Item! Vanessa Place was removed from an AWP subcommittee after protests over her latest project based on Gone With the Wind. The issue is alleged racism. The pressure came from Change.org but may have been helped along by something called the The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. In the wake of AWP’s decision, the organizers of the annual Berkeley Poetry Conference didn’t just remove Place from this year’s roster, they did so by canceling the conference entirely and replacing it with this. According to her comments here, the goal of the project was to see if the owners of the copyright to GWTW would force her to stop, thus insisting on their ownership of the racism. That (rare) explanation from Place did not satisfy her critics, who insisted that a white woman had no business appropriating another white woman’s novel to protest racism. But that’s not the funniest part of the story: This year’s Berkeley Poetry Conference was going to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Free Speech Movement.
Item! Nearly two years ago, I wrote that Kenneth Goldsmith’s Printing Out the Internet should be the final nail in the Conceptualist coffin. I was wrong. Back in March, Kenny G took the stage at Brown University and, beneath a projected image of Michael Brown, spent thirty minutes reading the barely altered text of Brown’s (Michael’s, not the university’s) autopsy report and called it a poem. The backlash was swift, and Goldsmith’s attempt at an explanation didn’t do much to change his detractors’ minds. In the end, he asked that Brown University not make public the video of his reading.
You can read some of the responses, and Kenny G’s response to the responses, here. Again, the criticism centers mostly on race, which is perhaps as it should be because there is no poetry to criticize. That’s the whole Conceptualist aesthetic — the appropriation of existing texts, presented as “un-creatively” as possible.
Goldsmith, who doesn’t write any of his books and proudly says so, is fully employed by an Ivy League university, was named the first poet laureate of MoMA, has read at the White House, and has appeared on The Colbert Report. Last week he made headlines again, when reviews came in of his spring “English” course, Wasting Time on the Internet (during one meeting, the class was made to sit in a circle and watch porn, at full volume). Kenny G published a defense of the course in advance, perhaps knowing that, when it was all said and done, someone would call him out on his bullshit.
I do not begrudge his success personally. In any creative endeavor, success is difficult to come by, so good for him. No, really. But every year, many fine books of poetry are published, written by many fine poets who actually write their own work. Many of these poets teach actual literature, writing, and critical thinking. And what gets the attention? The ridiculous stunts of a literary Andy Kaufmann, minus the funny. It should be no wonder that the larger public sees poetry as irrelevant, an indulgence of the over-educated, and/or just another battleground in the (yawn) “culture wars.”
As I was finishing this post, I received an email from Constant Critic, informing me of their latest poetry book review. This is the opening paragraph of that review:
The contemporary moment of critique manifests, among other ways, in a pressing call for artwork that overtly raises consciousness of the racism, classism, sexism, and environment-gutting anthropocentrism permeating our culture. Answering this call, many poetic projects such as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire confront the deeply-entrenched narrative and rhetorical frames serving power structures—frames that secure relationships between self and other in a perpetual network of damage and exploitation.
“…anthropocentrism permeating our culture.” Really. God forbid humans should value themselves.
Someone once said that all poetry is politics. It sure seems that way, lately. Perhaps that’s why no one reads it.