What’s at Stake These Days When Writing Poems that Might Offend And a Poem as an Example by Keetje Kuipers

American poet Keetje Kuipers.

I buy my white daughter a black doll

and she cries and she sleeps and she rides
through our kitchen in a pink stroller. She takes
a tiny bottle in her pursed lips, and every night

she takes a bubble bath. As my daughter drapes
a washcloth across her brown shoulders
and down her delicately curved back, I think

about the man I loved years ago – his elbows,
his knees, those ashy places I caressed without
understanding and how his mother told me

make sure he mositurizes, as if she agreed I had
any business caretaking his body in a country
that would rather see him dead. What do I

think I can teach my daughter, especially when
I’ve still learned so little? Only that we might all
be transformed by our own unknowing love.

Keetje Kuipers from All its Charms, BOA Editions, 2019

With on-line trolling a common occurrence these days poetry and poets are not immune. And not just on-line trolling.  Poems on sensitive subjects whether or not handled well (that’s part of a discussion) are being targeted for criticism that in certain cases feels unmeasured and one-sided, more like personal shaming. No fruitful discussion. A mob mentality seems to occur. And outrage is invited to win the day. Not a measured weighing in.

I ventured into this topic a few months ago when discussing Tony Hoagland’s poem, Change but I wanted to add some more thoughts to this issue which might be persuading poets to take fewer risks in their poems. Especially after Ukranian/American poet Ilya Kaminsky came into a round of internet abuse a few weeks ago calling for him to go home. Not sure whether or not this was based on political comments he made on twitter or Facebook or blow-back from his recent book Deaf Republic which has two poems that specifically focus politically and personally on events in the U.S.  Regardless, that kind of shrill response is another example for me of a scary malaise in our time.

This is why I have featured Keetje Kuipers poem above which she calls a failure in an article in Poetry Northwest discussing the challenge of not only writing on tough subjects but also when any poem feels not quite right, a failure. And I would add she means by that a necessary failure:

I Buy My White Daughter a Black Doll was and remains a most definite failure in many ways, particularly in terms of my being able to bring sufficient complication to the themes and figures of the poem. However, I sought a home for it because I found the idea of sharing my failure (and, more importantly, my attempt) to be an important part of being a citizen poet. How can we ever hope to get it right if we never risk getting it all wrong? (Based on this notion of failure Kuipers initiated a series on failure in Poetry Northwest. To read that series please click here.)

Kuipers says a lot about her poem in her article. Especially the reasons friends gave her for not publishing it: Their list of reasons was long, but all boiled down to the same thing: The combined elements of race, ownership, and the body created a series of subjects too sensitive for me, a white poet, to touch. Their message was clear: There’s no way you’ll ever be able to get this right.

But after hearing a talk titled Practicing Failure by black American poet Terrance Hayes she decided after many rewrites to give it a try, to publish it. As he spoke, a feeling I had been carrying around inside of me began to become a thought. My poem’s meaning—its very reason for existing—was intricately bound up in its inevitable failure. The purpose of writing it wasn’t to “get it right”—to demonstrate myself as an ally or to attempt to absolve my own complicity in the mortally racist culture we all make our lives in. I hadn’t started writing the poem because I wanted to look good; I’d started writing it because it scared the hell out of me, and that still felt like an act of social engagement that might have some value.

But perhaps no matter one’s self-said “good intentions” there is risk at being perceived as getting it all wrong. Other more recent examples of even more extreme and especially negative responses to controversial poems include: Anders Carson-Wee’s poem, How-To, in the Nation last year, Rachel Custer’s poem, How I Am Like Donald Trump in Rattle’s on-line feature, Poet’s Respond, in October, 2016 and Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s poem Titan/All is Still in Poetry magazine. (For an in-depth look at the controversies around the Carson-Wee, Custer and Rivas poems please click here to read Poetic Injustice and Performative Outrage by American poet Clint Margrave in the on-line non-profit publication Quillette.)

