Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Confessions of a heterosexual white male poet

That's right.  I said it.  I am a heterosexual white male poet.  I proudly own that label, too.  I carry with me all the baggage accumulated over a lifetime of experiences many of you will never be able to fathom.  Do you want to know something else?  I do not have any guilt over being a heterosexual white male.  I have no guilt because I have no problem accepting the privilege being those things have granted me throughout my life.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in small town Utah.  The only black person I remember knowing as a child was a classmate, Haywood, from when I lived in Salt Lake City for a brief time. Other than that, the limitation of cultural diversity as I was growing up in my high school was limited to three kids with Hispanic last names, one exchange student from Africa, and a girl who was adopted from Korea as an infant.  Yes.  Rodney Dangerfield had more soul than me.

White privilege.  Economic privilege.

Growing up, I was expected to graduate from high school, but being raised by my grandparents I was not pressured to go to college.  Not graduating from high school was not an option.  That was in part due to the prevalent Mormonism of where I grew up, and part familial pressure, seeing that no fewer than seven or eight of my relatives/ancestors were teachers. I had to graduate from high school because the alternative was very much against my grandfather's baseline protocol.  No child he raised was going to be a high school dropout.  So I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth, knowing I had essentially graded myself out of any scholarship or easy entry into  post high school education.   Still, I had it in my consciousness that college was what I wanted and needed to do if I was going to be like 95% of my friends and not be a disappointment to my family.

White privilege.

When I joined the army at the age of nineteen, I did so believing four years in the army would give me sufficient funds to go to college.  I did not join the army because it was a way out of some place, or even a step up.  It was a means to an end.  I would serve my four years and then get out and go to college.  I did not have to make the army my career out of fear that no other options waited for me, but because I had squandered those which had been handed to me.  I ended up getting out of the army after 3 1/2 years as a world traveler, combat veteran, and a man with a mission---to graduate from college so I would not have to do the kind of labor I did in the army.  I immediately joined the national guard, had a regular job two days after I got home (actually being hired before I was off of terminal leave), and back among all of my friends with no social or financial deficit.

White privilege.  Male privilege.

Back up just a bit to when I began to clarify my ideas of becoming a poet.  I had been writing poems since I was 15, and submitting them when I was 20 and still in the army.  I started sending out my work fully expecting to be on top of the poetry world within a year or two, max.  So certain of my future, the very real hate-mail I received from several editors rolled off my back.  Why?  Part of it is my Asperger's.  Poetry being one of my special focuses, I had the idea I just had to write better cover letters because my poetry wasn't the problem, it was the packaging.  Part of it was because I had been conditioned in my early life and in my teen years that nothing could hold me back.  I was white, male, American, and straight all at the same time.  Nobody could tell me I didn't deserve everything I wanted from the world.  A completely different message than what women, minorities (I grew up feeling more comfortable with that term than with 'persons of color'), or anyone who identified as gay or queer.  Simply, I forged ahead with my shitty poems in part because I didn't know any better.  My ignorance was a huge part of my privilege.  I did not know it then, but I know it now.

White privilege.  Male privilege.  Straight privilege.

As I started college, I took literature and writing classes which helped my poetry to improve in small increments, and I started to see a world outside of the many sets of blinders I had been given or had picked up and started to wear on my own.  I admit to you now, I bristled a bit.  For a while I couldn't understand why so many writing contests were geared for women, gays, Hispanics, or Asians.  I was wondering where the contests were for straight white men.  Why did I have to be Asian to submit my three poems?  Why was this press only interested in publishing women?  The answer took a little while, but once I realized what was going on, I made my peace with it and moved on.  I had been writing bad poetry, bu until I started writing better poetry I had no experience with publishing.  It took several of my poems to be accepted to student publications and some early acceptances with non-school journals to see just how lopsided publishing really was. I started to see how women poets, poets of color, and LGBTQ poets needed to see the Heterosexual White Male poet much like Derrida's concept of the Other.  What's more, I needed to fix whatever it was in my head/heart which might be offended by them doing that to me.  This was a matter of their survival, not mine.  I and many others like me will always out, we will always be there, and there is plenty of room at the table for all of us. 

When I started reading about what had happened with the BAP 2015, what  Michael Derrick Hudson had done, I was more than a little pissed off.  I was pissed for all of the reasons I should be pissed, but my anger is not an easy thing to talk about.  Asian poets, and actually all poets of color, and poets who have felt the limitations I have not, should be angry.  Some might say I have no right to be angry.  After all, I am a heterosexual, white male poet. Nothing of who I am as a person or poet has been co-opted.  And to an extent, I agree.  I do not have a right to that part of the problem Mr. Hudson has created.  However, I would say I have a right to a portion of the anger, and that has to do with my being a poet.  

Even as a heterosexual, white male poet, I am extremely angry with Michael Derrick Hudson for treating the poetry community with such contempt and entitlement that he think it acceptable to attempt to rub our collective noses in his shit.  I am angry that a poet with as many remarkable successes in placing his poetry in high profile publications, he feels it necessary to play such childish and close-minded games with editors, who have a difficult enough time as it is juggling the egos of poets.  I am angry because Hudson's actions are a consolidated effort to cheapen the pride so many poets have earned in their struggle for identity. I am upset because it distracts poets from doing the work of being poets and forces people I admire to wear themselves out explaining how what he did is a big deal and not just a bunch of too-sensitive poets complaining.

Now, I offer no apologies.  I do not apologize for my privilege, and I do not apologize for talking about this issue with my narrow perspective.  I do not apologize for anything I have said in this post.  It's not like my opinion on the matter counts for much.  I will say I think what poet Kazim Ali is saying and what poet Kelli Russell Agodon is reminding us on Facebook of, is some of the most loving and positive things we can do. When it comes to talking about this stuff, I am not as elegant as Ali or Agodon, but I do confess this:

I wanted to contribute something worthy of this discussion.