The idea for this roundtable discussion originated in last summer’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference where David Tomas Martinez, Natalie Diaz, Roger Reeves, Tarfia Faizullah, and Jamaal May were fellows and where I was on faculty. As I got to know each of these amazing poets, what struck me was not just how different their individual voices were but, despite or maybe because of those differences, how generous they were with each other and with regards to varieties of poetry that they themselves didn’t write. That generosity, that love of difference, that eagerness to engage in robust, uninhibited conversation about poetry in all its manifestations and life in all its rich diversity seemed to me then and seems to be now something unique to these particular poets, to their particular generation.
These poets share what Jamaal May has described as an assimilationist agenda, a desire to bring together and integrate what until recently we have mostly seen in isolation: lyric and narrative modes of expression, “closed” and “open” forms, spoken word poetry and poetry of the page, intellectual range and emotional intensity, engagement with contemporary experience and keen historical awareness. Many of the arguments that beset poets of my generation have been thankfully superseded by a commitment on the part of these poets to regain some of the ground that poetry has lost to other artistic disciplines in the hope of establishing a richer more creatively contentious / inclusive / honest dialogue about equality, race, sex, human decency, and the place of poetry in American culture.
1: BECAUSE I JUST LEARNED HOW TO IDENTIFY THE CONSTELLATION ORION DOESN’T MEAN IT HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN THERE.
Alan Shapiro: For much of my writing life, and certainly throughout the seventies and eighties, the conversation about American poetry has been hampered by a series of false dichotomies: free verse versus traditional verse, closed forms versus open forms, image versus idea, tradition versus individual expressiveness, popular (meaning non-university based) poetry versus “academic” poetry, intellectual skepticism versus sincerity and impulse. One of the more hopeful developments in the past ten years or so has been the emergence of poets of color who despite their different aesthetics share one powerful ambition: to integrate their various ethnic/racial traditions with the literary traditions of English poetry, and to redefine those literary traditions not by simple opposition and resistance, but by engagement and mastery. That is, in your work I see a powerful and productive confrontation with the literary past, which may in the end turn out to be a more durable form of resistance to it. You all seem, each in your own way, to have sought out the excluded middle term between the dichotomies I’ve mentioned above. You seem to treat what for my generation were mutually exclusive alternatives as mutually entailing ones. Is this how you see yourselves? And if so, how has this assimilationist moment in American poetry come about?
Despite your many differences from each other, how do you think you got to this similar place? What happened, not just in poetry but cultural life in general, to make you all possible?
David Tomas Martinez: The rise of Postmodern theory and thinking—techniques such as breaking free of binaries, disproving established dichotomies, and attention to a decentered perspective using fractured voice and polyvocal speakers—are devices that we use regularly because they are just part of the zeitgeist. Closely watch a movie that braids multiple stories together and you’ll have learned a semester’s worth of Postmodern theory. Also, being considered an “other” necessitates a fluidity of identity. As a minority, I have to move in a white world, a world that distinguishes itself from me by my skin, speech patterns, and hellacious swag. As a brown man, a whole closet full of assumptions come with me. Some I have rejected and some I have embraced. For instance, I am pretty heavily tattooed in a black and gray style associated with prison culture, and I knew this would lead some people to have certain assumptions about me, but I didn’t care. Honestly, and this answers the question of assimilationist in part, I have to be who I am, and if some people are going to be offended or put off, oh fucking well. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to be salacious or impudent or arrogant, but I am going to be comfortable in my own skin because the dominant perspective has told each of us participating in this roundtable, at one time or another, that we are not quite right, and I reject such thinking. Every morning I wake up and twirl and marvel at the beauty that is me (albeit with an eye closed so I don’t notice my nalgas are getting bigger). I’m being a bit facetious, but the basic idea is true because we are not arriving at a place of assimilation; we have been here, writing and reading and living, and the dominant perspective is now only beginning to recognize. Because I just learned how to identify the constellation Orion doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been there.
