Identity/Aesthetics

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wanted to post the three comments from below to continue the discussion here. please feel free to comment.

comments in response to this:

“attention to all esteemed poetry prize judges of color: you are supposed to choose writers of color as the winner of the prize you are judging! hello & WTF! jk

Barbara commented:

Oy! Yeah it’s that thing: not all authors of color are activists, widening the opening into the literary world for their respective communities. OR perhaps they try very hard not to appear as if they are using their positions for the benefit of their “friends,” don’t want to appear “small,” and here I use “small” the way Jamaica Kincaid does in A SMALL PLACE.

csperez said:

haha i am too much of a young’in to remember foetry.com 😉indeed, not all authors of color are activists. soon, the cave canen or kundiman or andres montoya prize will be awarded to a white poet! jk. yeah, it’s a tough position for a judge of color. damned if you do damned if you dont.

AND TODAY, Pam commented:

well, “damned if you do damned if you don’t” is right.

though I don’t think National Poetry Series can really be fairly compared to Cave Canem or Kundiman or Andres Montoya. these orgs/contests are explicit in their charter to promote writers in their respective communities and are therefore activist by definition. the expectations of NPS are different. ideally the playing field there should be wide open, separate from allegiances to identity-based communities. in reality of course, the field is never totally open and other allegiances (collegial, style- or aesthetics-based) come into play. historically each judge/press supposedly represents a particular “aesthetic,” and the resulting selection supposedly represents the “aesthetic diversity” of poetry from that year.

I feel like that last paragraph sets up a problematic dichotomy btwn “identity” and “aesthetic” that I feel genuinely torn about. on the one hand I want there to be spaces for both the activist promotion of writers of color and other minority writers, and the (non-activist? or “purely” artistic?) promotion of various aesthetics, quite possibly some historically under-represented aesthetics. but under our current institutional systems it seems like these spaces are necessarily divided and separate. on the other hand, I hate going back to that infamous 1980s Silliman comment (which he’s since revised and redacted in various forms) where he declares a dichotomy between identity-based, narrative lyrical writing (read: non-aesthetic poetry) vs. formally innovative, non-narrative non-lyrical writing (read: aesthetic poetry). naturally there are tons of writers associated with CC, K, AM and elsewhere who defy this categorical exclusion. and now that we’ve all read Tim Yu’s book we also see that aesthetic schools can be just as identity-based in their po-politics self-positioning as ethnic communities.

I’m glad to see Martinez and Windholz reclaiming the narrative lyric as a vehicle for both aesthetics and activism. no movement that has the political in mind can possibly reject the content of “the stories that need to be told” and hope to stay relevant to the world.

so I’m thinking about Barbara’s comment to the post below, and I’m thinking yeah, the question really is about this line between the aesthetic and the political. if students are reading radical poetry purely on the basis of form, then it’s probably the fault of the instructor who isn’t framing/contextualizing the text effectively. on the other hand, some people will try to divorce form from content (either explicit content or other implied expressions of content) no matter what, and so you will always get monstrous hybrids like neo-con poets inspired by Language writing or businessmen aping Audre Lorde.

but, but, but… I still believe/want there to be spaces for “pure” aesthetic experience, apart from allegiances to a particular school or community. political formations are dependent on the group, but I want writing & reading (some writing & reading at least) to be dependent on the individual. ergo narrative lyric.

*the reference to “narrative lyric” comes from this post.

b’s comment to that post:

Hm, still sorting this out and may blog about it soon if I have time. Reminds me of something Joel Brouwer wrote on the Poetry Foundation blog – in a comment not a post – about how some/many of his students are attracted to language poetry and avant garde poetries, for purely aesthetic reasons, and not for political reasons. So that’s one big thing: the disconnect *manufactured* btwn poetic and political concerns. I tend to wonder though, if this means avant garde poetries are being taught in a flawed way (i.e. educators stripping the poetries of their political significance) OR if it’s the students doing this in their reception of the texts.

Now, in terms of that “narrative lyric,” I have a question: does that meandering Billy Collins style poetry that always starts with the I, meandering through some mundane thing and into a profound realization – does this qualify as the narrative lyric? If so, then I think of this more of a mainstream poetry phenomenon rather than something predominantly poet of color.

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