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HOW ANDERS CARLSON-WEE PROVED THE IDENTITY POETS WRONG

HOW ANDERS CARLSON-WEE PROVED THE IDENTITY POETS WRONG

This week a poem was published in the “pages” of the esteemed political magazine The Nation. Written by a highly regarded poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, his poem, a 14 line modern sonnet titled “How-To,” was quickly targeted by the niche group of people on Twitter and Facebook I have come to call the Identity Poets. The accusations came swift and hard against Anders Carlson-Wee and the editors of The Nation, with people demanding apologies and for the poem to be taken down. One poet even wrote a response poem to the piece, posted it on Twitter, and had other poets telling The Nation they should remove Carlson-Wee’s poem and put the response poem up instead, because it blatantly ridiculed white people. The Nation did not take the poem down. What happened instead was Anders Carlson-Wee issued an apology for the poem on his social media accounts, and The Nation issued an apology and posted their apology as an Editor’s Note above the poem in question, neither of which seemed satisfactory to the communities of the outraged.

I’ll freely admit, when I first read “How-To” I was unimpressed with it. It seemed a simple take on a subject I myself have happened to write many poems about, being a poem about homelessness. However, I knew from the opening line that people were going to be outraged over it, given what I have personally endured from my own work, and knowing the climate of the artistic community and the sensitivity toward “cultural appropriation” and other such topics the Identity Poets obsess over in order to draw attention to themselves. As soon as I read that opening line, “If you got hiv, say aids,” I said to myself, whelp, that is going to piss people off. If only I could earn a dollar for every time I correctly predicted outrage on the internet, I could potentially have a fistful of dollars!

In spite of myself, the more threads and discussions I saw about this poem on Twitter and Facebook, the more I began to analyze it, and try to find either the truth behind the accusations being leveled at the poet for writing it, or the truth of the merit of the actual poem. The more closely I read the poem, the more the layers peeled off, and the more meaning I discovered hidden in the misleading simplicity of the work. I was drawn into a debate with another poet on a thread hosted by another writer friend of mine, Robert Peate, in which this poet felt inclined to demand us to try and defend the merits of the poem based solely on the content of the poem. In doing so, I had several epiphanies about this poem, about how it succinctly and very cleverly reveals the faux intellectualism of the identity movement by showcasing their brazen nature to jump to conclusions about the artistic intent of white poets and how these conclusions are based on their own hidden biases and their own actual predispositions to fall prey to the same stereotypes they accuse other people of using. In doing this, in proving the fraud that lies behind the motivations of the identity poets when attacking other writers for perceived slights, micro-aggressions, and other offenses, their true natures are thusly revealed, in that all their outrage, all their virtue-signaling, all their attempts at silencing writers for producing work they perceive to be offensive, is in fact rooted in their own biases, their own versions of racism, and their own desires to see their work succeed, their communities succeed, to shift the attention always from the work at hand to themselves. It is simply put, phony posturing, a fallacy upheld by selfishness. And this poem, this utterly brilliant 14 line poem, proves it once and for all.

There are several things about the poem that work on a basic fundamental level. From the outset, the poem plays with the perception of the reader and immediately has the audience questioning exactly what the heck is being said and why. The opening line is a shock to the system. It is outlandish, and yes, offensive, but offensive with a purpose, as the best versions of shock-value ought to be. This is not shock for the sake of shock. This is shock meant to jar the reader and create a different mentality, to make the reader search deeper, to look inward and ask why. Who is speaking? Why are they speaking this way? What is the purpose? The narrator of the poem never reveals that information. The narrator could be masculine or feminine. The narrator could be black or white or any other variable of physical identities. This narrator reveals only that they are homeless, and through the lines of the poem, offers twists upon perception that play into making them more visible to others, and might earn them some version of charity. This is a shapeless entity in the context of the poem because in the world homeless people are generally the most ignored and invisible group no matter what country you reside in, what city you live in, what sidewalks you walk down on a day-to-day basis. Just yesterday, to illustrate this very fact, I saw a post someone shared in my Facebook timeline that showed people eating at a nice restaurant on the outside patio, enjoying their fancy cuisine and sipping wine from goblets, while two homeless men slept on the sidewalk not twenty feet away from them. This is a daily reality. On an even more personal level, when my wife, her parents, and I went out to eat last week in Portland at an upscale seafood place, a homeless man wandered the sidewalk and up and down the road in front of where we sat waiting for our table, shouting obscenities at an invisible person and trying to fistfight him, swinging his fists at nothing as he screamed incoherently, this shirtless man, so thin all the veins in his abdomen bulged bright blue and his ribs protruded grossly with every gasping breath, and NO ONE SAID A WORD TO HIM. One woman walked over from another restaurant at one point to make sure no one was calling the cops on this obviously mentally ill gentleman, but no one offered to help him or to console him or to look after his needs in any way. On his wrist was a hospital bracelet from where he had recently been discharged. Again, reality. Homelessness is a problem the world ignores. Carlson-Wee’s poem highlights this fact extremely well. The narrator even takes a very pointed stab at Christianity, the religion that prides itself on its supposed humanitarianism, when they say “Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is.” These lines point out the hypocrisy of the Christian religion that claims to love everyone, but notes that Christians only use charity to make themselves feel better, rather than to actually make a difference and a lasting change. A very apt, and a very cutting critique of religion, which pays no taxes in America, but generally doesn’t use their power to solve any problems, just let them exist so they can mete out tiny measures of subsistence to make them feel like they’re helping. The very last line of the poem “You hardly even there.” illustrates the invisibility and the bitter truth the world just continues to turn a blind eye toward. This is a solvable problem if only anyone really cared.

