Tuesday, April 28, 2015

April 28 in-class exercise

Imagine standing on a hot sidewalk baking in the heat and loving it. Why are you there? Describe your experience and what goes through your mind.

Next, imagine standing on a hot sidewalk baking in the heat and hating it. Why are you there? Describe your experience and what goes through your mind.

Homework: read Rick Moody, Boys, pp 198-202. Think about pacing in relation to your last reading (immediately before) on energy and troubleshooting it.
Homework: write a second scene of your “heat sidewalk” piece in which something unexpected happens to the protagonist, radically changing his or her worldview.
1.Jackie, Eric, (Clara); Rock: Danielle, Vanessa (Esperanza); Blue: Cindy, Andrew (Philip); Baloney: Maria, Albert (Josh); Sun: Edward, Stephan (Rachel)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A link to some of my work

Per your classmates' request, here's a link to some work of mine:

In-Class Exercise, Creative Writing, 31 March 2015

To start today, make a list of common adjective/noun pairs. Keep the adjectives on the left margin and the nouns to the right. Try to come up with at least twenty, e.g.:

gaping                     wound
broken                     heart
knockout                 punch


Next, mix up the adjective/noun pairs, e.g.:

gaping                 heart
broken                punch
broken                wound

Use one of these as a basis for a description a la Claudia Rankine, such as where she says, "it's a strange beach, each body is a strange beach..." and continue the description for as long as you can.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In-Class Writing: March 24. 2015

On p. 55 of Claudia Rankine's Citizen, she writes, "Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn't be an ambition."

Imagine a character whose ambition, whose dream, whose highest hope is "just getting along." Who is this character? What has shaped his or her goals? Why does he/she fantasize about getting to a place many people can't wait to escape from?

Write a character sketch in which you describe this character inside and out.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Where's Wanda: Writers of Color, the Unconscious Quota System, & Our Inadequate Imaginings

[What follows is a text version of my talk at the University of Montana's THINKING ITS PRESENCE: THE RACIAL IMAGINARY A CONFERENCE ON RACE, CREATIVE WRITING & LITERARY STUDY, presented on 13 March 2015. The subject of this talk is Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, race tokenism, and the difficulty of working as a writer of color.]

  1. The Riot Inside

Hi. So, hi. Hi. Or as someone yelled at me from their car when I got here, Hola. I was thinking maybe they meant “holla” like we do in Cali, but I don’t actually think that’s what they meant. If what they meant is they take me for a chola, I’m flattered. I usually can’t pull that off. So, thanks, random Missoula motorist! And my apologies to la Raza!

So. Yeah. So I’ve been sleeping with Wanda Coleman for a while, and obviously I am making a dumb joke because though my miscegenation is not only well-known but commonplace, I have never gone in for dead people, so what I mean is really that I’ve been sleeping with a pile of Black Sparrow books under my pillow and on the covers and under the sheets in all their bulky, aesthetically unruly glory. I appreciate Black Sparrow more and more; they have enormous stones. When you consider the people they published, those disparate aesthetics, it’s pretty impressive. I mean, basically what I’m saying is that if someone like me has always had just a teensy little aesthetic hesitation based on the fact that their cover art always makes me feel like I’m in some stinky hippie yoga studio, you know, the kind where the Tibetan prayer flags are so impregnated with the odor of Nag Champa that you could put one in a drawer to perfume your sweaters for a few decades, well, what does Black Sparrow care? Answer: not at all. And anyway, as with so many other things that have made it into my bed, I was able to overcome my initial reservations in hopes of finding some delight inside. This experience was less disappointing than most.

Speaking of miscegenation, another Black Sparrow author, John Yau, with whom I took a class at the Asian American Writers Workshop a thousand years ago and who is himself ¼ ethnic English and ¾ ethnic Chinese, once told me he had been called a race traitor and then asked who the hell he was supposed to get with because the pool of ¾ Asian ¼ white folk is pretty small. And I was like, dude, obviously nobody expects you to find someone with the same blood quantum because your face and your name put you firmly in the "nonwhite" category, which is how we understand race in America: white is neutral and everything else has mad flavor. As Wanda Coleman, champion miscegenator (maybe this is a Black Sparrow theme? That could be a pretty good theme, if you think about it; they could publish Zoe Kravitz after she gets on the K-Stew and James Franco poetry train, which is only a matter of time) knew and was some 30 years ahead of the curve on refusing to apologize for.

