This conversation, moderated by Hoa Nguyen, took place on March 29, 2015. Hoa sent out a preliminary list of questions meant to spark the conversation, but ultimately the frankness and depth of the conversation emerged as we realized that we shared many common experiences, concerns, and hopes. –Carmen Giménez Smith
* See PART ONE here.
HOA: Natalie, I wanted to invite you to share what you’re thinking.
NATALIE: Yeah, I don’t– I’m waiting for something to cook my brain here. I mean, I have a lot of trouble with the language and the labels. Even, you know, words like “feminism” or “diversity”.
(? MOCKINGLY): I like diversity.
NATALIE: Yeah, like all that. And “privilege” and– I can appreciate what Metta said because that’s how a lot of the conversations feel to me and I’m really reluctant to– to engage in them because they don’t feel like we’re ever looking for a solution. It’s like we’re more invested in the argument, or as she said, I think very– Expressed what I think you’re either the perpetrator or the victim, in a lot of these conversations. And so it’s tough– It’s tough for me sometimes because I feel like, you know, maybe some of the issues I’m– I’m most concerned with or that I’m struggling the most with are– They don’t fit into those places and so I don’t know. I don’t know that I– that I have anything to broaden the room of this conversation. I just, you know– I guess I’m just noticing that the language is something that I– I kind of butt my head against. It’s something I don’t want to accept and it doesn’t feel like it’s saying the things that are important to me in my art and the community that I want my art to reach.
HOA: I’m wondering how one can imagine– how one can imagine the language being different around the conversation. I’m feeling similarly stuck and I think it comes down to language and this question of audience too, what you just said. I often think about it in terms of context.
CARMEN: Well, I guess maybe part of the context is that here it is, it’s 2015 and we’ve had this conversation. It’s not like– Do you know what I mean? Like, this is something “been there, done that”. I think part of the reason we’re all having this conversation now is because we have been doing a lot of that work that Sarah has talked about in different ways. And so the count is not surprising. Maybe this conversation isn’t surprising either. You know what I mean? Like, maybe the other thing is what do we do from here? Where do we go from here? And I guess one thing that I try to do is put the– put the tools that I’ve learned in the hands of younger people so they can continue doing this kind of work like editing or publishing or what have you as a way of empowering people, and creating gatekeepers– creating gatekeepers for subsequent generations, so– So that– So the complexion, pun intended, of that universe changes a little bit. Are there ways, I guess, Natalie, that you can think of of, like, what’s the utopian world for you? What are the things that concern you?
NATALIE: I mean, I don’t know. I find myself right now in that middle space between my community and academia. And I’m just like– I’d be interested in VIDA right now because of the color count. But before then I didn’t know– I didn’t exactly feel like I was being spoken to in a lot of moments. And I tried getting kind of a little bit more involved in the last year or two, but it wasn’t until, like, the color challenges began to happen that I felt like, “Okay, this is at least part of the conversation that affects part of my community.” And so, you know, again, I don’t– I don’t have a lot of– I don’t have any answers, but I just– I noticed myself being reluctant again to join in to some of the conversations that I feel aren’t taking all of us with the conversation. And again, that’s– I guess that’s the utopian part. That’s possibly the impossible part. But there is a little bit of responsibility, I think, and on our shoulders as– as artists, or as even being able to be counted, to have a small enough number to count. Because I feel like it reflects so much back on other issues and other concerns in our communities, whether those are queer communities or Native communities or people of color communities. Yeah, I didn’t answer your question at all.
