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.