Does a white poet have a right to write about the experience of being poor, disabled, dark-skinned and on the street? Apparently not.
Say I'm walking down Main Street in White River Junction and come across a homeless person. Do I, a non-homeless person, have a right to find my way inside his experience?
Say that homeless person has dark skin, while mine is pale. Has a physical disability, while I do not. Do I have a right to write a poem trying to see the world through his eyes, to render judgment on the people who, like me, walk by, drop a coin and move by without a further thought?
The editors at The Nation magazine, apparently, think the answer is no.
The magazine recently published "How-to," a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee told in the imagined voice of a panhandler. Here's an excerpt:
Splay your legs, cock a knee/ funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely/ to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know/ you is. What they don’t know is what opens/ a wallet, what stops em from counting/ what they drop.
Carlson-Wee is white, and his poem unleashed a storm of criticism directed at him and editors of the once-feisty magazine. They responded not by defending the artist's creative freedom, but with an apology so abject, so self-consciously correct, that I can't so much read it as wince it.
"We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem. We recognize that we must now earn your trust back," the editors wrote in a note now affixed to the top of the poem. "We are grateful for the insightful critiques we have heard, but we know that the onus of change is on us, and we take that responsibility seriously. In the end, this decision means that we need to step back and look at not only our editing process, but at ourselves as editors."
And Carlson-Wee joined in the groveling, writing on Twitter that "I am listening closely and I am reflecting deeply."
I'm happy to report that there's been a second wave of criticism, this one aimed at the excruciating self-flagellation.
Grace Schulman, the magazine's poetry editor for 35 years, wrote in the New York Times that The Nation had betrayed its longstanding commitment to free expression. "I was deeply disturbed by this episode, which touches on a value that is precious to me and to a free society: the freedom to write and to publish views that may be offensive to some readers."
She continued, "In my years at The Nation, I was inspired by the practical workings of a free press. We lived by Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that 'error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.' "
Critics of Carson-Wee and the magazine's decision to publish his poem are apparently outraged that an able-bodied, white poet dares to step inside the experience of someone who may not share those attributes.
But here's the thing: If you read the poem, you will see that the real targets of its narrator are the very people who stroll by the "other" without ever trying to understand. They throw a few coins into the hat and hurry on. To me, the orgy of apology does precisely the same thing.