The mediated Western world so disorients us that a conversation addressing our own eroded cognition is itself bound to be emblematic of that erosion. Sight sound and mind are no longer distinct categories easily listed in a Serlingy drawl thanks to the simultaneity that entrenches us and this is fittingly productive as well as restrictive. It is significant in particular when we speak out of and into and towards and away from gendered experiences.
I am writing this in a New Message box in Gmail because it orients me in the task of conveying myself—something I usually choose to do on paper for reasons that are likely obsolete. Regardless of how we write, I’d like to speak to the problem of whom we are even writing for. We write “to” one another all the time, and when I speak of “for” I am referring to the shadow that audience often casts on creative writers. Often on women and women like me, who spoke Spanish before learning English at school.
Walter Benjamin’s oft-cited assertion that “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful” is one with which I am inclined to agree. Still, Benjamin was not beholden to the same kind of audience that I find myself attempting to disregard when I revise my work. I don’t even know if I feel comfortable calling it my “work” or “poetry” because I learned to edit myself within a frame that made certain things rather clear—namely, that the canvas in the literary community remains, with few flights—standard English, white and male.
I don’t think that the consideration of audience is something to eschew entirely, I don’t think that an audience is not there, I think rather that the audience is incomplete. When we write work that is to be workshopped in a formal, academic setting, what do we leave out? What do we add? What do we silence? It might seem like nothing to some, but for a former classmate it meant a great deal. She was told, I remember, during one workshop session, to tone down the “cultural” images in her poem. Cultural? Some words were in Spanish, some images were of her former home in Colombia. The words and images were evidently too styled. She nodded to these suggestions and wrote them in the margins of her paper. We’ve since spoken about that incident, and neither of us appreciated it, though at the time neither of us found a safe space to say so.
I’d like to petition, outside of the important and ever-evolving genre of translation, for not translating Spanish when it materializes in our creative writing, for letting it stand on the page and letting it ring, as it often does, with more tacit style and semantic richness than English. I’d like to petition for Standard English to be taught as an option, not a rule, not as an unsafe space for English language learners (which we all in perpetuity are). I worked briefly as an academic coordinator at a language school in Jackson Heights, and was in charge of administering “speaking interviews” for new students. It was not uncommon to find my diagnostic, “Hello, what is your name?” met with outright nervous weeping. I’d also taught English in West Germany for a brief period, and in that experience the school’s clientele were neither nervous nor sad. The context for learning English there was quite different, and this necessarily corresponds with the real source of unease for the Jackson Heights crowd: the anxiety that linguistic supremacy casts (not singularly) on the Hispanic community and often passes as a proprietary commitment to “speaking well.”
We are continuously swaying in a stream of dubious standards of language—therefore of cognition—that pose as the norm. Learning as we go, our imagination strains to accommodate an alien expediency. Something feels off, and we don’t know how to say it. English itself might not provide an accurate vocabulary— what’s the word for feeling ashamed of your accent, for instance? What’s the word for feeling uncomfortable in a classroom setting?
The Standard English audience feels real, daily, pressing, and not stationary, as you’d imagine. It doesn’t sit and hear you; it follows you around like an ad on a bus. The task of forgetting it is to me crucial to personal freedom and growth as a maker of anything.
It is worth noting that as many of us know, a classist culture around language is not unique to the United States. I lived as an elementary school student in Santiago, Chile. There was no subtlety in assertions by classmates and adults alike—the Spanish my family spoke was far too “equatorial” and “incorrect.” So it is not merely a daily experience in the United States; language is a power structure everywhere. English, however, is a global export, and this is why it merits special attention, thoughtful scrutiny and subversion.
It is unfortunate when rather than arriving at a mental clearing or a space of our own, we find ourselves siphoning our writing through the filters that a formal and mechanized English education commonly endows. We know that what is furthered, as a result of this predictable curriculum is a limited view of the world and of audience. As writers, the audience we tend to apprehend hovering ubiquitously is actually quite small and, again, prescriptive. But if this audience continues its pursuit, I would encourage the creative writer to deliver it to her own context. To a semantic clearing, for instance—a place absent of Euro-centric greenery, laurel and coats of arms: where dominant language can’t bellow over hers, can’t oblige her to italicize. Habla, escribe sin miedo—y si te mandan a callar, mándalos a mirar el mar.
CONNIE MAE OLIVER is founding editor of FEELINGS and lives in New York. Artwork and poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly and The Brooklyn Rail among other publications.