Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Regarding Freedom of Art and Speech

UPDATE: Please read through the end of the comments section--everything personal has been resolved. Also, I have edited the tenses in the introduction to reflect the current status.

I've got a lot on my plate from AWP: seven reviews to write and the AWP recap. Plus there are, I think, two or three posts left in the Strong Verse series. However, an event came to my attention today--back in Gainesville, Florida--my old poetry stomping grounds.

A good friend of mine, who is a conservative in a sea of progressives, read a poem that has been decried as racist--consequently he has been banned from one place of poetry reading and was on the verge of being banned from another one--the oldest continual weekly poetry open-mike reading in the state--possibly the country (going strong for 20 years)--though that director (as seen in the comments) has eschewed any such path of censorship.

Here I'll say no more. What follows is the poem, "The New American Slavery," by Michael Bobbitt. After that is my letter to the two poets in charge of the readings who have banned and are thinking of banning a poet for their interpretation of his poem.

I ask you two things, readers: 1) do you find the poem racist? 2) how do you find my letter in response?

Thanks all,

The New American Slavery

We’re on the cusp of a new world

An order unlike anything our fathers could have imagined

We’ve been trading morality for comfort for too many years

And finally, painted into the corner of our own undoing

We’ve decided to just close our minds

Sit Indian-style like children

And chuckle while shit burns down.

We’ve finally outsmarted ourselves

Reasoned that style and platitudes

Could uplift us straight out of reality

They’s a nigger in the woodpile”

My granddaddy would say

And though I hated his language

I can only imagine he was prophesizing about right now

And how our leaders herd us like cats

Into unnaturally straight lines

“Come on up here little pussies…

Massa’s got some healthcare for you

Come on up to the porch, Toby,

And get you some free milk…”

The fields are going unplanted

The harvest time will come and go unnoticed

But we’ll just keep grinning

And eating

And not worryin bout nothing

Cause Massa’s got this magic machine

And he just gots to hit a button

And corn will roll out this here contraption—

Wheat and chicken and flour

Will just pop right out I think

And we don’t need to ever plant the fields

Or tend the flocks again.

The rich folks’ll keep the magic machines rolling

And we’ll just grin and think about equality

And how nuthin’s really equal

If’n we don’t get to pay less and take a little more

On account of all the wrong done to our granddaddies and such.

But I’m starting to think the magic machines

Might not be working proper

It’s turning cold again and I worry about the empty fields

I’m doing what I’m told, though.

I continue to hope, to think “Yes we can” all the time

But I’m gettin hungry

And it’s taking longer each season

To get my ‘lotment.

I hear the Chinamen gots all the rice they can eat

But it still don’t seem right

They should have to work so hard

At planting and harvesting—

Food is a basic human right—

What sorta evil Massa they got

Makes them work to eat?

The baby’s sick most days now

And we’re all pretty fed up

With the failin’ machines

Think maybe we’ll get pitchforks and torches

And tear apart that woodpile

Till we find that liar done trained us out of farming.

I tried to plant a garden today

But I couldn’t work out all the steps anymore

Massa’s forgot about me

And momma’s long gone

And it’s turning colder again.


Jimmy and David,

I'm sorry, but since when did the CMC PoJam or other Poetry institutions (TWIS) become centers of repression?

I'm hearing from Bobbitt about his banning. In my day we read naked and drunk--people would read poems about cunts and doing coke with William Burroughs while children were in the room. No one batted an eye. Hell, David--you screamed about cunts at a reading at Michael Bobbitt's house while my children were present.
Though I was annoyed--and disgusted--I certainly never thought about curtailing your freedom of speech.

Moreover, on frequent occasions folks would gleefully read--to gleeful response--poetry that was vehemently anti-Christian, anti-capitalist, anti-conservative, anti-Republican, anti-American, anti-man, and anti-white. That is to say, religionist, Marxist, progressive, totalitarian, seditious, misandrous, and racist.

