Essays

Dismantling White Supremacy Among US Poets

Within certain chambers of poetry in the past year, a series of incidents, specifically involving white poets presenting work that has been called out for its callous racism, has led to a great deal of debate on the internet and elsewhere.

Simone White addresses the audience at the January 6, 2016 "White Room" event at The Poetry Project, New York, NY. Seated at table (left to right): Christopher Stackhouse, Cheryl Clarke, Ariel Goldberg, and Mahogany L. Browne (photo by author for Hyperallergic)
Simone White addresses the audience at the January 6, 2016 “White Room” event at the Poetry Project, New York, NY. Seated at table (left to right): Christopher Stackhouse, Cheryl Clarke, Ariel Goldberg, and Mahogany L. Browne (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Within certain chambers of poetry in the past year, a series of incidents, specifically involving white poets presenting work that has been called out for its callous racism, has led to a great deal of debate on the internet and elsewhere.

Three of the most prominent incidents are:

These are hardly the only such incidents of 2015, but they are the ones that have been recently offered up as telling symptoms of a larger problem. The whiteness of these poets is not the only point of the debates, it’s also the fact that each of them attained or has status within the poetry community, whether it be through publication in a major anthology, teaching and speaking it at gigs, or, earning income from poetry-related events and activities. In other words, this is about race, but also status, and the control and awarding of resources.

In September of last year, not long after the story of Hudson’s deception broke, the poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, both white women who have teaching jobs in poetry at Mills College, published a lengthy essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books titled, “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room.” It was clearly intended to garner further conversation within the poetry world around race, status, and resources. The essay mentions the above events, but leaps off primarily from the fact that the vast majority of physical spaces that they and their colleagues visit to hear and share work are peopled largely by white poets.

Spahr and Young focus the bulk of their analysis on higher education, specifically MFAs and PhDs in creative writing. Crunching a couple decades worth of data, they looked for clues as to why, even as the proportion of women and writers of color enrolled in these programs has increased with time, the white room persists. Two of their findings are worth repeating:

  1. In separating out the schools that fully fund MFA students versus those where students must pay or go into to debt to attend, the fully funded programs were noticeably whiter and more male. “In 2013, 21 percent of graduates from debt generator schools identified as women and other than white. At the fully funded programs, that number was only 10 percent.”
  2. And this: “Worth noticing here is how intensely the MFA system resembles a Ponzi scheme.” See the chart below mapping the increase in MFAs being awarded and the number of tenure track jobs available to MFA grads:
Chart 7 from "The Program Era and the Mainly White Room" by Juliana Spahr & Stephanie Young (source)
Chart 7 from “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room” by Juliana Spahr & Stephanie Young (via the Los Angeles Review of Books)

As a brief counterpoint to the mainly white room of creative writing graduate degrees, Spahr and Young offer a cursory look at racially and ethnically specific arts organizations tied to radical political movements in the US during the 1960s and ’70s, such as the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, El Teatro Campesino, the Watts Writers Workshop, and the Nuyorican Poets Café. But they cut off that history rather abruptly by asserting that those movements “got killed in multiple ways” and don’t meaningfully acknowledge the continued existence of some of these spaces.

At the end the essay, they leave off with: “For us, for now, the best we can do is work to understand so that, when we create alternatives to the program, they do not amplify its hierarchies.”

So, now it’s 2016. Certainly the passing of another solstice does not a new landscape make. But when I heard that Simone White, program director at the Poetry Project here in New York, was organizing a live event that would take up Spahr and Young’s essay, I was curious to attend because I feel connected to that space and some of the people who are part of its community.

White invited a number of writers to respond to the essay in writing, including Tisa Bryant, Jen Hofer, Krystal Languell, and Rachel Levitsky. Their contributions were read aloud at the beginning of the event. Following that, there were additional written and unwritten responses from those present in front of the room: Mahogany L. Browne, Cheryl Clarke, Ariel Goldberg, and Christopher Stackhouse, with Simone White participating as well.

Many of the writers and speakers raised two points of contention with Spahr and Young’s overall reasoning: 1) their implication that the white room is the only room, and 2) their implication that everybody wants to be in the white room. While Spahr and Young do briefly note in a couple of spots that some people may simply not want to participate in the white room, they really don’t examine why that’s the case, nor do they do more than briefly mention a couple of spaces they know of in the Bay Area that are not mainly white. In other words, they posit a white room and focus their inquiry almost entirely on the white room, without much looking outward, or in from the outside.

