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There's a New Movement in American Poetry and It's Not Kenneth Goldsmith

Writers of color are not bit players in this man’s drama


When New Yorker journalist Alec Wilkinson approached me in June for an interview about Kenneth Goldsmith, I told him that I wasn’t interested in being mentioned as one of Goldsmith’s many naysayers. Last March, after Goldsmith read a slightly altered version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, ending with the line, “the remaining male genitalia system is unremarkable,” the poetry community fired back about Goldsmith’s crass appropriation of Brown’s body. Wilkinson was now writing a profile of Goldsmith and, having heard from Goldsmith that I was unhappy about the stunt, he wanted to talk to me about my response to it. I told him I didn’t want to take part in a flattering—yet intelligently ambivalent—profile of Goldsmith that would further burnish his reputation as just another glorified yet misunderstood white male artist.

The more interesting, relevant, and current story is that the poetry world has been riven by a crisis where the old guard—epitomized by Goldsmith—has collapsed. I thought it was essential to contextualize Goldsmith’s scandal within a new movement in American poetry, a movement galvanized by the activism of Black Lives Matter, spearheaded by writers of color who are at home in social media activism and print magazines; some poets are redefining the avant-garde while others are fueling a raw politics into the personal lyric. Their aesthetic may be divergent, but they share a common belief that as poets, they must engage in social practice, whether it is protesting against police brutality or calling out Goldsmith himself who thought it would be a “provocative gesture” to recite an autopsy report of Michael Brown’s body at Brown University.

Of course, it became clear to me in the interview that Wilkinson didn’t want to write about that. His take on Goldsmith was that his Conceptual Poetry represented a new “revolutionary poetry movement,” as he put it in his published piece. But Conceptual Poetry is already dead, I told him. And to write about the scandal, one had to consider the racial unrests that have swept up America and invaded the arts. Poets are challenging the structural inequities within literature. The pushback against Goldsmith was symptomatic of this broader crisis and he did not create this maelstrom.

In fact, even before the performance, Goldsmith’s “brand” was in trouble. His PoMo for Dummies “no history because of the internet” declarations became absurdly irrelevant when black men were dying at the hands of cops. Goldsmith, who previously exhibited zero interest in race, saw that racism was a trending topic and decided to exploit it to foist himself back in the center and people roared back in response. Goldsmith, I kept saying, is one factor to this turbulent rift in the cultural landscape. Writers of color are not bit players in this man’s drama. Don’t whitewash this story, I urged him.

Wilkinson distilled my long interview down to two quotes:

“I am hoping that there has been enough anger that he won’t survive,” Cathy Park Hong, at Sarah Lawrence, told me. “Maybe he really did mean to be sympathetic, who knows. Two, three years ago, it would have been ‘That’s Kenny being Kenny,’ but in this racial climate you don’t get away with it.”

This is how he framed my views: 

“He’s received more attention lately than any other living poet,” Cathy Park Hong, a poet and professor at Sarah Lawrence, told me resentfully. (Italics mine.)

I was not surprised by this dismissal. Of course, Wilkinson would call me resentful, a classic accusation leveled against women and people of color. I made my points calmly, but translated in print, I become resentful (or whiny or hostile or, if I raise my voice slightly, hysterical). Wilkinson discredits my lucid points about institutional inequality by characterizing me as envious of the attention Goldsmith received. Envy is an emotion that is—according to the scholar Sianne Ngai, in her book Ugly Feelings—“unjustified, frustrated, and effete,” a “private dissatisfaction” or “psychological flaw.”

I was also not surprised by the characterization of other poets of color in the profile. Lined up like a politically correct jury, poets and scholars like Dorothy Wang or Tan Lin—who are both formidable thinkers—offer their one soundbite against Goldsmith and it is implied that they too are jealous of his fame: “Goldsmith’s hegemony as conceptual poet … has led a number of other conceptual poets to feel that he monopolizes a territory that excludes them.” Wilkinson casts Goldsmith as the persecuted bad boy who’s gone too far. The artist Rin Johnson is “scolding” him, the poet CA Conrad is “inflamed” and “sternly lecturing” him. We—the hoard, the rabble—are interchangeable in our outrage. 

Before Wilkinson interviewed me, I checked Wilkinson’s archives and noticed that many of his profiles were of white male artists and musicians from the baby boomer generation, a category that both Goldsmith and Wilkinson neatly fit into. Then, during our interview, we became embroiled in a disagreement about gender bias in literature. Despite overwhelming statistics, Wilkinson didn’t believe there was any. He also said there were plenty of successful writers of color, citing Junot Diaz, and implied that Diaz shouldn’t complain about racial bias because he won a MacArthur. (A friend, hearing this, retorted that Junot Diaz’s MacArthur grant proves there’s no bias against writers of color the way Barack Obama’s election proves there’s no bias against black people).

Wilkinson’s bias is a kind that journalists circulate under the ruse of objectivity in narratives where the profiled subject (often white, often male) is humanized and condemned by a cast of extras (often women, queers, and people of color). It doesn’t matter that facts contradict the narrative or how much history changes or the number of people interviewed who say, “No, that’s not how it is.” From the first sentence of the article, “To appreciate the beleaguered position that Kenneth Goldsmith finds himself in,” Wilkinson’s profile conforms to all the lazy templates: the mea culpa story of the contrite racist, the aging enfant terrible, the comeback kid who is resurfacing just in time to publicize his book (or the con artist who pulls a fast one by using racial shock tactics to win himself a New Yorker profile). Goldsmith has risen and fallen and by the end of the profile, we are to forget his shrill critics and feel compassion for the pitiable man. 

I, however, won’t be reduced to a soundbite. Mainstream media rarely pays attention to writers of color unless there’s a white villain like Goldsmith, Michael Derrick Hudson, or Vanessa Place attached. But there is a richer story—and though it’s chaotic, fractious, and at times internecine and irritating—it is the story relevant to now about the growth of a movement that is shifting the paradigm. The hierarchy of the poetry world is being challenged. To understand this changing literary landscape, read Amy King’s searching forum in which a range of poets discuss literary activism or Jenny Zhang’s impassioned essay on institutional racism in poetry and fiction or Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “The New Perform a Form” manifesto. For an actually intelligent perspective on Conceptual Poetry and race, read John Keene’s “On Vanessa Place, Gone With the Wind, and the Limit Point of Certain Conceptual Aesthetics” or Ken Chen’s “Authenticity Obsession, or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show” published in Margins.

One may ask what these critical pieces have to do with poetry and I’d argue it has everything to do with it, just like Dada and New York School manifestos and essays had everything to do with the changing schools of thought in literature. I want to correct some of Wilkinson’s glib descriptions of Goldsmith’s critics. The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, an anonymous radical entity, practices a guerilla social media activism that is its own performance art, reminiscent of the artists Guillermo Gomez Pena and Coco Fusco from twenty years ago. CAConrad is not just “white” but a brilliant poet and queer activist. They are all altering the face of American literature, among other poets who are too many to name.

For a sample, I can only direct you to sources such as the BreakBeat Poets issue in Poetry Magazine or Lana Turner Journal or the poetry collections published by Action Books. Poetry is becoming progressively fluid, merging protest and performance into its practice. The era of Conceptual Poetry’s ahistorical nihilism is over and we have entered a new era, the poetry of social engagement.