Certainly you can't be banning Michael Bobbitt for the use of the word "nigger" or "Chinaman." I have heard that first word uttered at the CMC on more than one occasion--and none of its pracitioners were banned. Though I have never been to TWIS, I have a hard time imagining that you, David, you who so frequently employ "cunt"--which is the female equivalent of "nigger"--and could easily be accused of writing misogynist poetry--would have the gall to accuse someone of writing "racist" poetry.

Moreover, how on earth can either of you possibly imagine bringing in the police force into all of this? Do you truly wish humanity to be ruled by the state? I thought you, Jimmy, were an anarchist.

More than all of this, though, perhaps you should actually read the poem. In no way is it racist. It is obvious that the terms "nigger" and "Chinaman" are used ironically and for effect through the voice of the speaker.

Nothing I see in the poem justifies anything resembling a dustup over its language--perhaps its content should anger one due to the inherent oppression we have been receiving since at least the first Bush administration, ramped up by Clinton, exploded by Bush, and exploited by Obama--but Bobbitt's poem is in no way a racist work.

Even if it were, in what way is it of either of yours to police someone's thoughts or language? And David, how dare you interrupt someone's reading? The proper response--if you were offended by the poem--would be to address Michael after the reading.

I pray that you all will realize the grave error you have made--and the damage you are doing to the freedom of art in Gainesville.



Robert said...

But I like chuckling while shit burns down.

David said...

The banning from the Saturday event came about from nothing to do with content but rather the personal conversations had between the producer of that event (me) and the person banned. I have never banned anyone based on content presented at the Saturday event (or at any other event). I have, however, banned several people over the years because I was harassed (or for other reasons which do not apply in this case). I have full support from the venue, which is a private establishment (a bar), to disallow anyone from attending whom I deem unwelcome for any reason. Raising Cain in public is one way to force my hand. Continuing communication despite my request to hold off for a few days is another. I have learned from this experience, though. My "drama threshold" is lower, and in the future I will tolerate far less before revoking the welcome card. I have consulted with several other local and national event producers on this as well as managers from several local venues, and there is broad consensus on this issue. I would encourage anyone who has something to share with the public at an event not to agitate the producer of that event before the event occurs ... and if you do then please do not be surprised when you are asked to stay away.

G. M. Palmer said...



Because I believe the "raising Cain" you refer to was began by you walking out of the reading in the first place and causing a disturbance.

Trying to make yourself look good after the fact is just sad spin.

Troglodyte said...

That's some power you're weilding, David. Must be exhilerating.

Robert said...

David, even from an independent, third party perspective, it seems that you and Michael had a disagreement in your friend-friend relationship and you, embittered, crossed the streams with your host-performer relationship just because it comes with some modicum of authority that you were able to use as a tool against him. Seems pretty immature.

David said...

G. M.: I told the author a week earlier that I would leave under certain conditions. Those conditions were met. I am famous for keeping my word. In other words, the conversation you say I should have had following the reading *had already occurred*(and I heard the poem 2 weeks prior to that). I was clear to make this "promise" only apply at the CMC and not at other events strictly because of conversations I had with usual event host at the CMC. I did look forward to artfully replying to this piece at another open mic. Currently, this won’t happen at “TWIS!” or the CMC, but it still may happen elsewhere. There is no shortage of open mics in this town.

Last week, I left quickly, without fanfare or bravado. Others who were present were unaffected by my leaving—according to them. Maybe they are just giving me lip-service? I would urge you to interview others for perhaps a more objective account. Anyway, I understand that the resulting conversation was productive, focusing on the author's ideas and not on my departure. Any questions surrounding my departure were inconclusive and had no impact on the evening, which is as it should be.

Robert: If someone persists in being annoying and takes our private conversations public (on Facebook or wherever), guess what? I will do what I can to keep that person away from me and me from him/her. That may include banning that person from shows I produce. No ban needs to be permanent, but that depends of course on what happens later.

David said...

