Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Wanda Coleman

Are there essential ways in which you consider yourself an American poet?

Yes. The same way in which I consider myself an American per se, more specifically, a Black American of slave descent, African in origin.

When you consider your own "tradition," do you think primarily of American poets?

No. My "tradition" (or psyche) is split [I prefer the expression "shattered"]. My "tradition" is a complex mishmosh of two basic traditions: 1) the best of Western Civilization, as taught in the Los Angeles school system of the 50s and 60s, Sappho and beyond. 2) the Afro-American blues/jazz musical tradition.

Do you believe there is anything specifically American about past and contemporary American poetry? Is there American poetry in the sense that there is said to be American painting or American film? Do you wish to distinguish American poetry from British or other English language poetry?

Yes, threefold:

1) The "adolescent" or rebellious way in which Americans truncate or bastardize "The King's English," which is integral to American English itself and a byproduct of the breakdown in class structures and the accelerated commodification of institutions; all this exacerbated by a fierce and idealized individualism.

2) Changes wrought on the human psyche in the 20th Century by accelerated technological advances, the devaluation of human labor, and the ascension of a popular broadcast and news media that is, by and large, a Titanic mechanism for the rationalization and perpetuation of Racism via a systemic perversion of the Protestant ethic.

3) War: The Civil War, World Wars I & II (and the spread of the illusionary notion of democracy); the latter, through its GI Bill, has produced the largest number of university-educated minds in American history.

All of this applies to American prose as well.

4a) Is there American poetry in the semse that there is said to be American painting or American film? Yes. Because the same forces mentioned in answer 4 are at work. In addition to that, American painting and American film are rich resources, providing numerous cultural reference points and "the stuff" of poems written by Americans. I'll take it a step further than the classic H. Marshall (The Mechanical Bride) McLuhan summary, "The media is the message." The media is the material.

4b) Do you wish to distinguish American poetry from British or other English language poetry? Yes, amen! Yes. Because this nation, particularly its post WWII generations, has finally produced such tremendous body of works which, by sheer force of volume, degree of excellence and variety, demands its distinct literary place, accounting/recognition (aka history), analyses and/or criticism.

Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?

1) Phyllis Wheatley: Not for the style in which she wrote, but for the circumstances that dictated her style & content, how she was published, why she ceased writing and publishing, and, particularly, how she perished.

2) Walt Whitman: poetic structure and technique aside, his literal "Song of Myself" was his response to being ignored by the going literary establishment. He had to self-advertise in order to get attention. This has been the on-going bane of those American literati who are not readily embraced by whoever or whatever establishment at any given moment.

3) Paul Laurence Dunbar because he legitimized Black idiomatic speech and content.

4) John Simon Guggenheim, for whom the foundation is a memorial; again, not for his verse per se, but his motive for suicide in that it underscored a burgeoning & bludgeoning American anti-intellectualism (recently embodied by the assault on the NEH/NEA and personified in Jesse Helms; proving, despite inane protests from some literary quarters, that matters of culture are most profoundly political).

5) Others: Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dickinson and Thoreau. Richard Ellman's The New Oxford Book of American Verse,1976, started things off nicely but suffers the lack of photographsor drawingsof the authors, bibliographies and biographical notes. The ambitious series of post 70s anthologies have made other errors in their attempt to compensate for the neglect of newer American voices and to embrace the literary themes of the last half of the 20th Century.

What import does regional poetry occupy in your sense of American poetry?

Don't all poets belong to, originate or reside/work in, one region or another? I am incensed by the "regionalism" that dominates the flow of culture in America. Britain still dominates, followed by the rest of White Europe. Certain enclaves, like the Berkeley-San Francisco-Stanford University corridor have come into play; a strong Chicago faction has constrained the emergence of Afro-American voices in other parts of the nation. A handful of Southern authors have effected some broadening of the American landscape. But overall, the American institutions that foster poetry favor those poets residing in the state of New York first and those poets residing in the original 13 colonies second. The rest of us aren't even a close third.

What significance does popular culture possess in your sense of American poetry?

Television's impact is immeasurable. Blues, Rock and Roll, and Jazz have had great significance because of the obvious interrelationship between music and poetry, and because of the dominance of Afro-Americans on American popular music (and the "youth culture"--from fashion to lingo--that fuels its development). There is no way to contain it.

What about the American poets who lived primarily in Europe (Eliot, Pound, Stein)? What about the European poets who have recently lived or worked in America (Heaney, Walcott, Milosz)?

