Journal Article

Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde

by Cathy Park Hong

To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.

To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition. From its early 20th century inception to some of its current strains, American avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise, ignoring major swaths of innovators—namely poets from past African American literary movements—whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms that avant-gardists have usurped without proper acknowledgment. Even today, its most vocal practitioners cling to moldering Eurocentric practices. Even today, avant-garde's most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be "against expression" and "post-identity." James Baldwin wrote that "to be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter conditions forged in history . . . it is clearly at least equally difficult to surmount the delusion of whiteness." The avant-garde's "delusion of whiteness" is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history. The avant-garde's "delusion of whiteness" is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be "post-identity" and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are. But perhaps that is why historically the minority poets' entrance into the avant-garde's arcane little clubs has so often been occluded. We can never laugh it off, take it all in as one sick joke, and truly escape the taint of subjectivity and history. But even in their best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject—and beyond that, the specter of the author's visage—and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless.  

Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions. Of course, I am aware that I am erecting an artificial electric fence between two camps that many argue no longer even exists. Poetry’s current aesthetic styles bear a closer resemblance to an oscillating Venn diagram and there are plenty of indie presses and magazines that have outright and rightly rejected these ossified two poles, not to mention that to argue what is and is not truly avant-garde now, based on say, Peter Burger’s definition of the avant-garde, would be a mind-numbing, self-defeating, and masturbatory exegesis.  But for this forum, I will assume that such a cold war relationship exists (though it’s been a détente for quite a while) and that the poets and schools whom I identify as avant-garde will be those who have been institutionalized as such, and I’ll include upstarts who have trumpeted themselves as the vanguard’s second coming, such as the Conceptual poets. But to return to my initial point, poets of color have always been expected to sit quietly in the backbenches of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry. We’ve been trotted out in the most mindless forms of tokenism for anthologies and conferences, because to have all white faces would be downright embarrassing. For instance, Donald Allen’s classic 1959 and even updated 1982 anthology New American Poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has proclaimed the anthology of avant-garde poetry," includes a grand tally of one minority poet: Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. Tokenism at its most elegant.

 

But I want to pause from this expected bean counting since examples are too endless. I would also argue that the institutions of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry accept poets of color based on how they address race. Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques. But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. Even if racial identity recurs as a motif throughout the works of poets like John Yau, critics and curators of experimental poetry are quick to downplay it or ignore it altogether. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it "wasn't just about race." Such an attitude is found in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith's anthology, "Against Expression," when they included excerpts from M. NourbeSe Philip's brilliant Zong!, which explores the late 18th century British court case where 150 slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship's captain could collect the insurance money. The book is a constraint-based tour-de-force that only uses words found in the original one-page legal document.  Here is how Dworkin and Goldsmith characterize Zong: "the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing." God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form! Thankfully, such "ethical inadequacies" have been disciplined enough to be "in the service" of experimental writing.

Without such formal restrictions, Philip’s Zong! would be in danger of being dismissed as “identity politics,” a term that has turned into quite the bogeyman of a moniker, gathering an assortment of unsavory associations within the last few decades.  To be an identity politics poet is to be anti-intellectual, without literary merit, no complexity, sentimental, manufactured, feminine, niche-focused, woefully out-of-date and therefore woefully unhip, politically light, and deadliest of all, used as bait by market forces’ calculated branding of boutique liberalism. Compare that to Marxist—and often male—poets whose difficult and rigorous poetry may formally critique neoliberalism but is never “just about class” in the way that identity politics poetry is always “just about race,” with little to no aesthetic value.  Such bias abounds in experimental poetry circles, not just among blustering chauvinists like Goldsmith and, most damagingly of all, Marjorie Perloff, but by experimental poets of color who can be their own harshest critics. Here I must speak anecdotally, as it’s persistently turned up in conversation among friends and students, but some of us (and here I use the first person plural loosely) dread the possibility of being tarred as an “identity politics” poet, and perhaps to such a degree that it’s turned into our own detriment: we may overly exercise a form of self-restraint, scraping our writing of explicitly toxic racial matter, so we won’t be exiled to that ghetto.

