In the first incident the publication is Kenyon Review’s KR Online, which featured two poems by John Smelcer, “Indian Blues” and “Smoke Signals.” I’d link to them but they have been taken down by editor David Lynn. This was after a stink was raised on social media about Smelcer’s appropriating indigenous culture and furthering dangerous stereotypes, as evidenced in lines such as, “he used the long gray hair of old Indian mothers who had lost their children and grandchildren to alcohol.” The poems used phrases and images that were hackneyed, and Smelcer’s own claim to a native heritage was called into question.
I followed this controversy as it occurred but didn’t take notes on the poems themselves (which would have provided first-hand evidence for you). I can’t find them on the web and only have the quote above. But I do remember they impressed me as old-fashioned in an “Injun Summer” way.
As far as the next controversy, it is still playing out so I will give you the links and let you read for yourself. It concerns The New Yorker and its publication in the April 4 issue of a poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” by Calvin Trillin.
One of the first things I read about it was by Rich Smith in The Stranger (“Calvin Trillin’s Nostalgia for a White Planet”). He followed up on April 8 with “I Missed the Irony in Calvin Trillin’s Poem in The New Yorker but, Ironically, It’s Still a Bad Poem.”
On April 7, NPR aired a story “For Some Asian-Americans, Calvin Trillin’s Chinese Food Poem is Unappetizing.”
Some thought the poem was misunderstood, like Joyce Carol Oates, as reported in Salon, who tweeted: “Misunderstood for writing funnily of food, Dear Calvin Trillin has been grill-ed.” On April 6 The Guardian ran an article “Calvin Trillin denfends his Chinese food poem.”
I would not presume to tell you how to think about these works. Today there are many people telling you what to think but fewer people asking you to think for yourself. An apt tweet on the subject was by Alyssa Harad who wrote: “Ocean Vuong and Calvin Trillin in the same venue on the same week is where we are America.” Then she linked to “How a Poet Named Ocean Means to Fix the English Language” in The New Yorker’s Page Turner.
I do think that if someone is offended by your writing, then your writing has offended that person, whether that was your intent or not and no matter how you explain it. Perception trumps intent.
In researching for this post, I did come across a useful service. If you have a Native character in your work and want to make sure you are not using the wrong language or perpetuating stereotypes, you can consult with Debbie Reese at the organization American Indians in Children’s Literature.
Meanwhile as I write this another controversy has started with another writer who has a feature coming up at The New Yorker; this time it is Gay Talese. Also, a new book (Stephen O’Connor’s Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings) is inciting anger. Do we learn from controversy? Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but let’s hope so.
Peace, love, and solace