09 February 2011
The following is a response to a “performance of sorts” (her words) that Claudia Rankine gave on February 4, 2011, at the AWP conference in Washington, DC. I took some notes, but not as many as I’d have liked, so know that much of this is recollection and paraphrase. Thanks to Tisa Bryant for filling in some gaps in her smart and moving response.
The room felt unfillable. It was wider than it was long, chairs and chairs. I sat in an emptyish row near the back; I was alone. I had come, solely, to see Claudia Rankine read. I knew Rankine’s work, primarily, from reading and teaching Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. It’s through teaching it that I have come closer to the book, in part out of defending it to students who find it confusing and strange, and in part because teaching has required me to read it more than once, which, in most cases, is the way to learn to love a text you’ve started out simply admiring. What I love about this book is the way that Rankine presents the relationship of the individual to the social, or the political, as both inevitable and embodied. In her writing I see the individual, the physical body, and the world—three elements that are never separate, but can often feel separate. Though these three elements comprise, in short, what it is to be alive, it is remarkably difficult to represent their relationship fully in writing, and with clarity. Or perhaps I should say because this is what it means to be alive.
Like writing, it seems to me that AWP is as politicized as you want it to be, or as you let it be. As I sat in the back of the room, watching people mill and settle, I surmised that the majority of people in the audience were there to see Charles Wright, the second reader. I surmised this, I suppose, because I saw mostly white people, but it was a very large room, and I, also, am white, and was there to see Claudia Rankine. An introduction, and Rankine came up to the podium. She explained that she would begin with a reading of a poem by Tony Hoagland, then read a response that she wrote to the poem, and then his response to her response. She called it a performance of sorts.
The writer Nick Flynn came up and read Hoagland’s poem, titled “The Change.” The speaker in the poem recalls seeing a tennis match between “some tough little European blonde” and “that big black girl from Alabama.” The latter has “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Some people in the audience laughed at that line. I didn’t laugh. Although the speaker’s friend is rooting for the black player, the speaker “couldn’t help wanting/ the white girl to come out on top,/ because she was one of my kind, my tribe”. Later, the black player is again described as “so big/ and so black,” and “so unintimidated/ hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation/ down Abraham Lincoln’s throat”. People laughed at that line, too.
The audience clapped—many people in the audience clapped—and Rankine began her remarks. She said, “I don’t like to use the word ‘racist.’” She discussed how using that word immediately catapults the speaker, if black, into an “angry black person” stereotype. She described her first experience of reading the poem as one of not even anger or offense but of shock, bewilderment; as she read she asked, “What? What?” If the “what” is a rhetorical question, it can end there, in the silence that answers it. But Rankine mobilized the question: Where was she supposed to locate herself in relationship to this poem? Was she the “big, black girl”? She contacted Hoagland, a colleague of hers at the time, to ask him about the poem. He said, “This poem is for white people.” And next in my notes I have the line, which Rankine may or may not have said immediately following Hoagland’s statement: “Who let America in the room?” The conversation was now about much more than an individual, offending poem.
Because of course, as Rankine went on to say, the book that the poem was in did not appear on the shelf with a “For Whites Only” sticker. And thus it became a text that someone for whom it was not “intended” could pick up and read. And the words in it, by being words in the world (in America?) could point and barb in ways that, whether or not they surpassed their original intention, could cause real hurt. Rankine quoted Judith Butler, from a talk she saw Butler give about hate speech: “We suffer from the condition of being addressable.” Addressable—both an opening up and a shutting down, a label that obscures and one that creates the very possibility for communication. Rankine talked about the ways that hate language makes the recipient both invisible and hypervisible. Rankine, as I understand it, found herself both everywhere and nowhere in Hoagland’s poem.
