Letters to Poets: Conversations About Poetics, Politics, and Community

EDITOR'S NOTE

by Dana Teen Lomax and Jennifer Firestone

The Letters to Poets project is the culmination of one year's correspondence between 14 pairs of America's leading poets and "emerging" poets with whom they chose to write. From the inception of the project, there have been no strict formal or thematic guidelines; we just asked poets to write about their most pressing issues. The result is an exceptionally diverse anthology full of integrity, honesty, and skill.

Letters to Poets takes place 100 years after the writing of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and does well to both credit and challenge that earlier work. In the Letters project, the question of "mentorship" gets reworked as the writers talk about the endemic hierarchies and problems in older models of apprenticeship. The topics in these letters range from race issues to gender codes, and from U.S. politics to poetics. We hope that these letters will spark discussion and offer insight into some of the ongoing urgent conversations in contemporary poetry.

Rain Taxi presents here the first exchanges between two poet pairs: Anselm Berrigan and John Yau, and Wanda Coleman and Truong Tran.

Letters: Anselm Berrigan and John Yau

Letters to Poets

 

ANSELM BERRIGAN

Anselm Berrigan is the author of the recent Some Notes on My ProgrammingZero Star Hotel, and Integrity & Dramatic Life, published by Edge Books. A CD, Pictures for Private Devotion, is available through Narrow House Records. With his mother Alice Notley and brother Edmund Berrigan he has co-edited The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, published by the University of California Press. He is the Artistic Director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church and lives in New York City.

 

JOHN YAU

John Yau has published more over 50 books of poetry, artists' books, fiction, and art criticism. His most recent book is Paradiso Diaspora (Penguin, 2006). Other stellar volumes include Ing Grish, with drawings by Tom Nozkowski, from Saturnalia Books and essays, The Passionate Spectator, from the University of Michigan Press. He currently writes a column for the American Poetry Review, and his essays and interviews appear regularly in Art on Paper and the Brooklyn Rail. He has received awards and grants from the NEA, the New York Foundation of the Arts, Peter S. Reed Foundation and was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture in 2002. He teaches at Mason Gross School of the Arts (Rutgers University) and lives in New York.

 

New York, New York
December 22, 2004

Dear John,

I'm staring at a picture of myself holding a fake Tommy gun in one of those black and white boardwalk "throwback photos" and remembering how the photographer, a girl of about 16, wouldn't let me pose with the gun pointing up at my chin. She was right to be dismayed, of course, but it was supposed to be a fake photo, and I was supposed to be dressed as some kind of Capone-era gangster, so I figured the gesture of aiming the gun at myself could be included as part of this phony reproduction—if everything else in it was fake, why couldn't the gesture of self-inflicted harm remain? I am enclosing a copy of the photo for you to admire, and wondering what it would be like to have all memory of my life obliterated in the future save this small piece of demented nostalgia.

Part of the reason this has come up for me in the space of this letter to you is the fact that I've wondered recently if, early on when I was starting to write (not just poems but record reviews and small pieces of fiction beginning around 18), I wasn't (in part, mind you) using the space of writing as a place to act out self-destructive tendencies that I mostly avoided engaging in for real (except for one incident with a knife and several dozen instances of hopping on the backs of buses and trucks when I was younger). An interviewer asked recently about the relationship between the body and the text in my poems, and beyond the fact that the word "text" drives me completely crazy when referring to poems and makes me feel like a fucking clown (as my brother might say), I could only think of this kind of transferral of harm from body to page.

At this point, fourteen years after starting to write poems, I'm not terribly concerned about the rote psychology of this jag, but instead am interested in the fact that poetry has the capacity to handle the darker aspects of one's imagination (and behavior) while making said aspects be part of the deal (part of the work) rather than taking over and enforcing a standard narrative-as-reproduction-of reality. I mean, I don't think I am capable of slitting anyone's throat, but I've used a poem to really ask myself if I could, and I still wanted the poem to work as a piece of art in the sense of being shapely and sonically alive. One is exposed to so much violence in our culture—imagined and real—via mediums of communication, and, simultaneously, if you don't do your own research, kept in the dark when it comes to the totality of suffering in places where we are at war and doling out death (Iraq) or standing by while masses of people are starved and executed on genocidal levels (Darfur). I feel like my poems have been full of explosions for the last three or four years, and one formal by-product of that is an increased erosion of the boundaries between thoughts as they occur on the surface of the work. I can't tell the difference at any given time between my imagination acting and being acted upon as I write, or at least I feel that way at times. Information comes streaming in at all points of time and space, and I've lately felt like what my poems do for me is to regurgitate a lot of that information on my own terms. All that said, I'm still really attracted to humor and weirdness and technical aspects of poetry that, for me, are capable of producing great moments of music and beauty. But I think all of those things have been internalized to some extent so I appreciate them without ever thinking about them anymore, or at least without thinking about producing them.

