I try to remember what I remember. Like, why do I remember these things I remember, like why I remember a friend of the family telling me not to wear shirts with pockets. Because hey, those are for boys, apparently. I should have asked why, but so few of us are taught that skill when we're young. Mostly, we're told to listen (this reminds me, I want to write about the politics of silence). But this stuff was explored pretty well in the 1970's. & it isn't really what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk about two things I remember fellow poets telling me while I was earning my M.F.A. at Brooklyn College. 1) C.R., on what I think was the first day of class, said she gave up poetry because she found it to be incredibly selfish and instead wanted to concentrate on activism, but then she came back to it. I don't remember why she said she came back to poetry, or how she realized that was what she wanted to do. I could fill in the gaps, but I think I'd only be giving my own reasons. 2) J.C. once told me (while we walked around a somewhat suburban neighborhood of Brooklyn after teaching poetry to high school students) that she thought experimental/avant-garde poets didn't think Langston Hughes was legitimate because he is the voice of a strong black man, telling his story clearly, and loudly. Oh, and people liked him. I remember being resistant at the time. I didn't want to imagine that the poetics I was developing had anything to do with racism. But, now I know she's right. Otherwise we wouldn't have separate books -- the "Norton Anthology of Literature" (very few women, hardly anything queer, and certainly only a few poets who were people of color) & things like "The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry."
Something fishy is going on here.
Another memory: Right when I started to come out I went to a conference about feminism and poetics. I saw Eileen Myles give a talk & she began to complain about Language poetry, but she didn't say the stuff I was used to hearing. Instead she asked a question: "How could an entire movement, who identified themselves with radical politics, who were also writing during the 1980's, never write about AIDS?" I wasn't well versed in Language poetics, but I was shocked. She was right, of course. She said how alone she felt -- writing politically narrative work. There are still people who I talk to who don't want to take Eileen Myles seriously. I'm all about having different tastes, but why was she being discredited so much? Why was there so much animosity, so much venom? I'll take a guess. 1) She identifies as a woman. 2) She is also a lesbian. 3) People fear stories.
Not just any stories, of course. Certain stories. That come from certain people. I begin to think about the Bechdel test. Do you know it? Alison Bechdel (creator of Fun Home) made it and it asks you to find a movie that 1)Has at least two women in it 2) Who talk to each other and 3) About something besides a man. This test has also been applied to race, and pretty much every group who isn't on the white cis-gendered male spectrum (but we could also talk about masculinity narrative there). So, maybe when the avant-garde & experimental poets go on about the importance of "deconstructing language" because hey, "gender is just a construct" (also, I totally get down with this, but seriously, gender is important to some people, and usually seems very important to the guys who tell me this) and so like, we should totally be over language by now, right?
Easy for some to say. What if certain people's stories are not being told in mainstream media, or even in less mainstream locations, such as the poetry scene I've been mentioning here? What if in certain circles slam poetry is not seen as "legitimate" art? The question becomes what is "good art" and "bad art" and why do you think that? Not to say if you just don't like Langston Hughes that you're a racist. It's much more complicated than that -- I don't want to question personal taste, but how taste becomes a movement. How so many people agree to one way of writing is "legitimate" while another is not. What's going on here? So, it is my goal this week to write once a day, focusing in on avant-garde/experimental poetry and politics, and how the work of an activist (which I see as being incredibly present -- think how hard it is to be a social worker, for example) and an artist (being elsewhere & observant, reflective). & of course this is for obvious selfish reasons, as I try to navigate the space between these two things.
Later this week:
1) George Oppen, Lorine Neidecker & the Objectivists
2)1980's, Language Poetry, and Eileen Myles
3) Mac Wellman and play writing as activism, collectives
4) Using art to heal from the state of the world (Lynda Barry)
5) Lisa Jarnot
6) When artists have "bad" politics
7) Wanda Coleman, CA Conrad -- and the importance of being loud
8) Cecilia Vicuna