Are Conceptual Poets Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith Racists?

I should say at the outset that I am not going to settle this question.  I won’t take sides on whether Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith are racists. Why not? It’s not because I don’t have a viewpoint.  And it’s not because I’m afraid to express my opinion and thereby attract harsh criticism for it.  Rather, it’s because plenty of people have already done so, and they have adequately defended their beliefs.  By not sharing mine, I’m not copping out.  But we need to talk about what’s happening.

Race is a very sensitive issue right now.  Then again, when hasn’t it been a sensitive issue?  Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and most recently Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.  We know that race has been a major force of socio-political injustice. And we have every reason to fight against it.  Racism exists and I think most of us would be hard pressed not to acknowledge that it has and does exist at all levels of society, affecting rich and poor, and haves and have nots.

You can look up Vanessa Place’s biography.  She has a Wikipedia page.  Apparently, she’s her own corporation and what she sells is her own unique version of conceptual poetry.  Fine, now what’s the problem?

Place has new stuff out.  Lately, she’s been fairly active on Twitter–tweeting messages based on her new poetry project. The tweets aren’t pretty.  Much of it looks like Blackface–whether it’s parody, satire, or ironic critique is partly at issue.   If you venture onto her account without any familiarity of her or the new project, then you could easily assume she’s tweeting racially charged language, mainly dialogue and scene descriptions, from Gone With the Wind.  What Place’s actual attitudes and beliefs are concerning the language is anybody’s guess.  But a lot of people are ticked off.

The racially charged language isn’t merely confined to Place’s Twitter feed.  She published a poem entitled “Miss Scarlett” in Poetry magazine (July/August 2009), largely reproducing Black dialect from the novel.  The following note appears with the poem as a kind of explanation of what’s going on:

Taken from Prissy’s famous scene in the movie version of Gone with the Wind, Place phonetically transcribes the “unreliable” slave’s words, which are then set in Miltonic couplets. Through the simple act of transcription, Place inverts our relationship to Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling and beloved American epic by prioritizing the formal aspects of language over Mitchell’s famous narrative. With this deconstructive move, Place illuminates the many subtexts embedded in the text concerning plays of power, gender, race, and authorship. By ventriloquizing the slave’s voice as well as Mitchell’s, Place also sets into motion a nexus of questions regarding authorship, leading one to wonder: who is pulling whose strings?

Many of Place’s critics have not dwelled much on the “nexus of questions.”  Rather, to them the questions are beside the point.  There are larger issues at stake.  They’re reading the language–the appropriation of language–as the insensitive iteration of racist diatribe.  Regardless of the “conceptual” aspects of her new project, critics take Place to task for what they claim is a genuinely dumb move.  Perhaps they’re right.

Change.org recently posted a petition to remove Place from the AWP Los Angeles conference committee.  You can read their statement on the website.  The petition garnered over 2,000 supporters.  As a result of internet activism, Place was removed from the committee.  I find many of the comments on the site to be fairly persuasive.  Jamison Crabtree, for instance, says the following:

Place’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ project (and arguably, the whole project) seems, at best, to use racism to simply remind us that racism exists.

At worst, it ignores the impact of racist language, racist iconography, and racism itself on the very people it’s (seemingly) hoping to protect, all the while leveraging the topic to draw attention to Place herself.

Best case or worst case: either way, this project demonstrates a severe lack of judgment. Allowing someone who values conceptualism over people to influence AWP panel decisions will not result in panels that highlight inclusivity or diversity– it’ll result in another version of this very project, with Place silencing the very audiences she presumes to protect.

Also, Jason Atwood agrees with this statement and adds the following:

Using “conceptualism” to disguise racially insensitive provocation as a poetic act devalues the efforts of all writers everywhere, regardless of race, class, or creed. Even more important, the intellectually lazy “work” being produced by Vanessa Place on Twitter does not exist in a vacuum, but creates real world harm particularly for POC. Allowing a writer producing this sort of material to judge panel proposals for AWP 2016 is an implicit extension of the systemic oppression POC continue to experience on a daily basis.

Both of these commentators make solid points, entirely understandable.  Whether Place deserves censure is another issue. But if she’s wrong, does she stand alone among conceptual artists?

That’s hard to say, but Place is not alone in creating controversy.  Kenneth Goldsmith has also come under attack for being racially insensitive with his conceptual “uncreative writing.”  Recently, he read Michael Brown’s autopsy report as poetry. There was plenty of backlash, including a Huffington Post article.  The Guardian, the New Republic, and VIDA also featured stories covering Goldsmith’s reading.  Amy King, a writer for VIDA, had this to say:

Many at Brown University watched as shock value antics reached new lows, reveling in blatant disregard and tone deafness for the recent murder of Michael Brown, as Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance, “The Body of Michael Brown,” was executed in the service of his previous canonizing and careerist maneuvers, especially thrown into sharp relief as attention for Place and Goldsmith reaches its nadir. This latest last-gasp play for attention lays literary claim to Michael Brown’s body in ways that call into question exactly who Goldsmith hoped to appeal to, what privileges he expected to take advantage of in the process and which populations are so casually disregarded. He overstepped in revealing ways, calling attention to the historical power plays he has publicly boasted and by enacting how privilege is expected to invoke and establish power.

King is not alone in her disapproval.  More than the fiery rhetoric of criticism, Goldsmith has also received death threats.

Interestingly, the criticism brings up a question on whether Place’s and Goldsmith’s conceptual poetry endeavors “shock value” or has any aesthetic merit at all.  Thus, I simply ask the question: Are these recent conceptual poetry enterprises racist or not? If so, then what is to be done?  Because kicking people off committees might not be enough…

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