Our relation to revolution…(2nd in an ongoing series)

[I’m re-posting Pablo Miguel Martinez’ response to my last blog below because I wanted to share his reply with everyone…and also wanted to respond to it at length. A few notes: I believe he’s also referencing a few comments that were made on my Facebook page…the Eduardo mentioned below is Eduardo Corral….and we’re all members of CantoMundo…)

Pablo Miguel Martínez on July 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm said:

Thanks so much for your thought-provoking, post, ire’ne. You touch on several issues that have gnawed at me for longer than I care to admit. So here are my two rusted centavos…

Revolution. Hmm. How are you/we defining the term?

“Revolution begins with the self, in the self,” says Toni Cade Bambara. I think that’s as fine a place to start as any. When I go back to the etymology of the word revolution, I begin wondering about what to turn over, what to recycle, what to renew in my thinking-feeling-doing as an educator, as a poet, as a lover of possibility. Most days I think we (with that pronoun I embrace all poets, writers, thinkers) have lost the revolution of letters. Cynical though that appears, let me explain where it comes from: as an instructor of English at a Hispanic-serving institution and at a two-year college where the majority of the student population is African American and Mexican American, I can tell you that our young people are increasingly distanced from ‘literature.’ (The single quotation marks are snarkily [?] intentional.) The public school system, as we know, does not encourage students to think critically, and if a student can’t think critically, she certainly isn’t going to excel as a writer. Also, this classist paradigm (’cause we know this does not apply to students in affluent school districts) suggests students aren’t being required to read literature in ways that build and strengthen their analytical skills. I start the first class meeting of every composition course I teach with this basic maxim: Writing is thinking. This, sad to say, is a major revelation to most of my students. So, my first question: For whom, then, are we writing? I know, I know, this is a tired, hoary question. But remember, “revolution,” in its strictest sense, compels us to turn the ideas over in our minds.

Eduardo, I know you’re frustrated by younger-generation poets and writers who are passive where change is concerned. (“Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” said Gandhi.) But my teaching experience tells me that most undergraduates (with the exception of those at first-tier research institutions, perhaps) feel/have been disempowered, so they’re at a loss as to how they should take their first steps on the path to Change.

On a related note: far too much time and energy has been devoted to bashing MFA programs—that’s wholly understandable, since they are culprits here (I hasten to add that I’m a product of such a program). But there is, of course, a reason for this: a vast majority of these programs extrude a kind of writing that’s palatable to mainstream publishers, contest administrators, and critics. The irony is that genuinely revolutionary writing is too often derided by the MFA machine as facile, or, worse, dismissed with that deprecating descriptive, “accessible.” Make it new, MFA faculty constantly echo Pound’s imperative. (The irony here is that what’s truly new doesn’t fit the template many of these faculty employ, so it’s cast aside.) But here I think of my college students, who yearn for work that speaks directly to them. Work with which they identify, work that moves them, work that doesn’t condescend to them; work that is, in other words, accessible to them. Another Toni Cade Bambara quote: “The job of the writer is to make the revolution irresistible.” But we can’t make revolution alluring if we’re removed from those who will join us in revolution, however constructed and enacted.

Recently, a not-for-profit literary organization found itself at what I understand to be a challenging, soul-searching juncture: one faction of its Board felt that the organization should focus more sharply on literacy efforts, since the organization is located in a city with a painfully persistent literacy problem. The other faction believed it should continue its focus on supporting poets and writers and “literature.” As if the two are mutually exclusive! A revolutionary idea: you can’t have a vibrant, dynamic, inclusive literature without literacy. This is so obvious. And yet, a writer friend, when I shared this scenario with her, accused me of being simplistic. ¡Ay, caray!

ire’ne, you demarcate writing along generational lines, which I realize is a standard, often useful practice. However, as someone who’s deep in the thickets of middle-age without a book and still struggling to find his place in the ‘community’ of poets and writers (there are those queer single quotes again!), it’s something I’m sensitive to/about. We expect younger poets and writers to chart new literary terrain—that’s what the young do, after all. But that’s a one-handed, lopsided revolution. If, as bell hooks exhorts African Americans to do, we return (a revolution!) to love as a path to healing wounded environments, we have to work together—women and men, queer and straight, young and younger. If I have to compartmentalize aspects of my life in order to revolutionize, count me out. As a gay man, I had to do that for too much of my life: it’s O.K. to be ‘out’ in this context, but not in that one; it’s all right to hold hands in this neighborhood, but you risk life and limb if you do so in this one. Some days, the most revolutionary, the most transgressive thing my partner and I can do is hold hands in public. So let’s hold hands, I say.

There are many paradoxes here, chief among them the fact that writing is a solitary pursuit, but revolution requires collective, active bravery. I am inspired by the many who understand—and live—that paradox.

I don’t know, ire’ne, but in this case revolution may require nothing less than a redefining of the very term literature. We need to turn it over, sass it, caress it, prod it, and at the end of the day, tuck it in and turn it over in its restlessness. In the meantime, I’ll keep returning to your ideas, questions, and burnished, burr-under-the-saddle commentary. Te mando calurosos abrazos desde Appalachia.


