Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The frenzy of social media & racism

I think I need to take a break from social media. Heck, I might need a break from the entire internet.

Yes, we all know how quick information gets disseminated. You blink and thirty new things are posted on your FB news feed. And it's on us to discern what's worth our time. The cute kitten videos? Sure, if you want to procrastinate from grading papers. The first-person essay about some shocking personal story slap-dashed together in five minutes? No thanks. Reports on the latest act of racism? Maybe.

But that's when things get overwhelming.

In the latest display of white privilege in the US, Matt Damon, an executive producer of Project Greenlight (a reality show about filmmaking, more or less) takes it upon himself to educate Effie Brown, an accomplished film producer who happens to be a black woman, on diversity. Seriously?? Seriously. He INTERRUPTS her to say: "When we're talking about diversity you do it in the casting of the film not in the casting of the show." Are you hearing yourself, Matt?? One, you interrupt the only person of color associated with this show. Two, as a man, you interrupt a woman. Three, you're telling someone who LIVES as an Other about diversity? Seriously?? Four, diversity isn't just about "showing" it on the screen with actors. I thought you were smarter than that. Guess I was wrong.

I am so pissed off. I am so outraged by this continual bullshit we people of color experience on a daily basis. Not surprised, but outraged nonetheless. And fed up, too. It's the twenty-first fucking century, people! What's it going to take for real change to happen?

Maybe that's the problem. Maybe we've all been fooled into thinking that change has been happening. Look at the civil rights movement and how that changed history. Which is not to say that the movement didn't make change --it certainly did!! And I am ever grateful!-- but that the trajectory of that change has stalled. Big time. The difference now is that we see it for ourselves. With our own eyes. On FB, Twitter, Tumblr -- you name it, it's here. In our faces. All of the time. Change isn't happening as much as we'd like to think. Racism and the structures that support it are so deeply seated that white folks can't see it. That, or they refuse to see it because it would mean they lose their privileges.

Take a look at the Black Lives Matter movement. Once the hashtag took off, some white person (probably a man) decided that hey, that's not fair -- ALL lives matter. See what just happened there? The erasure of black lives. (Note the double entendre of that last statement.)

But there is hope. As quickly as social media put the spotlight on Matt Damon, folks were quick to respond righteously. The speed with which "Damonsplaining" was born seems promising. We are working to hold people accountable for their actions, calling them out on their injustice --whether they're aware of it or not. Is Matt truly aware of what he just did? Based on his comments later in the show ("I'm glad Effie flagged the issue of diversity for all of us."), I'm guessing not. Which is too bad.

With regard to that White Guy who put on yellowface and got into Best American Poetry, Asian American Writers Workshop put together a forum in which Asian American poets and writers have responded. And they did it quick. Check it out here.

You know what else is promising? The National Book Awards just announced their long list of nominations for poetry. The judging panel is comprised for three writers of color and two women. Hooray! The long list has 5 books out of 10 written by poets-of-color. Yesss!!! (My fave to win is Ross Gay's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.)

So while I'm angry and exhausted by all of the bullshit that too many white folks are saying isn't racist, these other instances are showing me (and, I hope, you) that there is movement towards more significant change. And that this will incite you to help us along into growing this movement into fundamental societal change.

Friday, September 11, 2015

That poetry scandal and September eleventh

I've been wanting to write about this all week, but between trying to adjust to the craziness of back-to-school and re-entering my "regular" life after spending two weeks of just writing in the mountains, I haven't had any time until now.

In this moment, on the morning of September 11th, it is challenging to focus on the Best American Poetry debacle. (Google it if you don't know what I'm talking about. I do not want to set up links here. Most of the shit out there is too awful. But you can go here and here for two spot-on responses.) After all, what's it matter that a white guy assumed a Chinese pen name (which, it turns out, is the name of a former female classmate, making his offense even more severe) and got his mediocre poem published in an anthology edited by a celebrated Native American poet and writer?

It matters to me.

