Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making the Visible Invisible

Fellow poet Sheryl Luna (her wonderful book Pity the Drowned Horses won the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Notre Dame Press, and the UND Press will publish her next collection titled 7 by 2010--kudos to the people at Notre Dame) brings up some valid concerns in a recent entry on her blog ( that warrant echoing.

Although various creative writing programs are attracting and graduating more poets and writers of color each year, including women of color, their increasing numbers don't seem to be mirrored in the empowered "literary circles and academic circles" that angers Luna and many like her. Another recent and similar complaint about the exclusion of Latino/a poets in a December "Poetry Marathon" held in Chicago also notes a similar frustration (see Francisco Aragon's December 20, 2007 entry at Even though 75 poets were contacted to suggest readers for the event, "not a single Latino/a poet was named." Considering the number of graduate creative writing programs in the Midwest, one would think that at least a dozen or more names would quickly come to mind to those solicited, but that was not the case.

Let's be frank: Poets and writers of color don't dominate or control most creative writing programs or organizations; on the contrary, if anything, diversity is often just a word in a slogan noted on academic and professional websites or printed on job announcements; diversity rarely manifests a physical reality in those "circles" other than nine letters on a bumper sticker. Rather, many Anglo poets and writers who are fortunate enough to be within those "circles" routinely use their power to promote others like themselves via tenure-track hirings, visiting professorships, and endowed reading series--but they want people of color in their classrooms as students as proof that they're "serving all communities." Hence, people of color count if we can bring in more revenue for departments and programs, but we don't seem to be as vital a component when it comes to deciding such questions: Who should we hire? Who should we publish? Who should we invite to read?

I used to be a member of a literary "association" in a California town that had a wonderful founding director whose generous spirit spurred him to promote diverse poets and writers; however, once that association's readings gained prominence and steady funding, the founding director was stripped of his position. What came afterwards was predictable: Mainly Anglo poets and writers were invited to give readings. Not surprisingly, I eventually ceased being a dues-paying member; I felt the association's leadership was not interested in inviting or promoting truly diverse authors who do indeed exist in America. According to the latest Bureau of Census report, over 50% of the population in the county in which the association thrives consists of "Spanish surnamed" people, but any year-long roster of the association's invited authors has yet to reflect such diversity.

Poets and writers of color readily support those in "literary circles and academic circles" by paying their salaries and NEA/NEH grants via our taxes, attending their readings, and buying their books. Is it asking too much that the patronage we've given be returned in kind?

Author Paul Kivel, whose book Uprooting Racism is a valuable contribution to us all, asks white people the following questions: "What do you stand for? Who do you stand with? What are you going to do about it?"

If we humans actually "do the right thing," to borrow from Spike Lee, the visible frustration that haunts Luna, Aragon, and others will eventually become invisible.


Sheryl said...

So much talk about "diversity" everywhere. I think somehow it's become a dirty word in some circles. Maybe it's just me, but I sense it so very much in academia. People really believe minorities are given jobs. In what world? Surely not mine.

Robert Vasquez said...

Dear Sheryl,

I hear you. Far too many institutions declare they're all for diversity, but it never seems to manifest itself when we look at the numbers--and numbers don't lie.

As Rich Villar said, don't let it get you down; rather, keep up the good fight.

All the best,


LCC said...

I concur with you both. Funny that I found your quotes randomly. Here is my philosophy on diversity: "Diversity is not getting to sit at the counter, it's owning the damn restaurant."

Here is a resource I am working on for Asian American Poets and Writers.

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