H*h (In from the Ice)
[2.8.2 note: This is a letter I sent to the Cave Canem list January 4, 2002. I have been meaning to go back to it and edit it for SWEAT but haven't been able to figure out how to change it for a more public view. I have decided to leave it as it is. The context means everything. Cave Canem is a retreat for black poets. Being there has given me a strong sense of community, a bursting creative drive, a clearer intellectual project, and a safe space in which to make my work. The people, individuals and the group, are a part of the writing. Individuals mentioned are all poets. Christian is Christian Campbell, Ronaldo is Ronaldo V. Wilson, Nelson is Nelson Demery. Vergelioian is from "Vergelioian Space", a series of emails sent to us by Ronaldo Vergelio Wilson. Hunt is Erica Hunt, author of Arcade and Local History and a brilliant essay called "Notes for an Oppositional Poetics", which can be found in a book by the name of The Politcs of Poetic Form (editor Charles Bernstein). This book is unfortunately out of print. Brooksian is a reference to Ronaldo Wilson's referencing of (Elizabeth Alexander's lecture on) Gwendolyn Brooks, specifically to Brooks' poem "Boy Breaking Glass" in which you will find these words:
"I shall create! If not a note, a hole./If not an overture, a desecration."
You are seeing one response to an ongoing cyber-conversation among us on poetics.]
See my breath float away from me. It’s cold out here. Let me step inside for a minute. It’s a new year and I wish you productivity and healing. I’m in the middle of ice-fishing, but let me warm up for now. Let me get back to the lake after taking some tea and conversation.
I was waiting for Christian to set off round 2 with his response to that Hunt essay but I am too impatient to play by my own rules. Do y’all want to talk about this? I will try only a little to make this letter structurally cohesive. Because (I believe) I’ll eventually get to everything a reader needs to grasp, I won’t worry too much over mechanics or form. The lady-I is uncomfortable with this decision and wants to apologize or at least alert you to the situation. The feminist-I is ashamed of the lady and wants to slap her. The poet-I is a Libra and always strives for balance. She wants to honor all of our desires. Today I bows down to the poet.
Dear Friends: Right now I have at least two strong desires as I make holes in the ice. One is to comment on/in the public arena. This desire is especially strong now because of all the killing. Another desire is to document myself (and myself as other people) from the inside. This desire, too, is especially strong now because of all the killing. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately about these sometimes conflicting desires. I’ve been thinking of writing the public arena as writing the Big and writing the insides as writing the Small. Writing about writing has been good for me and I feel like I may be arriving somewhere new with my poetic very soon. But some days I wake up feeling schizophrenic.
Last year, a friend’s four year old son asked her, "Mommy, are we like toys for the giants?"
Right now I have a lot of anger (perhaps because I have a lot of clarity) about the damage that machismo is doing. Bush and bin Laden have in common wealth, powerful families, egos around their manhood (and their people’s manhood), and willingness to spend other people’s lives in the name of those things. The rest of us are not just their playthings. We are also actors.
As I write these days I get stuck on the idea that a people’s culture could be thought of as a people’s manhood if we understand culture and manhood as other names for the External, the Big, the Shared, or the Intelligible.
After writing that sentence I scrunched my nose and sat back for a while. Although I chose each of those terms consciously, the difference between the relationship of the External and the Big to culture and manhood seems quite different from that of the Shared and Intelligible. To clarify, I am thinking of the ways in which all of these terms are associated with things which can be rallied behind. Or even against.
Why is George W. Bush today speaking out against the treatment of women in Afghanistan? The obvious answer is that he is looking to justify the bombing and possible starvation of these same women. But even the most generous reading of this action seems to connect culture to manhood and the Big and the External and the Shared and the Intelligible. Even if we were to assume that he was concerned with the treatment of women in Afghanistan before September 11, we might also have to assume that the only reason for only mentioning it in public (service?) announcements now is because it would have been deemed somehow inappropriate or disadvantageous politically to do so before. For the president (Big) to discuss the goings on in another place (External) we must be able to have a common (Shared) cause and to have a common cause, we must be able to understand that upon which we’re standing (Intelligible).
