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 café’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.


  1. This isn't a topic that you can just say "Hi" too, or cool. It's enormous, and I'm not going to apologize for trying to get it started.

    One of the problems is that I don’t have access to any of the poems in the four books Lee Sharkey is reviewing in “Writing White,” aside from the few passages she quotes, but if I did I’d be interested to see how the poets use style in their explorations of the role race and/or privilege has played in their upbringings. I’m particularly interested in the ways social class is defined by diction having spent so much of my life in England, but in fact I suspect accent and word choice are major factors in the creation of identity all over the world. ‘White’ children speak differently at home not just from English speaking African-American and Hispanic children but from English-speaking immigrant children in general, including Italian-American, Korean-American, Irish-American, Pakistani-American, Iranian-American, and indeed all the other English speaking-American children on the other side of the tracks from wherever you might have been coming.

    I went to very white, upper class boarding schools in both America and England in the 50s, and was aware even then that many of the boys were, among themselves, at least, affecting rough, working-class accents and mannerisms that were modeled on social groups that were far below them economically and socially. Obviously that sort of language made the boys feel tougher, more manly, and more likely to succeed with the girls. This was particularly noticeable when the boys began to be influenced by contemporary popular music in the mid-50s – I suspect Bob Zimmerman probably grew up with an accent quite similar to my classmates at Saint Paul’s who came from Forest Lake, for example, or even Sewickley, but once Bob Zimmerman became Bob Dylan his neck got a whole lot redder and his voice raspier -- and now you can’t sing any popular song anywhere in America without using a rural Woody Guthrie-style, Bruce Springsteen accent even if you never speak like that at home. And the same thing happened with African-American English in the community of young white people too, indeed, even more so, I’d say, but a bit later -- everybody wanted to sound as if they were talking the blues or, at the very least, pretty cool – and young Americans still do that. And of course the English ‘Public School’ boys began to talk among themselves like the Stones – the joke being, of course, that Mick Jagger had done the same sort of dive in his accent that Bob Zimmerman had done a bit earlier. Because in fact Mick Jagger hadn’t always sounded what is more looked like Keith Richards!

    I think that goes somewhere in relation to ‘Writing White,’ or hope it does. On the other hand, to talk about it we have to get into the poetry, and if anyone has a poem from any of those 4 books that can illustrate any of this I’d be very grateful to have a look at it. And even more grateful to hear your ideas about it.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Christopher. I’m not sure how much of this applies to my own work, but it’s good to consider, in the context of “whiteness,” questions of diction and style.

    Since you asked, there are a couple of poems on the White Papers page of my website, as well as links to a number of others:

  3. Thanks very much for that, Martha, and I look so forward to going to your site and having a look. But it's 6am here and I'm just going out to do the chores -- although there's no bundling up and no frosty breath or sweet smell of hay in the cow barn at the antipodes. And it's 12 hours before my sun will at last get to you too, so no wonder it's so thin when it gets to New England. And how I miss that!

    Just want to add that what I think I was really trying to say is how much any class of people, privileged or marginalized, is influenced by what it doesn't have as much as by what it does. The Industrial Revolution also threw up the starving artist in the garret as an alternative to the parlor, don't forget, as if you could only be creative if you were dirty and marginalized. And the modern writer-saints of true living have as often been aristocrats as peasants, like Tolstoy, or ones who reverted to type in their art despite so much education like Thomas Hardy, D.H.Lawrence, T.S.Eliot and Norman Mailer. That's why the boys at my white boarding schools talked tough, I think, feeling deprived of the life-blood they felt was redder on the other side of the tracks, and even black-face was a kind of longing among whites, wasn't it? We all long for each other, it seems to me -- all white things long to be black and vise versa.

    A wild throw out -- because I'd love to see this discussion take off!


  4. 9.45am
    Love the poems, Martha -- and of course it's all there already, everything I suggest in both my comments.

