As a black person, as a gay person, I am other to the social norm of heterosexual whiteness. Poetry, a stereotypically exalted and also, or therefore, marginalized realm, is often seen as other to the abjection, social and psychic, that blackness and gayness too frequently represent in our society, a debasement too often acted out on black and gay bodies. Poetry is also other to the utilitarian, means-end rationality of capitalist society. Poetry’s otherness enacts an escape from or a transformation of racial and sexual otherness: it embodies an otherness of inclusion rather than exclusion, of possibility rather than constraint. Poetry presents the possibility of an otherness that is liberating rather than constricting: it offers the prospect of an alienation from alienation. In his great essay "Lyric Poetry and Society," Theodor Adorno proposed that poetry presents the alienation of language from its alienation in everyday use: by turning language away from its use as a mere medium of exchange, poetry returns language to itself. Poetry’s otherness to my own multiple socially defined othernesses is a space of freedom, where lack becomes pure potential.
For this reason, I have always intensely disliked what I call identity poetics, the use of poetry as a means to assert or claim social identity. The impulse to explain poetry as a symptom of its author's biography or its social context is pervasive these days, including among authors themselves. But that has always seemed to me a form of self-imprisonment, neglecting or even negating the possibilities poetry offers not just of being someone else, anyone and/or everyone else, but of being no one at all, of existing, however contingently, outside the shackles of identity and definition. Poetry is, among other things, a way of opening up worlds and possibilities of worlds. It offers a combination of otherness and brotherhood, the opportunity to find the otherness in the familiar, to find the familiar in the other. The various (though not various enough) constructions of identity poetics shut down the multifarious possibilities poetry offers in favor of mere self-reflection, and at that, reflection of a reified, simplified self much less complex and interesting than the several selves we each are at any given moment and through the course of the various lives we live simultaneously. As the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis has urged, “Admit that there’s more than one of you, and surprise and embarrass all of yourselves.”
Ideally, one writes poetry as an act of exploration, as a venture into the unknown. (As Yeats wrote, out of what one knows, one makes rhetoric; out of what one doesn’t know, one makes poetry.) Too often today, though, writers want simply to “express” the selves they have decided that they are or have, and readers demand to see themselves (or what they imagine as themselves) reflected back to them. In Ann Lauterbach's incisive words, “The idea that the act of reading expands and extends knowledge to orders of unfamiliar experience has been replaced by acts of reading in order to substantiate and authorize claims and positions which often mirror the identity bearings of the reader.” Identity poetics is boring, giving back the already known in an endless and endlessly self-righteous confirmation of things as they are. It is also constraining, limiting the imaginative options of the very people it seeks to liberate or speak for. If one follows the assumptions of identity poetics through, saying “Here are the gay poets, here are the black poets, here are the straight white male poets, and everyone just reads the poets who match their demographic classification,” not only could a white person have nothing to say to a black person, or a straight person to a gay person, but a black person could have nothing to say to a white person, or a woman to a man. So there would be no reason for a white person to read anything written by a black person.
I have never looked to literature merely to mirror myself back to me, to confirm my identity to myself or to others. I already have a self, even if one often at odds with itself, and if anything I have felt burdened, even trapped, by that self and its demands, by the demands made upon it by the world. Many minority writers have spoken of feeling invisible: I have always felt entirely too visible, the object of scrutiny, labeling, and categorization. Literature offered a way out of being a social problem or statistic, a way not to be what everyone had decided I was, not to be subject to what that meant about me and for me. But even if one has a more sanguine relation to selfhood, Picasso’s admonition should always be kept in mind: art is called art because it is not life. Otherwise, why would art exist? Life already is, and hardly needs confirmation.
I seek from literature an image of who or what I could be, of what the world itself could be, an image of the “as if” rather than of the “as is.” The greatest literature has always engaged in the generation of new realities, not the reiteration of the same old given reality. I think most literary minded people, if asked, would agree with such a statement: and yet black writers are held (and many hold themselves) to a different, double standard. “Write what you know” becomes a trap, as if there were a fixed terrain of what one can or should know, and as if the possibility of writing what one does not know might not be the most exciting of all. As Stephen Owen writes, “We have been informed that we are radically ‘of’ our age, or culture, or gender, or class, [or race], and not of another; we can go elsewhere only as tourists, cultural voyeurs. If we believe such a story, we will accept our assigned places, submit to our limitations, and repress the hope that we can go back to where we were, or stay where we choose, or even change and become other, except as we are driven hopelessly forward by history’s inertial machine.”