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“The assumption remains, however unexamined, that ‘avant-garde’ poetry is not ‘black’ and that ‘black’ poetry, however singular its ‘voice,’ is not ‘formally innovative.’
Jean-Michel Basquiat. Image: thierry ehrmann
Harryette Mullen wrote in 1996, “The assumption remains, however unexamined, that ‘avant-garde’ poetry is not ‘black’ and that ‘black’ poetry, however singular its ‘voice,’ is not ‘formally innovative.’” Mullen’s own opus was being torn down the middle, with particular writings received as speaking for black female experience and others as examples of formal innovation. She concludes by articulating the stakes of such shallow and myopic divisions: “I hope that my work continues to challenge that deadly distinction between ‘blackness’ and ‘humanity’ – or ‘universality’ – that is still imposed on black human beings.”
In collaboration with scholar Dorothy Wang, author of Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2013), Boston Review has convened a group of poets and scholars to consider the current status of Mullen’s decades-old description. We asked these writers—all publishing in or alongside various contemporary experimental traditions—whether there is now space for and openness to the exploration of aesthetics and race; we asked about tokenism and our allegedly “post-race” era; we asked them to compare public engagement with these ideas in so-called mainstream and avant-garde poetry circles.
These issues are in the air. In April of last year, Simone White wrote on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog:
I had been thinking for a long time about what people mean when they say that U.S. poetry that is not interested in reproducing the familiar (call it what you want: experimental, innovative) is a white practice, a white thing, dominated by white poets and white institutions … I’d been thinking about it as a woman poet who writes poems that could never belong to any tradition but a black tradition.
Cathy Park Hong wrote in Lana Turner of the avant garde’s “delusions of whiteness,” and Daniel Borzutzky, also writing at Harriet, expressed surprise at the overwhelming response to Hong’s essay (“given the similar and equally cogent arguments that have been previously articulated”), linking that receptiveness to “public rage and resistance to the police murders of unarmed black men.” At the University of Montana, Prageeta Sharma and Joanna Klink launched the conference “Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing,” which is now in its second year.
There are many reasons why poets deploy broken forms, leaps, disjunctions, irregular syntax, obfuscated meaning, improvisation, metonymy, and polymorphous subjectivities. But as some of the respondents to this forum underscore, an innovative surface does not make something politically, ethically, or even artistically radical: “certain radicalisms are brands,” writes Erica Hunt. On the other hand, as Mónica de la Torre points out here, identities can be claimed and deployed with similar shallowness. Attempting to understand the relationships of experimental poetic strategies to either institutional structures or individual, embodied lives we cannot simply follow the forms; form is not separable or distinct. The (necessarily temporary) answers have everything to do with history; with how lives are situated; with the relationship between private and public forms; with how experience gets written and to what end. This complicated set of forces is in dynamic play in the work of writers of any color. All of the writers gathered here generously give us a good deal of their own lives and aesthetics in imagining a way forward. It is our hope that readers will meet them here just as openly and searchingly.
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