A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race
Edited by Laura McCullough
288 pages—University of Georgia Press, 2015
In her introduction to the pivotal new anthology A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia Press, 2015), Laura McCullough describes the project as “an effort to collect the voices of living poets and scholars in thoughtful and considered exfoliation of the current confluence of poetry and race, the difficulties, the nuances, the unexamined, the feared, the questions, and the quarrels across aesthetic camps and biases.” And, indeed, A Sense of Regard’s, great strength lies in its desire to “honor the complexities” inherent in any sophisticated discussion of race, identity, and language—to be a much-needed conversation among a diverse group of individuals rather than a simple collection, and, as such, to employ architectures of process rather than of neat prescription. “I challenged contributors to examine their own biases,” writes McCullough, “and to quarrel, first, with themselves, digging deeply into what they have experienced and know. Poets were asked to write essays the way they would write poems, to know something afterward that they themselves didn’t know going in. Scholars were asked to write not only for academics but for a broader audience of readers and writers of poetry.” What emerges is a gathering of richly layered and well-balanced mediations on the intersections between language, identity, and the act of writing poetry (an undertaking both intensely solitary and yet deeply communal), grounded in first-rate literary criticism that examines the particularities of craft within texts by a wide range of authors (Walt Whitman, Layli Long Soldier, Natasha Tretheway, Martha Collins, Claudia Rankine, Fady Joudah, and Arthur Sze, to name just a very few), and woven together by the backdrop of Edward W. Said’s work regarding the notion of Otherness, especially the sentiment, re-quoted by McCullough in the introduction, that “survival in fact is about the connections between things.”
McCullough’s editorial goal in A Sense of Regard seems to be largely one of balance, to provide a structure that exposes the messiness of speaking about race—the tangle of varying perspectives and experiences—but also to create a tangible sense of movement (albeit sometimes inherently circular) in order to channel such dialogue forward into future conversations. To this aim, she has organized the essays into four groupings: “Radicalization & Reimagination: Whitman and the New Americans,” “The Unsayable & the Subversive,” “Imperialism & Experiments: Comedy, Confession, Collage, Conscience,” and “Self as Center: Sonics, Code Switching, Culture, Clarity.” Within these groupings, the essays are arranged with the meticulous and building music of an expert poet laying out poems in a manuscript. At its best, the anthology reads as if the essayists were collected together in a single room, each responding to and building off one another in intimate and passionate dialogue.
This quality of direct and engaged conversation between essays runs throughout A Sense of Regard, but seems the most pronounced in the third section, which McCullough describes as “interrogat[ing] the racial category of whiteness. What it means, what it excludes, what the borders are, the legacies, the privileges, the limitations…” Here, in particular, we are asked to weigh speech against silences and accepted truths against the realities of experience, to analyze the structures of class and education that have led to accepted rules, language patterns, and practices when writing (or not writing) about race, and, further, to explore the opportunities that craft can (or might fail to) provide in necessarily rupturing such boundaries. Philip Metres opens this section with “Carrying Continents in Our Eyes: Arab American Poetry after 9/11,” examining the work of Lawrence Joseph, Naomi Shihab Nye, Suheir Hammad, Mohja Kahf, Fady Joudah, Khaled Mattawa, and Deema Shehabi (with Marilyn Hacker) in order to demonstrate the range of craft techniques by which “Arab American poetry can leap the gulf between the dominant narrative of the United States and the realities experienced on the ground.” Major Jackson’s famous “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black” (originally published in American Poetry Review, 2007) comes next, continuing to explore this rift by querying “how much self-censorship or ambivalence is at work among white poets with regard to writing about race.” While this essay examines the problematic aspects in a number of poems by white poets (most notably Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds, and Tony Hoagland) Jackson maintains the need for risk over silence, calling for “a body of poems that goes beyond our fears and surface projections of each other.” Martha Collins’ “Writing White” follows immediately after and responds directly to Major Jackson’s concerns while carefully considering some of the anxieties put forth by white poets in response to Claudia Rankine’s 2011 open invitation to writers of all races to discuss their own hesitations when writing about race. Collins notes the fear of “appropriation,” but deeper than that, she writes, is “a fear ‘of getting it wrong,’” both internally and externally. Like Jackson, she advocates for a poetics of greater risk: “Perhaps all white poets need to start, and to keep starting, over and over, until we get it, if not right, at least a little less wrong.”
