Twelve years ago, I adopted a young baby in Vietnam and made myself a firm but vague promise not to “raise him white.” But what did that mean? To figure it out, I started to educate myself about race, trying to see how I, a white mother, might not mess up raising a brown boy. I assumed he would face racism (I didn’t yet grasp that he would also face my own racism1). Then, when he was around 3, I started trying to write poems about whiteness. For a long time I did not see the two efforts – the poems and the parenting project – as connected.
One task was turning over a problem in my mind, trying different ways to make language catch fire—my work as a poet. The other was reading history to understand the country my kid and I are in. The link between the two seems obvious now. It was impossible, is impossible, to write in a complex way about race without a deeper understanding of the American whiteness machine. I cannot overstate how badly the poetry writing went for so many years. It is still not easy. Whiteness, it turns out, is not a subject you can sit down and “master.”
The space of an essay is not enough to cover the basics of whiteness in America, let alone the subtle, insidious forms of racism that overlap with and inflame other biases. I am no master of the subject anyway. So this is not a master class. Instead, it is a tour of my mistakes. I offer it, along with a couple of possible ways forward, because poetry needs more, and better, poems about whiteness. I am impatient to read poems—intricate poems, stark poems, messy poems, musical poems, poems of scorching flatness—that confront, frame, and mess with whiteness.
If, like me, you are restless to bring your work to the shifty, bruising, elusive presence of whiteness, this essay is for you. Accept or resist whatever you find here; resistance is just as useful for getting to the page.
ON NEGATIVE CAPABILITY
To write about whiteness, you will first want to examine it. But that’s impossible. You can’t look at whiteness because it exists only in opposition to everything outside itself.
Whiteness is a force, like wind. You can perceive the effects of it, but not it. For instance, you can see racially gerrymandered voting districts, or the number of business loan rejections (twice as many) for black entrepreneurs as for white or for any other ethnicity.2 You can look at your skin tone and gauge how likely it is you will find that color in the makeup department or be followed by security in the makeup department. But you can’t look at whiteness. This quote from historian Manning Marable explains:
It’s not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false….It is the empty and terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.3
The first mistake I made was assuming whiteness holds complication. Everything holds complication, I thought. My understanding of art is based on the belief that nothing is 100% worth or unworthy, useful or useless, good or bad. Poetry comes of negative capability. That means being able to hold in your hands irreconcilable truths. I don’t know a different way to wrestle with a problem than to track its complication. I am white, I reasoned, and I am a person. I embody conflicting truths, therefore whiteness must also. But it doesn’t.
Given that the best poems are containers for complication, and those are the kind of poems I want to write, what could I do with whiteness, which lacks complication? If whiteness is only oppressive and false, what are its uses in a poem?
I hit this wall just as I had stepped up to claim my whiteness, accept my identity as a white American, white parent, white poet. I was ready! But I couldn’t find what to claim. At the same time, I had to accept responsibility for my whiteness. I was granted the power of whiteness without asking, and I have used it, as it has used me, to harm.
It took a couple of years to see that the force of whiteness is distinct from, but tangled up with, the intricate aspects of my self.4 During those years, I didn’t write at all.
ON HAVING A PLACE TO STAND
I cast around for models of white poets writing about race, looking for strategies, styles, approaches to voice.5 But I was at a loss. None of my writer friends had any suggestions. Then, eventually, I discovered a few poets working on whiteness.
Martha Collins’ Blue Front, based on a lynching her father witnessed as a child, had been published. Its documentary poetics meshes Collins’ verse with research material. I met Ailish Hopper when we were among the only white audience members at a panel of black poets. At the time, Hopper was at work on lyric poems that would become Dark Sky Society, a book about her life in Baltimore close to the color line. Hopper told me about Jake Adam York (this was shortly after York had died) and his poetry about his southern family. And I met Rachel Richardson, who had written Copperhead, about her visits with relatives in the deep South.6
I immersed myself in these books, but I couldn’t see how to get to where these poets were. They had somewhere from which to launch their thoughts. They had events, places, points on a timeline. My own thoughts floated around. I couldn’t ground myself. My personal history brimmed with the feelings, snacks, trips, curtains, nightstands, and stories of white people. What in my life was not white?
