[this commentary appears in the October 1, 2018 issue of Plume Poetry.]
I’ll confess at the outset that, despite my intense interest in contemporary poetries, the name of Anders Carlson-Wee was utterly unknown to me before the day I saw his excited post on social media celebrating the fact that one of his poems was to be published by The Nation. Had his name been known to me, I would never have predicted that he would shortly be the subject of a yet more excited New York Post headline, “The PC Police Are Ruining Poetry.” AC-W™ was, at least until his current moment of distress, one of the best turned out, most successful product placements of America’s regnant creative writing manufactury: MFA from Vanderbilt, an NEA fellowship under his belt, time served at Breadloaf and Sewanee, appearances in Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, and if not yet in Best American Poetry at least a selection in Best American Non-required Reading, with the crowning achievement for an early career in the mainstream, a contract for a book to appear in 2019 from Norton. You might not expect a poet with that pedigree to be labeled “a mediocre poet” who “wrote a mediocre poem” by the Post, especially given how infrequent the Post’s attention to poetry is in the first place. (One of the odder aspects of this latest firestorm in poetry world is just how many comments simultaneously condemn the condemnations that have greeted AC-W’s Nation language and deride it as being barely, if at all, a poem. “this poem, if that’s what it is,” write our friends at the online Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, for one example.) A Carlson-Wee tweet, immediately retweeted (which was how I came to know of it), recorded his pleasure at the Nation’s acceptance, in the process thanking by name several other writers for their “edits.” I was initially wholly prepared to share in AC-W’s joy. I am a long-time subscriber to The Nation, and though I’ve never submitted a poem to the magazine (for most of my life it didn’t appear their poetry editors were likely to share my aesthetics) I certainly wish no harm to writers who have the good fortune to appear under that aegis.
Then I read the poem.
“If you got hiv, say aids,” it begins, at which point in my first reading I was already pausing to wonder: “How to” what? What is this poem trying to do? Why would anybody carrying the HIV virus and symptom-free want to tell anybody they have AIDS? “How To” is a persona poem, but as we move through the poem we have to ask an increasingly troubling question about just who the character supposed to be speaking is, in part because of questions about who the persona is speaking to. Somebody in this poem is advising homeless people on effective techniques for inveigling money from passersby. But there is no one student receiving this lesson; all is advanced in the conditional to an imagined second person. If you have HIV. If you are a girl. If you are young, or old. If you’re crippled. Clearly “How To” imagines a speaker instructing a general audience of the homeless, but just as clearly its address is in truth to some imagined version of a reading audience, presumably one with little or no experience of homeless people, of any race.
We don’t learn much about this persona. We certainly don’t learn how this character has learned so much about best practices for defrauding pedestrians. But we do know the character is supposed to be African American. We know that because Carlson-Wee has written this monologue in what he supposes to be some version of African American Vernacular English. We know we are not simply reading this into his poem, because AC-W has written a sort of apology in which he describes the language of his poem as “Blackface.” That language is used, then, in the most demeaning of ways. The speaker, for example, is heard advising the listener:
If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs . . .
Given the conditional tense in which we are told “How To,” and the generality of address, what we are faced with is an imagined Black speaker imagining a non-specific audience of the homeless and advising them to exploit disease, disability and sex for the purpose of securing rewards from the passing public.
I’m not sure what passing public AC-W imagined for this poem, but it did in fact secure an initial reward; which shocked me on first reading, because I have known the current poetry editors of The Nation for some years. Steph Burt grew up in the same area I came from, and is somebody I have spoken with often at conferences, a poet critic cited by The New York Times and often spoken of as among America’s leading poetry critics. Carmen Gimenez Smith was a long ago student in my classes at San Jose State University, and I couldn’t help imaging what sort of discussion we might have had in class had this poem appeared in our readings. Whatever my suspicions about The Nation’s poetry policies over time, I was having a hard time understanding how “How To” came to be so honored by my friends.
And they, as have others, seem to have a hard time understanding the situation they have had a hand in creating. The Nation, as represented by its poetry editors, has elected to circulate a poem in which a black speaker is overheard urging the most demeaning and depressing postures upon a supposed group of the homeless. A-CW writes in his apologia that he “intended for this poem to address the invisibility of homelessness,” and while I might remark that homelessness seems far from invisible in AC-W’s Minneapolis, one has to wonder just what mode of visibility this poem is meant to bring to the issues of homelessness in America. Some of AC-W’s defenders in Facebook posts, picking up on the poem’s advice that “It’s about who they believe / they is,” argue that negative responses to the poem are bald misreading’s because the poem is in fact about the larger American society, not about the homeless.
