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.

Oh, Fiction, How You Torment & Tantalize Me…

I’ve been doing this little online fiction class—it’s only for three weeks, and it is just about over.  The group is small—seven writers and a leader/ moderator and his friend/ assistant.  I don’t know much about the person leading the workshop (I know he has an MFA and a TT job and he’s published a great deal). But all of the things he’s shared about writing and about the individual stories that the group have submitted seem pretty on target to me, and (once I finally understood the interface—it took me several days) I’ve been enjoying it… but more from a teacherly perspective, than a writerly one.

Were I a fiction writer by vocation, I would probably find the prompts and writing discussions more applicable to my own writing process—I want to try them out, of course, I just haven’t… yet.  I’ve said before that I’m interested in writing fiction—I just really can’t seem to do it.  But perhaps like anything, it just takes practice.  And, a few of his prompts could very well apply to creative nonfiction, and I know that I’ll definitely try his “life through artifacts” prompt.

Anyway, as I said, the class interests me from a teacherly perspective.  I like to see good teachers in action.  He draws from a lot of different backgrounds in fiction, and, since the theme of the class is about genre bending/ blending, and being experimental (two things I’m especially poor at), he has a vast knowledge of texts that he uses as examples to illustrate his suggestions about individual pieces and in his discussion about writing in general.  Since I’m not that educated about fiction (from a writing it kind of standpoint), his commentary is especially useful and interesting.

While he seems to have a particular affinity for SFF (as do the rest of the students in the workshop), he doesn’t look down his nose at other genres of fiction, and I admire that, because many academics in general dismiss genre fiction as being aliterary at best and no damn good at worst.  This tension seems to pervade the aesthetics of many writing programs; I’ve seen a few genre-writing MFA programs advertised in Poets & Writers, but that’s in no way typical.  (I never took a fiction writing class at Nebraska, but my sense of the fiction writers they had on faculty back then was that they were literary fiction writers exclusively.)

I suppose writing programs still want to turn out John Steinbecks and Margaret Atwoods (though she’s a bit of a fence sitter) rather than Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings and Kerry Greenwoods… The argument always comes back to high art vs. popular culture, particularly in the hallowed grounds of the Ivory Tower, doesn’t it?  (I also suspect, though I can’t be sure, that academics have a deep-seated fear of debasing themselves to write for money.  Like writing popular fiction is the dark side or something.  I have no such fear.  If I had the talent to do it, you better believe I’d be turning out romance novels or mysteries or Game of Thrones clones or horror stories, or hell, even porn.  I’m not proud.  I’m just not talented that way–I have no attention span to write anything longer than six pages, tops.)

As a reader and lover of genre fiction (although my interest tends to run toward mysteries… and Christmas romance novels, when it’s Christmastime), I’m glad the  workshop leader doesn’t have an arbitrary bias against genre fiction.  Anyway, all this is by way of saying, I ordered three books from Amazon on his suggestion—two were by Kelly Link, a writer I didn’t know about at all, but whom I’m liking. (I’m reading stories from her Magic for Beginners in between more chapters of Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and in between stories from Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (which was a suggestion from BFWF**).  It’s important to have good material to aspire too… or to be motivated by.

Imitation being the highest form of flattery, I try putting absurdity like Bender’s or Link’s into my stories, but generally it just comes out wrong. Or pretentious.  Or just like I’m trying too hard to be too cool and winding up being that doofus in the corner.  So then I try writing a conventional story, which I gravitate towards naturally anyhow.  (I know, I know, they tell you to write the thing you’re frightened off… but mainly I’m frightened of writing things that suck, so that advice doesn’t work too well for me.) I worked on a story the other day—it was based on an upcoming theme from Duotrope’s upcoming theme list—a Christmas-ish story, to be submitted by Sept. 25th.  (So, not a lot of time to dick around with it.)  I don’t know if I will finish it, though.  It’s lacking something… maybe, more words.  It’s supposed to be flash though—ideally, the journal wants 700 words.  I’ve written 1000, and it’s not finished.

A real experience prompted the story, and so as I’ve written it, it lies somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. (Liminal spaces suck, by the way.) The problem is, it doesn’t work as fiction OR nonfiction.  I like the idea of it—it focuses on an interaction with a neighbor I had one time when I made a snowman in the front yard.  I could make it totally creative nonfiction, but then it will be considerably longer—and it already lacks that CNF aesthetic—that real attention to beautiful language that CNF is known for, that expectation of a transformative moment that we rely on in creative nonfiction to drive the story forward.  And yet, it is there, a flash of a moment where the woman building the snowman relents, at least a little bit, in her annoyance at her neighbor’s intervention.  So the draft has that going for it.

Still, the journal wants fiction.  If I make it shorter, and more fiction-y, I don’t know that its point will be clear.  Honestly, I’m not sure anyone would care either way.  If I made it more fiction-oriented, I wonder what I could do to “fix” the story?  I can’t make it about a snowman that comes to life because I believe we ALL have heard that one before.  What I’m really interested in is the relationship between the two neighbors.  But I just don’t know if it’s compelling enough.  Maybe the story just needs to be a little anecdote I share with friends—maybe it’s really not meant to be shared in a large sense (with a public audience, I mean).

But maybe I’ve just persuaded myself that I could try harder and make this story work.  It doesn’t hurt to try and a hundred other motivational platitudes, blah, blah, blah.  I can see what happens if I try.  At the very least, it will be practice, and all writing practice is good, even the failures.  I know it will wind up longer, so I guess I’ll go the CNF route and forget about sending it to that particular journal.  That’s ok.

But I’ve digressed…  Back to the writing workshop:  I have a story to read and respond to for the online group.  I printed it out and left it on the table and now it has cat vomit on it.  But the first page seems pretty good, despite the stain, so I think I’ll go read the rest now.  And then maybe another Kelly Link story.

**Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™