Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Racism of White Gay Poets

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..


  1. "You can't say that about Jericho. Everyone loves him. He's going to be the next Reginald Shepherd."
    This is the worrying line: prescribing for a gay Black poet the direction he will take in terms of orientation, race and poetical direction, making a poet wear an unecessary mantle. Such shows ignorance, sadly, by your friends. Reginald Shepherd would not have welcomed this line at all.

  2. Are you saying that Jericho Brown has been pedastal-ed by certain white poets as a token black gay male poet? It certainly seems that you're saying that.

    Jericho's work -- which is fluid, risky, formally innovative -- is brilliant. Just one white gay male poet's perspective. The stiffness of language that you locate (as if music itself is not ever stiff, or arrested, or paralyzed and paraylizing) -- perhaps it serves the poem? I wouldn't agree with the terms you use, and I would urge you to be more specific and clear.

    Steve, we perpetually disagree about poetics. I think that's healthy. (Though, I think, are poems are more alike than they are unalike). But if the critic is to be useful at all, it is in the capacity s/he has to help artists make better art.

    I think the criticism you levy against Mark Doty's work, too, seems double-mouthed: you praise him for writing autobiographically about homophobia, but dis him for writing about other of his experiences. If it's the content of the poems and not the style you're responding to, aren't you reducing a poet (in fact, dismissing him) in the same ways that homophobic discourse has out-of-hand dismissed queer writers through the ages?

    "Theory of Marriage," for me, shows how two people love each other so much that they would put their bodies through physical stress and pain in order to give each other more pleasure. I think it's about sacrifice: not wealth. But maybe I'm reading content too.

    Perhaps the issue is -- have you considered? -- that you can't identify with Mark Doty's persona because of what you perceive of his class. But that makes you classist, not the other way around.

    Full disclosure: I'm friends with both of the poets you criticize. But I can and do separate my friendship from my art.

    James Allen Hall

  3. Hi James,

    Thanks for writing on my blog. I’m going to enumerate my responses just for my own sense of order. Please don’t see such rhetorical moves as indicative of any defensiveness or curtness.

    1.) I have no doubt that you can separate your life from art. That didn’t cross my mind even once as I read your post. And probably never would. (I can’t say that about most people.)
    2.) I do feel that some white poets are reluctant to offer any criticism of books by people of color. Out of fear of appearing racist. It’s the same reason why white poets ignore certain books altogether.
    3.) For better or worse, I’m always suspicious of art that receives unanimous praise.
    4.) "Stiffness" can be a good thing. (I do think that there are particular moments in Please where the stiffness is not strategic, but more of an accident.) On a somewhat related note, being a baby can be a good thing too, as I stated in my review of Christopher Schmidt’s book. This particular post was meant to be more of a polemic against white gay poets than a critique of Jericho’s work. Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned his name in the post. I went back and forth on it. But decided that it would be disingenuous since those comments (by the white poet) inspired in part the post.
    5.) Middle-class people are OK. Rich people are better.

    P.S. I actually think our poetry and non-fiction projects are more than similar. They’re the same. It creeps me out. ☺