Speak No Evil Forum Response: “MFA vs. POC” (Jennifer Hayashida)

Jennifer Hayashida

 

“For once in my life, let me get what I want.”
—The Smiths, Please, please, please let me get what I want

 

“It’s fun to do that, like rhyme about handguns.”
—Das Racist, Rainbow in the Dark

 

This is the kind of thing you want to write anonymously. After all, it wasn’t bad, it really wasn’t, and when it was bad it was bad in ways that sliced through how we identified or were identified by others. But then why did X need to organize separately to create what felt like a safe space? Why was there that fist fight when someone was repeatedly called “boy”? Why did no one say a word about the proliferation of tiny rainbow flags in one student’s exquisite paintings?

You feel like you are betraying the ones who praised you, who “tore you apart for your own good,” who did careful late-night readings of your work and who came up with new takes on what you wanted to throw away. Moreso than you ever feel with your family, you feel like you are airing dirty laundry, even if it’s laundry you paid more than forty thousand dollars for. Today, that’s a bargain for an MFA.

Maybe you were just too insecure: maybe if only you’d held firm, spoken up, disputed, walked out, rejected. Maybe then you would have felt less alienated, less like you were just passing as a “poet.” Maybe you just had issues that you projected onto everyone. Maybe you were too young, too afraid, too enamored of The Famous Experimental Writer you went there to work with.

It’s like Stockholm Syndrome.

*

To imagine what an arts education for people of color could or should look like takes so much work of erasing a lot of what my arts education was for me, but also revisiting the moments that in some ways were the most painful: the times when I got what I wanted, when someone—sometimes a person of color, sometimes not—read the work through my racialized, gendered, classed body and let that information, the context of my physical form and personal politics, inform their reading in a way that substantiated what was on the page. When my mixed race body wasn’t seen as an unwelcome form of narrative in an otherwise experimental situation.

In one of the poems I continuously return to as a writer and translator, “Ing Grish,” John Yau writes, “The authority on poetry announced that I discovered that I was Chinese / when it was to my advantage to do so.” John was my teacher in graduate school, and to this day I feel like I owe him—what, I don’t know—for teaching me that experimental forms can be some of the best containers for writing about identity and experience, that the subject of race—and racialization in particular—makes fine fodder for an experimental, non-narrative, “I’m not bananas: you are” (or, “I’m not a banana” and I don’t need to explain to you what that means) poem. Ironically, John may dispute that this is some of what he taught me, but it is nonetheless what I learned and what sustained me.

An arts education for people of color would teach you to never take form for granted, to not succumb to the gravitational pull of linear narrative when the catastrophic experiment of race is anything but linear, narrative, figurative, or lyrical. If there ever was a form suited to the fucked-up experience of living in a racially and socioeconomically stratified “first world” nation, it would be an experimental poem, the non-narrative found footage film, the silent sound piece. Although “experimental” cannot, and should never, be reduced to the singular.

John taught me that to write experimentally about experience, racialized or otherwise, is not to write obliquely: time and again, he would remind me—demand of me—that I say what I was speaking about and not just write around it. Others seemed more or less content with my circuitousness, and I became convinced that references to race (bodies, identity, gender, sexuality, certainly—ugh—feeling) needed to be veiled, semiotically tricked-out so that nothing but the poem was at stake: not my experiences in the past or the present, not my first-person observations, anything but my “I.” Everything became a riddle and I somehow took comfort in the fact that the poem demanded to be deciphered. Another very thoughtful reader, Erica Hunt, went so far as to say that I should read Merleau-Ponty, but what she didn’t pick up on—what she couldn’t possibly see since I never named it—was that what I was trying to explore was in fact the phenomenology of race. I just didn’t know it then, and no one could really guide me to that understanding.

An arts education for people of color would stress the possibilities of taking the “whole fragment” (a concept articulated by another teacher, Ann Lauterbach) as a sharp instrument for writing about race and identity, and writing about it better.[1] In another context, responding to what she thinks is “American About American Form,” Lauterbach also writes about the experimental not as an aversion to form, but as “an aversion to conformity.” And here is where I feel an opening to say that experimental poetry, poetry that refuses to conform, is the perfect vessel to show (and tell) identity, and here, race in particular.

This is my bias. My experiences of living in a racialized mixed race body are somehow expressed—simultaneously affirmed and upended—in the work I read by Cathy Park Hong, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (initially recommended to me by Carla Harriman, another salient memory from grad school), R. Zamora Linmark, Karen Tei Yamashita. I am not drawn to narrative order or lyrical beauty made out of the chaos that I see in U.S. histories of empire, racism, sexism, and subjugation of people of color, the poor, queers, and all the rest of us mutts. As I see it, violence and oppression frequently arise out of fictions of order—contrived systems of imagining the value of self and other—so I feel nothing but mistrust for art that somehow attempts to organize the chaos of racialized experience.