But this perception was rudimentary. Gradually, memories resurfaced, experiences I hadn’t accounted for because I was badly equipped to understand them at the time. If I could narrate these events clearly, I thought, maybe they would lead to poems. My first writings about race were these notes on when the fabric of whiteness I thought completely enveloped my life had rips in it or fell away for a moment. Here is a sample:
I remember my grandmother Bea seeing a black woman while we were out shopping together. Bea paused, a long pause, and then said—her voice held wide-eyed wonder—Sure….They are people too…
It was as if Bea was ever so slightly startled by the idea of black people being people. She said it softly, more to herself than to me.
That she was having this realization despite what she heard growing up…is that remarkable? I don’t know what Bea heard growing up. She came on a boat from Ukraine. What did she think when she first saw black people, and when did that happen? She was 75 when she said ‘they are people too.’ Now she is dead.
Is mild startlement one of the forces that made me?
It was transformative to see my racialized experiences on the page. These stories showed me that I do have a racial identity, and I am part of history. But they didn’t lead to poems.
For one thing, I did lack a place to stand. Unlike Hopper, who grew up in a mixed neighborhood in Baltimore, I grew up in a small Maine town and in mostly white suburbs of Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. Martha Collins had an event, the lynching, that put her on the timeline of American racism. I did not grow up amid white nationalist violence and had no ties to the South.7
I grew up in liberal colorblind racism. I was born to the children of Jewish immigrants, the first of their generation to attend college. My people believed we were decent people, but we did not have a mechanism by which to acknowledge or perceive our whiteness as Americans. Mom was justice-oriented, voted for Shirley Chisholm, considered herself a feminist. The message I got at home was that we work against injustice because we suffer injustices as Jews. Yet my parents could not help me see skin privilege at work. My mother herself did not grasp the systems of exclusion that produced the all-white faculties of my grade school, middle school, high school. I saw people of color in the cities where I lived but did not see the forces that separated us (school boards, real estate brokers, mortgage lenders). Worst of all, I did not sense the assumptions taking hold in my own mind that would widen the chasm between us.
The more I learned about liberal racism, the more I felt the atmosphere of my upbringing worth writing about. It wasn’t broad-stroke racism, but it struck me as even more damaging because it is less visible (to white people), more deniable. I just needed a way to interrogate it.
In anti-racist study groups, I perceived that my experiences of early racial awareness were not very different from those of the other white people I met. I am not suggesting that personal history is banal or that our feelings as Americans waking up to whiteness are irrelevant. Our experiences and feelings are powerful, meaningful. But the same themes kept coming up, if the details about class, wealth, and immigration varied. Someone had a black childhood friend they were forced by their parents to break off with; someone had a nanny of color; someone had an African American housekeeper or went to an all-white summer camp they didn’t realize was all-white. Et cetera.
Alone with my pen, I felt like I was uncovering remarkable details of my life. Writing about my past, I felt raw. Ashamed. My ignorance and resistances came clear as I documented the damage I had caused via whiteness. But what I was writing wasn’t poetry. It was a collection of tropes. Americans of color have witnessed the white blindness of people like me for generations. I was not “coming out” as white. I had always been, as we are, in a fishbowl. I could not overcome either the ubiquity of my content or the clichés of my delivery.
As another form of self-witnessing, I kept a running tally of the apparent race of every person in every room I entered.8 Over months, my perceptions sharpened. I felt a kind of vertigo in all-white spaces, wondering whether anyone else noticed or cared. Mixed spaces felt better.9 I started to seek them out.
I kept the tally for almost a year. It helped me change daily habits—I would say it changed my life—but it didn’t help my poems, at least not directly.
In his essay collection When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips writes of the value of what blackness might say. Blackness might be a space one walks through, he suggests, or a whispering presence. Phillips quotes Robert Hayden’s poem “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” whose narrator asks blackness to “bestow” onto him the opportunity to either speak or die.10
I loved the idea of blackness as a space, a whisperer, a bestower. Searching for tangible forms of whiteness, I tried flipping Phillips’ questions. What could I ask whiteness to bestow onto me? What is the value of what whiteness can say? My mistake was not seeing that Phillips’ questions, like Hayden’s poem, turn on the fact that blackness was not bestowed-upon. Historically, blackness has been a burden, not a gift, in this country. It needed to be redefined. The poetic possibility in “what does blackness bestow onto me” is a function of the ironic distance between bestowal and suffering. In other words, Hayden’s poem comes from that re-defininition, or re-visioning, of blackness, which happened outside the poem.