I realize that I'm not exactly asking you questions, but I think you can get the gist of where I'm coming from enough to respond. Feel free to add or change the terms of anything. It's not a case where I'm asking "what is the role of art, etc.," since I think artists and poets act that out in large numbers every day and the question, a common question in some quarters, is any cultural arbiter's method of actually avoiding the work that's being done altogether, but I am wondering if you can talk to me about writing poems in terms of all the horrific input we receive, are subject to, instigate, live through. What do you think Rilke's poems would have been like if World War I was on 24-hr cable news? I've been trying off and on to figure out a way to get back to writing poems addressed to one person I care for in the last year or so, but it ain't happening. And when I put it in terms of "getting back" I realize it can't happen, and I don't want it to happen. Someone recently asked me about the division between notions of text-based poetry and voice-based poetry, and I mainly thought "ack" . . . I will do what I have to do according to no one's dogma about what a poem should be like, and my life will always be in there somewhere, since it is difficult, I imagine, to write poems when you are dead (though it doesn't seem as difficult to get published).

The funny thing is, finally, that I don't think about poems when I'm writing them. I do think about emotion and information, but it's more like they're passing through than sticking around for analysis of the degradable-type.

I'm going to head off to the latest, greatest institutional space for visual art in New York City, the refurbished MoMA, when I finish this letter. Is there any new work there, or am I to just be impressed by a different space filled with the same art (or maybe some stuff from their big basement)? Have you seen it yet? Has Cerise helped you write any of your poems yet?

Love,
Anselm

New York, New York

January 13, 2005

Dear Anselm,

There are so many people who are convinced that they have the right answers that I am wondering if we haven't started losing sight of what the questions might be. Or, worse, there are rote answers to what have become rote questions. If one were to take a test, how could one not be the perfect student? The dance steps have been laid out on the floor, and one need only follow in the appropriate manner. In this way, the new story mirrors many of the old stories. Once, at a dinner in Marseilles, during a large gathering of poets after a reading, I asked the person sitting next to me where she was from. It was a clumsy attempt at small talk. The person across from me, a French poet who has translated many American poets, interrupted me and said this was a typically stupid American question. She pointed out that in France it wasn't interesting or even necessary to ask such a question because one's family most likely would have stayed in a town or region for many generations. I was dumbfounded because I thought this person had made, and had felt comfortable making, a number of presumptions. I did not tell this person that my mother-in-law is French and Jewish and had to hide in France in World War II, that she went to Israel after the war. In my experience, this person's finger-wagging lecture is not atypical. She made a gesture, and wanted to make sure I understood how right that gesture was. It was not a gesture to be answered, because that person spoke from the position of absolute authority. It was a way of being clear that no dialogue would take place.

The question I think you are asking, and the one I am trying to answer, is how do any two people begin talking to each other. I don't think I began writing poetry out of a desire to talk to someone, to send (one could say) a love poem to either a specific or general you, but out of the recognition that there was no one to talk to. I don't mean this as a dramatic fact, but as a fundamental one. I suspect that Rilke wouldn't have felt different if World War I was on 24-hour cable news. I have been wondering about this division you seem to imply in your letter. Does one write poems addressed to a general you or to a specific you? Does one speak for some, many, all, any, one or none? Perhaps this is the wrong order. A few years ago I read a number of books on Multiple Personality Disorder, language acquisition, and recovered memory. And during this time, I considered (as I did before and still do, which is not to say "conclude") that one might no longer be writing a poem addressed to one person (Rilke's angel) out there. Rather, it might be that one is trying to write a poem addressed to all the voices (manifestations) one hears in one's head. Or maybe, and here I am thinking of Jack Spicer, one is trying to register their different tonal registers, the range of sounds they make, the inchoate emotions. In a taped conversation of Stan and Jane Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, Frampton says this about the well-known image of St. George slaying the dragon: "The dragon has often been emblematic of what is unwarranted and surprising, and thus undesirable, in perception and imagination." Stan's response speaks, I think, to the question you've raised. He proposes that Sergei Eisenstein made the "mass of people" into "the hero," and that until then they existed in history as a "pretty ugly apparition." Baudelaire would agree. The other dilemma the artist faces is "to find a way to make manifest to the general air [one's] own socially unacceptable particularities."

Where I think things have changed since Brakhage made these observations is in one's sense of place. The bustling, terrifying crowds that Baudelaire encountered in the streets of Paris shared the same physical space but did not, as the poet made evident, experience it in the same way. But what is the physical space we share today? If you happen to live in New York (as we do), is it MoMA? Is it "reality TV?" Is it the spaces that are offered to us in carefully edited glimpses (the so-called news)? Is it the spaces we see in the photographs of Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand, but which are now gone? Is it the megalopolis we inhabit, built on the ruins of hundreds of civilizations, and containing neighborhoods we will never visit or perhaps even know about. For this megalopolis is both lateral and vertical.

