Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—excerpt from “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats
Every Saturday morning, I sit in workshop at the Loisaida Center, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in a group of poets comprising the spring cycle of the School of Poetic Arts (La SoPA)—a group that includes mothers, fathers, social workers, teachers, visual artists, blue collar workers and nonprofit professionals. We do this in a multipurpose room named after the Nuyorican poet Bimbo Rivas. We’ve read William Butler Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Federico García Lorca, Sekou Sundiata, Allen Ginsberg and Toni Cade Bambara. We wrestle with duende side by side with lineation. One of my workshoppers actually performs his poems in character, with his head wrapped. Persona poems, me imagino.
They know a little bit about America, it’s safe to say. About experimentation. About American literature.
Can I say the same about Janet Maslin?
At this point in the American story, if you are a literary critic, and your platform is The New York Times, and you give your audience a summer reading list, and that list consists exclusively of white authors, then either you are far less well-read than you appear, or you are willfully ignorant, or both. In either case, you certainly should not be reviewing books for The New York Times, or any Times, for that matter. I’m grateful to hear that Maslin had been planning to retire, anyway. Hopefully she can spend some of that extra time reading the Grio’s summer reading list. Maybe she’ll shoot me an email asking for a list of [email protected] who write books. Oh shit! We exist, Janet! Shocking, right?
This is a strange time to be a writer of color in a community of writers and critics here in the United States. I have already written at length about The New York Times and what appears to be a chronic allergy to reviewing books by Latinos. I was inspired to do this after reading Roxane Gay, who wrote a critical breakdown of the same issue for all writers of color. (Hint: none of us fared well in 2011—an Olympiad ago.) We are two of many writer/critics who have been railing against the lack of diversity in American letters. Of course the argument is larger than the New York Times. I think something more insidious has emerged since then: the center knows it cannot hold, and it is fighting us back, trying to push us back to the margins, before Capital L Literature gets sucked into the Yeatsian maelstrom they fear.
Just recently, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) found itself needing to shuck and jive its way out of an embarrassing appointment to its panel proposal review committee: Vanessa Place, a conceptual poet whose Twitter feed consisted of nothing but the racist language and imagery of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, appropriated and posted for a social media audience. She offered no context for this, of course, until AWP kicked her to the curb (thanks to an online petition, and writers of color everywhere began grouping her Twitter feed under lists like, “Privileged White People Shit.” (That’s a joke. But did you believe it?) The claim now is that she wanted the Margaret Mitchell estate to sue her and attempt to “take back” their own racist language. Ay, Vanessa. We appreciate your faux-solidarity, but really: Nah, son.
But wait! Who should come to the rescue of Vanessa Place, but one of our preeminent American poetry critics, Ron Silliman? He compares the mostly non-white signers of the petition to ban Vanessa Place from said committee, to the people (and political apparatuses) who killed Michael Brown, Federico García Lorca, and Roque Dalton:
Are the signers of the petition to the AWP really that different from the police officer who fired at Michael Brown? If so, it is only in degree, not in kind. In signing, they too have wrapped their own fingers around the trigger of that gun. Either you are shooting Lorca or you are not shooting Lorca, setting fire to Roque Dalton or not setting him ablaze.
While Silliman claims solidarity with his own disenfranchised communities, he seems to be forgetting one simple fact: both he and Vanessa Place are alive and free to be as white and privileged as they like, while Michael Brown (and the hundreds of African-American citizens gunned down in the last year) and Federico García Lorca just happen to be dead. Ah! but the police force that shot Brown, the fascist dictatorship that assassinated Lorca, and the death squads that came for Dalton, are now in league with writers of color against the American artistic avant-garde? Against the American left?
Which Party does that make us, Ron? The Tea Party, or the Black Panther Party?
One of the most diverse and important poetry anthologies of the last 25 years was just published on Haymarket Books: The BreakBeat Poets, edited by Nate Marshall, Kevin Coval, and Quraysh Ali Lansana. To celebrate and showcase it, Poetry magazine, and its senior editor Don Share, published work from the book in their April issue. In response, James Campbell of the Times Literary Supplement of London dedicated an entire article to lecturing Poetry, and the hip-hop poets within it, on their use of grammar—an article which the Wall Street Journal helpfully printed here in the United States.
No space in the article was left for linguistic context, or a discussion on formal diversity in post-movement poetics, or an analysis of the book’s well-placed critiques of American poetry—not to mention the inconvenient fact that the content, grammar, and syntax in many of these poems happens to be brilliant:
[…] let me believe I was born to cock back
this chamber, smooth & slick, like true
Charlie. Like I could hear the footsteps of ghosts
misted through the rain as I lower myself
between the sights—& pray
that nothing moves.
