"Time to hone the fucking consciousness!"
America's New Deal safety nets have been dismantled, our unions are mostly dissolved or muted, and our testosterone-driven ambassadors of privatization and military have cost over a million REAL human lives after invading Iraq, a country whose undeserved bloodshed and suffering at our hands still has absolutely no relief in sight. Could it be possible that the arts also want to be on the Right side of American history? Are the statistics that women are on the low end of being represented in experimental poetry that Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young present in their essay "Numbers Trouble" correct? The tools to measure their accuracy are not at my disposal, but the essay's importance cannot be denied from witnessing the strong responses it has generated.
The term "post identity politics" is in the news these days in reference to our 2008 presidential election year. In fact it's used rather casually by reporters. But should poetry BE news, or be led by and mimic the news? We all agree (at least I think we all agree?) that many fearless, dissenting individuals fought and suffered to make much needed room for everyone. Isn't it clear how much we owe it to ourselves to owe it to them to remain vigilant over the ground they battled for and won for us?
When I say vigilant I DO MEAN vigilant for everyone, meaning every gender, every race, every every. And while I despise the term "identity politics" because I feel strongly that it insults the room we all share, and insults those who fought for that room, I will still use it in what I have to say here, mostly because, unfortunately, it is appropriate at times. But let me say first that I feel "identity politics" to be a misnomer, meaning it has no sense of the various caste systems inherent in the kind of consumer-dependent system like America's, and how such a system's interior pulls and persuades outside bodies, including the arts, into its unconscious (and often unconscionable) orbit. Identity politics is a term as deprived of truth as saying, "Americans are living longer," something also casually mentioned in the news these days. But seriously, are ALL Americans living longer, or just the Americans who count, meaning the ones with money to spend? Are homeless Americans living longer? Are American soldiers in Iraq living longer? Are the MILLIONS of impoverished, uninsured Americans living longer? You get the drift. And furthermore, "identity politics" assumes one's identity is their choice and is being directed in such a way for gain. I agree there are those who choose a "political correctness" in order to wield power, and that is wrong, which is exactly why I said I will use the term here, but let's be honest that it is not always the case that identity is directed or wielded for power and gain.
When I say we need to be vigilant for everyone, every one of us, it is because I have observed identity politics in its worst forms, the kind of behavior that begs to be confronted. One of the most recent, bizarre incidents was on New Year's Day in New York City during the giant fundraiser marathon reading for St. Mark's Poetry Project. This incident became one of identity politics inverted. Poet Eileen Myles was making her way through the enormous crowds, handing out copies of what she was about to read, talking to us the whole time, explaining how this was only a fragment of a much larger work. About halfway to the microphone a man in the audience yelled at her, claiming that when she was director of the Poetry Project (which, by the way, was over 20 years ago!) that he had asked her for a reading, and that instead of giving him a reading she had ranted at him about how much she hated men. It caused a reflexive "SHUT THE FUCK UP ASSHOLE" from some of us, but he continued to yell at her. She marched the rest of her way to the microphone and yelled back at him, "THAT'S AN OUTRIGHT LIE AND YOU KNOW IT!" And of course anyone who knows Eileen Myles knows damn well that she is one of the last people we can accuse of being politically correct, and furthermore that she has many male friends. If you read her work those men are celebrated all over her pages. But here we were, faced with a disgruntled, anonymous man USING identity politics to accuse someone of using identity politics who hadn't used identity politics in the first place! Never mind the fact that maybe his poems sucked, NO NO, it HAD to be BECAUSE SHE WAS A MAN-HATING LESBIAN that he didn't get that reading 20 fucking years ago! It's outrageous, this kind of invented slander! This cowardly, vicious attack is a perfect example of how vulnerable women can be as we march into "post identity politics," making way for a tremendous backlash. And the term "post identity politics" is the biggest insult of all, claiming that it was just a phase we were all going through, this sissy idea of being inclusive!
Identity politics! I despise the term! The resulting complacency of its dismissive assumptions are similar to what my grandfather dealt with years ago when he warned that the union at the factory where he worked was too lazy, too eager to make concessions, and would falter. He was right, and it did, and many lives disintegrated into poverty as a result. Just because space was made for writers to be more inclusive for gender, race, etc., does NOT mean we can afford to ignore the possibility that we won't slip back into a time of inequality. In fact Spahr, Young, and others feel we have already arrived at this backslide. And ALSO, and maybe MOST IMPORTANTLY, is that we be vigilant with one another so that ALL are to be included, including those of privilege who have come from power. It's the intelligent decision, I believe, to have TOTAL inclusion! This also means (in my opinion) helping and/or inviting those who have been abusive with their power and privilege in the past to be reformed in the larger sense of equality.
