Gun Violence, Academic Poetry, & Who Cares About White Pain?

I started writing the post about poetry below (after the horizontal line) a few days ago.  It’s still worth sharing, because it’s about writing meaningfully when all of this tragedy is happening.  But I have to have to say that now, with the death of the African American man hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park (Atlanta’s “back yard”), which the Atlanta Police Department called a “suicide,” I’m at such a loss—I don’t even know that I could write any poetry about the insanity of death and violence that are perpetrated against American citizens because they’re black and brown.  (Does anything I’d have to say even matter?)

If calling this particular death a “suicide” is not an example of institutional racism, if that’s not racist “criminal justice” and a racist “law enforcement” system at work, I don’t what is.  What African American would choose to hang himself from a tree?  What African American would choose to commit “suicide” through a method that clearly smacks of historical racism and slavery?  The answer:  no one.  The night before the murdered man was found, Klan members were seen hanging fliers in Piedmont Park.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  Thank heavens, the FBI is now investigating this death—but only because Atlanta’s African American mayor Kasim Reed referred the case to them, not because the police did—and let’s not forget that the FBI is also part of a racist criminal justice system.  If they agree with the Atlanta coroner and the APD that this man’s death was indeed “suicide,” I wouldn’t be remotely surprised. Devastated yes, but not surprised.

And let’s talk about Dallas.  Yes, it’s awful and horrifying that five Dallas officers were shot and killed at an anti-violence rally.  No, these officers didn’t “deserve” to die.  But let me tell you, I can sympathize with the shooters’ anger and frustration.  Maybe these five particular cops didn’t deserve to die.  Maybe these five particular cops were upstanding citizens who would never use their power against African Americans to harass and murder them.  But other police officers every day act on their racism and abuse and kill African Americans with impunity.

The fact is, the attack on these cops is an emblematic strike—it’s the way these suspects felt that they had to deal with constant, racist murders of other African Americans by police departments.  It’s fighting the system, when no one else will.  President Obama has said that there is no possible justification for the attack, but it’s hard to deny that “law enforcement” doesn’t profile and target and harass and murder black and brown suspects just because they can get away with it.  When our lawmakers and President can’t seem to get a hold on the police department’s institutionalized illegal acts perpetrated against African American citizens (and other minority groups, such as Latinx, who are also targets of racism), it doesn’t surprise me that African Americans turn to vigilantism for justice.

In an earlier interview about the slaying of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile the President said, “’All of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings,” he continued. “These are not isolated incidents, they are symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.’”  Yeah?  Then do something about the shootings.  Our society has never been less civil.  Mr. Obama, you’re the President.  You have Executive Power.  Do something.  Demilitarize the police.  Take down the NRA.  Take guns away from people.  Please, I beg you.

If you’re like me and feeling especially helpless and sick right now about all this violence, here are some things worth reading/ doing: writer Justin C. Cohen’s Advice for White Folks in the Wake of the Police Murder of a Black Person, former police officer Reddit Hudson’s I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This Is the Real Truth about Race and Policing, faith-based consultant Joshua Dubois’ letter to police chiefs (in .docx form, so you can cut and paste when you download it), and psychologist Karyn Hall’s suggestions for self-soothing (because we need to take care of ourselves in the midst of all this tragedy).

Anyway, with these latest murders in mind, like anything I say is worth a damn, here is the original post…

I am struggling lately with poetry.  Call it a genuine crisis of faith—or aesthetics.

I am trying to reconcile what I think art should do—which is comment on our time, take a stand, reflect reality and emotions and rage—with what my art is doing—or rather not doing.  That is to say, in the light of the constant stream of mass shootings, and shooting violence in domestic relationships, and officer involved shootings (so many of which our white justice system just gives a pass to), how can I write poetry that is meaningful and worthwhile?  How can I make art that responds to the insanity of murder and the American adoration of and addiction to gun-enhanced power that we see every day reported in the media?  How do I respond to that?

