Kitsch

Against "Macabre Poets": Phil Hopkin's Criticism of Rauan Klassnik, Blake Butler and Me

by on Sep.02, 2013

Over at HTMLGiant, this guy Phil Hopkins has been trolling Rauan Klassnik’s posts. Apparently one of the reason why Phil was so angry at Rauan was that he had written a negative review of Klassnik’s second book, Moon’s Jaw, and that none of the Internet journals that he sent it to wanted to publish it.

Hopkins saw this as evidence of conspiracy, but I think really the review just isn’t that thought-out, it’s more like a hatchet-job against some writers that the journals in questions have aesthetic concerns in common with. So it’s really no surprise they didn’t publish it. If Phil had looked around among more conservative journals, I’m sure he could have gotten someone to publish it.

But, I thought what the hell, lets publish it here.In the spirit of engaging with people of different points of view.

Actually the review interests me because it repeats some of the common rhetorical put-down that I’ve described in the past: this poetry is masturbatory, not public, not mature, not grown up (in fact Matthew Cooperman uses some of these in his comment to my post about Brooklyn from earlier today).
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In Defense of "Brooklyn": The Role of Scholarship in Contemporary American Poetry (pt 1)

by on Sep.02, 2013

I have finished with my blogging for the Poetry Foundation and in a week I’m going to Sweden to finish my Sugar Book/Sockerboken (it was either Skåne or Los Angeles, I chose to go home), and after that I don’t know that I’ll be doing much more blogging.

But before I go, I feel like I should throw out some ideas about academic criticism and its role in contemporary American poetry, because that’s a topic I have thought a lot about, and I hope this might lead to some interesting discussions. I have obviously very ambivalent feelings about this subject matter. What strikes me first about a lot of scholars is that they are very eager to critique MFA programs for creating homogeneity etc, but seem totally clueless about how their own PhDs have very similar effects.
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I have written a lot about the prevalence of the rhetoric of “too much” in contemporary poetry. It is not surprising that it is critics like Steve Burt and Marjorie Perloff – critics who have actually ventured out of the ivory tower of academia to try to assess contemporary poetry – that have expressed this sentiment most consciously. They’ve seen the plague ground of the contemporary! But really, this rhetoric is incredibly pervasive in academia, and it’s just as pervasive among experimental or “avant-garde studies” professors as “traditionalist” professors.

The reason for this is very simple. Academia is based on the idea of “mastery” of a “field.” A “capacious” sense of the field, but mastery all the same (this is why the current incarnation of “the avant-garde” almost entirely coincides with the study of contemporary poetry, its’ a perfect fit, but more about that in a future post). In this case “the field of contemporary poetry.” To master this field, scholars need to have read the right texts (canonical poetry as well as secondary scholarship).
(continue reading…)

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In Defense of “Brooklyn”: The Role of Scholarship in Contemporary American Poetry (pt 1)

by on Sep.02, 2013

I have finished with my blogging for the Poetry Foundation and in a week I’m going to Sweden to finish my Sugar Book/Sockerboken (it was either Skåne or Los Angeles, I chose to go home), and after that I don’t know that I’ll be doing much more blogging.

But before I go, I feel like I should throw out some ideas about academic criticism and its role in contemporary American poetry, because that’s a topic I have thought a lot about, and I hope this might lead to some interesting discussions. I have obviously very ambivalent feelings about this subject matter. What strikes me first about a lot of scholars is that they are very eager to critique MFA programs for creating homogeneity etc, but seem totally clueless about how their own PhDs have very similar effects.
brooklyn1
*
I have written a lot about the prevalence of the rhetoric of “too much” in contemporary poetry. It is not surprising that it is critics like Steve Burt and Marjorie Perloff – critics who have actually ventured out of the ivory tower of academia to try to assess contemporary poetry – that have expressed this sentiment most consciously. They’ve seen the plague ground of the contemporary! But really, this rhetoric is incredibly pervasive in academia, and it’s just as pervasive among experimental or “avant-garde studies” professors as “traditionalist” professors.