A few years ago, Paul Theroux published a piece about a dominatrix in the New Yorker. At that moment something in the general air changed. As you know, one of things Theroux publishes is called travel writing. In this piece, Theroux meets the dominatrix on a safari, and the writing that appears in the New Yorker could be called a "profile." The reader learns various facts about her and her clients. She likes to eat sushi for breakfast, because it has a lot of protein. She was on the safari with one of her clients. Twenty years ago (was it more or less?), Raymond Carver published his fiction in the New Yorker. They were stories about people living in trailer parks, about people who did not read the New Yorker. And, to come at it from another perspective, these characters lived in places that people who read the New Yorker don't generally inhabit or visit. With Theroux's piece, the terrain shifted a little (a tiny temblor, you might say), if only for the time of that article (a week). So the news of different neighborhoods and cultures is filtered through the New Yorker and other strainers, and made palpable to the taste of the audience. With Carver and Theroux, the reader becomes a voyeur. But we also know that that audience consists of people for whom Theroux's piece is not news. How can the erosion you mention not be inevitable?

The poetry world isn't divided between those who believe in (insert whatever word you wish) and those who believe in (insert whatever oppositional word you wish). It is adrift and breaking apart and reforming itself. It is difficult to get a larger perspective. We can't rise above this thing we are on (and in) to get a sense of where it is going, and what it is becoming. There are those who believe they can and should steer this raft, and are angry because not enough people listen to them. Or perhaps this raft is really made up of many smaller versions, each with its own constituency. Or perhaps the point is not to climb aboard any of the ones you encounter. Ack, I am getting allegorical.

One thing you wrote that sticks in my mind, which is that you don't think about poems when you are writing them. We live inside language. How to think in it and write at the same time? I don't think I can talk to you about writing poems in terms of all the horrific input that comes at us everyday. The person in Marseilles could tell us, but that is not who I want to listen to. I think you make art in spite of everything, and that maybe instead of teaching others, you learn something from this thing that we do.

Love,
John

Click here to purchase Some Notes on My Programming.

Click here to purchase Paradiso Diaspora

 

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

Letters: Truong Tran and Wanda Coleman

Letters to Poets

 

TRUONG TRAN

Truong Tran received his BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz and his MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He has published four volumes of poetry: Placing the Accents (Apogee Press, 1999), The Book of Perceptions (Kearny Street Workshop, 1999), dust and conscience (Apogee Press, 2002) which received the 2002 Poetry Center Book Prize and within the margin (Apogee Press, 2004). He is also the author of a children's book entitled Going Home Coming Home (Children's Book Press, 2003) He was the 2003 Writer in Residence for Intersection for the Arts. He lives in San Francisco where he teaches in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.

 

WANDA COLEMAN

Wanda Coleman was born in 1946 and is the author of Bathwater Wine (Black Sparrow Press, 1998), winner of the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Her other books of poetry include Native in a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors (1996); Hand Dance (1993); African Sleeping Sickness (1990); A War of Eyes & Other Stories (1988); Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 (1988); Imagoes (1983); and Mercurochrome: New Poems (2001). She has also written Mambo Hips & Make Believe: A Novel, published by Black Sparrow Press in 1999. A former medical secretary, magazine editor, journalist and scriptwriter, Coleman has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation for her poetry. She was recently nominated as a Poet Laureate finalist for the state of California.

 

 

San Francisco California
December 23, 2004

Dear Ms. Coleman,

I do not know how to begin. I do not know where to begin. Perhaps here is as good a place as any. I begin with a confession. The task of writing a letter in the context of this project is completely foreign to me. I can blame this partly on technology and the invention of the cursed email, but ultimately it lies entirely upon my shoulders. Letter writing is an art form that is lost to me. In recent times, it has only served as a tool when looking for a job, writing a recommendation for a student, or writing an appeal to the masses in support of the arts, but it has not, in recent memory, served the purpose of intimate correspondence. The fact that I am writing this letter with the knowledge of it being a part of a project meant for publication makes it that much more difficult. In preparing for this journey, I've revisited your work and the text of Letters to a Young Poet. I am at once inspired and in awe. I want to thank you Ms. Coleman for this opportunity of exchange. I consider it to be both an honor and a privilege to be in conversation with you on these urgent matters of poetics, politics, life. I also find myself saddened perhaps by the notion that a correspondence similar to Rilke's cannot exist in our times. I began writing this letter in the days following our election questioning my voice and its validity and authenticity as a person living in and as a part of this society. It is now December 26th and I am still trying to find the words to begin a conversation on poetry and life. Perhaps I can begin by addressing the obvious. Letters to a Young Poet existed in a world entirely different from the one we live in. It is a correspondence between two white men and in all honesty in the context of today's world, it is a conversation that is at once innocent and removed. I wonder if poetry can in fact still embody that sense of innocence. I want to share with you a recent experience. When it first happened, I was deeply offended by the turn of events. It is now nothing more than a humorous anecdote. I was asked to submit some poetry to a well-known academic journal for a special issue of literature pertaining to Vietnam, the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese American experience. I sent them a manuscript of my latest book with the knowledge that such a publication would be unlikely due to the fact that the book layout was rather unorthodox. To my surprise, the editors decided to publish an excerpt from the manuscript. Shortly after this acceptance, another letter came in the mail. The managing editor of this journal essentially asked for the following:

work that was more traditionally lineated and
work that was more Vietnamese in flavor.

