Featured Image Credit: How I Learned My ABCs: F is for Forgotten and Y is Too, 2012
Image Courtesy of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle and Jenkins Johnson Gallery
It was the moment when the moderator was edging ever closer to the table where Marjorie Perloff sat, as he waited, microphone in hand, for the end of her answer to the really very truly last question before lunch, so he could bring the session to a close. It was the moment when everyone in the room was beginning to fidget with the awareness that the café serving lunch would close in twenty minutes. It was the moment when the next thing on the agenda was the workshop I was facilitating, which was where my head already was. It was the moment after I’d asked a question that pointed toward Marjorie Perloff’s selective and uncritical reading of critiques of Kenneth Goldsmith as exclusively about who has the right to speak of whom and in which contexts, the moment after the British writer James Wilkes asked a question about narrow channels versus the expansiveness of works that are more porous and polyvocal. It was the moment Perloff chose to answer Wilkes’ question about a poetics of generosity with the statement that we can’t romanticize the victim. What she said, verbatim—at the tail end of the Q&A following her talk at Where Were We, the ArtWriting Festival in Aarhus, Denmark on December 6, 2015—was this:
“I think the romanticization, where everybody kept calling him the poor child Michael Brown, and they constantly showed photographs of him in the media when he had been about 12 years old. That’s what they do. Many of the pictures you saw, he looks like a little kid, he was a 300-pound huge man. Scary. He was scary, I’m just saying, that way. So that things then turn out to be much more complicated. And so I don’t know what’s happened to poetry, or to poetic discourse, I shouldn’t say to poetry, but to poetic discourse, when we have all over Facebook these sentimental things about the poor sweet child and his poor family. Michael Brown himself had said ‘I wish I had a family.’ He didn’t even—he hadn’t seen his father in years, his mother was on crack, he didn’t have much of a family or much of a life.”
I know this is what she said, verbatim. I wrote down her words as she said them, in simultaneous incredulous disbelief and unsurprised belief at her blatant, predictable racism. I also recorded her talk and the Q&A that followed it, so I know for sure that this is what she said. (I’ve transcribed a larger excerpt contextualizing these comments below; feel free to be in touch if you want a copy of the entire recording—it’s poor sound quality and poor critical thinking and nothing you haven’t heard before if you’ve even halfway followed Perloff’s inexplicable or perhaps all too explicable defense of Kenneth Goldsmith’s work, but I’m willing to share the recording with anyone who wants it.)
These hateful, fearful comments were the only information in Perloff’s talk that was new—if not unfamiliar—to me. That is: the open admission that she finds Michael Brown scary, and that she perceives him as not having had “much of a family or much of a life,” as if that might justify (or at least mitigate) his brutal and entirely unjustifiable murder at the hands of the state and more specifically at the end of the barrel of Darren Wilson’s police-issue gun, or Kenneth Goldsmith’s predatory, self-aggrandizing and dehumanizing appropriation of the autopsy report describing Michael Brown’s dead body. As if Perloff should be the judge of what it is to “have a family” or “have a life,” or as if her standards for families and lives should be universal. As if she has some capacity, or some right, to measure how much this particular Black life mattered. I found these comments horrifying yet illuminating—not because it is a surprise that a white woman should express anti-Black sentiment or should feel threatened by and denigrating of an African-American youth, but because Perloff’s perhaps inadvertent honesty in that moment helped me to understand more clearly the backdrop to her willful insistence on amplifying the voices of white supremacist writers in a moment when, on the one hand, such voices need no amplification, and on the other, it could be considered a political and ethical responsibility to make work that explicitly and purposefully counters white supremacy. These comments provided context for the baffling fact that Perloff could speak about and around the fiasco of Goldsmith’s Michael Brown piece for nearly an hour and a half without even once mentioning the Black Lives Matter movement, and without acknowledging the many substantive critiques of that work that extend far beyond the question of who has a right to speak or write about which bodies—her sole, selective, and irresponsibly partial analysis of the criticism of Goldsmith’s piece. This is in no way an exhaustive cataloguing—there’s so much more—but some of the writings that have been most important to my thinking about racial justice in the poetry community have been written by: Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Mahogany Browne and Black Poets Speak Out (there’s a really helpful compendium and notes at Cultural Front), Daniel Borzutzky, Ken Chen, Don Mee Choi, Cura’s “Fulcrum” issue, Joey De Jesús, Hands Up Don’t Shoot, Cathy Park Hong, Bhanu Kapil, John Keene, Eunsong Kim, Amy King, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Kenji Liu, Farid Matuk, and Heriberto Yépez.
