Monday, December 11, 2006

Irony, Persona Poems, and Seeing Red

I got into a tiff at school today with a full professor who I'll name Dr. Q.

Our literary magazine just came out and contains a poem by one of the editors, a persona poem from the point of view of a KKK type white male bigot, calling all "likeminded" others to join his wretched cause. In the tradition of Browning's "My Last Duchess," the poem hopes to expose the man's evil through his voice, his hatred, his assumption of divine right.

It's not my favorite poem by this writer--when I first read the poem, I thought the point of view character was too flat, a cartoon caricature rather than a "real" person. In short, I thought the poem was too didactic. You might as well write "Bigots are evil."

Apparently, the poem is actually too subtle for some readers, including--to my shock--Dr. Q.

Picture this: I'm in my office collecting portfolios and final essays by email, downloading them to my computer, surfing on Facebook, generally enjoying the slowed-down pace of finals week.

One of my colleagues dips in. "Has anyone said anything to you yet about that poem in Graphos?"

"What poem?"

"You know, the one about the white supremacist."

"No. What's up?"

"There are a bunch of faculty all irate about it. They think it's a horrible, racist poem that has no business being in our literary journal."

"What? That's a persona poem. It's ironic. Who's the moron who's reading it literally?"

Dr. Q replaces my colleague in the doorway. He's tall and his hair sticks up, so he takes up even more room. He leans in. "This poem is completely inappropriate. It's a terrible racist poem that is entirely inappropriate for a college such as ours, that espouses human dignity and equalith for all people."

My entire body ignites in one fell swoop. I swivel in my desk chair and face the doorway. "It's a persona poem. It's ironic," I say.

"I'm shocked that you would print this poem. Students have come to my office to complain about this poem. International students who already feel as if they don't belong here. They read this poem and they're hurt and offended. They think it's putting them down yet again. It's terrible. It has the N word in it. It's full of hatred."

"I'm shocked that you're unable to read on a metaphorical level. I'm shocked that you're reading on a literal level."

"I thought it was ironic at first, and I tried to explain that to these students. But they said, how? How is it ironic? And I couldn't explain it."

I'll admit it. I wanted to get up from my chair and shout in Dr. Q's face. What are you doing teaching literature? If you can't explain irony, if you can't discuss persona, what good are you?
Instead, I tried to justify the poem: the writer is a woman of color. Who, if not she, has the right to use the N word? Who has the right to turn the language of the oppressor against him? And isn't it the professor's duty, his job, Dr. Q's calling, to explain how literature, how language, is as damaging as fists? Isn't this a teaching opportunity that he's calling "inappropriate"?

What about Faulkner? Now I was just lobbing balls at his head, trying to get one to hit. What about Browning's poems?

"This poem is not literature. It's entirely inappropriate. I have no way to judge the context. It's irresponsible"--I'll admit, I hate the word "irresponsible" when it's applied to something that I, as advisor, have allowed (tacitly) the students to print--"not to put something in the journal to explain that the writer is responding to an assignment, to create a voice that's entirely opposite from her own. I can't know that. Reading this, I can only see this voice, this hateful voice. And these students can't read metaphorically. English isn't their first language. They're going to feel attacked."

Blah blah blah. I can't represent everything that Dr. Q said because, I'll admit it, I'd gone into red nova by then. I felt that he was attacking me, as the advisor, my student, as the author (saying that she can't write about the attacks that she feels lurk under the most bland of white facades, the entitlement that many supremacists feel when they urge their compatriots on to acts of hatred and exclusion), the poem, as "irresponsible" and "inappropriate," and literature in general, as being metaphorical, and thus capable of misreading and misinterpretation. I just wanted to get his head into a vice and crush it.

