[In response to Claudia Rankineâ€™s open call to move â€œtoward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.â€]
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.
Iâ€™m even more thankful of Ms Rankineâ€™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 donâ€™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 arenâ€™t doing that, then I respectfully disagree. To put it plainly and name the harm: I would rather not teach/share/discuss Tony Hoaglandâ€™s â€œThe Changeâ€ 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:
â€¢ â€œSkinheadâ€ by Patricia Smith
â€¢ â€œPoem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in the War Between Racesâ€ by Lorna Dee Cervantes
â€¢ â€œTalkâ€ by Terrance Hayes
â€¢ â€œSo Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americansâ€ by Jimmy Santiago Baca
â€¢ â€œNiggerlips/Negro BembÃ³nâ€ by MartÃn Espada
â€¢ â€œAbout the White Boys who Drove By a Second Time to Throw a Bucket of Water on Me” by Patrick Rosal
â€¢ â€œwonâ€™t you celebrate with meâ€ by Lucille Clifton
â€¢ â€œThe crowd at the ball gameâ€ 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. Iâ€™m open to more suggestions but will shy away from reading any poems that are presented with disclaimers such as â€œThis poem does a lousy job of dealing with racism,â€ or â€œHere is an example of a white privileged dude talkin bout his white privilege but trying to dress it up as a poem.â€
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 pick up that book on my own.
#2) I donâ€™t need to eat a shit sandwich to know it doesnâ€™t taste good. Point, as vulgar as it is, made.
#3) Every time you read your friends/students/colleagues a â€œchangeâ€ poem that isnâ€™t really about change, not only does a cat die but, more importantly, a much better poem goes unread. See list above.