POETRY AND THE POLITICS OF DIFFERENCE
by LUIS RODRIGUEZ
by Luis J. Rodriguez (Dec. 1991) Do we know our country? Clarence Thomas is accepted as Supreme Court Justice despite damning testimony of sexual harassment and a record against equality and justice for all. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has shot 57 people this year--80 percent of them from communities of color, all of them unarmed or shot in the back. A new statistic states that if the current rate of incarceration continues in the United States, by the year 2053 half of the adult population will be in prison.
The "New World Order" is coming into focus.
What has this to do with poetry? Why not everything? When the official news sources are openly censoring and distorting the truth--witness the Persian Gulf War debacle--then the truth must be told through other means. Why not poetry?
A consideration of this today is the issue of cultural diversity. In American arts and letters, there seems to be an opening up of the gates once used to keep out, silence or marginalize a significant section of the population. Perhaps I'm talking multiculturalism, the prevailing term. But I'm really talking about equality in the arts--and this has more to do with politics than culture, which has more to do with history.
Eqality is more than equal access. "I could speak fluently, but I could not reveal," says Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff. Perhaps now some of us may enter the gates--but can we reveal?
I recently went on a reading tour of the West Coast from October 1-16. In Albuquerque, I spoke in five high school class settings and an elementary school. In cities like Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco and Berkeley, my readings involved college students, bookstore audiences, the homeless, poetry centers and living rooms. Poetry alone was not the draw.
What kind of an impact must a poet have in a place like Rio Grande High School in Albuqerque that has a wall of 19 plaques with the names of students who were killed, crashed or committed suicide, since the beginning of the school year?
Or Mountainair High School in one of poorest rural regions, near the Chilili Land Grant area, where Mexican, Indian and rancher white kids sold tacos, baked goods and other food items to pay the small fee that would bring me there to read?
Or the El Paso Club on Main street in Los Angeles, on Skid Row, one of the largest single homeless enclaves, where the locals came to read their verse, play music, and listen to me perform? Or in an art gallery and alley in San Francisco's Tenderloin? Or across the People's Park Annex, an "unlawful" gathering of the street people who police pushed out of Berkeley's 1960s battleground of free speech?
The poems better connect. They better have meaning. They better reveal.
I saw much about the United States on this trip--catching glimpses of Anita Hill's testimony on every TV screen--and much about what's really going on, about the thousand points of blight, and how integral the struggle for daily survival is to equality and inclusivity in the arts.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Richard Rodriguez, author of "Hunger of Memory," says he "lost his Mexican soul" in America, seduced by Lucille Ball, Walt Disney and Technicolor. I don't agree with most of his conclusions (he's against bilingual educaiton. He says "If I can make it, anyone can"--a "Hispanic" version of Clarence Thomas). But I agree with him when he says "There is no one in America who does not speak Black English; there is no one in America who does not speak Yiddish; there is no one in America who does not sigh with the sigh of Mexican grandmothers."
American English is an immigrant language. A world language. A transfigured tongue that draws from its European roots, its Africanness, its Native songs, its migrant spirit, to make the language sprout in branches and veins and leaves.
Yet there's a dominant character in American culture and language. Some call it Eurocentrism. This goes against the broader anthropological concept of culture as the summation of human achievement. Tall culture changes, evolves and belongs to the whole of society. The British sonnets, the Spanish decimas, the haiku--they're all ours. But a ruling class who holds the power, who owns the principle means of production, the mass outlets of creativity and the institutions of public maintenance, imposes its own standards and limitations of the culture at large.
Doinance comes from this class rule. In this country it's expressed as national, color and gender superiority. This dominance is against all culture because it tries to destroy or distort aspects not deemed "worthy" of existence. Whenever there's such a lie, a part of the world is murdered.
Does being equal mean being the same? Of course not. It's not about melting pots or "losing your soul." Equality is the recognition of difference. It means the celebration of various voices and histories while insuring the collective well-being and nurturing of all.
Does this imply, however, we should destroy or belittle the forms of cultural expression that are European-rooted? I have been on a few panels on poetry, politics and multiculturalism this past year. They have been powerful discussions, but there seems to be a tinge of blaming Western Civilization for all the evils we face in the hemisphere, that it's inherently against all peoples, tec. "Ho, Ho, Western Culture's Got to Go," say student chanters on a few campuses.
But I want to pull from European cultural expression as much as from those that are indigenous to this soil, or rooted in Africa, Asia or in Islam.
Let me say it again: culture is the summation of human achievement--transcending classes, ephochs and politics. The problem is not European culture, or "white" people, but a capitalist ruling power that reigned in Europe and subsequently most of the world. The problem is the exploitation of culture for their narrow class aims. Rulling classes are the ultimate gatekeepers. They may make a feint for democracy and seem to allow anything--but not a challenge to their power. Full and complete culture, encompassing all of humanity is such a challenge because it predates classes, because it can profess a world free of exploitation and privilege.
Another point: The politics of difference is not the same as the politics of "the other." It's not a matter of adding a "multicultural" component to all the history, art and literature classes or programs, of tacking on our stories, our histories, our very lives to the existing canon. As Sansei poet David Mura says, the center is shifting.
We need to challenge the current canon--and not so much outside the existing cultural arenas, and not so much the forms. Again, the resources and wealth are controlled by a small group of capital-owning elites. And while they may manipulate form--witness the systematic destruction of Native, African or Ltino forms of culture, or he Nazi upholding of "Aryan" forms over others deemed inferior--this principle field of battle for them is in the content of culture. It should be for artists as well.
Is an opera inherently evil? Is a rapper's chant inherently good? Why can't progressive, revolutionary and vital ideas be expressed through both? Through all forms?
Nor can we abandon the so-called legitimate areas by declaring off-limits the arenas funded by government or foundation money under the guise that it's "bourgeois" (and we can still explore new forms--most everything receives no funding).
The content of any art form can be enslaving or empowering. It can be about race superiority, patriarchal and sexual politics, and express the continual thievery of the laboring masses of violence and facism. Or it can be founded in classes or peoples who have been exploited and oppressed, be against economic expediency, and thereby agaisnt the inequitities.
It's not so much a matter of the "third world" versus the West, minorities against majorities, the colored against the non-colored, to be for or against Columbus (I'm descended from Columbus. I don't have to deny him. What we need is a historical corrective that recognizes there were people rich with value and great accomplishment here on this continent before Europeans came as conquerors. I'm agaisnt the genocide and the eslavement that Columbus' voyage brought to these shores. But there's a transfiguration that inevitably resulted--and I'm a product of it).
It's in the content of art or poetry where the ideas of an advancing, revolutionary society and that of a retreating, stagnant one are fought out. To be against censorship in the abstract is not my interest. I'm against censorship, either political or economic, that shuts down the platforms, closes the gallery doors, marginalizes the creativity--in other words, keeps me out of the battlefield.
I refuse to be on the outside, heard by a few, among the malcontents. I need to be in the heart of things, with everyone else, and this requires a high level of craft, a high level of commitment to the forms, if you will, so that the content is clear and accessible to all.
The censors who wield moral authority today are the most immoral people on earth. They never worked a day in their lives, they never fought in a war--it's time we took that authority back!
As artists, poets, musicians and journalists, we have the ear of the people. At various times and through various means, we can dissuade, persuade and invade. It's not time for doubt. It's not time for vagueness.
We are entering the end of 500 years of European dominance on the continent. The center is shifting. We better have learned something, better be prepared to remake our continent with the full and equal participation of all--prepared to assist the end of a social system based on scarcity and want. If we are to survive the next 500 years, we better know our country, the real country, that has claimed us.
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