Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Writing While White: Thoughts on Writing Race as a White Poet

When I think about writing (across) race as a white poet--using a non-universal example of two white poets writing about injustices against African-Americans--Reznikoff of legal cases from early in the 20th century, C.D. Wright during the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. I am profoundly skeptical about categories, but am trying to engage discussions being held at Harriet blog, and also here, Claudia Rankine's site, jacket2 and the blog posts that follow, as best I can within the limitations of the question and this form.


I want lyric, but I want lyric responses, not poems.

I want the poet to create the conditions for feeling, thinking, but not to offer her own directly.

I want the truth, but believe the only way to tell it is slant.

I want a poem less about any category than about histories of categories.

I want a poem that both honors boundaries & questions them. One before the other.

I want a poem whose intimacies reside & grow out of their distances.

I want a poem based on facts, not limited by them.

I want a poem that takes language seriously, points to our misuses of it.

I want a poem that makes the reader call herself to action.

Two Examples:

Charles Reznikoff: "Negroes"; and under Aldon Lynn Nielsen, "Negroes"

C.D. Wright, One with Others, Copper Canyon, 2010.

Charles Reznikoff:

Several white men went at night to the Negro's
shot into it,
and set fire to his cotton on the gallery
his wife and children ran under the bed
and as the firing from guns and pistols went on
and the cotton blazed up, ran through a side door
into the woods.
The Negro himself, badly wounded, fled to the
house of a neighbor—
a white man--
and got inside.
He was followed,
and one of those who ran after him
put a shotgun against the white man's door
and shot a hole through it.
Justice, however, was not to be thwarted,
for five of the men who did this to the Negro
were tried:
for "unlawfully and maliciously
injuring and disfiguring"-
the white man's property.

Aldon Lynn Nielsen writes:

"Reznikoff allows the irony of America's racial injustices to foreground itself in these pieces, as in this one, which makes no comment on the fact that there were no charges for destroying a black man's property or for assaulting him and his family."

Reading Race" White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century (U of Georgia P, 1986)

C.D. Wright:

"Over at the all-Negro junior high, a popular teacher has been fired for 'insubordination' or a 'derogatory' letter he wrote the superintendent saying the Negro has no voice. No voice at all. It was the start of another cacophonous summer." (3)

What Reznikoff and Wright do in these poems (among other things) is to point at words. They don't point at the words themselves so much as at how those words are being used in particular historical contexts. Reznikoff's quotation comes from the legal case itself; read out of context, or in a more appropriate one, words like "injuring" and especially "disfiguring," suggest bodies, faces, human features. The brief line, "the white man's property," with which Reznikoff concludes the poem, echoes a time when black men were white men's property during slavery, and on the deep and unjust irony that the law will prosecute for destruction of a white man's property, but not a black man's body/figure. On re-reading the poem, the word "justice," cannot not be read with the reader's own quotation marks. A disfigured word re-figured by the reader.

Likewise, C.D. Wright points to the words "insubordination" and "derogatory" by placing them in quotes. These quotes un-veil (by paradoxically clothing in marks) misuses of the words by the school system.

The other day I was in a meeting to discuss the Ph.D. prospectus of a writer from Nepal who writes in English rather than in his native tongue. His writing was too intensely personal, he said, to work in his first language; instead, he chooses to write in the language that offers him distance from his subject and from the face that appears over his shoulder when he writes (read father, read culture). One committee member advised him to look into what might happen if he were to engage the fireworks in his native tongue. I am jealous that he can choose. But not all choices are between languages; some come within a single one. What Reznikoff and Wright have done is to write poetry not in a "native tongue" of feeling and lyricality, but in a "second language" of distance. They don't avoid feelings, but they instigate them in others. They trust their reader to translate back. They also trust themselves to see clearly, not through the damp lenses of passion or anger, instantly gratified.

[I've written elsewhere on being a white poet in Hawai`i; I've tried to complicate the notion of "whiteness" beyond what's inscribed in an essentialist category. One should perhaps add lines of modifiers to any reference to a poet by race or gender . . . I'll leave those modifiers to the poems themselves, which inevitably modify, indeed transform, our categories if we do well by our readers.]

1 comment:

Sarah Sarai said...

Thank you. I think about this topic or these topics, WWW and pointing.