Communities, codes, ways of speaking, gesturing dressing—a whole universe—thrives in-resistance-to (whiteness, in this case). But whiteness resists nothing and was cultivated into nothing but fear and oppression. Blackness can enter a poem as a whisperer, a sacred space, or anything else. Its forms are infinite because it does not need whiteness for definition. Not so for whiteness. Whiteness is a seized thing, not a bestowed thing.11 Subbing “whiteness” for “blackness” did not work because the ironic distance between burden and gift is missing.
Through piles of failed poems, I came to understand:
• There are many people who are white that I love, but their whiteness is not what I love
• There is no worthy form of whiteness to write about
• There is value in what people who are white can say, but no value in what whiteness can say12
“I feel extremely lucky to be white,” John Berryman once remarked.13 I had never heard anyone say that. His quote was like a door without a doorknob behind which lay that place I was searching for. Berryman seemed to suggest whiteness had possibility. It sounded like he was praising whiteness, and I was looking for something to praise. But it wasn’t praise. Behind the door without a doorknob, in the land of being-white, there is peacefulness only till you see the truth about whiteness. Then you can’t un-know what is on the other side of the door: the historical violence that continues into this minute.
Luck put Berryman behind a podium in 1968 reading poems instead of in front of the police hoses in Birmingham. That’s all he meant. Berryman was lucky not to be burned by lit cigarettes at a lunch counter or be killed for having a brown body; I have that luck, too, but it is not praiseworthy.14
ON THE UNIVERSAL
I wanted a white drink to undrink. I wanted to scrape whiteness off like wallpaper. I thought I might dial back my whiteness. If I could be 30% less white, I imagined, I would be a better mother. But I was discovering whiteness has no volume control. This was around four years into my writing project.
I began looking for white ways of making poems that I could quit using to make poems. Where was whiteness in my poems? I went through the books I had written. When I wrote them, I thought that if I did not name a person in a poem, it could be any person. Having accepted entirely the idea of The Universal put forth in MFA school, I trusted I was writing for “everyone,” touching the deepest truths beneath all of our differences. I was not writing for white readers any more than Robert Hayden was writing for black readers. (Or was he?) Who was I writing for? Were the people in my poems really anyone?
I ran a universality test on my poems, including “Noon, F Train,” in my third collection:
Mid-chapter. Book propped at good angle, jacket on lap. No need to rush as the conductor calls your stop. In your cove by the doors, the air neither too warm nor too cool, there is time enough (for it is a long train, the length of two city blocks, and it is coming to a slow, slow halt) to find your bookmark, tuck it into the page. To close the book, to reach between your knees for bags, taking care not to bump, with yur head, the woman doing Sudoku. Remain seated: face soft: from the ambergris in the whale, from the killing fields, move. Move from the room punctured with crystal, into the moment (it is coming) (it is still far off) when you will rise, and exit. There is time enough to adjust a scarf, untwist a shoulder strap, time enough to take down a thatched room, close a piano, pack the ammo, fold the sails, load the home, “one’s earthly sac,” where you have lived simply, onto yourself so that you can (but not quite yet) pass up into the world and leave nothing behind….
I tried thinking of this nonspecific You as different people. To do this, I concentrated on the subway stop not named in the poem. It is Carroll Street, in Brooklyn, where I lived. When I pictured a You in north Bronx or Jackson Heights, even as a thought experiment, I felt like I was trespassing. Was my intruder-feeling connected with my growing anxiety about appropriating experiences across a color line? Maybe my efforts to unlearn white supremacy were leaking into my assessment of my own work. But I was sure I sensed something that I could not change—something beyond the poem’s ending.
Finally, I saw that the poem’s You walks up the station steps trustingly into her neighborhood. She trusts an atmosphere. The peaceful transitions in my commute—the basis of the poem—are underwritten by whiteness. “Noon, F Train” evinces a trust granted by whiteness.15 Envisioning the You as a Puerto Rican woman or a Bengali woman, I realized that I could not necessarily claim my atmosphere for her. “Universality,” I saw, carried assumptions. Whiteness had entered my poem without my knowledge, operating at a low register. It was unnerving to see how whiteness rode the recording of experience.
