A panel of writers tackles literary ethics and the literary artist
THE FOLLOWING IS an edited transcript of a public forum held at Davidson College on 19 October 2015, moderated by Alan Michael Parker, Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English, and featuring poet/sculptor Amy Bagwell, novelist/playwright Jeff Jackson, and L. Lamar Wilson, Visiting Assistant Professor of English. The panel discussion was sponsored by the Vann Center for Ethics with funding from the Richard Davoud Donchian Foundation, and co-sponsored by the Department of English. This transcript was drafted by Will Fletcher-Hill ’18, Natalie Philips ’18, and Vann Center director David Perry, from a videotape produced by Amber MacIntyre, program coordinator at the Vann Center.
AMY BAGWELL is a poet, mixed-media artist,. Her poems have been published in the anthologies Topograph and Boomtown and the journal Figdust, with work forthcoming from Dusie Press. She teaches English at Central Piedmont Community College, where she chairs the board of the Literary Events of Sensoria, the school’s annual festival of literature and the arts. She lives in Charlotte with her family.
JEFF JACKSON is the author of the novel Mira Corpora, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and selected as one of the best books of the year in Salon, Slate, Flavorwire, and The New Statesman. Six of his plays have been produced in New York City by the Obie-award winning Collapsable Giraffe theater company. He also oversees the New Frequencies program at the McColl Center in Charlotte, which presents cutting-edge jazz, film, literature, and performance events.
ALAN MICHAEL PARKER is the author of eight collections of poems, including The Ladder (forthcoming in 2016), and three novels, including The Committee on Town Happiness. His honors include three Pushcart Prizes, inclusion in Best American Poetry 2011 and 2015, the 2013 and 2014 Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, and the North Carolina Book Award. He’s the Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College, where he has taught since 1998. He also teaches in the University of Tampa Low-Residency M.F.A. program. He lives in Davidson with his partner, the artist Felicia van Bork.
L. LAMAR WILSON, a visiting assistant professor at Davidson College, holds a B.S. in journalism from Florida A&M University and an MFA in creative writing from Virginia Tech, and is completing a doctorate in African American and multiethnic American poetics at UNC Chapel Hill. Wilson is the author or Sacrilegion (2013), a winner of the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series and a finalist for the Thom Gunn award, and co-author of Prime: Poetry and Conversation (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014) with the Phantastique Five.
ALAN MICHAEL PARKER
I’d like now to get our panel discussion started by focusing on the literary act and its relationship to ethics. How do you make value judgments in relation to your literary expression?
L. LAMAR WILSON
For me, I’m now more willing than ever to lie. Poetry gave me permission to lie in ways that I didn’t think I could before as I enter this tradition of storytelling, tall-tale telling, from which I emerged. I grew up in a Christian home, surrounded by biblical narratives, which some people can see as literature and some see as the very word of God. I was raised, ironically, by these tall tale tellers to see them as the very word of God. Now, though, I see their literary effect, especially as I read similar creation stories that preceded the Bible.
In order to interrogate, for example, the emotional truths of a person who is a survivor of sexual abuse who went on to do horrific things, to become a serial killer and sex worker—which I did in Sacrilegion—I had to begin to imagine: What would lead someone to that path? Similarly, in exploring the death of Morning Dew, the black wife of Seminole leader Osceola, who you may not know is believed to be the cause of the second Seminole War after she was taken back into slavery. There’s a myth about how she died. To be able to lie and make up what that might have been, to try to reach back in History and give voice to that experience, was very liberating to me.
Poetry also allowed me to challenge the ideas of those guys in the Nicene Council, who decided on what would become the Bible. I know that they at least changed “and” to “but” in a passage from Song of Solomon. In the original language, the text said, “I am comely and black,” but in the King James Version it reads “I am comely but black,” and that has a totally different connotation.
I’d ask Jeff or Amy to comment on lying and truth-telling, and how you’d respond to Lamar.
Jeff has written this novel that has a narrator/character called Jeff Jackson, so Alan’s question about lying works better with what Jeff’s been doing.