As far as my dealing with the literary past, nothing moves me the way a strong poem can move me, not even the movie Steel Magnolias. That being said, I love Tupac just as much as Shakespeare, but for different reasons, and place value in both of their contributions to our society. This type of embracing of multiple registers of language and various levels of culture floods throughout Hustle. For instance, the book begins with a poem that addresses poetry’s rich history of loving nature. There are poets that know every tree and flower and bird by sight, exhibiting this knowledge in their poetry. I know nothing about nature. I hate camping. What is called a canyon in Hustle is a dusty area along a freeway. I used to walk a giant gutter that ran underneath my neighborhood; we also called that a canyon. Because I know nothing about nature I’m constantly engaging with it, and in that way, engage with all those nature-loving poets. To the point of how it became possible that we all came to a similar place, I think that we are all well-educated people that are not entrenched completely in our own culture. I can say that about each of the members of this roundtable, and you Alan, as well. We are aware of other cultures and comfortably move within the standards of multiple cultures. Now that may be a personality quirk, or a high EQ, or we are all chameleons and sad people. Strike that; we’re poets, so sad is redundant.
Natalie Diaz: I’m with you on the “false dichotomies” wagon, Alan. Often, when I find myself in conversations about poetic traditions, what I realize people mean is, “I need to define you to figure out if I can understand you or should even bother trying to understand you,” or “I need to feel defined myself so I can be recognized as a real writer.” This reliance on poetic tradition troubles me because I see it as the practice of legitimizing a writer because she or he is writing in the vein of a poet who has been claimed by academia as noteworthy or authentic. Most importantly, and most dangerously, in my opinion, this thinking allows us to ignore or marginalize writers whom we don’t “understand” or who don’t subscribe to a “tradition” we recognize. It allows us to keep some writers, such as writers of color, locked out of the academic machine that tends to establish what is “good” writing or what is “legitimate” writing. It can also act as a strange cloning machine. It’s like spending millions of dollars “proving” natives are Asian and came across the Bering Strait when we keep trying to tell you we actually came from this mountain or this lake or this place.
The majority of my engagement with poetic “traditions,” at least in the classical or academic sense, is directly informed by a flipped script. The script I am referring to is the one that defines and teaches us the meanings of “history,” “myth,” and “tradition.” My brain was shaped by the understanding that history was myth—we natives know too well that history is brutal but not necessarily true. And since myth was the word used to refer to and discredit our creation stories and our own versions of the world and our lives, I understood that “myth” was true, was a thing that really happened. “Tradition” was a word used to talk about certain aspects of my culture that were allowed or accepted by white America as definitive of native identity. The characteristics that white America did not want us to keep were called “savage,” instead of “tradition.”
Poetic tradition and poetic history exist the way all history does to me in that it is all myth. Myth became tradition for me and tradition/history became myth. This blur has allowed me to move into any poem or any book and exist in it because I don’t feel left out of any of it. It can all be my truth. This is the real magic of poetry for me, that I read a poem of yours, Alan, from a life I do not know, from a lineage I do not know, from a time I have not been a part of, and I still leave your page with a newness about me that I carry into my own small life. As well, I take what I want and need from it. I feel like I have a right to speak to any poet and to interpret her words the way I need them in my life and poetry.
I was raised in a culture where it is proper etiquette to trace where your story has come from or where you have come from. For me then, I am always in dialogue with who has come before, who has passed this story down to me, even more so than I am in dialogue with those I am speaking directly to. How this translates into my poetry is that I feel I am talking to everybody. I want the energy of what they’ve done but not the rules of what they’ve done. I don’t have the same fights as those who’ve come before me, and in some ways, my fights are eased by their work, and in other ways, my fights are heightened by this new world. I am loyal to my poetic ancestors in terms of respect, in terms of understanding my language has come through them, but I am not loyal to their rules. I cannot be—they are not my rules—those ancestors changed the rules, and I am lucky enough to be writing at their heels.