So with this very, unarguably and objectively positive message behind the poem, succinctly and pointedly achieved in the 14 lines of a modern sonnet, the most beloved of poetic forms, one must wonder why all the outrage over it? Aside from the shocking lines in the poem about conflating HIV with AIDS, and the word “crippled,” which earned accusations of ableism and insensitivity to the LGBTQ community (another grossly biased assumption there), the poet was accused of donning literary blackface for the language choices in his vernacular usage, accused by many of co-opting AAVE (commonly known as Ebonics) for the voice of the poem. In this accusation, the accusers are truly showing their own inability to fall prey to cultural stereotyping, as it is only in the mind of the accuser that the speaker of this poem is a person of color. There is nothing whatsoever in the poem to lend credibility to the accusation. The speaker of the poem never reveals their identity, as previously stated, the speaker of the poem can be anyone. The language of the poem is a simplified dialect, perhaps someone hardened by life on the street, someone perhaps less educated than most, or just a person used to speaking in shorthand. Nothing about the language is intrinsically connected to AAVE. So, again, the poet has played with the perception of the reader to reveal the inherent biases of the audience! If you leap to the conclusion that the speaker of this poem is a person of color, what does that say about how you perceive people of color? YOU, the reader, have just unknowingly admitted that YOU BELIEVE THIS IS HOW BLACK PEOPLE TALK. This is a stereotype you allow to exist in your own mind. By accusing the author of using a stereotype that they did not use, you are admitting you hold this stereotype in your own psyche, and it is something you must contend with on your own.

This is ultimately why I believe this poem is perhaps one of the most important poems to have been written in the last ten years. It reveals so much about humanity, says so much about human perception, and ultimately pulls the curtain back on identity politics. In causing so many people to leap to such vile conclusions about the nature of the work and the intent of the work, to cause them to lash out at the author, to cause them to demand the work be removed and the author and the editors to make apologies for things they did not do, the outraged audience in this case is shown to lack an ability to think critically about art, to look past their own biases and knee-jerk reactions, and their accusations reveal more about their character than that of the character of the person they are attacking. This is the ultimate example of art being used as a mirror. The accusations came against this poem because the writer happens to be a white male. The current trend in these circles of outrage is to attack, silence, and delegitimize the works of white male authors who dare to write things outside their own identities. But, Carlson-Wee, in his ability to shine his poetic mirror back at the audience, has proven very effectively, that these accusations are coming from a place of inauthenticity. In this case, the accusers are showing their own inherent racial bias, in fact their own guilt of holding racist presuppositions, because in accusing this author of racism, they are the ones being racist. Their racism comes in two forms, first making the assumption that the speaker of the poem must be black, and second, that Carlson-Wee is wrong for writing it because he is white. How beautiful is this twist of irony?

I firmly believe that this was all intended to happen. That the author and the editors knew this outrage scenario would play out just as it has and they would issue apologies knowing those apologies would not be acceptable to the mob. The final act of this should be when Carlson-Wee issues an artist statement explaining everything as I have outlined in this essay, and drives the final nail in the coffin of this phony identity movement in modern poetry. This has gone on long enough. No one has the authority to police others as to what content their art can contain. No one has the authority to demand art be removed from the public because it happens to encroach upon their own sensitivities. No one has the authority to demand apologies from other artists, and artists should never have to apologize for their work. Art is in itself one of the purest manifestations of freedom. And art criticism should have never started meaning artists have to accept censorship by mob rule. The way this has played out shows just how vapid and meaningless the concept of critique has become. There was no real attempt at critique of this poem! It was simply shouted down from the pulpits of self-righteousness by people hoping to earn pats on the back from their conformist peers. This has to be why The Nation, although issuing their seemingly spineless apology as an editor note, did not actually take down the poem in question. They know this is all a performance piece still in action. When it is all said and done, many people will have to eat a large plate of crow and be forced to admit some hard truths about themselves. And for that I say thank you, thank you Anders Carlson-Wee, for writing a brave poem, for being a true poet, and for shining a hard light into the darkness that has become the identity movement in modern poetics. It had to be done by someone, and it is better now than never.

