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.

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