Cultural Appropriation and Fair Use

When the 2015 collection of Best American Poetry came out this September, the poetry world erupted into controversy. At the crux of the matter was a poem titled “The Bees, the Flowers, Ancient Tigers, Poseiden, Adam and Eve” by Michael Derrick Hudson. Why all the fuss? Because Hudson, a white man, published his poem under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson claimed that he was unable to find a publisher for his poem until he began sending it out under an Asian pen name (1). Asian poets and writers were understandably upset when the anthology came out and it’s sparked a discussion among academics and poets about the nature of cultural appropriation and the myth of reverse racism. Editor Sherman Alexie responded to the controversy in an article posted on the Best American Poetry blog. His thoughtful essay addresses the tension between the literary world’s desire to showcase diverse voices and the necessity of remaining faithful to aesthetic principles:

“If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.

And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.

But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. (2)”

My own experiences as a queer woman and my friendships with people of a variety of races and nationalities have sensitized me to the issue of cultural appropriation. So what is cultural appropriation? It’s overwriting the voices of the voiceless with narrative constructed outside of the lived experience of a person who is a member of an oppressed class. Since there are many kinds of oppressed classes and since one person can belong to more than one of them, the issue can become complicated. The litmus test for me goes back to the question of lived experience. Does the person telling the story have the right to tell it? Is it his story to tell? As with many questions, there is no one right answer, but there are definitely some wrong ones.

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One Year After the Boston Marathon Bombing

Image of military vehicles in Boston in the aftermath of the 2013 marathon bombing.
Photo credit: Jeff Cutler (Flickr Creative Commons)

Ever since moving to Boston in 1999, I’ve been keenly aware of the ways in which I am separate from the city’s mainstream culture. As a queer woman, as a poet, as a [insert any one of a variety of labels that apply to me], I’m used to feeling different, apart, separate. About this time last year though, an odd thing happened.

In the hours and the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, I began to feel like I was part of a unified whole. That the Boston portrayed in the national press, the Boston of skinny white women sporting Tiffany bracelets in the Back Bay, the Boston of drunken Red Sox fans on the Green Line, the Boston of disaffected immigrants in search of a reason for living — that all of these Bostons — was also the Boston that I know: the Boston of slam poets congregating at the Cantab in Cambridge, the Boston of nerds in black turtlenecks eating sushi and joking about obscure internet memes, the Boston of queers congregating in living rooms and church basements, the Boston of police brutality and entrenched segregation.

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What Happens to a Dream Deferred?

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes
From Collected Poems

There are many kinds of cages. Some of them are more comfortable than others. But they are all cages.

In Memoriam: Trayvon Martin

I’ve been largely silent regarding the issue of Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. As a white woman living in Boston, I don’t see the ongoing effects of racism in the same way that I did when I was living on the north side of Poughkeepsie, or growing up in a housing project in Stamford. But racism still affects me and those I love. I’d like to take a moment to honor the friends and loved ones whom I know deal with racism on a daily basis — and the friends and loved ones I never met or never got to know well because of the racist and segregated society in which I live.

From a New York Times editorial published July 14, 2013:

While Mr. Zimmerman’s conviction might have provided an emotional catharsis, we would still be a country plagued by racism, which persists in ever more insidious forms despite the Supreme Court’s sanguine assessment that “things have changed dramatically,” as it said in last month’s ruling striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

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Mailbox

This is the sort of memoir piece I aspire to write. It’s also a wonderful reminder of a few of the advantages I took for granted growing up. Compassion grows from an understanding that we are more alike than we are different.

Three San Francisco Haiku: Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin

Three haiku at the Phoenix Hotel on the edge of the Tenderloin

san francisco streets
wrought iron gate, open sky
urban oasis

blue mosaic pool
low chairs arranged artfully
artwork, fountains, fire

outside, the homeless
squeal of buses, 6am
unmerited gifts

From the Archives: In Pura's voice

From the archives, a character study I started in 1998. Would you like to hear more of her story?

In Pura’s voice

She turned out to be just like all the other bitches. After all I did for her, she just cut me off. All those good times we had, those long drives in the country, all the times I took her out to dinner, nothing. It meant nothing to her. She just wanted to see how much she could get out of me.

I should have known better when I met her. She was alone, standing against the wall at the club when I saw her eyeballing me, dancing. I could see her eyes shining in the darkness. Demon eyes. I didn’t let on that I noticed her, just kept on dancing. But later, I eased on up next to her. She leaned down to me, like a fly to honey. I pulled her onto the floor. And she could dance. Really something for a white girl, for a pale-skin like her to dance like that. I did like her pale skin, too, all creamy, but dotted with beauty marks. That blonde hair, those blue eyes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Because later that night, I saw her get on the back of a bike, and old Beamer cruiser, with some Dominican guy—an old Beamer. He even honked at me when they buzzed by, as if to say this one’s mine. The last thing I saw was her nice round ass speeding off on the back of that bike. It was enough to make me cry. Her wasting herself on some piece of meat like that, and my Harley in pieces in my brother’s garage.