Yes, I'm offended and pissed off that some white guy decides that because his poem was rejected forty times, he would try it under a pen name. An Asian pen name. Because, hey, he thinks, minority poets and writers get published all of the time just because of their name. Right. Hey, asshole: did you ever think that maybe just *maybe* the poem was rejected because it sucked? Because, oh, I don't know, maybe it needed some REVISION?? This is what real poets and writers do. We revise. When rejection comes at us forty times, we step back and say, Hmm - what's not working? Is it the poem? Or maybe the poem doesn't fit the journal's aesthetic vision? It's called writing. Get a fucking clue.

But here's where I'm REALLY pissed off: Sherman Alexie, celebrated Native American poet and writer whose work I love, was the BAP editor who consciously decided to include the poem anyway, even *after* learning that Yi-Fen Chou was actually a white guy from Indiana. The fuck??? He wrote a whole long-ass piece explaining his decision process, a piece that was so convoluted I wondered if he was trying to convince himself that he did the right thing. It was like reading a train wreck. I'm here to tell you: he did not do the right thing. He possessed a power that few writers of color have and he gave it away. He gave it to White Guy, showing white folks that hey, you, too, can submit your work under an Asian pen name and get published even *after* the jig is up! He also showed us writers of color that despite knowing this white guy is committing literary yellowface, even he, Sherman Alexie, an activist in his own right, is subject to white supremacy. From where I'm standing, it looks like he was too afraid of what the white folks would say more so than what his fellow writers of color would say. And that's just utterly disappointing. He even admitted that he's committing an injustice against writers of color, particularly Chinese and Asian writers. Gee, thanks for the confession. Makes things all better now. Fuck that shit. Now you've got every editor questioning: is this really an Asian writer or is there a white guy behind it? I don't want to get duped. Or criticized for wanting to include writers of color. Thanks a fucking lot.

And here's another question that no one in communities of color really wants to ask in public (for fear of creating division when we need unity right now, but I want to ask because I'm pissed off as an Asian-American poet): had White Guy assumed a Native pen name, would Alexie still have done the same thing? Would he have gone ahead and published that terrible poem? My guess is no. But I'm not Alexie, so what do I know?

But it doesn't stop there.

In the past week or so since I've returned from VSC, there were two other racialized events that happened. At the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta, two big names in feminism met up for a conversation on stage, the keynote event: Roxane Gay (who kicks ass! LOVE her!) and Erica Jong (considered a foundational figure in feminism). That conversation became awkward and uncomfortable when an audience member asked about the inclusion of women of color in feminism. Go here for a quick and effective summary of what went down.

There's also the terrible mess of Kate Gale's attempt at satire in a HuffPo post about AWP and its relationship with marginalized communities. (Google if you want to read it.) "Attempt" is the key word. Failure is the result. She, a founding editor of the respected Red Hen Press, ended up offending a lot of communities. This, coming after other acts of racist shit from AWP-affiliated white folks (Vanessa Place, for example). You'd think she would've known better. But guess what? It gets worse. Last week, an "established" (I really hate that word and all the connotations it carries: privilege, white --things like that. But that's for another discussion.) poet, Carole Muske-Dukes, came to Gale's rescue (As if Gale needed rescuing.) with her own ramblings on, again, HuffPo. (Honestly, I am so done with that place. They treat writers like shit. Meaning, they don't pay them. And they will "publish" just about anything! How the "mighty" have fallen.) This little gem of shit was clearly not edited for cohesiveness or --heck, it was probably typed up on the spot and HuffPo just clicked "publish". From a writing standpoint, it sucks. From a human standpoint, it's offensive. More so than whatever crap Gale wrote. Dukes compares Gale's critics (who are, more often than not, writers of color) to ISIS. What?? Seriously? How I can take someone like that seriously? I cannot. Clearly she is not of right mind. Either that, or she's just outright racist, thinking that all people of color can be conflated into a single terrorist group.

So what does all of this racial crap in the literary world have to do with anything?

Fourteen years ago today, a bunch of assholes attacked and killed so many innocent people to send a message to our government. After that, most Arab folks --if not all-- have been given the side eye, stopped for no reason at all other than the fact that they're brown, put on no-fly lists because of their weird-sounding names. You'd think in the twenty-first century, we'd learn something from our relatively short history as a nation. But ah, how quickly America suffers from amnesia!