I am prepared to accept the thinking of the first request. It is the second request that leaves me at a loss for words. It is a request that reaches far beyond the boundaries of my poetry and is a reflection of life as it exists now in this society. It is a society that still insists on filing individuals into a neat rolodex system of race, gender and sexual orientation. Every word of every line of every poem I've ever written is an embodiment of who I am as a writer, a gay man, a person of color, a writer. I can retell this story anecdotally for the reason that I am very clear on where I stand. I am a writer first, foremost and last. Ms. Coleman, I look forward to our conversations and reading your views on the state of poetry and the poetic life. It is that existence between the space of perceptions and the perceived that I find my own existence. It is in that space that I will initiate our discourse.

Yours truly,
Truong

P.S. Even at the conclusion of this letter, I still feel foreign to the concept. If you are ever in San Francisco, please allow me the opportunity of inviting you over for a home-cooked meal. I would like to meet you face to face, shake your hand and thank you for your work. I would like for us engage beyond the threshold of the page.

 

 

Los Angeles, California
Wednesday, January 19, 2005

From The Desk of WANDA COLEMAN

Dear Truong,

I have been "writing" you since reading your letter yesterday afternoon. It is postmarked the 5th, but I haven't picked up my mail in three weeks. The Wanda Coleman you meet at this late date is not the optimistic word warrior of her previous works. I am the exhausted, "failed" warrior of a terrible present. My dreams reflect this unfortunate turn—as two nights ago I witnessed the glorious moment of destruction as our moon tremored on its axis, left orbit, hurtled toward Earth in brilliant golds, mauves, silver-whites and magenta coronae and plumes, splitting and cracking the cold-perfect blue sky above Southern California, much as I have longed to split and crack the biases and bigotries that bind me to oblivion. I knelt before the roaring winds, embraced my three children (adults, returned to pre-pubescence) and in my final words uttered: "Don't be afraid, I will always love you and we will always be together."

The dream shocked me awake, as I am shocked from sleep quite often these mornings. Grateful to discover I'm still breathing, still in the fray. The only person around to hear me describe my end-of-Earth scenario, my lover of twenty-two years, a man who, following a recent health-related crisis, in which I had done everything in-my-powers to successfully rescue him, felt compelled to confess that throughout our marriage he has been "indifferent" to my dreams. I suppose indifference is the word I'm searching for, Truong. It came to me overnight and wove itself through my subconscious missive to you. [Understand: If this letter seems emotion-ridden, I am struggling to reign in the manic, hypertensive onslaught that now governs my waking hours. I am fighting myself to say cogent and valuable writerly things to you, and not merely glut my letters with personal business that should be reserved for some future private moment, or memoir. Yes, I accept your offer for dinner, as soon as I can get to San Francisco. (My husband's favorite food is Vietnamese, especially that version of it he discovered over twenty-five years ago while living in France before we met. Know that I shared the close of your letter with him, yesterday—I opened your letter while we waited in a consulting physician's examination room—and that he has invited himself along—hahaha.)] Before I continue, let me backtrack and type in the "stuff" I wrote to you last night, about five-thirty:

Dear Truong—Your letter lances so many wounds, old and fresh, I don't know where to begin. At this moment, I'm sitting in the car parked at my favorite meditation spot. It is a viewpoint off Marina del Rey—just south of the Venice Beach canals. You've been here long enough to appreciate California's sunsets. These seem more spectacular than ever, an after-effect of the Great Tsunami that claimed so much of our Pacific Rim. The sky truly rings with fire this evening, at eighty plus degrees in the L.A. basin and above in the High Desert. My husband is napping in the reclining passenger's seat. We ate my picnic dinner of egg-salad sandwiches and lemon cake minutes ago. Marvin Gaye is lilting "sexual feelings/healings" on the soft-jazz radio station. Two light-skinned boys run the walkway, ahead of their well-heeled, high-tone parents. A young blonde trots behind a shaggy brick-red dog half her height as the pier-side lamps come on.