Poem for Anthony Bourdain

Parts Unknown, for Anthony

This poem almost writes itself,
except it doesn’t.
I had to be here to write it,
as you had to be here to read it,
except the person I’m writing it for
slipped out the back door
without saying goodbye,
leaving us wanting more
of his infectious light.

There’s a darkness I find myself in,
a cold place, damp as a cellar
with leaky soiled walls
and a chilled breath that shudders
free of its body, an odor
like fresh mulch mingled with spilled wine,
the kind that stains clothes and skin
the color of a bruise,
and every reflective surface
is a doorway
saying go ahead, step inside.

Even the extraordinary
holds something back,
eyes like keyholes
whispering a hollow wind
only heard between smiles
and casual affectations
when the mask slips.

We see each other
and nod, across that precipice.
We press our hands together
through that pane of glass.
We see ourselves
and feel so alone,
surrounded by those
who’d embrace us and take us home
if we only knew how to ask.

Swan Song

Out now, on Amazon, is the final collection of poetry from Jay Sizemore. This collection I have been working on for most the past two years, with a big chunk of the work written and revised during the month of April. The collection focuses on guns and gun violence, with poems responding directly and indirectly to shootings and their correlating politics. There is also the theme of nature running through the book, as a way of contrasting the violence of the human condition. In total, the book runs 136 pages, and is priced extremely low for a collection of this size, at just 10 dollars. Please consider picking one up.

Primal sonnet

Primal urges sonnet

Rhythm was found in a makeshift drum banging
two sticks against an open rock face
or perhaps the hollow of tree long before
violence was born from necessity,
before stone was sharpened and woven
onto the ends of clubs, there was dancing,
a primal stomp and chant around crackling flame.
Then, came the rival clans and the instinct
to protect the water and the camp,
and war became another kind of music,
banging these crude instruments like breath
out of the skulls and bones of the enemy.
All these centuries learning the best ways to kill,
to dance, to chant mine mine, to make the drum bang.

Right to bear arms: NaPoWriMo #24

A right to bear arms

It’s my right to feel powerful,
to protect what’s mine,
my family, my home,

come into my cave uninvited,
come near my children
and face the consequences,

these claws I’ve sharpened
on the trunks of so many trees,
these teeth that have gnawed

marrow from bones,
I am not hibernating.
When I stand, I’m ten feet tall,

my arms are strong enough
to break bodies like promises
of a peaceful night’s rest

during hunting season
when animals disguise their scents
beneath their bright orange vests

and their hands still stinking
of lavender and axe,
of oil and steel folded and honed

into things alien of the Earth,
but their arms are not my arms,
and their deaths are my self-defense.

Poem for Waffle House : NaPoWriMo #22

Ode to a Waffle House in Nashville, TN

You’ve never been good and truly drunk
until you’ve entered this little haven
of greasy floors and fingerprint-smeared tables
with its soft glowing lights
hung like Chinese lanterns in the windows
and its cheap laminate menus
sticky with syrup or spilled soda,
mists of grill-seared oils wafting
like waterfall-churned moisture
in the lamps and fluorescents
amid the odors of fried egg, sausages,
hot waffle irons overflowing with batter,
all a-sizzle and sweat condensing
on a short-order cook’s brow
at 3:30 in the morning.

You’ve never lived until after ordering
your hash browns scattered, smothered, and covered,
you have to make a dash for the dirty
swinging restroom door
and spill your stomach of beer-and-bile-laced
vomit, wiping the saliva strings
from your lips with cheap harsh toiletries
dispensed from a plastic hood
engraved with racist logos and lighter burns.

You’ve never seen heroism
until you’ve nearly shit your pants
while choking down a mouthful of burnt steak
with its flakes of open-face griddle residue
attached like artisan confections of American spice
like a living document of countless meals
shuffled onto white plates and under warming wicks
before being served to the inebriant starved,

when the shots start pinging through the glass,
and the patrons start screaming
and your friend slaps at his neck
with blood spouting between his fingers
that for just a moment you mistake for ketchup,
before you see the man, just an ordinary man,
probably just as intoxicated as you,
wrestling the rifle from the naked shooter,
scalding the skin from his ordinary hands,
and the silence settles in like slow-motion
as the murderer runs away
and the freeze-frame glitter of shattered bulbs
cascading into the night
sparkle like displaced galaxies
waiting for the sirens
and the shuttering strobes
and your heart to return to its normal beat.

After all that, you’ll want to shake his hand,
but there won’t be time, and it would hurt
beneath his bandages, and maybe your friend
is dying in the ambulance, and maybe
you’ll ask for a coffee to go
because the adrenaline withdrawal
has left you more drunk than exhausted,
and maybe they’ll say, sure,
it’s on the house
just like your life
and maybe this is your church now,
say Hallelujah for America, amen.

