Saturday, June 4, 2011

[IL]LEGITIMATE POETICS: Reconciling (or not) Radical Craft & the Literary Establishment

Have you ever asked a poet why they write? It’s a fun question to ask. I would venture to say you would typically hear a profound (at times, perhaps cliché) response that evokes or explicitly articulates a philosophical and/or spiritual purpose. I have heard poets say they write for their community, they write to remember, they write to hold hope, they write to survive… and so the list goes.

No matter the oil that fuels our midnight flickering flame, most poets I have broken bread and stanza with write from sacred spaces composed of intricate amalgamations of memory and prophecy, affliction and bliss, irreverence and worship, insurgency and pacifism, desire and duplicity. The poetry I have been blessed to caress over the years show signs of roots tracing back to the richly complex wombs of inspiration. I insist poetry is more than compiled descriptions of dichotomies. Rather, gathering places of sweet-layered literary cacophonies spinning, resting and exploding at the speed and mind-baffling complexity of a planetary revolution.

Given that I liken the craft of poetry to the sacred scribing of biblical verses, I struggle to wrap my head around the bureaucracy of poetics. Not that I am entirely against institutional constructions of form. But, as I do with all institutional inventions, I call them into question, abstain from revering and resist abidance. Having questioned the existence of god, I must also hold the poetic establishment against the sun.

In my fervent resistance against the institutionalization of a sacred act, I spent a good eight years refusing to entertain the prospect of MFA programs. I met heartbroken writers who barely survived their MFA experience, including one novelist who stopped writing upon graduation. Over the years, I pictured MFA programs as predatory monsters taking the form of the Little Mermaid’s Ursula, offering their gift of legitimacy in exchange for the voices of their prey. Of course, my fears, while not entirely unfounded, were not completely fallacious either.

Although I remain skeptical of the industrialization of poetry, I decided to apply to a bilingual MFA program— and was admitted. Primarily, I applied out of the longing to receive the same degree of support and feedback in Spanish poetry as I receive in English. Having heard from other bilingual poets in monolingual English programs, who receive mere pats on the back for their Spanish work, I decided against applying to such linguistically enfeebled programs. I am honored to have been one of the six writers admitted to the University of Texas-El Paso’s Online Bilingual MFA Program. I look forward to the growth my writing will experience. Yet, I remain fearful of what I (not necessarily my writing) will look like in 2014. To be clear, I do not fear the MFA itself, but the culture of MFAs.

As with MFA programs, I have looked at publishing with a sense of reluctance. I was raised within a queer people of color-led movement of radical thinking and doing— a movement of transgressive people, thought and action. So when the world of publishing declares rules for what acceptable and legitimate forms of publishing are, I find myself resisting.

From the queer communities of color context I was raised in, publishing is not about profit or notoriety. Rather, the purpose of publishing is, to quote my sister and fierce poet, Rajasvini Bhansali, for the “production of knowledge.” As radical community-rooted poets, our stanzas do more than describe our values— they construct manifestos. Within this context, institutional standards of legitimized publishing become irrelevant, if not direct ideological and pragmatic impediments to the production, dissemination and engagement of our knowledge.

I come from the Bridgforth School of Writing where truth is inherent to craft. A school where one is asked to articulate how one’s resistance speaks to the work. A school where community is not forged, but in a constant organic process of birthing. A school where the body and its memory are mightier than the pen. It was under the mentorship of the brilliant Sharon Bridgforth that I found my voice and purpose on this planet.

As a radically trained cultural worker, I spent most of my 20’s advocating (at times fighting) for queer artists of color whose embodied artistic intention push against conventional white and heterocentric standards of art. Fueled by the values and training of queer people of color and radical ally sisters who created and sustain allgo (a statewide queer people of color organization in Texas), I stood-up to funding bodies who would rather fund the regurgitation of works by a European man dead nearly 400 years, over the innovative cutting-edge and autonomous craft of Southern butch dykes.

Inspired by, and in collaboration with, the genius of Joe Jiménez, Sharon Bridgforth, Jennifer Margulies and Dr. T. Jackie Cuevas, allgo launched itself into publishing. This energy led to the publishing of Virginia Grise and Irma Mayorga’s The Panza Monologues (based on the play by the same name, which engages in community dialogue on the Chicana body), as well as two anthologies, Queer Codex: Chile Love (a collection of works by queer men of color writers, performers and visual artists) and Queer Codex: ROOTED! (a collection of works by queer womyn and trans writers, performers and visual artists). During this period, my own book, Santo de la Pata Alzada: Poems from the Queer/Xicano/Positve Pen was published by the radical and feminist Evelyn Street Press.

And yet, with all my training in community-based publishing and arts production, as well as the beautiful and caring experience I had in the publishing of my first collection of poetry, I found myself allowing notions of legitimacy to plague my mind vis à vis my future in publishing. The more I began to move in the world as a Writer, the more the structures of industrialized poetics questioned my relationship to the establishment they jealously protect.

This is my retaliation.

What does Vanity Publishing mean to someone who has lived an entire life at the margins of institutional acknowledgement? Are we to assume that a self-published author has no writing community that offers support, feedback and spaces for growth? Thus, rendering the self-published work substandard (insert “whose standard” here), as if all work published traditionally were of supreme quality. By these rules, is the self-published person even an author?

Similarly, while theater companies producing the work of its membership are treasured, nonprofit publishers and collectives are called into question when publishing the work of their own. Even as ethical inquiries arise for poetry contests where winners have questionable ties to judges, the books remain published and valid in the eyes of the industry. In a world of such artistic double standards and, dare I say, classist, sexist and racist assumptions, what hope is left for writers whose training takes place in community backyards and living rooms, and not in the pale halls of the academy?

When so many of us come to poetry hoping to make sense of ourselves and our surroundings, and longing to imagine a future that is possible, being confronted with structural regulations for valid writing is a challenge, if not a reappearance of oppressions we sought to overcome through our art-making. Poets enter non-linear processes of craft-development, self-discovery, self-defining and self-identification, only to be forced to define ourselves by the rigid terms of institutions (e.g. AWP Conference bio guidelines and restrictions). Dare upset the poetic establishment and find yourself relegated to the outskirts (at best) or becoming (or remaining) irrelevant in its eyes. The poetic establishment has the final say.

I do not mean to disregard MFA programs or their value as spaces for writers to develop and refine their craft (for god’s sake, I’m about to start attending one). Nor do I intend to dismiss the role of traditional publishing in the lives and careers of my sistren, or demean their successes. To the contrary, I applaud and celebrate with them as they receive acclaim, distinguished awards and residencies, and publishing opportunities. I believe our communities deserve to enter and exist in those spaces. For without us, the literary establishment is illegitimate.

I raise these questions to engage my fellow writers in dialogue, to engage in public self-critique, and to open my own submission to the literary establishment for the critique of my sistren. I refuse to hold myself to the standard of a profiteering self-serving machine, but will submit to the voices of my peers. I look to you, my sistren, for guidance on how we might hold the establishment accountable, and, more importantly, how we continue to develop sistemas autóctonas (autochthonous systems) for the production of knowledge. 

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