Even though this poem is about a magical property of time that happens sometimes in the New York subway, and the phenomenon of “time enough” is not a function of whiteness, I could not unmerge the You from my self. My poem is not just about me, but it is not universal, either.
A few more years passed. I gave a reading of my first poems on whiteness. Afterward, the white editor of a major university press told me to scrap them. Start over, he said. “Aim for the universal.” When I thought about it, it seemed to me the idea of universality is usually put forward by white people. Also, if my poems weren’t good, maybe they didn’t necessarily fail. Clearly they made an older white man uncomfortable. Maybe that was promising.
I have since become dubious of “universal” as an idea that lets poetry contain the lives of white people and by which our art perpetuates whiteness. If white writers are told by white teachers and editors that our poems should “transcend” whiteness, then we will never be up to the task of writing about whiteness.16
We can’t dial back whiteness or revise it out of our poems. But we can shift whiteness to awareness and go from there.
If whiteness is not a thing, but a force, it is still made of stuff. The stuff of whiteness is blindness and willful denial. Another approach I tried was writing about the blindness and willful denial.
Along those lines, here are notes from 13 years ago for a poem I abandoned till recently (part of the latest draft is in section 11 of this essay). I was scribbling in my journal about an argument I overheard in the apartment next door, which was being renovated:
I heard the workman say, “I know I’m black, and I’m stupid, but….” His voice registered pain. It was in the way he leaned on the words black and stupid. Was I going to pound on the door to be let in, go and put my arms around him? The two white contractors would be there with him in a pile of rubble that used to be a kitchen. I would drift in, apparition of gypsum, woman poet, merciful dust ghost, saint of embracement, in my sundress. I would fix it all up. Level the argument, whatever it was, with a palmful of cool plaster (my voice), repair a black soul and then repair to my computer and my great big A/C….
In these notes, you can see that I am a static figure, fixed on myself. Not moving outward to possible reasons why a black man might have called himself “stupid” to white men, or whether it was, or was only, pain in his voice. He said, I’m stupid, but…. What came after “but?” What did he want to get across? I’m stupid…he might have been repeating something the white foreman had said to him.17
Those were questions on his side of the wall. There were questions I could have asked on my side of the wall, too. For instance, why should his outcry make me feel betrayed? My mother’s messages, and cultural messages I absorbed from children’s public television, fostered an idea that dignity is a sacred trust we all uphold. But who is we all? And what exactly had betrayed me? Those would have been good questions, but I couldn’t ask them because I lacked understanding. To write the subtleties of this situation, I had to become aware of the desires whiteness put in me. I can literally see, in what is not in my notes, my not-knowing—the limits of my language limiting my world.
I cringe reading my words about the sundress saint, the savior in drywall dust (like whiteface on my white face). Those images spring from guilt. When you see the damage whiteness does, feeling guilty is inevitable. Guilt is useful. It led to action. It can even, I think, be interesting. But performing white guilt in a poem is not useful or interesting. A poem of white guilt elides both the harm done and the person harmed. Plus which, to a reader of color, a display of white guilt is a familiar form of narcissism, even if guilt is seasoned with irony (e.g. I was not actually going next door to embrace the black subcontractor).
ON ASKING FOR HELP
A white artist friend read a draft I wrote from the above and said, “that’s just guilt, you need to do something else.” I was, of course, horrified. But I was glad she saved me from myself. Not every reader will be so honest.
Friends want you to feel good about your writing. People are conflict-avoidant. But fellow-feeling and misplaced reassurance are forces that allow whiteness to go on and on in poetryland. White poets need to learn to recognize whiteness in our poems and help each other by pointing it out.
One way to make this happen is to find a few artists (they don’t have to be writers) committed to undermining whiteness, people you can count on to be frank. Then, when you want someone to vet your work, you can tap your white network instead of burdening a person of color.
We can be there for each other, but we won’t catch everything. If you publish or read a piece that hurts someone, be slow to take up more space by belaboring a point or mounting a defense. It costs everyone, white people included, far less to sit back and think, even if you feel called out unfairly (or are called out unfairly). And you can reach out to your support network to talk it over.
ON APPROPRIATION AND VOICE
Sometimes my white students who teach poetry in prison programs ask whether and how they can write about it. Aware they have so much more power than the people in the jails, in full knowledge of the fact that the school-to-prison pipeline and the U.S. prison industrial complex have created majority black inmate populations, they are wary of appropriating experience and telling stories that don’t belong to them.