Poem for Ammosexuals : NaPoWriMo #21

Ammosexual

There’s just something about a man
with a big package
concealed and carried or swinging free.
Is that a 9mm in your pants,
or are you just happy to see me?

Bullets and barrels are cylindrical
and the way they fit inside my mouth
can’t just be coincidental,
I’d suck fire from his machine gun
know what I’m sayin’?

I don’t mind unsolicited glock pics,
they get me hard like a carbine,
make me want to fuck in gun oil,
to taste metal in sweat and saliva,
to feel the sensation of steel

as it slides and glides
inside my locked and lubed ass,
a cold but pleasant penetration,
then maybe we 69,
his hands around my pistol-grip stock

and my lips and tongue stroking
the long rigid shaft,
fingers probing inside dark empty holes,
a night echoed with our gunshot moans
until we’re both spent, filled with hot lead.

Poem for the Second Amendment : NaPoWriMo #16

Needs of a gun enthusiast

I don’t need a gun
to tell you I love you,
to know the anxiety of your absence
like a tiny corset pulled taut
around my still fluttering heart.

I don’t need a gun
to watch the moon appear like a dime
in the blue haze
of a wishing well sky,
and to wonder what it reveals
about a person, which face they see
in the Rorschach canyons
and deep crater shadows.

I don’t need a gun
to stir my mashed potatoes
in with the brown gravy,
to move my food around my plate
like river churned silt
instead of eating
when I’ve lost my appetite.

I don’t need a gun
to protect myself
from the ambient sounds
of an empty-except-me house,
the creeping footsteps
of rain begging for change.

I don’t need a gun
to become a criminal,
to touch that which isn’t mine,
to discern the nuance
of a painting’s pebbly imperfections
stroking my finger through the landscape
centuries old on a museum wall.

I don’t need a gun
to write my poetry,
each line like a gentle suicide
that never takes my life,
just pushes me a little closer
to those crosshairs
where time and chaos collide.

Trump’s Democracy : NaPoWriMo #14

Kakistocracy : The New Constitution part 2

Let he without morality rule them,
let he devoid of decency close his fists
about the throat of the world
and throttle, his spittle-flecked lips
frothing white, his face flushed bright
with the tantrums of every subverted wish.

Let he without conscience be king,
his sagging skin but an ill-fitted coat
cloaking the hideousness of his greed,
the unscrupulous and the craven
leprosy of want, a blood-filled sack
covered in pus and wet dollar bills.

Let he without humanity declare himself
dictator of the masses, the masses clamoring
for a new Jesus to usher their souls
into the fire pits of penance and self-deprecation,
tomahawk missiles sounding like horns
blown from the mouths of archangels.

Let he without intelligence lead them,
bumbling and stumbling, foolhardy and blind
into the next Dark Age, a cavernous catacombs
of blank-screened smart phones
and television monitors caked in dust,
a continent sealed in walls of bones.

Let he without grace state his amoral decree,
The truth is but a noose swinging
and wound from fake-fibered news
in these gallows of country turned cataclysm,
and the people will willingly slide
their heads through the holes!

Let he without gravitas guide them
as he strokes his member for all to see,
ejaculates vile filth onto every belief
while they bathe in it, rub it like salve
over their faces and eyes and gaze upward
awe-struck, slack-jawed, begging for the trickle-down.

Poem for Anthony Borges : NaPoWriMo #12

Between Death and a Door
~for Anthony Borges

Death doesn’t knock upon the door,
it demands to be let through,
but there are those who refuse to listen.

These seconds seem small
waiting to die, nothing between the end
and the now except this barricade
of flesh leaned against hard wood
and heartbeats pushing blood
out of the body and onto the floor.

This act is selfless, to stand
in defense of the helpless,
to feel an entire existence
kept in the balance
while something faceless
sends its bullets ripping
with white noise and white flashes
through muscle, through lung,
through sound shattered bone.

Five strikes of the iron bell
to stave off twenty more,
five ear-splitting bangs
of skeletal fist pounding
against one shaking frame,
five brushes of bony fingers
against tear-streaked cheeks,
a world condensed down
to the scent of cauterized skin,
to the sound of shrieks,
to the sensation of breath
as a dissipating echo
in the mind.

And when you wake up
in the hospital bed,
your body feels less than your own,
a host of surgical scars
and open wounds no suture can close,
you hear them call you hero,
but you know it isn’t so
you just did what had to be done,
and now, just want to be left alone,
to heal, to feel time return itself
back to that steady second hand
where every tick of the clock
isn’t another triggered gunshot.

Death doesn’t knock upon the door,
it demands to be let through,
but you, you refused to listen.