Recently, a poem has been making waves in literary circles. As is so often the case, this poem is not making waves for being good, it’s making waves for being bad. Very, very bad. It trades in clichés and stereotypes that would be laughed out of any room save for the ones poems like this get read in. Backlash has been swift, severe, and in my opinion, warranted. Or at least, reasonably expected. It was, after all, a poem written by a white man who went to school for writing(like myself!) meant to sound like it was by a homeless black person (smooth, bro. Who told you that was a good idea?) Of course, with every good backlash comes a frontlash, with many authors and readers of poetry bristling that anyone dare complain about a piece of creative work.
Paul Constant does a really good job unpacking this over at Seattle Review of Books. I don’t have much to add to the thesis except, Paul is right; no one was silenced, everyone exercised their right to free speech, was heard, and went with the consequences. The folks unhappy about the “censorship” (no one lost their job, the poem wasn’t even pulled, it was just apologized for) are mainly other white men who went to school for writing (like me!)
Now I don’t believe that Anderson Carlson-Wee meant ill; I think he’s just another well-educated, out of touch white dude (like me!) who wanted to say something “important.” I also think he had every right to submit that poem for publication, and that the editors of The Nation were thoughtless and revealed a lot of subconscious (?) racism in choosing to publish it, but it was definitely within their rights to do so. I honestly think that, considering everything, they handled things. . . fine. Still. There are a lot of people bent out of shape that someone dared question an educated white man (like me!) and his use of vernacular he clearly knows nothing about. Like I said, Paul unpacks this well, these arguments are made of straw.
But what did strike me was how familiar many of these arguments sounded. The “never apologize, what you’ve made is art and no one can judge it” school of thought that has propped up the frail egos of many white, male, “geniuses” throughout the years. Let’s unpack that.
By saying you should “never apologize for your art,” you are devaluing art. You are asserting that essentially, because it is all subjective, it has no impact. If an artist never needs apologize for their art, that supposes that writing, music, sculpture, macramé all exist in some abstract, existential plane. If I punched someone in the face, I should goddamn apologize. Likewise, if I write a thing that is shitty, insulting or simply lazy and it hurts an individual or group of individuals, I should goddamn apologize.
Granted, the damage inflicted by a face punch is immediate and quantifiable. The pain inflicted by art is harder to quantify, so there’s a bigger grey area. And sometimes what people mean by “don’t apologize” is that you shouldn’t apologize for being an artist. Which is true! This country, and much of the world in general, devalues artists until it worships them. You are a delusional fool until you get that book deal, in which case you’re an inspiration. So yes, keep arting, and don’t apologize for the fact that you do.
But if you take your work seriously, if you take anyone’s work seriously, you have to recognize that it has meaning. That writing, that art is inspiration, sure, but it’s also work. It has value, it affects the ways people think and the conversations they have, and as such, you have a certain responsibility.
“But Graham,” you, the theoretical reader of this blog asks, “What if you just need to get something off your chest? Are you saying people can’t just go where the muse takes them?”
No, I’m not saying that. But I’m saying you need to recognize what sort of writing you’re doing, whom you’re doing it for, and why. When you’re at the point where you’re getting published in The Nation, you have an audience. Yours might be the only new poem people read in a month, let alone week. The same people who preach “art for art’s sake” are frequently the same people for whom it costs nothing to make selfish, narcissistic art.
Words matter. Writing matters. Art matters. And when things matter, sometimes you mess up and have to apologize.