The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.
Since 2015, I’ve been asked to write and talk about cultural appropriation in conceptual poetry. These requests began after I wrote a few blog posts in response to conceptual poets who had problematically appropriated work that year. I want to move forward from those controversies because appropriation is not restricted to—and is way more complicated than—those events. There are inherent problems in our literary culture, especially in education. We must continue to expand the foundation of our writing world beyond the white male canons we are taught in school. Disadvantaged voices struggling to be heard must continue to resist, to activate, and to claim space. While conceptual poetry is seen as a part of these problems, I believe it can be turned on its head to become a part of the resistance.
Poetry is experimentation with language and rhythm in an effort to create emotion, to create a reaction, or to impart the incommunicable. One basis of conceptual poetry is the use and/or remix of existing texts in such a way that they become new poetry. This process can be problematic when applied to text that comes from a place of pain or from an oppressed culture. In 2015, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith wrote a poem by remixing the text of the autopsy of Michael Brown, a young black man shot unjustly by Ferguson police that year. There was outrage that someone who presented as a tenured, white professor—a person of some privilege—had used the body of an oppressed person of colour to create this new piece. While the artist might see this artwork as a way of provoking thought and bringing tragedy into a new light—for it did shock—the consumption of the artwork created more pain. It did not resolve the controversy already surrounding Michael Brown’s death, nor did it reveal anything new about the tragedy.
Another basis of conceptual poetry is its concentration on process. A poet here is like a scientist who, instead of working toward a result, is interested in the experiment itself. Because the end result of conceptual processes can sometimes be gibberish or works too voluminous to be read in one lifetime, conceptual poets may strip away the meaning and expression from the texts they work with. This appropriative nature of conceptualism, which can demonstrate a lack of emotional attention, can create a problematic environment for a writer. It’s easier to appropriate than to empathize, so it’s easier for a poet to take a text linked to tragedy and create a questionable piece of art out of it than to consider the consequences of that artwork.
However, it is possible for conceptual poetry to have a place in a literature of compassionate, progressive activism. After the Brown poem, there were many calls to decolonize, or tear down the powers that be to undo the damage and erasure of cultures caused by colonialism. Decolonization is a call for academics, in particular, to let go of our dependency on mostly colonial texts as the basis of our understanding of art and literature. In turn, we must infuse that understanding with diverse works that reflect the diaspora of art and literary communities. People of colour who are conceptual poets could practice decolonization by, for example, taking William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and remixing it with the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana. By combining these two texts, a poet could create a possibly provocative work exposing the beauty of two texts that were imperative to world literature. A reader of such a remix might think of why The Ramayana and texts like it aren’t taught in school along with the works of William Shakespeare or, say, Euripides.
It’s easier to appropriate than to empathize, so it’s easier for a poet to take a text linked to tragedy and create a questionable piece of art out of it than to consider the consequences of that artwork.
Among my own efforts to practice decolonization, I appropriated George Orwell’s 1984 by retyping three paragraphs of it each day and mixing it with paragraphs from The Wall Street Journal’s lead story of the day. I called the project This Is Room 101. Most of it reads as gibberish, but there are a few cases where the two texts eerily meld together, highlighting how a lot of our current news can sound like Orwell’s idea of “double-speak.” Like Goldsmith, though, I wasn’t thinking of the people impacted by the news stories I was using, nor did I ask permission from The Wall Street Journal to create this work. There are always ramifications to appropriating text.
Conceptual poetry also calls for art to be shared freely and often by its artists. And so, having worked conceptually, I believe that art can be created by anyone and that good art belongs to everyone. (Good art takes talent, yes, but talent is not restricted to those that come from privilege, just as it isn’t always birthed from a place of suffering.) In an ideal world, consideration, peace, and balanced power would enable a kind of “world culture,” and appropriation would be the sharing and moving forward of that culture.
But in an extremely fractured world—one full of inequality, injustice, poverty, war, and conflict, where we are not post-race, post-human, or post-anything, where we are all mired in the thick of it—we must think about our output. Artists shouldn’t censor themselves, but if they are censured, they should be ready to face it, discuss their work, and create more to resolve what remains problematic in their work. Art should provoke and move, but a poet should be willing to engage the public they made the work for. Instead of writing think pieces, maybe we should be responding to the problems of poetry in poetry, battling back or resolving in collaboration.
… a poet should be willing to engage the public they made the work for. Instead of writing think pieces, maybe we should be responding to the problems of poetry in poetry, battling back or resolving in collaboration.
The free sharing of art enables the creation of new art in a collaborative environment—but this collaboration must involve giving credit. While sharing and collaboration are easy for many due to the openness and accessibility of the Internet, one cannot live on the culture of exposure alone. Many writers of colour struggle to get a foot in the door of the literary scene and do not have the privilege of giving away their time and labor for free. I’ve given these for free in the past, but I had the safety net of being a stay-at-home mother supported by her husband. Now, as a single mother, I value the time I put into everything, even my housework, because the personal has become highly political for me. My writing is serious work, no matter the subject. Thinking this way has allowed me to put my best into my writing and has given me great satisfaction as a writer.
Personally, I would like to move on from these discussions—out of a place of stagnation and into a movement. I want to rage on against the status quo and continue writing both lyrical and conceptual prose. This does involve calling out offense, but such calling is not a means of bringing art down. It emboldens art into a diverse place of dialogue, reflecting the very environment that artists come from. In fact, I believe that calling in fellow writers or academic colleagues is a form of the most important thing I learned from all of 2015: radical empathy. Emotions will never be taken out of art and poetry. Regardless of their methods for writing a poem, a poet should never forget that their work, if done well, eventually engages a flesh-and-blood, living audience.
Jacqueline Valencia is a writer and film, music, and literary critic. She is the author of two published poetry collections, The Octopus Complex (Lyrical Myrical Press, 2013) and There Is No Escape Out Of Time (Insomniac Press, 2016). Jacqueline is the founding editor of These Girls On Film, a literary editor at The Rusty Toque, a critic at Broken Pencil Magazine, and a staff film critic at Next Projection. She is a CWILA Board Member and a member of the Meet The Presses collective. Her poetry, prose, and criticism have appeared in various anthologies and journals across Canada and the United States.