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typical offender---

“Whitewashing American Hybrid Aesthetics” by Craig Santos Perez


Wow. An anthology titled “American Hybrid.” How exciting that the editors wanted to “show the historical depth and vitality of the concept of poetic hybridization in American poetry” and to “present the impressive range of poets we believe articulate this impulse” (from David St. John’s introduction).

Certainly the editors would…

examine the idea of aesthetic hybridity in terms of Native American literature.

Certainly they would cite Arnold Krupat, in The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon (1989), who defines indigenous literature as produced “when an author of subaltern cultural identification manages successfully to merge forms internal to his cultural formation with forms external to it” (214).

Or David Murray, in Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts (1991), who sees Native writers “forked” between cultures, languages, oral and written forms and genres.

Or Louis Owens, in Other Destinies (1992), who uses the concept of a “mixedblood” as an aesthetic, experiential, and critical concept. The mixedblood embodies the Native literary text, which is “intensely dialogic, a hybridized narrative within which the author is in dialogue with himself, within which two distinct linguistic consciousnesses, two kinds of discourse, coexist in a ‘dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment’” (35).

How many Native American poets are included in this anthology?

Certainly the editors would highlight one of the most cited essays in Asian American literary studies, Lisa Lowe’s “Heterogeniety, Hybridity, and Multiplicity,” which appeared in her book Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (1996). Lowe defines “hybridity” as “the formation of cultural objects and practices that are produced by the histories of uneven and unsynthetic power relations […] Hybridity, in this sense, does not suggest the assimiliation of Asian or immigrant practices to dominant forms but instead marks the history of survival within relationships of unequal power and domination.”

Certainly, the editors would cite the extensive theorization of literary hybridity within Latino/a literary studies.

Of course they would mention Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), in which she writes: “From the racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollination, an ‘alien’ consciousness is presently in the making—a new mesiza consciousness, una conciencia de mujer. It is a consciousness of the Borderlands.”

Of course they would mention José David Saldívar’s Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies (1997): “This zone is the social space of subaltern encounters, the Janus-faced border line in which peoples geopolitically forced to separate themselves now negotiate with one another and manufacture new relations, hybrid cultures, and multiple-voiced aesthetics.”

Without a doubt they would include the most important poet/theorist of aesthetic hybridity, Alfred Arteaga, who wrote in Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities (1997): “The interlingual speech fo the Chicano and the hybridized poem in particular are especially apt at expressing the ambiguities inherent in mestizaje and those in either Aztlan or the borderlands. The Chicano’s hybrid thought allows for a movement among discourses that replicates the possible range of perspectives on race or the homeland. This speech is interlingual in that it not only acknowledges a confluence of difference but emphasizes the factor of hybridity.”

Certainly they would be a generous selection of work from Guillermo Gomez-Pena, El Rey del Híbrido himself.

Is it true that there are no Latino/as in this anthology? [see Jordan Windholz & J. Michael Martinez’ essay in the most recent issue of Puerto Del Sol]


So much for showing “the historical depth and vitality of the concept of poetic hybridization in American poetry.”

So much for presenting the “impressive range of poets we believe articulate this impulse.”

It’s easy to be discontent with how this anthology doesn’t live up to its title, to be discontent with how incomplete and ignorant it is. There a fine line between ignorance and prejudice.

But I want to ask: if this is not truly an anthology of “american hybrid” poetry what is it an anthology of?

A clue can be found in the section of Swenson’s introduction titled “Legacy,” in which she traces the development of the two-model system in 20th century American poetry.

Swenson’s “Legacy” is a white poetic legacy, a white reading of 20th century American Poetry (of all the anthologies she mentions, not a single one is an anthology of ethnic or native American poetry—which is surprising considering no one fetishizes anthologies more than poets of color). Thus it becomes clear that “American Hybrid” should have more accurately titled “White American Hybrid.”

One major difference between white hybrid aesthetics and hybrid aesthetics articulated by us minorities and native Americans is that a white hybrid aesthetics is based purely on aesthetics:

Swenson writes: “Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first-person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with “conventional” work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of “experimental” work, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools, each one of which changes dramatically depending on the others with which it’s combined and the particular role it plays in the composition.”

Or is it?

Why are white poet editors jumping on the hybrid bandwagon so late in the game, seemingly without any true understanding of the historical depth and vitality, as well as the complex problematics of the concept of poetic hybridization in American poetry?

White poets want to be hybrid for two reasons (these reasons are both aesthetic and cultural):

One: white poets don’t want to be New Critical Fugitive Southern Agrarians “taking their stand” against america’s move towards the urban, national, international, industrial, and integrative progress within a self-contained, insular, united and banded expression of a confederate aesthetic.

Two: white poets don’t want to be Kenneth Goldsmith hoarding and molding the provisional disorienting detritus of digital empty signifiers cut pasted skimmed forwarded spammed and downloaded into unboring, uncreative writing without allegiance to anyone’s real.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind being a New Critic—most of them had stable teaching jobs in the academy. I also wouldn’t mind being Kenneth Goldsmith; he has cool fedoras and memorable facial hair.

Alas, I am not white so I cant be either. But I feel for all you white poets out there stuck between Southern Rock and a shard of non-place.

I blame Ron Silliman. For many things, but most of all for propagating the simplistic binary reading of poetic history into quietude & avant garde. Let’s face it, it’s Silliman’s poetry world and we just blog in it.