When I write poems, I don’t think about whether I’m lying. I’m trying to distill something, and in the distillation I’m drawing on a Tim O’Brien thing, a distinction between truth and fact. To me, truth is far more interesting than fact. Facts change: At one point it was a fact that we were at the center of the universe, that everything went around us. That was the accepted fact, so accepted facts change. You can lie about facts, but if you’re telling truths, then you’re accomplishing something.
I have no qualms about writing something that isn’t factual. I don’t think that I would write something injurious or malicious; I think that’s the sort of ethical line I would draw. When I’m writing poems, I’m trying to reduce, to take things down to the smallest possible dose, so I can apply that dosage. And if some glimmer of truth comes through by my distilling, then I’ve succeeded. And if I’m lying the whole time, fine, as long as I’m not doing it on purpose to hurt someone.
I never really thought of fiction as lying, it’s just storytelling to me. So even though my novel has a character, the narrator, named Jeff Jackson and was drawn from my journals, I still thought of it as storytelling. What mattered to me was the truth on the page. Whatever happened in my life, if it fit in a way that was productive with what was happening on the page, then that’s great. And if it didn’t, then it didn’t belong. That was the test for me.
In one of the first creative writing classes I took, we were discussing someone’s story, and the author said at the end, “That part of the story that everyone said didn’t seem believable, that really happened to me.” And the professor replied: “So what? None of us believed it. It didn’t work on the page.
For me in Mira Corpora, it was important to get at a larger emotional truth around things that I’d been through and things people around me had been through, and to be faithful to that rather than to any sort of facts. One of the main liberations of doing anything creative is stepping outside of yourself, being able to project yourself into places we just can’t go since we’re trapped in our own consciousness. To be able to imagine ourselves in other ways allows us to have empathy with different situations and different people. I guess that’s the power of it for me.
Here’s a question that you’ve made me think of: Do writers and other artists have a debt of awareness, if it’s not about adhering to facts, or lying? Do we owe the world a sense of understanding of what these words might mean, or what is happening outside of our experiences [inaudible]?
I don’t know if I want to revise my word choice, but semantically, what I think I mean by the word “lying” is that to me, creatively, to be able to get at an emotional truth, as someone who was committed to being an honest person, by making anything up that I wanted or needed to get at an honest emotion was liberating.
You see, I feel a cultural debt, a historical debt, to tend to the past in that way, to imagine what may not be true and write it down, flesh out that myth that Morning Dew killed her enslavers and then killed herself. There is a possibility that that did not actually happen, that what I’ve described is just a myth made up about her, her knowing that if she died, the war might end because Osceola would keep fighting until he got her back. I think it’s valiant that this myth gives her the agency to kill her captors and then commit suicide. So to me, I want to believe that truth and immortalize it in a poem.
The permission to do that, what some would call an act of lying, is for me getting at what I was trying to articulate in Sacrilegion, about what it feels like to be the outcast, to be an outcast in a society, which is a very real nexus of emotions that I felt in the years before the poems took shape. I was able to access it through all these other narratives, and in so doing, access the truth of my own feelings in first-person poems from my own lived experience.
I’m a little worried about the idea that I might have access to an emotional truth that is greater than me. Sometimes we valorize the life of the artist, such as the four of us here saying “We’ve got game! We’ve got you covered. We’re getting at all those big ideas.” I’m a little skeptical of this. When Lamar says “an emotional truth for me,” that’s also an emotional truth for a reader, not all readers. I would not lay claim to having wisdom greater than what I can know and/or project through my imagination. I really don’t want to be the person saying, “This is true. My work will touch you in a way that’s universal; your job is to get access to it. Your job is to worship at the altar of artistic insight.” I really don’t want to have that be part of my working relationship with my reader.
But I do think there’s a way in which the work that I do, plumbing emotional depths, reaches something that has to be true in order for it to matter to you. Unless I do that, unless I’m there in a way as your proxy, doing some of that digging for you, then I don’t think we can share that particular emotional truth, or that historical truth, or that notion of injustice. There’s a way in which the literary artist is working sacrificially, without being a martyr because martyrdom isn’t cool, and martyrs tend to die, but a way in which we’re pursuing a course on behalf of the reader.