Geez, Truong, I'm old enough to remember this city's last gas-lit street lamps, and the lamplighter who came around on his truck, with ladder, to light them—that street Santa Barbara has been renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. (MLK), and all the old landmarks, including Wrigley Field (a mini-version of the original) and my great Aunt and Uncle's home are vanished. They were the family babysitters and I spent many early months, including my first semester of school at their house. Their old neighborhood is not far from Magic Johnson's Shopping Center and Theatre complex, and many Black and Latino immigrants are displacing the Afro-American population that replaced the Whites who fled after the Baldwin Hills Dam burst, back in 1963. The year I graduated high school, 1964, I took a bus ride into that chic neighborhood. Mr. Newsom, my White English teacher and debate coach lived off Stocker, one of its classier avenues. It was a clean, well-kept neighborhood, then, but notorious for racial and officer involved incidents. I was 17-years-old, big at 5'9" and 200 pounds, but I was terrified that something might happen to me. Mr. Newsom had invited a handful of his best speech-and-debate students to hang out that afternoon. My nervousness about the trip was so great it has blotted out the visit, leaving only the residue of fear, which extended to my return bus ride home. I was so anxious to get back to my neighborhood, I left the leather-bound caddy I was carrying on the bus stop bench. In it were five plays that I had painstakingly written by hand, under the spell of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller. They were my only copies. I didn't realize that they were lost until I got home, and didn't have the money for return fare to hunt for them, and couldn't ask my mother, exhausted from her day's labor at the sweatshop, spending hours bent over a power sewing machine. The young White man who would become my first husband was waiting for me when I got home. He paid our fares as we returned to hunt for the caddy. It was not to be found. As he escorted me back home it couldn't have escaped him that he had made another favorable impression.

Loss. Your letter underscores the losses that drive me. Lost moments, lost possibilities, all that's been lost on the many gone. The loss of dreams . . .

Truong, I wake each morning in a fury. Each night I descend into fury.

The Loss of relaxation . . . calm . . . a million fleeting sunsets lost . . . so here we are, you and I, at a time in history when this nation squanders its finest artists and intellectuals, its true greatness . . . when poets are valueless, suspect, impotent . . .

What can I tell you?

No, what can I save you from?

I can tell you to expect nothing from the world of American Letters, so that when something happens you might enjoy it. I can tell you to stop wasting your time on poetry and write a simpering novel or fake self-help book, or some preposterous tome telling morons-of-any-stripe how they can find undying love. Make it as cliché-ridden and banal, as politically correct (or incorrect, since neither matters) as possible, dripping with sentiment. Do it and make the TV talk-show rounds. Make the goo-gobs of money that you will need to buy quality time, time free of dolor, time to write at leisure. Then you can side-step the supercilious fools one often finds on grantsmanship panels and philanthropic committees.

No. Fuck that. The cynic in me grabs the pen. Let me stop this madness and back up. I will address your letter directly. I will use it as ballast to bring me back to the Earth of myself!

10:44:44 AM—I'm going to stop now, take a break, collect my thoughts and then comment on the critical point you raise in your letter. Back shortly.

1:39:06 PM - Item #1 refers to your form. Let's address item #2, the phrase that has put you at a loss: "work that was more Vietnamese in flavor." What does that kind of calculated rejection mean? This is a variation on the old "you're not Black enough" ploy that, ironically, even when valid, is a convenient repudiation that conceals racist bias (although it may be adamantly claimed otherwise). It is frequently used to demoralize anyone Black (of Slave Origin), regardless of skin color. It refers to the content of the artist's work.

The critic, editor or publisher or reader who makes this statement is usually a White male or female who presumes to be an expert on "Blackness," or at minimum, to have an appreciative knowledge of Black/ethnic expression, or popular contemporary representation(s) of the Black experience, a.k.a. stereotypes. Depending upon this person's aesthetic criteria, they may want work that's "stronger," that is, work that is militant or decries racism, and/or is urban in tone, subject and point-of-view. Or (as I have encountered in the pitch dens of Hollywood) they may want work that is idyllic, rural, lyrical or "positive" (non-threatening). Whatever they think they want, this thoughtless manner of requesting it is extremely offensive, and usually deliberate. This phenomenon has bedeviled African-Americans (I'll stick to poets) since the days of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), particularly Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) and Melvin B. Tolson (1900-1966). This insidious means of confounding and trivializing the literary excellence of we so-called minorities has been used against virtually every member of every ethnic group American society has produced: "You're not Indian enough, you're not Jewish enough, you're not Mexican or Puerto Rican enough, you're not 'Oriental' enough," ad infinitum. Unless the individual who rejected you was Vietnamese, him or herself, how dare they presume to know what comprises or doesn't comprise "Vietnamese flavor?" In your case this translates as not being Vietnamese enough. Are they referring to a form of pidgin English, a certain regional dialect, issue-oriented content? All of that? If they, themselves, are Vietnamese, other factors may be at work: as aesthetic taste, editorial slant, any subsumed innergroup conflict (as when lighter-skinned Blacks reject darker-skinned Blacks or vice versa), differences in national identity.

