Saturday, November 3, 2012

Writing White

In the Books in Brief review in the Fall 2012 issue of the BPJ,Writing White,” I drew readers’ attention to four recently published books that, from distinctly different vantage points, confront whiteness as lived experience and cultural/political construct: Martha Collins’ White Papers, Jake Adam York’s A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown, and Kevin Coval’s L-vis Lives!: Racemusic Poems. Because the intent of the review was to further an ongoing conversation about this issue among poets and readers of poetry, I invited the authors to do just that by moderating November’s Poet’s Forum. Martha Collins and Jake Adam York were kind enough to oblige. Now we’d like to open that conversation to you; please do weigh in.
                                                                                                              —Lee Sharkey

Martha Collins

When I began to explore my very white Iowa childhood in the poems that became White Papers, the first phrase that came to mind was “the colored section of town”—a place we white kids never even thought about going. Years later, Kevin  Coval entered the Black world of Chicago through music (“there was not a neighborhood to avoid”), and one day took the bus that actually crossed “to the other side of the city.” Reading his subsequent reflections on the emotional complexity of that crossing  through his composite character, “who uses and misuses Black cultural production . . . who blurs the line and crosses it carelessly,” I’m reminded how mistaken I was, back then, in assuming that I’d never crossed that line myself: the adored Elvis of my growing up years was an “original,” we thought, but what did we know? Blind to others, we were also blind to ourselves: invisible, white, blank, persons of no apparent race. I’ve tried to confront some of the cultural blanks in White Papers; I’m grateful to Kevin for helping me fill in others.

My first important crossing into racial territory was historical, when I discovered and explored a lynching my father witnessed in southern Illinois in Blue Front, and I’ve continued to try to fill in historical as well as cultural blanks in White Papers. But Jake Adam York has made repeated crossings into that territory, delving ever more deeply into the racial history that buttresses our assumptions of white privilege. Many of the “facts” he presents about civil rights martyrs are familiar (though some are not); but the implicating ways he inserts himself into his poems—using the future tense to describe the past, or positing a shadowy photographer or reporter (or “no one”) as witness, or creating a recurrent chorus of starlings in the 2008 book—are lessons to all of us in how far we have to go. I’m particularly moved by Jake’s actual revisiting of the places of martyrdom in the 2010 book, allowing him to momentarily “mistake myself / for the redneck at the end of a joke,” for example, and presenting his interactions with those places as “self-portraits.”
All three of us, I think, are attempting to write ourselves into racial history  through complex self-portraits that look beneath the surface of our often invisible assumptions about whiteness. Whether we’ve been drawn into Black culture, or lived in a region where race and racial history are inescapable, or grown up in a largely white environment, we are all part of the same troubled landscape. I hope this blog will allow others to join this exploration of our different but interwoven racial histories, since, as Jake says, “even memory can forget itself / and be written into another history / while everyone is looking at something else.”

Jake Adam York

Each of us—Martha, Kevin, and I—is trying to map the color line from the white side of the tracks, from inside whiteness, or from the edge of whiteness. We each want, I think, to disturb that line, to pluck it like a guitar string, and to disturb whiteness’s invisible ubiquity, its power or its phantom of power, by showing how it’s constructed, how it’s spoken, coded, and maintained.

In Persons Unknown, I have touched the color line by teasing the line between life and death in the nekuia, the attempt to speak to the dead. In many of these nekuia—“Homochitto,” “The Hands of Persons Unknown”—the dead don’t appear. The seeker doesn’t have the power or the place to call them back, so the speaker becomes the living and the dead: he haunts himself. These memorial poems—which are part of a long sequence I call Inscriptions for Air that was begun in Murder Ballads and has continued in A Murmuration of Starlings and Persons Unknown—meditate on the language of white power, of murder, of erasure and disappearance and are cousin to Martha’s White Papers inasmuch as the medium of the memorial is language. We work to say what could not be said, to make the silence speak.
Because my father said Yes
but not in our lifetimes
my mother said I know my daughter
would never want to marry…

Somewhere there is a name for this.
Someone could write it down.

I imagine Kevin Coval and I cannot be too many years apart. I spent my first lawn-mowing money to buy a 12" single of Afrikaa Bambataa’s Planet Rock (with the Bonus Beats, of course) sometime in 1984 and shortly after found myself the one white kid in the mall-fountain rap battles as the first wave of hip-hop hit Alabama. Some of the poems in my next book deal with this era, but I think Coval’s personae poems—whether about L-vis or Rick Rubin or even himself or some mashup of other personalities or impersonations—and the Self-Portrait poems in Persons are also brothers. A whiteboy or a white man stands at the line, looking at whiteness from within whiteness, or from the threshold of whiteness, and he haunts himself—whiteboy’s whiteness witnessing itself through the whiteboy who can hear and imagine what the whiteboy and the whiteness must look like from the other side of the line.

In “L-vis explains the white do-rag,” our hero describes the garment:
for a traife g-d. dunce cap
cool. lunch counter soda
jerk segregationist. pointless
beanie of a klansman. a 99¢
style rocker. a crown of burden
i can always leave behind.
This explains why one walks to the line, to leave the burden, but whiteness’s burden is not so easily slipped.
We’ll rise, the glass between us,
        one in the dusk, one inside,

close enough to feel the cafĂ©’s warmth
        radiating into the town

and the cool March evening
        reaching into the room.

We’ll walk toward the door
        and become one

and slide off the glass,
        leaving only the window

with its inscription
        of moonlight and clouds

tomorrow will rub
        almost entirely away.