Contemporary racism is wily. It has become resilient to being called out, and now that it’s not as socially acceptable to be publicly racist, a racist person needs to take on the persona of the grown-up who doesn’t have time for silly and childish things like ‘language-policing’ or pointing out white supremacy. Those who defend, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Body of Michael Brown’ tend to sound like these new, more covert racists. Their response is similar to the ‘I don’t see race’ line that racists who don’t want to be identified as such often deploy.
If anybody is still wondering why Goldsmith’s performance caused such uproar, I would recommend Hollie Pich’s ‘When poetry is racist’ for a better historical context. There are also a number of other responses to the Goldsmith performance which offer more nuanced angles, and which speak from a specifically North American context. See, for example, Hyperallergic, Bluestockings Mag and Huffington Post.
When poets denounced Goldsmith’s poem as a desecration of Michael Brown’s body, they were not wrong, nor were they confusing ‘mere words’ for a body. The language of the body (that is, the autopsy upon which the poem is based) became the body in that performance – a black body, which, in the history of bodies, has had a lot of terrible violence inflicted upon it, mostly by white bodies. There is a smug, deliberate provocativeness in Goldsmith’s choice of title that has fuelled the anger of poets. Whatever conversation the act generated throughout the poetry and conceptual writing communities, it was not a conversation that was Kenneth Goldsmith’s to start. His is a white voice, in an area (and world) where black and other non-white voices are routinely silenced. Any critique of race–power structures cannot begin with an act that further silences black poets.
This is not only an argument for ‘representation’ – that is, the idea that if we decentre whiteness and increase representation of non-white poets everywhere, racism will be solved. But representation within poetry is a practical reality: who gets books published? Who gets asked to read or speak on panels? Who is offered residencies at major art/writing institutions? Whose books are added to teaching courses? I am all for the fluidity and malleability of language, and I want to always make a distinction between writing that is examining the relationships between language and peoples, versus language or writing that performs a colonising act. ‘The Body of Michael Brown’ was an editorialised, repurposed reading of the St Louis County autopsy report, a fact that was only revealed post-performance, after criticisms started to emerge.
There are two important points here. One, a conceptual poet cannot have his cake and eat it too. From his now widely used and influential term ‘uncreative writing’, we know Goldsmith’s advocates a process-oriented ‘freedom’ from intent, which is also meant to double as a get-out-of-jail-free card. However, Goldsmith cannot deny that the choice in reading an autopsy as conducted by St. Louis County is an editorial decision in itself. Secondly, whether or not Goldsmith editorialised the poem is beside the point, because of the way it uses ‘clinical’ language to interrogate the body. This was emphasised in the layout of the performance: Michael Brown’s graduation photo was projected large on the screen behind where Goldsmith stood. Heriberto Yépez writes (via English translation):
In the face of the indignation provoked by his re-creation of a report about the cadaver of a victim of racial ultra-violence, Goldsmith tried to allege there were no bad intentions. This is an inconsistency because Goldsmith himself has insisted for years that his works are derived from concepts removed from the Romantic subject. But by defending himself morally, Goldsmith recurs to the poetic subject he claims to have left behind.
Here, I must return to the purported ideals of experimental, conceptual poetry. After all, Goldsmith defended his reading as a conceptually provocative piece.
Conceptual poetry is the term given to a set of largely compositional writing practices that emerged in 1990s – 2000s out of the US Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s. These include appropriation (for example, Angela Genusa’s Spam Bibliography), constraint (see Ronald Johnson’s Radio Os, a rewrite of Paradise Lost) or, more recently, very internet-specific processes (Tan Lin’s recent ambient speed-reading poem ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Systems Theory’ and the Google-results poems of the Flarf sub-genre). Such methods interrogate the ‘idea of a text’ over the content of a text, in order to tease out non-subjective – some might say anti-lyric – writing modes. While these writing practices are not ‘owned’ by Conceptual Poetry, and in the case of Radi Os, might not even be considered part of the Conceptual Poetry ‘canon’, the conceptual poets associated with defining the capitalised term – Marjorie Perloff, Vanessa Place and Craig Dworkin, for example – are often employed in certain tertiary spaces and publications, or are touted by established figureheads, so that we come to think of conceptual practice as being associated with certain poets only.
