we don't live in a post-race world, and plenty of writers continue to be excluded because of X or Y. If you don't think such discrimination exists anymore, then ask yourself what race you prefer to be when you're pulled over next. Like it or not, it's all connected. Denial is a privilege too. If you don't care, it might be because you don't have to care. Because I am a poet & teacher, asking how & where such bias is practiced in the literary world is, to me, similarly as important as pointing out the disparities of which races, proportionally, are incarcerated today.

If we are to work towards the common refrain that 'racism no longer exists,' which is to campaign for the fantastical notion that races don't exist in their current politicized guises, then we need to proliferate what gets read with what has been neglected & marginialized for far too long. A plurality of writing styles, voices & perspectives is far more suited to Dale Smith's idea that poetry should 'change attitudes' or 'provoke action' than the likes of Hoagland's poem. The "recuperative gesture," as previously interrogated by Farid, certainly tempts, especially as it ups the writer’s capital as a perceived enlightened liberal, but it ultimately disregards the practical that Evie touches on, "Who might reject your work and under what circumstances and why—and...to whom you disseminate it..."—

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