The reason for this is very simple. Academia is based on the idea of “mastery” of a “field.” A “capacious” sense of the field, but mastery all the same (this is why the current incarnation of “the avant-garde” almost entirely coincides with the study of contemporary poetry, its’ a perfect fit, but more about that in a future post). In this case “the field of contemporary poetry.” To master this field, scholars need to have read the right texts (canonical poetry as well as secondary scholarship).
(continue reading…)

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On the Importance of Taking Sides

by on Aug.20, 2013

When Joyelle and I started Action Books one of the first things we did was write some manifestos about poetry and poetics (about translation, deformation, the gothic etc). We wanted to not only generate a discussion that interested us and that dealt with work we loved (work which was not being published or discussed), but we also wanted to be honest. We hated how so many presses would claim to publish “the best of any style,” setting themselves up as neutral observers, as if their evaluation of what was “the best of any style” wasn’t a style, a point of view hidden beneath the cool veneer of rational and discerning judgment.

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For all his flaws, one hugely important result of Ron Silliman’s blogging is that he made clear that everybody had an aesthetic, made clear that even that “neutral” aesthetic was an aesthetic.

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I was dismayed at a lot of the recent responses to Cal Bedient’s criticism of “Conceptualism” in the Boston Review. Many merely dismissed his article using the same binary rhetoric of “anti-experimentalism” as Silliman has employed. Lots of people would simply this complex article as “Just another old guy attacking the new” etc. Here the rhetoric of experiment-vs-anti-experiment was a way of avoiding having to engage in a discussion, a way of merely blocking out opposing viewpoints.

Even more disturbing were all the people – both pro and con – attacking the idea of writing an essay opposed to a group of poets. “Why doesn’t he write about things he likes?” asked some pro-conceptualists, conveniently ignoring that in large part conceptualism has built its reputation on anti-kitsch rhetoric dismissing the “lyric” poem etc. Why is criticism so bad? I would be very happy if a prominent critic took the time to publish an essay on why he disagreed with my poetics! It doesn’t mean I would automatically shut down the Mutilation-Factory, but it would maybe force me to think about certain elements of my aesthetic from a new direction.

But the worst responses to the Bedient essay that I saw were that some people (on facebook) wrote: “Don’t talk about it, it only bring them more attention.” The way we express disagreement in our contemporary American poetry culture is apparently not by expressing disagreement. It’s by ignoring different views and hoping they will go away. By ignoring the things we disagree with. There can be no better recipe for an anemic and dull literary scene.

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I remember reading similar reactions to Seth Oelbaum’s provocative, highly thought-out and magnificently performative posts on HTMLGiant (about the AWP, about Marxism, about gender and violence etc). His posts caught on like wildfire a few months back and immediately people started warning each other (in public places like facebook no less) not the “stoke the fire” or “feed the troll.” “Do not read this post, and please do not talk about it,” one poet wrote on a famous critic’s facebook wall in near hysteria, as if afraid that the critic would be infected with the Oelbaum virus. Some people wrote diatribes attacking Seth for his perpetrating the ultimate sin of “self-promotion” (even though he aligned himself with the most-hated “one percent,” a obviously abject position) and of misreading Marx (even though, again, he aligned himself with the “one percent”!). It appears that the most controversial thing about Oelbaum was that he was controversial in a literary culture that is scared of controversy. Oelbaum became a kind of violence to the status quo.

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I was reminded of this when Rauan Klassnik recently wrote a response to my posts on violence and art on the poetry foundation. When announcing this post to his e-friend, one person wrote back:
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Corean Music Part 4: It's "too much" (for some)

by on Aug.15, 2013

I have a new post (number 4) of “Corean Music” up at the poetry foundation. It’s about how critics and scholars (from Steve Burt to Marjorie Perloff and Kenny Goldsmith) love to use the economic rhetoric of austerity and standards: there’s too much poetry, they argue. Too much for whom? What is “too much”? What is “too much” is really an interesting, Bataillean space of excess?

Excerpt:

All of these rhetorical strains are based on an economic model: “Too much” is inherently bad, is inflation. Each one sets up a kind of “gold standard”: the work of art cannot be gratuitous, must follow the standard. The problem is of course that poetry is not a “thing”—It’s all masquerade, all pageantry, all inflation. All gratuitous. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Daniel Tiffany’s forthcoming book on kitsch shows its strong connections to poetry and to the sense of an “excessive beauty.” Poetry is kitsch, poetry is inherently too much. Poetry is inflationary. Even Plato knew that! It’s why he got rid of the poets!