Here is Custer from the Quillette article: “Even if you are truly offended by a poem, then all I want to say is fine, that’s your right. Be offended. You know what adults do when they are offended? They feel offended and move on,” says Custer. “I am offended in my very spirit by people who use their power to try to silence the art of others, under some guise of righteousness.

What I find concerning is that this way of public shaming may cause responsible and thoughtful poets to stop taking risks when addressing tricky and controversial subjects. Or say  a male poet choosing to write in the POV of a woman or visa versa or a white male poet in the voice of a black man or woman. Or is this even possible anymore?

Tim Green, the highly respected editor of Rattle magazine, who strongly objects to the trend of mob shaming, says this in the Quillette article:

Angry letters to the editor have been a normal part of the publishing industry since the invention of the printing press. There will always be outraged cranks looking for a target. The only difference now is that the internet gives them a stage to play on… All we have to do is stop listening to people who have no interest in dialogue. And listening instead to the people with different opinions who want to have dialogue. That’s the only way we learn. And that means reaching out to both the Left and the Right and embracing conversation. I think the tide is turning, actually, though there’s a long way to go.

I have struggled with this issue of labeling poems and their poets as one bad thing or another ever since the controversy over Hoagland’s poem Change erupted in 2011. Writing a poem that is perceived to be failed or flawed  is one thing, to have your reputation smeared by it for the long term is another. To put this another way: to be be told your poem is bad or failed is very different from being told that one poem makes you bad and a failure as well. To read American poet Terrance Hayes on this please read below.

So, with the reality of widespread mob shaming on-line, justified or not, as opposed to constructive dialogue what should poets do? Kuipers says keep writing those risky poems.  And I might add with that to write them as well and responsibly as you can. I faced this dilemma when writing as a white person a poem in the voice of a black survivor of the Rwanda genocide in my collection Hyaena Season (2016). It seemed the only way for me to get inside the skin of his experience as I did have access to interviews the survivor Innocent had given. It made it so much more real for me. And I am encouraged by what the black American poet Terrance Hayes says (see below) about attempting something like this: There’s nothing you can’t do, you just have to do it well. So for me that’s the question: not why did I do it but did I do it well? To read my poem, The Hill of Kayumba: Innocent’s Lament please click here.

Here are some further thoughts on this I have found particularly useful in an article in the UK by the poet Kathryn Maris sub-titled titled Essays on offensiveness, risk and the risque. In this article she quotes extensively from an interview with Terrence Hayes and the American podcaster and poet Rachel Zucker. Here is an excerpt:

The reverberations can be felt also when American poets now ask themselves what is and isn’t permissible. “There’s a line between being usefully offensive and just bad”, Rachel Zucker speculates in a two-hour interview with Terrance Hayes in episode 18 of her podcast Commonplace. Almost inevitably Hoagland comes up in the conversation. “It’s a good poem”, Hayes says of ‘Adam and Eve’ [ another Hoagland poem they discussed]. “[Hoagland] is working out impulse and desire […] But with ‘The Change’, I saw him trying to make a similar effort, but underestimating the weight of history.” That ‘The Change’ was a miscalculation by a skilled poet who thought that gender and race could be interchangeably subversive is forgivable, Hayes believes. “Is Tony Hoagland a racist or putting out racist views? I would say no. He wrote a bad poem.”

Hayes and Zucker continue:

Zucker: Can you write a good racist poem?

Hayes: A persona poem, sure. Patricia Smith has done it: Skinhead. But it’s not really clear that the persona is working.

Zucker: I don’t want to see a white person write that persona poem.

Hayes: That’s is the risk! As Gertrude Stain says, “If it can be done, why do it.” So it’s like, only do that shit that can’t be done. That’s a very basic Gertrude Stein argument[…] [The poem] is under more pressure when you get into zones of race, class and gender but it’s still the same. There’s nothing you can’t do, you just have to do it well.

The “you have to do it well” admonition strikes home for me. Encourages me and I hope, other poets, to take risks but not naively!






One Comment

  1. Posted July 28, 2019 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    I think this is a good poem, but, like Tony, she could have gone further at the end, asking if there are some who never change. When is love not enough? That sort of thing. She just needed, once again, to go a little further.

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