Joel Dias-Porter, On Politics and Poetry

29 Apr

Many years ago, after attending the second Cave Canem Retreat, I attended a luncheon in Washington DC with a few poets, one of whom was the current Poet Laureate of the United States. During the conversation the topic of Cave Canem came up. There was some discussion by all the poets present, both black and white, about the necessity for such a workshop. The Laureate said something to the effect of “I don’t know that there’s any need for such a workshop to exist, that there’s anything different it can provide black poets.” I remember thinking to myself that I agreed, not that there was no need for Cave Canem to exist, but rather that he didn’t know of such a need. Indeed how could he, there is nothing in his experience that could enable him to understand how the world operates for people of color and the privilege he enjoys shields him from ever even having to consider many of the dilemmas said people face every day. My point here is not to castigate him, as Poet Laureate he had done an exemplary job of reaching out to and working with community based writing workshops and writing programs in area schools, programs which served a mostly minority population. But he seemed to be completely unaware of how his unacknowledged privilege of whiteness made it almost impossible for him to accurately address this issue in an informed way.

One of the things I’d like to examine is exactly how privilege works. As a straight African-American male I experience oppression across only one of those three axes. Across the axis of sex and sexual orientation I benefit from the privilege of the dominant group. This privilege is generally almost invisible, but should not be mistaken for being non-existent. Let’s look at one of the ways this privilege works with respect to my poems. Once an avid pickup basketball player, years ago I wrote the following haiku;

August sun-

sprinting up the court shirtless


There is little even remotely political about this poem, there is the image of basketball players sprinting up the court in their glossy sweaters of sweat on a sunny August day. But how would this same poem be read if it were attributed to Adrienne Rich? The language could stay exactly the same, but the poem would read very differently; for one thing a woman or group of women playing basketball outdoors shirtless would be a pretty powerful statement on its own. The word “shining” now has extra resonance, as it can be read as the women reveling in their act of societal defiance. The exact same poem, by me merely a description of guys exercising on a summer day, by her a powerful feminist statement. But my poem has the privilege of being taken on its own aesthetic merits as a piece of art, never being accused of engaging in “Identity Politics.” Let’s look at another example;

pretending not

to notice her hand in his-

the waning moon

I was walking through a new casino here in Atlantic City very late one night a few weeks ago and came across a woman in whom I have had an intense romantic interest the last few years. She was walking hand in hand with her evidently new boyfriend. The sight was quite a shock, one that caused me a bit of consternation, in fact I turned for the exit, and ahead of me through the giant windows I could see the reflection of the moon rippling across the Atlantic, a sight that caused me to look up at the moon itself. The waning moon, while being a real concrete object I actually observed, also functions as a metaphor for my chances to be with her. But how would this same haiku work if the relationship in the poem was same sex?

pretending not

to notice his hand in his-

the waning moon

Even if the poem is attributed to me as a straight male, it suddenly has stronger socio-political implications. Is it now the same sex aspect of the relationship that I am pretending not to notice? And if this poem were attributed to someone who was known to engage in same sex relationships the poem now becomes almost an outright political statement. The same poem attributed to me without the same sex relationship has none of these complications, that is I have the privilege of writing about love or heartbreak and having the poem read as just that. For a gay man or lesbian woman every love poem they write can be accused of playing “Identity Politics” when they may just be suffering from heartbreak. Of course they have the option of writing in such a way that the same sex aspect is less visible (or invisible), but this is something that heterosexuals never have to do or even consider. The amount of privilege enjoyed by heterosexuals in this regard is substantial. For this reason and others I often take with a grain of salt criticism of poets like Rich or Nikky Finney that their work is ‘too’ political, remarks that often come from people who enjoy a considerable amount of privilege in this regard. And even if they come from other minorities, they come framed by a dominant perspective that is formed in privilege.

When discussing poems and the issue of Identity Politics comes up, one of the questions I like to ask, of myself and the others in the conversation, is whether or not not we are fully respecting the humanity of the writer involved. It is very common for such a writer to be quickly reduced to a member of a certain societal group as opposed to be seen as an individual. In fact, they are often accused of doing this to themselves, an accusation which is absurd. If I as an African-American write a poem which in some way involves or addresses an inequality or oppression I’ve suffered or witnessed there is very often a tendency by readers (including African-American readers) to do something I call not giving the benefit of the conceptual doubt. That is, the issue is seen as being strictly of concern to members of that group or perhaps the oppressing group, but of no real interest to others because the situation isn’t seen to apply to others. But why can’t the poem be read as one human dealing with inequality or oppression across some axis X, where X is a variable? There are many ways in which humans can be oppressed or treated unequally and often this treatment shares similarities across various axes of oppression. But writers of these types of poems are rarely given this benefit of the doubt and instead are seen as strictly spokespeople for their specific group, instead of one human speaking about a situation which might occur across multiple axes of oppression. The unspoken truth is that the experience of oppression is in fact a near universal one for human beings. Throughout the history of the human race, the majority of humans alive at any given time have been oppressed. Half the race is female, almost all of whom have faced severe oppression, oppression which tends to get worse the further back in time one goes, so it follows logically that if there are any substantial amount of males who have also suffered oppression, whether across the axis of sexual orientation or for racial or ethnic reasons, then the balance tips. Of course at any given time, there have been whole populations of people who have suffered severe oppression for ethnic or racial reasons. This is an undeniable fact, yet oppression is viewed as something that primarily happens to minorities and therefore to a minority of all people. This idea that the universal experience or perspective is one of not being oppressed is a fiction, another privilege enjoyed by whomever is dominant at any given time. It is a viewpoint that is not verified by the facts, but is rather in the words of the poet Kenneth Carroll “validated by gunpowder.”

There is a non-trivial difference between a perspective being “universal” and it being merely dominant. And one of the things we all can do moving forward as careful readers is to investigate and understand that difference. Another thing that we can all do is to understand that by viewing work through the lens of Identity Politics we are stripping the writers of their humanity, reducing them from individuals to mere representatives of whatever group we see them as being members of.

Joel Dias-Porter was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, and was a professional DJ in the DC area. From 1994- 1999 he competed in the National Poetry Slam, and was the 1998 and 99 Haiku Slam Champion. Places his poems have been published include Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Callaloo, Antioch Review, Red Brick Review, Beltway Quarterly and the anthologies Gathering Ground, Love Poetry Out Loud, Meow: Spoken Word from the Black Cat, Short Fuse, Role Call, Def Poetry Jam, 360 Degrees of Black Poetry, Slam (The Book), Revival: Spoken Word from Lollapallooza, Poetry Nation, Beyond the Frontier, Spoken Word Revolution, Catch a Fire, and The Black Rooster Social Inn, an anthology of poems and photos of visual art. In 1995, he received the Furious Flower “Emerging Poet Award” from James Madison University. Performances include the Today Show, the documentary SlamNation, on BET, and in the feature film Slam. A Cave Canem fellow and the father of a young son, he has a CD of jazz and poetry on Black Magi Music, entitled “LibationSong”.

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