I am a maker. I have never been able to reconcile myself with the title of “poet,” and certainly not by any measure that of “artist.” Still, the notion that I make things that exist now and didn’t before seems to be something I can get behind. Making is something very new and sacred to me. I am always in awe of those who have felt or have been encouraged to feel from a young age that what they have had to say or think or create is valuable or wanted. I am still envious of that inviolable notion.
I am white. I am also middle class and expensively educated. I am a woman and I am queer; I present as typically and digestibly “femme,” allowing me to occupy public and familiar spaces without my sexuality being subject to anyone’s disclosure by my own.
I want to be a teacher. I love poetry to the degree that I feel I owe it excellence; I feel I owe it air to breathe and space for constant reinvention. I consider poetry an urgent responsibility. I know it is survival. Deep in this love and this responsibility, I am continually questioning my place in it and how I can grow its impact, or, alternatively, if I am simply taking up space and recapitulating extant structural values.
How can I teach poets and future poets in a workshop environment responsibly? How can I teach myself accountability and unlearn the indoctrinated benchmarks of socio-poetic (??) academia? I think it would be one thing to say that no, as a white woman from an economically privileged background, I cannot, in good conscience, stand up in front of a classroom of students and teach Philip (or Kapil or pick from an infinity of necessary poets who hold marginalized identities and have thus been excluded from the “canon”) with any assumption of authority. It would be another thing to say that as a white person who has the opportunity to teach in a (n Ivy League) classroom, it is incumbent upon me to teach poets of color so that they can be further integrated into the canon of literature and read according to the same hermeneutic standard of Whitman or Eliot or Dickinson for that matter.
I’m not sure. What I am sure of is my commitment to making, my commitment to poetry, my commitment to justice, and, implicit in all of this, my unwavering if clumsy commitment to love.
Growing up in a small, vaguely fascist, all girls school environment, we were simultaneously taught that our imaginations were “limitless” and that we must recite our Robert Frost correctly and without feeling. For all intents and purposes, we were subjected to the understanding that we could discover anything already encompassed by and accomplish anything up to the threshold of the domain of white men. All other identities we could assume insofar as they were available to us, and the white male Bildungsroman effectively subsumed our ego, because why not? It’s not like it could get any better than that: The Universal. It was not until I was well into college that I began to realize that there were entire populations of minds whose integral and revelatory work I was missing. It was not until after college that I began to realize how purposefully and painstakingly the hegemonic, white-supremacist institutions I had called home (literally, I was sent to boarding school at 13), had ensured this condition.
I am accustomed to believing I cannot trust my own mind. Trauma and post-trauma have driven home the idea that my brain is not necessarily a safe (or brave) or reliable place. However concretely I have learned this, it was not until I read Rankine’s and Loffreda’s introduction to “The Racial Imaginary” that I understood that my imagination is ruled not only by the practical bounds of my experience, but the ethical implications of my privilege and whiteness. My imagination can and does pose an existential threat to individuals who are marginalized by the institutions and structures of white supremacist power in which I am passively complicit and of which I am a beneficiary. What’s more, is that even as my class privilege and whiteness limits my imagination, it also “provide[s] [me] with the imagination” (Magi, 167) that I am safe. I have the privilege of feeling protected from, and can therefore separate myself from if I choose, violent, racist movements like eugenics (in Stein’s case), the War on Drugs, or the state-sanctioned murder of black men. “The white imagination may create the myth that a household is successfully isolated from the pressures and inequalities that usually beget privilege.” (Magi, 167) Shock is a privilege.
The “poetry of witness” is a longstanding and difficult tradition. If you search for it in Youtube, you will find a litany of poets sweating through the concept for minutes on end. I, like many white people, only became aware that mine is a racialized existence extremely late in the game. The reticence is still there: How can I, a white person, react creatively and responsibly to racial violence? How can I bear witness to the relentless violence against people of color not only sanctioned by but necessary for the operation of the United States government in solidarity with the oppressed? How do I write about race?
I am a maker. I make things and write words that exist now that didn’t before according to my own sway. I want to be a teacher of future makers. That is the greatest responsibility of which I can conceive. I know I have to earn it. Call it poetry of witness or being a fucking human being, I cannot consider myself a maker and remain silent in my work. Empathy forbids it, and empathy is the life of art. I don’t know the best way. I haven’t determined yet the methods of creativity or pedagogy that do the least harm. I am not confident that as a white person I can ever stand in front of a classroom, or consume a “subaltern” text, or take up more space in the world with things (poems?), and do no harm.
I don’t know. But hell if I’m not going to try.