So writers of color. POC writers. This talk was really inspired by Sesshu Foster (another Hapa! We are dominating, people). On his blog, Foster was reviewing the “Made in L.A.” show at the Hammer Museum, and let me give you a little context here, the Hammer Museum is this very slick beautiful space at UCLA, the college also known as “you see lotsa asians,” and he was disappointed with how few POC artists were represented, particularly because, well, L.A. Have you been to L.A.? I live in L.A. And one of the main reasons I live in L.A., besides the weather, is that I have spent too much time in too many places where everyone else at the party is asking me to read their tea leaves and bless their fortune cookies and the only taco sauce comes from a plant in Ohio. So, even though we all know expectation is the mother of suffering, it’s sort of understandable that one might expect a great degree of diversity in the Made in L.A. exhibit, and I encourage you to read Sesshu Foster's whole blog post because it is worth it, especially when you consider how much time you probably already spent taking quizzes about what you should really be doing on Buzzfeed. One of the things Foster says in the piece is “so it’s okay, because “black los angeles” had its day/it had the one exhibit/it has black history month every year/it had wanda coleman (in those days)” and that got me thinking about the significance of Wanda Coleman to L.A. culture and to the rest of English language writing. Before I moved to LA in 2011 I had barely heard of Wanda Coleman. But it’s true, once you read a few papers in LA you hear about Wanda Coleman, and this was when she was still alive. Everybody name-drops Wanda Coleman, and when they do, they all say the same thing.
They say “unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles.”
And my question is, why unofficial?
The shorthand on Wanda Coleman is that she grew up in Watts, which is more or less true, except that situating yourself in Watts makes you think of the 1965 riots that happened there and gives everyone the Big Scary Black Ghetto image, like Wanda Coleman is Jenny from the block, as J-lo styled herself, which of course, she was, I am not trying to trash Coleman’s street cred because, among other things, she had more cred than J-Lo and I can even dream of. But if you actually read Coleman’s work she talks a lot about how the Watts she was born in was not the Watts of the riots, because Coleman was born in 1946, when Watts was a white, middle class enclave, as she has it, one that during her childhood became poorer and blacker. And of course Coleman does not come from a Californian family of long date. She tells the story of how her father emigrated from Arkansas as a teenager after somebody lynched a black man from a church steeple and left him there, how her dad just got in the car with some people passing through. And her mother had come from Oklahoma. And then she talks consistently, in interviews, about how when she goes to the South and sees black people en masse, she feels comforted because the black population is so small in California. So if people have an idea that Wanda Coleman is the scion of an entrenched Angeleno black community, it is because of the way she situated herself there, referring to herself as “a Black woman off the streets of Watts,” and knowing, post-riots, what that meant to people, and that is also a shorthand; a way of exploiting the retroactive imagining of where she must have come from to situate herself both physically and aesthetically within Los Angeles to the degree that she did. She lived her whole life there, did, as she said, her “schemin’ and dreamin,’ wrote extensively about L.A., mostly with harsh but loving criticism. So the idea of ‘poet laureate of LA” makes sense, but why “unofficial”? What could be more official than someone who left her footsteps on every corner, from the Valley to Venice, from Westwood to Watts, of the megalopolis?
And I think the answer has something to do with race and is part of what makes LA so horrible and so fascinating and so much better and worse, in terms of the way it divides and conquers people and cliques, than so many other places in America.
