NOTES FROM THE CRYING BENCH: A LOVING ACT OF EXPRESSION INTERRUPTED
Talk delivered awp 2018, panel: Draining the swamp: Writers writing resistance, with Heather june gibbons and marcelo hernandez castillo, moderated by keith kopke.
A LOVING ACT OF EXPRESSION INTERRUPTED
Thank you for having me on this panel. I am so grateful to the other panelists for their work.
I am going to issue a content warning for metaphor. In order to draw this metaphor I will reference in passing the existence of queer sex and use one swear word intentionally.
I. THE PROBLEM
It’s November 8, 2016, and my lover and I leave the bar early because Hilary Clinton is winning. Tonight has been decided. Tomorrow there will still be things to protest. In between there is maybe a little time for love.
Because we are white and documented, we move more or less safely down the streets.
Because we both appear female, we are casually harassed most of the way, we don’t hold hands.
And because it’s the Bay Area and everyone has roommates, we are walking to a place we’ve co-created, in this case the gym where she works and has keys. We are walking, I promise, towards a metaphor.
One censored hour later, both our phones light up with texts. I read them.
I look at my lover, whose hands are tied against a wall in this prison-prison guard game we had thought would be so much fun, which wasn’t fun with the realization of how deep the white supremacist police state goes, and before I open my mouth, we both begin to cry.
Here’s the metaphor.
I am a writer who writes about queer kinky sex, and sailors. I can’t stand here and make the case that queer sex or writing about it is resistance. I don’t even want to. The fact of racist violence in itself does not make me a political artist. What I am instead, like in that moment, is artist whose act of loving expression was invalidated by violence.
On the night when I was packing to come to this space, another child was murdered by a cop five blocks from my house. His name was Jesus Delgado-Duarte and he was 19. It is equally wrong to bring him into this space and erase him.
On Thursday, the poet Danez Smith said in Writing the Body in the 21st century that if you have to write about violence, you must put your body there. My body should be at my local police station demanding accountability. But for now, my body is on this panel. It is also sometimes in a classroom because I teach, and at writing residencies and worskhops because I am lucky. If I were writing a poem of resistance, this is where I must situate myself. I begin this poem here.
I want to bring you to another place where loving expression has been interrupted by violence because of our collective failure. This is my red wheelbarrow.
Picture a bench. It’s not big enough. It’s off to the side. It’s very uncomfortable.
Some of you may know this bench. It’s the bench outside every single workshop, residency, and art institution I have ever attended, every single one, where writers go to support one another and cry after our workshop has been interrupted by racism, sexism, queer or transphobia, or some other similar problem. It’s not always a bench, sometimes it’s a bathroom, but it’s always there. Maybe you’ve been there too.
I promised you a swear word. I want a catch all for all for the racism, sexism, transphobia, queer phobia etc in art institutions. The violence is too triggering and the word micro-aggression too academic, like if you know what it means, you can’t commit it. I choose the word FUCKERY.
But we’ve all been the victims of fuckery, possibly three times already this morning. Most of us have also committed fuckery. I have.
Angela Davis writes in Freedom is a Constant Struggle that if we don’t take seriously the way in which racism is embedded in the structure of institutions, we won’t ever succeed in eradicating racism. The writing workshop is an institution. So is this. When we begin to ask what this space is, who it brings in, who it keeps out, I begin to see myself complicit in the fuckery and I want to burn it all down.
II. THE TROUBLE
The problem is love. I love these spaces because when I’m here, you’re here, we get to go dancing. I love being an artist, even an irrelevant one, it’s my reason to be alive and I love being alive because when you’re alive you get to learn things and go dancing.
The problem is also that we need these places: here, the workshop, the community, the world, to love and survive.
In Staying With The Trouble, Donna Haraway writes about this moment in the twilight of the Anthropocene. She writes that it’s equally useless to pretend that the worldspace can be saved and can’t be saved. The answer is staying in the trouble of this moment. The answer is co-creation.
We are happy spiders in this spider web, we create this space, and in turn it creates us, just like we create stories and they create our worlds. Octavia Butler: Every story I create creates me.
How do we reduce the fuckery? I cling to Junot Diaz’s words in his New Yorker Article MFA vs. POC: “what I’m left with now… is an abiding sense of loss. When I think on it now what’s most clear to me is how easily ours could have been a dope workshop.”
