Thursday, July 14, 2016

On Writing #100 : Dale Smith

Scouts of the Interior
Dale Smith

The most important thing is to be true to yourself, but I also like danger.
                                                                                                — Prince

Attached to the their Twitter page, the Mongrel Coalition against Gringpo offers this prescient slogan: “DECOLONIZE OR DIE / DECOLONIZE AND LIVE.”
To hear in that declaration only a dogged attack is to miss something more startling and anterior to the perceived aggression often associated with this anonymous, activist poetry collective. What Fred Moten says about modernity, that it is a “socio-ecological disaster,” is sounded in the Mongrel’s appositional epigram: to account for our relations to others, to bear the near-absolute ransacking of the physical earth, requires a confrontation over certain bodies of feeling that for a very long time have ruined things for many people and the ecological systems they (we) inhabit. Assumptions about bodies and land, and possession of properties divisible by racial doxa, have deformed a Western imaginary. Anyone writing today must know that.
My friend, the gifted poet Farid Matuk, last year shared with me a work by Emmanuel Kant, who long-ago promised, in exchange for taking his classes at the University of Königsberg, students would find their rightful place on “the stage of [their] destiny, namely, the world.” The philosopher’s promise was initially devised as advertisement for a class in anthropology called, “Of the different races of human beings.” Kant’s pledged destiny played out brutally in 18th-20th—century settler colonialism. It is a destiny pushed outward by social and agricultural violence, terms understood almost casually by anyone now; more deceptively, that destiny is bound to intellectual and spiritual assertions, and certainties in divisions of knowledge. That destiny is inscribed in language’s possessive codes and attitudinal apertures, determined by habits of thought that lead to a refusal of anything but that destined world: the plunder of stolen bodies thrust on newly discovered land distorted an interior wilderness, too; an inward determination of control in that wild remote often erupts, almost too casually, carving a disfiguring destiny into the so-called modern world.
For a white person to write, it is often common to govern the writing self from the advantaged illusion of a race-free perspective, an unacknowledged inheritance, perhaps, of Kant’s promised destiny. A protective shield of whiteness is delivered in language acts shaped by devastating hierarchies like those Kant promises. Whiteness scripts conformity to an easy familiarity with the world that produces and consumes racial secrets (conspiring, at least for those in possession of white consciousness, a terminal imperative at times made corporeal, and more often metaphorically exerted as argumentative, social dominance). The secret secures certain cultural values as though all shared in them equally, as though an opposing view from a person of color were irrational, defensive, or intentionally, malevolently, antagonizing. The writing of the defense of white honor when issues of race are at stake is especially clear, emotionally resonant, sincere, at least, in forms of defensive posturing. The bitter contestations over Kenneth Goldsmith’s claim to Michael Brown’s body began one recent conversation on race and poetry where divisions of art and intellect suddenly, for some, came into view; around that time Vanessa Place’s tweeting of Gone with the Wind, and the circulating image of her “mammy” avatar in social media, forced a crisis of debate regarding the performative value of a white artist pressing her finger into the affective, racial cut. While attempts to re-state the management of a white interior under the banner of “Je suis Vanessa” momentarily heated conversations about race and free speech, the larger concerns, the urgency to bear life against “our destiny,” remain for writers, necessarily for writers as scouts of the interior, to urge onward.
It’s not easy to unsettle oneself. I have been lucky to live with a brave woman of color for nearly twenty years. How would I write out of the white space of the page without her hard questions, her insistence on confronting the white blank, that whitewashed destiny I didn’t know was there except in confrontation and collusion with her otherness so intimately exposing me to myself? Writing, all writing, imposes division. Poetry cuts open, breaks through, to demand conspiracy and order, determining fragmented approaches to life that help me cope with an incompletion of form, the contradictory nature of myself. I have felt hurt, held hostage to my white assent to a circulated destiny, turning in anger against some mild rebuff she has wagered on her love for me. It has been far easier to write about race in the abstract or the situational, safely settled in a proclaimed distance. It is much harder to confront moments in myself when I have failed to see Kant’s promised destiny; that persistent, phantasmagoric inheritance rises inadvertently to insist on priorities of world division cut by lance and sword and gun; and pen and school and hearth. I am not free of the obfuscations of that old destiny.
Writing leads me to others from the standpoint of where I am, how I am determined to be, at a given moment. Not to impose or react, but to improvise perspective by acts, signs, and images exposed by the intermittent impulses and torsions of writing. Decolonization requires self-confrontation and unsettlement. The stakes are larger than oneself, than my particular location; to participate in the energy of the page is to refuse agencies that may distort my relations to others in word and act. Nothing survives its destiny anyway; new inroads map a wilderness in me onto a dispersed, collective intersection of viewpoints, the ongoing, composing circumstances of the world.

Dale Smith lives in Toronto, Ontario, with the poet HoaNguyen. He teaches rhetoric and poetics at Ryerson University. His recent publications include Slow Poetry in America (2014) and Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960 (2012).

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