An arts education for people of color takes for granted that art is not just a lens on the world, but the world itself. Art is not dead, art is not ineffectual, art is not ahistorical or de-politicized or purely conceptual. And, if it truly is the world, art—here, poetry—needs to reflect the destruction wreaked upon the bodies and consciousnesses of people of color. Destruction, in my mind, cannot be constrained by grammar, poetic form, legibility, or aspirations to beauty. What happens in an experimental poem must do more than point to: instead, it must embody. Instead of “about,” maybe the driving preposition for my ideal POC arts education is “through”: art through the 14,000 children currently in the NY foster care system; art through my student, D, who thought that enlisting in the Army was the only way his mixed status family could safely remain in this country; art through campaigns for fast food unionization; art through domestic workers trafficked from the Philippines to suburbs and cities across the U.S.; art through a child repeatedly having to translate junk mail to a parent without English. But please: no poetry parasites piggy-backing on the hardships of others: if you need to write about these things, great, but try to recycle your own disasters.[2]

What does through mean in this context? In some ways, it simply means that fact is stranger than fiction, that truth is more compelling than beauty or lyrical comfort. In a poetics class I taught a few years ago, each student was assigned the task of creating a work of experimental poetry or fiction out of the language of Arizona’s recently passed SB1070. We had been reading José García Villa, Linh Dinh, Prageeta Sharma, and Trinh Minh-ha, and were going to screen Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare that same week. Many in the group were initially perplexed by the assignment: although we had discussed the use of found language in poetry—and found material, more generally, in art—they were skeptical about the possibilities of recycling the disaster of Governor Jan Brewer’s “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.” They assumed that they needed to create order and beauty. As we together made our way through the sixteen pages of the law, however, our close reading—much of it aloud in class—revealed such strange rhythms and repetitions, so many idiosyncratically bureaucratic phrases that erupted into poetry, all of it rich with possibility for writing a poem that could reveal the very specific violence enacted on people of color by the State of Arizona. Those strange pieces, which used nothing but the language provided by the law, wrote through the racist intention of SB1070, and in many ways distilled those realities into new and alien (a word that occurs seventy-eight times in that legal document) sounds, rhythms, and images.

An arts education for people of color should always be a space of trust: it requires a workshop that is unlike any workshop I have been in, as an undergraduate or graduate, where the personal and the political can always be used as a baseline for reading and responding to work. This workshop allows for people to be enraged, sorrowful, pee-in-their-pants funny, even self-important. As long as they are bold and unwilling to adopt any dogma about the craft of writing (including mine), and then writing as a person of color. This workshop takes identity and power as givens to always be discussed, not so that they become the only focus, but so that everyone feels comfortable mapping those dynamics onto the terrain of the craft. So that everyone feels safe to develop an aversion to conformity. I don’t know what it’s like today—I feel ancient even writing that—but I’m not sure if trust is considered an essential part of an MFA environment. My experience, and my sense from speaking to former students who have gone on to pursue those degrees, is that today’s MFA culture remains rooted in a pedagogy (if you can even call it that) of exposure and uncertainty, and that the resulting state of vulnerability is somehow supposed to be generative. Perhaps the idea is that students on stable footing do nothing to challenge themselves to grow as artists, but to me that seems like a false proposition: with the right kind of encouragement, emerging artists should be able to trust their impulses to depart from what they know, not in order to satisfy “the authority on poetry,” but to satisfy their own desire to push toward the unknown.

 

Coda

It has been driving me crazy that I cannot find a way to adequately write about remarkable teaching and mentorship, and then my good fortune in being taught and mentored by Lynne Tillman, whose generosity and grace kept my faith in my identity as a writer—as an Asian American woman who writes—intact during and after graduate school when I felt mostly worthless. A true teacher welcomes young writers into the often mysteriously coded culture of Writers, and Lynne—in both her writing and her capacious sense of the world—never stopped encouraging an intimate dedication to the strange possibilities of writing and the kind of friendship that writing can make possible.  For that I will always be so glad and grateful.

 

[1] In the essay “As (It) Is: Toward a Poetics of the Whole Fragment,” from her collection The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience (Viking, 2005).

[2]Another idea credited to Ann, from her essay “Use this Word in a Sentence: ‘Experimental,’” in that same collection of writings.

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