    We have to try to eliminate the other side of the tracks in any democracy, of course we do, but we poets know at the same time that we can never get rid of 'other' unless we want to stop meaning -- and loving! Poets are essential, and poets who cross-dress in language like you, Martha Collins, particularly so. Because poets like you can say things that could never be discussed in a political gathering!

    Thanks for that, Christopher

  5. I’m still reading the selection of poems from Martha Collins’ “White Papers.”

    #42 is short enough to fit in here easily – and I won’t say which, but one of the images really burns for me personally. But could I talk about it? Or should I?


    [ 42 ]

    my white I’ve said my
    baby bed underwear tub
    toilet washing machine
    whatever got rid of dirt my

    wedding dress veil what-

    ever could hide X sheets

    bleached coffin lined
    against the dark dirt
    banned when we started

    to buy underwear in colors
    even black white was on
    its way out of cover over

    Martha Collins

  6. You can find links to several of Jake Adam York's poems at

  7. Thanks for that, Lee -- in fact I had already found my way there after Martha Collins suggestion about where I might be able to find some of her poems about "writing white." is a most moving and thought-provoking site, larger than life -- but who am I to say how what I find there reflects on the themes that we are supposed to be discussing in this forum? Is the topic too difficult, is that it, or too painful, or is it perhaps that everybody is afraid of making a mistake?

    What's so interesting about Martha Collins' poem above is that if it weren't read in the context of race relations in the U.S. but had instead been discovered tied up with a ribbon in a whole bunch of unpublished poems at the back of a drawer in the bedroom of a woman who had never lived in a racially divided world, it would still generate every bit of its passion and meaning.


    That's it for me unless somebody else comes in to make this a discussion.

    And if I don't come back in, let me just say thanks to the editors for giving us the chance to think about these things.


  8. Just to remind you that for the vast majority of people in the world "black" doesn't refer to African- Americans. Where I live you wear white at funerals, and although you're fascinated by blonde you also feel a little queasy around it, almost as if it were a deprivation, and you wouldn't be caught dead with anything but the most radiant, thick, black, black hair (wish you could see Thai soap-operas, for the shampoo!). Unless you're a teenager and into J-pop -- then you might go for the bleach!


  9. Thanks for all the comments, Christopher. Here’s a brief response to some of them.

    On “talking tough” or “talking black”: Eric Lott reminds us that every time we do the latter we’re evoking the minstrel tradition. And I think you’re absolutely right about “longing”: often the most horrendous language and acts cover a suppressed desire to be or incorporate the “other”; thus the erotic elements in many lynchings, for instance. And also minstrelsy: I have a poem about that, in White Papers, which also appears online with some discussion; see

    On not talking black but not talking white either: I don’t have it at hand, but a friend reminds me of a review that described the broken-off and double-jointed syntax of White Papers as a means of "subverting the colonial project." I think Jake, Kevin and I are all aiming at such subversion, as we attempt to avoid the white language of privilege and certainty in our work.

    On colors: White for mourning, yes: I’ve spent time in Vietnam. Interesting to know you’re in Thailand, half a world away.

    Best, Martha

  10. “Evoking the minstrel tradition” indeed, but so are the players in Hamlet, and some of the actors are even in drag -- which can be a bit delicate these days, can’t it, perhaps even more so than black-face? Or The Wooster Group. That’s the most passionate and politically engaged theatre in the world, yet everything they do transgresses, indeed so much so it’s often really hard to look at. I remember well when even Arthur Miller couldn’t take what they did with “The Crucible” (mocking theatre-art, can you imagine?), and I hear they’re still into Channel J – which to see on stage for the first time in the early 80s was, I can tell you, truly a rocker. Or Commedia dell'Arte and it’s off-shoots, taking the mickey out of absolutely everything for 400 years including the handicapped, senior citizens, and gypsies, and still beating up women at county fairs and art festivals all over Europe! Yes, PC or not, slap-stick is here to stay!