Critical race theory tells us that narrative is important. That narratives are important. That telling the stories and asserting the identity of people, of different “experiences,” is a way to subvert the entrenched white supremacy that runs through this country. It’s the same idea behind “herstory,” that the oppressed people have to be free to tell their stories, and you all know this. It’s a point of view issue: we think that by bringing to light the point of view of the historically oppressed, we can erase disparity, or examine disparity, or imagine a world in which all voices carry equal weight and all stages command equal attention. That’s crude sketch and a nice idea, it really is. And it is true that the white narrative is so overwhelmingly centralized in this country that the only way to combat it as a writer seems to be to centralize another view in your work. And this also reinforces the idea that one drop is enough, that one voice is enough, that one or two or three writers of color is enough to speak the narrative and to speak against the disparity of several hundred years of oppression. So the effort to value “othered” narratives becomes a means for reducing them to symbols. So writers of color become synecdoches, like little bits of tattered cloth running around declaiming The Overcoat Experience for any and all who will listen, or even as the audience flees. Thus when Foster says "black Los Angeles had its day" and cites Wanda Coleman, he is summarizing what the whole city has been taking for granted for decades, that the "unofficial poet laureate" of the city of angels is a representative of Black Los Angeles, a shred of that overcoat, and that black Los Angeles is itself a shred of the overcoat of Los Angeles at large because the most sprawling and immense cipher of an American city is also distinguished as a city (and not as a film factory) by the idea of the riot and the idea of specifically black violence.
I have been writing some poems about riots and going through histories of riots in LA and the first thing I started with was the chinatown massacre of 1871, which was actually the least black riot of any in history as it involved Californios, that's Hispanic native Californians, and European Americans lynching Chinese people en masse because, well, there's a whole long story about a clan dispute and a prostitute or maybe a wife and which husband she belonged to, but the real answer is because there was a long tradition of lynching Chinese and of driving them out, by violence, of towns in which they'd settled, on the west coast. And then of course the Zoot Suit Riots involved black servicemen and primarily Chicano Zoot suiters. But in the collective memory, Los Angeles is riots and riots are black.
It's the one drop rule of history. Everything black touches has become black. The gaze of the other on Los Angeles, when it tries to locate the city, falls always on “Boyz n the hood,” on Ice Cube who complains that the police are fucking with him and his pager, on OJ Simpson, whom Wanda Coleman discussed extensively, on Rodney King. And this is understandable. I had never been to LA before my teens. But my brother went to college at Occidental and I happened to come visit him for Sa-i-gu -- does anyone know what that means? It's the Korean for 4-2-9, April 29, 1992, when the riots in response to Rodney King's beating kicked off. So I show up and I ignore the fact that the campus is locked down and go wandering around the neighborhood, and the highways are literally on fire, blazing red, and gangs of people are roaming the streets committing acts of petty thievery. Rodney King is synecdoche. A shred of overcoat hiding the truth, which is more complex than just rage. And the truth he hides is the truth NWA expressed in “Straight Out of Compton” in 1988, and the truth experienced by Latasha Harlins on March 16, 1991, less than two weeks after King was beaten. Does anyone here know her story? The fifteen-year old shot and killed in a bodega. Wanda Coleman writes about this in an essay called “Remembering Latasha,” which I want to read you part of:
The video, filmed by an in-store camera at the Empire Liquor Market, was painfully graphic. We saw Latasha approach Du, alone behind the counter, with money in her hand. We watched Du accuse her of stealing a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. We saw Latasha turn to show Du the juice in her knapsack, then wave two one-dollar bills. There was a heated verbal exchange, and Latasha threw the orange juice down on the counter. We watched the angry Du grab for Latasha’s pack, then catch the flap of her jacket. We saw Latasha slap the shit out of Du, who immediately let go. We saw Latasha turn and walk away. We watched Du fumble for the .38 caliber, firing once. We saw Latasha pitch forward and drop to the floor as the bullet struck the back of her head.
