What do we make of Vanessa Place’s curious presence in the special dossier “On Race and Innovation” that Dawn Lundy Martin edited for the November 2015 issue of boundary 2? To put it mildly, Place is not the first person one would expect in such a grouping. Is this an example of “conceptual editing”? Martin, not surprisingly, explicitly frames the dossier in terms of the recent controversies that have inflamed the poetry world since last spring:
Kenneth Goldsmith was excoriated for reading Michael Brown’s autopsy report in a conceptual poetry performance at Brown University, and a petition successfully got Vanessa Place (included in this issue) removed from an AWP subcommittee because of her Twitter appropriation of the black voices from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Still, in all the mayhem, in all the personal attacks on social media, there has not been much actual conversation about what poetry has to say, and can say, about race in the contemporary moment.
A diptych of two hand-drawn phrases, “IT’S KIND OF FUCKED UP” and “IT’S FUCKED UP” (see above), Place’s piece seems to demonstrate in a colloquial register what Freud calls the “narcissism of minor differences.”
Perhaps these comments are meant to be read as potential reactions to Place’s own work: “It’s kind of fucked up”/”It’s fucked up” that she appropriated Gone with the Wind and other racist material.
Coming right before Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s contribution entitled “Michael Brown,” Place’s “It’s kind of fucked up” and “It’s fucked up,” I suggest, may be in conversation with an oft-quoted statement by Moten, which comes from Harney and Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013):
The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?
In this context, the “minor” difference between a realization that “IT’S KIND OF FUCKED UP” and “IT’S FUCKED UP” may be a significant hindrance to coalition-building.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.