Of course, Silliman solved this binary long ago…by becoming Silliman. but most white poets don’t want to be Silliman either, which I don’t understand because he gets tons of free books! Anyways, Silliman forced white writers into the binary of Ranson or Goldsmith, creating white cultural-aesthetic anxiety, which necessitated the formation of an “ideal hybrid,” the publication of a white American hybrid anthology, the establishment of this panel, and thus me spending time writing this paper.

However, I must thank Silliman because if this panel didn’t exist I wouldn’t have gotten funding from my university to attend AWP because the 8 other panels my name was on were all rejected because the AWP selection committee is either racist or sexist or ageist.

In conclusion: white hybrid aesthetics is the rejection of being Ransom, being Goldsmith, or being Silliman.

a poetics of suspicion: chicana/o poetry and the new
j. Michael Martinez & jordan Windholz

…Yet the exclusion of minority writers for the sake of propagating “new” poetics is not solely the result of avant-garde poetries. The most recent example—of Yu’s “ethnicization” and of Chicana/o (and Latina/o) exclusion—is the Norton Anthology, American Hybrid. Perhaps not surprisingly, though tellingly, the anthology organizes around a racialized term, hybridity. Though it denies an avant-garde status, the anthology nonetheless is positioned within the avant tradition; it is, after all, “A Norton Anthology of New Poetry” (emphasis ours). In her introduction to the anthology, Cole Swensen walks a fine line between the avant-gardist tradition (derived from European modernisms) and the self-contained verse tradition of the New Critics. In an attempt to reconcile the two traditions within a new hybridized ideal, Swensen even slips into a paradox in which she cannot help but embrace marginality: amidst the many schools and traditions of poetry, Swensen sees “a thriving center of alterity.”5 For the ample representation Swensen and St. John provide, not a single Chicana/o poet can be found within these pages. The anthology is composed of and edited by writers whose work we deeply admire; however, who inside this collection is really outside; where is the alterity so central to the anthology’s organization?6

In an anthology about hybridized poetry, the Chicana/o has no voice. This is particularly problematic considering the decades worth of criticism devoted to articulating how Chicana/o identity and poetics is situated in states of plurality, of “hybridity.” But given the particular poetic history that Swensen and St. John trace and even validate, how could Chicana/os find a place in this anthology? In instituting the binary of the two traditions, the editors of American Hybrid assume a particular history of poetics (and politics),7 and, unfortunately, the history of poetics and politics constructed by Swensen looks over/through the rise ofChicana/o literatures and politics in the ‘60s—the rise ofa truly “new” and “hybrid” political identity and voice in the U.S.

This oversight occurs perhaps because the concept of “voice” remains troubling for many “new” poetic movements. Indeed, today’s poetry—constituted as the avant- garde or its heirs—considers identity as a voiced construction passé, if not heretical. In a recent edition of Poetry, Kenneth Goldsmith reasserts the abolishment of identity even as he challenges fragmentation and non-linearity. He asserts, Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age? These two movements, Flarf and Conceptual Writing, each formed over the past five years, are direct investigations to that end. And as different as they are, they have surprisingly come up with a set of similar solutions. Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well.8

Our contention with Goldsmith’s assertions has little to do with the actual work of Conceptualism or Flarf; many of these works are interesting and challenging (though they are far from entirely “new responses”). However, Goldsmith’s essay is troubling for the Chicana/o poet for the claims it makes about identity. Chicana/os still lack a viable social and political self. And though Chicana/o identity is, in many ways, a question—even “up for grabs”—the culture and society in which the Chicana/o lives, works, and breathes, too easily solidifies and essentializes that identity by denying the Chicana/o a voice. Expression matters in the current social and political climate for the Chicano. To say—to express—matters. For the ethnic-racialized subject whose very subjectivity is invested in terminologies of identity (“Latino,” “Chicano,” “Hispanic,”), language is vital. Thus, to dictate a teleological aim for language, to posit that our poetries progressively move forward in a narrative that requires newness, is to offer a colonial dictation for the ethnic-racialized subject’s ontological and national status. Questions of identity are still at the heart of Chicana/o poetics, and, though the Chicana/o poet is decades removed from Corky Gonzales’s assertion, “I am Joaquin,” Gonzales’s proclamation has not lost its pertinence. Indeed, Chicana/os “have come a long way to nowhere,/ unwillingly dragged by that monstrous, technical,/ industrial giant called Progress and Anglo success . . .” precisely because they have long struggled to express themselves “using someone else’s [words].”

To put it in other terms: one must have a politically and economically viable identity in order to willingly lose it, to throw it to the wind. Those who say that for aesthetic reasons identity is dead, fragmented, or passé, often have a viable identity they do not need to worry about. Being invisible or visible as a white male is quite different than being invisible or visible as a Chicana/o. This invisibility itself speaks to a broader symptom in the poetics of the “new.” The invisibility of identity is a symptom of a broader ideological construction: that of the exclusion of Chicana/o voices in the broader cultural hierarchy (this is not a categorical absolute, but rather, a fact of this particular moment in U.S. history). The exclusion of a representative Chicana/o and Latina/o voices (NB: Rodrigo Toscano, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and even Juan Felipe Herrera arguably fulfill the publication and aesthetic criteria) in American Hybrid and other such “avantist” anthologies is symptomatic of this broader ideological exclusion and social disparity…

J. Michael Martinez, author of Heredities

—see also:

August 2010
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