In her essay “Am I Latina? Or Am I Just Angry?” Colombian-Puerto Rican poet Sandy Florian asks important questions about readerly expectations of writers of color and how they write about their identities:
What happens, though, when someone who claims to be a Latina writer doesn’t write directly about her heritage? What happens when the African American student writes whatever the hell she pleases? We are told we aren’t “really Latina,” that we aren’t “black enough,” by our peers, our professors, our own people. We are told that our writing doesn’t contend with the struggle of being a minority, different, an “other.”(83)
Can a Latina poet create work with a racialized subjectivity without writing directly about her heritage? How can we read race as an imperative activating lens for an experimental poem that doesn’t “address” race on the surface? Florian’s “The Chair” offers a case study in this kind of critical and conscientious mode of reading race in experimental poetry.
“The Chair” provides a satirical description of “OUR AUTHOR” (note the emphatically royal we)–an infantile male writer–sitting in “This chair! The chair! My chair!” and writing (79). Her unique genre-bending prose, a comic mix of philosophical prose, Pynchon-esque fiction, and stage directions, parodies the solipsistic, brash, and phallic “universal” voice of the male author. (This turn reminded me of the brilliant parody Twitter handle @GuyInYourMFA.) Although the subject matter seems neutered of race, Florian’s Latina subjectivity is what provides the critical vantage point to disrupt the writer’s activity. As Deborah Paredez’s introductory critical notes in Angels of the Americlypse suggest, Florian writes in”philosophical prose, metacritical and impassioned prose that forces people to think about reading” (75). Her razor-sharp parody uses the Master’s own tools to dismantle the Master’s house (to invoke Audre Lorde), unseating OUR AUTHOR and disassembling his wor(l)d-building. To wit:
OUR AUTHOR affectedly sidles THE CHAIR toward the title of the book where he fingers his prick and probes his hole, nosing up and nosing down whatever limitations he damn well pleases, folding up the ballot, voting only for himself, thereby electing himself president of his newly erected metropolis. (78)
Florian intentionally uses sexually euphemistic language to humorously ridicule the male writer’s activity as crass and masturbatory. Even as OUR AUTHOR pleasures himself and acts with unlimited agency as “he damn well pleases,” Florian’s language deconstructs his phallogocentric authority as juvenile and myopic.
Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology offers a useful framework to analyze this maneuver. Ahmed’s brilliant book puts the “orientation” back into “sexual orientation” and the “orient” in “orientalism,” critically examining how bodies are situated in space and time, particularly bodies that are deemed “Other” in society. Her aperture of race-ing and queering phenomenology begins with the writing desk, an object she points out frequently emerges as an at-hand example in philosophy’s armchair experiments. Despite the table’s prominence as an object, Ahmed contends that philosophers (by and large white and male) in fact turn their backs to the writing table. I will quote her at length:
So even when tables appear, they only seem to do so as background features of a landscape, which is full of many other half-glimpsed objects. […] Despite how the table matters it often disappears from view, as an object “from” which to think and toward which we direct our attention. In this book, I bring the table to ‘the front’ of the writing in part to show how “what” we think “from” is an orientation device. By bringing what is “behind” to the front, we might queer phenomenology by creating a new angle, in part by reading for the angle of the writing, in the ‘what’ that appears. To queer phenomenology is to offer a different “slant” to the concept of orientation itself. (4)
Using Ahmed’s framework, it is clear that Florian’s “The Chair” works to offer a different “slant” on writing. Bringing what is “behind” the writing desk to the foreground–that is, OUR AUTHOR in THE CHAIR—Florian reorients the reader to consider the author’s subject position (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) as an orientation device. Through this perspective, Florian points to the ways OUR AUTHOR’s vantage point is not universal or objective but in fact a racialized and myopic imagination. This is humorously cast as “THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF ONE-EYED SQUINTS.” Such a limited perspective enables an entitled relationship of author to text and even world/community beyond, where all other characters are dehumanized and regarded as numbered “subjects” in his own fantasy world.
So even though”The Chair” does not seem to invoke Florian’s Latina heritage directly, it is clear that the poem’s project is informed by her racial subjectivity, oriented by her position of “being a minority, different, an ‘other.'” in society. She turns the question of writing authority on its head in order to unseat the white male author and claim her own seat at the table.