—Ocean Vuong, excerpt from “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” anthologized in The BreakBeat Poets
The editors of the anthology itself noted, during a recent panel at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, that the book was critiqued for its lack of gangsterism, and is thus not hip-hop enough. Those critics apparently did not notice the political nature of the poems, or the structural deficiencies of American society examined within them. In that regard, the anthology is more gangster than anyone is willing to admit. Ain’t nothing more gangster than a global capitalist.
We are not yet fully having the diversity conversation in American literature in terms of language, ethnicity, and race. (Yes, I said language, because language is evolving. Do you think that’s the King’s English you’re speaking now?) Why are these conversations not happening? In an era of workshops dedicated to Latino, African-American and Asian-American poets, when writers of color in all genres come to workshop in Miami, when VIDA and organizations like it are routinely counting the numbers of women in print (including women of color), when writers of color are winning major literary awards, editing major publications, nd receiving tenure at American universities in increasing numbers, somehow it’s still okay to pretend that artists and people of color are invisible. An avant-garde white poet still believes it’s okay to post racist words and images out of context and not expect to be challenged by the communities she claims to be in league with. A white critic still believes it’s okay to compare writers of color to fascist dictators and police killers. The editorship at The New York Times still believes it’s perfectly standard to put out an all-white reading list.
Such a homogenized list of American literature is no accident. You cannot be an arbiter of culture (however self-appointed), or a critic, or an educator, and not include writers of color in your reading lists. You simply cannot, unless you are dedicated to the invisibility of entire communities. We’re out here telling the stories of our communities and our selves. We’re out here feeding our imaginations and that of the nation.
Don’t get it twisted. This is no mere battle for column inches or shelf space in the Barnes and Noble. This a civil rights issue. This is an issue of cultural equity. This is an issue of what we want this nation to become. Either writers from every walk are going to speak on every facet of American life, or we’re going to pretend our lives don’t matter.
Four years after Arizona banned Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies program and all the books that came with it, and the systematic ignorance with which the American media and the American literary center treat Puerto Ricans, I can almost agree with Jonathan Marcantoni’s recent call for writers to abandon the Latino label when it comes to their writing. There is ample evidence that we are not wanted here. There is indeed an establishment in place to keep the language of culture and the language of commerce in the same mouths, so they can justify the disappearance of books like The Feast of San Sebastian. And we already know that the appearance of anything less than full American patriotism means that Latin@ authors like Martín Espada (born in Brooklyn), Rudolfo Anaya (born in New Mexico) and Sandra Cisneros (born in Chicago) can be banned from a state school system.
Where I part ways with Jonathan is where he tells me that being a Latino writer simply grants me “access to white people.” I teach white people. I am friends with white people. Some of them even engage me on these topics. Many, I consider allies. I am a Latino writer. I am an American writer. I am a Puerto Rican writer, a Cuban writer, a writer of conscience. I am also fat. I am also from Paterson, New Jersey. I am also a coffee lover and a fan of both the Wu-Tang Clan and Beny Moré. I am all of these things at the same time, and I insist upon my full humanity, every single personality quirk, and every opinion. I was born into several literary traditions and many canons. It’s all mine. And I was born in New Jersey, right here in the United States. This is my home, and my stories will be told. Punto. If anything, the labels I have willingly assumed have chafed many, including other Latin@ writers who would prefer to go about their business, or their activism, quietly. I don’t do quiet.
We are not going anywhere. We’ve raised kids here. Our parents are here. I have two siblings buried here. The New York Times belongs to me. The books are on our shelves already, and they got every accented surname on the planet that ends with a z. Run tell dat. I’m going to write and speak and work with others to build the nation I want to see. That’s my mission.
Down on the Lower East Side, in a neighborhood marked for death and gentrification, we are training writers regardless of their politics or their ethnicity. They’re Latino and Latina. They’re white and black and Latin@ at the same time! (Again. Shocking!) They’re reading and writing and coming up with their own voices. They’re going to be heard. They’re reading you, too. In fact, they already have their summer reading lists. If you don’t know who’s on them, ask somebody, and then forward it to The New York Times.
Aquí estamos, baby. Pa’ que tu sepas.
Rich Villar (@elprofe316) is a poet, essayist and educator originally from Paterson, New Jersey. His debut poetry collection, Comprehending Forever, was a finalist for the 2015 International Latino Book Award. He is a facilitator for the School of Poetic Arts (La SoPA), a community-based writers’ workshop in NYC. He blogs at Literatiboricua.com.