When I consider the writing I have done lately, it seems vacuous and crass that I have not responded to these constant shootings.  It seems so much the purview of academic poets (a group I belong to) wrapped in their laurels of white privilege to ignore what is happening around us.  Do we white academic poets need to be shot or to see someone we love shot before we are galvanized to action?  Do we have to live through the horror (if we’re lucky) of gun violence before we use our art for good?  What is art for if not to rally people around a cause, if not to comment on and critique the way we are living our lives?  What is art, if it doesn’t challenge us to change?

I think academic poets are averse to risk and to reaching out in their poetry, and they take a dim view of political poetry as a genre.  Maybe it’s something to do with the perceived sanctity and safety of the ivory tower that we are privileged to write little lyrics about our families or the natural world or trips we’ve taken oversees—but where’s the risk in that?  Where is the connection to the greater world? I see plenty of poet friends on Twitter tweeting their outrage at every example of injustice and murder perpetrated by cops against minorities—but what are they writing?  What are they doing to stop this?  How are they using their art to say no more?  How am I?

Maybe it’s a class issue—maybe academic poets think political poetry is the work of the laboring classes, or the work of oppressed groups, or maybe the work of spoken word and hip hop artists.  Maybe those of us in the ivory tower are just closing our eyes and pretending we don’t see what is happening around us—because we don’t have to.  Because we believe in the myth of NIMBY.  But even in the ivory tower, we can still be taken out by a sniper or a bomb.  So why are we silent?  Why am I?

Which brings me back to my struggle with poetry.  I can’t think I was ever taught in any of my writing classes about how to write political poetry—I think, maybe, while it was never stated overtly, it was certainly implied, that art was “above the fray.” I barely even read any political poetry—at best, the political poetry I read was women’s poetry, and just reading women’s writing, by virtue of writing the very fact of their lives was theoretically a political act (i.e. the personal is political), maybe I thought that was good enough.

And maybe because it’s white privilege that tells us art should be beautiful, and art is “universal,” that I didn’t ever think I needed to use poetry to discuss politics.  As if you could ever divorce art from politics.  The very choice in deciding what to write about reveals our politics, aesthetics, and values. 

I find that my own writing—which honestly, I generally think is pretty good—strikes me now as deliberately obtuse, privileged, and empty.  As I said in my last blog post, people are dying—we do nothing.  Poets have power—so why haven’t I written about this constant barrage of death?  Why haven’t I used my anguish and anger to write poetry that matters, that speaks to these atrocities?  Poetry that pleads for change?

Part of it is, I don’t know how to write it.  I don’t know how to express my fear and distrust with our “justice” system, I don’t know how to say “these deaths are wrong” and “guns are killing us” and “fuck tha police” (N.W.A. said that first, to be fair) and that “racism is evil”…in an artful, meaningful way.  I don’t know how to write about those things so that it won’t come across as facile or false or like I’m an ignorant white liberal who is trying to write Meaningful Poetry So We Can All Learn a Lesson at best—or at worst, write poetry that somehow appropriates the experiences of oppressed groups, a type of colonizing act, making their pain all about me.  I don’t know how to express these things.

Part of me feels that maybe I don’t have a right to write about these things.  Who am I, but a privileged woman with a Ph.D., an academic poet whose life in every way is impacted by and benefits from my whiteness?  If I get pulled over, I don’t fear for my life.  So how can any poetry I write even speak to the horror that is everyday experience for African Americans who get stopped because they’re missing a license plate?  They know one “wrong” word, one quick movement, and the cop who is stopping them will escalate this moment to death. I can never know this.

And maybe I really don’t have the right to write about these things like racism—because I don’t suffer its effects, though I sure as hell benefit from white privilege.  Still, every day there’s another murder (euphemistically called an “officer involved shooting”).  Every day someone dies; Alton Sterling died on Tuesday, Philando Castile died on Wednesday.  And every day I feel sick.  I feel like I have to express my pain about these deaths.  I want to use my art to do so.