Let me be clear: I believe it is my political and ethical responsibility to counter white supremacy explicitly and purposefully, in my creative work and in my teaching and in my cross-language practice and in my everyday conversations and movements through the world—and I don’t actually make much distinction among those realms, in practice or in poetics. I believe, further, that white supremacy is inextricably and intersectionally bound up with heteropatriarchy and voracious capitalism and the kind of anthropocentric consumer mentality that allows humans with privilege to believe that they are somehow immune from the ecological interconnectedness of all living beings (human, fauna, and flora). These are my beliefs, and I work to enact them in multiple ways in multiple contexts, and I often fail, and I continue through failure, and I don’t seek success but rather I seek accountability, porosity, to encounter what is beyond me, to accompany and be accompanied. These are my beliefs, and yet in the moment, as everyone present was being subjected to Marjorie Perloff’s hate speech—or maybe it was less intentional than hate speech? fear speech, perhaps?—I didn’t speak. I heard something and I didn’t say anything. All too often I don’t quite know how to speak. There’s no how-to for making a work or a life that counters white supremacy, nor is such resistance always as clear-cut as responding directly to racism publicly and blatantly expressed. Poetic practice is rarely clear-cut, direct and blatant; this is, in my view, part of its power: to take the everyday often instrumentalized tool that is language and to defamiliarize it in order to make other imaginings, other instigations, and other structures radically and concretely and imaginatively possible.
Marjorie Perloff is a literary gatekeeper par excellence. Many people choose to walk into literary territories through the gates she constructs. Like those who teach, those who declare themselves the arbiters of culture—aside from exhibiting a belief in non-horizontal models I find reactionary at best—have, I believe, a particular responsibility to make choices that are ethical, thoughtful, aware of their social and political implications. Or perhaps it’s not just a question of responsibility, but also one of effects: the choices such gatekeepers make have very real social and political effects. And it is thus crucial for us to understand the scaffoldings on which the gatekeepers build their gates. And to make thoughtful choices about whose work we will use as guide and inspiration. Overt, explicit racism isn’t usually part of the way Perloff constructs her arguments. But it’s crucially important to know that racism is part of what leads her to make the arguments she makes, to promote the work she promotes.
I know there are different forms of speech. I know that our actions both large and small are a form of speech. I know that there was probably no one in that room (save perhaps the infant son of one of the festival participants who has yet to access any language) who did not recognize Perloff’s comments as hideously racist. I know that few if any people in that room needed me to point out how deeply anti-Black her remarks were, how vile they were in their implication that perhaps Michael Brown deserved to die, or at the very least deserved to be objectified by Kenneth Goldsmith after his death. How astounding it was that she could think such comments would be received without protest, as simply another aspect of her argument. How sickeningly predictable it was—perhaps especially in a room where it might have been easy to assume there were no Black people present, but really in any room—to assume complicity with and acceptance of anti-Black commentary. How even more insidious, perhaps, that she should make such comments in a room in Denmark with only a few USAmericans present, a room where it’s quite possible there were people who don’t have broad knowledge about the history of forced African diaspora and slavery in the Americas, and the particular ways that history and its many reverberations continue to shape race relations and racism in the U.S., or about the long-standing and currently glaringly visible plague of state-sponsored violence against Black and Brown people, but particularly against Black people, who are killed by cops and incarcerated in numbers vastly disproportionate to their percentage of the population. All this. All this and more. Yet I didn’t speak, and I wish I had, even just to register out loud my heartfelt and inarticulate this is not okay.
I have some ideas about why I felt so paralyzed, so unable to articulate even the most basic challenge to Perloff’s remarks. And I’m also aware that even if I had been able to say something when I saw (or heard) something, I would still have been left with the dilemma of what to do with this information, these words I now have no choice but to carry with me, having experienced them first-hand. I thought about sending the recording of Perloff’s remarks to the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo anonymously. I didn’t and don’t want this to be about me—or even, really, about Marjorie Perloff. I’m more interested in thinking about how structures of power and disempowerment function, and ways to resist those structures alongside kindred spirits and across difference. I know that no single instance of being outspoken in response to racism will end racism. I know it’s a lifelong process that takes place in all contexts, at all levels of volume, in a variety of ways. I know that no person should be defined by their worst moments or their most egregious missteps. I know that speaking out immediately when I heard Perloff’s hateful, fearful, predictable, unexamined, easy racism would not have been the last (nor the first) time I will be called to speak in that way. I know all this, and I know there are many reasons we are able or unable to speak in particular instances. And yet I feel that I should have said something in the moment. And that I cannot not say something now.
But I’m not writing this text to unburden myself (as if unburdening were possible). I’m writing it because I believe that public speech should be owned publicly.* If Perloff is going to fly halfway across the globe to articulate her defense of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “genius,” and is going to expose the racist underpinnings of her work in the process, I believe she needs to own those articulations and exposures wherever she goes. And I believe I need to own my articulations and my failures to articulate—hence this brief essay.