What I’m saying is that manhood may be what is clearly (intelligibly) shared (if not agreed upon, then often invested in) as culture, as a way of life. The Pentagon and World Trade Center are centers (and symbols) of male power, but attacks on them make things no more difficult for men than they do for women. The same is not true of attacks on centers and symbols of female power (our bodies? the domestic?). At least it is not commonly understood as being true. As such, it is easier to act in response to Big bin Laden or to the attacks on the Big Pentagon and the Big World Trade Center or even the Big exiled princes of Afghanistan than it is to act in response to what is happening to women. It is only easy to rally behind what is happening to women if what is happening is understood as part of a Bigger Problem.
Now, I may have to make a U-turn to account for something that happened in my class last semester. On September 13, my students and I were discussing the situation. One of my students who often finds himself against the US’ actions against other countries expressed his concerns about himself, as he was a member of the military. "I’m just trying to go to school," he said. Another student expressed her concerns about her aunt who worked in or near the WTC and hadn’t checked in with the family yet. At this point, the student in the military intervened to say, "She doesn’t even know where her aunt is. That shouldn’t happen. If I have to fight, that’s what I’ll be fighting for. I’ll be fighting for you all, not George Bush."
I’ve never had a class where my students so much as offered to study together. I was hushed by this student’s offer to kill or die for others he had only met the week before. And I have been thinking about at least two things in response to this turn of events. 1) Faced with the possibility that he may be required to kill or die for something in which he doesn’t believe, my student no longer sees his possible future actions as the cost of tuition. In the face of the fears of another student, his possible future actions have magically become a matter of principle.
2) I thought it was very possible that this student would be called upon to kill or die. (He was, in fact, called away from school in October. I can’t be certain of his mission.) Witness to this offering up of life to strangers, I found myself silent in response. I was extremely disturbed by the idea that we in that classroom were somehow more valuable than other strangers in Afghanistan. What sickens me is the thought that my silence may have been about not wanting to disturb my student’s conscience should he find himself part of a mission to kill. Even though I attempted to redress the situation later, it has been important for me to go back to that moment of voluntary silence, that refusal to teach, that fear of speaking. It has been important for me to remember and study and try to understand it.
When I say we are all actors I mean we are part of the masses that are called upon to rally or not called upon to rally. In response, we obey or disobey and our actions or failures to act are noted. Are part of the story. The course of history.
I know it has already been said that these attacks (on either/any side) are about protecting or attacking a way of life. I am wondering whether we can imagine a protected way of life without this macho attitude that also costs lives. I could say ‘Yes’ and write towards the Internal, the Small, the Distinctive, or the Unintelligible (and have been, trust.) But today I am also realizing that these categories are shifting.
I’ve been writing madly because in the act of writing I know what my goals are. I understand what I’m after and can support writing that comes from a personal need to arrange and rearrange words and a need (both personal and social) to act against oppressions. But when it comes to sharing those works (those internal, small, soft, distinctive, and/or unintelligible works) I am not always so sure of things. I begin to worry that the system can hear, but it can’t hear right. I begin to worry that the system might be family. I might be the system and might not be listening or might not be listening right.
I don’t know how many of you caught Ronaldo’s footnote in Vs4 about the Laura Riding piece in Fence, but I have been rereading it and it has taken me back into this terrain with a new sense of the permanence (or is it just persistence?) of these concerns. Many of you have been around longer than I have. Whether you have or not, you may have some thoughts on this matter that I haven’t had yet or don’t have the ability to have yet. Maybe you will share them.
Riding’s "A Personal Letter" is long and I cannot do it justice with a summary or snippet, but I will try to give you some sense of my connection to it here. I am interested in Riding’s concern with the outer world (which she names male) and the inner world (which she names female). I, too, have been relating these ideas in this way. (I should note that Laura Riding’s piece was written in 1937. Perhaps it’s not accurate to say "I, too," as if we came up with these thoughts simultaneously.) I like that her concept of this outer (male, international affairs) world is one in which women and men operate and her concept of the inner (female, domestic affairs) world is also one in which women and men operate. I like that she enables us to see the way the arenas are gendered without being proscriptive about the characters who actually function within them. Interestingly for us, among the kinds of people Riding finds characteristically ‘inside people’ are women, poets, and painters.
But my strongest points of connection are these:
"What is wrong is that the outer world should have become recklessly disconnected from the world of personal life and thought, should have broken its affiliations with those inner realities which are predominantly female in quality. International affairs give off a curiously male odour. The beings who throng the diplomatic and political corridors seem to be of another race than those men, mature in female sensibilities, who are our familiars inside the houses, inside the intimate corridors of private thought and feeling."
