voices of katrina & ethics of appropriation

The Poetry Foundation presents a discussion of poetic appropriation:

Part I:
Abe Louise Young discusses, and criticizes Raymond McDaniel’s poetic appropriation of voices from Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project by Raymond McDaniel, for his book, Saltwater Empire.

Part II: Raymond McDaniel responds in “Reflections on found poetry and the creative process.”

The discussion rings a bell for me because “appropriation,” collage, and use of “found” texts have at times been methods I use in writing poems. In the long poem, “Marcelina” that was published some years ago in the anthology, Babaylan, I used newspaper reports as my sources, and tried, to the best of my ability at that time (I was just learning how to work with archival sources) to credit sources by inserting publication dates and citation, and by using a smaller Times Roman font to indicate excerpts from newspapers and an Ariel font for my own subjective thoughts (which, in the process of publication somehow became a larger Times Roman). I also changed the names of the people involved. But I’m speaking of a community of which I am a part.

“Marcelina” was about a young Filipina who was murdered in the Stockton California area; the details of the following trial were examined, debated, and reported extensively in the local newspapers of the mid-1930s in Central California. The poem I wrote was based on gossip by adults I had heard during my childhood about the then “mysterious” event, and my subjective responses as I discovered and then researched newspaper reports about it.

Young aligns McDaniel’s work with flarf and conceptual poetry (although he disavows the connection), which she sees as ethically questionable: “Far from attempting to redress social injustice and balance history, flarf is an anarchist aesthetic that thumbs its nose at ethics. In a recent interview in Jacket magazine, [Kenneth] Goldsmith asserts, ‘Any notion of history has been leveled by the Internet. Now it’s all fodder for the remix and recreation of works of art: free-floating toolboxes and strategies unmoored from context or historicity.’”

I am reminded of the article I linked to in my previous post, “The End of Human Specialness,” where Jaron Lanier discusses how the new technology shifts “the role of each human…from being a “special” entity to being a component of an emerging global computer,” and its consequences, that “power accrues to the proprietors of the central nodes on the global computer” and that “Those who are not themselves close to a central node find their own cognition [my italics] gradually turning into a commodity.” He’s speaking in terms of the commodification and, I think, the colonization of human individuality, but I think we can also say this of what happens, and has happened, to cultures, ethnicities, sexualities, and communities—bodies, as well as minds.

I’ve had a few awkward “encounters” with flarf (which itself is an awkward encounter), but I’m wondering if Young doesn’t get it wrong; I don’t see it so much as lacking in ethics; rather it’s an ironic mimicry, and as such a witness to the draining of human subjectivity, history, and agency. This is not to say, however, that any form or content can’t be presented thoughtlessly.

Just on the level of the two arguments (disclosure: I haven’t yet read McDaniel’s book), I’m not convinced by McDaniel’s reply— neither his nostalgic “homesickness,” nor his claim that “I am that wide variety of people. As competitive as those dictions might seem, they represent a singular experience.” Part of the issue here, is that McDaniel’s widely praised book is seen by reviewers as speaking for the dispossessed, which, as Young’s Oral History and Memory Project shows, are quite capable of speaking for themselves. Thus reviewers reinforce the idea of New Orleans’ teeming masses of black, brown, and poor white people as inarticulate, in need of a voice.

Young quotes Bell Hooks: “I am waiting for them to stop talking about ‘the other,’ to stop even describing how important it is to be able to speak about difference. It is not just important what we speak about but how and why we speak. Often this speech about the ‘other’ is also a mask, an oppressive talk hiding gaps, absences, that space where our words would be if we were speaking, if there was silence, if we were there. . . . No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you as I write myself anew.

Context, positioning, and historicity–the knowledge of which enables us to make ethical decisions–and a sensitivity to the human circumstances that one writes about, is everything.

See an interesting discussion of the issue between Keith S. Wilson and a commenter, Ricky Laurentiis. They both bring up important points.

1 Comment

  1. Hi, jean. I’ve been following this, as you might expect. I don’t think the issue is one of **poetic** appropriation at all. I think it’s a question **experiential** appropriation, of politics. I think bell hooks has it about right.

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