Making lists and breaking aesthetics

Marilyn Hacker said on the WOMPO Women’s Poetry mailing list recently:

If, as feminists,we can’t discuss racism openly, if not “comfortably,”
then what did all the feminist writers who were discussing it in the 70s ,
and those doing so now –Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toi
Derricotte, Alicia Ostriker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo,
Marilyn Chin, Elizabeth Alexander, Jane Cooper, Rita Dove, Irena Klepfisz,
Alison Joseph, Jan Clausen, among others — — accomplish ? There
are a lot more African American poets, Asian American poets, poets of
color, published now, enough of them that they don’t have to conform to
any kind of mold or expectation , political or formal — and yet that
change doesn’t seem to have changed the consciousness of many women whom
I’d have expected to have READ those poets and thought about what they’d

Yes, exactly!

I note that it is important to go on making lists like this and telling people what to read. Lists of names make paths and entryways for people who need the guidance. As readers, we can’t rely on any sort of established power structure to represent diversity.

I also note that reading widely with an open mind needs to come first. THEN break and re-form your aesthetics and your poetics. In other words, upper class white people with the education that goes with it can’t impose the aesthetics they’ve developed from that background onto what they read from who are not just like them Keeping your tired old privileged aesthetic is like saying that beautiful meaningful things can only be built with legos. Maybe Legos made of gold, but still — so limited!

*** A rant I’ve been wanting to make for a long time***

I’m thinking of a particular incident with a person who happens to be quite powerful at the moment. I’ll call him Mr. Darcy. A few years ago, Darcy was just on the cusp of coming into that powerful position. I was tagging along to an event with my friend Martin, a poet and translator. Darcy, Martin, and I ended up hanging out over coffee. I didn’t register on Darcy’s radar as a person… a mohawked callow youth, perhaps Martin’s unaccountably freakish girl-of-the-minute.

And Darcy proceded to trash and eviscerate the idea of multiculturalism and political correctness. “Yeah, I make my anthologies and put in the really good poets, and then have to throw in some crappy PC person, and be all multicultural…” He spoke the names of some people of color with venomous bitterness and derision. I began to speak up to say that if he didn’t like those particular writers, he should look further into the latino, black, vietnamese communities to find ones that he did like, because the ones he was referring to weren’t necessarily the best by my judgement either… When I said this, it was as if a dog had spoken, an unexpected miracle. I talked about some ideas of poetry-of-inner-city communities poetry in public places, at bus stops, etc. And he got mad, saying that what people needed was to learn about real poetry, like Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, and only the classics of American poetry should go up at those bus stops to force “real culture” on “those people”. He said the same sorts of things about modern women poets, including dissing on “confessional” “disgusting” “PC” women. (Who should also get a forced dose of Dickinson; almost enough to make one hate Dickinson… almost…)

I was shocked that Darcy would be so open about his bigotry — to someone like me, someone who clearly did not agree with him — He assumed, maybe, that I was a person it was safe to be bigoted in front of — that I would be complicit, even after I spoke up and argued with him. That purple mohawk radical feminist or not, I could be ignored or co-opted.

I am now grateful for this moment of my own invisibility on Darcy’s power-map. From his dismissal of my importance, his figuring that I didn’t matter, and his willingness to expose his own “pride and prejudice” in front of me, I learned some crucial and ugly things. I studied his anthologies to see the “presentable” face of racism and privilege, now armed with the knowledge of its unguarded scorn. Darcy’s anthologies never picked the poets of color who had been around, who were part of a tradition. Instead they would pick a short inferior work by someone very recent, the youngest person possible… Darcy behaved as if he could safely assume there were no traditions, no leaders, no communities, but only isolated examples he could safely tokenize and encapsulate… in short he only saw mediocrity in work by people of color or women, because he didn’t look deep…and then he actively promoted that vision of their mediocrity. This kind of tokenism harms everyone. I look back into anthologies all through the 19th and 20th centuries, and see the same pattern.

I still have trouble believing the depth of Darcy’s ignorance or his active malice, whichever was foremost in the operation of his racist, sexist aesthetics.

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