Next, Rankine read Hoagland’s response to her remarks. (She said that he had only had two days to respond, though she didn’t explain why.) Hoagland wrote, “Dear Claudia.” He wrote that he felt Rankine was “naïve about American racism.” He said, essentially, that everyone in America is racist, that it’s something we learn and are taught everyday. He said that too many white poets are afraid to deal with this reality in their poems, that almost all poems about race come from a person of color’s point-of-view. He also suggested that it was facile for Rankine to assume that the speaker in the poem is the same as the poet. He called her remarks “underconsidered.” He made a list of declarative statements, which I wish I’d written down: “I am a racist. I am a misogynist. I am a man. I am a lover of women. I am a single mother.” And so on up and over the fraught and complex rainbow.
Rankine closed by reading one of her own poems. Because I don’t remember it well, I’ll quote Tisa Bryant’s report of the event: “Ms. Rankine ended with a poem that centered on the unfulfilled promise of America.”
Does it sound as if I’ve been holding my breath? I was. It was breathtaking—the degree of bravery and boldness it took for Rankine to present this performance to an audience that, I imagine, was mostly expecting a “regular” poetry reading. The fact that she explicitly addressed a member of the poetry elite; that she publicly allowed herself the vulnerability of admitting that she found the language in Hoagland’s poem to be hurtful. And that she did, again, in this talk what I so admired—loved—in DLMBL: she spoke of her grappling with Hoagland’s poem as both an individual and highly personal process that she experienced as a black woman, and located that experience in relation to the wider poetry community, to history, and to the contemporary political moment in the U.S.
In Hoagland’s response, he ignored all but the first layer—the personal—of Rankine’s response to his poem. Rankine said, These words are hurtful, and Hoagland said No they’re not, because I didn’t intend them to be. He said, Because you’re making it personal, I’m going to tell you that you’re naïve about American racism. He said, essentially, he is saying that he has more authority to speak about race than does Rankine. When Hoagland writes, in whoever’s voice, that the speaker wanted the white girl to win the tennis match, because “she was one of my kind, my tribe,” he is (he thinks) boldly addressing race as a white person; when Rankine discusses the questions that his language raised for her, he tells her that she’s missing the point.
But I want to turn, now, to my own experience of hearing Hoagland’s poem, and reflecting on Rankine’s remarks and his response to them. Because what’s interesting is that Rankine did not, in fact, mention the line quoted above (“my kind, my tribe”) though that is the line that stuck out most for me—that made me, as a white person with a commitment to anti-racism, feel most uncomfortable. Because, undoubtedly, there were and are white people in the U.S. who don’t want to see a black woman win at tennis. Who see that as representing a “change” that they are not, and might never be, ready for. I fear and resist being grouped in with the speaker in that poem. But in fact I can’t simply shun those lines or shut them out, because at that point in the poem Hoagland does, in fact, lay bare the enduring legacy of racism in this country—a legacy that I participate in simply by the fact of being a white person. “This poem is for white people.” Not a gift, but a provocation. In the context of this poem, that provocation is valuable, but it’s also dangerous—because it threatens to obscure, at least it threatened to obscure for me, the actual disrespect, and, yes, racism in the poem.
Hoagland may be aware of the legacy of racism in this country, but he is unaccountable to the power that that legacy has bequeathed to him. And one aspect of that power is the power to name (“We suffer from the condition of being addressable”). In “The Change,” when Hoagland employed an array of racist, exoticizing stereotypes to describe the black tennis player, he flaunted that power. He used language irresponsibly and stridently, without regard for where it fell. If there is another language, an alternate discourse, that can possibly ever serve as a challenge to the dominant mode of careless naming, it is one that illuminates, at every step how connected we all are to each other, and to the institutions in which we live with, in, and in spite of. That is the language that Claudia Rankine practices and one that I was so grateful and moved to hear.