CARMEN: Well, I mean, you kind of did because the idea of– of seeing one’s self in the mission of say VIDA or whatever other press or what have you is an important– I mean, I think that’s what Metta was talking about, right? That one of the things we first do when we’re learning how to be writers and coming up is we look for ourselves or we look for who, you know– who can I follow? Who can I, um– Who can teach me? And, obviously some of– Many of our teachers were white. Many of our teachers were male, but we also experienced seeing women of color have different experiences. I was talking to Ruth at Thinking Its Presence at this conference and we were talking about how– And I am going to talk about the academy but I think it should be said generally that how many women of color we know, older women of color, who’ve burnt out or who’ve, like, destroyed their bodies from just working, and working, and working, and working, and trying to do all of this compensatory work, when really I mean, we can’t– I mean, there’s– There’s this sort of double bind there. Like, I– I guess I’m facing it right now is– I’m completely overcommitted. There’s just no way that I can have a satisfying life. It’s just not gonna happen. And why am I doing these things? Well, because I– Because I can, and because there’s so few people who look like me who can. But that sucks. That’s not a way to make a life. That’s also very tangential.
LEE ANN: Yeah, I mean, I know. I have the same kind of overextended overcommitment because I feel like I do have a platform of sorts through the magazine or, you know, through– Or, I teach, but it is — it’s overwhelming at times. I mean, and I guess I– I mean, one of the things I try and do, and maybe this is one of the ways that academia can have an influence, or I hope it does, is, I try to matter-of-factly include just a very richly textured reading list, I mean, every time I teach a course, I mean, so that, you know– And matter-of-factly without making a big deal of it. Or even with the journal, I feel that one can’t get a sense of what writing can do or what art can do without hearing all of the voices and those different textures, both aesthetic and cultural.
NATALIE: Yeah, I think that matter-of-factly point is important because how often do we all get invited to be on a panel someplace and it’s always about race, or it’s always about culture, or it’s always about these new emerging voices of color that are learning to assimilate or– You know there are all these strange words like structures for you to go into. And something I’ve noticed, and this might bounce back. I don’t know if it was Lee. Somebody was talking a little bit about performance. But, you end up going and being that performer. You know, like, when my friend Roger Reeves and I, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths– We’ve been talking about this idea that after readings, with white writers, someone will come up to the writer right next to me or to Roger and say “Great reading,” and then come to us and say “That was a great performance,” or “You performed that well.” And I often get– And I’m not Navajo but I often get like, “Oh, the way you chanted that, that must have, you know, that was like a Navajo chant,” or, “That must be from your–” So it’s just kind of this, this– These structures are set up a lot of times and, I guess this is where academia is probably the most important is because when– When people like Lee, for example, with the press, with the magazine, or with making reading lists textured just because it should be versus “Hey look, I’m going to include– There are some writers–” You know, it’s saying “I read diversely.” You know, there’s that “diverse” word again. But, I think that’s important because a lot of times it’s happening and it’s checking the box. It’s saying, “Hey, we’re diverse. We brought this group in,” or, “Hey, this is– You know, we did our part.” And then that’s when things like tokenism come in. It’s like they won’t need to bring in another native author because I was already there last year and so they’re set for the next year or two in their series. Yeah, and I think just the idea of what is intentional and– and, you know, what is not, or how we kind of set up those structures– It’s important. And I think what would make the biggest difference in academia, because that’s where they seem to be most set and where they need to be shaken up the most in my experience.
