conceptual poetry (thoughts)

by mickharris

Was linked to this today by a brilliant writer I follow on FB:

There’s an amazing conversation continuing around this, and Vanessa Place’s Twitter “art project”, that I’m not going to reproduce. I’m there to listen and learn, because it’s really important.

(side note: AWP did a #sorrynotsorry this morning and removed VP from their committee)


What I am HERE for right now, to speak on, is to ponder the real effectiveness of re-contextualizing whole pieces of work in as much as it relates to our collective identity as white people.

Underneath my distaste and horror and mind-numbing anger, which does stem immediately from the impulse to distance myself from the Vanessa Places and Kenneth Goldsmiths of the world – I am genuinely curious about the need to do the work that these poets do, as I’ve had it, and continue to have it.  The drive to take a whole body of text/piece of art/moment in time and try to dislodge it from its context & present it as something “new”.

note: I’m gonna use “we” from here on out to refer specifically to white people, and by extension white artists.

I understand the hot flashes we get when we think we’re onto something, because I have them.  I understand the need and drive to consume work and visions that seem so much more “vibrant”, “cultural”, “deep” than my own, because we suffer from a distinct lack of acknowledged/codified passion in our own histories.

I am saying here that I understand what drives us to appropriate, to put ourselves on display as the mouthpiece for others’ pain.  That’s a scary thing to admit because it’s going to challenge my politics/work/identity, but it’s true.  I get why we do it.

There’s a creepy, subliminal (yet very painfully obvious need) as the self-imposed overlords of western civilization to legitimize our continued enslavement and institutionalized oppression of millions of “others” by demonstrating that we, too (we “more so”, even) have “FLAVOR”, “SPICE”, “DIVERSITY” and all those lovely fetishistic words the liberals among us use in place of overt racism.  We gotta demonstrate that we’re legitimate, because what if we’re not?  What if this really was a horror and a slaughter and wrong, for so many many years?

I think we’re coming to a place where we’re starting to worry, as a collective white cultural entity, that what we’re putting out is not in balance with what we’re absorbing from other cultures.  We worry that we can’t come up with a positive and soothing answer to the above question.  We are worried finally that it is real, that we are wrong.  We don’t know what to do with this worry or this question.

I think we’re starting to look at our history and our construction of whiteness as lacking in a specific way: how can a “norm” be anything but a contrast to an “other”?  Especially when the other is so “vibrant” and “tantalizing” to us.  The “norm”, the whiteness, is state-sanctioned, hierarchical and institutional (“timeless”, “classic”, “traditional” as we say), but what we’re asking ourselves, panicky and unsure, is WHAT IS IT REALLY?  WHO AM I?

I don’t think we know.  I don’t think we know how to define ourselves as anything other than an opposite, or an “antidote”, to all of this “scary” beautiful culture we’re trying actively to engulf or erase, and so much that we have effectively erased.  I don’t think we know who we are other than a vehicle or a lens (a “father who knows best”).  I think we’ve been oppressors for so long that we’re really anxious that we’ve stuck ourselves here, that we can’t be anything else other than the force that tries to “order” the world.

I think the drive to be a conceptual poet stems from this fear, and I think as we try to kidnap texts and images and works from history to regurgitate them now, what we’re really trying to do is take a step away from our ancestors and make ourselves new.  We’re trying to assert that we are a digital melting pot of lovely cultural mash-ups and nothing matters, anymore, and everything is available.

That we’re doing it in a way that continues the long legacy of silencing and further marginalizing poets/writers/artists/activists of color?

That we’re taking a urinal and putting it in a museum, and STILL calling it subversive?

That we’re positioning ourselves to somehow subvert a narrative that does nothing externally but benefit us in the world?

Well, we don’t want to talk about that.

Real subversion is an offering of an alternative, a flipping of a table so to speak.  A disruption, an uprising.  Taking something and canting it and showing it back to say ‘see, there is another way’.

Conceptual poetry in what Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place are doing is not subversive.  I don’t read these tweets or hear an autopsy report and think from experiencing this work that ‘there is another way for me to be’.  I feel the insurmountable tide of a specific artist’s ego, and my complicity in it, but i do not sense a direction for anything other than a simple acknowledgement of our white anxiety as a hollow echo of our bloodlines, and our choices.

(and to me, this is the work that i’m putting into their ‘art’, into interpreting it for them)

What would be useful to me, on some level, is a call out to a white audience to begin this work, to voice this question of who we are and start a dialogue with each other before we bring it to the table for anyone else to magically solve for us.

If someone walked into your house and said this is mine now, you go live in the backyard and come in and clean it, and let me study you and take all of your family rituals in as my own, and you do this for generations, and then the person’s great-grandchildren come outside and say hey, by the way, do you know who i am because i’m having a really hard time figuring it out, would your response be anything but “you’re an oppressive asshole?”

There’s no work here around how our concept of whiteness can and does actually hurt white people, either. There’s no conversation to be had about how white guilt springs deep from the scary pain that we’re committing wrongs we feel (wrongly or otherwise) powerless to stop.  There is no extended hand to another white person to help begin the conversation so marginalized communities don’t have to. There is no generative thought around making any space to self-examine.

Is it the conceptual poet’s responsibility to provide this?  Not necessarily.

If you’re doing the work that Goldsmith and Place are, though – you bet your ass it is.

If you’re an artist you can make whatever you want.  Sure.  Go ahead.  But don’t be surprised when you get negative reactions.  Don’t be surprised when you’re challenged.

Don’t deliver this shit to the wide world of art and expect it to be received as a revolution.