I took Latasha’s death personally. Looking at a photo of myself at fourteen I saw little resemblance, yet I identified with Latasha. I saw in her the truncated figure of another self. Why? Soon Ja Du probably did not realize Latasha was a child. The teenager dwarfed the Korean woman. When Latasha slapped Du, her blow staggered the diminutive grocer. This speculation evoked my past as “Big Girl” -- my father’s nickname for me. Darker and larger than my schoolmates, I quickly learned the advantage (when it comes to intimidation) of being a big-boned, heavyset “mama.” Aggression was a vital part of my survival strategy.
The price Black girls pay for not conforming to White standards of physical beauty is extracted in monumental amounts, breath to death. We bend our personalities, and sometimes mutilate our bodies, in defense. Sometimes that bent is “bad attitude,” perhaps accompanied by a hair-trigger temper, ready to go off at the mildest sight: neck-wobbling, hands to hips, we exhibit boisterous, hostile, “niggerish” behavior. Latasha, insulted by Du’s mistaken assumption that she was a thief, went into her attitude. Then Du unwittingly violated a code of street conduct: You do not put your hands on me without a fight -- win, lose, or draw.
Latasha lost.
Coleman's observations about the rules of fighting are key here because she neither canonized nor condemns Harlins or Soon Ja Do, her shooter. Instead she gives us a partisan but still critical set of tools for understanding this incident. Wanda Coleman is not easy. She doesn't do facile. But facile is what we like to consume as a culture. Ice Cube much as I adore his oeuvre, is facile, a brilliant but predictable performance of ‘attitude’. And John Singleton's movie “Boyz n the Hood,” which came out in 1991, starring Ice Cube, incidentally, and purporting to reveal the gritty realities of LA youth, is firmly in this tradition, this facile tradition of portraying the LA Ghetto/gangsta life that became the reality of Los Angeles beyond Tinseltown. So this is where we get our unofficial poet laureate moniker. Wanda Coleman is adopted as a symbol of black Los Angeles and Wanda Coleman is subject to all of the most cliched jazz comparisons, because anything black is obviously jazz or blues just in the same way anything white is string quartet or alt.rock or country. And in addition to being a token and a symbol for the purveyors of culture to bandy about when it is deemed necessary or meritorious, or when they need some chromatic shifts on a panel, Wanda Coleman is also a real black person a real woman a real Angeleno a real poet, someone whose thoughts encompass but are not contained by the “real” ghetto L.A. and Wanda Coleman doesn't concern herself with "unofficial" or "official." She is willing to “concern herself with this urban actuality,” but she is not willing to pimp for it. She is straddling the Venn diagram where real and fake clash and she is not apologizing for your misconceptions. In the poem "Rapping with Opportunity" she says, "I wonder how he feels about my brown face/it doesn't matter." There is a lot of this acknowledging the context and then outstripping the context that happens in her work. Coleman rages and rails, hits hard and shoots harder, or spends a whole poem delectating with explicit pleasure of her husband's body or flips a bunch of shit right back at whoever dished it to her, or maybe just gets lyrical about streets or stars in eloquent good humor. She's not looking to see how you're reacting or whether you gave her a gold star and she’s definitely not checking in with Ice Cube and John Singleton to see if they approve. She's too busy saying what she has to say, which cuts a broad swath across the experiences available in Los Angeles in the world in the body of whatever color it comes in. And I think in a way she was punished for that, because another part of the “unofficial” epithet is that, like the Velveteen Rabbit, we needed her and depended on her, but in her lifetime we never loved her enough to make her a real bunny. She was never given an official mantle of power, and she worked semi-menial jobs (I’m talking about medical office work and crappy scripts and things, not housework, lest you get the wrong and stereotyped idea) and hustled most of her life. And she acknowledges this, writing in a poem about Ms. Pac Man “my metaphor my life/the harder I play the lower I score.” For as much respect as she got, for as many books as she published, she remained unofficial. L.A. loved her and needed her but was never willing to marry her. Not that she was hanging around waiting for a proposal.