We might then ask: is conceptual poetry racist? Not quite. But Conceptual Poetry, insofar as it is a movement and genre with apparent gatekeepers, is racist. The Conceptual Poetry movement asserts itself through similar channels of white supremacy, though a set of practices that should be the blank terrain upon which any interested poet is free to play and experiment. Non-white writers such as Cecilia Vicuña or Kamau Brathwaite would possibly be far more widely known if not for those structurally white spaces.
In fact, many poets associated with lineages of black or Caribbean writing are kept separate, and defined to the racial element. Evie Shockley’s essay, ‘Is “Zong” conceptual poetry? Yes, it isn’t’, examines the way poetry criticism assigns a whiteness to conceptual practices by highlighting the difference between, say, a Steinian conceit and poetic interferences with colonialism and its languages, which is not allowed into the canon of conceptualism. She writes, of the poet M. NourbeSe Philip (a poet of Caribbean descent practising experimental and arguably conceptual writing):
Just as [Harryette] Mullen’s experimentation is sometimes portrayed as indebted to Stein, Oulipo, and Language poetry in ways that downplay or distort important legacies of African American innovation upon which she draws, Philip has seen her most recent work, the book-length poem Zong!, claimed for the category of conceptual poetry in conversations that divorce it from the postcolonial Caribbean traditions with which her poetics are equally — or perhaps even more — engaged.
Looking at this in a broader context, Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant essay, ‘Delusion of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde‘ points out that:
the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history. The avant-garde’s ‘delusion of whiteness’ is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities.
Park Hong’s essay was published some weeks before Kenneth Goldsmith read ‘The Body of Michael Brown’ at Brown University, and shows that discussions around race and conceptual writing were well underway before Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading took place.
From its inception, conceptual writing is a form interested in, as Park Hong says, ‘interrogating the very role of art as an institution in a bourgeois society and seeking to collapse artistic praxis with daily life.’ The status quo in regards to race is something that non-white poets must always confront, whether they choose to do so explicitly within their poetry or even in the choices they make about which poetry communities to identify with. Just as it is fair for a non-white conceptual poet to fight for recognition with ‘Conceptual Poetry’, so it is equally fair for a non-white poet to refuse the label of ‘conceptual’ due to its overwhelming whiteness.
Indeed, it is the work of conceptual poets of colour over the past few years that made it possible for the Goldsmith moment to explode in the way that it did. The Boston Review, for example, published an essay series on race and the avant-garde (prior to Goldsmith’s reading), which shows how many non-white poets there are in the world of experimenting with form and content. So why do we only hear about Goldsmith? Conceptual poetry and writing is formally interesting and innovative, but Kenneth Goldsmith’s work is not. His work has always claimed a level of grandiosity that negates any sort of real conceit. By stark contrast, the work by Bhanu Kapil, a British poet of Punjabi origin working in the US, offers actually interesting (formally as well as content-wise) contributions to conceptual writing.
The whiteness of conceptual poetry is forged and formed through the structures of white, elitist establishments – the White House (where Goldsmith performed for Obama), the prestigious galleries, the academic institutions. The individual methods of its practice hold the potential to undermine said institutions, but the ‘remixing’ and de-authoring that a student of the Goldsmith school of conceptualism might advocate is one that assumes a subject whose survival, visibility and position in the world have never been questioned.
As someone practising conceptual techniques in my own poetry at the moment, I am constantly negotiating this erasure of the author-subject. On the one hand, I see this as a way for my poetry to exist separate from me, a non-white woman; to write in a way that lets my writing speak for itself rather than whatever experiences I may or may not have had. On the other hand, to pretend my work is devoid of subject or author is to participate in the erasure of my gender and skin colour. I’m not arguing that there’s a personal angle to this type of writing that must trump all other aesthetic and formal considerations. But conceptual poetry is just as white supremacist as any other type of literary genre or establishment that is primarily published in a western context. It is reflective of the world, possessing no inherent qualities.
An examination of the sort of conceptualism that Kenneth Goldsmith and his ilk espouse indicates that the ‘official’, perhaps even state-endorsed, ConPo genre relies on a poetic practice that replicates the very racially motivated erasures that it pretends to subvert. Worse, it refuses to acknowledge criticism, or grow from such reproach. It is inconvenient to be confronted with the anger of others, but necessary to readjusting the way conceptual writing is conceived, received and published in the world. More important is the recognition that the vacuum in which Conceptual Poetry wishes to reside does not exist.