Given: We cannot write outside our time. We are invariably and inextricably in and of the times in which we live.
Given: The expansiveness with which we define “our times” and the ways in which we include the experiences of people other than/othered from ourselves in our work is variable and generally well within our conscious control.
Given: The practice of recognizing and including in our art the experiences of people marginalized or threatened in ways that are different from the ways that we ourselves are marginalized or threatened (if we are at all), is a personally, politically, and artistically risky act. The very real dangers of co-optation, appropriation, and/or reinforcing otherness are always present.
Given: We need to do it anyway.
The we I’m speaking of here, in particular, is we the privileged. Those of us with any combination of skin privilege, class privilege, gender privilege – that we.
And there lies a primary challenge: if there’s a we, there’s a they. And it feels dangerous to think in terms of us and them, because that way lies segregation and supremacist thinking -- it would be so much lovelier and rosier just to think and speak of a grand us, a human us.
But to do so is to deny the very real fact that groups of human beings, particularly in our United States, move through the world with vastly different threat types and threat levels, and some conversely with vastly different levels of protection and opportunity. And denying that in our art makes us liars, and contrary to some people’s belief, liars do not make great poets.
So if we’re going to tell the truth of our times in our poems, we need to recognize and examine our privileges and marginalizations, as well as our human connections and commonalities.
To be clear: this is not a call to “give voice to the voiceless” or any of that patronizing artist-as-savior business. People without or with less privilege have voices, make no mistake. Nobody needs us to speak for them.
This is, however, a call to dig deep into the personal and cultural histories that inform and platform and buttress our privilege, and expose those to the world’s bright eye. To examine the intersections between our privileged lives and the lives of those held outside that, particularly where those intersections do not cast us in flattering light. To practice the subtle and necessary balancing act that is speaking up and out in ways that expand the platform for other voices rather than usurping, speaking in place of, or silencing them.
Given: We’re going to fuck this up.
As long as we’re writing out of our own immediate, personal, experience, pretty much the worst we’re doing to do is write a bad poem. No harm, no foul. But the moment we step outside that, things get dangerous.
And well they should: nothing crucial is safe. And safety is a privilege denied to many. It is precisely because we could choose to write within the bubble of our privilege that we must step outside it.
How we do that is up to each of us, and is a topic for another blog. But for now, I’ll say this: all those ascot-grasping essays on “Can Poetry Matter” and “The Death of Art” will continue apace until the poetry that insists on speaking to and of its grimy, shameful and still sometimes tenaciously glorious time, insists on grappling with all the dark and needful complexities of our era, takes a solid, rightful and well-lit place center stage and cover page.