THE EMPATHY MACHINE, Part Two
written and illustrated by Kelly McQuain
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In an effort to get my head around what I consider the purpose of art-making, I attended three writing conferences during summer 2015. The first was at U.C. Berkeley and was supposed to commemorate the influential 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference fifty years prior, inspired by a student Free Speech Movement earlier that year. But poet Vanessa Place’s inclusion on the bill caused the commemoration to implode.
Place, whose current project uses Twitter to disseminate instances of the “n-word” from Gone With the Wind, has been the subject of controversy before. Place’s name on the Berkeley schedule caused many invitees to drop out in protest. The organizers canceled the conference and replaced it at the last minute with Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A Berkeley Poetry Conference.
I made it from Philadelphia in time to attend the last day. There was a lot of talk about colonization theory, and at the end of the day people sat in circles discussing race and their feelings in ways that were careful not to offend. I learned that the organizers kept notice about “conference 2.0” largely on the down-low out of fear of protests. Ironic, I thought: How do you create a platform for change when safety concerns limit the conversation to members of the Berkeley phone tree?
What I know of Ms. Place comes from her controversies and the strange fact that on the Internet she likes to pose for pictures in Salvador Dalí drag, with pineapples. Like Goldsmith, Place has become another poster child in the debate over who is allowed to say what.
Cathy Young, writing for The Washington Post about the dangers of appropriation, recently observed, “When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.” I agree in principle, but I don’t think it applies to Vanessa Place or Kenneth Goldsmith.
In a statement on an earlier version of her project, Place wrote that her intention was to “[steal] Margaret Mitchell’s ‘niggers’ and claim them as my own.” Place, a practicing lawyer, is spoiling for a courtroom showdown. Her goal is to get the Mitchell estate to sue her, pitting Mitchell’s appropriation of black lives against Place’s own appropriation of Mitchell’s text—and too bad if contemporary African-American sensibilities get hurt in the process.
I also don’t think Young’s statement applies to writers like poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who gave Place and Goldsmith a reprieve from public acrimony in September 2015 when he emerged as a self-styled martyr for embittered white male poets. Hudson, writing under the female Chinese name of Yi-Fen Chou, had a poem selected for Best American Poetry 2015 by Native American guest editor Sherman Alexie. Hudson’s assumption of a Chinese nom de plume was vilified as an act of “yellow-face” that stole a slot Alexie admits he would have favored for another writer of color.
Alexie himself was attacked for letting the poem stay. Removing it, he wrote, “would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.”
This controversy sheds new light on how identity politics affects the way writing gets vetted and published, and it raises objections about the defense of such systems. Certainly it was wrong of Hudson to game the selection process, but isn’t the fact that he did so a sign that the straight white male hegemony is on the run? On the other hand, the skeptic in me can’t help thinking that some of Hudson and Alexie’s most vocal detractors are less interested in razing the hill upon which the old king stood than in colonizing it for themselves.
The truth is, it’s hard for all writers and artists, but even harder for those who are marginalized. We work in a broken system: It’s called the world. What goes missing in our recent debates is how cultural and political functions of art sometimes trump notions of beauty.
The Nude Joker
“All poetry is experimental poetry,” Wallace Stevens famously noted.
It’s probably also true that “lyric poets tend to be allergic to conceptual poetry.” At least that’s the opinion of writer Alec Wilkinson of The New Yorker. In an October 2015 profile, he portrays Kenneth Goldsmith as an aging enfant terrible, misunderstood by the poetry world and an object of jealousy among his contemporaries.
“I tried,” Goldsmith says in reference to The Body of Michael Brown controversy. “I’m an experimental artist, and I failed, on a very big stage. I wanted to work with hotter material, and this was so hot it blew up in my face…. I’m an avant-gardist. I want to cause trouble, but I don’t want to cause too much trouble. I want it to be playful.”
Michael Brown aside, what irritates people like me is that Goldsmith brands his work as poetry rather than a kind of performance art. But he’s as much a poet as the fashionistas in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” are expert tailors. A provocateur for provocation’s sake. Performance art is only fun if you’re in on the joke, not if someone’s running away with the gold of the kingdom.
Some of Goldsmith’s endeavors, like printing out the Internet, mine a vein of bizarro stunt poetry where each new endeavor must outdo what came before. Other forms of conceptualism, like Place’s Gone With the Wind project, are so enamored of their concepts that they end up perpetuating the injustice they rail against.
