Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 22)

Amy King (continued): Free speech, like publishing opportunities, is never free. Distribution to actual audiences speaks mountains, & sometimes requires the movement of them. My small contribution is to use the limited power & privilege I have to get work into nooks & crannies reserved for the privileged as well as to highlight disparities that imply biased publishing & organizing practices. With his stature, what Hoagland does instead is to go for the cheap mode that relies on sensationalism, which pretty much celebrates power, however much it pretends to want to make us hate it. It's old hat & safe, risking more harm than good & feels hollow in the end.

Another writer recently listed a few writers, on a well-read site, in the category of "menstrual," presumably in an effort to be funny. The gesture resounds with Hoagland's poem; his efforts were not challenging and relied on old stereotypes for the easy laugh (i.e. women are bitchy), using Remedial Humor 001 tactics that betrayed how much smarter I suspect he can be. Hoagland's poem also doesn't create anything new; it reflects attitudes we encounter daily, merely offering familiar caricatures. I highly doubt he has created any real awareness of such prejudicial attitudes nor do I suspect he inspired even a few to hate their own privilege. Shouldn't a poet work harder to get something more complex into the world?

Juliana Spahr touches on, for me, the difficulty of writing about race overtly in a poem because a) I know one of my strengths is also my weakness: I can get preachy & b) I expect more from poetry than poor caricatures that dumb down very complex & pervasive ideological beliefs in a way that is not helpful. She notes, “...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.” I suspect that the Hoagland poem plays on like-minded readers’ need for the pleasure of the familiar, something that affirms underlying ‘un-PC’ thoughts but applauds their willingness to admit to them. One doesn’t need poetry for this purpose.

Just as music is considered its own language & the visual arts speak through the eyes, poetry too is another language, masquerading in the costumes of one we know, which misleads folks about poetry's potential. Some of us may well shoot too low when we use poetry to tackle tough ideological subjects.

We don't go to a Leonora Carrington or Frida Kahlo painting to see what we already know; we look to learn something else, something we're not aware of. Poetry, at its truest, can behave similarly; it can tell us what we don't know, or reveal something about what we think we already know, something hidden, insidious, or beautiful.

If poetry merely reflects, well, that's Hallmark. We like that comfortable pleasure (plaisir) because it affirms what usually resonates with our own values. But as poets, our expectations of poetry I think are much higher, which is why work like Hoagland’s on the surface promises to undertake a difficult task but in the end only offers an empty gesture & disappoints our need for poetry to ‘change attitudes’ or ‘provoke actions.’

—Amy King

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