Last month, in Berkeley (at University Press Books), we launched the third issue of Mixed Blood, the national publication I started with two friends at Penn State. (Mixed Blood began auspiciously—it’s the result of a series of late afternoon conversations at Whiskers, the company bar at Penn State. The publication continues to reflect the interests and involvement of its founding editors—Jeffrey T. Nealon, William J. Harris, and me—but its new home is the University of California at Berkeley.)
We’re hoping that Mixed Blood is something different, more than one more literary magazine—we invite poets to the UC campus to give public readings of their work and to give talks as well about the connections (or lack thereof) between the languages of race and the languages of poetic innovation. The whole thing’s called the Mixed Blood Project; the publication, Mixed Blood, is a record of the continuing conversation about that unlikely pairing—that is, we publish the talk the writer gives during her visit as well as samples of the writer’s poetry.
Race and poetic innovation are strange bedfellows, and I think that this is about more than the taboo of talk about race. Last year I received an e-mail from a young Mexican writer, following an evening poetry event in downtown Berkeley: “Something I’ve been wanting to ask you [concerns] the obvious fact that the ‘experimental’ poetry scene in the Bay is (almost) entirely white … How do we/you ‘negotiate’ that?” It’s an awfully good and brave question. One of the ways I negotiate it is by seeking the public company of writers—nonwhite and white—who are interested in thinking and talking about this. The Mixed Blood Project is itself a way of addressing the concern voiced by my friend.
I think that bringing up race in talk about avant-garde writing (or bringing up avant-garde writing in talk about race) causes anxiety. Some years ago I put together a Special Focus for American Book Review, titled “Maroons: Postmodernist Black Poetry.” It was a group of statements from “innovative” black writers, written for the occasion. This is from Harryette Mullen’s:
“Formally innovative minority poets,” when visible at all, are not
likely to be perceived either as typical of a racial/ethnic group,
or as representative of an aesthetic movement. Their unaccount-
able existence therefore strains the seams of the critical narratives
necessary to make them (individually and collectively) comprehen-
sible, and thus teachable and marketable.
Around the same time Cary Nelson wrote (in “Multiculturalism Without Guarantees”), “the dominant pattern for many years for general anthologies of American literature has been to seek minority poems that can be read as affirming the poet’s culture but not mounting major challenges to white readers.”
A few years ago I was asked to edit another special section—on experimental poetry—for American Book Review. In my introduction I tried to suggest what “innovation” might entail:
I recently wrote that elements of such poetry—language as topic, its opacity and juxtapositions, its failures and samplings, etc.—were themselves useful for troubling ideas of the “intimacy” of literature. That’s not the be-all/end-all but let it stand, like an open door, for now.
Or this. When I worked (in the 1980s) as a literary editor I had occasion to publish a fine essay by George Bowering—Bowering suggested therein that in Michael Ondaatje’s poetry the “nature of invention” has met and bested “the culture of mastery.” This is a statement I think of when I think of the phrase “experimental poetry.”
“The languages of race” certainly complicates matters. In this third issue of Mixed Blood, John Taggart’s essay—the version of his talk delivered at Berkeley—begins, “Is mixed blood good blood?” He goes on to address the question by revisiting his poem, “Henry David Thoreau / Sonny Rollins,” from his 2004 book, Pastorelles. The essay ranges through jazz, poetry, mythology: Perhaps the crux of it comes near the end when he writes (of Pastorelles), “The blood of the book is mixed blood, a mix-tape blood from those donors.”
Brenda Coultas’s essay, “Where the Green and Brown Shades Meet,” supplies a useful list of particularly inventive writers:
Aside the necessary actions and laws, I believe that healing comes through the arts. It is by reading, listening, and looking to others that I find my way in this conversation about race and other matters. Here is a handful of the poets, artists that enlighten and excite me. The essays and poems of Patricia Spears Jones; Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip; Unexplained Presence, Tisa Bryant; Harryette Mullen’s conversation on her family history; Cherrymae Golson’s quilted portraits of African-American women’s history; An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine; One With Others, C.D. Wright; and Tonya Foster’s A Swarm of Bees.
And Wayde Compton, in an investigative piece concerning public appearances and conventions, provides a “Very Short Glossary of Racial Transgression”:
cladisticizing: Racially perceiving someone by inquiring into his or her family history.
passing: Deliberately misrepresenting oneself racially.
pheneticizing: Racially perceiving someone based on a subjective examination of his or her outward appearance.
phenopolysemic: A person whose appearance can suggest more than one racial designation.
race: A folk taxonomy; a pseudoscientific demographic categorization system. Like a national border or literary genre, race is only as real as our current social consensus.
Compton, Coultas, and Taggart are all remarkable and unusual and extremely vital poets—their books are available at good bookstores. (And if you don’t have access to a literary bookstore there’s always Amazon.) Mixed Blood is available through Small Press Distribution (www.spdbooks.org).
Perhaps simply suggesting some good writers (those three plus Brenda Coultas’s list) is the best way for me to say farewell. Thanks for reading.