I didn’t think she’d call. Forgot all about her in fact. Went back to work on Monday, driving those kids around to their summer camps. Told off that asshole Greg a couple times, but that’s nothing new. He thinks because I’m small and female that I must want a piece of his big black dick. He just doesn’t get it. So I try to explain it to him in a way that even he can understand.

So anyway, I get home one day, I have a few beers with my buddy Tim down at the Cool Moose, and there’s this note for me. Eliza. And a phone number. I don’t know anybody named Eliza, but I figure what the hell, I’ll call.

She calls back the next day and reminds me we met at the club. And bam, I remember it all, her eyes in the darkness, the way she shook that ass, her getting on the back of that asshole’s bike. “You’re not bisexual, are you?” I said to her.

“So what if I am?” she goes.

“Well, I just don’t like the taste of sperm.”

She didn’t like that one bit, but it didn’t stop her from calling me back. And talking to her, she had all these theories, something about poly-something, which was like supposed to make it okay to fuck around with whoever you want. And she used all these big words all the time. They just came right out of her mouth, like she thought you’d know what the hell she was talking about. But I wasn’t listening to what she was saying. I just liked the sound of her voice. It was saying something different. It was saying, “Everything’s going to be all right.” It was saying, “I want to take you to bed.”

I wanted that too, and that’s why I kept calling her back. That’s why I agreed to meet up with her for hike out by the reservoir. But I know how to keep bitches like her coming back. So I teased her. I let her know she wasn’t going to get me that easy. And she loved it—I know she did. You should have seen the look on her face at the end of that hike. I took a berry between my lips and I offered it to her. She got that satisfied look on her face, she sidled up real close and put those big pale arms around me. She leaned in for the kiss, but all she got was the berry. I was out of her reach in seconds. And you could see her face, all confused like, but excited too.

It wasn’t long before she let that Dominican guy drop, before the two of us were hot and heavy in her bed, in her bathroom, in her kitchen, on the back porch, in the car. There’s one thing I have to say for that bitch: she could fuck. She could give as well as she got, and then keep giving. I had to keep her in line, really, let her know who was in charge.

And that’s where the trouble started. We had a little argument one night, and she started talking this crazy shit, saying she was going to throw my stuff out the window. Then the bitch hit me, burned me up real bad with a cigarette. So I had to show her what’s what, and before you know it, she’s calling the cops on me! On me, when she started the whole thing!

I got the fuck out of there to let her cool down, and when I came back, the cops were still there. I explained the situation to them, and they were real cool about it, they let her know she wasn’t going to get away with that kind of shit. But I had had it with her. I packed up my shit and told her exactly what she was: a no-good piece of shit excuse for a human being. What kind of bitch starts a fight like that and then expects the cops to come and take her side?

But the trouble was, by then I had the taste of her in my mouth, and in my mind. She had cast a spell on me in the club that first night, and there was no way I could resist. She had those devil eyes, and they followed me everywhere. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Believe me, I tried. I took out a few girls, trying to get her out of my mind, but she had me. So I called her up again. We talked about it, we said our apologies, and before you know it, we were hot and heavy again.

Until.

See, she still had an attitude on her. She thought because she knew all these big words, because she worked inside at a desk while I was out busting my hump driving trucks, and she was somehow better than her. And to top it all off, I caught her with that Dominican guy again. They tried to make like they were all just friends, like they weren’t fucking anymore. But I knew. I could see it by the way they looked at each other, by the way they touched each other, by the fucking smell on her.

So I said fine, if that’s how it’s going to be, that’s how it’s going to be. Because see, the other thing about this bitch is that she lived with a really fine woman, this girl named Ingrid from Germany or Poland or some shit like that. And Ingrid had never been with a woman before, but I could tell she was hot for me. You know, you live long enough and you can just tell these things. So while Eliza was out fucking her Dominican man and pretending like she wasn’t, I was hanging out with Ingrid, smoking on the front porch, talking, listening to music, getting to know her. And soon enough I made my move. But Ingrid fucked up. She told Eliza, and then all the shit hit the fan. It’s too bad, really. If things had worked out differently, everyone would have been a lot happier.

I Still Can't Believe It

In my lifetime…

…a black man became President-Elect of the United States of America.

…same-sex couples are now legally married.

That is all I have to say. I want to just revel in the success for a while.

And both of them gifts. Requiring just the most minor amount of effort on my own part.

Both of them worthy of crying tears of joy.

Neither of them did I expect to see in my lifetime.