What I am seeing is racism spreading everywhere (which is not to suggest that racism ever went away -- it was just better disguised. Until now.). And quickly. How many brown bodies have to die at the hands of white cops? (Did you hear about tennis star, James Blake getting tackled(!!) and arrested by NYPD? Seriously??) Divisions are popping up and in high relief. Having a black president means nothing. If anything, according to some intellectuals, it has exacerbated racism. The bottom line is: we cannot deny that something is very wrong in our country. And yet-- And yet--

I don't have any answers. I never claimed to. All I want to do I call things out for what they are. That's the job of poets and writers. You don't like it? Too bad.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Post-VSC: reminiscing

As with all good things that come to an end, I feel the need to reminisce, to replay as many moments as I can with the intent to sear those memories into my brain in order to relive them when I am feeling shitty about my writing or my process or my general calling to this vocation of poet-writer. (How's that for a long-ass sentence?)

I can sense that my adjustment period is going to come to a screeching halt. The last stages of reentry will incinerate me, but I have no control over these matters. I start teaching tomorrow. There's one big reality check. The kids begin ballet classes tomorrow (what??). School starts next Tuesday. And with it: all the extracurricular activities. My writing circle begins a week from today. Various appointments (doctors, dentists, etc.) that were made earlier this summer are now upon us (what was I thinking??). Yup. My actual life is upon me.


I still have an hour or so before I have to reckon with things like ballet leotards & slippers (do we have those? do they still fit?) and lesson plans. And so, in my refusal to let go, to really revel in my withdrawal from the magic of VSC (does that make me a masochist?), I will stroll down memory lane.

Here's what I miss: I miss writing in my studio in Maverick, the writers building. I miss the sound of the Gihon river outside of my first floor window. That huge, almost-floor-to-ceiling window. The rush of water. I miss my studio. I miss that forest green armchair with the sink-in-this cushion. Perfect for reading. And napping (with a balled up sweatshirt under the head, of course). I miss the white Christmas lights I set up to create that inviting glow, to invite the muses to come in and stay. I miss being the only one in the whole building during the early morning hours. All of that unoccupied space. So quiet. So open.

I miss the Red Mill. That place where we all gathered for meals. For mealtime announcements made with the clinking of empty glasses. Slides tonight! Reading tonight! Slam tonight! Dance party tonight! Happy birthdays! That place for midday water refills. For late night coffee and secret stashes of chips. Oh, chips! Our go-to snack no matter what time of day or night. Thank you, Mobil, for being open so late and having chips.

I miss the Adirondack chairs on Mason Green, down by the river, listening to the water rush by. I miss the bridge. I crossed it at least ten times a day. I miss Mason House. The detail on the wall in the vestibule made me feel like I was traveling through time each time I walked into that house. The hardwood floors. The fantastic library. I am so grateful to have stayed there during my residency.

I miss the swimming breaks, trips to Journey's End and the Green River Reservoir to cool off from those hot humid days in a place where air conditioning is non-existent. (Vermont, they said, has mild summers. Well, so much for that.)

I miss the art supply store. That place where I felt like a kid in a candy shop. All the wonders of visual art at my fingertips. So much natural light coming in. The pastels on the "try it out" table. The pencils, the charcoal, the markers. The paper! The paints. Yes, the paints. I didn't dare to venture to explore the paints, but I admired from afar. (Though, I may consider taking a painting class now.) I was so inspired by the visual artists --and admittedly, a little jealous of their concrete art-- that I bought some of my own supplies and engaged in visual art myself. There was such wonder in creating art on a physical, tactile level. The feel of pastels alone was delicious! (I know: who uses that word to describe feeling rather than taste? Well, me!)

I miss life drawing. To see line and shape, light and shadow in new ways --it changed my vision of things for the rest of the day. I'm not kidding.

I miss the bookstore. That fantastic independent bookstore, Ebenezer Books. An incredible selection of titles --and games! And the folks there are so smart and kind and generous. This is what all indie bookstores should look like!

I miss Lovin Cup Cafe and its unhurried pace. While it would take forever to get through a line and get my iced coffee, I was actually okay with that. Of course, that's only because I had time. I was in no hurry. And what a nice thing to experience. I miss the last-minute "let's grab coffee" talks that ranged from poetry and process to straight up gossip. What I'm really saying is that I miss the camaraderie, the community.

