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A Poem in The Nation Spurs a Backlash and an Apology

Since its founding in 1865, The Nation has published some of the most important voices in American poetry, including Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Rich.

But last week, the venerable progressive weekly published what may have been a first: an apology for one of its offerings that ran twice as long as the poem itself.

The 14-line poem, by a young poet named Anders Carlson-Wee, was posted on the magazine’s website on July 5. Called “How-To,” and seemingly written in the voice of a homeless person begging for handouts, if offered advice on how to play on the moral self-regard of passers-by by playing up, or even inventing, hardship.

But after a firestorm of criticism on social media over a white poet’s attempt at black vernacular, as well as a line in which the speaker makes reference to being “crippled,” the magazine said it had made a “serious mistake” in publishing it.

“We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem,” the magazine’s poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, wrote in a statement posted on Twitter last week, which was appended to the poem on the magazine’s website a day later, along with an editor’s note calling the poem’s language “disparaging and ableist.”

“When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which member of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization,” they wrote. But “we can no longer read the poem in that way.”

Mr. Carlson-Wee also posted his own apology. “Treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me, and I am profoundly regretful,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook and Twitter.

For an art form starved for attention, it was not the kind of publicity poetry needed. To the mostly right-leaning media outlets who covered the controversy, it was just the latest skirmish in the broader battle over cultural appropriation and political correctness.

That debate shows no signs of abating. Earlier this month, after intense criticism, a theater in Montreal cut short the run of a production by the director Robert Lepage that featured mostly white actors playing black slaves. A week later, the actress Scarlett Johansson withdrew from playing a transgender role after an online outcry.

The Nation did not remove or alter the poem. But its handling of the incident provoked criticism even from within its ranks for the way it broke with the magazine’s traditional way of handling controversy: by publishing critical letters, not by ducking for cover from Twitter storms.

“I can’t believe @thenation’s poetry editors published that craven apology for a poem they thought was good enough to publish,” Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the magazine and herself a poet, said on Twitter on Tuesday. The apology, she wrote, “looks like a letter from re-education camp.”

Online battles over cultural appropriation may be relatively new, but Mr. Carlson-Wee’s poem is part of a long, queasy history of white poets adopting black vernacular.

Some of that work remains important, if cringe-making, like the portions of John Berryman’s magnum opus, “The Dream Songs,” written in the 1960s, that adopt a “blackface” persona. Other work has aged even less well, like Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo,” first published in 1912, which includes lines like “‘BLOOD’ screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors.” (A recitation of parts of the poem was included in the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society,” complete with exuberant jungle whoops.)

While few today would attempt that kind of mimicry, some white poets have been accused of flip appropriations of black experience and black pain under the guise of postmodern irony and experimentation.

In 2015, the poet and conceptual artist Vanessa Place drew intense criticism for an online performance art project that involved retweeting “Gone With the Wind” line by line, alongside a photograph of the character Mammy. The same year, the experimental poet Kenneth Goldsmith was harshly criticized for “The Body of Michael Brown,” a piece that consisted of a public reading of jumbled portions of the autopsy for the young African-American man who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

In an essay on the website of the Asian-American Writers Workshop, the poet Ken Chen, in a sentiment echoed by other critics, called both works “a sadistic but hardly untrendy high-art genre: the avant-garde minstrel show.”

Mr. Carlson-Wee’s poem might seem like a more earnest, if linguistically twisty, attempt to channel a homeless person trying to appeal to passers-by for some change.

“If you got hiv, say aids,” begins the list of advice. “If you a girl, say you’re pregnant.” Later, it says:

Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop.

The speaker continues: “If you’re crippled, don’t flaunt it.”

After Mr. Carlson-Wee posted an excited tweet announcing publication of the poem, the negative reaction was swift.

“I’m trying to understand the voice in this poem,” Nate Marshall, an African-American poet from Chicago, tweeted in reply. “It feels offensive to me and like it’s trafficking inappropriately in Black language but is there something I’m missing?”

The writer Roxane Gay, in a separate string of tweets commenting on white writers who use African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE, was more blunt.

“Don’t use AAVE. Don’t even try it,” she said. “Know your lane.”

Hieu Minh Nguyen, a poet and performer based in Minneapolis whom Mr. Carlson-Wee had tagged in his tweet (which has since been deleted), noted on Twitter that he had been shown the poem before publication, but offered only critical comments.

“I fell as though tagging me as an ‘editor’ of the poem was an intentional way of showing that a PoC” — a person of color — “co-signed this offensive poem,” he wrote.

Dr. Burt, a professor at Harvard who has contributed articles and reviews to The New York Times, said that she and Ms. Smith, a poet and a professor at Virginia Tech, would offer no comment beyond the statement on the website. A spokesman for The Nation, Peter Rothberg, also said the magazine would offer no further comment, but noted that the apology posted on the website, while it reflected the position of the magazine, was written entirely by the two poetry editors.

Reached by email, Mr. Carlson-Wee — whose first book, “The Low Passions,” coming out next year, is written “through the eyes of a young drifter,” according to information on his publisher’s website — declined to answer a list of questions. He also declined to address how he felt about the magazine’s blunt judgment, in the editor’s note, that the language of his poem was “disparaging.”

Instead, he offered a terse restatement of his own online apology.

“I intended for this poem to address the invisibility of homelessness,” he said. “Clearly it doesn’t work.”



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