And I know these deaths are not about me.  And nobody wants to hear about a white person’s pain—because it can never compare to the pain of racism and its effects on society.  It can never compare to the quotidian fear for one’s life that African Americans suffer.  And yet here I am, poor me-ing about my feelings of artistic impotence, anyway…when people are dying because they are people of color.  Dying every day because of the color of their skin.  I can’t wrap my head around that.  I can never wrap my head around that.

Maybe it’s white privilege again that makes me think I should use my art “for good”—maybe it’s the white savior complex rearing its ugly head that lets me believe that if I wrote a political poem about gun violence—gun violence on a large scale, and this incessant disgusting racism that is killing African Americans in “routine traffic stops”—that anyone would care.

Not writing about it seems wrong.  But I come back to those voices of recrimination in my head that say, Who am I to think any poem I’d write about this subject matter is worthwhile or right?  Who am I to speak about this?  What right does any white person have to express her pain about these murders?

My pain can never compare.  It’s just so much white noise.

A Day of Poetry

Today was the 122nd Quarterly meeting of the Georgia Poetry Society, of which I am a Executive Board Member.  I always like these meetings because there are two sessions of member poems, usually about 15-20 poets reading in each.  Everyone gets to read one poem, and while some are better than others, it makes my heart glad to see so many people writing and reading and loving poetry.  

One thing I especially love about these meetings is they never feel cutthroat–and sometimes I feel that academic poets thrive on that.   Oh, some academic poets may claim that they are supportive and will help you in their way, but at they same time, you know one is saying, Oh, I can’t believe she got published in Such-and-Such Review.   And someone else is saying, Well, you know, she and the editor had a thing at Breadloaf.  Academic poets can be so full of bullshit.

Now, I realize I am being somewhat disingenuous here.  I am, after all, an academic poet.  I have a Ph.D. in poetry with a focus in creative writing.  My aesthetic taste is informed by academia, and I generally tend to read poems by academics.  Granted, the reason for that might be because it seems that most journals are constipated with poetry by M.F.A. and Ph.D.-types.   Plenty of this work is solid, fine poetry, and I like it.  But plenty of it is just as drivelly as the moon-june writers–they’re just more accomplished technically and they have an alphabet after their last names.

The writers of GPS do much different kinds of writing.  Some of it seriously not great.  But then there are writers who use rhyme and meter and form quite effectively, even if they end up with poems that seem, to my academic mind, quite old fashioned.  There is a gentleman there, probably in his late 60’s, who almost always either reads a ballad or a narrative in rhymed couplets, and they are invariably charming and hilarious.  My academic friends would probably scorn such writing.  I find it refreshing in a retro kind of way.

This is not to say there aren’t academics there.  I know at least four other people who regularly attend who have Ph.D.s in the humanities.  Their poems tend to be more technically proficient, more deliberate in the language and poetic devices they use, than the non-academics’ writing is.  But their work isn’t joyless and mechanical as some of the poems I’ve seen in several journals lately are.  There is definitely something to be said for not overly associating with academic poets, who are often greedy about padding their C.V.s and getting their next book together so they can parade it in front of the tenure committee.

In some ways, I’m no different.  I prize getting acceptances, and would love to have a book of poems to sell at readings.  A book would somehow “legitimize” my poetic efforts, would give me a little more credibility with the academic poets I associate with.  But therein you see the hypocrisy.  Because I do, after all, want to impress my academic friends.

At GPS, I never feel that I must impress them.  If I do, when I read my poetry to them, that’s wonderful, and I’m glad they’ve enjoyed it.  But I don’t feel less than–because GPS isn’t competitive.  And maybe that’s what it boils down to:  academic poets are competitive, and that kind of competition leaves me cold.

In other news, tonight I read at the Essential Theater.  They had a poetry reading before the play Ice Glen, and I was a featured reader, along with Ginger Murchison, whose chapbook, Out Here is quite excellent.  It was not well attended, but that’s ok. 

Maybe when I publish my book, I’ll have bigger crowds to see me.  I can dream.