My response:  

Mil gracias, Pablo Miguel, for your in-depth response…I am glad these issues have been gnawing at you  because I think they’ve been gnawing away at a lot of people/poets and I wonder if we haven’t buried  our ideas re: ‘revolution’ because those ideas aren’t ‘professional’, because we have become distanced from our idealism, because revolution doesn’t seem to have a place in the real world…

One of the issues that came up re: revolution at one of the CantoMundo platicas…(believe Ethelbert Miller brought this up)…that the language of revolution had been co-opted by marketing/advertising. That we no longer had the language with which to discuss/ignite/enact revolution. What do we call it? What does it look like? Macondo used the phrase, “writers interested in social change,” but that doesn’t encompass those who are pushing against language borders and aesthetic boundaries…those who are involved in historical reclamation or spiritual (r)evolution…and so on…nor does it speak to the issue of the critique of power…

And how do we speak revolution to people who associate ethnic/racial/gender/sexual revolutionary groups with exclusion? LGBTQ-gente that were excluded from the Chicano movement, women of color that felt excluded from the white feminist movement, and so on? But at the same time, how do you speak revolution without making people choose one identity or one injustice-to-right over another?

I’m interested in what you call the revolution of letters…do you mean the potential of literature to empower disenfranchised students/communities? The potential to inspire/imagine change in the world?

I agree with you about the public school system and that “students aren’t being required to read literature in ways that build and strengthen their analytical skills”…one of the reasons that the Arizona/Tucson school district situation is so heart-breaking. Demonstrably, the Mexican American Studies classes were having a huge impact on those students.

How many times and in how many other places have classes like those been lost? I was shocked to find out in the mid-90’s after I’d gone away to college that there’d once been Mexican American studies classes in South Texas (95% of the population is Mexican American) in the 70’s and 80’s. By the time I was in high school, those classes, their books, and all memory of them had completely vanished from memory—I don’t know if they died out due to lack of funding, an intentional attack, or both. I had to go to college in New York to read literature by people of color, to read David Montejano’s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas to understand anything about where I’d come from, to find Gloria Anzaldua’s and Cherrie Moraga’s This Bridge Called Our Backs to open up the world for me.

Who do we write for? I think, a fuerzas, I have become a great believer in gateways. I have to believe that one thing leads us to another: one poem to another, one book to another, one performance to another, one poet to another.  There is a huge need, yes, to connect students with the literature that speaks to them—so they can begin their own linking series of gateways—they need to be drawn in—by love, by identification, by inspiration, by curiosity….

But then I have to ask, what is it that teachers are opting to teach—unrelate-able classics? Inaccessible contemporary work? Books that have been vetted by prizes and prestigious presses?

A few things I wanted to say about MFA programs—though upfront, I will say I have never attended one…I don’t object to them on principle, but I do object to the perception that one isn’t a ‘real writer’ without an MFA.

I know a lot of writers who do have their MFA’s—they run the gamut from shell-shocked and rendered-silent former writers to empowered and productive writers to talented, well-received writers who do not understand how much of the sense of entitlement and dominant society attitudes they absorbed and went on to perpetuate. Some writers have said they encountered cooperative and supportive structures; many more talk about the atmosphere of competition.

I wonder if it possible for MFA programs to foment revolution—for all the reasons you stated, Pablo Miguel…but also because they are artificially constructed communities. Maybe ‘artificial’ is not the word I want…maybe ‘external’ is closer…because it seems writers are drawn to them by factors like prestige, cost, faculty, funding…

In the absence of MFA’s, I would say writers are drawn to each other when they hear each other…and are attracted by each other’s work…drawn together by friendship and love…living in close community with each other…and in that atmosphere, support and challenge are integral parts of the community…I had this. This is part of what formed me as a writer—to support wholeheartedly without envy or competition—to challenge meaning, language, emotion freely, in order to strengthen other writers not tear them down. We celebrated each new work, the old works, shared books and poems and thoughts with absolute enthusiasm.

I don’t know how MFA’s teach writers community…much less how to build the community with the skills necessary to gestate revolution…especially if the dis-connect from those who will join us in the revolution becomes automatic, becomes an integral part of the privilege of education…

(On the subject of that non-profit literary organization…since the founder asked for input over Facebook, I gave my two cents there as I am a huge admirer of the organization and the work it does…I think they ran into the problem of feeling that literacy and literature were competing for their attention and resources—as opposed to feeling that the two supported each other…I tackled it from an administrative point of view as I can barely imagine the headache it must be to write grants, file reports, attract funders, etc. for such a varied program. My solution was to appoint two executive directors, one for the literacy side, one for the literature side…while still sharing resources, office space, staff, and fundraising efforts…so that the connection still exists, but focus could be strengthened…)

Lastly, because I am running out of time, but not because I couldn’t go on for a while longer—I want to thank you for your words about my demarcation along generational lines…I did it to simplify matters for a point I wanted to make that I never got around to…but also, reading your words, I realize that point is null anyway….because whatever generation/time/place we began writing, what is important is that we writers are all here NOW, writing NOW, living in THIS time…and whatever we have believed, believe, or will come to believe about revolution or whatever language we create to speak revolution—we are (to quote June Jordan and the Hopi)…the ones we’ve been waiting for…

abrazos pa’ ti,



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