I think the recent post by Christian and Lucas, as well as the comment discussion to Christian’s posts are important and related topics in this debate. I hope to try to tie these things together over the next few days and I hope the rest of you will help me.

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Kim Hyesoon on "Corean Music"

by on Aug.13, 2013

Kim Hyesoon sent me the following response – via Don Mee Choi – to my posts on “Corean Music” at the Poetry Foundatio Blog:

“Please tell Johannes: I was born into a Christian household, so I grew up hearing my mom singing hymns. Then when I was in elementary and middle school I never heard any traditional Korean music. All the music teachers were teachers who had studied Western music. So I only listened to and sang music composed by Western composers. (Now, the music education in elementary and middles school is not like this anymore. Students listen to traditional Korean music and learn to play Korean instruments.) When I was in college, student protests against the dictatorship were wide-spread. I carried rocks in my skirt and delivered them to the students every time there was a protest. One of the deciding factors that made me to play such a role was that whenever the students marched out to protest, they always played traditional Korean instruments. I will never forget the first time I heard samulnori, traditional Korean music. When I heard the students play samulnori, tears just streamed down my face uncontrollably. It felt as if a “bright festival” was opening after hiding quietly somewhere inside my belly. During exorcism rites, Korean shamans play instruments to call the spirits and also to send the ghosts to another realm. During the Japanese colonial period, shaman rites were banned, and it was because of this colonial influence that I didn’t get to study traditional Korean music at school. There were no teachers who had studied traditional Korean music, so there was nobody to teach us. But now I’m so sick of it. Now that I’ve become a college professor, and because the college I teach at has a Korean music department, I get to listen to it every year on campus. And the creative writing students that I teach also play it often. So now whenever I hear samulnori, I close my eyes and think of something else. Anyway, I wanted to tell you my experience…”

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"I was kitsch": autobiography of an immigrant and a translator

by on Aug.12, 2013

I wrote an autobiographical account of my interest in translation for the poetry foundation:

I wrote a lot of poetry and I read widely (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Surrealism, Genet, Plath, Ginsberg, etc.). I wrote all the time. Until I got to college. I loved college but I also learned about taste. I learned that my poetry was tasteless. From the quietist workshop I took I learned that I was “Romantic” because I used “too many metaphors,” that I didn’t “earn the images,” that my I wasn’t authentic. I.e. kitsch. We did read language poets in that class. I went out and read more by and about them. And from that reading I learned: I was too “Romantic” because I used an “I,” because I used metaphors, because I was interested in fascination and absorption, not distance and critique.

I stopped writing poetry because I was kitsch. I lacked taste, and poetry was all about having taste. Knowing when to say when. As Daniel Tiffany argues in Silver Planet, his forthcoming book on kitsch, kitsch is mostly not about a lack but about an excess: “excessive beauty.” It’s about not knowing when to stop. I would add, that kitsch brings the violent immersion of art. Art is kitsch in part when it’s so much that you cannot stand back and maintain your critical distance.

But some things brought me back to poetry. I read Vasko Popa in translation, I read Clayton Eshleman’s translations of the late work of Antonin Artaud. A girlfriend who worked for an interior decorating magazine told me that she had seen photos of an artist named Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose canvases of disassembled and re-assembled bodies reminded her of my poems. She showed me the letters from insane people she had collected at work (“Dear Mr. Randolph Hearts, I want to be president of the United States! I just smashes a mosquito!”). Most importantly, I came across the work of the young Swedish poet Aase Berg in a Swedish journal and that immediately inspired me…

Life as an immigrant is also something that inspires my work. Which reminds me, one of my friends is currently in the process of applying for a Green Card. Did you know that foreign nationals seeking permanent residence through employment must first obtain a labor certification through PERM processing? PERM is an acronym that stands for Program Electronic Review Management.

With regards to PERM processing time, the wait can seem tedious. However, if you discover delays to your PERM processing, you might want to consider consulting an immigration attorney with the knowledge and experience to help speed up the employment-based Green Card process

I found a fascinating guide to the Green Card application process on the Nova Credit website so I must remember to pass it on to my friend.