On the other hand, it is up to each individual writer to decide how they want to handle this root issue of "otherness." As I have described in some of my writings about writing, the constant re-examination of what is African and what is American in my work has been a ceaseless process. Your version of this process now confronts you: What in the hell is "Vietnamese flavor?" You have two options: (1) to ignore this question, if you can, or (2) devise an answer with which you, and only you, are satisfied, if not permanently, then for the interim, so that it doesn't "fuck with your head" or impede your creative process.

How have I done that?

I was raised by parents who did not allow identifiable idiomatic speech, Black slang or "foul language" into their home. First I memorized the King's English and his grammar. I learned the rules so that I could break them with artistry as opposed to chance. Simultaneously, I then began to "collect" all the language I was not allowed to use, along with various other cants and jargons. I have developed a mental list of stylistic and/or linguistic "signals" or "stops" that tell the initiated and/or sensitive reader that there is "something else" going on underneath my language, something that is out-of-the ordinary. These are widely ranging rhetorical devices by which I encode my blackness (the way '50s scriptwriters encoded sex), using everything from nonsensical "niggerisms," to literary allusions, mock and variant spellings, period slang, song lines and titles, musical notation, etcetera. I've also cultivated an occasionally "skewed" approach to subjects that may be overworked in the culture at any given moment. I've worked extremely hard to "individuate" my language as opposed to individuating my style, although I think either method is equally valid. (The poems of Timothy Seibles, provide a delightful example of how "skewed" points-of-view individuate language.)

[As you might notice, if you read enough contemporary African-American poets, and contemporary poets of other origins under their influence (this touches on the acculturation process), most, with about a half-dozen exceptions, have settled on pouring their "Blackness" or "otherness" into conventional forms, so that the only thing "Black" or "other" about their work is the content. (This, unfortunately, becomes tiresome when one sits through a long evening of Slam poetry.) I enjoy doing this on the page, as in "Retro Rogue Gallery," Mercurochrome.]

Now—all of that said, what if the person who makes point #2 is not a racist? I address this by describing a like incident in the poem "Poetry Lesson Number Two" (Hand Dance).

Smugly I showed him my notebook. He read silently for a/few minutes/as I watched him turn the pages with what I felt to be the/proper amount/of attention deserved. I expected acceptance johnny-on-the-spot. Then he dead-eyed me and said flatly, "These look very familiar."

It would have been very easy for me to dismiss my White-male critic as racist. I had "vibed on" the man, and can still see him now—stance relaxed, off-axis, arms folded—and hear his voice. Something inside me would not let me dismiss his open face, frank nonjudgmental eyes, blonde hair parted on his right, like an aged Huckleberry Finn minus the freckles, slight but muscular frame. Not one hint of sexual come on, yet careful observation and appraisal. I re-visualized that moment repeatedly for days into weeks. Finally, I got out several chapbooks by some of the big-name Blacks of the era (late '60s to early '70s) and made unsparing comparisons. I then took my poems and began to dissect them, bringing other influences into the process.

Perhaps it is time for you to undergo a like process, to examine the work of other Vietnamese poets, and/or those influences at work on your psyche, to attempt to "'objectify" them, as much as that's possible, and then apply or test what you garner.

Otherwise, do as I have done with rejections calculated to harm me: forget them.

Hmm. Before I close, I want to tell you a story I often relate that may further illustrate the issue you raise in item #2, summarized in one word: Authenticity.

In 1994, I was invited to be a peer-review panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts. (I think the NEA has one of the fairest "blind" peer review processes devised to date.) As usual, I arrived in D.C. in a state of exhaustion, given my frantic lifestyle, and having flown three-thousand miles without a break except a few hours sleep. I was still on L.A. time. That morning I arrived last to the opening session, making the kind of awkward and noisy entry persons of bulk are apt to do when in a hurry; a sight in my favorite Dr. Seuss hat, power slacks suit, black-leather boots, draped in a "cat hair" throw. Having encountered me over the years, a couple of my peers, and one member of the staff, were familiar with my unorthodox style. Those who weren't, either squelched or grappled with their distaste, while others immediately dismissed me. The staff had taken pains to insure the fairness of the panel. Around the table the demographics were covered, some nine panelists encompassing two or three categories including two Latinos, two Black women, at least two identifiable homosexuals (male and female), and one lay person or non-poet, two Californians, two Chicagoans, one D.C. resident, several academics, at least three politicos, etc. I was the least formally educated of the group, having pulled myself up "by my own bootstraps," as the saying goes. It is the usual nature of such grant-selection processes that conflicts arise and alliances shift in the name of literary craft excellence, but in two striking instances it came down to one panelist going against the apparent aesthetic values of the other eight. Each time that one panelist was yours truly, Wanda Coleman.

I quickly realized that I was the only one at the table who had read every single bloody application, word for-word. Instead of regarding me favorably as having remarkable integrity, my peers thought me an idiot and fool for having done so. I had even taken the pains of jotting down my evaluations on green 5" x 8" cards in order to present them succinctly and not waste my fellow panelists' precious time. They found this amusing.

