Didgeridon’t: On the Politics of Poetry
The people who were with me when this story took place made me swear I would tell it without real names.
Except for my own.
This is a tale of what happens when poetry falls in with the wrong crowd.
The story is set in Berkeley, California, which explains a certain amount, but perhaps less than you might think.
Not all clichés are true, but in this story many of them are.
I cannot be responsible for everything
I was responsible for this: I accepted the invitation to attend a poetry reading on a Sunday evening, which is the traditional day for them: like football on Mondays and Catholic funerals on Fridays.
The reading was in an upstairs room at a celebrated independent bookstore in Berkeley. On Telegraph Avenue. I hope I am being sufficiently vague.
Everyone arrived late, especially the two poets. The audience sat in the kind of uncomfortable folding chairs that they use at AA meetings: brown plastic seats the exact shade of nothing matters anymore.
What shall I describe first. It’s hard to be linear. There were the cell phones that rang constantly during the reading and which their owners leapt up to answer. Because: how cool is it to be able to whisper into the receiver, “I’m at a poetry reading”? Or because: any excuse for escape began to seem attractive.
R. said he heard phones go off eight or nine times, but I didn’t count that many. Still, I think we would agree that one woman’s rang twice. Both times she scuttled out sideways, like a fiddler crab, a small cyclone in a huipil, gaudy scarves, and dangling peasant jewelry: white-people ethnic. LatinetteWear®.
It was that kind of audience.
They’d come to hear poets of color. The colors were black and brown. (I could be more specific, but we’re trying to protect the guilty here.)
In any case, a person had to dress. Otherwise: how would anyone know that you were multicultural?
The poets had their roles to play, too. Ethnic poet. Chicana poet. African American Poet. Caribeña poet. Activist poet. Woman poet. Poets of Diaspora and Dislocation. Voices of Their People Poets.
I emphasize that the people do not pick their poets.
One poet was merely uninteresting. The other poet was actively dangerous.
Because. She had stopped caring about poetry. She had turned into a persona instead: Eccentric. Angry. Aggrieved. Oppressed. Latina. Poet.
Poet at the end.
If you deploy your persona well enough, no one notices when your work is bad. Or, if they do, they will not tell you.
I am not allowed to say her name.
The poet had brought along her son, a fidgety, nondescript, and over-praised child, the kind that neurotic, guilty, yuppie parents are raising from coast to coast.
Ethnicity is no barrier.
The poet invited her son to accompany her as she read her poems.
On his didgeridoo.
Which he had made at school. From PVC pipe.
Imagine the kind of school where precocious ten-year-old boys make didgeridoos out of PVC pipe and then paint them in versions of the authentic aboriginal designs that the teacher has downloaded from the Internet and printed out on the full-color laser jets in the computer lab. Imagine what a marvel of a school.
I wonder if it is public.
I wonder if his teachers mentioned that “didgeridoo” is a word in no aboriginal language but was invented by the English or the Irish, depending upon whose history you believe. I wonder whether the poet knows the native words—ngarrriralkpwina, ilpirra, yirtakki, garnbak, yiraka, wuyimba, artawirr, djibolu, martba, kurmur, ngaribi, paampu, bambu—which even now I must write in the colonizer’s script.
The poet’s son came to the front, smirking and mugging for the crowd, loving the spotlight shamelessly—no less than the poet, but he was allowed to show it. He took up his didgeridoo and with it he dutifully produced the noise that didgeridoos produce when they are made at school of PVC pipe and played by children who are neither aborigines nor especially musical: a long, stuttering bass tone of unvarying pitch. A bleat. A fart. A sound connected to no tradition and no culture and which meant precisely nothing.
This was an important motif.
Anyone could imagine what went on between the two of them. How she wanted to nurture his artistic nature. How that reflected on her. How no one had every told him that he was not, in his every living gesture, brilliant and flawless. How art in the face of relentless criticism is stillborn, but art that faces no criticism whatsoever becomes the deafening roar of a monstrous, ravening ego.
How neither of these is good.
The poet did not read her poems. She declaimed them. She sang. She hollered. She shook a rattle shaped like Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Cuauhtli, Wakinyan, Huitzilopochitli, Cuauhtlaxayauh, Quilaztli, Thunderbird, Weywot, Oshadagea, the eagle of the huelga. Or maybe just the good old American eagle, like the one on the dollar bill.
Another symbol without a point of reference.
The poet began a long and ragged poem that included references to multinational corporations terrorism foreign policies destabilized economies third-world exploitation machetes genocide military-industrial complex police states nazis imperialism the CIA.
You have heard this poem before.
It is a litany exactly as unspecific as the Catholic one and likewise never meant to be questioned.
The poet was speaking of the murder of innocent Mayans in Acteal, Mexico three days before Christmas in 1997. They were killed for protesting/resisting/being in the wrong place at the wrong time/existing. Their murders were or were not the work of the Party of Institutionalized Revolution/the Zapatistas/outside agitators/counterinsurgents/angry neighbors/members of a drug cartel.
Nothing was clear because, to this date, the incident is not clear. All that is certain are the ideologies, the propaganda value of violent death. The gruesome pornography of human cruelty. But the poem’s intention was not reportage. The poem’s intention was indictment. Accusation. The poet was outraged.
