The 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference brought together many major American poets of that era. Imagine New American Poetry: 1945-1960 come to drunken life. And just like that famed anthology, the Berkeley conference featured mostly white poets.
Note: the word “conference” comes from the Latin root, “confere,” which means “expensive group hug.”
The roster for the 2015 Berkeley Poetry Conference (commemorating the 50th anniversary) included a multicultural list of very talented poets. However, the organizers made two fatal mistakes: 1) they invited Vanessa Place and 2) they did not invite me.
Place has been performing conceptual poems that traffic in racist and racialized content related to African American experiences. A similar act by another conceptual poet, Kenneth Goldsmith, included performing the text of Michael Brownʻs autopsy.
Note: Some of my best friends are white avant-garde poets.
Many poets were hurt, annoyed, and upset by these conceptual poetic acts. An online petition emerged. Signatures gathered. Opinions penned and shared. The Mongrel Coalition updated their statuses with CAPS LOCKED. AWP disinvited Place. Participants withdrew from the Berkeley Conference. Rumors swirled about online lynch mobs, fascist jackboots, Lorca assassins, and Roque Dalton arsonists. Gringpo hysterically blogged back. Tweets and shades were thrown. Friends were unfriended.
And then—in the haze of all those lit hashtags—the Berkeley Poetry Conference was cancelled. Berkeley is, indeed, just too bizarre.
Note: The outrage over the fact that I was not invited to the original conference was not actually voiced during the melee, but I could feel it in the background, fueling the outrage.
And then my cell rang.
It was one of the surviving members of the original organizing committee. He sounded tired when he said that they are re-envisioning the conference to focus on poets of color of national reputation. Even though I consider myself a poet of anti-national reputation, I accepted the belated invitation. Merci beaucoup, Vanessa Place.
On the flight from Honolulu to Oakland, I fantasized about maximum conference drama: Place, Goldsmith, the Mongrel Coalition, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Cathy Park Hong, and CA Conrad in an epic food fight! Cheeseboard pizza slicing through the Maude Fife room!
I also got to wondering: Why are (some) white (avant-garde) poets so mean?
Many theories have been proposed: white blindness, white appropriation, white entitlement, white possessiveness, white minstrelsy, white theft, white guilt, white desire for authenticity, white anxiety, white violence, white fetish, white envy, white privilege, white supremacy.
I craigsplained my theory years ago in a blog titled, “Why Are White Editors So Mean.” Simple: white poets are so mean because they have never had an anthology of their own, never felt the pure joy of anthological loving.
Poets of color know this love well; we have hundreds of FUBU anthologies. Thereʻs something special about an anthology just for you. Poems, side by side, holding hands in solidarity. You canʻt break the spine of an anthology.
Note: the word anthology comes from the greek word, “anthos,” which means “affordable group hug.”
I even offered to co-edit a future anthology of pure white poetry and poetics, tentatively titled “Manifest Destiny: The Frontier Anthology of White-American Poetry and Poetics.” This was a loving gesture. I wanted to help my BWPFs (best white poet friends), who seemed to be suffering so deeply, and who have become so marginalized.
I blame Obama. First, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco as inaugural poets. Then laureate appointees Natasha Tretheway and Juan Felipe Herrera. Obama’s liberal aesthetic affirmative action policy has trickled down: poets of color have been recipients of recent pulitzers, national book awards, NBCC awards, the Yale, the Whitman, many prestigious fellowships, grants, awards, and residencies. VONA, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, IAIA, and Kundiman all seem to be flourishing.
Universities are even hiring a few poets of color, who are at this moment corrupting students with all kinds of FUBU anthologies! The horror! The humanities!
Note: Don’t stress too much about this because tenure flight moves just as quick as white flight.
Without a doubt, poets of color are in neo-vogue. I say “neo” because we have always been in vogue, because white American poets have always fetishized and (mis)appropriated our aesthetics and racialized subject matter. Africana, orientalism, nativism, primitivism, Pacificism, and Latinidad have all been essential components of white poetry, especially the white avant-garde.
Put another way, the white avant-garde would not exist without us. Poets of color made the white avant-garde possible. Or at least less boring. You’re welcome.
That said, I must ask: Have we created a monster? What do we do when white avant-garde poets bite the poetic hands that they feed on?
Judging from the response, it seems like we are moving towards an aesthetic boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against mean white poets.
Several folks are already engaged in memoir projects that explore what it feels like to divest from white poetry (think about a self-help book titled, A Year Without Reading White Poetry). Other poets privately and publicly boycott certain white poets. Other poets actively seek sanctions against certain mean white poets, challenging institutions who support them.
While these tactics seem too radical to many poets, BDS movements are gaining ground and popularity in other social justice activisms. Many artists now refuse to perform in Israel. Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticant are calling for a boycott of the Dominican Republic. I have divested from eating SPAM. Petitions have become class projects. Blockadia is the new block party. Divestment is the new cool.
To march, protest, delay, disrupt, interrupt, irrupt, pop-up, hack, leak, ally, occupy, bridge, and love are trending poetic acts.
And just as this activism has led to society reconceptualizing what “matters,” it has also led to the symbols of supremacy (such as the confederate flag) coming down. In the poetic realm, symbols of white aesthetic and literary supremacy must be taken down as well.
The racial difference between the 1965 and the 2015 Berkeley Poetry Conferences speaks to the shifting terrain (or, perhaps more accurately, the leveling of the field) that is happening in American poetry. Sadly, there was no real drama at the 2015 conference, just days filled with talking story about and performing race, social justice, pedagogy, community, and avant-garde poetry.
While most white poets I know are anti-racist, supportive of poets of color, and committed to engaging with racialized aesthetics, some white poets continue to act out because they either 1) feel guilty for the long history of white aesthetic supremacy, or 2) feel threatened about losing that supremacy.
Yet some say the BDS movement is not enough; some say, we must forgive.
I want to forgive you, Vanessa and Kenneth, for your racially offensive and morally bereft conceptual poetry—you conceptualize not what you do. I want to forgive you, AWP, for becoming way too big and for hosting the conference in cold places. I want to forgive you, original organizers of the 2015 Berkeley Poetry Conference, for not inviting me in the first place. I want to forgive you, mean white editor, for taking advantage of poets of color in your publishing plantation. I want to forgive you, mean white editors, for forcing poets of color to include glossaries, endless notes and explanations, or cliched cover images for our books. And I even want to forgive you, mean white critics, for every time you told a poet of color that our work didn’t sound ethnic enough or sounded too ethnic or was not experimental enough. I want to forgive you, mean white poets, who have written racist representations of people of color in your poetry and/or for appropriating the aesthetics of Others without acknowledgement. I want to forgive you.
But first, let us confere.