"Can we rehumanize them [‘outside people’] by thrusting ourselves into the outer employments – we who have dedicated ourselves to the inner ones? I think that such translation from inner to outer employment results only in the dehumanization of the inner faculties – or, to use a more precise term, their decharacterization. The effect of political employment on the female character provides a clear example of the decharacterization that takes place when translation is made from inner to outer modes of life. The professional woman politician tends to lose the peculiar inside virtue she has as a woman and to become commonplace and blank; and a similar loss of virtue occurs in a poet or any other person of inside sensibilities when such a translation of employment is made."
I’m not entirely convinced of everything Riding argues, but am appropriately frustrated by this notion of decharacterization. If we understand what is wrong to be that there is a disconnect between our more internal workings (within ourselves, our families, our communities) and the ways in which they are represented, then how shall we give this other way representation? Can it be done without becoming corrupted by the process of representation? Do you have strategies? What are they?
Part of what I love to discuss with Christian is how our differences in nationality and gender affect not just the readings of our work but also and therefore our goals for our work. Since this summer I have been working on a series in which I try to get back to emotion because it is something I had been shying away from in my work and Nelson convinced me I ought not be afraid of it. I have been particularly interested in where and how I am emotional around my people and have been trying to think my emotions around black people or blackness through poems in which blackness is not (directly) referenced. Now, I am interested in all the other ways in which the emotion can be read in the work, but for me the point in this practice was not exactly to be universal. I wanted (and want) to better understand how I use language, what I am really trying to get at when I experience an event or a person through the lens of (my understanding of) black community.
Post 9/11 activities have made it impossible for me to continue (to exist) oblivious to (or more accurately, only marginally aware of) warmongering. Since then, I have begun to think that maybe this investigation—of the possibility of a lapse between where the emotion regarding one’s people actually lingers and what the language around it is actually invoking—is not just ‘of interest’ but also a necessary part of a practical step away from (or statement against) war. I have been thinking of the problem of vestiges and the way the repetition of words or other symbols (flags, public grief) can rob them of the ability to signify. Maybe I don’t mean that quite so directly. Perhaps it’s something more like: the repetition of words or other symbols in proximity to one another can make it more difficult for us to understand them as distinct. An example is the way repetition might make us see an American flag and understand it as communicating both grief and support for war. For me, breaking these ideas apart wherever I see an opportunity (even at the level of the phoneme) is part of an answer.
But in my long conversation with Christian, he reminded me that part of the reason that I am looking to break from representation in the way that I am is because I am US American. More specifically, the language (language being not just words, but all our tools for communication) through which what I am trying to get at (my emotion around black people) is commonly understood (shared and intelligible) here (but maybe also in other parts of the Diaspora as a result of the way the publishing industry works) often matches the language in which I might first think to speak.
Part of what I am breaking or breaking with or breaking from within is a system in which my commonly associated articulations of blackness are only intelligible because they are already big. His shared associations are not necessarily operating in the same way. This is messy because we are formed in different national/regional contexts, but we are also a people. To the extent that we are different peoples, though, we may have different relationships to the need to represent even how we are the same people. What does this do to my understanding of my poetic?
I have some things I am going to say. What happens to my voice when the system does hear it? Do I become the External? The big dick? The something-to-be-protected-with-other-people’s-lives? Writing the Soft, Internal, Distinctive, Unintelligible could be a Very-Revolutionary-Act but could it also be Quite-A-Bourgeois-American-Thing-to-Do?
I am pro-community but I do worry about how to continue building community without suppressing some way or idea which is or ends up attached to a group of people. Though I enjoy and need and want to protect my community and way of life, though I do want (itch, aspire, need?) to understand and be understood, I suspect there is something not only powerful but also protective about being too slippery to grasp. This is another reason, I suppose, that I embrace the Vergelioian, Brooksian embrace of the hole (and, too, desecration). Disruption may be one answer. A hole is not nothingness. It is a different configuration of space. It is a thing and a comment on what it is not all at once. It (not only the hole, but also the idea of it as having been imagined by an ancestor or two) makes me feel safer, like someone with agency. I like thinking that there is a way to both honor what has been created for me (before me) and keep slippery.
I suppose in response to the tension between the Big and the Small in my work I have only to come up with experiments and try them out. As my friends in Ghana say, You must try. I really am right here now, but can imagine shifting should I learn something new.
And I am very thirsty for a hot cup of what-you-are-thinking-now.
With hope, love, and gratitude for your existence,