Poet C.D. Wright takes up this dilemma in her collection One Big Self, a chronicle of her visits to Louisiana supermax prisons.18 Wright, a free white woman, tenured professor, homeowner, mother to a son who has never been locked up, did write poems about incarceration. One Big Self is an example of how to manage a profound power imbalance as a white writer. In the book, Wright pulls off the seemingly impossible: incorporating the prisoners’ own words into poems and mixing in her voice with theirs so that, at times, you can’t tell who is speaking, poet or prisoner. Yet the poems do not fall into appropriation.
One mechanism by which the book works is Wright’s essayistic introduction, “Stripe for Stripe,” in which she acknowledges her position. “After all, I am not them,” Wright reminds herself, and us. Putting the problem of freedom on the page this way lets it be part of the story instead of hovering as a terrible problem around the edge. Wright’s introduction also lays out the pitfalls she means to avoid:
Not to idealize, not to judge, not ot exonerate, not to aestheticize immeasurable levels of pain. Not to demonize, not anathematize.
These are the mistakes my students worry about. Wright’s list of Nots is not only clarifying but generous. It teaches us to recognize and avoid errors of sentimental righteousness—e.g. demonizing, judging, exonerating.
I risk these errors in my own work. When writing about state-sponsored violence, if there is a black body in my poem, can I imagine it without imagining a pain I have no access to? How to avoid passing judgment, aestheticizing, or making a naïve moral pronouncement? If you are a human being, and an artist, and have skin privilege, and some sense of ethics, the urge to stop yourself from writing can be strong.
I had an image in mind that I censored myself from writing about for a couple of years.19 When I did finally start a draft, I discovered an additional problem: I wanted to mark my whiteness but lacked the language to do it without sounding awkward, overzealous, or heroic.
Here is the poem, titled “Comfort,” as it stands now. Below, I quickly trace my path to it, showing one way I found around the problem of appropriation.
Just a second ago, I wanted to take your hand. We are standing before the boy shot by police, an image as big as a room. How to comfort someone viewing brutality. Is comfort damage. Who am I to comfort. I wanted to offer you a hand massage. I wanted, if not relief, at least communion. As someone danced with me in a stairwell for a moment at my mother’s funeral. Someone brushed my hair back, touched my face. I wanted to offer you something in this place. Wanted something for myself in this place
After five or six drafts (over years) that focused on the boy’s body, which I won’t quote because there is no point, I shifted my awareness to my own body. It might sound counterintuitive or narcissistic, like I was putting my white self in the foreground again. But when I changed my focus, I sensed my loneliness, which I could not perceive while gazing outward. The boy’s body is not mine, but my feelings are mine. Then I found I wanted to touch another person in the room.20 I don’t know where that urge came from, but it belonged to me. From there, I could examine my longing instead of making an altar of the body of an Other. The question “who am I to comfort?” is earnest: Who is available for comfort? Who witnesses with me? But also self-excoriating: Who do I think I am?
As I worked, I pictured the You in the poem as different people: a white reader, a stranger, a friend, my son. I used to believe thinking about the reader tainted a poem, and everything we need for a poem should come from our own selves. But our own selves are only conglomerations of ideas gathered from everywhere. An imagined relationship with a reader was natural for this poem, since there is a co-viewer in it. But I have since revised my idea about “the reader.”21 For poems about whiteness, not losing sight of the fact that another person will receive the work is crucial.
(This poem was also the first poem I wrote with grayed-out text, which lets me argue back with myself, another way to track complication.)
A Latinx editor responded to some of my early whiteness poems a white contributing editor had solicited. Here is one of the poems I sent, “A Weave”:
“Tasha is deciding whether to become more ‘African,’ ” mom says on the phone. Tasha is my mother’s aide. Her fiancé wants her to wear mudcloth wraps. Tasha wears fitted sheaths. The fiancé wants Tasha with natural hair. She has a smooth weave. About this question, mom does not think Tasha should or should not change her look. She throws the couple a party when they get engaged. The husband leaves Tasha months after the wedding even though she did, I see in the photos, ‘Africanize.’ Is this a poem about a black woman working for a white woman, a woman dying? “Turn up the TV,” I hear mom say in the background. Tasha says, “I put olive oil on your mother’s lips.” A man demands a woman marry an idea. But that’s not what this poem is about. It is about care. Do you hear? The TV is so loud it drowns out the memory of my mother’s voice. It drowns out Tasha’s lavender suede thigh boots.