I agree with that. The reader shouldn’t feel like there is one thing that every reader should feel from a work. In my writing I try to allow for as much ambiguity as possible, as much room for the reader to roam around, to make their own connections and have their own feelings -- or no feelings. I want to allow you enough space as a reader to engage the text however you want to engage it. In some cases, the readers won’t want to do the work, in other cases the reader will want to sink into the text, and maybe they get something more out of it.
The text shouldn’t be a recipe that’s been put together to produce a prescribed result. But there are a lot of popular novels that do seem to prescribe that, to spoon-feed you what every character is feeling in every part of the book, giving you these long emotional passages that you’re supposed to feel along with the characters.
Those fictions feel ethically suspect to me. A lot of what’s happening politically now is that parts of society are trying to chip away at independent thinkers. It’s no accident that Republicans are actively working to both to de-fund and de-legitimize public education. Public discourse around the country is being dumbed down. And when writers are, knowingly or not, formally or stylistically, playing along with this trend, it’s troubling. Some authors would say, “I’m just trying to make my book more commercial, it’s just the market.” That’s true, but it’s also a political act, and an ethical act. To me, it’s an erosion of good will between the reader and the writer.
So, is there a common denominator among writers, which is craft?
Craft is such an individualized thing for every artist. I think your craft, your technique, is in the service of what you’re trying to do in the moment. A jazz critic was talking about how Thelonius Monk had terrible technique, but in fact Thelonius Monk has exceptional technique for the type of music he’s playing. So the critic was trying to make a blanket statement about what piano technique should be in jazz, but that didn’t apply to Thelonius Monk’s music or his artistic aims. So to me, craft is so particularized that it becomes difficult to make too many generalizations about it.
I’d agree with that. Maybe that gaze on Thelonius Monk is expecting him to do a certain thing, right? For many African American writers, you see, that gaze’s expectation is the culprit crippling the critic from seeing the genius before him. Take someone like Phillis Wheatley, whose prosody is impeccable because she learned the Dryden heroic couplet. Yet she is seen only as a slave imitating the white men she was raised to emulate. Thus, most critics of her work refuse to see that she did some very irreverent variations in tone and subject matter in those couplets, even as she was following the craft and the technique she had mastered. And that’s the great gift of signifying that has lived throughout African American letters. So it’s all about what the audience’s expectation is of the artist and the ways that the artist inherently will subvert that expectation that leads to what I think you’re calling craft.
Well, I do think that talking about musicians is helpful because the language is our instrument, our body plays the instrument. And as literary folks we’re trying hard to learn what kinds of music that might produce. I’m not sure that your idea of craft and my idea of craft would be a shared craft; I’m not sure that we could reach consensus on that. Do I mean a good sentence? Do I mean a good line? Do I mean some kind of emotive statement? Do I mean learning craft in undergraduate or graduate school workshops? So I’m not sure about that.
I do know that, as a person who’s teaching this stuff, I am definitely inculcating my students in my aesthetics, and calling that craft. And I am trying to disabuse them at the same time of the institutional power that is the man. So education in the arts is a really complicated business. I am pursuing that education myself in relationship to what I read. All of that is in the name of “craft,” but it’s really hard to figure out how this instrument’s tuned, and what its range is, and what kind of songs I could play. I’m wary of craft.
On a side note, we just Skyped with an amazing poet, Sarah Hollenbach, in my class. She was talking about craft, and the way that it’s wielded as a sexist term against women, to talk about the well-made poem, as in “This poem is really well-made,” and how in reviews her work has been dismissed on the grounds of craft. And I thought that was just great, to hear that discussion of “craft” as a gendered power dynamic, because I think that happens also in education, MFA programs, literary workshops, where craft is something like, “Oh well, you could make a pretty thing.” And that’s too easily wielded as a gendered act. So I’m skeptical of that term on a lot of grounds. And having said all that, that’s all I teach right now, it pays the bills.
How far can you go in projecting your imagination into something you haven’t personally experienced, like the Holocaust, before you cross some ethical line?
