In the “Likeness” of Authenticity: Poetry, Appropriation and Identity

In her October 24, 2019 essay, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” in The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith offers less a “defense” of imagining and inhabiting the lives of others, characters and people unlike her in every possible sense (gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, etc.) than a description of her own practices and prejudices (she criticizes the culture of “likeness,” that one can only write about, inhabit the bodies of, people who are “like” us in terms of sexual orientation, gender, race, class, etc.). At the same times, because fiction is, as she writes, “indefensible,” she acknowledges that her understanding of fiction may well be passé. With all this in mind, to what extent, if any, does Smith’s analysis pertain to recent debates over “likeness,” over “staying in your lane,” vis-à-vis poetry? To what extent is a popular phrase like “cultural appropriation” both a tool of analysis and, as Smith suggests, a form of containment that orients and predetermines conclusions?

This panel proposes to address these questions through a number of modalities. For example, as concrete examples of how American “minorities” have deconstructed the one-way stream of white appropriations of the other’s culture, Alan Golding and Tom Marshall examine the consequences of the other’s body/language in their respective proposals. Golding analyzes the way that Chinese American poet Timothy Yu, himself at the center of recent controversy around cultural appropriation, takes on the White Male trope of appropriation in his 2017 book of poetry, 100 Chinese Silences. Yu reverses and parodies not only the status of the “Chinese poetry” of Ezra Pound but also more recent white male attempts to write the other (Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland). Tom Marshall takes the question of cultural appropriation to one of its more “logical” and “absurd” ends: Sun Ra’s “positive” appropriation of outer space culture. Marshall argues that Sun Ra deploys negation throughout his performance poetry to reverse and critique received concepts of history, culture and even “life,” opening up a space as “outer space” whereby black Americans are able to retrieve lost or suppressed cultural legacies. Marshall demonstrates how Sun Ra’s “canny” legacy continues today in the Arkestra of Marshall Allen, suggesting that the work of historical “recovery” is just as crucial today as it was in the mid-20th century.

Zooming out from the specific to the general, Jeanne Heuving’s revision of Olson’s “projectivist poetics” and Gabriel Gudding’s interrogation of “translation as appropriation” dovetail at what both writers regard as the status or positionality of the body. Heuving’s proposal stresses that the movement of projectivist poetics begins with a body in a certain position/location and “ends” with a writing through, an engagement with, other bodies, and thus other modalities of the other’s language (dialect, lexicon, accent, etc.), as manifest in and through writing.  Gabriel Gudding, a multilanguage translator, suggests that while all language acts, including writing, are forms of appropriation, speech and writing are connected to “mutually vulnerable bodies” even as some bodies, he notes, are more vulnerable than others. Both Heuving and Gudding insist that the question of cultural appropriation demands a vigilant ethos insofar as the appropriation of the other’s language is, forthwith, a (partial) appropriation of another’s body.

April 11, 2021, 6:00 pm