Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde. Read the rest.
Take your pulse, Reader: calculate the population breakdown in your Facebook feeds, of your Twitter account followers. Does your network look like you? Inventory your bookshelves: are they more diverse than your social networks?
It is a “fact” that most Americans self-segregate by race. We break down easily into tribes. Our social world inclines towards a comforting sameness and, by extension, our poetry readings, art exhibits, and classrooms tend to be homogenous. According to a recent poll, a startling 75 percent of white Americans have only white friends with whom they will consult on an important matter. For black Americans, this number is 65 percent, for Latinos, only 46 percent.
Certain radicalisms are “brands” that don’t even begin to address the layers of difficulty, contradiction, tension, undertow, and residue.
It is no surprise that conventional aesthetics reproduce hierarchies of race, gender, and class within their historical narratives of artistic production and influence. So why is it surprising that the avant-garde—especially in its institutionalized form articulated through museums, universities, and the dwindling number of independent art presenter/literary centers—replicates this, however “good” its intentions?
The world is in the text and the text is in the world: every artistic practice is imprinted with its particular tensions of audience, time, and place. One of the realities that enable the current attention to experimental writing is the presumption of art’s tensionless and settled surface. So while attention to experimental practices may be welcome it tends to render that art into teachable, digestible bits; convenient (but ultimately skeletonized) assemblages: the Anthology, sprinkled with “minority” poets as singularities of literary (often white) “genius.” The preference for the teachable and the categorizable simplifies what is difficult about art that plays with surface andopacity, lifts the edge of the curtain and dances blind with what is minimally registered behind. The choice between surface and opacity is sublimated in the turn toward the teachable (Charles) Olson or (Melvin) Tolson, the teachable (Robert) Duncan or (Bob) Kaufman, (Maria Irene) Fornes or (Adrienne) Kennedy or (Adrian) Piper without directly grappling with each of these writers’ denser alternatives.
Often the mind-lock of custom overwhelms us. We’re seduced, many of us against our will, into settling for the surface, into celebrity culture. Even the so-called subculture winds up embracing a “winner take all” distortion that frames how art gets made. Truth be told, art is made in context, dependent on an infrastructure that connects writers, publications, readings, parties, projects into “avant-gardes” of radical presence and collaboration.
Writers churn in cycles of artistic fashion. In the long run, no artist benefits from the view that art is made by atomized individuals locked into cells, territories, homelands, and reservations, and yet this view infects curatorial choices in brittle ligaments of received ideas of aesthetic lineage. If we truly think the imagination is part of the solution—a way to escape bitter marginalization, compromise, and casual brutality, then we must confront the social difficulties as fully as we do the formal, existential, textual difficulties of writing.
For instance, the set of difficulties I confront here in this essay is the slipperiness of any way forward; any truth of mine contains its opposite, its mirror twin, its sibling and its exhausted binary. Each dialectic becomes the stage for yet a new set of contraries, fragmentations, and partialities. I am/was a New York poet. I am/was an (Antillean) “Afro-surrealist” poet. I am/was an activist poet. I am/was a “language” poet. I am/was a radical poet. I am/was a “jazz” poet. I am/was an essayist poet.
Throughout, the chief claim I make as “I” in a series of I’s, is always “Black woman poet,” whose inclinations are infused with a corresponding refusal to let curiosity or inclination be scripted. I have had to invent the person for whom poetry is possible. For me, writing and reading have always been inseparable from the radical project of freedom: imagining, engaging, and rehearsing in the space of freedom’s stuttering and insistent gait toward radical potential; taking inspiration from other artists who have planted the north star freedom as a psychic, material, and existential open-ended value in an aesthetic domain. There is no simple doorway into the practice of this kind of radical poetry. The stakes are high; one risks illegibility, sometimes to the very audiences that one most wants to address. But I think that more writers have to face risk, be willing to stare down the lies that are intended to domesticate a wilder more social art practice.
For me, a poem must demonstrate transformative agency and energy to lick the instant death of words (and the suffocation of the perceiving self). Poems that matter to me are works of imagination that suggest movement beyond the confinements of the permitted and the previously authorized in order to pre-figure a future that “expands the range of the thinkable” (in Anthony Reed's words). I am suspicious of “easy” answers and ready-made solutions. Our saturated fluency in consumer culture, whether we actively resist or not, predisposes us to commodified forms of resistance—easily digested presentations of identity, “oppositionality,” and avant-garde practice. Certain radicalisms are “brands” that don’t even begin to address the layers of difficulty, contradiction, tension, undertow and residue.
It is not so interesting to engage in these discussions about brand identities if they lead to a false totalization of experience, manipulated and manipulating, even when the intention is “radical.” Real experiment consists of nuanced forays into intersectionality and multiplicities of identities, social positions, and strategies: who we are and what role we take up or are conscripted into becoming and in what context.
I say: whittle away at the monuments to any fixed identities and the scripts that summon a practiced performance of precise deformations of un-freedom, stale and un-generative throw-away lines, the roads that lead to tunnels of false consciousness, the cul-de-sacs that eliminate the knots and difficulties and therefore miss the “promising” seed possibilities. Look for the undigested bits, the indigestible “I” that voices without speaking or speaks in other in a multiplicity of voices.
In our current moment, with the space of poetry imperiled on all sides—by a hemorrhaging humanities, a demonstrably shrinking cultural commons daily threatened with extinction, an oblivious, predominantly white discourse running out of excuses for its homogeneity—the spoils are spoiling, spilling, spinning, dwindling. But paradoxically the present is also the stage for an accumulating body of scholarship documenting how our contemporary art forms emerge from hybrid, fluid, and global cultural practices, problem solving, and crises.
The poetic and aesthetic strategies that grow out of our current paradox vary tremendously. This multiplicity, along with the critical mass of practitioners, artists, poets, philosophers, and cultural theorists of color, revise historical context, break up the hierarchies of influence and individual genius in re-contextualize art history, literary production, and movements. We re-frame the subject, probe Cartesian/DuBoisian/Fanonian questions of the self, and inject these concerns into the cultural blood stream. I do believe that there are now more artists of color who are fierce in their pursuit of radical potential. Many have created poetic lineage and aesthetics: an improvisation that is flash and “fugitivity” (as Fred Moten aptly names it) to mark paths that lead away from social and literary death.
Hurray for troubled waters, shifting pronouns, and blurred lines between lines, between genres and disciplines. In the muck, green shoots.
This excitement provokes unexpected kindred, encourages crossing alphabetical, historic, generic borders, cultural lines and language practices, reaching back from Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Kennedy, Aime Cesaire and extending to Kit Robinson, Harryette Mullen, M. Nourbese Phillips, John Yau, Charles Bernstein, Mei Mei Bersenbrugge, Dawn Lundy Martin, Caroline Bergvall, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Edwin Torres, Claudia Rankine, and many others whose work points towards radical potentials and other others whose work I have not been introduced to but am burning to know.
 Public Research on Religion in Public Life Poll. American Social Values Survey 2013. Race and American Social Networks. Even among those who reported greater diversity in their social networks, the percentages of difference are remarkably low:for white Americans, 91 percent of their close friends were white; for black Americans 83 percent of close friends were black and for Latinos, 64 percent of close friends were Latino.