The nature of organizations is to become full of themselves. You can’t become full of yourself without becoming territorial. You can’t become territorial without becoming censorial. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has become all of those things with a vengeance.
Vanessa Place is a conceptual poet, criminal appellate attorney and literary publisher who launched a Twitter feed taking a hard look at the movie Gone With the Wind and Hattie McDaniel’s memorable performance as Mammy in that 1939 saga. Place said she wanted to “show the inherent whiteness behind the blackface.” This is an admirable but not a radical idea, and yet AWP chose to kick Ms. Place from its 2016 conference subcommittee for fear she had been racially insensitive.
Here is what Ms. Place said:
“Certain white feminists have lauded Scarlett’s independence, and ‘Tara’s Theme’ was played over the Oscar acceptance speech for Django Unchained. While copies of Huckleberry Finn are routinely purged from public libraries based on depictions of race, GWTW has not been subject to the same approbation. Gone With the Wind is a profoundly racist text.”
Her statement jerks me by the collar back to Babylon, Long Island, in the early 1940s. Three boys are turning out their pockets looking for enough change to see Gone With The Wind and buy Baby Ruth bars. The boys are Bobby Kidwell, Georgie Hathaway and me. Bobby is the younger son of Stella, the much-loved black cook at my boarding school. Georgie is a neighborhood farm boy. We’re three best friends. We know nothing about the Civil War, and certainly not that Southerners don’t like calling it a civil war.
The movie’s colors are gorgeous. I fall in love with Vivien Leigh, having never set eyes upon such a beautiful creature. The men in gray are handsome and noble. Bobby, Georgie and I are unaware that we’re the bad Yankees. We don’t want any harm to come to Tara or Scarlett or Mammy, but there’s a problem that casts a silent pall over us as we walk home. Bobby is a little shorter than Georgie and me and we put our arms around him without knowing why. His mother, whom we love, who patches our clothes and feeds us and gives us good advice, is not Mammy, no matter the superficial comparisons that suggest themselves. She is our idea of integrity and compassion. There is something wrong and we can’t put our finger on it. Ms. Place, of course, has put her finger on it, and AWP has uttered its cowardly ouch.
We couldn’t imagine Stella behaving towards anyone as Mammy behaves towards the difficult, high-strung Scarlett. We wouldn’t want to. But we can’t put our worried thoughts together, we can’t make sense of them.
That is exactly what Vanessa Place is trying to do and exactly what the childish AWP is censoring her for.
Gabriele D’Annunzio was an ardent fascist who wrote some of the most powerful and moving poetry of the 20th Century. He argued that music, yes music, was the fundamental principle of state. What would AWP do with such a man?
Closer to home, would AWP follow the example of the South Windsor, Conn., school district and fire the award-winning teacher, David Olio, who read in class an Allen Ginsberg poem, “Please Master,” brought to class by a student? Would AWP censor a writer who defended Ezra Pound’s politics?
And if AWP censors Place, what book, what author will it not feel free to censor or marginalize?
Gone With The Wind is a racist book and a racist movie that reflected the times. Our founding fathers chose to remain silent about slavery lest they abort the union at its birth. Their decision is echoed in AWP’s action. Our police departments are racist, and they demonstrate it every day. Should we remain silent lest we ignite controversy?
Here is AWP’s statement concerning their decision:
“AWP has removed Vanessa Place from the AWP Los Angeles 2016 Subcommittee.
“We did so after taking into consideration the controversy her Twitter feed has generated. Place has been tweeting the text of Gone with the Wind and using a photograph of Hattie McDaniel as the profile picture. The context of this and similar work is explained by a few literary theorists and advocates of conceptual poetry, such as Jacob Edmond and Brian M. Reed.
“AWP believes in freedom of expression. We also understand that many readers find Vanessa Place’s unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel to be unacceptable provocations, along with the images on her Twitter page.
“AWP must protect the efficacy of the conference subcommittee’s work. The group’s work must focus on the adjudication of the 1,800 submitted proposals, not upon the management of a controversy that has stirred strong objections and much ill-will toward AWP and the subcommittee. Perpetuating the controversy would not be fair to the many writers who have submitted the proposals.”
What is not fair to writers is that AWP, rooted in academia, is unwilling to stand up for free discourse. AWP says the group’s job is the adjudication of 1,800 proposals, but it implies that somehow that adjudication would be impeded and compromised by the controversy. If literature is not controversial, what will it be? What academics say it should be? What the self-appointed literary police say it should be?
Perhaps AWP’s success as a marketplace has gone to their heads and they now think themselves cultural arbiters, tastemakers. Their rationale for dismissing Ms. Place sounds very much like the rationale national security freaks are using to abrogate our civil liberties—they’re doing it to keep the peace, to keep the populace calm. But they’re really doing it to assert authority and to dictate the terms by which we conduct discourse.