AS: I’ll wait to comment at length until everyone else has had a chance to but, David, regarding your comment about hating to camp—if I were a Native American, my Indian name would be Hard to Camp With. My wife refers to me as a rugged indoors man.
ND: Alan, maybe, just maybe if you were a Native American, your name might be “Sounds-Like-Wild-Bill-But-Still-Means-White-Boy.”
AS: You got me. If the shoe fits! If I had a shoe line, I’d call it Air Shapiro’s. The ad slogan would be, “If your vertical leap is zero, buy Air Shapiro.”
Regarding rules, though, I don’t think there are any. Rules of thumb, maybe, certain effects following certain choices, but nothing in my experience that’s prescriptive. I view tradition(s) as both pervasive and insufficient, and at its liveliest it inheres in the very arguments about tradition that tradition fosters. A tradition, in other words, is always emergent, never settled, always evolving in ways one can’t predict. In fact, a tradition’s vitality in my view is inversely proportionate to its predictability. Predictability, in other words, is the enemy not only of art but of tradition itself. I grew up, as you all did, in multiple traditions: some Jewish, some mercantile, some Bostonian, some literary, some folk, traditions of pop culture, rock and roll, biblical, Yiddish, and American and British. High cultural influences through college and “low” cultural influences from the streets, not to mention biological traditions and chemical traditions. If any principle governs my life on and off the page it’s the Coleridgean one of bringing the whole soul into activity, getting as much life into the art as I can, as much vitality, as much impurity. As a poet I’m never happier than when I can bring high and low registers of language together in a single poem, when I can put King Kong in conversation with King Lear. I think this mongrel appetite is something we all share, despite our different backgrounds and different ages. Another way to put this would be to say that the enemy of tradition is the traditionalist, the one who wants to “purify” the art, to codify it, or cage it with a bunch of rules.
DTM: Alan, I think you make some very valid points concerning tradition, especially considering the need for “new blood” to keep traditions interesting, though we do have to be careful of exocitizing traditions outside academia’s hull because in that form of mild othering comes an implicit mitigating of significance. For instance, the first word used to describe a poet of color is usually their skin (though I get “ex-gang member”), and this in a way sets apart and distinguishes (ironically) poets of color immediately. That Chican@ Literature is even a category separates it from the main hallway of American poetry. Natalie, I think your points about a smeared idea of myth and history is something all people learn, just to deal with the hypocrisy, at times, of our society, and people of color are just more aware of our society’s hypocrisy because of the inevitable engagement with a history, a person of color must do, just to stay sane in a country that has not been kind to people very similar to you for no other reasons than they are just like you. Also, Alan I’m pretty sure Natalie and I would both rock the Air Shapiros.
Tarfia Faizullah: I want to begin with something you said later, Alan: the notion of never being happier than when you can bring “high and low registers of language together in a single poem.” That to me directly gets at writing between those dichotomies that you named. I grew up in a bilingual, religiously conservative household in West Texas, exposed to everything from Tagore and Nazrul Islam to country music to Nietzsche to the Qur’an to hip hop. I also grew up in a culture that really privileges poetry. When I was in Bangladesh for a year, and people asked what I did, I would say that I wrote poetry. “Sure,” they’d scoff. “We all do. But what do you really do?” they asked. That was a valuable lesson for me—the essential democratic nature of poetry, and how sometimes, in the middle of all of those conversations about dichotomies, or amid reading articles about whether or not poetry matters, we can forget that poetry is available to the illiterate as well, which is part of its power. Elsewhere, writing poetry can get you imprisoned, assassinated.
In that way, writing between those dichotomies wasn’t something I was even aware of until much later when I found myself in those conversations. I found those conversations ultimately baffling—what was everyone fighting about? It’s poetry, isn’t it? Don’t we all just use all the gifts we have at our disposal, and don’t we all just ultimately end up writing what compels us, what doesn’t relent? I love what you said, Alan, about tradition being both pervasive and insufficient—and what you said, Natalie, about your loyalty to your ancestors, but not to their rules. It brings to mind a talk I heard the novelist Elif Shafak give recently—she used a compass as a metaphor to talk about the way she thinks about writing. I loved that—the idea of having a fixed place from which you can draw circles. The word that comes to mind is lineage, which in biology, also refers to a sequence of species thought to evolve from its predecessor. I like that word a lot because it gets at the way tradition is both a fixed snapshot of a moment as well as a place from which to draw wider and wider circles.