At you, in particular, because you are not outraged. Or you never were. Or not outraged enough.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
In this massacre, the murdered numbered forty-five. The poet read their names.
Like a random page from the Chiapas phone book.
What an angry voice she used!
How she enunciated each syllable, rolling her Rs and rasping her jotas!
Every Spanish morpheme rang out in perfect pocho purity!
The dead must cringe when they hear their names pronounced as though they are being called into the ring at El Mundo de Boxeo. They never have a moment’s rest.
¡Pobre Mejico! So far from God, so near to the poets!
“Compassion is an unstable emotion,” Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”
The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do—but who is that “we”?—and nothing “they” can do either—and who are “they”?—then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic. [….] [But the] states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration…. The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others … suggests a link between the faraway sufferers … and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power…. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. (101-102)
This is what it means to make use of an ethnicity to which you feel entitled and it is different from making use of an ethnicity to which you are not entitled.
Do not ask me what constitutes entitlement.
Apparently you know it if you have it.
All I can tell you is that the poet was Authentic.
No, there’s a better way to say it. The poet performed Authenticity.
She is not a poor Tzotzil facing the careless murderous guns of coked-up thugs enacting vengeance for some untraceable roadblock in someone’s political ambitions.
She is a tenured university professor with frequent-flyer miles and a child in a school where they can afford PVC pipe and an arts program.
How long do we have to wait for the people who are changing the system from the inside to show their work?
I don’t have conclusions to draw, only questions to raise.
About what it means to write with one foot pressed against the sostenuto pedal of other people’s oppression.
I want to ask how far away from America it is ever possible to travel.
When you throw the tossed salad into the melting pot, would you eat what comes out?
Here is what else made the poet Authentic: her Poetry Voice. Which has become the standard-issue-urban-ethnic-poet voice, the bastard creature of poetry slams Jerry Springer plagiarized black Baptist ministers and the wholesale creation for mass consumption of a hiphopiverse in which anyone can sound aggrieved and colored and hip.
The voice is breathless and singsong and unnatural, exaggerated and insistent. No one talks like this, not even black Baptist ministers. No one except poets.
You would know this voice if you heard it. I wish I could reproduce it in writing, but it is a strictly oral fixation. When I am alone, I amuse myself by using this voice to recite the Gettysburg Address and I make Lincoln sound down, o my brothas and sistahs, mis compañeros, my people.
Whoever you are.
It is the voice that accompanies the Difference and Diversity Dance.
and the dancers go round, they go round and around, to
the squeal and the blare and the tweedle of bagpipes.
Or of the didgeridoo.
It is the voice of the characters on the Saturday-morning multicultural cartoon.
This is the way they perform in the twenty-first-century minstrel show.
Because, if you borrow a little ethnicity here and a little ethnicity there, pretty soon you cobble together something that you can ram down the throats of people whom you have terrorized into never speaking about race.
You can claim to be living in the freefall of the borderlands. But that doesn’t mean you don’t patrol them.
You can shake the stick of racism because once you were beaten with it. Or your grandmother was. Or someone who looks like you. Or someone whose pain is available on CNN.
You can talk of revolution, knowing full well that there has never been a revolution in the history of the world in which innocent people did not die.
I mean to speak heresy, the kind that can strand you permanently on the wrong side of the word racist. It is this: In the small, small pond of contemporary American literature, it helps to wear your ethnicity on the outside.
In plain view.
Because editors and the givers of grants are fundamentally scared, powerful, and stupid.
Red and yellow black and white we are precious in their sight.
But what if some of us are not?
My heart is breaking, Gloria A., but I must tell you that mestizaje has come to mean this: that everything is up for grabs in the endless cafeteria line of American ethnic splendor.
I can no longer tell the difference between white boys with Hawaiian tattoos and Chicana poets with didgeridoos.
It is no one’s fault but mine that my vision is so cloudy.
I remember a conversation I overheard in a café in the late 1980s. Two heterosexual couples were talking. They had just been to see Sarafina, the Mbongeni Ngema/Hugh Masekela musical about student resistance to apartheid in South Africa. Another friend, absent from the café, had seen it as well. “Ingrid says it’s the best thing she’s ever seen,” declared the woman with the meaningful haircut. “She says it was better than Lay Miz” (because this is the way a certain kind of San Franciscan referred to Les Misérables in the late 1980s).
“Oh, that’s crazy!” said another man’s wife. “She’s just being PC. There’s no way it was better than Lay Miz!”
To pronounce “Lay Miz” put you in one group. To maintain that Sarafina was the better show put you in another.
I do not want to live between these choices.
What I am left with is this. Suppose we insist that the quality of our work is the only criterion that matters. Do we believe that artists of color will then always be left behind?
We behave as if we do.
I need to be reminded who it is who sees our work as inferior.
When we colonize our ethnic and subcultural niches, are we not begging editors and readers and audiences and holders-of-the-purse-strings-of-important grants to look at our work second?
When we are forced into unnatural postures, do we admit that we are in pain, or do we claim that we have decided to take up yoga?
I ask these questions of myself first. But only first.