As critic Cathy Park Hong writes in The New Republic, “Goldsmith, who previously exhibited zero interest in race, saw that racism was a trending topic and decided to exploit it… and people roared back in response.” Or, as UCLA professor and poet Brian Kim Stefans puts it,“When did it become the job of the enlightened ‘avant-garde’ artist to fuck with the minds of people of color (and not their classic targets, the bourgeoisie)?”
On the other hand, Marjorie Perloff brings up a different point in The New Yorker piece. “Now a poet is an activist who writes in lines,” she complains. “That has nothing to do with poetry. It’s just provocation and proclamation.”
In terms of adding to a broader understanding of the avant-garde, I think Goldsmith is simply repeating concepts we already know, uploaded long ago into the cultural zeitgeist by such popular sources as Calvin & Hobbes, circa your childhood.
For his part, Goldsmith is reportedly lying low. “He has shaved his beard,” Wilkinson writes in The New Yorker, “so that he won’t be recognized.”
It’s not lost on me that there is more than one kind of beauty to consider in all this:
• the aesthetic beauty of sensory experiences
• and the beauty of ideas, the truth of which is sometimes unpleasant
When Perloff dismisses activist poetry as mere provocation, she implies it falls short aesthetically. But there is beauty also to be found in empathy. Empathy is the way we imagine ourselves into the position of the “other”. Empathy is an artistic and political act—and our failure to harness it results in a myriad of ethical and political problems.
But how to do it?
Art & the Appropriation of Identity
Avant-garde “appropriation” techniques of the late 20th century have now become 21st century “colonialist” bad art practices—and it’s not just the poetry community that is experiencing the growing pains of identity politics.
In the fiber arts world, men and women fight over who gets to do what. Male quilters hate women-only exhibits. Women go nuts that men make work that talks about gender—even if it’s a man who is transgender. In the jewelry realm, it’s all about indigenous people and colonialism and tribal identities, with fights going on about who gets to make what. Woodworkers get into fights about ethically sourced materials and who’s more ecologically legit. With ceramics, it’s a tiresome argument about whether what we do is art or craft, and how some people who’ve never worked with clay before are suddenly getting shows in big-name galleries in NYC. We have debates over skilled versus de-skilled work, about whether materiality matters or not. I’m not aware of what, if any, contentions glassblowers have. Sigh. –A Pondering Ceramicist
Clearly an issue to consider is power: whether a person appropriates “down,” taking from those with less power; or “up,” taking from those with more power; or “laterally,” taking from those with roughly equal power. Appropriation should strive to be appropriate—that is, suitable to the circumstance. What complicates this on the personal level is that there are usually multiple markers in play: person A may have racial privilege but person B has monetary, age, or ability privilege.
Art-making has always been a way of identity-claiming. The tools, objects and ideas we create have long been the way cultures get built. It’s only natural we guard these things, for they describe who and what we are. We’re right to question if we’re being poached. Yet art-making is also about the exchange of ideas and a deepening of shared humanity. It doesn’t always have to be about colonization; it can be about cross-pollination. It can be communion.
In this way, art surpasses the limits of time and identity, serving as a virtual reality mechanism immersing us in the lived or imagined experiences of others. We should be careful not to dismiss this worthy exchange as a monstrous and unhealthy form of appropriation, but instead see it as one of the ways in which appreciation and respect can grow—a path by which obstacles can be overcome.
This in no way excuses Michael Derrick Hudson’s falsities, or the insensitivity that Place and Goldsmith have shown. Their lack of empathy underscores the fact that empathy can actually enhance logic, deepening it by providing a checkpoint for accountability.
I think today’s true avant-garde poets fuse advocacy for social change with aesthetically rich work that is more than mere diatribe. They reject language’s supposed “non-meaning” and the snarky irony that has for too long reigned as a default baseline for registering experience—and this may not sit well with experimentalists who have painted themselves into a corner. They acknowledge the human response to beauty and understand we are attracted to the expressions of other cultures because we are attracted to beautiful things. They realize none of us exist in a hermetically sealed environment, that the people we meet and interact with change us, become a part of us. While respecting the identity of the other, we can also embrace it.
What Do Our Selves Draw Upon?
Last summer I also attended the Lambda Literary Retreat and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. In Los Angeles, at Lambda, I met Vanessa Place’s wife, editor Teresa Carmody, at a reading. Carmody was attempting to give away thick copies of a book of monographs the two had published. Even for free, the books weren’t exactly selling themselves. I thumbed through a copy and spoke with Carmody, telling her about my experience at Crosstalk. She told me she wouldn’t have let Place go to Berkeley even if the invitation hadn’t been rescinded. Too dangerous, she worried. Despite my concerns about Place’s project, I was glad to learn she had a partner looking out for her—and saddened too that in the fight for social justice anonymous hashtag warriors could bully a couple into fearing for their safety.