Good news, Rankine's talk is actually now online! http://www.claudiarankine.com/
09 December 2010
“The problem begins when one forgets the artificiality of it all, when one neglects to pay homage to those designations that to our minds—to our reflex senses, perhaps—make of music an analyzable commodity. The trouble begins when we start to be so impressed by the strategies of our systematized thought that we forget that it does relate to an obverse, that it is hewn from negation, that it is but very small security against the void of negation which surrounds it…When people who practice an art like music become captives of those positive assumptions of system, when they forget to credit that happening against negation which system is, and when they become disrespectful of the immensity of negation compared to system—then they put themselves out of reach of that replenishment of invention upon which creative ideas depend, because invention is, in fact, a cautious dipping into the negation that lies outside system from a position firmly ensconced in system.”
--Glenn Gould, "Advice to a Graduation"
02 December 2010
Yesterday I gave my Creative Writing students a True/False quiz:
- (Creative) Writing is a form of art. T F
- Writing is political, and has the power to affect social change. T F
- Writing should be uplifting, and reveal the best of humanity. T F
- Writing should be dark, and reveal the problems of humanity. T F
- The best writing is accessible and relevant to the widest amount of people. T F
- The best writing is esoteric and rarified. T F
- I write for myself. T F
- I write for others. T F
The idea was to get them to think more globally about the writing they’ve done over the semester, and what they’ll do with their writing in the future, but the quiz may as well have been a list of the questions that batter me around daily. There are the ways I want to answer, and the ways that my writing, itself, answers. There’s no such thing as “my writing, itself.”
A few years ago, I saw a very famous young fiction writer get up on stage in an auditorium full of eager undergrads. The undergrads had a lot of questions for him, and they especially wanted to know about his writing process. Of course they did. He’s done this huge, inscrutable thing, and they want to know if and how maybe, someday, they could do it, too. His answers ranged from “I don’t know how that happened” to “It just came to me” to “That’s not a good question.” It was a grand and infuriating abdication. It was cruel to the questioners, not only because he was withholding information that they wanted to know, but because it perpetuated the myth of the author as some kind of mystic, some kind of vessel who receives ideas from the universe and magically transmits them to paper. Without work. Without, most importantly, responsibility. Inspiration is real, but at a certain point a writer makes choices.
I got into indie and punk music in my teens, and I remember thinking, as late as my early 20s, “I wish there was such a thing as an indie scene for literature.” This was not so much because I was dissatisfied with mainstream, but because I just didn’t get why underground fiction didn’t exist, or, if it did exist, why I didn’t know about it. In college, I wrote papers for my Cultural Studies classes about the subversive power of zines and queer punk, but literature was conspicuously absent. I really don’t know why it took me so long to discover that experimental fiction, queer fiction, and independent presses existed. Thank goodness for San Francisco, and Camille Roy’s workshop, and New Narrative, and Denton Welch, and Jane Bowles, and more and more, discovering every day.
Because I believe, of course, that writing is art and that all art is political. I believe that form, syntax, character, and diction are political choices, as are the ways one chooses to get one’s writing out into the world. Sure, a writer makes choices based on aesthetics as well, but all of it has a political valence. So that a writer who abdicates responsibility for how the words get onto the page and out to the public is saying, “I am not political, I had no hand in this”—which is the way hegemony solidifies itself, by proclaiming itself originless and invisible.
See but this is the thing. I am drawn, as a reader, to work that departs from fiction-writing conventions, that is explicitly or insidiously subversive, that is clearly out to, in some way, fuck shit up. But that’s not really the kind of fiction I write. And now here come the chorus of voices (you don’t have to provide them, I do a fine job providing them on my own), saying “How can you say “The kind of fiction you write? Can’t you just choose to write in a different way? Don’t you dispute the notion of an ‘authentic’ voice? Can’t you just make the words do whatever you find to be most politically salient?” I mean, yes and no. Because despite it all, I love narrative. I don’t care that much about plot, but I’m deeply invested in character, and my brain runs pretty well on conventional syntax. And I can write shorter pieces that are more experimental, but that writing doesn’t sustain me, creatively, over the long term. And, perhaps now more than ever, people make camps, draw lines. (See, for example, the Juliana Spahr/ Rebecca Wolff debate.) I’ve gotta say that, politically, I’m down with Spahr’s argument, but you wouldn’t know it from my work. And to force one’s work into a shape to match one’s politics—even if those politics are your own—feels somehow false.
