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2 august 2018

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones recently noted an item from the poetry columns of The Nation. Early in July 2018, The Nation ran an edgy, satirical poem by a writer named Anders Carlson-Wee. "How-To", is written in the imperative mood and in idiosyncratic, non-standard English. It seems to be a set of instructions to beggars about how to get the attention of the philanthropic public – or how to understand why they sometimes fail to get it.

        What they don't know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop
says Carlson-Wee's speaker, and goes on to advise
               If you're crippled don't
flaunt it. Let em think they're good enough
Christians to notice.
About three weeks later, The Nation apologized abjectly for having printed the poem.
When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way
they explained, because the poem
contains disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities.
The poet himself, in an even deeper display of contrition, stated on Twitter that
treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me and I am profoundly regretful. … I am beginning a process of talking to people and reevaluating what it means to make art in this world from a place of privilege.
I've been bothered enough by this incident that I might as well write about it here. My initial response is simply WTF, but that is not really nuanced. Nor do I want to simply register yet another "PC's gone amok" bit of hand-wringing. How to approach things?

I guess a place to start would be Carlson-Wee's own way of putting his problems: "what it means to make art in this world from a place of privilege." I reckon he perceives himself as privileged. I have no way of judging that, and I suppose nobody does. If intersectionality has taught us anything, it's that some days, some ways, you might be privileged, and others not. An NEA webpage tells me that Carlson-Wee "was a professional rollerblader before he studied wilderness survival and started hopping freight trains to see the country," and before he earned an MFA from Vanderbilt. That sounds picturesque but doesn't tell me whether he came to rollerblading, freight trains, and poetry from a childhood in Greyhound waiting rooms or a childhood on a veranda in the Hamptons.

In "How-To," Carlson-Wee assumes a voice presumably not his own – at least, his voice on Twitter sounds a good bit different, so he's assuming a voice in one place or the other. Well, so what. "When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person," said Emily Dickinson. Not only do poets do that kind of supposing – that kind of "appropriating" – every day of their writing lives, but it's the rare individual who doesn't assume twenty different personae before breakfast. We live and acquire language in a welter of cross-fertilizing voices, to the point where any one of us would be hard-pressed to say which is our authentic être-pour-soi and which ain't.

From somewhere, then, Carlson-Wee found an angle to talk about homelessness, begging, color, HIV+ status, disability, and other things that may not (at the moment) be part of his housed, secure, white, HIV-, abled identity. Maybe the poem didn't work. Carlson-Wee now thinks it failed. More puzzlingly, The Nation's editors now think that it isn't "a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization" – it has forfeited this intention because it used non-standard forms and, probably worst of all, used the term "crippled."

How does a poem stop meaning something because people objected to it? You might say that objections make meanings stronger, the stronger they become. The poet said something, but now realizes that he could not really have been saying that, because people were hurt. Did he expect nobody to be hurt? The poem is pretty scathing, on the face of it, towards Christians, but apparently hurting them isn't a problem. It's scathing toward the rich, but the rich we have always with us, and I reckon they ought to be able to take it. It uses the term "crippled," though, and instantly it becomes "blackface," despite its evident sympathies toward the homeless, and its recognition that when all the world's an audience, every identity becomes a performance.

I suppose I should accept the poet's and the editors' mea culpas as every bit as genuine as their (quite opposite) stances of a few weeks back. But you know what I would have liked to see? A standing of one's artistic ground, a statement that "damn, you're hurt by this poem, people get hurt, art is there to focus and intensify the hurt." There are plenty of poems about animals and nature and love and art and summer vacations. If you can't place a provocative poem about social justice in The Freaking Nation, where else are such poems going to appear? And who's going to write them? Only those with certified experience, much as only those who've bought a product are supposed to review it on Amazon? Shouldn't a poet always try to connect with experiences she or he has not had?

In a few weeks, I'm going to read Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" with one of my classes. You may remember this old standby; or, if you don't, you're in for a treat if you click on it: though you will also possibly be confused, possibly outraged, possibly offended. Jonathan Swift was privileged, maybe more so than your typical 21st century poet. He too held a master's degree, from Oxford. He'd climbed the ladder of ecclesiastical preferment to become Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, which was not as Irish a position as it sounds: Swift was Protestant, with an English background and connections, and professionally and socially part of the Anglo "ascendancy," the social stratum that oppressed the great majority of poor Catholic Irish people.

In "A Modest Proposal," Swift reflects on those Catholic Irish, or Papists as he likes to call them. These Popish beggars, "breeders" when they aren't resorting to abortion, are welfare freeloaders "on the parish." This is disparaging language indeed, and if not "ableist" it's a bunch of other "ists" (including at one point unironically anti-Semitic). Yet Swift was able to use that torrent of abusive language, in a classic display of rhetoric, to help its very targets – without backing down and reflecting about what it meant to write from a place of privilege.

I'm not saying that "How-To" is any kind of "Modest Proposal." Just that, if you see an injustice, you might adopt Swift's attitude instead of Carlson-Wee's or The Nation's current attitudes; and that if you create art that expresses your outrage at injustice, you might want to stand by that art.

Carlson-Wee, Anders. "How-To." The Nation, 5 July 2018.