I’m writing this post to compile some of the recent writing about diversity in publishing & the literary world at large.
If you aren’t tuned in to these discussions (and even if you are!) it can be hard to keep track of what’s being written where or to feel like you are a part of the conversation.
What I’ve attempted to do here is make a genealogy of writing about race and representation in contemporary American lit so that (hopefully) connections, responses, and the shapes of arguments can come into focus. The questions at stake in these pieces are, of course, not new questions — whose voices are being heard? what voices are missing? — but I feel that they are being asked with increasing urgency right now.
A good place to start is Cathy Park Hong’s article in Lana Turner, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.”
To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition. From its early 20th century inception to some of its current strains, American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment. Even today, its most vocal practitioners cling to moldering Eurocentric practices. Even today, avant-garde’s most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be ‘against expression’ and ‘post-identity.’
Another amazing piece by Cathy Park Hong in The New Republic, “There’s a New Movement in American Poetry, and It’s Not Kenneth Goldsmith.” While her previous piece diagnoses the problems, this piece points to solutions:
The more interesting, relevant, and current story is that the poetry world has been riven by a crisis where the old guard—epitomized by Goldsmith—has collapsed. I thought it was essential to contextualize Goldsmith’s scandal within a new movement in American poetry, a movement galvanized by the activism of Black Lives Matter, spearheaded by writers of color who are at home in social media activism and print magazines; some poets are redefining the avant-garde while others are fueling a raw politics into the personal lyric. Their aesthetic may be divergent, but they share a common belief that as poets, they must engage in social practice. […] Poetry is becoming progressively fluid, merging protest and performance into its practice. The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement.
Ken Chen’s essay, “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show”, is a deep dive into the history of racism in U.S. poetry, going back to slavery and settler colonialism and resurfacing the forgotten history of white poet Kent Johnson writing poetry about Hiroshima under the pseudonym Araki Yasuada. Some choice quotes:
Whether in the classic age of colonialism or now, the empire maintains its power through its indexicality. In India, the British colonialists assimilated the subcontinent via maps, surveys, translations, and new schemes of taxation and property development; it is the British colonial system that invented the fingerprint. And these biometric control systems—these “arithmetics of the skin,” to quote a phrase that Katherine McKittrick attributes to Simone Browne—“can be linked to the tracking of escaped slaves—the black enslaved body, the black escaping body, was recorded and coded as biometrically knowable (or findable and searchable).” In our biopolitical age of mass incarceration, conceptual poetry mimics the disciplinary tropes of the state, simultaneously surveilling the body and omitting it from its theoretical horizons.
What one finds curiously insidious about the appropriations of Goldsmith, Place, and Johnson—is how they appropriate the wounds caused by American empire itself. It is not enough for the colonizer to own the world—the only thing missing, the only thing escaping his grasp, is to own the trauma that he himself authored. […] As Juliana Chang and the other Asian American poets pointed out, what Yasusada created was a way for avant-garde white writers to give themselves emotional permission to enjoy lyric poems of suffering.
In “MFA vs POC,” Junot Diaz writes about the overwhelming whiteness of his MFA writing program at Cornell. “In my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having,” he says, and narrates how the hostility and racism he and the other writers of color faced caused them to either avoid writing about race or drop out of the program. In the last part of the essay he describes he work building and teaching an alternative model for forming a writing community:
The Voices of Our Nation Workshop. A kind of Cave Canum, but for all genres and all people of color. Something right out of my wildest MFA dreams, where writers of colors could gather to develop our art in a safe supportive environment. Where our ideas, critiques, concerns, our craft and, above all, our experiences would be privileged rather than marginalized; encouraged rather than ignored; discussed intelligently rather than trivialized. Where our contributions were not an adjunct to Literature but its core.
Morgan Parker, author of the poetry collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night and poetry editor for The Offing, writes “White People Love Me: Dispatches From the Token” for VIDA:
Here is the curse of the token: the tokenizer (see: white supremacy, see: white men, see: oppressor, see: majority) thinks they are doing the token a favor, giving a gift. The gift is isolation, is limitation, is submission. The trauma, of course, is centuries old. The pedestal is an auction block. Woman as prize. Black American as entertainment. The Magical Negro. The Token Black Friend. The Female Perspective. I’ve paid good money to untangle it like a necklace. You know how just when you think you’re getting close, you find a new knot.
Jenny Zhang, “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist”
Partly a reaction to Michael Derrick Hudson pretending to be a Chinese American poet under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou; partly an autobiography of her own experiences with being silenced, rejected, and discouraged in the literary world; partly a history of racism and black/yellow-face in American letters, Jenny Zhang’s essay is also a call to arms:
The long con of white mediocrity may never be exposed because there are too many people invested in making sure not a single instance of white excellence is overlooked but quickly drop the vigilance when it comes to the excellence of those of us who were never afforded such protection. But for those of us who didn’t grow up entitled, those of us who grew up underestimated, underinvited, undersolicited, underacknowledged, underloved, I say let’s expose each other’s excellence.
Featuring Rigoberto González, Sandra Cisneros, Eduardo C. Corral, Francisco Aragón, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Tim Z. Hernandez, and Brenda Cárdenas responding to Juan Felipe Herrera being appointed the first Latino poet laureate.
Martinez begins by quoting an email from Herrera:
I think, maybe, we have reached a moment where we can no longer talk about these things as separate strands or influences or acts. It’s more like a human mural in motion. Lets do this: let’s look at deep kindness and deep acts of compassion. Direct impact, into the eyes, hand-to-hand — like César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in their early stages of bringing change. They knocked on doors, introduced themselves, sat with the campesinos, and began a dialogue then moved from that point. Commodification, appropriation—well, when did this all begin? Let the poem unmask this. Let our lives unmask this, moment to moment.
This compilation of pieces is by no means comprehensive! I encourage everyone to read more, share more, write more about these things. I am awed by all of these pieces and have learned so much from them, but I know there is still more to do and more to learn. Let’s do it together.
P.S. this article was published just after I compiled the links! It’s a roundtable organized by PEN American among ten writers and editors on the topic of race and diversity (of note, pushback against the word “diversity” as a catchphrase that takes the place of real structural change) in publishing. It also contains an extensive bibliography with even more links, books, and other resources.