    When we get to the point in America where black-face can be utilized on stage without the need to add notes explaining that of course it’s demeaning, then we’ll know we’re no longer racist -- just as we can already produce a really devastating “Merchant of Venice” without being anti-semitic, or a roaring “Coriolanus” without insulting, well, you know, just about everybody. I’m waiting for the day when we can elect a non-white President without having to play any race card, for or against. Then we’ll be truly there, and the African-American will be history along with the Pilgrim Father, Pocohontas, Tonto, Custer and John Henry.

    I like so much what you do, Martha, because you're so accurate yet don’t pontificate. I love your prose about poetry too, but it’s not the same thing -- and I want to say something about that.

    Your “Some notes on ‘[white paper #47]’” in “Ancora Imparo” begins with a question about the danger of doing too much research before one begins writing a series of poems like "White Papers," and you field it in a very interesting way, concluding that “uncertainty is central” even when you know everything!

    For myself, I would like to see [“white paper #47”] (love the brackets and lower case -- research for sure!) permanently accompanied with those notes, because together they accomplish far more than the poem alone.

    Last month it was Philip Metres’ list we were discussing in “An Index,” but the problem there was very different. It wasn’t that we didn’t know what “C4” was already, for example, but that we needed to be forced to “see” it for what it is, to know it more intimately, so to speak, in our own persons. The gimmick of working in a whole lot of little lexical abbreviations forces the reader to find out and find out and find out until you’re ready for “cf. skin to kin.”

    My point is that Philip Metres' poem is far more powerful without notes, but I really don’t want to read too many like it, I can tell you. Indeed, if there were others like it it wouldn’t need to be written, and poor Philip would be spared the pain!

    I have the same Notes-problem with some of my new poems at the moment because I’m writing about things that most Americans don’t know about here in Southeast Asia, and I need to fill those readers in. And let me be clear about this – many of those things Americans ought to know about as citizens of a country that left so many of its young dead in the Southeast Asian rice-paddies fighting an enemy they didn't realize was stronger and better than they were. For example, I'd like them to know that Gooks don't all look alike any more than we do -- or value their lives less even when they're so poor.

    And there are huge parallels there to what you’re doing in “White Papers,” Martha Collins, and I suspect you are already researching Vietnam as I’m researching Thailand!


  11. I worry that I may have made it sound as if the way "White Paper #47" is accompanied by notes in "Ancora Imparo" somehow diminishes the poem as poetry. I didn't mean that at all, anymore than I meant that Philip Metres poem was a better poem because it didn't need notes.

    The point is that "An Index" is NOTHING BUT notes. It isn't a poem yet, in a sense, and that shocks the reader into realizing he or she has to write the poem that hasn't yet been written -- which is really painful because the new poem is going to be about letting tiny shards of metal be lodged in your own skin, or picking them out of your sister's.

    I hate "An Index" for that reason, and I thank Philip Metres enormously for helping me to know that.

    On the other hand, I also thank Martha Collins for the richness of those notes in "Ancora Imparo" because the poem blossoms not just into a history I don't know but a history I'm really glad to know, a history which is in itself poetry -- yes, as glad as we all should be to move into a black, white, Hmong, Hassidic, Mormon or Mayflower neighborhood without anybody caring but everybody noticing!


    I keep going because I'd so much like for this Forum to take off, and if somebody from the outside doesn't try, what hope is there?

    The idea of poems presented by their authors in person so appeals to me. I also love the risk Lee Sharkey takes when she puts up her own "Books in Brief" for review! Who else does that, or where else is there more cogent writing on poetry by poets in such a way that their status simply isn't part of the equation? Every editor says they do that, but who actually does?

    Lee Sharkey says this right at the end of "Writing White:" "Despite her dying, Adrienne Rich still whispers in my ear, “We can’t wait to speak until we are perfectly clear and righteous. There is no purity and, in our lifetimes, no end to this process.”

    With thanks to everybody, then, for your tolerance, Christopher