Cultural Appropriation and Fair Use

When the 2015 collection of Best American Poetry came out this September, the poetry world erupted into controversy. At the crux of the matter was a poem titled “The Bees, the Flowers, Ancient Tigers, Poseiden, Adam and Eve” by Michael Derrick Hudson. Why all the fuss? Because Hudson, a white man, published his poem under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson claimed that he was unable to find a publisher for his poem until he began sending it out under an Asian pen name (1). Asian poets and writers were understandably upset when the anthology came out and it’s sparked a discussion among academics and poets about the nature of cultural appropriation and the myth of reverse racism. Editor Sherman Alexie responded to the controversy in an article posted on the Best American Poetry blog. His thoughtful essay addresses the tension between the literary world’s desire to showcase diverse voices and the necessity of remaining faithful to aesthetic principles:

“If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.

And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.

But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. (2)”

My own experiences as a queer woman and my friendships with people of a variety of races and nationalities have sensitized me to the issue of cultural appropriation. So what is cultural appropriation? It’s overwriting the voices of the voiceless with narrative constructed outside of the lived experience of a person who is a member of an oppressed class. Since there are many kinds of oppressed classes and since one person can belong to more than one of them, the issue can become complicated. The litmus test for me goes back to the question of lived experience. Does the person telling the story have the right to tell it? Is it his story to tell? As with many questions, there is no one right answer, but there are definitely some wrong ones.

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation and Fair Use”

Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

In her new book The Gods of Tango, bestselling author Carolina de Robertis weaves together a story addressing the issues of race, class, immigration, and sexuality as beautifully as the tango weaves together the music of Argentina’s many immigrant communities. In language musical and brutal by turns, de Robertis tells the story of Leda, a young Italian immigrant who passes as a man in order to pursue her dream of becoming a tango musician. Along the way, we learn the back stories of many other characters and the obstacles they overcome — or fail to overcome — as their lives intersect with Leda’s. de Robertis took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.

Image of a woman with long hair and red lipstick wearing a red sleeveless shirt.
Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

What inspired you to write this book and what sort of research did you need to do to write it?

I began with the seed of my own great-grandmother’s immigration experience, from Italy to Argentina. I quickly saw, however, that from that seed I wanted to grow a much larger story, not only about the great migration of that time to South America, but also about the rich cultural history of the tango’s origins, and about female transgression into an underworld of men.

I did a huge amount of research. I scoured libraries and bookstores, read piles of books in English, Spanish and Italian (badly), walked the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Naples and my ancestral village in Italy, took tango dance lessons and violin lessons, and consulted with all sorts of experts, from musicologists and musicians to friends on the transgender spectrum. Continue reading “Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango”

Was Terry Pratchett a Feminist?

Terry Pratchett is one of the most prolific authors of our age. When he died yesterday (March 12, 2015) he left behind a massive oeuvre: more than 70 books, most of them about the Discworld, a flat planet carried on the back of four elephants who themselves stand back of the great turtle A’Tuin as it swims through space.

About a month ago I began re-reading Pratchett’s Discworld books. As I did so, this question kept roiling around in the back of my mind: Is Terry Pratchett a feminist? Continue reading “Was Terry Pratchett a Feminist?”

The Poet According to Harper’s

This poet, first arrested by the implied promise of this passage (Buzzfeed headline: “How to become a Great Poet (TM) in three easy steps”), is struck by the subtle gendered irony contained therein.

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous: one gets Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” or Plath’s “Daddy,” or Lowell’s “Sunday Morning” (or Wallace Stevens’s). But without that last ingredient, ambition, nothing great will come.

— “Poetry Slam: Or, the decline of American verse,” by Mark Edmundson, in Harper’s July 2013, p. 64. Full text behind a paywall here:

Some relevant pieces of information about the text:

  1. A few years ago, Harper’s was one of the worst offenders on the VIDA list. It’s still not doing so well.
  2. The author uses the feminine pronoun to refer to the hypothetical Great Poet.
  3. Three out of four of the examples of Great Poetry are by male authors.
  4. The author of the article is a man.

Since I’d rather be a Great Poet (TM) than a Women’s Studies professor, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about these facts and whether or not they indicate that Harper’s Magazine has a long way to go before its head will be completely removed from its own posterior.

What Happens to a Dream Deferred?


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes
From Collected Poems

There are many kinds of cages. Some of them are more comfortable than others. But they are all cages.