In the first of the two conflicts, I was advocating for one of the strongest manuscripts of the hundreds I had read (each panelist read an overlapping two-thirds of the nine to twelve-hundred manuscripts submitted). Not only was the writing topnotch, it was one of the rare manuscripts that addressed the complexities of human sexuality. When my peers remained unconvinced, I took it upon myself to read one of the misread or unread poems aloud. I wanted my peers to hear what I heard. It was titled "Prayer" and it had a litany, a repetition of the words "Gay men." It was obvious to me that the author intended the poem to be read so that "Gay men" sounded like "A-men." I then read the poem in that fashion. My peers immediately changed their votes and supported that particular poet; however, from that point forward they banned me from reading any more poems aloud, someone stating that I could read the telephone book aloud and make it sound poetic.

The second instance is more complex, and the more significant. During the initial weeding-out process, we were allowed to select only a small number of "semifinalists" from the hundreds of manuscripts we read. Once I had selected all of my choices except one, I ended up with four manuscripts I felt were of equal merit, if for varying reasons. But I could only select one. I decided to ask my husband, also a poet and English teacher, to help me out by evaluating the four. The one he selected was a collection of exquisitely painful, excellently written poems that moved him to tears. They spun the horrific narrative of a Vietnamese woman who, along with her brother, mother and maternal aunt, had escaped during the evacuation at the end of the war as "boat people." Her tale involved capture by pirates, brutal rape, and the separation of herself and her brother from her mother and aunt. The children miraculously ended up in America, the mother and aunt in France, the story ending with a poignant reunion following the untimely death of the mother.

"Wanda," he said, blowing into Kleenex, "these are great poems. She's a great writer. You've got to let her go through the process."

I looked at him quizzically. We had had hundreds of complex discussions, even arguments, on the literary works of others over the years—thirteen at that point. "Austin," I snapped, "those poems weren't written by a woman, they were written by a man—a White one at that." "You're kidding."

"No, I'm not." I took the ms and explained my reasoning. First, the traditional line breaks were perfect and highly sophisticated. Second, the (implied) sentence structure was perfect. The character (if she were also the writer) had not been in the U.S. long enough to develop that much syntactical sophistication, unless she had a staggering frontal lobe development, an I.Q. above 200 and a photographic memory. Thirdly, the sexual content was written in a male tone, with a confidence few women writers assume—even feminists. Fourth, the dialogue was perfect, minimal, without a wasted word, and moved the narrative forward in a fashion that told me the writer was an accomplished scriptwriter as well as a poet. Fifth, there was a laid-back or understated polished lyricism to the language that told me this was "someone in our neck of the woods—someone who lives on the West Coast."

"No, no!" Austin vehemently insisted. "Suppose you're wrong? Then you're denying a great woman writer an opportunity. You wouldn't want anyone to do that to you!"

That decided me. I was certain that I was right. But I had had exactly that kind of thing happen to me, and I couldn't do it to anyone else, regardless of who they were. It sickened me whenever I was penalized for being "too good." That manuscript was my final selection.

Now it was up for consideration by we nine NEA peer panelists. By chance, the person sitting to my left was the first to present their case for or against the manuscript by the "Vietnamese woman" poet. That meant I would be last to present my opinion. One by one, each person, regardless of demographics, ranked the manuscript the highest rank possible, a score of 10 points. To a person, each panelist raved about the "Vietnamese woman" who had written these incredible poems, their eyes actually tearing, and, like Austin, most snotted into Kleenex tissues as a box was passed around the table, their heartstrings undoubtedly on maximum pluck.

My turn came.

"These poems raise the issue of authenticity," I opened. "Ordinarily, I would rank these poems a one or zero because these poems were not written by a woman. They were written by a man." There was a collective gasp. "And a White man at that." All spines went rigid.

One by one, I laid out my criteria, as I had for Austin. I also told them that I had read this woman's story, or something identical to it, in the Los Angeles Times, mere weeks before (I had), and had, coincidentally, seen it, or something that corresponded to it, on CNN the night before, in my hotel room, before finally going to sleep. My peers were livid with disbelief, so I slammed it to them out loud.

"If he's that good, good enough to fool all of you," I smirked, "Let-The-Man-Have-His-Money!"

I gave the manuscript a ten as well.

Everyone seemed either upset or outraged by my bold certainty. But we were adjourned for lunch without further discussion. Since that was the last manuscript to undergo scrutiny, and finalists had been chosen, it was only a matter of arranging them according to numerical rank, (all ties had been broken) and re-assembling the panel for closing comments and any input regarding the peer-review process. This now controversial manuscript was the highest ranking manuscript, the only one to receive nine straight tens.