I have my photos. I wish I had taken more. At least more photos of the people I spent time with.

For some reason --and it could be because of the amount of time we spent together, day in and day out-- I have a feeling that I will be seeing these beautiful new friends again. At the very least --and I'm hoping-- that we will definitely stay in touch.

On that note, I should probably get on with it already and fully re-enter my actual life. Now what time does the dancer's shop open?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Post-VSC residency: attempts at decompression

I haven't written about my residency at Vermont Studio Center. Part of it is because I wanted to be present there, to be wholly present without having to worry about documenting it. The other part was that there was just too much happening, too quickly. Lots of writing. A lot. 

As I write this, I am asking myself: who is my audience? Is it those with whom I just spent a transformative two weeks at Vermont Studio Center? Is it those writers and artists who weren’t there but understand the value of a residency and its importance and its effects? Is it those who are not artists but everyday folks who are in my life regularly? I don’t know. Audience is important here because it determines how I speak about my time at VSC. What if I made the audience myself? What would that look like?

As I write this and it approaches the time when my children will wake up, I feel a subtle creeping of anticipation. A slight hint of stress. The house will open up very soon and send chaotic energy into the air. An environment which is most certainly not conducive to writing. At least not for me.

The last two weeks have been heaven. Truly. As corny as that word might be, it really was. It felt luxurious and amazingly necessary at the same time. To be tucked away from the world and only expected to create art: such a generous gift. To be surrounded by not just writers, but visual artists as well: inspiring and encouraging. To be around people who respect and understand the creative process and the different ways in which it manifests is, to me, astounding. I could get up in the middle of a meal and say that I’m onto something, that I’m on a roll – and no one would question it. No one would expect an explanation. And it wouldn’t be seen as rude. Everyone would nod as if to send me on my way. We all honored each individual’s creative process, our creative ebbs and flows.

This is not the first time I’ve spent a block of time with writers, but it is the first time that my process has been honored –and supported-- for what it is, however it is, no questions asked. It’s also the first time I’ve spent with visual artists, which has been incredible. To notice similarities in our creative processes –it seems to me we’re all looking to uncover, explore, and discover things we’re intrigued by—but also to observe the differences (many of them obvious – like medium). The difference in creative process –the concreteness of visual art—inspired me to create some of my own visual art, to explore other modes of expression which lent themselves, later on, to my writing. I love how all of these creative modes have weaved its way into me. I feel like my writing is much richer because of it.

But now that I am back in my regular life, I am having a very difficult time re-adjusting.

How do I sustain this creative energy when my VSC peeps have returned to their homes and I live in an artistic desert? I worry that I will fall back into that pit of suburban existence in which I am merely an adjunct and a taxi driver, a cook and a laundress. Of course, I have the wherewithal to not let this happen. I just have to really make it happen. To exert the energy to move forward and to be deliberate about boundaries. But in practical terms, what does this look like? Do I sign up for a writer’s circle? Do I try to schedule monthly Skype dates with writer-friends? When do I read? I struggle with this last one all of the time. Reading feels like a luxury, not like work, though I know that it is very much an essential part of my work. How do I read without guilt? (This is some big therapy work I need to do here. We won’t make the obvious connect to Catholicism, will we? Oh wait. I just did. So why not throw in the obvious Asian expectations of productivity while we’re at it? Yeah.) I don’t know any answers to these questions. I guess the best thing for me to do is to just try things out and see what happens. Better to try than to remain static.

Also, I am planning to transform my home office into a writing studio. What’s the difference? Anything that is *not* related to writing or anything creative will be purged from this space and put elsewhere. This will be my sacred space in which I can create whatever the hell I want. Or where I can just read. Without guilt. (Hopefully.) I want to follow the examples of the visual artists by having a singular space called a studio in which I create art, nothing more.

On that note, I will head off into the mid-morning to rustle up some grub for the kiddos. Maybe make another cup of coffee. Or, if I’m being honest, go take a nap as I am utterly exhausted. Creating art, writing that many solid-keeper poems in such a short amount of time is a very large emotional investment. Of course I’m exhausted. My VSC friends would agree. And they would nod, sending me off to my studio to take a nap. :)