BHANU: [REDACTED BY AUTHOR]
METTA: I wonder about this. . . I’ve been thinking about gatekeepers. Carmen said that she’s creating gatekeepers and as I think through this conversation about academia and who gets invited for what, well, there are always kind of obvious reasons that something is labeled as multicultural or identity politics or whatever, right? People are trying to get money from different sources to pay one person or to pay multiple people and they have to reach out to different departments in order to do that work. But my first thought when Carmen said, “This isn’t a life, you know, to live, or something,” my first thought was, “Well, why not?” I understand, of course, the health implications of over-committing ourselves and over-working ourselves. I also see this life as one we’ve been kind of blessed with in order to help ensure that there are spaces for people who are going to come in behind us or who are standing right beside us who don’t have the tools to sustain the spaces. And then I kind of erased that thought, because, you know, there’s something about thinking like that and then thinking about changing a system within a system that you have to be inside of the system to change it that feels so much. . .that just makes me think so much about Audre Lorde’s Master’s Tools. . . We cannot dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools. All of this work that we’re doing, that we’re killing ourselves to do, we’re destroying ourselves simply because we’ve been given the privilege of the platform. . .that is a game. We’re playing someone else’s game and we’re playing the game for them. We’re creating and sustaining writing and performance spaces because a space has been made for us to make space and we feel obligated to keep it going, to do it big, to do it impossibly well. This is why we’re all so overextended. If I think about utopia, which I– You know, I don’t have a– I don’t think there is a thing called utopia– But would a utopia be to really truly re-imagine the world and thus to not re-imagine the world as we have seen it, to not re-imagine the world by simply stepping outside of a box that we’re already in, into a world that already exists? Would utopia be to truly, deeply, slowly, carefully re-imagine the world? I know that it’s painful to do that work. Laborious. It also sounds like it’s painful, Natalie, to have someone come up to you and say, “Good performance,” and they said to someone else, “Good reading.” I personally would love it if someone told me that I gave a good performance because a performance draws people in. A reading does not. A reading creates distance. It feels like you’re in church. We all complain about readings. They’re so boring. That’s why nobody wants to go to them. But everybody wants to go to a performance, right? But we’re so trained to see the word “performance” as being a slight, as being an insult, but it’s not our insult, right? It’s their insult. And we’ve just kind of absorbed it.
NATALIE: It was the Navajo part that I was insulted by. No, I’m just kidding.
NATALIE: They’re all right.
METTA: I always invite people to my readings and feel really bad for them, because I read, you know. And I find myself to be quite boring as a reader. I think I don’t know any readers who are not boring. I just don’t embody the text. I’m just not comfortable being on the stage. I’m not comfortable being in front of people. But back to our earlier points, we have to do some radical undoing of what we’re already doing and some radical undoing of what these structures and these institutions look like. But again that is sacrifice and that is terrifying to do something radical, and to not participate in or play this game that has been constructed for us, no matter what your job is, inside or outside of academia, you’re paid to do someone else’s bidding. It’s very difficult to refuse to do that, to imagine a world in which you don’t have to do that, that your livelihood will not be threatened. Even just in the re-imaginging.
HOA: I’m trying– I’m imagining.
CARMEN: VIDA is complicated for me but I felt like this conversation was important to have and if I was going to be involved in something I was going to keep reminding people that this conversation was important, but I’m also impatient with how polite a lot of this stuff is and how slow it is because I went to graduate school 20 years ago, and it’s not changed that much. People are talking about it, but I don’t know that it’s changed in any organic way. You know, Kenny Goldsmith. And then people had the week and then a poetry blogger basically wrote, “Chill out,” and I feel like that’s where we always end up, you know,, “rein it in”, “quiet down”, “you’re being loud”, and so–
HOA: “You’re overreacting.”
CARMEN: “You’re overreacting.” Such and such– “We published Black Author’s book five years–” Some bullshit. And I guess, how is one proactive? Maybe if we had a chance to communicate first to editors or publishers, or just people in general. How do we get out of this situation where I’m sure that woman of color represent 1%, 2% of what’s going to be published in most magazines, which is no reflection of the American population by any stretch of the imagination.