* I believe this and I simultaneously believe in the power and the urgent necessity of an anonymous instigatory project like The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. I don’t think the conversations that are currently taking place around racial justice and poetic practice would be taking place in quite the way they are without the Mongrel Coalition, and while I don’t think that all-caps manifesto-style speech is the only useful mode of speech, I absolutely see its utility, its beauty, and its acuity. I don’t necessarily want to speak that way myself, but I am deeply grateful that someone does, and is.
Transcript begins at 1:25:54
You can’t say this today but they’ll say it a year from now, that Michael Brown was very romanticized, because there also is the video available of him in the convenience store, which is frightening…In the convenience store where he steals the cigars right before the crime, Michael Brown, he’s this huge guy, and the little man in the shop comes chasing him—it looks like a Charlie Chaplin scene—and comes chasing him and you don’t hear any sound, you know, it’s a surveillance video, hey, you stole the cigars, and Michael Brown takes him with one hand and pushes him against the wall and he trips against the things along the counter. It’s pretty scary. So, you know, things are not so clear-cut. And so, I think the romanticization, where everybody kept calling him the poor child Michael Brown, and they constantly showed photographs of him in the media when he had been about 12 years old. That’s what they do. Many of the pictures you saw, he looks like a little kid, he was a 300-pound huge man. Scary. He was scary, I’m just saying, that way. So that things then turn out to be much more complicated. And so I don’t know what’s happened to poetry, or to poetic discourse, I shouldn’t say to poetry, but to poetic discourse, when we have all over Facebook these sentimental things about the poor sweet child and his poor family. Michael Brown himself had said “I wish I had a family.” (1:27:11) He didn’t even—he hadn’t seen his father in years, his mother was on crack, he didn’t have much of a family or much of a life. Again, we always assume that victims are noble and that is a terrific fallacy. I always hate that, as I say, in Holocaust films where the Jews—I’m Jewish—the Jews are always presented playing the violin. You know, they always have to be… I mean, it’s so ridiculous. Ah, you know, they’re so sensitive, they play the violin. That happens in that movie I just saw, “The Woman In Gold,” which is about the Klimt. Maria, Maria Altman, a real person, goes back to Vienna to recover the Klimt painting, and they have flashbacks of her as a young girl, and her father, who was a business tycoon, who owned the Klimt, I bet he wasn’t such a sweet guy, Otto Bauer who owned the Klimt, but of course in the movie he plays the cello, and he really only cares about the cello. And he’s playing the cello and the Nazi comes in, and the Nazi says “Stradivarius?” I just thought I’d die, I mean, that’s—I just can’t stand it, and that had to show that even Nazis, you see, they cared about music. That was their paradox. So he says “Stradivarius?” and all that. I mean, this kind of thing. One always has to remember, that doesn’t mean you don’t care about victims, but victims are not necessarily nice people any more than the people who victimize them. They can be horrible people too. There’s nothing saying that they’re all sweet and good, and that’s how we—the newspapers of course, and the media, Karl Kraus is great on that issue, in representing some of the victims. If you know the lives of the victims, you know, then you get a rather different sense of the thing and it’s really much more interesting. And, um, and the only way to be effective…to avoid future wars, would be instead of always having these things about people in concentration camps, to study the 1930s, the 20s and 30s, the interwar period, and see how people behaved and what it is that happened. And when you do, you start to see WWII already there by 1920, really. I mean, it was going to come, given what was going on, and there was no real surprise at all. In other words, you have to study the complexities. Now I’m not saying… I’m not going to make that case for the Michael Brown piece, I think it was superficial in a way and it was a mistake, it was in bad taste. I think it was. When I first heard about it I thought, oh, why did he do that, that’s in horrible taste, it’s in very bad taste at this moment, to do that. On the other hand, when I saw the reaction, I think and this is how I feel, however bad the piece is, and however in bad taste, and even in bad moral taste, that there was something wrong with it, I think the reaction to it is even much worse. I have never seen anything like people attacking each other that way. And I feel the same way about the attacks on Vanessa Place. This is the role I guess of the internet. People wouldn’t have ever dared do it in print. I mean, when I went to school I was taught you say “Ah, this is good, but might he have not done this, or there could be more of that,” or you know, you attacked politely. But these things of just saying this is terrible or he’s a horrible person, or Fred Moten wrote right on Facebook “What the fuck are you doing?”—you know, this kind of thing, I mean, I don’t consider that criticism, I think it was very destructive, and I think, um, if we’re going to start getting like that you might as well close shop. Many of us had the reaction that we just want to get away from the poetry world. If that’s the poetry world, let them have it, I don’t want to be in it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. And that is how people then react, because it’s too superficial, and too nasty, really. I mean, he didn’t commit a crime, you know, and in fact he was very, if you read Dan Morris’s piece you’ll see, he thought he was being very sympathetic. It didn’t come out that way, he didn’t do it right, maybe, but he did think so.