But there’s a striking thing about the majority of the public responses to the controversy that erupted around “How To,” mostly by white writers. Whether they agree that AC-W’s work is a poem or not, many, starting with the poet and the poetry editors, seem incapable of grappling significantly with the workings of race in the poem and its reception. Several have expended more energy denouncing the poem’s critics for their attacks on “supposed racism.” The Dispatches writer complains that “Burt and Giménez Smith, in their pathetic, self-serving apology, so cavalierly throw this young, hapless poet into the shark tank. They publish his poem, then they spin around and accuse him of racism . . ,” passing strange given that the editors’ apology does not in fact call A-CW a racist, or even mention racism. In fact, the editors’ statement stands as a veritable how to on how not to handle situations like this. “As poetry editors, we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received,” the editors begin astonishingly. When has any editor, or any poet, been held responsible for all the ways in which a work is received? This is a peculiar shifting of the attention away from the poem and towards its readers, as is the by now all too familiar apology for any pain caused, any offense taken. AC-W apologizes in the same vein, claiming he could not possibly have foreseen the readings of the poem that have found fault “and the harm it could cause.” Again, no poet could possibly foresee all potential readings of a poem, but it’s not terribly difficult to foresee that a patently and self-admittedly racialized poem might be read racially. (Though several Facebook supporters of AC-W deny with vehemence any possibility of real offense.) Others, seemingly following the poet’s lead, would restrict the question of race to the question of language. “Treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me and I am profoundly regretful,” he writes, though it evidently was not sufficiently horrifying to prevent his going right there. Jennifer Schuessler, writing in The New York Times, reminds readers of earlier White writers who constructed imaginary Black vernaculars in their work, Berryman and Lindsay in particular. Others have mentioned Pound. But the problem is not simply that a White poet attempts Black vernacular; the problem is what the poet does in the process. Phillip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” is one such an attempt, and while I have never found the vernacular of that poem convincing, I have never heard any reader accuse Levine of racism in that poem.
Grace Schulman, The Nation’s poetry editor for more than three decades, also seems incapable of coming to grips with the racial aspects of AC-W’s product and its reception. In an opinion piece published, like Schuessler’s, by The New York Times, she dismisses those comments on social media that raised the specter of racism as a “vicious backlash.” Terming the current editors’ statement a “betrayal” of the poet, and of the magazine’s long traditions of provocation, she berates readers she believes lacking in a certain readerly sophistication, and here we see another tendency common to these attacks on The Nation’s response to attacks on the poem. It seems that the “How To” controversy instantly became a sort of Rorschach blot, read by each controversialist within their own frames of discontent. For Schuessler, the rejections of “How To” parallel recent episodes in which “some white poets have been accused of flip appropriations of black experience and black pain under the guise of postmodern irony and experimentation,” mentioning in particular critiques of Vanessa Place and Kenny Goldsmith, but paying no attention to the appeals to racialism in the works of such mainstream, not at all postmodern poets as Tony Hoagland. For Schulman, the unsubtle complainers about “How To” characterize “the backward and increasingly prevalent idea that the artist is somehow morally responsible for his character’s behavior or voice.” Really? Does anyone for a moment believe that AC-W believes that homeless women should splay their legs on the sidewalk to seduce contributions, that HIV sufferers should pretend to have AIDS to induce guilt giving, or that AC-W personally believes a Black person should give such advice? On the other hand, isn’t it just possible that AC-W believed he was representing Black speech? A reader need not foolishly assign the morality or behavior of a persona to the poet in order to believe the poet has some responsibility for his creation. Nobody believes that Browning was responsible for the death of that “last Duchess” or that he was responsible for the Duke’s morality.
No, the “How To” controversy cannot readily be chalked up to postmodernity, or to the declining abilities of The Nation’s audience to read poetry. This episode is not evidence of an ever-growing mob of the politically correct ruining poetry by attacking a mediocre poem (New York Post) any more than it is a “self-righteous outcry” leveled against a poem that is “is hands down embarrassingly inept, both in its technique and in its obliviousness to current ‘woke’ trends” (Dispatches). No, what this controversy surfaces is the sad fact that America’s poetry communities remain riven by race, that mainstream and outsider alike, postmodern and traditionalist alike, have yet to hear the call of those earlier poets Victor Carstarphen, John Whitehead and Gene Mcfadden, “Wake Up Everybody.”