METTA: No, it’s not. It’s not. And this conversation, as you say, always ends up in this particular place. It doesn’t just end up there. It actually begins there, so for example, the Kenny Goldsmith situation actually began with people saying “Be quiet” and “Why are we giving this guy this platform? Why are we talking about him? The more we talk about him the more popular he becomes and I don’t understand why people are so upset.” Then people had to scream at those folks who were trying to shut them down and kind of humiliate and shame them, and suddenly there was conversation that was being had and then, “Okay, we’ve given you permission to have the conversation. Now let’s shut the door again.” You’re sort of pinging between these two– these two walls, right, that have been presented for you. That chart that Hoa reminded us of, the layers or modes of whiteness/white supremacy, that’s just so wonderful because it really breaks down the various and malleable ways in which white people behave, racially. It seems to me that the only way to get people to change, right, and not to react, but to really change is to make them see who they’re hurting and how they’re hurting, and the fact that they actually are hurting people. I posted the other day on Facebook that it actually hurts us to not see people of color in these lit mags, because I kind of felt like I’ve said everything but that. I’ve screamed, I’ve been not polite, but I’ve tried to be thoughtful. I’ve tried to be eloquent and I’ve tried to be brash and honest. And nothing major changes. Everything is a reaction to something. Five or six years ago I made a public boycott of poets.org because they were once again hosting their 30 poets, 30 days of tweeting event. Out of those 30 people there were about four people of color. They did their Poem-a-Day thing during National Poetry Month; they had no poets of color. And about 20% of the poets that they were sending to our emails were dead white men. And so I just made a public declaration: “I am boycotting poets.org. I just cannot stand it anymore.” And there were some people who were like, “yeah, me too. I’m boycotting them until something changes.” And of course nothing really major changed . They had a few extra people of color tweeting then and a few more living poets of color for poem-a-day, but had their core mission and values changed to reflect the actual diversity of writers writing in the U.S.? Sometimes a reaction to some outburst sparks a reaction & that reaction sparks a change, but I like to give presses and organizations about five years of making change, consistently, to see if they’re actually keeping that up and if they’re increasing the number of people of color they promote. All-in-all, though, this system just needs to be eradicated.
BHANU: [REDACTED BY AUTHOR]
GIOVANNI: But also, there’s a way in which people of color are presented in these publications that make them somewhat easily identifiable like, “Here, you know, this is the flag and this is a person of color.” See, you see it has to be in this sort of obvious way which speaks to a lot of aesthetic problems that I’ve encountered in the past. So while there is a question of inclusion it’s still sort of separate and equal in only poem and only one poet and then you’re right; it does not continue. But then–
METTA: Yeah, it’s a reaction.
LEE ANN: And then there’s this sort of commodifiable performance of race that is taken up, you know, to show that– that there is inclusion happening. Which then becomes problematic because that becomes sort of the– That, I think, has a way of defining then an aesthetic standard for entire racialized or queer communities that this kind of performance– And so you have to write like X who’s sort of the token poet for the aesthetic standard bearer in order to be a this kind of poet that will then be commodified or popularized within the dominant literary community which is horrible.
GIOVANNI: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
BHANU: [REDACTED BY AUTHOR]
METTA: And I think it means that these organizations have to really be critiqued, right? What Eunsong Kim and Don Mee Choi did when they so beautifully called out Poetry Foundation for its sampler of Asian American poetry.
HOA: Yes, that their “listing practices are an admission that whiteness, and white American poetry, is dominant, prevalent, widespread, and canonical.”
METTA: Which is always really so amazingly bold considering how Don Share [editor of Poetry] is on the shoulders of so many young writers of color. They are holding him up as this new example of the generosity of white editors, as the editor who is committed to publishing more writers of color. And I’m like, “Okay, that’s great.” But give him time in that position so that we can see exactly what he’s doing, because right now, for my sense, it feels as if he’s creating a mark for himself, setting up a legacy for himself. And he is becoming this incredibly congratulated editor. But I’d rather give the praise to the Angela K & Don Mee Choi’s and the Mongrel Coalitions; that’s where our praise needs to be focused, on those who have the audacity to critique the white supremacy of publishing; that becomes quite crucial for what it means for us to move forward, what it means for us to form allegiances or alliances. I’m so thrilled by all of these manifestos that are popping up because there’s real critical engagement. And whatever that film is– I think it’s a white dude, right, who’s just like, “I just can’t take it anymore!” Right, we’re just seeing a lot of that now, from writers of color: “I just can’t take it anymore!”.