If I have to read one more thesis boiled down to book review or revisionist critique of these icons I will go up in a cobalt stink. Overworked focus on that generation and its ilk testifies to the cowardice, arrogance and dilatory racist influence of contemporary American academics who likewise belong to that generation and their print editor peers. Also, it is easier for lazy minds to write about those who have been written about extensively.

What about the European poets who have recently lived or worked in America (Heaney, Walcott, Milosz, Boland)? I personally have found visiting,immigrant,and emigrewriters, especially the older generation, remarkably arrogant and depressingly reactionary, like disgruntled parents, and generally resistant to innovation and experiment from any American quarter. And an Afro-American writer like myself exists completely outside their narrow frames of reference--in terms of form if not content (unless suddenly embraced by the "mainstream").

Walcott is a major disappointment in this regard, particularly since he has piggy-backed off the social pain of Afro-Americans to the tune of a Nobel Prize. From my perspective, the Derek Walcotts of America, male and female, are cultural carpetbaggers, a profiteering minority within a minority, with their advantage of minimal choice over those of us who have no choice. Their popularity among White literati (of immigrant descent) inures them to this complaint. When the topic of Racism is brought to a public forum, too often they mitigate or dampen any burning concerns of native-born, garden variety Afro-Americans like myself. The literary powers--liberal, middle of the road, and conservative--fail to make any constructive distinctions betewen us, except in degrees of profundity, preferring to support "non-threatening (to the racist status quo)" Blacks regardless of birthright. This refusal to differentiate (supported by Negros deluded into believing the numbers game is salvation) usually works in favor of the Black visitor, immigrant or emigre writer, and further marginalizes someone like myself.

Do other aspects of your life (for instance, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity) figure more prominently than nationality in your self-identity as a poet?

As a Usually Het Interracially Married Los Angeles-based African American Womonist Matrilinear Working Class Poor Pink/White Collar College Drop-out Baby Boomer Earth Mother and Closet Smoker Unmolested-by-her-father, I am unable to separate these and, as time progresses, resent having to fit into every niggling PC pigeon hole some retard trendoid academic with a grant or hidden agenda barfs up.

Do you believe you could readily distinguish a poem by an American poet from a poem by other poets writing in English?

Without a doubt, unless the writer is raised elsewhere. Writers like Charles Bukowski, who was born in Germany but raised in the U.S. are undetectable. Writers raised in U.S. territories or in islands under strong influence from U.S. culture are also sometimes difficult to readily identify. As a general rule, all one need do is sniff out those oft-subtle cultural reference points & signs of influence.

One of my most amazing experiences, and favorite stories to tell, occurred when sitting on a politically correct 1993/4 NEA panel and observing that my MFA, MA and PhD educated peers of all stripes MISREAD poems written by a white California male in the voice of a Vietnamese or Thai "boat woman." I've also known of instances where ostensibly Afro-American writers were rewarded, only to find out the author was an acculturated Caucasian. These kinds of embarrassing instances will continue as long as the root issues of Racism in American culture are skirted and we all pretend we're colorblind.

The fierce economic pressures of the last 30 years have ultimately forced academics to figuratively "whore" even when they are most inept at turning bottoms up (I'll put you in my anthology if you put me in yours). Sloppy and fake writing is hailed as ground-breaking when it isn't (because a woman or person of color or gay person wrote it and we must have our quota of "them"). Solid criticism is muted by fear (of being called a racist or having someone you've vilified drool over your grant application). This fear has created a pusillanimous self-censorship that now governs American Letters. The twin babes of quality and criteria have been thrown out with the bathwater of literary bigotry.

What do you see as the consequences of "political correctness" for American poetry?

What "political correctness" (not to mention its do-goody but insidious partner, multiculturalism) is isa deeply flawed psychosocial mechanism which substitutes for the embrace of a truly open American culture. It cripples and aborts many of the dysenfranchised writers it is "designated" to help. As long as American society is closed to full and honest participation of Afro-Americans (that is, without the underpinnings of effective legislation), the going trends in approximating citizenship parity will impact on the development of literature among the victims of racism, not all of whom are or will be Afro-Americans.

What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?

The effects of advanced technology will be simultaneously elevating and enervating. Urban American voices (particularly Black and Latino) will dominate world poetry. Unfettered freedom of expression for the Afro-American will be achieved, but at the price of more bloodshed.

Additional Comments:

What is American about American Poetry?

The unique cauldron of Protestantism and Racism in which it is defined and from which it takes shape.

Published 1999.

More Q & A: American Poetry