Friday, April 23, 2010

Gender Bias in Latino Poetry, John Ashbery and June Jordan: Two Voices on Prejudice

I've been reading "The Tennis Court Oath" and other poems by John Ashbery. The "mulatress" in the poem threw me, and did the word "yon" and I've thought that some must of course like to decipher such things in poems. The fact they are disconcerting seems intentional, provoking and lines such as "for the carnation laughed here are a couple of 'other'" strike me as disturbing initially, but then there's this titillation and joy with the language.

I can see why so many have a love affair with Ashbery, and must confess I wanted to post only the Ashbery poem at first. I suspect what it comes down to on both poems, is the political and how it fits or doesn't fit into what we are doing as poets. So much is Ashbery fusing things together, the way distorted thoughts come to one in a fugue state:

... Your daughter's
dream of my son understand prejudice
darkness in the hole
the patient finished
They could all go home now the hole was dark
lilacs blowing across his face glad he brought you

There are no periods, no punctuation other than some quotation marks and an explanation mark. This is the way I like to experience "the political" when it comes to poems, not as a simplistic outraged cry or demanding, hurling pout without control over the language. And THAT says something about me.

Mostly I like Ashbery's use of language, and then again I go back to this white man writing politically about prejudice, about the disconnect there, the dissonance and dissociative qualities prejudice brings about in most of us of the human race.

That said, there's something to the genuine voice of a woman of color, to that experience of "other" beyond some intellectual quagmire or game or puzzle. So I will post the June Jordan poem too. It is indeed an outcry, so have I simply been "conditioned" to like the white man's work in terms of linguistic play? Does the white man miss the rashness of being pissed off, being completely at odds and screaming into a void in which no one is even listening. Okay, maybe a few listen, but the whole gender bias in Latino poetry has split my head, not just the gender bias in the larger world at large.

The fact is one can't really get mad, one must play the gentle game of smiling in silence to one's unintentional "disregarders". One must in the end resort to linguistic play, cat and mouse, shadow and flame. So the political therein must become muted? No, there are plenty of poets who write with flat indifferent language that expresses outrage about social injustice and this is not to say such work is meaningless. It isn't, but the question is more so what do we want to do as individual poets.

On a side note, I am tired of Latino males ignoring me when I say something and going gaga when someone with a penis says the exact same thing. It's frustrating, but the gender bias is real and one must deal with it I suppose by writing through it and past it. I always reflect back to Zora Neale Hurston and the difficulties she had with other African-American writers, primarily male in that they saw her work as too compromising, too kind to whites etc. or not "political" enough one could say.
It's amazing how continually male voices ring in joy of "diversity" when only male Latinos are discussed. I must contest this thing that the Dodge Poetry Festival is so wonderfully "diverse". Not when it comes to Latinos. All Latinos do not have a penis.

This in turn brings me to the question of "representation" which I have come to view with mutual disgust and mistrust. Why? It often replaces the quality of poetry and poems. Diversity for diversity's sake leads excessive self-marketers to be viewed as "representational" of Latino/a poetry and that usually ends with an "o". It simply takes the attention away from the poems, the language, the music etc. and places it on some cheap scale of masculinity to mediocrity.

Instead, one must write, right? So how does one get back to writing after the realization that the frustrations Zora Neale Hurston must have felt still exist in the literary world? With all the complaints against the "white" literary establishment, the underlying prejudice towards women and particularly Chicanas is undeniable, so I think the only thing one can do at this historical moment is write through it. I am thinking of the work Diana Garcia does with FIRE AND INK, an anthology of social action writing, and Carmen Giminez Smith's Odalisque in Pieces and how one must begin to support such writers not because they are "representational" but because they are good.


Rich Villar said...

The funny thing is, when I saw the lineup for the Dodge Festival, I commented on Twitter that it was the most diverse festival lineup I'd ever seen. I still think that to be the case, but boy do we still have work to do, don't we? I'm on it, though, the best I can.

ODALISQUE IN PIECES is kinda beautiful, I must say. Let's see if Dodge is able to get the funds together for next go-round and fly some Chicanas into the mix. (Then again, Diana Marie Delgado comes to mind.) Both the Dodge Foundation and New Jersey's arts funding are taking an absolute battering in this economy, and under the new governor.

Sheryl said...

Hi Rich,
I appreciate your efforts and applaud them.