The white editor liked the poems, but the editor of color declined them. My work was an effort to understand whiteness as a category, she explained, and not a priority for the journal. Although she could see how the poems would be useful and relevant to an audience of white people working through similar processes, she said, this journal’s readership—women of color—is not in that same space.
Her response made me think a lot. Were my poems mainly for white readers? If so, was that bad? Maybe my poems were like dental floss: use and discard. That idea intrigued me. But I didn’t want to shut out readers. I wanted to reach readers. I had never thought of a poem in terms of reach.
What obligation does a poet, or a poem, have to identity? Should a poem be legibly black, or Asian, or queer, or trans, or a poem of disability? And what makes a poem so? Writers of color, and others on the margins, have been considering this question for a long time. Black poets stopped expressly writing for white publishers and readers in the Harlem Renaissance.
I don’t think a poem can be revised to extend reach very far. Maybe a little. To me, it is more important for poetry that white-identifying poets talk more about what makes a “white” poem and what marks a poem as white.
ON A POEM’S JOB
Should poems about race have a specific labor? Is change, whether public or private, the poems’ work? Returning to One Big Self for a moment, we see C.D. Wright explicitly stating her purpose in visiting the prisons:
It is an almost imperceptible gesture, a flick of the conscience, to go, to see, but I will be wakeful.
Wright did not set out, in One Big Self, to change the prison industrial complex. She did not try to sort out guilt and innocence. Instead, she pledged to be wakeful, opening a small aperture of expectation for herself. Keeping in mind the modest goal of wakefulness helps when I don’t know how to approach a daunting subject. Wakefulness is not daunting. It requires no special training and is available to anyone.
In an earlier book, One With Others, C.D. writes of being
…by all outward and visible signs one of them, but on the reverse side of [the] skin [lying] awake in the scratchy dark, burning to cross over. Not to become one of the harmed but to shed the skin…of the injuring party.22
The itchy unease she describes is familiar to me. I am no longer white in the way I was raised, not the same person I was when I started to learn about race, yet not not-white. I am not in the same place, but neither have I crossed over. I am mother to my son, always on watch for harm, including from my own whiteness.
Here is the first poem about whiteness that I didn’t throw out. The poem is not about race as much as searching. In wakefulness, I saw that I was searching, so that became the labor of the poem and its compositional force:
There must be a word for the feeling of my whiteness. Something like the knot in aeronautical. Something like stretchery. There must be a way to taste whiteness. To sing it. If there is a word for the tightness of an overtuned drumhead, the pinch of a trampoline spring when you’re in the air, what is it.
Stretchery sounds like “treachery” and like “stretcher,” a taut, institutional bearer of bodies. In its music, this poem carries the feeling of liberal racism I grew up in. I shaped the poem lightly, just till it held together, having found that overworking a moment of whiteness can make a draft fall apart.
This poem is also a small exploration of whiteness that does not depend on the presence of a black body. Poetry needs poems that don’t set whiteness against blackness. They are tricky to write, because whiteness is nothing but a force opposed to blackness. But if we train ourselves to notice what whiteness asks of us, rather than what whiteness looks like when a brown body is in the room, that can be a way forward.
In an essay in Boston Review, “Can a Poem Listen? Variations on Being-White,” poet Ailish Hopper calls white poets to be “awake within race.” Writing our early racial experiences, Hopper says, is not enough. Putting racist behavior by white people inside the frame of a poem is not enough when we might be, instead,
….rewriting race and racism, not merely representing, but disturbing; showing not just whiteness—but what it is to be awake, and disruptive, inside it. 23
I came to wakefulness as a state that moved me past fear and self-censorship. But Hopper suggests that being awake is more—it is potentially disruptive. She invites poets with skin privilege to move beyond describing our experience to create work that interrupts whiteness.
I want to write interruptive poems. There must be many ways to do it, but I don’t know many ways yet. Shaming interrupts racist behavior in real time, but shame and guilt aren’t forms of interruption poems need. Shame and guilt tend to silence. Documenting our racist behavior shows us that we are part of history, but putting our racist thoughts and actions into poems does not move poetry forward. At worst, it wounds people. At best, it rebroadcasts whiteness.
