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  • Poetry is Not a Country ClubReflecting on "The Change"
  • Isaac Ginsberg Miller (bio)

In the world of poetry, 2015 was a year of controversy. It seemed that nearly every month offered new evidence of the field's endemic racism. In March, Kenneth Goldsmith performed his conceptual poem "The Body of Michael Brown" at Brown University, reading from Michael Brown's autopsy report in a way that, according to Rin Johnson, "felt like Goldsmith physically took Michael Brown's body, chewed it up, and spat it out, exhibiting it for only the institutionally brightest minds to see." In June, outrage over Vanessa Place's "Gone With The Wind" project (in which she tweeted the novel's deeply racist text line-by-line using an image of the Black actress Hattie McDaniel as her avatar) led to her removal from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) 2016 conference selection committee and, in July, to the cancellation of the Berkeley Poetry Conference at which she was scheduled to present.1 Outcry directed at Goldsmith and Place was galvanized by the anonymous Mongrel Coalition Against Gringo Poetics, who, via a website and Twitter account, argued that Place's and Goldsmith's work participated in a long tradition of Blackface minstrelsy. Writer and critic John Keene succinctly framed the historical context for this argument, stating that Goldsmith's performance "reinscribed the violence of Brown's (and other black people's) tragic death and its aftermath, and the erasure of his humanity, in an effort at ironic, clever entertainment. It was thus an act of oppression-as-art that fits well with the logic of white supremacy as it has long functioned in American society."

The controversies continued during the second half of 2015. In July, Joey De Jesus (poetry editor of Apogee) challenged Rattle Magazine for including only white writers in its "New York Poets" themed issue ("From the Editors"). In August, Kate Gale, Co-Founder of Red Hen Press, posted an article entitled "AWP Is Us," which mocked those who have critiqued the Association of Writers & Writing Programs for not being diverse or inclusive enough. She countered: "If you're a player, there will be haters" (Kirch and Gross). After an outpouring of online criticism, Gale removed the post and replaced it with an apology (Kirch). In September, The Best American Poetry 2015, guest edited by Sherman Alexie, included a poem by the white poet Michael Derrick Hudson under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou (the name of a former high school classmate, used without her permission) which led to widespread condemnation and accusations of Yellowface cultural appropriation (Zhang). Finally, in December, Jen Hofer wrote about comments regarding Michael Brown made by the literary critic Marjorie Perloff. According to Hofer's transcription of an event at the Where Were We Art Writing Festival in Denmark, Perloff stated: [End Page 75]

I think the romanticization, where everybody kept calling him the poor child Michael Brown, and they constantly showed photographs of him in the media when he had been about 12 years old. That's what they do. Many of the pictures you saw, he looks like a little kid, he was a 300-pound huge man. Scary. He was scary, I'm just saying, that way. So that things then turn out to be much more complicated. And so I don't know what's happened to poetry, or to poetic discourse, I shouldn't say to poetry, but to poetic discourse, when we have all over Facebook these sentimental things about the poor sweet child and his poor family. Michael Brown himself had said 'I wish I had a family.' He didn't even—he hadn't seen his father in years, his mother was on crack, he didn't have much of a family or much of a life.


Perloff describes Michael Brown in language ("he was a 300-pound huge man. Scary. He was scary") similar to that used by Brown's murderer, police officer Darren Wilson. During his grand jury testimony Wilson said that Brown looked like, "a demon, that's how angry he looked" and that "when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe...


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