I Met Berserk (After Wallace Stevens)

Through the rain
And the lights
I met myself
I met berserk
On the traffic island between fifth and main
“you have so much left to learn” he told me,
Taking hold of the scruff of my neck
And shaking
And shaking

[This is a stub. It echoes three poems: one that I wrote in high school, which was inspired  “Anecdote of the Prince of Peacocks,” by Wallace Stevens; and also The Great Figure, by William Carlos Williams]

Poetry Readings and Events in Boston this November and December

I get periodic emails from a gentleman at MIT about poetry readings and events in the greater Boston area. It’s a good reminder of why I chose to move here 13 years ago, and why I stay. The list can be rather overwhelming, so I’ve highlighted two readings in November featuring poets I know and highly recommend:

  • Grey Held and other poets from the Workshop for Publishing Poets next Monday, November 4 at Newtonville Books;
  • Charles Coe and Alexis Ivy at the Newton Free Library on Tuesday, November 12

The Brookline Public Library reading series also has consistently high-quality readers both as headliners and in the open mic. The organizers can be a bit snooty as a result, but if you gird your loins appropriately it’s worth attending. You may even see me there.

If you are interested in signing up for the email list, please comment with your email address and I will send you information on how to subscribe.

And on an unrelated note, Happy Halloween, Blessed Samhain, and Feliz Dias de los Muertos.

Boston Poetry Listings follow:

Friday, November 1, 8 pm
Christopher Boucher, Carrie Causie, and Randy Wittwer
Dire Literary Series
Out of the Blue Art Gallery
106 Prospect St.

Monday, November 4, 6 pm
Philip Levine
Bill Bordy Theater
216 Tremont St.

Monday, November 4, 7 pm
Grey Held, Diana Cole, and Ellie Mamber
Newtonville Books
10 Langley Road
[This is the regular reading series for PoemWorks: The Workshop for Publishing Poets]

Monday, November 4, 7 pm
Scott Ruescher, Betty Buchsbaum, and Peter Filkins
and other winners
NEPC Prize Winners
Harvard-Yenching Library, Common Room 136
2 Divinity Ave.
Cambridge (off Kirkland, near Memorial Hall)

Monday, November 4, 8 pm
Mark Halliday and Anna Ross
Blacksmith House Poetry Series
56 Brattle Street

Tuesday, November 5, 6:30 pm
David Ferry
The Louisa Solano Poetry Series
Cambridge Public Library
449 Broadway, Cambridge

Tuesday, November 5, 7 pm
David Rivard, Edith Pearlman, Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, and J. D. Daniels
AGNI 78 launch
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
949 Commonwealth Ave
Boston (Green Line B, Pleasant St.)

Tuesday, November 5, 5:30 pm
Martha Collins
Grolier Poetry Fall Reading Series
Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton St.

Wednesday, November 6, 8 pm
Julie Joosten, Erin Morrill, Laura Mullen
Small Animal Project
Outpost 186
186 1/2 Hampshire St

Tuesday, November 5, 6 pm [Note: moved from Thurs, 11/7]
Transversal Kickoff Reading
Washington Curcurto, Tamara Kamenszain and Malu Urriola
in the company of their translators Forrest Gander, Laura Healy and Anna Deeny
David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Auditorium
1730 Cambridge Street

Tuesday, November 5, 5:30 pm
Martha Collins
Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton Street

Wednesday, November 6, 5 pm – 6: 30 pm
Rae Armantrout
Morris Gray Lecture
The Thompson Room
Barker Center
Quincy Street

Wednesday, November 6, 6 pm  (please note updated location)
Transversal Seminar: On Spanish Poetry and Translation
Brandel France de Bravo and Roger Santivañez
David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Auditorium
Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library
Harvard University

Thursday, November 7, 5 pm – 6:30 pm
Seamus Heaney Memorial
Harvard Memorial Church
One Harvard Yard

Thursday, November 7, 6 – 7:30 pm
Laura Mullen
New England Conservatory
Pierce Hall
around the corner from 290 Huntington Ave.

Friday, November 8, 7:30 pm
Elizabeth (Louie) Galloway, Elena Harap and Alice Kociemba
Chapter and Verse Literary Reading Series
Loring-Greenough House
12 South Street
Jamaica Plain Center

Friday, November 8, 6 pm
Tamiko Beyer, Kate Greenstreet and Deborah Poe
Publicly Complex Series
Ada Books
717 Westminster St.

Saturday, November 9, 12 pm
Gloria Mindock and Catherine Sasanov
Poetry: The Art of Words
Plymouth Center for the Arts
North Street
Plymouth, MA

Saturday, November 9, 2 pm
Donald Wellman
Toadstool Books
12 Depot Square
Peterborough NH

Saturday, November 9, 6 pm
Frank Bidart, Moe Pope, Betsy Gomez, Elizabeth Doran, Eve Strillacci, Alex Charalambides, Eloisa Amezcua
Featured Musical Artist: Julia LiGregni with the Jordan Carter Trio
Mr. Hip Presents: Reading Series UFORGE Gallery
767 Centre Street
Jamaica Plain

Saturday, November 9, 7 pm
Mathias Svalina, Stefania Heim, and Phil Cordelli
A 2×2 Reading of Poetry
Lorem Ipsum Books
1299 Cambridge Street

Sunday, November 10, 2 pm
Moira Linehan and Michael McCarthy
Bestsellers Café
24 High Street
Medford, MA

Sunday, November 10, 3 pm
Jillian Weise
Weekend Poetry Series of the Friends
Concord Free Public Library
129 Main Street
Concord, MA

Monday, November 11, 6 pm
Tom Pickard
Katzenberg Center, 3rd Floor,
871 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston University

Tuesday, November 12, 7 pm
George Elliot Clarke and Don Share
Grolier Poetry Fall Reading Series
Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton St.

