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August 08, 2012


This is interesting and uncomfortable-making. It made me think of something, too - what expectations/constraints/rules/whatever-you-want-to-call-them do we put on poets, that we don't seem to on writers of fiction? Hoagland says he wrote the poem as a persona, a character if you will - but nobody seems to be buying that. Yet we allow without question fiction writers the liberty of creating narrators ("speakers") who are clearly not meant to be the author. For example, Flannery O'Connor (take your pick of any of her stories), or even more to the point, a story like Eudora Welty's masterpiece, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" Why do we have different expectations from a poem than we do from a story - that the speaker must be in some way the author, even if disguised? I don't know the answer to this, but I think it's worth talking about. And I'm very interested to hear what your take on this is.

Yes, I sidestepped the persona issue with Hoagland, along with a lot of other important points. Because the point stands: persona or no, our art plays in the world, in real people's lives. And there are consequences. I think there is a difference in our responses to, and expectations of, poetry and fiction, certainly. But when it comes to race....I don't know that we let fiction off the hook. In fact, in Major Jackson's great APR essay about race, he begins by relating a difficult experience he had listening to Barry Hannah read in the voice of one of his particularly racist characters. The whole formal question, though, of /how/ we bring that poison into the world, "how to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?" as Toni Morrison put it----that's tomorrow's post. :-)

I have lots of thoughts on this, but I'll wait until I see your post tomorrow to post them.

Thank you for making us think!

"How shall a poet rewrite, and not just write, race?"

When I was teaching at Indiana University, there was one Caucasian student in particular whose writing I was trying to push towards greater depth. One day, this student just says to me "I'm just a white kid. I don't have anything to write about." And I was so thankful for his honesty because his admission gave me the opportunity to identify and address the ways in which having his identity crafted by race was limiting his thinking and, therefore, his writing.

But my response to that student was not to tell him to "rewrite [. . .] race." If anything, I had to push him to start thinking of himself as the sum of his social and cultural and genealogical parts as opposed to the undefined anti-otherness of "whiteness." What I'm suggesting is that rather than looking to remodel race for him, we needed to leave it behind, put him back in touch with the complexity of his own humanity.

I LOVE discussing Hoagland's poem "The Change" with my predominantly Caucasian and predominantly privileged students because they often have to pause and ask themselves "Is that me?" "Is that what I'm supposed to have an allegiance with?" "Do I want to be ostensibly 'white' in my poems if that is what it sounds like?" "What does it sound like, if anything at all?"

I think the push to put poets back in touch with the true voices they are too comfortably distanced from has to start with getting race out of the way. Too many Americans, writers, don't know who they are because they understand themselves first and foremost by these useless constructs of racial identity. Yes, there is a history of racial violence in this country and, yes, we should understand that history as well as how we have allowed that construct (race) to psychologically enable violence against each other and ourselves (racism), but, going forward, I'm not confident that rewriting it will prove as fruitful as invalidating it and forcing us to own up to the underlying greed and anxiety that find a convenient hiding place in racism.

I've always thought DuBois was right about double-consciousness, but a little off regarding the veil. Negroes have always been able to see themselves for themselves as well as for how the "white" world sees them. "Whites," people who understand themselves as such, only see that "white" vision. That's the veil I'm trying to lift. I don't think I can leave it on and turn it into a more functional accessory.


Thanks for this. I'm glad that you're having these conversations with your students! And, we're actually mostly in agreement, in that we're talking about a poetics of freedom. But I mean something different by "rewriting" than what you caught here. And I think that the process of naming, of seeing, difference is important. At least, as long as it's important to the structures in the US that still use it to oppress and ignore some, while giving a pass (and goodies) to others. And as long as whiteness is still predicated on my /not/ seeing, and naming, it. But neither do we have to make it all we see about someone. In other words, even in those solutions---more dichoto-myelitis! Only way out is through.


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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