Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 8)

Juliana Spahr: Thanks for two great essays, Evie and Farid. Both had a lot for me to think about with them. I was especially interested in that moment where Evie listed some strategies to get poets around some of the dead ends that prevent poets from writing about race. And a lot of what I am going to say is attempting to think more around that.

And so I want to ask a question. I am trying to keep with the mandate to keep us from kicking Hoagland some more while he is, briefly, down (anyone want to wager on when he will next get a major grant?). I’ve got a question that goes something like… what are moments when representations of race [sexuality/class/gender/etc., can I expand it?] feel wrong; what are the moments when they feel right? For you. At this moment.

I am thinking of this question because last semester I taught a four class workshop where we started with the Hoagland poem and talked, especially about what was the narrator’s voice and what was not (we spent a lot of time I remember on the meaning of “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite”). Then read the responses to the poem on Claudia’s blog. Then read Oscar Bermeo’s “Most Intellectuals Will Only Half Listen” and discussed his list of poems. Then, last class, after having talked endlessly about how race shows up had that painful class where all the white students (4 students identified as white; 1 did not) in the class said things like they felt like they shouldn’t talk about race. Still. As if not writing about it would let them avoid what I have taken to calling “Hoagland problems.”

And yet, of course, just avoiding any mention of race doesn’t make your writing not racially troubled or racially inflected. And yet at the same time, and this is throughout Farid’s piece, writers deal with these complications variously and with complication and that is one of the things that makes writing interesting. There are “rules” and there is the constant denial of their being “rules” as the “rules” are always inadequate and the interesting and the provocative writer points this out, pushes against them, reaffirms them, etc. And these “rules” seem to vary from individual to individual. Probably even from piece of writing to piece of writing. “Rules” is the wrong word. But whatever. I’m just going with it.

Reading the responses on Claudia’s blog I was struck by how many people wrote, meaningfully, about how their work deals with race and by how often it was surprising to me that they thought their work dealt with race. This is not a complaint. It just surprised me how often I thought that that writer has never written about race and there they were talking about how they did it, all the time. This is the moment where I realized that race is unavoidably talked about and yet also very unevenly and sometimes not obviously (at least to me). There are few conventions. And it isn’t that I would want to establish conventions. But still, I’m interested in what sorts of decisions people make and what sorts they dismiss.

Like I’ve got two or three things that I try to avoid in my own work and they feel really minor and I think one could argue with me about them as useful “rules,” but still, I’ll confess them.

One is that I try to avoid in my work, and I complain about it when I see it in other’s work, the moment where the white writer only mentions the race of people who are not white. Like this: “He was walking down the street and he passed a black woman coming in the other direction.” Often this is done in work that is attempting to respectfully notice race. But it ends up reaffirming the Dyer’s observations.

The other is the use of moments of individual prejudice (one individual saying something racist to another) to stand in for structural racism. This one, I realize, is more complicated. Because I realize that writers use examples of prejudice to stand in for racism over and over. And there is even a poetic term for that sort of part standing in for a whole thing. And the assumption is that the reader can do this work of seeing the individual story as part of larger structural stories. Still, I am starting to feel as if too often I’m reading stories of prejudice and not too often reading stories about racism. I think this might be a complaint with the personal in poetry.

And the third is this: when a writer has something to say about race [sexuality/class/gender, etc. and on this I would include other sorts of hottish content], they should say it obviously and it should not require a lot of interpretation. Like I shouldn’t have to be having a long debate with my friend about whether a poem is racist or not if its intent is to say something that is not racist.

And then I want to throw out a fourth that I find hard to fulfill but seems like it is important that it be there: 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. Which isn’t the same thing as saying that writing about race has to risk racism.

So I’m interested if other people have their “rules.”? Or their “peeves.” And if so, I would love to hear them.

I don’t know if this question is at all useful. But I think of these as the sort “craft” questions that don’t show up much in the discussions of “craft” (gads I hate that term almost as much as “rules”) in the professional business around writing (the MFA, etc.).

__Juliana Spahr

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