Tuesday, November 12, 7pm
Charles Coe, Alexis Ivy, and Dennis Daly
Newton Free Library Reading Series
330 Homer St
Newton, MA
Open mic follows featured readers

Wednesday, November 13, 7:30 pm
Rhina Espaillat, Barbara Lydecker Crane, David Davis
Poetry And The Experience Of Nature
Joppa Flats Audubon Center
1 Plum Island Turnpike
Newburyport, MA

Thursday, November 14, 6 pm
Christopher Ricks on T.S. Eliot
Edison Newman Room
Houghton Library
Harvard University

Thursday, November 14, 7 pm
Sophie Cabot Black and Greg Delanty
Suffolk University Poetry Center
73 Tremont Street (entrance around corner on Tremont Place)
Suffolk Poetry Center Mildred F. Sawyer Library

Saturday, November 16, 10:30 am
Henry Street Poets, Chuck Williams and Joanne Lurgio
Wake Up & Smell the Poetry at HCAM Studios
77 Main St.
Hopkinton MA

Saturday, November 16, 3:30 pm
Carol Ann Davis and David R. Surette
Fuller Café
Brockton Poetry Series at the Fuller Craft Museum
455 Oak Street

Sunday, November 17, 2-4 pm
Lee Sharkey and Melissa Tuckey
Brookline Poetry Series
Brookline Public Library
Main Branch in Hunneman Hall
Open mike sign-up: 1:45 pm

Sunday, November 17, 3 – 5 pm
Shelby Allen, Susan Nisenbaum-Becker, Gary Whited
Calliope – Poetry Readings at the West Falmouth Library
(575 West Falmouth Hwy.  Rt. 28A)
Cape Cod

Sunday, November 17, 3 pm
Lucy Ives and William D. Waltz
Jubilat / Jones Reading Series
Woodbury Room,
Jones Library
43 Amity Street
Amherst, MA

Monday, November 18, 6 pm
Omniglot Seminar: Pessoa and Other Poets in Portuguese
with Translator Richard Zenith
Woodberry Poetry Room
Lamont Library, Room 330
Harvard University

Monday, November 18, 8 pm
Sarah Arvio and Katie Peterson
Blacksmith House Poetry Series
56 Brattle Street

Tuesday, November 19, 2:30 pm
Rachel Levitsky
McCormack Family Theater
70 Brown St.
Free and open to the public

Wednesday, November 20, 7 pm
Len Krisak and Mike Juster
Powow River Poets Reading Series
Jabberwocky Books (in the Tannery Mall)
50 Water St.
Free & open to the public

Thursday, November  21, 7 pm
Danielle Legros Georges and George Kalogeris
Rozzie Reads Poetry
The Community Room of Roslindale House
120 Poplar Street

Monday, November 25, 8 pm
Tanya Larkin and Jamaal May
Blacksmith House Poetry Series
56 Brattle Street

Monday, December 2, 7 pm
Jane Bachner, Susan McDonough, and Lee Dunne
Newtonville Books
10 Langley Road

Tuesday, December 3, 6:30 pm
Frank Bidart
The Louisa Solano Poetry Series
Cambridge Public Library
449 Broadway, Cambridge

Wednesday, December 4, 6 pm
Louise Glück & Katie Peterson
Edison Newman Room
Houghton Library
Harvard University

Wednesday, December 4, 7 pm
Denise Bergman
Porter Square Books
25 White Street

Sunday, December 8, 12 pm
Dennis Daly and Lawrence Kessenich
POETRY:The Art of Words
Plymouth Center for the Arts
North Street
Plymouth, MA

Monday, December 9, 8 pm
Albert Goldbarth and Sharon Bryan
Blacksmith House Poetry Series
56 Brattle Street

Sunday, December 15, 2 – 4 pm
Afaa Michael Weaver and Larissa Pienkowski
Brookline Poetry Series
Brookline Public Library
Main Branch in Hunneman Hall
Open mike sign-up: 1:45 pm

Monday, December 16, 8 pm
Tamiko Beyer, Jenny Browne, and Kate Greenstreet
Small Animal Project
Outpost 186
186 1/2 Hampshire St