Sunday, September 6, 2015

Favorite Spanish Dishes

New po-biz controversy on the book of faces this weekend. It's a rather mild affair so far, I'm guessing, because of the holiday. By Monday, maybe this small story, that had it broke mid-week would cause a flurry of righteous indignation, will be more of a footnote than a headline. We'll see.

In any case, my take on it is that it's complicated. When I posted on FB that I find it "interesting" (inadequate word, I know) I had two responses--the first simply asked a question that I took as rhetorical, implying that it is not at all interesting. The second response asked if its potential for interest outweighed its offensiveness.

I haven't made further comment on FB because that forum is too easily given over to petty fighting that is less about the issue at hand and more about "winning" and garnering "likes." At least that's been my experience. And if it doesn't start that way, that's how it usually ends.

So, I'd say that it is obviously interesting for a LOT of reasons, not all of which I'll unpack here. The fact that it's interesting is attested to by the FB posts I've been seeing in my feed, almost all of which express what is, at this point, mild outrage that a white man would dare publish a poem using a pseudonym that implies he is of Chinese heritage. This is offensive, they say. How could he? WTF!? That is NOT okay. And so on.

It is also interesting that the vast majority of FB commenters and posters find that the ONLY interesting thing about the whole situation is that it's supposedly offensive. I'd offer here that what is most interesting about something is almost never whether or how offensive something is. It's very popular these days to dismiss potentially valuable sites of discussion, of entry points into intellectually valuable discourse by saying that one finds it offensive. What does offensive mean, really? It means "I don't like this." It is not a neutral term, not a subjective term--it carries a tinge of the tarnished, of the shameful, shades of meaning that intimate one who does not find offense at this or that is not only not one of the in group, but is somehow an enemy of all that is right and proper, and as such, is also an offensive person, an oppressive person.

This sort of logic is employed by Scientologists too.

The fact is, though, that something may be offensive without being oppressive. I am offended by a few things, but none of them (that I can think of at the moment) are particularly oppressive. The conflation of these terms can cause a lot of confusion. Not liking something is not the same as something causing you harm.


In the BAP case currently being discussed, what I find offensive, at least slightly, is the poet's slightly crass, slightly smug, self-congratulatory and accompanied with a little wink and smile contributor's note. It's as if he is saying "Haha, politically correct literary gatekeepers, I got one over on you!" This is, I believe more childish than patently offensive, but I see how it may offend some. The guy's kind of an asshole. I get that.

But is doing what he did--writing a poem under an ethnically-identified pseudonym and submitting said poem and having poem published in a literary journal--is THAT offensive? If so, I'm not seeing exactly how so. Pseudonyms and heteronyms and the like are nothing new. The "crime" here is that he is donning "yellow face" or masquerading as something he is not. I'm not sure that's what's going on here, though.

I was educated in a fairly enlightened liberal environment that encouraged claiming one's identity. Your identity is what you decide it is and to question that is at best crass, and at worst, unacceptable. The recent Rachel Dolezal controversy has given the lie to that notion, however. It apparently IS important to claim an identity--up to a point. I don't believe that this poet, this white male poet, was trying to "authentically" (whatever that means) claim a Chinese or Chinese-American identity. I think he was playing a parlor game. Is that crass? Perhaps. Is it offensive? To some. Does it do any real damage, cause any harm to anybody anywhere? I'm not inclined to believe so. If anything, it's cast a harsh spotlight on this kind of maneuver and engendered some discussion. On social media, however, the discussion so far (now only a day or so old) is almost entirely one-sided. This isn't the kind of discussion I want to have.

It should be a suprise (or no suprise) that most of this outrage is coming from career academics or people somehow engaged in academic pursuits or who have been so at some point in their lives, and who are, apparently, concerned about poetry. Most of these people have taught rhetoric or freshman composition or have at least taken these classes which are supposed to encourage critical thinking, careful examination of issues, and thoughtful discourse. So far, and it's still early, I'm not seeing much of that here.


Of course there are several attendant issues I haven't even touched here. If the poet under fire is guilty of something--being offensive, being oppressive, or simply being a douchebag--are series editor David Lehman, and this year's editor Sherman Alexie, equally culpable? If the contributor's note mentioned nothing of the pseudonymous nature of the work would this be an issue at all? If not, then isn't the real offense here the claiming responsibility for the "scam"?

One could also discuss our current culture's obsessiveness about "keeping it real." First we're told that we can claim an identity. The other side of this is we should "keep it real." This is especially true in popular music and poetry. Why, in this late age, is this such an important concern?


Finally, I know several poets, all POC, who have changed their given anglo names to publish under more "ethnic" names which more accurately portray their personal cultural heritage. How should this be viewed? Is it an offense at all? If so, is it a lesser offense?

This "incident" raises a lot of questions, many of which I think, if discussed by a group of open-minded and respectful individuals, could result in some greater understanding about how we think about literature and identity, among other things. I am not hopeful, though, that this will happen. A lot of poets will continue to take offense. Some will be militant, others merely dismissive or disgusted. A very few folks will call for a more nuanced discussion and they will undoubtedly be shouted down. Those who do call for this discussion will undoubtedly be middle-aged white folks. And the people on the other side will be, largely, middle-aged white folks.

Business as usual.

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