I guess I would say, in terms of the results, the proof is in what’s in front of you, the individual artifact, whether that’s a novel or a film or a poem. Does it feel like it’s tapping into something that feels genuine for you? For me, it’s a question of, “Am I fully inhabiting this moment, this consciousness?” And if I’m not able to do that, and if it feels wrong, then I need to back away from it. Because sometimes you can’t fully inhabit things that you have experienced; sometimes it’s actually easier to inhabit something that you can only see out of the corner of your eye rather than something that’s directly in front of you.
You need to check your gut. For me, the important thing is not to censor yourself. People asked William S. Burroughs once about his book Naked Lunch and what he thought about its censorship which almost sent him to jail. He said the censorship of the book didn’t matter that much. What we should really be worried about are the thoughts we censor every single day. Self censorship is the bigger issue: this is what we really need to talk about. When you’re writing creatively, you have these impulses. I think it’s important not to censor them, to follow them and see where they lead. Where they lead may mean that they end up in the wastebasket, and then no one ever sees them. But it’s important to follow them, and then test yourself through revision, honing your own bullshit detector as to whether or not you’ve crossed some sort of line. For me, I only know by going through that process.
When it comes to the readers, the audience, I think everybody who has written something and shared it with the community, you hear feedback on whether something feels artificial, whether somebody feels he or she’s being toyed with, or whether something feels inauthentic or manipulative; that’s the word that hasn’t come up, that’s the most important word for me. Does it feel like I’m being messed around with here, as a reader? Everybody has that first reader who is the person who will tell the truth and say, “That didn’t work for me. That feels like a lie. That doesn’t feel like an honest emotion, and I don’t like the way you make me feel when you do that.” That’s sometimes what a first reader’s response is, and sometimes that happens in a workshop, and a lot of times it doesn’t. I got to a point in my life where people would say in workshops (this may get me in cultural trouble)—“There’s such music in your poems,” “You’re so musical,” “I love the music in your poem”—and I knew I was overusing my innate musicality, particularly if it overshadowed other elements of craft in what I was trying to convey emotionally. So I think that’s a good checkpoint, that first reader.
And I would add that trusting in the imagination as a fundamentally empathetic operation is really important. When you are imagining something, you are really stepping outside certain boundaries of your experience, and it’s rooted in your experience necessarily. But cast the mind toward that of another. Doing so doesn’t mean it’s going to work as a literary act, it doesn’t mean it’s going to align with your politics, or with the politics of a given moment that might be seeking the kind of justice that you share, that impulse. But if may use the word “injurious,” whether it’s injurious or it’s propaganda, for the readers you need your bullshit detector, and you also need to try to just trust in yourself and the work. Imagination is connecting people who aren’t you. So it seems to me that making shit up is part of the deal, even if it turns out it’s not your shit, and then you should throw it out.
My question is about The Best American Poetry fiasco and the artist formally known as Yi-Fen Chou. How does an artist juggle the ethics of creating a text that lays claim to access that the artists themselves do not have access to, and how does a reader place themselves in terms of that?
Let’s start with an assertion: Yi-Fen Chou’s poem isn’t Madame Bovary. That’s a great book, and what this guy did isn’t great. Plus, it was pretty wrong to do.
While I think our local ethicist might not say ethics are situational, but I think they are. And I think that you bring your values to that particular circumstance, and you apply them the best way your Mama taught you, which is to do right. And if you think you’re stealing something, then you’re right, you’re stealing something. If you think it first, you’re right, you’re stealing something. If you think that before we get it, you’re right. If you suspect that about yourself, yes, that’s probably true. But I have an obligation to try to reach inside, and right from the inside of consciousnesses that are not mine. I write novels, that’s my obligation. Sometimes those are people who have experiences that I could not have; wait, actually mostly. But that’s my job too.