Again and again the contributors to A Sense of Regard remind us that identity is complex and uncertain, that it is an evolving and often uncomfortable process. “You are a complicated man,” Garrett Hongo’s taxi cab driver, an immigrant from Greece, tells him in “America Singing: An Address to the Newly Arrived Peoples,” the anthology’s opening essay. And in this, identity seems to share much with the act of writing. “Writing is as much the process of arriving at the point of composition as it is the act of composition itself,” notes Jaswinder Bolina in “Writing like a White Guy.” Thus the act of writing about race must begin with the willingness to embrace that process in all of its messiness—and, perhaps, to embrace forms that allow for fracture and confusion rather then simple and tidy conclusion. Indeed, many of the craft discussions focus on the ways in which poets use form to create dualities and in-between spaces in their work (Timothy Leyrson’s discussion of Natasha Tretheway’s work in “Writing Between Worlds”) or to highlight loss, fracture, and alienation (Joanna Penn Cooper’s “Claudia Rankine’s Post-9/11 Poetics,” Alish Hopper’s “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies,” Patrick S. Lawrence’s “The Unfinished Politics of Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem”). Poetry, many of the essays agree, offers the perfect venue for exploring the complexities of identity, the shifting voices, the mire of understandings and misunderstandings that make us who we are. Breakages in standard form expose this attention to process, allowing greater opportunities for connection and understanding. Sara Marie Ortiz’s sectioned essay, “Song,” starts and stops repeatedly, the essay bookended by the author’s opening assertion that “I have never written about race” and her ultimate conclusion: “I have never written about race. / And I’m not sure that I’ll ever really be able to.” “Camille T. Dungy muses in “I Am Not a Man,” that “The act of writing is a process of complicating expectations…And isn’t love, like poetry, partly about learning to incorporate that which does not make perfect sense into that which creates a sense of completion?” And as Mathew Lippman writes in “Shut Up and Be Black,” “See, this is what poetry does. It allows the poet to go nuts. In the going nuts the reader gets to go nuts too…We are all of each other. Even though we’re not, we are.” Or, as Mihaela Moscaliuc more pragmatically and less romantically puts it in “Code Switching, Multilanguaging, and Language Alterity,” “When points of reference shift, even momentarily, we reenter the familiar with new eyes and a more acute sense of unexplored possibilities.”
A Sense of Regard is a call for criticism, for engaged and sometimes uncomfortable questions and discussion—an invitation to look for absences, for strained and systemic silences. Thus as I read, I found myself looking for these not only in my own life and work, but in the work laid out before me. What is missing? I asked myself. Where do I want to see this conversation go next? And so because McCullough invites such quarrel, I must admit that if I have one quibble with A Sense of Regard, it is to question whether its essays strive to find their way beyond the stone walls of the academy as fully as they might. As the back of the book rather vaguely explains, the project evolved out of an attempt to create meaningful dialogue from a myriad of complex and emotionally charged responses to the infamous 2011 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference panel in which Claudia Rankine presented a Tony Hoagland poem along with her own criticism and Tony Hoagland’s response. With origins such as these—in a world entwined as deeply and inseparably with the academy as that of contemporary poetry is—it is no surprise that the book is primarily an exchange between established poets, scholars, and teachers of poetry for other poets, scholars, and teachers of poetry. And yet, at times, the intense vulnerabilities and insights offered by these essays felt interrupted, muffled maybe, by so many references to academic panels, conferences, institutions, and organizations, which offer necessary structures for beginning conversations about diversity but are also, as Jaswinder Bolina observes, inherently tied to “the language of privilege.” And so while I am deeply grateful to A Sense of Regard for the conversations it is engaging regarding race and poetics at this moment in time, I am eager, too, for the conversations that will come next, particularly those that I cannot yet predict. For, as Kazim Ali writes in “What’s American About American Poetry,” the anthology’s penultimate essay, “Part of our answer is to now start to experience poetry not solely in the mind, not solely visually, nor solely aurally but through all the senses at once, and it’s not enough to say as Americans we have to understand our history. We have to also understand the here and now, the voices we have not heard, couldn’t or wouldn’t, voices that help to construct and reveal new rooms in the houses of our understanding.”
Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, critic, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her poems and reviews can be found in: Cider Press Review, Colorado Review, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Salamander, Sugar House Review, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.