Usually, at the end of these processes, everyone is watching the clock, and it is considered a coup when travel-weary panelists can get away early, with extra time to make planes or deepen new alliances. I had been given the impression that it would take at least three hours or more to wrap up everything. During our one-hour lunch I went on a walking tour of the Vietnam memorial, discovering the name of one of my high school classmates.

Unbeknownst to me, I had caused such a hubbub among everyone, the staffers and the peer panel chairperson had decided to forego lunch and complete the final tally, speeding up the process in order to prove me wrong! They thought it intolerable to make everyone go back to their lives with the controversy unresolved, having to wait four-to-six weeks for the bureaucracy to spit out formal letters naming all finalists selected by our panel. Under NEA rules, the only way the identities of the finalists could be revealed was after the completion of the final tally, when the grants to the poets were effectively made. Once that was done, they could, in effect, legally "take off the blinders" and reveal the names of the award-winners.

Of course, they were only interested in discovering the name of the Vietnamese woman poet.

I returned from lunch slightly early and as I entered the room, someone screamed.

"Wanda was right!"

As it turned out, the writer of the poems was a highly educated White male, a Californian, a professor at one of the nation's top ten universities, who was also a Hollywood television scriptwriter, the type of poet who usually culls his poems not from the stuff of his life, but from events in the lives of others. Apparently, unlike you, he did manage to write poems that had the proper "Vietnamese flavor."

While it might be unfair, and certainly incorrect, to characterize all my peers as racists, the complexities of racism did create the subtext for their ignoring or being indifferent to the information I brought to the process. I was less educated/didn't have a degree to my name (still don't), I was from the West or "left" coast, my style of dress didn't meet with the approval of most; unlike the other Black female, I was not considered "royalty" (it was pointed out to me that her father was an important man in the political arena), I was working-class poor, etc.

In this democratic republic, these social differences were nevertheless, grounds for the dismissal of my observations, which were not given full weight or importance until they could be absolutely proven true. They were indifferent to my assessment. (This harks back to the days when Black witnesses were not allowed to testify in court against Whites accused of crimes. Black testimony was held "suspect," unless sanctioned by White authority. Metaphorically, this mechanism is still at work in America.)

Too, it seemed that most of my peers had other agenda and, perhaps, suspect motives themselves. This is a textbook example of what you've identified. This society files "individuals into a neat Rolodex system of race, gender and sexual orientation." Instead of an open society, fostering racial harmony and parity, the racists-of-all stripes have seen to it that post-Civil Rights "affirmative-action" America has devolved into a Y concatenation of socioeconomic elites that is parasitic on the diverse majority of citizens collectively regarded as inferior. It is automatically understood that the representatives of these elites limit their "business" to or feed-on their same ilk only; therefore, as in our 1994 panel, the gays were there to offer expertise on gays, the women on women, the Blacks on Blacks, the Latinos on Latinos, and so on. If the true criterion were literary excellence, and if our society were a true democracy, then who sat on that panel would not have mattered.

Truong, I doubt that I was the only one of my so-called peers for whom literary excellence was the only criterion; however, I was the only one able to pierce the fictive narrative and detect the true nature of the poet beneath. In so saying, it doesn't mean that I can't be fooled, it merely indicates that I wasn't fooled on that occasion, and, although largely self-educated, I know my craft extremely well. This incident did not win me any friends I didn't already have, and I have not been invited to sit on a peer panel out-of-state since.

Well, Truong, it is time to close. I hope I have answered your question, and that item #2 has been thoroughly addressed. If I've raised more questions, feel free to ask them in your next letter. I'll do my best. And I'll try not to rattle on for so many pages. Until . . .

Last Night: After my husband Austin woke from his nap, we drove into Santa Monica to see one of the current film releases. I am sick of wasting my eyeballs on the current crop of mindless muscle-heavy cinema, which seems as ludicrous as ever (like Mann's Collateral, and that major piece-of-shit The Forgotten—I laughed myself sick during the first, and we walked out on the latter). We caught Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea, more the glorified fan letter/ homage than a movie, usually not the kind of flick I like, corny and marginally skirting sentimentality, but it aced our critical faculties and struck us warmly.

You may call me Wanda.
Sunday, January 23, 2005 -- 8:18 AM

P.S. You'll find this letter is now a combination of four, since I've started and stopped at least that many times. One of the things that I forgot to say at the outset, is that when I was in my mid-twenties, my most important formative years, I hungered for a correspondence like this but it was not to happen, perhaps for the obvious "demographic" reasons. I was starved for a guidance I never quite received. What I did manage to acquire, or whatever I was given, seemed tainted by the issues of the day, that world in which I was regarded as suspect, or literally as a suspect, born snatching purses, holding up liquor stores, selling sex while still in diapers. Sigh. Anyway I'm going to finish this now and mail it in the morning. My apologies for being late, it could not be helped, and why is too long a story to tell in this already overly long message.

 

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006