From the reader’s side of the equation, too, it’s important to bring your own ethics to the text. When I’m reading certain texts, I’m doing this sort of dance, or negotiation: I’m having to figure out where I sit in relation to the text, not necessarily where I think the text is telling me to sit, but where I actually sit. One of my favorite (ethical) writers is Isaac Babel. In his great Red Cavalry stories, he’s writing from the point of view of Cossack narrators who are brutalizing people. The way these narrators describe the people they’re brutalizing is in itself dehumanizing. But Isaac Babel wants you to have to fight to have empathy for the people who are being victimized: he wants you to have to earn that empathy. To read those stories simply on the surface, you’d think the author was a monster and the stories themselves are monstrous. In fact, they are some of the most humane stories I know, but you have to come at them with your own ethics and then work your way through the roadblocks he’s put in your path to find the humanity that is very much present in his work. It’s something that asks a lot of the reader, but that’s also something positive. As readers we all need to uphold our own side of the literary equation.
[Returning to the Best American Poetry controversy] The editor Sherman Alexie decided that he liked this poem for what it was, so he included it in the collection anyway. So, how does that fit in with what Jackson said about the reader’s ethic?
Well I’m a bad person to answer that, so I’m going to pass. I’m familiar with the controversy but I haven’t read the poem, so I shouldn’t try to answer your question.
I have a poem that Sherman Alexie chose for that volume, so this is part of why people here are laughing. I’m a middle-aged, straight, white guy in that volume chosen by Sherman Alexie, who didn’t know me, I didn’t know him, we hadn’t met until recently, after the book came out. Alexi’s response was both naïve at the level of critical race theory, and genuine and loving at the level of his own readership and his relationship to his ethics. So if you go to the Best American Poetry blog, and you look at how he answered exactly that question, I actually think Alexie is one of the most empathetic people I’ve met. He’s in ways a great person, and I mean that in a literal sense—he has greatness of personhood. And so, I think that he just felt that this was a big thing to do, to keep the poem in the volume, even though it might be contradicted by his politics and by some more rigorous critical race thinking on race. I don’t think he should have kept the poem in the book; at the same time, I respect why he did, sort of.
It was a fascinating thing to be there, to see how people handled it. At the launch there was a poet (there were thirty-one of us onstage, each of us to read our own poem), one poet who refused to read her own poem, and instead read a poem (in translation) by a Vietnamese woman. So this was a queer white woman who decided to represent, but I thought she was just doing the same thing. I thought: “Okay, your politics are making you speak for someone. But assuming you can stand here and speak for that person is part of the issue. You actually can’t stand here and speak for this person. Read your own damn poem. And be upset, and go protest somewhere.” And there was a lot of “Yeah! You do it!” and I thought, “Really?” So I wish that, at the level of how the various positions are racialized in this conversation, there could be more open and critical talk about it.
Can you write a poem about the Holocaust from a first-person perspective even if you didn’t experience that, or can I write a poem as a black voice even though I’m white?
Everyone hands the mic to the African American gentleman…
“Speak for black people!” I will speak. What I can say is that I’ve never been in a vial, and I’ve never been a cancer cell, but I know what it’s like when my sisters kiss me on the cheek. When I read Rebecca Skloot’s book that has gotten a lot of attention, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I thought of this white woman who had written a book that had been preceded by a book that was written by a black woman people don’t know as much, Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid. I saw the very same scene being reenacted in a way that touched many more people than touched me when I had read Washington’s rendering of it. And I said, “That’s what I want to do.” In poetry. Honour Washington and what she made possible for Skloot. I realized that I could try to enter into this huge historical narrative about what the HeLa cells might feel like by writing a poem about it. And that’s the only honest way that I could access something that felt right on the page, reimagining the HeLa cells as little girls reveling in a sister’s innocent kiss, longing for a mother’s embrace. I don’t even know what it’s truly like to be female, much less speak for all black people, though that’s the burden placed on black writers, on me right now. In my culture, many people feel I am less black and less male because I am queer (that is something I walk to the page knowing, you know)—and also that I have an essential relationship to the feminine that other black men don’t have. And none of that is necessarily or inherently true. But the way that I could access Lacks’s story and try to write a strong persona poem was to understand how special I feel when my big sisters give me a kiss. And that’s where the poem started.