AWP is hiding behind its institutional identity, using the imperial “we.” Just who dismissed Vanessa Place? Let each person who made this decision stand up and be counted instead of hiding behind pompous bafflegab. Here are the names of the AWP board of trustees, not exactly a high-powered bunch:
- Bonnie Culver, Wilkes University
- Oliver de la Paz, Western Washington University
- Robin Reagler, Writers in the Schools (WITS)
- David Haynes, Southern Methodist University
- Jerod Santek, Write on Door County
- Judith Baumel, Adelphi University
- Jill Christman, Ball State University and Ashland University
- Roger Lathbury, George Mason University
- Anna Leahy, Chapman University
- Christopher Merrill, International Writing Program
- Elise Paschen, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
- Chris Perkowski, Nixon Peabody LLP
- David Rothman, Western State Colorado University
- Sheryl St. Germain, Chatham University
- Ira Sukrungruang, University of South Florida
The July/August 2009 issue of Poetry ran a long poem, “Miss Scarlett,” by Ms. Place in black dialect in the voice of Hattie. Now Poetry’s sponsor, the Poetry Foundation, playing AWP’s game like a patsy, has this to say:
“This weekend saw the unfolding of outrage over Vanessa Place’s Twitter account, a project that (as we’ve noted previously) has been transcribing the entirety of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind for the past two years and change. Over 2,000 people signed a petition yesterday to have Place removed from her seat on the AWP Los Angeles 2016 conference subcommittee, where she was set to evaluate over 1,800 panel proposals.” (The writer of this Poetry News is named Harriet Staff.)
Over 2,000 people? “Unfolding of outrage”? Oh, my goodness, does the Poetry Foundation or AWP have any idea how many people have been outraged by the racism in Gone With The Wind? What is literature about, Little Goody Two-Shoes kissing the establishment’s ass? What about those three boys back in Babylon, trying to figure out what is wrong with the movie they’ve just seen, trying to console their friend and not even knowing why?
Doesn’t AWP have an inkling that its behavior is like that of the proponents of standardized testing? We know what to put in the students’ heads, we know what they should memorize and regurgitate. What’s wrong with such testing is what’s wrong with AWP’s decision. Instead of helping people learn, AWP is telling people what to learn.
AWP, whatever it thinks of itself, should not be regarded as a bellwether leading this or that flock to this and that meadow, so that now it no longer seems possible to promote a book without dancing to AWP’s schedule and its attendant ordeals. The influence that its image as a marketing tool has given it should not be allowed to harden into the kind of arbiter it presents itself in this instance. Ms. Place’s projects are none of AWP’s business, and she is more than qualified to serve in the position from which she has been so ungraciously removed.
Controversy? O my, what a terrible distraction. How will we ever nurture great literature if we keep getting distracted by troublemakers? Hey, AWP, hey Poetry Foundation, it’s in the nature of great literature to make trouble, plenty of it. And it’s in the nature of the rest of us to bask in the grandeur of it, to eat its body and drink its blood in communion with the troublemakers and the trouble. What you’re upholding is namby-pamby ideas of your work being over-archingly important. Well, it isn’t. (See the sidebar, “Poetry as disturbance, a meditation on conceptual poetry.”)
We live in a culture which, without copping to it, celebrates market over merit. That’s why thousands of good books go unmentioned in our journals, because their presses couldn’t afford to buy the advertising that attracts critical attention. But this secret is too dirty to discuss, so we go on pretending that all the books that deserve to be published are published and all the books that deserve critical attention get critical attention.
It’s in this vein that AWP is operating here. Don’t disturb the peace. Don’t distract the market from its work. Don’t hassle the system. And saying that, AWP might as well say, Don’t write great stories, great poems, because The Man wants to pocket his cut in peace.
For instance, Poets & Writers started out as a homely, feisty counter-culture newsletter compiled by Galen Williams, but then she left and it was gradually co-opted by the market, with blandness dolled up as news and helpful ways to get published. Stories about the ills of the system were supplanted with stories about how to operate within the system. This is the path AWP is following. Poets & Writers is now the mouthpiece of the contest industry, with all its Randian monetization of literature and its celebration of winners over the rest of us losers.
Members need to boycott AWP. They need to picket AWP. And it will be a measure of where they’re coming from as writers if they let these indignantly anonymous 2,000 get away with policing the culture. If they value AWP more for showing their wares (and meeting the people they need to get ahead) than for its potential to encourage true discourse, they’ll let Vanessa Place fend for herself. It’s a question of whether to game the system or change the system. It’s also a question of how grown up we choose to be. Some of the finest literature ever written is profoundly racist. Once we get a load of T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism or Ezra Pound’s, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, do we stop celebrating them as writers? No, we own up to the problem.
Margaret Mitchell’s book is not great literature, but it’s enduringly popular, as less-than-great literature often is. Does its popularity mean we should not talk about its racism? Of course not, AWP would say, but not here, we shouldn’t talk about it while we’re trying to—what’s the term?—adjudicate these proposals. Well, AWP, you weren’t talking about it, Vanessa Place was, and you have chosen to punish her for it, so now we have to talk about your biases, too.
Your position sounds not unlike Scarlett’s: Why is this happening to me? What about Tara? Get over yourself, Scarlett, who gives a damn about your Tara when a great project to liberate millions from misery is underway? And it’s still underway, and that’s why Vanessa Place is raising this issue. And here you are, AWP, saying she’s in your way. You need to let some of the air out.
Featured image: No to Censorship! by lumir beliza
Copyright © Djelloul Marbrook, 2015