Marjorie Perloff, preeminent critic and academic gatekeeper of avant-garde poetry, has on numerous occasions shared her distaste for identity politics literature.  Here is an excerpt she wrote for the MLA newsletter:

Under the rubrics of African American, other minorities, and post-colonial a lot of important and exciting novels and poems are surely studied. But what about what is not studied? Suppose a student wants to study James Joyce or Gertrude Stein? Virginia Woolf or T.E. Lawrence or George Orwell? William Faulkner or Frank O’Hara? The literature of World Wars I and II? The Great Depression? The impact of technology on poetry and fiction? Modernism? Existentialism? What of the student who has a passionate interest in her or his literary world—a world that encompasses the digital as well as print culture but does not necessarily differentiate between the writings of one subculture or one theoretical orientation and another?  Where do such prospective students turn?

I found this excerpt in the scholar Dorothy Wang’s excellent book, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry. Wang notices that in this excerpt, Perloff immediately sets up a kind of “us vs. them” opposition, which is of course a favored rhetorical tool used by avant-garde schools in the past from Futurists and Dadaists to Language School poets. Avant-garde manifestos have always assumed a tone of masculine and expansionist militancy, enforcing an aggressive divide-and-conquer framework to grab the reader’s attention. Of course, this “us vs. them” rhetoric can be used to an exhilarating effect when there is a revolutionary legitimacy to that opposition, when “we” are the rabble-rousing outliers and “they” are the hegemonic majority. But Perloff sets up an opposition that’s far more disconcerting: oddly, the hegemony has become the nameless hordes of “African Americans, other minorities, and post-colonials” while “us,” those victimized students who are searching for endangered “true” literature (read as "white") are the outliers (since when has Ulysses taken a nose-dive from the canon’s summit down to the rare-and-hard-to-find-books list?). From her Boston Review essay "Poetry on the Brink" where she lambasts Rita Dove, to countless other instances, Perloff has persistently set up these racially encoded oppositions and the sentiment is always the same: these indistinguishable minority writers with their soft, mediocre poetry and fiction are taking over our literature. How is this advocate of experimental poetry any different from the icon of literary conservatism, Harold Bloom, who once declared that writers like Sherman Alexie are "enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us?" Although Perloff has made these misguided observations for years, no one has taken her to task for it until recently, as if poets in the experimental community, afraid to fall from her good graces, look away as one looks away during Thanksgiving dinner when an aunt might complain how "those people" are driving down the property value of "our neighborhood." 

*

The classic function of the avant-garde has been, according to Renato Poggioli, "not so much . . . an aesthetic fact as a sociological one," interrogating the very role of art as an institution in a bourgeois society and seeking to collapse artistic praxis with daily life.  Echoing this, Charles Bernstein has said, "I care most about poetry that disrupts business as usual, including literary business.  I care most for poetry as dissent, including formal dissent; poetry that makes sounds possible to be heard that are not otherwise articulated."  The spirit of the avant-garde has been revolt, making it all the more baffling that avant-garde poets and their scholars have—except for occasional inclusions—largely ignored major groundbreaking movements like the Black Arts Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. BAM, with its revolutionary zeal inspired by the Black Power movement, sought to upend Western cultural institutions, energize black communities, and develop languages and forms that rejected western-influenced craftsmanship. In her illuminating must-read Renegade Poetics, the scholar and poet Evie Shockley writes, "Black Arts proposed to establish a new set of cultural reference points and standards that centered on ‘the needs and aspirations' of African Americans." Amiri Baraka blended black nationalism with Dadaist linguistic disruption in his poetry and his raconteur misfit persona shared a similar showman's DNA with the likes of Filippo Marinetti, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton. Even BAM's much-criticized separatist agenda, to write exclusively for a black audience, is not so far off from the avant-garde's dictum not to assimilate into the majority, but stand apart. If we are to acknowledge that there are formal choices that define avant-garde poetry such as polyvocality, hybridity, collage, stream-of-conscious writing, and improvisation, these techniques were not only used but were actually first inaugurated by African American writers or they were America's early practitioners. Jean Toomer's Cane, written in 1923, is an uncategorizable cross-genre book that is wide-ranging in its experimentations with fragmentation, stream-of-consciousness, and surrealist wordplay. Before academic words like hybridity and heteroglossia became en vogue, Harlem Renaissance socialist poet Claude McKay—whose work inspired key figures like Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor from the Negritude movement—experimented with Jamaican dialect and code-switching in his collection Constab Ballads. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's visionary work is a pioneering example of conceptual writing. Known for her 1982 posthumously published cross-genre memoir Dictee, she was also a multi-disciplinary artist, dematerializing text through her video montages and performances, inspiring future digital artists with her hyper-textual methods. Many of these poets' reputations have long been battened under the banner of ethnic studies but are rarely regarded as core figures in experimental poetry. So while Dictee is considered as seminal as Tender Buttons among Asian American circles, it's still treated like a fringe classic in the avant-garde canon.

