Wednesday, September 23, 2015

more autobiographical nonsense

I began writing seriously (take "seriously" with a grain of salt here, depending on how you define it) rather later than most.
I didn't take a poetry class or start writing poems until I was 26 years old. Lots of millennial poets these days have a couple of books by then.
Anyway, I was quite naive and believed the writing and the poetry world in general was a safe place, free of petty politics and bickering and social climbing. Seriously. I seriously thought that. For real.

One of the thing that interests me about the most recent Po-Kerfuffle is what I will call "identity policing." In a post this week, Cathy Hong commented to the effect that even Asian poets "perform yellowface" because that's what's acceptable. This struck a nerve.

So here I am, sitting in my professor's office, going over a poem I've recently written. At this point in my baby poet development, nobody had ever sat me down to discuss "acceptable" and "unacceptable" subject matter or modes of writerly performance and how race, class, and various other identifiers affected what is and is not "acceptable." Anyway, I don't remember all that much about the poem but it was, for me, a longish piece about growing up as a Mexican-American in mostly white surroundings and the slow realization of difference, and the bewilderment this caused me. Something like that. As I said, this was many years ago and it wasn't a very good poem.

My prof did the usual prof thing--praised some things she liked, helped me wrangle the meter and form (it was for a class on forms), but saved her most serious point for the end of our session.
"Tony," she asked, "What this poem is missing, what it needs, is *anger*. Why don't I see the anger here?" I was seriously confounded, nonplussed. "Come again?"
She went on to explain that a poem about race, about ethnicity, about marginalized identity (whatever that was--I didn't fully understand at the time) must have, as a vital component, anger. Because, you know, black and brown and Asian and Native peoples should be angry. The poem, without anger, no matter how complex the emotions are are, basically, lacks authenticity.

By the way, for those keeping track, this wasn't a white woman telling me this.

I tried my hand at a few more poems of ethnic introspection, and in fact won a prize with one of them (though, really, the only ethnic bits of that poem were the occasional Spanish words and phrases peppered throughout). I soon gave up, though. To quote another poetry friend, Amish Trivedi, I didn't write poems that dealt with race or ethnicity for a simple reason: I didn't feel like it. I mostly still don't.
A couple years later, a dubiously endowed "Distinguished Professor" (yeah, the one whose name I will withhold but who looks like a walrus) told me that my problem was that I was "white identified" and that's (among other things) was keeping me from writing good poems. By this, he meant "Chicano poems" and handed me a book to underscore his point. He passed this book to me, the first and only book of a recently deceased Chicano poet, and said, making prolonged eye contact--"you know what you have to do."

Later that week, I sent in my letter of intent to leave the program

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