I often struggle with how I might best use the privilege I possess as a middle-class poet. I’m afforded the platforms of professor and writer, platforms I don’t really utilize to effect change in the world. This might be due to a cultural indoctrination suggesting that poetry is a marginal practice, yet poets such as Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Brenda Hillman, and, more recently, Mark Nowak, Shane McCrae, Jena Osman, and Craig Santos Perez have utilized their privilege and platform to uncover, expose, and counter accepted narratives about living in a declining empire in which our agency as citizens is shrinking. While the government watches us, more and more poets and writers are watching back, documenting the injustices that stain our present moment. We need more of that. I should be doing that.
I’m currently editing this massive anthology with Joshua Marie Wilkinson called The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on the Avant-Garde and Accessibility (heading to an Internet purchasing place near you in 2015 from Nightboat Books). In it, we have roughly 100 original essays discussing the role of accessibility in writing as well as Badiou’s questioning of Empire and recognition. Putting together these essays, especially in light of Carmen’s BR post, I keep returning to a word: responsibility. What responsibility do we have as writers? Do we have a responsibility? To whom? Should we even care about accountability? And accountable to whom? We have this great power: the ability to tell stories. What do we do with it? Do we just recycle the same and call it new?
A few days ago, I went to the movies with some writer friends, including Jackie Wang. We went to see the new Noah Baumbach flick Frances Ha. Here’s the trailer.
So, I really liked the movie in the same way I like Girls or Miranda July. It’s all whimsy and fun. It’s privileged white people toiling under the weight of their trust funded privilege. I like these things because I wish I had them. After the movie, another friend (not Jackie) asked what I thought it of. I said I really enjoyed it (the truth). I might’ve even liked it a lot, but the whole time, as much empathy as Greta Gerwig forced on me with her quirky alien charm, I felt this decisive disconnect: maybe because I’ve never lived in New York or maybe just because her lifestyle (and her friends’ lifestyles) are so far removed from my own. What I love about Baumbach and Wes Anderson and that whole lot is their ability to make us love these weird, neurotic characters. They make it precious. BUT, but, I’ve spent most of my live trying to hide all my weird, all my neurotic, all my strange. Being not white, it isn’t precious. It isn’t cute. It’s a reason for ridicule and cruelty, especially as a kid. Now, in the present tense, depending on your crowd, being a POC gives me a tacit cred. Suddenly, I am cute now. I am precious now. I work towards it, depending – again – on the crowd.
That was a long side track. When asked about Frances Ha, I said I liked it. I called it precious, derogatorily, but maybe I used that sarcastic tone to earn cool points – who knows? I’m a mess these days, I lack logic – because the truth of it is: I love precious. I love cuteness. And then I said, The movie was kind of white. Again, that wasn’t an insult. Being the most innocuous of the POC possibilities and with no small amount of shame associated with my otherness, I spent the bulk of my childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood trying to white-ifying myself, learning what the Other does and imitating (a total failure, I might add). And when I don’t fit in: I allow myself to become a fetish object. I work towards preciousness, cuteness, objectify me, baby.
I had a partner for a while who said the main reason I’ve gotten published is so indie presses and journals can get POC – even better, WOC – cred. Now that’s a burn I’ve internalized. Whereas I can logically think, No, I deserved those publications, part of me still worries. Am I being used?
One of my first conversations with Christian Lorentzen went like this:
CL: So [Josh] Cohen says you got a PEN award.
LH: Yeah, I got it for not being white. Please don’t put that in print.
CL: Beyond the Pale. Get it?
The PEN award used to be called “Beyond Margins.” Now, it’s been renamed “PEN / Open Books Award.”
My friend got upset that I called the film white. But it was. Set in New York and all white people. Sometimes, I don’t notice, except that I thought the whole film was about the different layers of privilege. Greta Gerwig’s character repeatedly complained about her lack of money. And then her roommate said something like: You’re not poor. There are people out there who are really poor and you’re not one of them.
I’m middle class. Technically speaking. CGS and I hanging out in my living room joking/not joking about our shared white boy fetish.
At Notre Dame, I received a “University Fellowship.” It used to be called “Minority Fellowship.”
This is my issue, I know it, this perpetual fear of inadequacy. I need to prove myself over and over again.
My father (throughout my life, including the present tense): In order to gain any white person’s respect, you have to be better than them. Otherwise, no one will ever respect you.
This desire to at once be outside and in. A want for unobtrusivity – please don’t notice me, I’m just like you, I swear – and obtrusivity. In conversation, I will wait for others to talk, no matter how long it takes them to monologue. I find it hard to make space, maybe because it’s because I’m small.
Jackie Wang and I upset at not taking up more space. We talk about it, two small WOCs. Two small WOCs with really big voices, hushing up already.
Or, maybe it’s because the privilege CGS talks about is still undercut with all those other intersectional oppressions.
Oh no, it’s another fucking post about race and gender and class. Doesn’t Lily Hoang realize we’re post all that? No, no I don’t. Ok, let me go try my best to hide against the wallpaper now. Do you see me? I’m not here.