From legendary haunts like Cabaret Voltaire to San Remo and Cedar Tavern, avant-garde schools have fetishized community to mythologize their own genesis. But when I hear certain poets extolling the values of their community today, my reaction is not so different from how I feel a self-conscious, prickling discomfort that there is a boundary drawn between us. Attend a reading at St. Marks Poetry Project or the launch of an online magazine in a Lower East Side gallery and notice that community is still a packed room of white hipsters. Simone White, poet and curator of St. Marks Poetry Project, writes in Harriet: "Let me say again: I am used to being the only black person in the room. . . but the fact is, being used to being the only black person in the room isn't the same thing as thinking that this is a tolerable or reasonable condition . . . more and more, I'm sure that I have to refuse intellectual "community" whose joy is in some way predicated on enjoyment of what is, at best, obliviousness to these harms, or worse, actual celebrations of all-white clubs. It is total bullshit to enjoy being in a social or creative community that is segregated the way poetry is segregated."

So what is a poet of color to do, one who subscribes to Harryette Mullen's definition of innovation as "explorative and interrogative, an open-ended investigation into the possibilities of language?" Shall we continue our headcount of reading venues and anthologies? Shall we politely speak up and beg for more representation, say a few more panels on forgotten subaltern poetry for the next wax museum conference? Shall we again rehearse these mechanical motions under the false diplomacy of inclusivity? A more generous slice please! A little more room! Just a few more faces I can recognize as my own! For too long, white poets have claimed ownership and territorialized "the new" as their own and for too long experimental minority poets have been cast aside as being derivative of their white contemporaries. If tastemakers of poetry like Marjorie Perloff have this fear of a black planet, let us become "enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming" them and wrest control of the wheels of innovation. The most radical writings today are coming from poets of color—writers like writers like Black Took Collective, Rodrigo Toscano, Bhanu Kapil, Tan Lin, M. NourbeSe Philips, Douglas Kearney, Farid Matuk, Monica De La Torre, David Lau, Divya Victor, LaTasha Nevada Diggs, and so many more. The voices have returned (they've never gone anywhere) as a matter of survival, and also as minstrelized, digitalized, theatricalized artifice, speaking in a mélange of offshoots, with multiple entryways and exits through the soaring use of aberrant vernaculars. The form is code-switching: code-switching between languages, between Englishes, between genres, between races, between bodies. As Derek Walcott said, "there is no nation but the imagination," and poets like Kapil create the geopolitical imaginary, building worlds to critique world-building. Conceptual writing is, for all its declarations, pathetically outdated and formulaic in its analog need to bark back incessantly at the original. As Deleuze said, "Why must we be the crocodile imitating the tree trunk? Why can't we be the pink panther? The pink panther imitates nothing; it reproduces nothing, it paints the world its color, pink on pink; this is imperceptible itself, asignifying, making its rupture, its own line of flight." Excessive and expressionist, poets like Ronaldo Wilson, Dawn Lundy Martin and Diggs have created cyborg enunciations out of shredded text, music and lived experiences; they are building a new, dissonant futurism, treating poetry as rank growth as it punctures the dying medium of print via performance, video, or audio recordings, finding inspiration from hip hop that has oddly, so far, been ignored by Poetry. Nicholas Bourriaud, the critic who coined the term "relational aesthetics," said the artwork is the interaction between artist and viewers, as a way to "inhabit the world in a better way." The encounter with poetry needs to change constantly via the internet, via activism and performance, so that poetry can continue to be a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response. But will these poets ever be accepted as the new avant-garde? The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.

Article Information

Publication title: 
Lana Turner
Issue number: 
7
Publication date: 
November 03, 2014

 

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