Friday, November 8, 2013

No use for the obtuse (when writing about the less privileged)

Yesterday I straight up walked out of a poetry reading on a college campus. I found the content of one of the readers repulsive and degrading. He was using "washed up" strippers and sex workers as props to create a post apocalyptic fantasyscape and that was not okay with me.
I am a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fantasyscapes. But the use of sex workers as the primary prop to do so made me gag a little. Okay, a lot.

Old white novelist guy this one's for you:
First off newsflash: sex workers are people yo. Please don't use them, or assume that based on the services they provide that they as a group of humans can be treated as a stock of stereotypes to paint a more sleazy setting. You were probably thinking something on these lines: oh yea I want some sleaze, I'll just use some sex workers, they don't mind being used and dehumanized right? They won't mind or have any more thoughts or personality. It's their job to be used so they won't mind! Sir, fuck you. For your sake and for the sake of your readers I hope you learn how to write better in the future.
In particular this guy's description of the older, desperate-eyed, drug fiend, stripper with "buckshot tits" who would kill you for your money or for drugs, was the moment I knew I had to leave. I couldn't take it anymore.
On the bright side. Two women also walked out during the reading of this same piece.
But both this reader and the one previous read content that leaned on cultures they knew nothing about in order to create bombastic "entertaining" content. The first white cis male reader opened his set with a poem called "Slaves" and featured prison imagery and language reminiscent of what I guess he thinks is the ghetto or prison.
But his poem didn't say anything or reveal anything new or enlightening about the history of dehumanization forced on certain people in our culture. It did nothing to critique the prison industrial complex and the culture of captivity we've forced so many (people of color) into.
Or maybe it did say something. Maybe I'm just not educated enough to have heard his critique. I guess in well off academic circles it's enough just to mention or hint at the forces which violate the lives of so many. Maybe I don't get such subtlety
One of the reasons I am afraid that I will never understand or fit into academic or prestigious schools of writers is because I choke on the implicit. I have no use for the obtuse. I find it clumsy and grating when a poet or writer talks about those of lower status without acknowledging that they have an agenda.
Some advice to those who wish to write about people who are more/differently marginalized than them:
If you're going to talk about people with less power than you be clear, otherwise you are hiding the fact that your voice is more valued by society. When you are confusing or clumsy with these people's narratives you are reinforcing the exact same skewing of value by not clearly stating what you believe. By not writing about these people with their full humanity in mind (not just the affectations you've stolen from your stereotypes) you are erasing these people just by mentioning them. You are rewriting their stories over to top of their very real lives.
And that is a big fucking shame.


  1. And how do you feel about Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" written in 1955? The poet you walked out was not doing anything new. "Howl" is lauded as "perfection" and taught in colleges, such as Gonzaga University. I called it "vulgar vomit" and watched my fellow students' brains implode in my poetry class.

    1. I feel so-so about Howl. I appreciate it for for its sound qualities and its bravery in identifying a few very legit problems, but I don't think vulgarity or being controversial itself has inherently artistic value. (unlike almost all American consumers of popular media).

      I guess, I like Howl because it is saying several quite political things very clearly and also happens to be obscene, sometimes by necessity, but also, it fails to say many other things (like the first poet in this set). The strongest thing it has left in certain sections is being controversial which for me has the opposite effect intended. I find it boring and frustrating. I have a hard time reading Howl all the way through for this reason. But as an experiment, I think it's nice (obscenity is a good thing to experiment with). In my book though Howl needed some serious editing (this is representative of a larger critique I have of most beat poets).

      My view:
      The reason to BE obscene in your art is because you feel that something in the world is so wrong as to seem obscene to you. In that sense you aren't creating (senseless) obscenity but rather exposing it. This method is employed to great effect by comedians.

      Also good on you for being a dissenting voice.


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