White gay male critics often do not know how to go about reviewing a book by a poet of color. These critics often fall into one of two camps: 1.) avoiding the review out of fear of writing something inadvertently racist. or 2.) praising the book without any reservations out of fear of appearing racist.
I would say that the first happens more regularly, and the second often proves itself useless to the poet of color. Not to mention the art and ethics of literary criticism.
Having been a college teacher for more than a decade in predominantly white areas (Utah, Upstate New York, etc.) I find that my students feel more comfortable talking about sexuality, class, gender, age as opposed to race, which feels dangerous to them. And should be. Self-consciousness isn't a bad thing. Unfortunately, though, my white students invariably either ignore any explicitly racial aspect of a poem. Or when prompted, they lavish gratuitous compliments upon the work, failing to articulate any reservations. They feel that saying something racist could make them look like a bad person. And no one wants to be thought of as a bad person. And most of them aren't bad people. Just in desperate need of education about race. A white teacher can offer that. As long as they don't pat themselves on the back for offering one of two poets of color to read during the course of the semester.
Things can get complicated. How does a white teacher in a predominately white classroom simultaneously protect the writing of students of color while AT THE SAME encourage criticism, often that will be misguided and unintentionally hurtful?
You struggle with it day after day. Self-consciousness isn't a bad thing for white teachers, either.
White gay critics are in some ways, definitely not all, no different. They want to be good and smart and reliable. But sometimes things are said.
It's a strange predicament responsible white gay critics are in. On one level, the publishing industry is mostly white, even in poetry, no matter how much some people like to pretend its beyond politics. White gay critics often feel oppressed as a result of their queerness. Which they are. But these same white gay men often never bother to think about other aspects of their identity. Aspects they may benefit from such as whiteness, attractiveness, economic status, family support, maleness, etc etc.
I am an elitist insomuch as I foolishly believe if I think hard enough I can find the right assessment of a book of poems. Too bad I often find that I'm wrong and when collectively discussing a text, my opinion becomes more nuanced. So: I'm forced somewhat happily, somewhat annoyingly, to change my mind.
But there is a self-consciousness that I find in myself when I read a book by a poet of color. If I am not fond of the book, there is a temptation to want to downplay the negatives. Because of the institutionalized racism in the publishing industry, I think that I could be participating in an act that would silence or hurt other writers of color. Or even the writer of color I'm reviewing. Writers change; why should I stifle that basic human ability? I also rightly fear that I am contributing to the collective oppressive forces of the white poetry publishing industry. My criticism could become an unintentional, but real silencing. Not to mention avoiding the pitfall of falling into the useless trap of White Liberal Guilt.
I cannot subscribe to the insidious romanticizing of gay writers of color. If I hear one more white person use the word courageous in describing a book by a poet of color, I will scream. How condescending to a writer of color! Courage is when someone does something that will have no value to the person, if anything negative value. A book of poetry has immediate value: you are being read.
I don't want to imply that I believe a critic, especially me, has an enormous sense of power. But I do believe that we all contribute to the collective consciousness of The Universe and we have responsibilities to That Constellation.
When talking to other white gay male writers about Jericho Brown's Please, I received a lot of odd responses from other white poets. I liked the book a good deal, but did have some serious reservations about his project such as the occasional stiffness of the language when the book seems to want to be invested in varieties of music. I told a white friend this, and they immediately replied: "You can't say that about Jericho. Everyone loves him. He's going to be the next Reginald Shepherd." Disturbing, but predictable.
I also think that gay white critics self-congratulatory pat themselves on the back when they discover a writer of color they like. The celebration of one poet of color means that they're not racist and then they can ignore any one else different than themselves. Plain and simply, this is aversive racism, choosing not to read certain other people simply because.
There are other other poets of color out there. Ones who even had books come out recently: Rane Arroyo, R. Zamora Linmark, etc etc.
This post doesn't even begin to deal with the intersection between aesthetic and racial identity, and the prejudice that can ensue from both fronts, say, if you're a person of color who doesn't write presumably autobiographical narrative..
New poem in The Cortland Review
5 weeks ago