What do our interruptive poems look like? How, in a poem, do we disrupt whiteness? White poets are at a turning point, I think, starting to figure that out.
ON NOT FINISHING
Lyric poems push the chaos of experience through a sieve of language toward irreducible insight. Lyric poetry promises, if not transformation, then at least concentrated drops of perception. When lyric poems end, they do not usually leave you wondering whether there are more words on the next page. They feel satisfying.
Writing about whiteness, I have struggled with the lyric. No moment of whiteness in my life has “resolved.” To the contrary. When I perceive the power of whiteness at work, whether I am intimately mixed up in it or watching distantly, say in a movie theater, I am left with more questions than answers. So getting a poem about whiteness to resolve in a refined shot of language almost never works, at least for me.
The poem below keeps getting more ragged (early notes for this poem are in section 6 above). Never do two thoughts have a pure arc of electricity between them the way they do when I work on a lyric poem. Instead, a bunch of thoughts and images sputter on their own, like separate downed wires. I have been revising this poem for 20 years. I’ll stop when there’s a publication deadline, but it won’t be finished. Here is the opening currently:
The building: a tenement in gentrification, East Village NYC, 1999. Three men demolishing the studio next door. Sledgehammering for hours. Then silence, an argument. I hear the black workman say, “I know I’m black, and I’m stupid, but….”
through the wall, muffled, start again
“I know I’m black, and I’m don’t start there, start with his voice cracked — find a way to make clear his the pain
East 6th Street / late ’90s / three workmen, two white one black / sledgehammering next door / my desk shaking / sudden quiet / then an argument / the man’s voice, cracking / “I know I’m black, and I’m stupid, but,” / I want a crowbar to come through the wall and punch me in the back / hard enough to drown out the pain shame
this building poem owns what violence, whose abasement / whose release?
The poem is a ruin, the poem needs renovation. I could fix up stupid, fill the “u” in it with plaster, smooth it down. Then u is a fresh cool breast enhanced lumpy tumorous and everyone in this poem will have dignity at least.
Resolution is not this poem’s method. Starting and restarting, like a botched renovation, is its method. The ideas in it break off and get picked up elsewhere in the manuscript. The poem gets messier, folding in comments from other writers and an argument with a friend:
“Think how you might say ‘I know I’m a woman, and I’m stupid, but…’ if you were making a point,” says my (white) friend Allie. “He was being sarcastic, or else flat. Black men will use a flat delivery to avoid being perceived as aggressive.”
But I heard pain. I did hear pain, I say.
I heard folks talk about deep feelings of inadequacy.
I heard….feelings of shame….
inferiority….all was not well with their souls (bell hooks)
I do more reading on black men and self esteem. Whatever I add to the poem sits in it like a door brought up from the basement that doesn’t fit the doorway.
Allie: “You were on the other side of a wall, you didn’t see his gestures or expression.”
The poem makes a big shift after a white therapist says, “what does the memory bring up for you?” Her question redirects me toward the demands of whiteness—demands I have fulfilled, in my life, without questioning.
No matter how I interrogate my compassion, no matter how much research on shame in American I throw into the poem, no matter how big the addition I build in the poem to house that research, the poem can always contain more. It will not resolve. But a poem does not necessarily have to resolve to feel satisfying. Accrual is a form of meaning. As its ideas accrued, the poem got longer, and I found room to retreat, reemerge, double back. Those movements are the poem’s meaning.
A poem can use false starts and dead ends. A poem can contain enough of what it needs and then rest in incompleteness. If it is near other poems that talk back to, underline, or expand on its questions, that helps. This poem probably won’t achieve its full meaning outside the context of the book. To make sense, it needs the conversation with neighboring poems.
It has been hard to guide shape-shifting liberal whiteness toward a lyric moment. At this time, given that it is generally better for white people to take in, think, over, and listen than to speak, we can write poems that take in, think over, and listen. Long poems are good containers for whiteness because they can enact a complicated process.24
As I try to stop wanting hat whiteness wants, I am trying, in poems, to make visible a series of barely perceptible understandings, agreements, and interactions that created my whiteness. When it is finished, the book will be a poem that traces how I came to be white. I hope and trust it will be part of our expanding effort as poets to perceive how whiteness happens so that we can, as much as possible, make it un-happen.