For the past five years, I’ve been taking notes on the crying bench on what we can do at every level, as writers, as teachers, as curators, and participants to return to this dope workshop/ institution. This is beyond my expertise, it’s not even my work, it’s a compilation of what I’ve learned from my teachers, friends, and colleagues. I give attribution on my website and the entire beast is up there. CarsonBeker.com/lessfuckery. And if you think of any others, please email or tweet at me Carsonbeker. We can even make a hashtag. Hashtag less fuckery.
Here are a few.
THINGS ARTISTS CAN DO
1. We can look around and ask who is and is not sharing this space, and why. What does it mean that I am standing here instead of someone else? What does it mean that a lot of people are not here because of not being able to afford it or burnout or because they are teaching forty eight classes? That we are having these conversations without them, conversations their absence makes irrelevant. Can we pay our panelists? Can we offer them a space to sleep? Can we set them up a kickstarter?
2. We can decline to read, present, or exhibit on an all-white panel. If (when) the curator of a reading expresses they were unable to find writers of color, we can step down and suggest that they invite and pay a writer of color to step in as curator. We can walk out of all-white panels;
3. If there is fuckery happening in a workshop, we can speak up and say stop, even if we’ve worked hard to get into this space, regardless of the rules. No matter how much we admire its leader. fuckery invalidates art. Fuckery has already canceled the workshop;
4.. When we find ourselves at an all white or mostly white residency, we can ask why.
5. We can read the backs of literary magazines, the lineup of events, check bios before we subscribe, submit, or slush there. Fuckery invalidates literary magazines. When the new yorker publishes that racist calvin trillin poem or that subtextually racist and definitely sexist JM Coetzee piece, how do I trust them to evaluate my work? Whose space would it be taking up?
6. We can ask: is racism/sexism in a text necessary. There is very little to no difference between a character’s racism and racism.
7. We can hire sensitivity readers and pay them. We can make reparations payments and we can pay for the work of artists we admire.
FOR PROGRAM DIRECTORS
1. Does the diversity of your faculty/ speakers reflect the diversity of the artist population you WANT TO HAVE. Does the diversity of the student or artist population you WANT TO HAVE reflect the population at large. Why not?
2. Do participants know who they can talk to WHEN fuckery occurs? Will they be heard?
3. If we have a diversity scholarship, what will be the experience of the "diversity" students when they arrive? What does it mean to choose ONE of a category? What are we asking them to show to get this scholarship? (Need? Merit? A particular narrative? A particular pain? Are we asking them to undress themselves to show their gender?).
1. What books do we cite in class? I just taught in a school where they were reading the COMPLETE WORKS of Hemingway. How do you ask writers to write after reading writers who have rendered them invisible?
2. What are we going to do about the fact that workshops ALWAYS magnify oppressive power structures? What’s our plan for when fuckery occurs inside the workshop?
3. If you are using craft books or terms, where do they come from? Whose rules, whose cannon? (On my website I’ve begun compiling some other sources);
4. We can start workshops by reading a statement about micro-aggressions, welcoming feedback from anyone at any time. I’ve got one I use. You are welcome to take one, build on it, let me know how you improved it;
5. We do not have to make the space safe for teachers, artists, or participants who persist in fuckery and will not respond to feedback.
There will never be a time when this is comfortable. There will never be a time when we’ve arrived. The utopian art space is, like what Jose Munoz said of queerness, “not yet here. We may never touch [it], but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.”
It might matter at some point to some life form somewhere that we tried.
I want to get back to art, because the truth is I do believe that art can be political when it contains love.
Pablo Neruda writes that it’s a poet’s obligation to bring the ocean to whoever can’t go to it. Most of us are here because of this same drive to share moments that are too beautiful for just us. It would be cheap it to call it resistance. It does not depend on evil.
This drive is all I know of love, so I will share with you all I have of the Ocean.
You are in a gym with us, my lover, and I, in this space we co-created out of an unlikely place for love, just like this one, just like our artist bodies, just like this planet, and we are holding each other and crying. And my phone begins to light up again.
And after the initial surge of horror, the texts we get become different. They change.
The poet Etheridge Knight said, “you have to be telling people you love them.”
That, to me, is resistance.
I’m going to end this with these texts, because sometimes poetry is just texts lighting up your phone, tiny burst of sound and light on the darkest night, saying this:
I love you. I see you. We’re going to fight this together.
I love you. I see you. We’re going to fight this together.