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The Arts

Sep 10, 2015

Poetry slam: the tragic tale of the straight, white, underprivileged man

Poor white men, they never get any breaks, you know?

The scandal in the American literary world over Sherman Alexie’s selections for the latest edition of Best American Poetry illustrates, more than anything, how thoroughly white conservatives have embraced the identity politics they claim to despise.

You can see the dynamic in the presidential campaign, with the entire Republican field competing over which millionaire charlatan can most noisily emote about victimhood during a succession of made-up culture war scandals.

Hence the focus on fundamentalist nutcase Kim Davis, who managed to get herself briefly jailed by refusing to marry same-sex couples in Kentucky. Davis might be a hillbilly scofflaw (the kind of person tough-on-crime conservatives generally like to imprison), but her case portrays straight, white people as victims — and that’s the narrative for which Tea Partiers yearn.

If you dig down, you can see a similar logic behind the insistence by various Liberal MPs that Australia classify refugees by religion: an attempt to reframe the Syrian tragedy as a manifestation of the War on Christianity that Fox News uncovers every time a department store says “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”.

Muslims aren’t suffering — white people are!

The Best American Poetry incident centres on a submission sent by a writer calling himself Yi-Fen Chou. When Alexie, best known in this country for his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, accepted the poem, Chou pulled off his rubber mask and revealed himself — ta-da! — as bespectacled white guy Michael Derrick Hudson, triumphant at his demonstration of Political Correctness Gone Mad.

Of course, when you step back from Hudson’s “gotcha”, there’s a lot less to it than meets the eye.

Despite the swaggering confidence of a title like Best American Poetry, the curatorial process in not an exact science, as any editor will admit.

Nor is there anything untoward in paying attention to writers’ biographies. Brian Turner’s 2005 collection Here, bullet, sold extraordinarily well and collected an array of poetry awards. But the most cursory look at its reviews demonstrates the significance of the author’s back story (he was an Iraq veteran) to the book’s success. Would revelations that Turner fabricated his military career affect his literary reputation? Of course they would!

Now, if you consciously set out to design an environment liable to foster discrimination, you’d probably end up with something that looks very much like the poetry world. The continuing decline of traditional publishing houses and independent bookshops; the gulf between the tiny sums earned by most writers and the huge amounts earned by some; the relationship with an education system based on exorbitant tuition fees: all these (and other factors) combine to ensure that women and minority groups are consistently underrepresented in the literary world, as about a zillion academic studies have shown.

In an anguished blog post, Alexie lists the rules he set for himself before reading the swags of poetry sent his way. They run the gamut from a refusal to choose poems written by close friends to an interest in selecting poems first published on the internet. Then there’s this:

“I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color. And for great poems by younger, less established poets. And for great poems by older poets who haven’t been previously lauded. And for great poems that use rhyme, meter, and traditional forms.”

Scandalous, right?

Trotsky promises somewhere that after three years of socialism Americans will cease to chew gum. It will take a transformation on a similar scale to deliver an equal playing field in poetry. You can’t wipe away structural discrimination with an editorial policy — and any attempt to do so will be clunky and flawed. But that doesn’t mean such efforts are wrong.

At base, Hudson’s little caper shows that unscrupulous liars can game good intentions. Well, hold the front page.

At Overland, Estelle Tang makes a good case that Alexie should have excised Hudson after the deception became apparent. Likewise, Aaron Bady suggests that Alexie could have openly embraced the subjectivity inherent (but not necessarily acknowledged) in his role as a canonical gate-keeper: “I think he could have said something along the lines of: ‘Dear Sir! Your poem was pretty great, and I really liked it. The fact that you lied to your readers, however, and in such a nakedly careerist, crass, and racist manner, prompts me to say: fuck you! You are not what represents the best in American poetry. Fuck off.”’

The Best American Poetry scandal comes on the heels of the “Sad Puppies” intervention into the Hugo science-fiction awards, which itself was heavily influenced by the grotesque “Gamergate” controversy within the gaming community. In all cases, the methodology’s been pretty much the same, involving a staged provocation designed to reveal the monstrous oppression heaped upon the rich, white people.

Expect more of this in the future.

It’s noteworthy, though, that, from the Puppies to Kim Davis, the dominant note in right-wing identity politics is lachrymose self-pity, a sentiment predicated on the recognition that, on this ground, conservatives have always already lost. The Republicans aren’t, for instance, pretending they can reverse public sentiment on same-sex marriage. Instead, they’re embracing the mantle of victimhood as a psychological compensation, allowing them to wallow in feels about how badly they’ve been treated.

Yes, it’s all very sad. Someone should write a poem about it.

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One thought on “Poetry slam: the tragic tale of the straight, white, underprivileged man

  1. Norman Hanscombe

    One sparrow doesn’t of course make a literary magazine; but since Crikey has abandoned serious analysis of significant socio-political issues, I guess sliding into the world of literature could be a logical destination for the journal, couldn’t it.