Parts of this essay are adapted from a talk at the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference in Conway, Arkansas, in 2017.
1. For too many transracial adoptees, trauma around race leads to despair and suicidality when their “colorblind” white families refuse to acknowledge or examine racism. For me, grappling with whiteness might be a matter of lie and death, if not for my child then for someone else’s. Not to overstate it.
2. Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially divided Economy (Public Affairs Press, 2012), by attorney and activist Maggie Anderson, lays out the racist underpinnings of the American economy.
3. Manning Marable, Race, Reform, & Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America (University Press of Mississippi, 2007).
4. Aspects of my identity that hold conflicting truths: daughter, mother, feminist, Jewish, artist, wife, AFAB, etc. That does not mean I am “not white.” I still have skin privilege.
5. I have written elsewhere about John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs and still turn to the poems for their language and their problems, but they would overwhelm the essay if discussed here.
6. Jake Adam York, Murder Ballads (Elixir Press, 2005); Martha Collins, Blue Front (University of Pittsburgh, 2006); Rachel Richardson, Copperhead (Carnegie Mellon, 2011); Ailish Hopper, Dark Sky Society (New Issues, 2014).
7. Or so I thought. Later I learned that my grandfather was kicked out of my great uncle’s produce business and sent by the family to Memphis, where he got a job as a deputy sheriff.
8. Begun when poet Dawn Lundy Martin tweeted: “If only white people noticed when there are all white people in the meeting.”
9. The numbers surprised me. For instance, my neighborhood Target store is one of the most racially diverse spaces I routinely visit, at any hour of the day or night.
10. Rowan Ricardo Phillips, When Blackness Rhymes With Blackness (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010).
11. Whiteness does give things: generational wealth, a low likelihood of being incarcerated, etc. But they are not gifts. The price is steep and paid by all of us.
12. But we have to speak. Adrienne Rich: “Lying is done with words, and also with silence.”
13. An interview with John Berryman conducted by John Plotz, Harvard Advocate, October 27, 1968
14. But see Sharon Olds’s poem “Ode to My Whiteness.”
15. Other things being in the mix, too, such as relative wealth.
16. Writers of color are sometimes pushed by teachers the other way, to write from a racialized perspective, which can be equally problematic.
17. Years later, I discovered an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., noting Immanuel Kant calling a “Negro carpenter” “black” and “stupid.” Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes,” Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (Oxford University Press, 1993). See also bell hooks, Rock My Soul: Black People and Self Esteem (Washington Square, 2004).
18. On incarceration, see also Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way, 2015) and Felon (W.W. Norton, 2019) by Reginald Dwayne Betts; “What We Wear to Prison” by Sarah Shotland (Baltimore Review, summer 2018); Exit, Civilian (University of Georgia, 2012) by Idra Novey; “Model Prison Model” by Terrance Hayes; and Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison
19. This was shortly after Kenny Goldsmith performed “The Body of Michael Brown,” a “solipsistic clueless bubble of unsupportable ‘art,’” wrote Anne Waldman, among others. See “Responses to Kenny Goldsmith’s The Body of Michael Brown” on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog.
20. An early draft had a stage direction for me to give someone in the audience a hand massage. It was distracting.
21. In “Writing off the subject,” an essay often taught in intro poetry, the white poet Richard Hugo says: “Never worry about the reader….When you are writing, glance over your shoulder, and you’ll find there is no reader” (The Triggering Town, Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, W.W Norton, 1992). Judy Grahn, the white lesbian feminist icon and self-proclaimed community poet, says the opposite: “As I write, I constantly ask myself, ‘who am I talking to?’” (lecture at Carlow University, Pittsburgh, Pa., October 2018).
22. C.D. Wright, One Big Self (Copper Canyon, 2013); One With Others [A little book of her days] (Copper Canyon, 2011)
23. Ailish Hopper, “Can a Poem Listen? Variations on Being-White,” Boston Review, 2015
24. Some of the long works that have influenced my writing: Eula Biss, Notes from No Man’s Land; Don Mee Choi, The Morning News is Exciting; Toi Derricotte, The Black Notebooks; Cornelius Eady, Brutal Imagination; Myung Mi Kim, Commons; John Keene, Annotations; Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen; Muriel Rukeyser, US1; Eleni Sikelianos, The California Poem