Some days it’s a wonder I can get a word written at all.
02 November 2010
Catalogue of disaster, burnt bacon, toy boats stuck in the mud. Attention and arc are beautifully equanimous.
2. The Parting Gifts, “Sleepy City”
Stones cover. One of the hookiest non-chorus songs I’ve ever heard.
3. The Slits
RIP Ari Up. Incantatory.
4. Rachel B. Glaser, all of Pee on Water, esp. “Dream House”
Teenage narcissism=lead vocals, “real world”=backing track
5. Bruner, “Wichita Lineman”
As far as I can tell, there’s one primary line that’s changed from the Glen Campbell version: “And I want you for all time” becomes “And I want you all the time.” Pristine, wrenching urgency forced to simmer.
6. Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch
I’ll admit it, I haven’t yet read back through it in the hopped-up order—but when no thought is left unreported, the hook becomes the way the mind works.
7. James Schuyler, “A White City”
Each line a hook a sound a site.
05 October 2010
I think, and this is a theory I’m formulating as I write it, that projecting wishfully back in time usually speaks to some lack in the present moment. Or an insecurity about the possibility of a lack. If nostalgia is necessarily a backwards-traveling path, then the best opposite, the most forward-thrusting path I’ve known is the very thing I’m nostalgizing: the DIY spirit. The sparkiest, most energizing, exciting, and possibility-laden times in my life have been those most brimming with DIY artmaking, political action, and community: the summer I was 16, in Vermont, meeting queer artists my age for the first time and realizing I could be that, too; the Erase Errata shows/anti-development protests at the 16th St. BART station; the Excuse 17/Vitapup show in 1995 when the bands moved the show from Under Acme to Spa Studio because the original venue wasn’t all-ages; self-releasing the first EE 7”; the Matt Gonzalez campaign; radical queer flyering at Wesleyan; 949 Market; the Big Ballyhoo art show. There have been brushes with it in more recent years—the “Art of Touring” event/ gallery show in Portland last year, the Mirah video shoot—but it’s anomalous when it happens, and thus more loaded and prone to nostalgia itself: I was remembering this while it was still happening.
None of this is any more of a cliché, any more than getting older. But how can that not feel like an excuse? I can list more excuses: I move too much, I went to grad school, I’m in a relationship, I’m a writer and thus self-isolating, New York is too busy, too obliquely political, I eat $13 hamburgers, no I don’t want to self-publish my novel thank you very much, who the fuck knows, the Internet. There are many, many things that I love about my life right now. But I miss—sometimes excruciatingly—that DIY spark, that anything’s-possible not just hunch, but absolute certainty. And though it’s so easy, and sometimes tempting, to forget it, I know that if I‘m going to find the today-version of that spark anywhere, I’m not going to find it by looking behind me.
20 September 2010
A catchy song only matters the second time you hear it. Is that true? The first listening lays the groundwork, but the power of a catchy song is in its after-effects, the extent to which it lodges in your brain, consciously or not, so that in the second, and subsequent, listenings, the primary pleasure is in the flush of recognition. It’s in the itch you did or didn’t know needed scratching. Certainly, catchy songs are also often something other than catchy, and there are plenty of immediate pleasures to be found in hearing many songs for the first time. But last night I went to see Superchunk, and they are a band whose primary asset is catchiness. It’s their hooks and, yes, choruses. I don’t know a single song past 1994’s Foolish, and the vast majority of the set came from their last couple records (which, to be honest, I didn’t even know they’d released). Though it was great to see Mac hopping and flailing around the stage, and a despite-herself pogo or two from Laura, I was pretty bored. It was thwarted nostalgia, too, of course—I wanted the songs that reminded me of something, that reminded me of myself a decade-and-a-half ago. I wanted the songs that would let me dip into my 17-year-old self, then immediately transcend it, with the viscerality and difference of the current moment. I know it’s not Superchunk’s job to do that. Was I talking about catchiness?