Read the whole thing here.

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Second Language Writers

by on Aug.06, 2013

I’ve written and thought much about the act of writing in a second language (like I am doing right now), and I found this article by Costica Bradatan in the NY Times very interesting.

In a certain sense, then, it could be said that in the end you don’t really change languages; the language changes you. At a deeper, more personal level, writing literature in another language has a distinctly performative dimension: as you do it something happens to you, the language acts upon you. The book you are writing ends up writing you in turn. The result is a “ghostification” of sorts. For to change languages as a writer is to undergo a process of dematerialization: before you know it, you are language more than anything else. One day, suddenly, a certain intuition starts visiting you, namely that you are not made primarily out of flesh anymore, but out of lines and rhymes, of rhetorical strategies and narrative patterns. Just like the “book people,” you don’t mean much apart the texts that inhabit you. More than a man or a woman of flesh and blood, you are now rather a fleshing out of the language itself, a literary project, very much like the books you write. The writer who has changed languages is truly a ghost writer – the only one worthy of the name.

Having done all this, having gone through the pain of changing languages and undergone the death-and-rebirth initiation, you are sometimes given – as a reward, as it were – access to a metaphysical insight of an odd, savage beauty.

Bradatan’s “ghostification” might not be so different from what I’ve been calling “kitsch”; certainly the “savage” aspect of second language might jive with my recent post about art and violence; but mostly I think it’s the point above that interests me, suggesting language functioning what we in recent post here have called “ambient[ly].”

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Some more discussion about Beth Towle's "Affected Folk" post

by on Jul.17, 2013

[There was some good discussion on Facebook about the Beth Towle’ post I linked to yesterday, so I thought I would post some of it here:]

Kim Göransson great article. reading an interview with mumford in rolling stone it was interesting how he was mostly just inspired by the brother where are thou soundtrack. there’s like this idea of genuine roots music that disqualifies too much awareness, not to mention dressing up in borrowed full bluegrass getup!
21 hours ago · Like

Johannes Göransson There’s a great quote in the Greil Marcus book I mention in my post – where Bob Dylan says he can’t understand why people distinguish between his surrealistish songs and his folk songs because folk music is full of this weird shit.
21 hours ago · Like · 2

Kim Göransson ballad of a thin man’s got nothing on ancient mythology, hello
21 hours ago · Unlike · 2

Daniel Tiffany a poetics of “affectation” inevitably raises questions, as it does in this essay, about fakery and fraudulence. These questions go all the way back to the beginning of elite appropriation of folk poetry (archaic ballads) in the 18th century. Rather than trying to run from the question of fakery, let’s try to think about it as the key to a crucial, but still reviled and misunderstood, aesthetic category: KITSCH. Modern authenticity (of which “affected folk” is a variant) is always counterfeit (or cunterfeit)–in thrilling ways! *My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch* (due out from Johns Hopkins University Press this fall) looks hard at the beginning of folk poetry in the 18th century, its relation to forgery, and how important these issues are to many kinds of poetry since.

Kim Göransson the blues album im writing recording sort of treats blues as kitsch, zoning in on specific blues elements, like say, a loved one drowning in a river, or using familiar blues phrases and words. a lot of these old blues songs are pretty fragmented and obsessed, endlessly stolen rewritten variated to point of little discernible ownership, like the words don’t even matter, they’re just there so you can wail because shit is fucked

Daniel Tiffany the language of a blues lyric written by a Black poet is just as artificial (a matrix for ornamentation and performance) as it is for any white poet that covers it. For both poets, it’s a synthetic vernacular–with different motives and effects–a symptom of kitsch from the start.
19 hours ago · Edited · Unlike · 1

Johannes Göransson Also, Kim Göransson, Swedish poetry is a really interesting case study for this because of all the modernist poets who wrote ballads, and all the folk singers who are considered poets etc:
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Humiliation and "Spoiled Identity": McSweeney, Koestenbaum and Glenum

by on Jul.11, 2013

“One must be nervous.” – Nijinsky

“I danced badly because I kept falling on the floor when I did not have to. The audience did not care, because I danced beautifully.” – Nijinsky

The other day I was talking to Joyelle about the highly ornamental, perversely poetic aesthetic of her work, and in particular the play “Contagious Knives” and she said, she feels the excessive aesthetics to be a form of humiliation – of the language and of herself as the author.

