by Emile DeWeaver
Last month, I read Eliza Gabbert’s advice column “Blunt Instrument” over at Electric Literature. The leading question, from an anonymous poet, saddened me. He wrote:
“Sometimes I feel like the time to write from my experience has passed, that the need for poems from a white, male perspective just isn’t there anymore, and that the torch has passed to writers of other communities whose voices have too long been silenced or suppressed… I want to listen but I also want to write—yet at times these impulses feel at odds with one another. How can I reconcile the two?”
Gabbert admits that, as a white woman, she’s “not necessarily the best person to answer” his question. She advises him to keep writing (great advice) but to submit less, in a personal attempt to balance inequalities in the male-dominated literary landscape (great uhmmm…).
Before I comment, here are my credentials: I’m a poet. I’m black. And once a year I go to a mountain top to meet with all the African-Americans in the world where we read Rotten English and talk about white, male poets. I’m not saying I can speak for all African-Americans. But I do know a lot of black people.
As an American, I don’t think I can be completely rational about race and masculine power. Two of my best friends are former skinheads, and when they complain about the plight of white men in America, I smile because I love them. Then I form a responsible alternative to, “Brother, have you lost your fucking mind?”
In these moments, I remind myself that the pains we suffer in life vary, but the pain scale is a myth. Pain is pain. Silence is silence. Which brings me back to Gabbert’s advice to submit less to provide more space for other voices.
Mr. Anonymous wrote, “I want to write.” Of course he does! The urge to communicate what is important to us comes down to our need to be heard. We’ve developed every friendship we have because of the stories we’ve told and heard. Whoever invented gossip had nothing to say, but the human need for an audience is so pressing that he or she just made some shit up.
I’ve been navigating oppression since skinheads chased my 8-year-old self through Pleasant Hill, California. It’s a relentless spiritual violence that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The thought of someone, especially a poet, assaulting their own humanity by suppressing their own voice shocked the words from me—a soft appeal against the madness that is American slavery’s legacy. Gabbert doesn’t tell Mr. Anonymous to suppress himself, but that’s what I heard. Advising Mr. Anonymous to submit less to address inequality in publishing feels like advising me to shoot myself to address gun violence in Oakland.
I agree with Gabbert on some points, and I add my encouragement to hers. Mr. Anonymous can promote exposure of suppressed voices by reading more diversely and sharing the books he enjoys with friends. A culture’s literature lies at the heart of its perspective, and anyone interested in validating marginalized voices would do well to read authors like Ta-Nahesi Coats, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Justin Torres (please read Torres), and err … me. Read all my work. For the good of the country.
I’ve digressed. What I’d like to say: Gabbert offers worthwhile suggestions like cultivating diversity in submission selection should Mr. Anonymous ever edit a magazine. I’m inspired by anyone who believes we all must find our unique contributions to social equality, but I hope no one will consider spiritual suicide as a viable solution.
Racial and gender oppression are real and horrible. Despite one commenter’s response to Gabbert’s guidance, neither is a “defunct power structure.” They’re systematic, so they can flourish without the ill intent of an individual. They will flourish without the concerted efforts of people willing to grapple with realities that make us cringe.
Mr. Anonymous, definitely do something about this. Inform yourself about domestic policy and mount letter-writing campaigns to your representatives about the changes you want to see (I have it on good authority that poets persuade masses). Volunteer in a prison. Donate your time and expertise to schools with no money for Arts classes. Locate the dignity in every human being you meet and praise it. Be the change you want to see. If we meet one day, I’ll bring you a thousand more ideas to fight oppression.
You asked what you should do with your writing.
Consider that I can’t reach every audience, and of those I do reach, there are certain things I can’t say without fatally alienating myself from the people to which I want to connect. You can’t say a bunch of things that I can. During my annual meetings on the mountaintop, I can say to African-Americans:
You know, Negro slaves gained emancipation because white activists helped them do it. These activists couldn’t have known what it meant to be a black slave, just as Mr. Anonymous isn’t likely to know the full impact of being an oppressed demographic in a country built on freedom’s principles, but neither example is a sin. It’s the human experience.
Cue the crickets, but I can say it.
Questions of class and race can divide you and I. Despite this default setting, nothing can stop you and I from bridging our separation, learning, and then sharing wisdom with our respective audiences. If we do this, our respective audiences will eventually become one audience with one hell of a reading list.
So what should you do with your writing?
Rip the top off the sky with the most honest thing you can write, right now. If you manifest poetry as an extension of you, it’ll always be relevant. It’ll hold power to edify a fisherman in Trinidad for the same reason that my friendship with two former skinheads runs as deep as brotherhood. Despite the differences between their history and mine, between you and I, between Seattle and Trinidad, we’re all living the same story. You are relevant because I am relevant. The greatest poets have tapped into this, and we who hear their lines love the truth of it.