Overall, the Lambda Retreat was a time of growth. Yet it was no queer utopia. The sixty-plus writers who attended may have been united under a rainbow banner, but our perspectives weren’t all the same. It hasn’t taken hitting middle age for me to realize the concerns of Gen X queers like myself are not the end-all of the movement, only part of its evolution. Trans issues are now at the forefront, alongside a new sense of sexual liberty made possible by prophylactics like PREP. I wouldn’t wish on anyone the trauma I experienced coming of age in the AIDS years: the anxiety and fear, the lives lost along the way. Gay and lesbian Boomers and Gen Xers worked hard to forge a world where younger generations wouldn’t have to endure such fear, and by many measures, though certainly not all, it’s been achieved. At the same time, I didn’t think those struggles would be so quickly forgotten.
Each evening we would gather in a different venue to listen to the Lambda Fellows read. As I got to know the group through their vast and varied voices, I was reassured that the queer community is collectively stronger for our differences. That I am stronger for having met such people. What they said became a part of me, became a part of all of us—their words working as agents of change, charging the particles of our future selves.
Isn’t that, as writers, exactly what we want our words to do? To send new ideas into the hearts and minds of others, to transform them?
But wait! What stops you from making art? It’s different for everyone: Green-eyed monsters… Disability… Discrimination… Thinking it’s easy… Making excuses… Fakers… No money… Procrastination… Snake oil… Confusion… No vision… Leg pullers… No buzz… Religious a-holes who destroy art… No support system… Self-doubt… Indifference… Thought police… A dead albatross around your neck… Not practicing… Distrust… People casting shade… Worry—time is running out… Freak-outs… The fear it’s all a game…
Art as an Empathy Machine
Working among serious writers at Lambda, and later at Sewanee, affirmed for me that art-making shouldn’t be a Rube Goldberg machine, an elaborate prank designed to pat you on the back as you piss on old graves.
What I’m interested in is refining the code I create by—but I’m also wary of claiming certainty. I see value in what Keats called “negative capability,” the ability of individuals to perceive beyond predetermined capacities, to marvel in doubt and mysteries unconstrained by pure logos. I believe we need new modes of perception that inspire thought as opposed to curtailing it.
To be clear, I’m not in favor of a “tsunami of silencing” poets, as one social media poster accused me of recently. I wouldn’t dare tell “experimentalists” to quit making art, only to quit foisting failed experiments onto the world. I’d tell them to self-regulate their output, to use their network of friends and fellow artists to provide critical feedback.
What I’m in favor of is artists asking themselves better questions, of examining their personal motives. It’s not that we shouldn’t question aesthetics, identity, or privilege—or even poke fun at, rant at, or dethrone the guardians of the hegemony. Rather, I’m saying that our identities are exceedingly complex. I do not claim we are living in a “post-identity” or “post-racial” culture. Instead, I believe we each encompass multiple identities, and when the focus narrows onto a singular aspect we tend to forget the impact our other identities also play in this messy enterprise of sharing the planet.
At a time now when identity cannot be stripped from art-making, when art is increasingly being used as a vehicle for social change, perhaps what is needed is an Empathy Credo writers and artists can use to help shape their ideas. Maybe we should look at:
- Intention: What am I fighting for, and how does this work help? If I’m declaring open season on sacred cows, am I killing for sport or does something’s survival hang in the balance?
- Feeling: Am I adding to the pain of the disenfranchised? If this project causes pain, does it also offer healing?
- Aestheticism: Does the work provide a visceral aesthetic experience?
- Motive: Am I doing this only to show off? To prove I’m the smartest, funniest, or most daring? Why am I pushing these limits? Is it for personal vanity, or to expand the boundaries of human experience and understanding?
- Forgiveness: Have I allowed room for doubt and uncertainty, for the making of mistakes—both my own and those of others?
- Identity: Am I open to transformation and the porous nature of who we are, the idea that humankind overlaps and learns from each other, that there is fluidity in the self? Have I respected that?
- Accountability: Am I willing to put my name on this creation?
A sense of humor may help with these. (I’ll also add that I think these questions might serve to guide critics as well.)
Dear Reader, the questions you ask yourself may be different than mine. But I hope, as artists and writers, you will ask them. If we don’t look closely at what we are doing while engaged in the very act of creation, it will be very difficult to save face later. Who knows what might be overlooked? Who knows what will be brushed aside?