One of the things my students talk about a lot is, “What can I do, and what can’t I do?” What worries me is that I wouldn’t undertake to build a car; I might undertake to build a bookshelf, because I have a sense of my own abilities when it comes to building things. But if you don’t yet have a strong sense of your own abilities, I think you start with, “What am I trying to say?”
I don’t think we come at it from so far outside. It gets really tricky, this second- and third-level analysis, where we don’t talk about what the President just said, we talk about what other people think about what the President said; so you’re already two or three steps removed from what the President said, which might actually mean something.
I realize this is a little convoluted. No one’s going to look at you [looks at Wilson] and say, “Yes, you should try to write that story from the first-person perspective of an African American male.” No one’s going to give you that permission. No one gives us permission to speak to experiences outside of our own. But if we come to a story or something that we want to convey narratively, and honestly and authentically, and we give it our best, then we look at it in revision and determine whether we really have the tools to do it. I mean, don’t be a jerk, right? But if we come at it from, what are the circles within which I can act? Then we’ve already roped ourselves into a quandary that we shouldn’t be in when we’re trying to create. You come at it with an impulse, and then hem yourself back in.
On the Best American Poetry controversy, the poet wasn’t trying under his own name to imaginatively enter into someone else’s identity: He was very literally taking and claiming someone else’s identity, using their history, race, and heritage in a manipulative way. That is very different.
He said in his own defense, ironically, that there was a wrong that he was righting, that this industry that has become obsessed with being inclusive of other people …
This was professional sour grapes, which had nothing to do with anything imaginative at all.
I would also like to ask you, why do you think poems have to be true? Nonfiction has to be true, but fiction gets a pass. What is it about your assumptions about the poetry genre that makes you think, “Oh the poets have to tell the truth, they can’t steal, they can’t take anybody’s identity,” but you read a novel and think, “Wow, I’ll be in that land for about 300 pages.”
What about Confessional work?
There’s a long tradition of the Confessional, and what we inherited from the Romantics, where the lyric “I” is not just an alter ego but in fact the true soul of the speaking poet. And the ways in which you’re educated as poets in middle school, when you were told, “Write a poem,” and you’d say, “What?” And your teacher would say, “Oh, just go have a feeling; put it in the first person.” This is a machine that’s produced us. The machine includes the historical power of artists greater than I am who have needed to be in the first person to make good work, to make new inspirations. So I don’t have an answer, but I want to make sure that we’re not just defaulting to the “truthiness” of poems, or discussion of the “nonfiction” novel or poem. There are distinct formal differences between these genres, and ways in which those differences are elided by great work. Holding up poems to this standard makes me a little nervous.
I think it’s the library’s fault, because that’s where poetry is, in nonfiction, in the Dewey decimal system. That’s the weirdest thing you could ever learn.
Amy, say more about your putting poetry on public walls and what that means.
I do think context is part of it. Your grandmother probably had that thing on her nightstand that had a picture of a beautiful flower on it, poetry with the word “Pearls” in the title, and it was powdery all the time? Unfortunately we’ve inherited that a little bit as poets. But there shouldn’t be that connotation that the poet is saying is what the poet believes or has done, you know, Robert Browning.
Rimbaud’s “I as another,” stakes a claim immediately that when I say “I,” I’m not talking about me.
Questions about truth in poetry and music lyrics, and how someone from one background can imagine the experience or pain of someone from a very different background.
Existentially, we’re all trapped in our own particular bodies and circumstances. But one of the things that art can do is to expand us both as people making art and also as readers and viewers and listeners.
That’s terrific, amazing. I want to make sure that I don’t co- opt the first-person lyric, that “I,” in the name of just confessing something important, without thinking it through. I’m not a person who defaults to a history that I haven’t talked about, that I haven’t wrestled with, that I haven’t engaged in my own life, being someone trying to live an ethical life. I’m not saying that poems shouldn’t be true, I’m saying, please when you do assume that poems are true, consider where that comes from, why you assume that, why you hold a poem to that standard. I want folks to think about that, especially poets who think they need to tell the truth.
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