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The Poetc. workshop and panel

Sidebar: On race and new media poetry - the Divide revisited.

What we meant, versus what we did.

On the night of the final show, I sat on a panel with Tyehimba Jess and Duriel Harris, and we discussed much of what we liked and wished we'd seen in the finished production. We had issues over racial representation in one piece in particular, where Harris felt that the "black body" was not respected in a rendering of Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" (published in Bishop's collection, Geography III). In it, Bishop talks about being a young girl, sitting outside a dentist's office, waiting for her aunt, and seeing a copy of the National Geographic. She thinks she hears her aunt, behind closed doors in the dentist's chair, make an exclaimation in pain at the removal of her tooth. But she also thinks it might be herself reacting audibly to the various women pictured in the magazine. She sees photos of native African women, and Bishop comments:

What similarities --
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts --
held us all together
or made us all just one?

Harris disliked that this was the only conspicuous representation of Blacks in the whole production. I felt Harris' was an ample point to make, but that in this line of work you sometimes merely get what you get. You might set the table, but not everyone comes to dinner or, for that matter, wants to. (Sometimes people even walk away; see below.) We clearly have a kind of cultural divide in media poetry, where young Black artists may not become involved with the form for a range of reasons.

I would have liked to see a more balanced group than there was, certainly with more diverse racial and ethnic representation. The company was largely self-selected. It was drawn from students in various performing arts, media, and literary discplines at Northwestern University. That Bishop may have been identifying transcendentally with the African women in the passage above didn't seem to help assuage Harris' concerns. That Bishop was a woman who spent much of her life outside the US in such tropical places (albeit in South America, not Africa) and who may have been in love with women of color over most of her life, too, didn't help, either.

Ashwal said that the ensemble had a fair number of African American members at the outset. All but one Black member, however, had taken on other commitments and left the ensemble, or simply lost interest and walked away. I felt that was a loss for both parties, for those who stayed in the group and those who left. One of fullest rewards of media poetry is the crossing of new frontiers you didn't know you had until you met them. One of the best ways to reach such frontiers is to keep a diverse ensemble, where all the group's personalities can play and interact with all the aesthetic ideas at work. It's the multiplicity of views and interpretations that strengthens the work and nurtures the creating artists.

If this segment of our discussion sounds like a diversion from developing the media poetry genre, that's because it was. Owing to the race issues, our panel didn't spend that much time on craft or critique with our students, and that was a loss for all concerned. The costs of inclusion (or dis-inclusion, whether self-determined or imposed by others) mount up in palpable ways. For us, the loss was in our lack of opportunity to advance critique on the work at hand.

I believe a lot of issues enter into the equation of producing a great media poetry suite. Some issues, like representation or one's personal means, prefactor the work itself. If you don't start on a good foot, or if your particular life doesn't give you the chance to get on a good foot eventually, you'll never make the game. And what would be "starting on a good foot"? A basic but clear understanding of your identity and culture; an ability to creatively assemble diverse talent and potent resources; a solid understanding of at least one artform and a fighting chance of grasping a second, distinct artform; literacy of both craft and content in your chosen, prime discipline; and many other such competencies. Media poetry has its challenges.

Media poetry can be loaded with essentialistic moments, but it's never an essentialist genre -- those who so presume also fail. Something is always interacting, reacting, or manefesting itself opposite something else. Even the absence of objects bears significance. The artist needs the power to gather diverse and often expensive elements onto his/her stage to have genuine creative freedom as a media poet. This suggests that a wealth privilege is at work in media poetry in a fundamental way, and I believe that inhibits people of color in this artform as much as anything else. Whether that wealth is measured in richness of heritage (and access to it), or in plain old Yankee dollars, it doesn't seem to matter -- if either are witheld, the work can suffer.

At the beginning of the evening, I listed a handful of people whom I consider to be media poets. (Most such artists self-identify as performance artists or new music composers/performers since their peers in these genres have been more willing than either poets or dramatists to accept them with their interdisciplinary skills.) I asked the audience and ensemble members to raise their hands if they recognized an artist's name. Among the names were Laetitia Sonami, Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson (being "pop," she was the most widely recognized by far), John Cage, Pamela Z, Robert Lapage, and Robert Wilson. Out of the 40 or so people there, I think only two hands went up for Pamela Z, the only Black artist I could remember for this impromptu straw poll. Neither the house nor the other panelists offered any other suggestions and, for that matter, I'm not sure whether more than those two hand-raisers caught the difference.

Media poetry, when rendered as theater, is the grand opera of the language arts. It draws from everything and everyone it can reach. It is the language art that can put all other arts at its disposal. But it will be an unfulfilled artform unless we give it all it is due. We cannot withold or deny our talents from media poetry, and then legitimately complain that it's coarse, undeveloped, and ignorant of our cultures. Everybody needs to be involved. We must also address the built-in wealth/class issues of the genre by taking advantage of the communion the genre offers. When artists come together, their talents build symbiotically, as do their means. This fights a poverty of culture and capital that can challenge any artform. In time, a fuller genre may prevail, and I hope we will all be richer for it.

[ -KEH ]

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