Anyway, I’m trying to start writing a new novel. I don’t know what it’s about. Actually, the problem is that, variously, I’ve thought it might be about any of the following: teenagers, New Jersey, Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead, queerness, Israel/Palestine—but I don’t know what it’s about in a more adverbial sense, as in, I don’t know what it’s up to, I don’t know how to make it up to something. I don’t have a character, voice, style, or structure. In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” I’ve got statements out the arsehole, but no story. I know that the best stories find their statements, not the other way around (which is, in part, why Ayn Rand was not very good at writing stories). Over the last couple months, I’ve generated pages of attempts. One piece uses a Superchunk show as the setting for a transformative teenage moment. At times the piece feels about to veer into story, but what’s driving it is statement. An idea of what this show did or could mean, to me, to the character who is much closer to me than I would prefer.
I’m not sure, right now, if catchiness is statement or story. I’m leaning toward the former. Statements are important, we need statements, and we need statements to arise from art, and with artfulness. It’s possible that the best statements are stories in their own right. They imply dimension and action, though their outward manifestation may be simple and concise. Statements gain depth not through expansion, but through repetition. How many of us have cut off a catchy song before it’s finished, because we just can’t wait to start it over and hear it again? When reading a novel I love, on the other hand, I try to slow down the reading process as long as possible, in order to let the story creep and linger. Whether it’s a page or 1000 pages long, I think a story should feel infinite when you’re writing it. To find infinity requires patience. And oh, how hard it can be, to hold on to that patience through the lure of statements, to wait out that unscratchable itch.
11 July 2010
Kicking Giant’s “She’s Real” is the theme song of a New York City heat wave. I knew this in 1996, the first summer I lived in NYC, and I remembered it today. I love Alien i.D., the album it’s on. It came out in 1994 on K Records. The whole album is a crucible of croon and churn, of stinging melodies and dry-mouth beats. “She’s Real” is the last and crooniest song on the record, it’s about walking the streets of NYC, pining for an unreachable lover, on a night that’s “much too hot to sleep,” and the whole thing is simultaneously tension and release. Part of that is accomplished by the dueting of Tae Won Yu, whose always-impassioned-but-a-little-whiny vocals could fall flat on a belter like this, with guest vocalist Joanna Bronstein, whose voice is clear and cooling. Another big part of the genius of the song is Rachel’s drumming; even in the fast parts, each hit is always separate, drawing attention to itself while simultaneously propelling the song-as-a-whole forward. Those drumbeats are exactly how it feels to walk in oppressive humidity—you notice every step while you’re taking it but forget it immediately after. Did I describe the arc of the song? It’s hot, it’s hard to remember. The song starts with just Tae singing and guitar, then Joanna starts singing, then the drums come in, then the song starts moving, then we get the first breakdown, and in it there are two layered guitar lines, sharp noise and gurgling melody. Rachel’s drums come back in, and it’s a dirge, resigned. “I was sleepless, Second Avenue.” That specificity is another reason the song sticks: “Now I am walking down the river to the East River Park.” It reminds me of the way Bolaño is constantly naming streets, subtly impressing (as in “impressing upon”) you with his geography. Of course, for it to really stick, you have to want it: when I was a teenager and first heard this song, what was more romantic than the idea of walking the streets of the city, “85 at half past 2,” searching for a way out of heartbreak? The harmony on the “She’s real” refrain is pure insistence and delusion. And then the tambourine kicks in and the walking continues despite its impossibility, “Be my baby,” there’s no fucking way, this is late night delusioning, this is teenage desire, this is the heat-inspiration, because doesn’t the awesomeness of its intensity make you feel that everything is possible, only that you’ll get it to it a little later? The end is a fucking Neil Young guitar solo, like the one where he guests on Elyse’s “Houses,” the notes are few but they burn. And then what? Shaky tambourine, straying feedback. The song goes out like headlights in the distance, like lights in the windows when it’s finally cool enough to get to sleep.