CARMEN: Yeah, you know what was interesting is, I think it was a few– Not a few months before that happened The Poetry Foundation asked me to help them with a Latino poetry sampler and I actually didn’t think of it being problematic. And it was actually after I saw what those guys did I was like, “Oh, wow, was I complicit in some, you know, fucked up thing?” But, you know, it was a little too late. And I guess– And I mean I understand both sides of it. It’s a kind of in a way a lose-lose situation– Because it’s true that it makes identity this niche which is really problematic because obviously there’s so many different ways, I mean, like– Latinidad is like hugely monolithic and has so many different countries and classes and other race stuff complicit in it and so to kind of [inaudible] monolith of Latino poetry was– It was problematic, I guess, but on the other hand it also allowed for the inclusion of people who aren’t seen by mainstream poets as being poets because they’re not formally rep– You know they wouldn’t necessarily be on the radar of– of The Poetry Foundation.
METTA: But doesn’t that just fall into the whole 1980s issue of white people providing a platform in which people of color can suddenly have a voice?
CARMEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so I guess that was something that I learned. I guess to me maybe it’s– I’m 45 years old. To me that felt very–
It felt very progressive, right? Like, “Wow, that’s impressive that you guys want to actually do something like that.” Whereas, it’s probably outdated for maybe a different generation or people who are feeling differently. I don’t know. I’m– I struggled with it.
NATALIE: Tell them we won’t do it unless they let us spray paint it on The Poetry Foundation building.
So we’re gonna spray paint ’em on there. Ha!
See PART ONE here.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 3 COMING SOON!
Natalie Diaz is the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec. She grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and enrolled in the Gila River Indian Community. After playing professional basketball in Europe, she completed her MFA at Old Dominion University. She won a 2012 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Literature Fellowship, a 2012 Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a 2013 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona where she helps revitalize and teach the Mojave language with the last Elder speakers at Fort Mojave.
Bhanu Kapil lives in Colorado. Her most recent work is Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Book: 2015) — prose accrued/built/sustained through performance and research practices of different kinds.
Sarah Gambito is the author of the poetry collections Delivered (Persea Books) and Matadora (Alice James Books). She is Assistant Professor of English / Director of Creative Writing at Fordham University and co-founder of Kundiman, a non-profit organization serving Asian American writers.
Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Hoa Nguyen studied Poetics at New College of California in San Francisco. With the poet Dale Smith, Nguyen founded Skanky Possum, a poetry journal and book imprint in Austin, TX, their home of 14 years. She is the author of nine books and chapbooks including As Long As Trees Last (Wave, 2012) and Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008 (Wave, 2014). She currently lives in Toronto where she curates a reading series and teaches poetics privately and at Ryerson University.
Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry, the most recent of which, Dandarians, was released by Milkweed Editions in September 2014. Her second volume, Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press), was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and her first book, Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin Books), was a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. Roripaugh is currently a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.
Metta Sáma is Director of Center for Women Writers and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Salem College, where she teaches creative writing. Her latest chapbook is After After/After “Sleeping to Dream”(Nous-Zot Press).
giovanni singleton’s debut poetry collection Ascension, informed by the music and life of Alice Coltrane, received the 81st California Book Award Gold Medal. She is founding editor of nocturnes (re)view of the literary arts, a journal dedicated to work of the African Diaspora and other contested spaces. Her work has appeared in Inquiring Mind, Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Kindergarde: Avant-Garde Poems, Plays, & Stories for Children, Hick Poetics: An Anthology of Contemporary Rural American Poetry and is forthcoming in Volt, What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America, and Best American Experimental Writing. singleton’s writing has also been exhibited in the Smithsonian Institute’s American Jazz Museum, San Francisco’s first Visual Poetry and Performance Festival, and on the building of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, four poetry collections— Milk and Filth, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. Milk and Filth was a finalist for the NBCC Award in Poetry. She is the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award, the 2011 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and a 2011-2012 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Howard Foundation. A CantoMundo Fellow and formerly a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she now teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University, while serving as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press.