By Cait Turner
Can poetry erase racism by erasing erasure? To disembody language, must we dis-gender it? How can we collaboratively address problems of race, class, and gender in the abstract space of poetics? Is poetic space truly abstract, or is it concretized? If it is concretized, who benefits from this? These were some of the questions implicitly and explicitly examined at the “Collaborative Being: Race, a Gender, and Sexuality” panel at Naropa University’s inaugural Disembodied Poetics Conference.
The first panelist, Aimee Herman, explored ways of gendering and de-gendering poetic language. She invited us to “examine how words feel in your mouth and under your tongue. Taste them. ” As a queer poet, Herman described the many assumptions brought to her work by allies and critics alike. A bound chest, she explained, was a form of poetic experimentation rather than a sort of gendered orthodoxy. Breast binding remains a dangerous cultural praxis—bodies, Herman argued, are themselves experimental texts vulnerable to criticism. A gendered poetics, she continued, is a false poetics. Words exist in the liminal space between the body and the mind—they don’t simply hang there and disappear; they are absorbed like any nutrient. Herman asked us to consider what it might mean for language, for poetry, to be un-gendered? When we are writing, we are not necessarily writing-as-men or writing-as-women—we are producing language that takes a non-gendered shape. This non-gendered shape, Herman maintained, is the shape of poetics to come.
One way that poetry might take this non-gendered shape involves collaboration between genders so that the masculine/feminine language binary blurs into a cacophony of thought-sounds. This was the goal of the second panel presentation by Amaranth Borsuk and Andy Fitch, a male/female duo interested in the poetics of erasure. They began with a brief description of erasure poetics, wherein a poet re-presents a pre-existing piece of work through redacting and re-shaping lines, phrases, and form. If, as Herman stated in an earlier panel, form is the “gender” of poetry, then re-shaping form is a radically un-gendered poetic act. Borsuk received transcriptions of Fitch’s audio diaries and redacted certain lines while re-shaping and re-ordering their syntax and grammar. Fitch did the same, and they both “communicated” these pieces to each other in tandem, dramatically “shushing” each other during the redacted lines. This performance was spontaneous. The result was a verbal collage of quotidian desires, private musings, banal observations, and censorious breaths. The “shushing” almost seemed percussive, which illuminated the rhythmic “re-production” of interruption and erasure within actual conversation. This performance piece suggested that conversation is indeed poetic.
The final panelist, Ailish Hopper, also scrutinized the role played by erasure in poetic praxis. Her paper, “Getting Under Being Over It, Getting Over Being Under It: Poetry That’s Awake Inside of Race,” examined how race is increasingly erased from poetic space, particularly by liberal “post-racial” poets. Hopper read excerpts from pieces by Claudia Rankine, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and other poets of color alongside white voices, and determined—correctly, in my opinion—that white writers are all too often willing to ignore racial complexities in favor of a hegemonic poetics where any mention of race inside a work becomes a poetic “agenda” undermining aesthetic credibility. Hopper wondered what might happen if more white writers acknowledged their whiteness, and wrote from “inside that awareness.” What does it mean, she wondered, to write whiteness? What might it look like for poets of color to “write white” or for white writers to “write from a space acknowledging power?” White privilege is a hot topic, but Hopper’s inquiry goes much further than the simple, overused, “check your privilege” screed. In order for poetics to transcend racism—and, Hopper stated, we must understand that as a country, America may never transcend racism—we must confront racial complexities and concerns poetically. Poetry cannot exist above racism, classism, or sexism—therefore it must claim poetic space as political space. Poetry can and must oppose the hegemonic constructs currently constricting and restricting its discourse in order to truly re-present those for whom it claims to speak to, for, from, and about.
Cait Turner is a first year MFA student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. She is interested in the intersectionality between politics, poetics, and pedagogy. Other research areas include democracy and pedagogy, activist writing, and proletarian literature. When not writing or studying, Cait enjoys arguing about geopolitics with strangers on the internet, preferably while listening to a really good record.