by Elizabeth Hoover
Few white poets write about race, and when they do, they mostly write about racism by exploring historical wrongs or gazing at the Other. In her new project, tentatively titled “Frayed,” Joy Katz explicitly takes on whiteness.
One of her inspirations was her adopted son, who was born Vietnam. She saw other white parents ignore their adopted children’s race and instead raise them as white. To avoid this, Katz—author of All You Do Is Perceive, The Garden Room, and Fabulae— wanted to understand what raising a child “as white” means, a difficult task when white culture is rarely discussed or explored.
Although the spark for this project was personal, the resulting poems engage whiteness in the broadest sense and employ structural innovation to “fray the fabric of whiteness” that Katz says surrounds her life. “The alternative is to keep writing unaware within whiteness,” Katz writes in her contribution to Claudia Rankine’s Open Letter Project. “And that seems impossibly limiting.”
ELIZABETH HOOVER: Four Way Books recently published your third book, All You Do Is Perceive. How did that book lead into your current poems about race?
JOY KATZ: My book wonders about perception. We are most alive when we are perceived—even, misperceived. Misperception is a form of love in these poems, except one: “A Lynched Man Came with the Mail onto My Desk.”
This poem is about an image from Without Sanctuary, an exhibit of lynching photographs. I don’t know why I wanted to write about it. Writing the poem, I hit a limit of perception. I wrote about the photo’s visual composition; I’m good at that. But it feels awful in this case. When I look at the photo just as a human, I feel pain. But what is my pain exactly?
In his essay on Without Sanctuary, critic Hilton Als says that writing about those pictures forces him into a “niggerish point of view.” As a black man, he feels constantly watched, “niggerized.” For my part, I can’t not look at the lynched man from a white perspective. Am I “niggerizing” him? No matter how much empathy I try to summon, through all of my ways of seeing—artistic, intuitive, human—there are limits to perception. Why should my gaze confer dignity? Maybe I am merely gaping at a “blockbuster disaster movie,” as Als refers to the collective effect of the pictures. “All you do is perceive” becomes a problem. That problem was the door to this new work.
HOOVER: In your poems, the speaker encounters resistance when she brings up race. You write, “People go quiet who know about it/ when you try to ask about this white.” Why do you think whiteness is a taboo subject?
KATZ: It’s only taboo for white people. Kids of color are raised talking about race. I was raised to pretend it doesn’t exist. If you’re a person of color, race affects your life every day, from the minute you’re born. If you’re a white person, it’s easy to not think about because our race doesn’t limit you in stark, everyday ways.
I am always aware of my inexperience navigating race in everyday conversations. (Elizabeth, you are white, and you’re interviewing me about being white. Shut up!) I know someone reading this must be rolling her eyes. The poet Reginald Dwayne Betts has said: “Don’t write about being white.”
I didn’t want to send my son to a school with all white kids and I live in a segregated city. Trying to figure that out, I thought about race ten times an hour. When I brought up the subject with people of color, the conversation felt natural. When I broached the topic with white people, they would get a look on their face like I was standing there with my blouse unbuttoned down to my waist.
HOOVER: Why did it become so important for you to write about race?
KATZ: I don’t want to raise my son as a symbolic white. I have seen how that hurts kids of color with white parents. Writing is how I am thinking through this, how I’m trying to change my life.
I use the phrase “This White” in the poems to mean the white I was raised in. I need to know how it happened, because I cannot raise my kid inside it. I need now to be a different kind of white. I don’t want to write poems that gaze at an Other with wonder or narrate white guilt. I feel freest in my poetry to interrogate, skewer, love, and fray “this white.” Wildness can come into poems about “this white.” I can’t make whiteness go away, but I can find out how it came to envelop my life, and try to fray it. Maybe I can poke a hole in it big enough to fit myself through and stand on the other side. It is hard to perceive something that has been invisible to me for so long.
HOOVER: In terms of white poets writing about race, Tony Hoagland springs to mind. Do you look to his work at all?
KATZ: I perceive Hoagland recording the whiteness of generations, and implicating himself, without falling into the guilt trap. His poems are full of white-maleness and are cognizant of that. His poems are not timid. Hoagland’s frankness and boldness are models for me. And his Americanness.
Hoagland said that his controversial poem “The Change” may be for white people. Taken out of context, the idea is troubling. I don’t want to write poems for “whites only,” and I don’t believe that’s what Hoagland was doing. But—could it be useful if one of my poems made clear it was talking about, or to, a white person? It’s a risk, because intentionally white spaces are so awful. Klan rallies, skinhead blogs. But I recently drafted a “Poem for White People.” The decision lifted a burden off the poem. I could record a tension I felt in talking specifically to a white person. It’s a poem anyone can read, but if you’re a person of color reading it, it’s clear you are looking on as an observer at a certain conflict. It lets both of us off the hook—me and a reader—so I can concentrate on the language of the poem and not be inhibited about its content.
Writing to a white person, explicitly, is a strategy I’m experimenting with. In my poems, I try to find ways to record white anxiety and self-consciousness. A fundamental meaning of the poem comes from the title, “Poem for White People.” The poem functions in part because of where you stand in relation to it. I needed to make that clear. A poem can orient itself toward white people the way a side of a mountain is oriented toward a town. I think that’s Hoagland’s approach (in his poems on race, I mean). My “Poem for White People” operates more in the spirit of Frank O’Hara’s “personism.”
HOOVER: Do you look to any other white poets writing about race?
KATZ: There aren’t too many white poets working in this area. Todd Fredson is writing about his experiences in Ivory Coast during the buildup to civil war. Tess Tayor writes about the history of slavery in her family. Martha Collins also investigates race through her family. Personal history is one way in, for white poets. Jenny Browne uses her white privilege (legibly) to make observations about race. The poems are funny, meditative, intelligent. I love Ailish Hopper’s lyric poems that inhabit racial consciousness. CD Wright’s One Big Self is a huge influence. The introduction sets Wright up in relation to the situation: visiting maximum-security prisons in the South. A white professor among mostly black incarcerated people. Imagine all the ways that writing could have failed. The book turns on its introduction, which is gorgeous and moving. Wright pledges “to be wakeful.”
I am excited by the irreverence in work by contemporary playwrights of color. I love Qui Nguyen’s The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face. All, hilarious, disturbing, smart. These plays say the worst things; they don’t tread carefully. I have to be careful talking about race, but self-censorship is problematic. I don’t want to shrink from what poet Khadijah Queen calls “the profane frequency.” I don’t want to make tentative poems (except to make tentativeness the subject of a poem). Ideally, anyone can say anything, but how?
ELIZABETH HOOVER is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center. Her author interviews and book reviews have appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the Dallas Morning News, among others.