In other words, what is our goal? Do we want everyone to feel that their class and gender and race are not obstacles to fitting into the arts? Or are we more interested in damning others their entire lives for fucking up, taking some asshole statement they made and throwing in their face decade after decade? Because if we do, who at that point is abusing their power?
We must be brave and speak up, or nothing will change, except maybe that things will get worse. A few years ago Kyle Conner published some of my poems in his magazine POETRY BROADSIDE. It was nice to be published, as we all know it's exciting to see our poems in print, and that someone cared enough about our poems to take the time it takes to publish them. But when he handed me the freshly printed magazine it only took me a few seconds to realize that there were no women included. Not one. It was impossible to not notice, or at least I had thought so, and I said so to him right away. And he seemed quite honestly puzzled, as though it hadn't occurred to him. What is my point with this? Ever since reading Spahr and Young's essay "Numbers Trouble" I have been calculating my own personal set of numbers. In doing so I was only interested in listing poets whose work I am blown away by, poets whose work changes me, stays with me, poetry to live with, live by, poetry I cannot live without. More than half my list of poets turned out to be women, no surprise to me. Many of the strongest minds and voices, many of the most courageous poets alive today, as far as I'm concerned, are women.
Am I saying there MUST be women in all magazines? I'm saying I don't see HOW THERE CANNOT BE, that's what I'm saying! How is it possible to overlook the women? We would have to be deaf and blind to not notice them, and it's not just their poems, but their ideas about the work! For instance, I LOVE what Kaia Sand said in a talk she and Carol Mirakove had a few years ago, information that opens the way to essential, real power (posted here):
"I chose the term 'avant-garde' over 'experimental' because 'avant-garde' implies the social side of the work. There are a lot of ways to pitch in with an avant-garde movement--this is an inclusive frame. So many artists have shown us that if you want to extend what's possible, you need to build the ground to walk on--and that's collective action."
When Tim Peterson invited me to coedit EOAGH: Queering Language with kari edwards, Paul Foster Johnson, Erica Kaufman, Jack Kimball and Stacy Szymaszek, you better believe I said YES! A chance to work with some of my favorite living poets to bring together the queer avant-garde was an amazing opportunity! During our time of editing together I attended a party, and I was talking about the project with some friends. A rather drunk grad student (I have no idea who he was and frankly I don't care to know him) overheard the conversation and interrupted by using the term "identity politics" several times, "DON'T YOU THINK THIS WORLD HAS HAD ENOUGH OF IDENTITY POLITICS!" Alcohol is not an excuse, in fact in my opinion it's merely the grease that loosens the truth from people. But it was the very kind of conversation where I did NOT want to come off as politically correct and shut him up and shut him down, but at the same time wanted to make it clear that the value of the anthology was not to separate these poets to say we were better, or deserved more, but to say WE ARE HERE, this avant-garde. Much in the same way EVERYTHING I HAVE IS BLUE was an anthology of working class queer writers to say to the greater queer writing community WE ARE HERE, this avant-garde. At the Philadelphia launch of EOAGH: Queering Language we were fortunate to have Kevin Killian in town for the event. At the microphone he thanked Tim Peterson by saying to him, "You have made the dreams of a middle age man come true because when I was young, we who were gay and lesbian, we were frightened and suspicious of the avant-garde because some members of the avant-garde despised and held in contempt those of us who were gay. And I always hoped there would be a place where we could all come together, and maybe this is it now."
We must work hard with one another to take seriously, and to live up to the equality and fairness we know we all deserve. But sometimes there is a recklessness, a hidden hostility ready to spring on anyone who bears their identity.
Making room for the unheard voices is essential, IT'S VITAL as a matter of fact, for poetry, for going for a loaf of bread down the street, for going for a job, for LIVING! It's not to be taken lightly, and it's not to be wielded for power except the power to make room. Once it's used to humiliate or slander, the generosity it once instilled is negated.
None of us can afford the generous spaces that have been created for us to be done away with. I IMPLORE some of the other writers who have been responding to Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's essay to take a breath and please consider some of what I've said. After reading the opponents to Spahr and Young it's clear to me that some people want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Can we really afford that?
Many thanks to Elizabeth Treadwell for making this additional forum available, and for inviting me to participate.
Delirious Hem wishes to acknowledge that this is the second version of CAConrad's piece to appear in this space. Thank you for your understanding.