–Kelly McQuain, March 2016
Alexie, Sherman. “Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on The Best American Poetry 2015.” Blog.BestAmericanPoetry.com. 7 Sept. 2015.
Garber, Megan. “Who Decides What Makes a Poem Great?” The Atlantic.
Hong, Cathy Park. “There’s a New Movement in American Poetry and It’s Not Kenneth Goldsmith.” The New Republic. 1 Oct. 2015.
Keene, John. “On Vanessa Place, Gone With the Wind, and the Limit Point of Certain Conceptual Aesthetics.” J’s Theater. 18 May 2015.
McQuain, Kelly. “Crosstalk—What Can a Canceled Berkeley Poetry Conference Learn from the San Francisco Theater Scene?” www.KellyMcQuain.wordpress.com.
Place, Vanessa. “Artist’s Statement.” Drunken Boat.
Stefans, Brian Kim. “Open Letter to The New Yorker.” Free Space Comix: the Blog. 4 October 2015.
Waldman, Katy. “Frontiers of the Stuplime.” Slate.com.
Wilkinson, Alec. “Something Borrowed.” The New Yorker. 5 October 2015.
Young, Cathy. “To the New Culture Cops, Everything is Appropriation.” The Washington Post. 21 August, 2015.
 In May, a Change.org petition called for Place’s removal from the review board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. In less than two days, the petition garnered 1500 signatures. AWP removed Place, resulting in shouts of victory by some and cries of censorship by others, most notably poet Ron Silliman.
 Certainly there must be room for play in the art and literary worlds. Some of Goldsmith’s students have said they find appeal in the “Zen-like” practices that his conceptual (often algorithmic) uncreative writing approach offers (and which are described in detail in the Slate.com piece by Katy Waldman, who sat in on Goldsmith’s “Wasting Time on the Internet” class). Yet when such play comes at the undue expense of someone else, I have to ask: Is the game worth it? Procedural poetry, at the best of times, offers formal restrictions that can lead to surprise and innovation: a fun starting point. As an end to itself, I worry this kind of art does indeed result in wasting time—on the Internet or elsewhere. It often proves a recipe for producing robotic, unreadable texts. At its worst, slavishness to rote procedures can eclipse conscientiousness and implicate motive. I’m left to wonder, Why should the means of creation supersede content? I say experimentation is best viewed as a mix of educated guesses and happy accidents measured against an ongoing series of value judgments.
The images were inspired by numerous sources, among them: the creatures of mythology who continue to haunt me; various online photographs; Calvin & Hobbes cartoons; the colony collapse of the honeybee (and all that implies about our precarious relationship with the world); the art of activist Rini Templeton, whose brilliant drawings I happily discovered by way of Christopher Soto’s Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press—check it out!); the stories of Ganesh taught to me over the years by colleagues at the Center for International Understanding as well as my college buddy, Deepak; favorite wild minds of the past; The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print by Hokusai, which I saw once in the Michener collection at the Honolulu Museum thanks to the benevolence of the East-West Center; the strange workings of Rube Goldberg’s funny-bone mind, to which my father first introduced me; memories of protests and AIDS quilt displays in the late 1980s; the art of the late Keith Haring, who once kindly drew a sketch for me when he didn’t have to; my own sketchbook full of the faces of the beautiful and inspirational people I met during the summer of 2015 at the Crosstalk, Color, Composition conference, the Lambda Literary Retreat and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; people alive enough to make art, fail at art, succeed at art and argue about art—but most of all the people who want art to do the world good; The Muppet Show; the Superman comics of my childhood; the brilliant cartoonist Lynda Barry; and, finally, the musician David Bowie, who passed away during the creation of this but whose songs have always been essential.
Kelly McQuain’s chapbook, Velvet Rodeo, won Bloom magazine’s poetry prize. He was a 2015 Fellow at the Lambda Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices and a 2015 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. McQuain has published poetry and prose in Painted Bride Quarterly, Redivider, The Philadelphia Inquirer, A&U, The Pinch and Weave. He has served as a contributing editor to Art & Understanding and The Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, and his poetry and prose have appeared in numerous anthologies: Between: New Gay Poetry, Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, The Queer South, Rabbit Ears: TV Poems, and Best American Erotica. He has worked as a pretzel maker, a comic book artist, and a professor of English. He hosts Poetdelphia, a literary salon in the City of Brotherly Love. His poem “Jam” appears in Issue No. 1 of Cleaver. Read more at his website.