You can sense that in the very beginning of the play, in stage directions that are crowded with both props and language: from “panties” to “Harajuko cum Cracker Jack look,” from “liquid eyeliner” to “kiddie Oedipus.” When I talk about “kitsch”, this is the kind of thick, poetic language I talk about. What is more kitsch than poetry and its trinkets? Poetry Magazine (beacon of taste) recently published Vanessa Place’s manifesto of taste: it said “no more metaphors… no more retinal poetry.” This is fundamentally the guiding high culture taste of our age: the poetic is kitsch. Well, Joyelle’s poetry says: More ultra-retinal, so much more trinkets that it humiliates.
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But, in keeping with a post from a couple of weeks ago, it’s also language that is highly alluring; a poetics of excess that fascinates.

Here’s Louis Braille’s opening monologue:

Louis Braille: Hi whores. I know you too my cell phone in gym class, but, whatever.
Looking for what, pictures of your boyfriends’ jocks?
Whores, you have no idea. I’m a very special cunt.
A very special fucking cunt. That’s what Daddy always said (wink wink).
You’ll never get the goods on me. I keep
two laptops, two accounts, a mirror site,
a snake ski encryption device: me
and then another me. I double down,
and then I double up. It’s in the footage you’ll never see.
For God’s eyes, sweeties. All my lines run to red, red, red.
That’s debt. A sinking balance, a fast declining line.
I get it from your daddies, and I spend it like endrhyme
or eyerhyme
like a run in one’s stocking or one’ arrow-stock-rah-cee
or in one’s eye.
I shot an arrow into the air, it split my eye, it doubled my vision
it made my stock sore, sigh high
and from that height I did espye
me
fallen to earth among a heep of polo ponies
Nazi costume parties fancy creeps and aging queens.

I think this is a kind of poetics statement: everything proliferates in art, creating a kind of “debt.” (continue reading…)

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"I Play with Death": The Gothic Prose Poetry of Negroni, Di Giorgio, Berg and McSweeney

by on Jun.21, 2013

It’s interesting to hear again and again various people complain that poetry is dead or take credit for finally killing off poetry, or try to defend poetry, try to revive it (or do all of these things as once, as the Conceptualists). Capitalism killed poetry a long time ago, just as it is killing us. Poetry is a plague ground, and we are its bugs. Colorful bugs that make a crackling sound when you step on them.
runwayboy

Most poets out there it seems want to be “innovative” and “experimental.” They want to be the future, to be progressive, to lead the way to a robust future by teaching themselves “critical thinking,” “critical distance.” They want to demystify, reveal, uncover, subvert. They think they can critique themselves out of this slaughterhouse. They want to be strong and rigorous like Ron Silliman, not “soft” or “candy” or kitsch or decadent.

Too bad, because that’s where poetry’s at. We’ve always worn the shitty ghost costumes and the glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth.
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It’s also not unreasonable that so many poets these days seem to want to distance themselves from violence and ornaments. Afterall we have drones and torture. So it’s nice to think of the artwork as “democratic” – the reader and the writer make it together, instead of like the governments and CEOs that act alone and dictatorially.

But art is inextricably bound up in violence.
It does violence to the reader and the reader does violence to the text.

So it both is and is not a paradox that a bunch of books and texts that have come out recently that have revived that now-fairly-dull genre of the PROSE POEM not by unmasking the art, by becoming anaesthetic, but precisely by becoming decadent, theatrical, pathologically manneristic, extravagantly 19TH CENTURY – as in Baudelaire and Poe, Lautremont and Rimbaud – and, yes, more GOTHIC.
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"Why Shut Down Enjoyment?" On Drew Kalbach, Zizek, Ange Mlinko and Postmodern American Poetry

by on May.03, 2013

Over at The Actuary, Drew Kalbach has written an excellent post on response to Ange Mlinko’s review of the new Norton Anthology of postmodern poetry, finding in her rhetoric a desire to “shut down enjoyment”:

Mlinko’s review genuinely confuses me. Really, this type of rhetoric confuses me in general. Its only goal seems to be to not allow people to enjoy something. She seems to suggest, in the first paragraph, that students who are forced to purchase this book (leaving aside the agency all students have, and the availability of inexpensive used texts, etc etc) are somehow being done a disservice. But she assumes that these students will get nothing from these poems, will not enjoy these poems, because she does not enjoy these poems. More than that, she assumes these students can’t choose for themselves whether or not these poems are worthwhile; they need to be taught proper taste.