Now that I'm no longer seeing so red, I'm wondering why I felt so angry. It's not as if I thought the poem was fabulous. I do think the writer of the poem is pretty fabulous, and she'd just been in my office with a Christmas present. I know how much work she put into getting the current issue out by finals week. I know that she would be, will be, devastated to learn that Dr. Q, or any other Dr., for that matter, was stomping around reviling the poem. And no doubt Dr. Q was equally bearish about his own students, the ones who didn't get irony and were offended by the literal words on the page, because they couldn't imagine a context around it, any distance from the speaker.

I think that, as in many things, my narcissism was also engaged. As an undergraduate, I loved the persona poem. I loved to show up the first person narrator as unreliable, to kill with ironic distance--like Flannery O'Connor, say. I have a soft spot for the disgusting point of view character. So I wrote my own persona poems with the N word in them, after living for awhile in the south, and growing up with a stepfather from the south, in order to show up that kind of genteel hatred. Get your reader to identify with your narrator, and then show that narrator to be infected with evil, with hatred, and thus activate your reader's shame. Your reader's complicity in that violence.

That's why I thought the poem in Graphos didn't quite work: I never identified with the speaker. He was just evil from the get-go, and got more evil as the piece went on. I was safely on the other side of the glass wall from him, not part of his particular hell. A more disturbing poem, a more nuanced poem, would make me complicit in his evil.

But my first semester at Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars, where the students are stronger, faster, able to leap capital T in a single bound, my persona poem tanked just as surely as my student's poem tanked with Dr. Q and his one-dimensional readers. I was shocked then, too. My fellow workshoppers said that the poem was racist (a girl watches and objectifies an African American on a bus; the African American, leaving the bus, gives the girl full eye contact, breaks the girl's reverie, saying, "Whatchu lookin at, bitch?"); one of them, quivering on the edge of his seat, implied that I was a horrible person for bringing the poem to the group. That I should be punished for putting such thoughts on the page. Only the workshop leader, a famous and graceful poet, came to my defense. "I think this poem is meant to be ironic," he said. "It's a persona poem. The trick comes at the end, when the narrator realizes what she's been doing, and her entire behavior becomes suspect." But that wasn't enough, we all concluded. If readers couldn't get past the first part of the poem, couldn't move past condemning the speaker and conflating her with me, and see the ironic distance created by the end, well, then it failed.

So I burned that poem. Especially after making love to a man for the first time and finding, the next morning, that poem on his dresser: "Ugly ugly poem," he'd written across the bottom.

Dr. Q couldn't know all this history, this context, when he stood in my doorway and half shouted that the poem was "inappropriate" and "irresponsible" and bad.

But he does know, now, just what I think of readers who can't get--or teach--irony.


ellis said...

congrats on not decking Dr Q.

you are doing a lot that's good if your students feel free to explore these kinds of issues in their work.

folks who label such poems racist are just barely keeping in check their own (often unconscious) racism. they skim the surface because the underneath frightens them. they don't dare cast light there, or look to closely into the mirror.

they live in sad little knots of fear.

don't think it's worth the effort to teach them differently -- save that for your students.

btw, persona poems/stories/essays are wonderful tools, teach on so many levels: lit, psych, soc, etc.

Miss_LeBrown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

I've never managed to get into one of your classes, and now I'm sad about that. I think we would get along fabulously. Oh well, we'll see what Senior year holds...

Raging Lunatic said...

If I may add my two cents to a rather exceptional rant/lament. Dude, your writing should be raking in assloads of cake for you--very good.

You wrote: "Now that I'm no longer seeing so red, I'm wondering why I felt so angry"

Perhaps it's because the realization has sunk in that people suck--and the futility of it all. You'd think that with multiple degrees of higher education tacked to the wall, the holder of such degrees would also prove that they earned them by behaving non-idiotically--ESPECIALLY within their field of study.

Katalyst said...

So sorry no one shared Patricia Smith's Skinhead or Linda McCarriston's poem in the voice of an Alaskan local. Both took much heat from those who couldn't even stand the pantry much less the heat in the kitchen.

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