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.

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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.