  1. H.N.I.C

Coleman wrote in 1995: “When the smoke clears, and there are only two Negroes left in America, there will still be a war on about who is going to be spokesperson for The Race -- and what’s going to be the New Black Aesthetic.” This zero-sum theory of faction power is something she expressed beautifully earlier in her career when she wrote “This society has what I call Nigger of the Minute Syndrome” -- also known as HNIC, or Head Nigger in Charge. Only one token nigger is allowed at any given time, regardless of regionality or differences in style.” I thought about leaving that last part off, “regardless of regionality or differences in style,” but then I thought better of it. Because that’s the thing that the HNIC is characterized by: it is about the need of the observing culture to fill a role and not at all about the content of the work. Not about the content of anyone’s character (and Wanda Coleman wrote that she didn’t think much of that quote given she was apparently wise to MLK’s serial infidelity by the time he said it; this is part of being a Malcolm X partisan rather than an MLK partisan, but it’s also part of being someone who holds people, even the darlings of her own race, even the HNIC, to a higher standard. More on that later).

The HNIC idea is a reflection of the unconscious quota system to which we are all -- all those of us who are raced, that is all those of us who don’t fit under the rubric of whiteness -- subject. The cause of the quotas is shame over racism and a desire, more or less maleficent, more or less ingenuous, to cover one’s ass with some token inclusion or to actually effect some kind of “diversity” or “inclusion” in a way that is quantifiable and (of course) reductive. The effect of the quota is to crown a select few the writers-of-color in favor, earnestly purchased by a mainstream audience, invited to all the events, held up as a standard for achievement and as a proof of limitless possibility to other writers of color and yet to further shut out or limit the possibilities for these writers by creating the popular perception that the badge, the crown, the position is unmerited, is simply a box institutions must check to qualify as Equal Opportunity Employers, the way Claudia Rankine recounts in Citizen, “he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” And so this other effect of the quota is that the individual person of color has to learn to swallow these kind of bitter, chunky rationales and laments that basically remind us we’re benefiting from our own bitchiness and we’re on a gravy train called “Affirmative Action.” (Incidentally, I have yet to meet a person complaining about Affirmative Action who has any understanding of the policy or its implementation, but lack of understanding never stopped anyone.) We are now, individually, responsible for the fact that some white people are bitter because if one of the five seats on a mainstream panel is earmarked for the “writer of color,” for the sake of “diversity and inclusion,” THAT IS THE ONE SEAT THAT PARTICULAR WHITE PERSON MISSED OUT ON. Similarly, we are constantly reminded that privilege has flipped and for all the misery suffered by our people in the past, now we’re reaping the fruits. It’s like, Hey, I know Vincent Chin got beaten to death FOR HIS FACE, but your face got you this job, so suck it up, baby.  The rationale is one you all know: that if any person of color has succeeded, ever, it erases the entire history of racism. Let’s call this President Obama syndrome: when he got elected, people said, it’s proof that RACISM is over. I don’t know if you realize this, guys, but racism is over. It’s been over for SIX YEARS. A black president was elected by popular mandate in 2008, and therefore racism is over. This is proof positive that the United States has moved beyond racism. We are a post-racial society. We could have never started this conference. We can all go home now.

Oh, you’re not going? You don’t agree? You’re wrong, I tell you. You just never got the memo. In this post-racial society, everyone has exactly the same opportunities, any prejudices are individual “preference” rather than bigotry, and if you’re not where you wanna be, it’s your own damn fault. And if y’all got arrested for shoplifting when you weren’t or screamed at slowly even though you speak the King’s English, if somebody told you how much he liked your kind because they know how to treat a man, if somebody told you to shut your mouth and let the big boys talk, if somebody assumed you can’t read because you’re bilingual in Spanglish, well, you’re being paranoid. Because if you were right, we would still be seeing evidence of this kind of tokenism, of writers of color being selectively recognized in order to ensure “diversity” and avoid controversy, of the colored body being repackaged to sell as an accessory to the American dream.

One of my favorite quotes from Wanda Coleman, one that always warms my heart and makes me feel the sunshine of courage on my back, is this: “Why do I always have to deal with some bullshit?”

  1. A Song Flung Up to Heaven

The title of this section is not from a poem by Wanda Coleman. It’s from a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Sympathy,” a paraphrase of the line “But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—” Maya Angelou’s paraphrase, describing that caged bird she made so much use of. And it’s the title of a book by Angelou that Wanda Coleman reviewed in the LA Times Book Review. Coleman wasn’t gentle; she accuses Angelou of “cannibalizing” the reputations of three major black figures, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin, in order to position herself as an activist, then goes on to shred the “sloppy” writing, finishing with this zinger: “Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song Flung Up to Heaven seems small and inauthentic, without ideas, wisdom, or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but it isn’t a song.” See what I mean about holding the HNIC to a higher standard?