I erroneously addressed the first part of my last reply to Mr. Palmer ... that should have been addressed to the posted letter-writer, Michael.

Troglodyte said...

You keep referencing a promise to leave if you heard that poem read again. When did we have this conversation? I think this is a convenient device intended as a way of rationalizing rude behavior.

Moreover, even if it had ocurred, telling someone ahead of time that you intend to be disrespectful is a poor excuse for the disrespect.

It's true that our personal squabbles have gotten out of control, but your announcing to the world that the poetry event you host is subject to the whims of your personality makes the event irrelevant as anything other than a social gathering.

I imagine this modicum of power must stand in such stark contrast to your real life that it was just too enticing to pass up.

At least we know where we stand with one another. I won't forget it.

David said...

I made that promise to you the week before, at the CMC, right after you kissed me on top of my head. Thank you for not using your tongue, by the way.

All shows (not just "TWIS!", but literally ALL shows from the age of antiquity until today) are subject to the whims of the organizers. (Life lesson: life is a social gathering, and everything is irrelevent, including you and me.) I have never made any secret about "TWIS!" being subject to my whim. "This is a dictatorship and I am the dick" is a motto I used to truck out frequently. Time to bring that one back, as it always drew laughs from the audience.

James Schmidt said...

Mr. Palmer,

You are way out of line and waaaaaay out on a limb here, buddy.

I suggest you cease and desist immediately with this act of public slander.

You have taken one perspective on a many-sided argument, glopped on some very unfortunate and fundamentally important factual errors, and proceeded to grandstand in a manner that would be amusing if it weren't so wrong and so totally offensive.

At some not-insignificant personal risk, I have resisted even the notion of banning "Troglodyte" from the weekly reading I host, despite his somewhat outrageous behavior and egregious public statements.

If I have anything to do with it, no one will be banned from my establishment's open readings for sober, "artistic" expression. They will however be subject to the reaction of the audience, the staff and the volunteers in the space, and that may include those who choose to vote w/ their feet, as David did.

David has every right to exercise what little power is available to him in resisting Troglodyte's ad hominem attacks and harrassment. If that means that Trog gets banned from the reading David hosts, well, that's life. When you harrass and attack people publicly, there are usually going to be some kind of repercussions.

To portray this situation as a battle for free speech in art is disingenuous at best, and slanderous and petty at worst.

Too bad you chose to publicly grandstand based on one person's description of the situation, rather than investigating and asking for others' perspectives.

I thought better of you than this.

Anyone who wants to get another perspective on this tempest in a tiny teapot can come talk to me in person, or pick up one of those old-fangled things they call a telephone.

The internet is a poor forum for substantive debate, as this whole farce amply illustrates.

James Schmidt

Al said...

Yes, it relies on racist themes and is a fairly racist poem.

“They’s a nigger in the woodpile” / My granddaddy would say / And though I hated his language / I can only imagine he was prophesizing about right now

In this case, obviously "nigger" refers to President Obama and "woodpile" refers to the White House. If you look at the context of the poem, the author seems to be saying, "Well I don't like the language he's using but I agree with his general idea."

The use of "Chinaman" is forced and eye-roll inducing; at best it's language used to simply shock the audience, but it doesn't really fit the rest of the poem.

And then the "Think maybe we’ll get pitchforks and torches / And tear apart that woodpile / Till we find that liar done trained us out of farming." evokes the not-so-subtle imagery of lynching and violent overthrow.

It's racism. Not obvious "burning cross on your lawn" racism, but the "some of my best friends are black" form of racism that hopes innuendo and suggestive symbolism can keep it from being called what it is.

Should it be banned? Well, if they have a right to read this poem, I have a right to boo it.

Troglodyte said...

I'd like to go on record to say that Jimmy (the head dude at the CMC poetry Jam) and I have reached an accord about all of this business. He has made the stand that he will not ban me or anyone for content, and I accpet that if I intend to dish out shit on occasion, then I have to accept the push back from the audience. I still contend that walking out on a friend is beyond the scope of what I can bear, but I am comfortable enough in my skin and in my art to accept criticism. It's nice to see, however, that the spirit of the Jam lives on, that the temple of the word will not go the way of lesser venues and regulate its participants.

