Sunday, September 23, 2007

Identity Poetics.

Christopher Hennessy, on his blog, offers a signpost to Reginald Shepherd's latest piece on "Identity Poetics". It is an interesting set of speculations, yet a set which puzzles me somewhat. Shepherd essentially argues that poetry written from a view of identity restricts vision. He states that writing from a “gay black poet” label would be reductive. For Shepherd, “gay” is a negative, and “black” too, for they only measure otherness; whereas “poetry” is a positive otherness that allows freedom. Shepherd is a persuasive and insightful writer, yet I still find myself questioning this line of thought. Why is poetry—as an otherness—automatically deemed as positive? Isn’t it possible that poetry is as problematical as “gay” and “black”? To write simply as a “gay” poet, where every poem must be an act of affiliation, would be restrictive. To write simply as a “black” poet, where every poem must be an affirmation of negritude, is also constricting. Yet, poetry is also a straight-jacket , for the poetic tradition is dominated by heterosexual norms and forms. If “gay” and “black” places the self outside the lines…beyond the white heterosexual citadel…so does “poet”: such a term, in the Western world, is full of alien allusions. The poetics of Gunn or Duncan were formulated because the tradition of poetry placed them in exile. The poetical establishment today holds onto its notion of “poet” and it still places writers such as Hemphill outside Parnassus. How many “black” or “gay” individuals are still schooled via a curriculum that avoids “blackness” and “gayness” so as poetry remains its purity, as cultural tyranny wishes?

I think I would also want to add two other words to Shepherd’s set of reflections: “male” and “nationality”. These are also terms that create otherness. If “gay” and “black” labels are to be resisted, so should labels which link the writer to either patriarchal attitudes or to nationalistic concerns. Personally, I don’t think there is anything more restrictive that a poetry that trumpets its bravado or its Englishness or its Americanism. (The same could be applied to criticism and the masculine, biased proselytising of say Ron Silliman’s blog).

I tend to agree with Shepherd that a poetry directed by “identity poetics” prevents growth: it is static and programmatic. Such exists to preserve the status quo of those in exile. I also like his statement that being alienated from alienation is a positive state-of-affairs. But I am not so sure that writing outside identity necessarily makes effective poetry. When writers cancel out the nature of their exile, a bland, unnatural kind of creativity tends to be the result.

In The Observer, today, Stuart Hall was asked about how identity had changed over his lifetime. He gave no elaborate answer, just a simple phrase: it seemed to have “hardened” for people. It is this, I think, that is the enemy of the writer. It isn’t “gay” or “black” or “male” or “English” or “American” or “Christian” or “Islamic” that is the enemy. It is the hardening of the arteries in the self, the running away from the flux of self: the hardening of the heart that makes individuals chip off fragments of what they are until they create poetry, in exile, that fits in with the mainstream.


Christopher Hennessy said...

Thoughtful post! You show us how much more to think about there is. I hope to blog about this, or at the very least point out the conversation being had here. Cheers!

Reginald Shepherd said...

I am happy to see you mention and discuss my post, though I would appreciate it if you would include a link to the post itself, instead of to Christopher Hennessy's (positive) second-hand report of it. I hope that you have in fact read the entire piece (from what you have written, I am not sure that you have), rather than just Hennessy's brief quotation. The address for my piece, which is called "Against Identity Poetry, For Possibility," is: (The address for my web log is

I would never say that "minority" writers cannot or should not write out of their own experience. Much of my own writing comes out of my personal experience. For a writer to deliberately avoid or evade his or her experience in his or her writing is still to be defined by it, if only negatively ("I'm not going to write from or about that") and, as you say, is to aim for a bland and unreal "universality." But my experience (personal, social, and historical), along with many other elements, is the raw material of my art, not its meaning, definition, or criterion of value. And, as my piece indicates, that experience is more complicated that can be encompassed by simplified notions of social identity. For example, my experience also includes my love of Wagner and Kate Bush and my life-long obsession with classical myth. "Identity" is much more complex and multifaceted than most identity politics or identity poetics allows for. (I also agree that such problematics apply to straight white male writers as well. But they tend to take their identities and their subject-positions for granted. Whiteness and maleness fade to invisibility.)

The material of my personal experience has been transformed in my work; my poems are neither personal nor sociological documents. As I have written, too often minority writers are expected, and expect themselves, to be spokespeople for whatever a reified version of whatever identity they have claimed or been assigned, and their work is judged almost wholly in those terms. There are certain allowed or even required topics, styles, and modes. If one does not engage in these, one is not considered a "real" black/gay/woman etc. writer. It is that kind of straight-jacketing, that hardening (to use the word you quote from Stuart Hall) to which I object.

A longer version of this piece, titled "The Other's Other," has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review and will appear (in still longer, revised form) in my collection of essays Orpheus in the Bronx, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in 2008. It explores these questions in greater detail.

Take good care.

all best,

Reginald Shepherd

eshuneutics said...

Thank you for your comment, CH, I look forward to your view.

I have added a link. Thank you for your interesting response...I will need to ponder a while. Rest assured, I read your original post as soon as I was aware of it; and didn't deal with it second-hand.

BronzeBuckaroo said...

Welcome back, E.

As usual, you wrote a thought provoking piece giving me cause to ponder a few things.

And, my cold is better. :-)

Reginald Shepherd said...

Thanks again for your discussion of my piece on identity poetics (and for pointing me toward the profile of Stuart Hall, which was quite fascinating). I also wanted to say that I appreciated your criticism of the macho posturing of Ron Silliman's blog. I no longer read it, as his dogmatism, dismissiveness of anyone not in his club, arbitrariness, and intellectual dishonesty just became too much for me to bear. And the people who frequent the comments section of his blog tend to be rabid wild dogs who attack anyone who even mildly dissents. The whole atmosphere is one of shutting down rather than of opening up discourse. Which may be his intention.

Thanks again and take good care.

all best,

Reginald Shepherd

eshuneutics said...

Hello, Reginald Shepherd, I hope that you are well. I am pleased that you feel about Silliman as I do. I remain indignant at his nonsense about English poetry, which is ridiculously prejudiced and out-of-touch. But taking on his Blog would be very much a David and Goliath affair...I've made that error in the past with other Powerblogs. Life is too short--a lot of poison just flows endlessly from the acolytes. Your perceptions fascinate me. They have such honesty and come born of reflection, quite a rare quality among internet blogs, but I keep looking and have been lucky enough to find a few worthwhile writers. Best wishes again to you.

Unsane said...

Identity is a complex issue. Is somebody's espoused identity organic and relational, or does it come "from language" -- is it primarily a reification of existence, a top-down imposition of some abstract notion upon the feelings? Generally, we can assume, identity is a mixture of both aspects, inasmuch as we are all subjects of society's systems of order, but that we also -- most of us -- have opportunities to form organic and spontaneously chosen relationships with others on a horizontal level (in relation to power).

However, in my experience an African culture will often be one more open to horizontal -- thus organic, and non-reified relationships and hence "identities". Western culture, in general, is more prone to the atomisation that marks ideological individualism. Individuals under advanced capitalism rarely find their identities in a horizontal relationship with one another. It's more the relationship with the boss that defines identity. This is a verticle relationship to power which opens the door to the reification of reality -- above all, the loss of an organic sense of identity in order to accept a merely formulistic one.

Eshuneutics said...

Oh yes, Westerners like vertical relationships to power! Oh, yes.