But beyond the arguments with Spahr and Young’s ideas and methodology, what was most interesting to me about the conversation at the Poetry Project were the moments when those invited to contribute and speak made concrete suggestions about how to counteract or simply abstain from the white room.

Here is my attempt to briefly lay out what I heard:

Structural Oppression

“In order to cross the threshold and enjoy whatever intellectual communion on offer, the POC poet-writer has to wrangle with discomfort, alienation, and the bewildering ambiance of elitism, exoticism, and exceptionalism, among many other complexities that at once flatter one’s ego and siphon from one’s spirit, in exchange for education, publication, employment.” —Tisa Bryant, in written contribution to the event 

Structural oppression is Spahr and Young’s jumping-off point, but their analysis, while useful as regards certain aspects of higher education, remains a bit myopic for choosing only to focus there. What structural oppression looks like from a wide-angle lens starts from the ground up, and early on in life. There are dramatically different levels of access to arts education from the very beginning of childhood through adulthood. Moreover, European cultures and those of European descent remain the focus within the vast majority of US arts textbooks, museums, government buildings, cultural centers, etc. Meaning that the stories people are taught from a young age center on white people the vast majority of the time. And, when it comes to the idea of pursuing a life as an artist, economics are a factor at every turn. As Christopher Stackhouse noted: “You have to be able to afford to sit and write a poem.” All of which is to say, myriad structural oppressions are at play long before graduate school would even be an idea in someone’s head.

Interestingly, Stackhouse seemed to offer a point of agreement with one piece of Spahr and Young’s methodology: statistics. “No one wants to look at numbers because poets are above all that … that’s a crock of shit,” he offered. The reality is that while statistics and the collecting of data can be incredibly dubious, there has been power and wide-scale consciousness-raising in the past few years with the publication and widespread sharing of some the more straightforward counting exercises: income inequality, the VIDA count, the Guerilla Girls decades-long arts accounting, Micol Hebron’s Gallery Tally, Kim Drew’s one-tweet count at the Whitney Biennial, to name just a few.

And more recently, when it comes to the question of the white room in New York City, one of the first projects that Arts Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl announced after his appointment was a simple count of the race and gender in the leadership of arts institutions around the city. While he’s made it clear that the only action he’s going to take is to do the count, and that there are no current plans in place to institute policies based on the results, my sense is that the act of counting alone has the potential to drive some organizations to do better at mirroring the population of the city.

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Simone White at the Poetry Project (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Counts can prove particularly useful when focused on leadership because one of the most straightforward ways to begin to tackle structural oppression when it comes to race is to increase the diversity of those in power, i.e to better spread the control of resources. A shift in the race of leadership is not sufficient to end oppression, but it is necessary.

Pretending Aesthetics Are Benign

Stackhouse also offered a number of insights and provocations on aesthetics, speaking about his own ambivalence around becoming a “well-trained poet,” and about “acculturation and training your vocabulary.” In response to his comments, I couldn’t help thinking about areas of the arts that attach terms like “avant-garde” or “experimental” to themselves — about how so many young writers aspire to be “avant-garde” by trying to mirror the behaviors and artistic mannerisms of past, often European, artists. And in arts programs from grade school to grad school, students are actively encouraged to look to “masters” of European art as the models to train themselves to be.

Thankfully, we no longer live in a world where a single dominant art movement is there to ride ahead of or overturn — there are hundreds, if not thousands, of simultaneous styles and progressions within our myriad culture. So what “avant-garde” or “experimental” means to me, when I hear it today, specifically within institutional settings (i.e. from people who have some measure of access to institutional arts in the US), is precisely the opposite of the words’ meanings — the people claiming those titles wish to align themselves with an imaginary dominant art movement. Put another way, it’s an assimilationist desire that many white people themselves are driven by and promote, when there is little left in the art world to assimilate to other than lauding career and money, or “achievement” as it’s more typically described.

As a white woman in the arts, I can attest to having spent time trying to assimilate to this fuzzy fever dream and it’s only in the past few years — as conversations around race, labor, gender, privilege, cultural self-determination, etc., have picked up new steam — that I’ve really begun to understand how much past models of success in the arts are influencing so many artists, inclusive of all races.

But the most pernicious lie beneath “avant-garde” or “experimental” is that some people falsely claim that this designation somehow absolves them of the political context of their work. This is ultimately the kind of maneuver attempted by Kenneth Goldsmith when defending his reading: “I always massage dry texts to transform them into literature, for that it [sic] what they are when I read them.” As if somehow, the work is an entity separate and divorced from any context other than art, as if art itself were a non-political context. This could not be a more flagrant delusion.