I stand behind this piece of art as the antithesis of racism. I still beleive it to be a call to arms to not accept bondage of any kind.

But I am ready to put aside the hurt feelings and the controversy, because two warring silverbacks were able to talk like men and work through the bullshit tonight. Thanks, Jimmy.

G. M. Palmer said...

I think, actually, that this post help to quell some of the damage that was being done.

But it brings up two far larger points--taboo and intention.

Should there be taboo subjects for poetry?

How much can the intention of the author be gleaned--or should it even be?

Anonymous said...

Lots and lots of two dollar words to illustrate that many of you didn't get the intent. Also, if anyone here expects Mike Bobbitt to NOT try to both shock AND inspire, you must not really know the guy.

Artist aside, if you don't like the open forum of artistic expression, don't offer it to the public. You have to admit, though, six vegans stroking their egos to the point of pseudointellectual climax would be fucking boring to witness. There are only so many rhymes for lines ending in "Bush" or "republican".

Also, I ain't a fan of the "N" word, but that was why it was used, I suspect.

G. M. Palmer said...


I would tend to agree with you. I think the poem could have been successful--possibly moreso--without the use of the colloquial ninja.

Of course the whole brouhaha over the poem raises larger questions--not just of the petty facebook infighting he-said/I-said junk and how the personal relates to the public--but larger questions over both double-standards in literature, art, and society (a colleague reminded me this conversation wouldn't be happening were M.B. not a white male) and on the taboo and poetry.

Kirby Olson said...

I didn't understand the intention of the poem at all.

Interesting dust-up.

Was the woodpile really meant to be the White House?

That's what one reader said.

I just couldn't grok anything from the poem.

Bernard F Starving said...

I stumbled upon this "blog" almost by accident; as a veteran Poetry Critic and Wordsmith, I must say that I believe most of these so-called commentators have got the wrong end of the metaphorical stick: this poem is not a racist diatribe, rather a subtle and ingenious piece which uses the theme of racial politics to make a clever point. Clearly, the author, Mr Bobett, is not writing from his own perspective, but instead adopting the viewpoint of an ignorant racist in order to make an artistic point; there are a couple of blatant giveaways for the reader: firstly, there is a very obvious use of amateurish English language, informing the reader that the character speaking is of low intelligence and limited educational achievement; secondly, the narrator has an exceptionally simplistic political outlook, suggesting he is of low social sophistication. The narrator is, in short, what our American cousins might call a "Redneck" or a "Cracker". It riles me that some commentators seem so prone to misinterpretation and I hope some of the less literary readers have gained some enlightenment through my explanation of the work.


(I should also add that I do provide critiques for a small fee, details can be found at my website)

Anonymous said...

It's pretty neat how you compliment the author then drop an advertisement for your services. [eyeroll]

Also, it's too bad your interpretation is full of FAIL.

Bernard F Starving said...

Dear Anonymous

I am a Published Poet with over four decades experience of writing and criticism; I have been in correspondence with many renound poets, including Allen Ginsburg; and have met a number of them in person: I think you will find that my interpretation of Mr Bobett's poem is entirely correct.

With regard to my earlier offer of providing critiques for fellow Wordsmiths, which you mistakenly interpreted as some sort of advert: I did this because past experience has told me that "blog" websites may fill up with comments from people trying to contact me for advice, annoying the website host with the clutter, if I don't provide contact details. I certainly don't always charge for my services: I will gladly waive all fees if I receive original work which I consider to be of special merit; and it should be noted that I have not asked for any money from Mr Bobett in this case.

I think in times of stress, Men of Words should always bear in mind Forster's phrase that: "A poem points to nothing but itself."


Robin said...

Poem has no subtle irony. Poem is racist, pure and simple. And offensive.