I love it when she gets a little nasty. I really do. Because it’s not senseless violence or grandstanding; Coleman is not just shaking down Angelou because she’s been appointed the Grand High Black Lady of American Letters or had her work immortalized in yet another John Singleton film, “Poetic Justice” (remember that one? The one with Janet Jackson as Justice the hairdresser poet and Tupac as the single father mailman? The one where Justice recites her poetry, which is actually by Maya Angelou, only to end up back in the hair salon doing Tupac’s kid’s hair? You don’t? Yeah, I don’t blame you). Anyway, Coleman is actually -- and there is a whole section on “The Maya Situation” in her collection of essays The Riot Inside Me -- righteously indignant because she views Angelou’s tale of heartbreak and activism as not only “a fake” but an exploitation. And it’s the exploitation of real heartbreak and sincere activism that Coleman can’t abide. It’s hard to verify Coleman’s claim that Angelou was not the activist she claimed to be. But it’s clear that Coleman sincerely believed that Song was pretty terrible, and I invite you to page through it yourself and see, and that the “situation” that followed, which included Coleman getting banned from one of LA’s prominent African American bookstores and some tense moments at poetry festivals -- I know, high drama -- was, as Coleman later remarked, tinged with what she calls “race defensiveness” and the idea that she was some kind of traitor for criticizing Angelou. Angelou is the HNIC, and Coleman’s irked by her inaccuracies, by her exploitation of her fame and her audience, and by what she characterizes as a willingness to pimp out her own people. She says in an interview, “ You know...she can pimp White people up the yingyang, and I might not say nuthin’. Unless -- I might pull the coattail of a particular White person that I like and say, ‘Watch out for Maya. Watch your back when you get to Maya.’ You know? But I wouldn’t say anything necessarily in public to out her. I would let her go on about her pimping. But when she starts pimping out my cousins and my daughters and my grandbabies, then I gotta say something. And when she is pimping the young people in the inner cities, when she is running the same game on them that she’s running on the White folks, then she’s gone too far.” And on the degree of scandal and pushback Coleman experienced, she talks about that, and that is another of the effects of tokenism, of some of us being the darlings and others pushed to the side in way that is much more about our race value and the narrative we offer than about our work, the “divide-and-conquer” strategy. Pit one against the other, let them scrap it out. It makes good theatre. You see this...oh, all over Facebook. Provoke, flame, troll, manifest, emerge victorious, feud. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent the game. And Coleman says later in the interview, “that, to me, is a statement of how much work remains to be done in the culture. That...it’s still all about race, and we still haven’t done enough work.”

So maybe there is a point to this conference after all.

I want to ask for your help wrapping things up. I can’t read you Wanda Coleman. I only saw her read once, a month before her death, and I don't think I have the space in my ribcage to recreate that. I think it's going to take all our ribcages. So what I’d like to do is hand you these pieces of paper. This is a poem called “Prayer for America Reborn,” from her 2003 collection Ostinato Vamps.

It’s not an explicitly Black poem and it doesn’t talk about Maya Angelou. But it speaks to the ideals that drove Coleman’s ethics and her insistence that we be more than tokens, that we reach farther than that crown and that badge, and that even if people never want to let us all the way into their lives, even if they only want to visit us when it’s convenient, even if they refuse to let us into their worlds or be seen with us in public….well, that does not diminish the value of our work, our hearts and our thoughts.

[In closing, I handed out sections of “Prayer for America Reborn” and the group read it collaboratively. Thank you to all who attended. I also want to thank Prageeta Sharma for organizing, Bhanu Kapil and MG Roberts for inspiring, and April Joseph for her generosity and humor.]

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

March 3 In-Class Exercise

Voltaire said that originality is nothing more than judicious imitation. Today in class we're going to try it by beginning to imitate Claudia Rankine's work "Citizen." You will notice that she writes of what seem to be personal experiences (that she has had) in the second person (you).

For your in-class writing, try to imitate Rankine's sparse, precise prose as you recount an uncomfortable and unjust situation you've experienced using the second person.