Thinking about all this at the event, it seemed to me that there is no simple way out of this rabbit hole of aspirational assimilation — because what are you, what is culture, if so much of artistic production has been driving at assimilation for generations? Trying to find a way out of assimilation, do you look for specificity? Locating an individual’s cultural specificity or claim to a culture is far more complex than looking at their race, class, or genetic material, particularly in the US, with its history of racial genocides, colonialism, mass immigration, and opportunism and exploitation, all of which dramatically alter and generate cultures over time. And what are the implications of specificity beyond race? Today it’s primarily artists of color who are asked, “where are you from?” every time their work is evaluated, whereas white artists are given the assumptive leeway to pursue any path they please. Stackhouse seemed to echo this frustration when he said: “We have to make rooms for individuals.”

Group portrait by Melvin Edwards of (left to right): Bob Rogers, Ishmael Reed, Jayne Cortez, Léon-Gontran Damas, Romare Bearden, Larry Neal; seated: Nikki Giovanni and Evelyn Neal, in New York City, 1969 (source)
Group portrait by Melvin Edwards of (left to right): Bob Rogers, Ishmael Reed, Jayne Cortez, Léon-Gontran Damas, Romare Bearden, Larry Neal; seated: Nikki Giovanni and Evelyn Neal, in New York City, 1969 (image courtesy the New York Public Library, © Melvin Edwards)

All the Other Rooms

“Maybe this place set terms that we don’t want.” —Simone White

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to break into those spaces in that way.” —Mahogany Brown

Why would anyone subject to racism want to keep going to a relentlessly racist space? This question was posed in a variety of ways throughout the night.

People have been walking away from and refusing the white room, the male room, the straight room, the able-bodied room, all the rooms, for a long time. Alternative spaces and radical political movements did not get “killed” in this country. Narratives of failure around radical politics often look at too short a time span, too little of a sweep of history. Tactics can succeed or fail, individuals have most certainly been killed, groupings dispersed or dismantled, conditions altered, opportunities squashed, but that does not equal an erasure or a negation of lasting impact — short-lived successes can serve as long-term inspirations and drivers, as I learned from historian and curator Yasmin Ramírez in her work highlighting the lasting impact of Puerto Rican members of the Art Workers Coalition on the arts landscape of New York City.

I’ve noticed that a number of artists I’ve spoken to of late are strategic about the spaces they choose to step in and out of. Beneath this is a deep questioning of who they share their energy with, which offers the artists some measure of control over when and how they will engage with others.

But of course, the question of the mainly white room seems to be most deeply about the white presumption to have access to every room and to every ear within that room. The culture defines that as the American birthright — you can do anything and go anywhere you please — but reserves access to that mythical birthright to only a few.

The Role of Event Organizers

“Will there be enough time when there is never enough time? Will there be wine?” —Cheryl Clarke, at the Poetry Project

At a much more basic, pragmatic level, Simone White and Mahogany Brown noted that the question of who is present within a given room at a given time, has a great deal to do with the conditions of their life, their work, their families, their location, transport, etc. Can you show up? Do you have to be at work instead? Does it cost money? How much? Will there be child care or do you need to find or hire someone? Will there by food, water, bathrooms? Is the space accessible? Will there be enough space? What kinds of people have attended in the past? How were you treated by them in the past? How much energy do you have? Are you well enough?

A simple thing for event organizers to do would be to ask those questions and think about different people’s experiences of and in their space.

“As for events, there are too many and the purpose of an evening is seldom clear. Some hosts seem to do the hosting in order to be thanked,” Krsytal Languell noted in her written contribution. Her point seems mostly intended for white artists and white-led institutions organizing events, whose audiences consistently end up being primarily white. How about sharing your space, letting other people make use of it on their own terms? How about literally doing less to make room for others — to share the resources you have, or open up the possibility that the resources you are using could be put to use elsewhere? How about slowing down a bit? Don’t grasp so tightly.

And of course, there is the topic of discomfort, specifically the need for white people to accept that they will feel uncomfortable during conversations around race and in spaces that are not majority white. The need for white people to sit quietly with that discomfort has been discussed exhaustively elsewhere, but Stackhouse summarized it eloquently at the event:  “Are you willing to be ignorant … and to do so when it offers you no immediate pleasure?”

Certainly this is not a complete list of everything that could be said on the question of race in arts spaces, but this is some of what I heard from those present and some of what it gave rise to. From what I heard, there are opportunities for change — places to start anyhow, located not in some amorphous and overarching world of the “arts,” but in individual people and specific spaces. 

The live event “White Room” took place at the Poetry Project (131 E 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan) on January 6. 

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