There’s been a new word popping up in the creative-writing spheres: agency. I’m still trying to figure out what people mean when they use it, since it doesn’t bear much resemblance to what the word actually means. But I think people mean that they are willing to take hold of what they feel is theirs with regards to their own poems. I think about Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck,” the notion that “these are the materials.” For me, poetry is the language of magic, of spell-casting, of wonder, and poetry has always been a place that can and will bear the weight and nuance of my many vocabularies and lineages. It’s about the arrangement, the approach. The materials are all there.
Roger Reeves: Tarfia, you bring up the word arrangement, and I think that word might be quite useful in thinking about “tradition” and “canon”—to think about tradition as an arrangement of derangements and influences (I am borrowing the phrase an “arrangement of derangements” from Terrance Hayes). What I mean is that one’s personal “tradition” or “canon” is a compilation of influences, writers, styles, senses of sound, wit, intelligence, images, poses, personas, and tones. For instance, I have a few friends that love Ashbery, Keats, and Rilke. How each of these writers deploy what they learn from these poets, the materials of poetry, is quite different. This might be the hidden bounty of poetry. That we might all love Larry Levis, for instance, but how we employ his sense of history, place, image, and the line might be quite different.
I also believe this period of assimilating many different types of aesthetic stances, poses, and dispositions into one poem comes about in my own work because I don’t believe anything should be dismissed as outside of my wheelhouse. I believe whatever makes the best poem should be utilized. Also, these prior aesthetic debates—New Formalism versus Confessional Poetry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry versus Academic Poetry (and Acceptance)—partly come about because of intention rather than attention. When we begin to intend too much for the poem, as opposed to attending to the materials of the poem, the poem loses its ability for surprise, for discovery. Alan, you called it predictability—that which hampers a poem’s ability to gain any flight. And isn’t that why we write poetry: to discover something new (aesthetically, intellectually, politically)?
AS: I think this conversation itself illustrates what you all have been saying. Out of our own materials and inheritances and accidents, we forge our own way. That way never emerges in isolation, but from always being in tension with wherever we are—wherever we’ve been—individually and collectively.
ND: And maybe it is important to think of this as something other than assimilation, which is a loaded word for many of us. It is an erasure of some proportion, sometimes large, sometimes small. Maybe this isn’t so much an assimilationist moment, as what Roger refers to as a refusal to dismiss or be dismissed.
AS: YES, this makes a lot of sense to me. How about Admissible? A moment in which nothing is inadmissible.
2: RAGE ON
AS: As MFA programs have proliferated, the distinction between inside and outside, avant-garde and rear guard, academic and nonacademic poetry has become harder and harder to determine or maintain. Spoken Word poets notwithstanding (and I want to talk about them in a minute), nearly everybody, no matter what their political or poetic stripes, or their aesthetic affiliations, to varying degrees is a member of the establishment. We all teach. We are all members of AWP. We all attend, for the most part, the same writers’ conferences and festivals at which we give talks, and conduct workshops, and if you haven’t done so yet, you all will soon be sitting on panels giving out awards and fellowships. Resistance to the status quo has been an essential part of your lives on and off the page. Now that you’re being recognized by the very institutions and power structures that excluded or discriminated against poets of color who came before you, do you worry about maintaining and cultivating your creative independence and productive rage?
How do you think you yourselves can avoid in twenty years becoming the very establishment that the next generation of innovative writers will need to oppose?
And related to this, what other poets of color your age could you name who should be part of this discussion, whose aesthetic differs from yours but who are truly doing something distinctive and valuable (even if it’s something not to your taste), something not yet accepted by the world that has accepted you?
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