His post makes me think about another thing I recently read in Zizek’s book Violence (which I quoted a couple of days ago on a related topic):

What Nietzsche and Freud share is the idea that justice as equality is founded on envy – on the envy of the Other who has what we do not have, and who enjoys it. The demand for justice is thus ultimately the demand that the excessive enjoyment of the Other should be curtailed so that everyone’s access to jouissance is equal. The necessary outcome of this demand , of course, is asceticism. Since it is not possible to impose equal jouissance, what is imposed instead to be equally shared is prohibition.

So far, Zizek’s analysis seems to follow Kalbach’s: especially in an age of “glut,” when there’s “too much” poetry, “too much” poetry that is – inherently in the quantity – tasteless, we more than ever need prohibitions. It seems the only acceptable form of criticism in the poetry world is to stage prohibitions. Witness for example Tony Hoagland who has made a career it seems of attacking poetry that does too much (too “skittery,” too political, too extravagant etc).

But I think it’s important to be clear that those prohibitions come not just from Poetry Magazine, but also of course from “experimental poetry,” which is full of prohibitions – against “the lyric I”, against images, against this and that, against “expression,” against the poetic, against poetry itself (in the case of Conceptual Poetry) – and full of anti-kitsch rhetoric – against the “too much”, the flood of “soft surrealism”, of excess of “MFA poets” etc. Even Flarf in its jokey embrace of “bad poetry” is of course re-confirming the insistence of Taste (you just have to have enough good taste to imitate the bad taste, to know that it’s bad). In many ways, the rhetoric of experimental poetry often reminds me of Zizek’s notion of “hedonistic asceticism.”

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Instead of all this prohibition (including the most famous one, to “ENJOY!”), in this plague ground age, I suggest bug time:

2. What model of literary time is provided by this mutating field time, this bug time, this spasming, chemically induced, methed up mutating, death time, this model of proliferant, buggered, buggy, moist, mutating, selecting, chitinous, gooey, bloated, dying time, a time defined by a spasming change of forms, by generational die-offs, by mutation, by poisoning, a dynamic challenge to continuity, and by sheer proliferation of alternatives, rather than linear succession? How would T.S. Eliot’s golden lineup of genius allstars, constantly reordering itself but still male- and human- and capital-assets- shaped, be affected by this swarm of ravening pissed-off mutant bugs out-futuring them by dying six times a summer, by having no human-shaped future at all?

(From Joyelle’s “Bug Time”)

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"AM I LATINA? OR AM I JUST ANGRY?" (by Sandy Florian)

by on Mar.22, 2013

[This is by Sandy Florian.]

sandyWhen we think about Latino Literature, we often think about a certain kind of Latino Literature, a type of sociological or ethnographic literature that gives voice to people with Latin American heritages who grew up in the Latino ghettos of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Rightfully, those voices are canonized and taught in classrooms, presumably in celebration of the cacophony of multi-cultural America. What happens, though, when someone who claims to be a Latina writer doesn’t write directly about her heritage? What happens when the African American student writes whatever the hell she pleases? We are told we aren’t “really Latina,” that we aren’t “black enough,” by our peers, our professors, our own people. We are told that our writing doesn’t contend with the struggle of being a minority, different, an “other.” If we want to write novels and poetry without place or placement, we have to quietly erase our heritages and try our damnedest to be white.

In an article about art, Johannes writes that he got into an argument with a Latino poet who claimed I am not a Latina writer, and I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, namely because claims on my heritage seem to be blocking my professional path. And I’ve been doing a bit of research here and there in preparation for a long and angry sabbatical. I won’t get into postcolonial theories here, though, because here I would like to explore this problem personally.

To the point, I am Latina through and through. My mother is a native of Puerto Rico and my father is a native of Colombia. (continue reading…)

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