By Kenji C. Liu
Often, to write about something in English is to attempt to circumscribe it, to make of it a describable thing. So when asked to write something about “mongrel poetics” I wasn’t sure how to do so and I’m still not sure. But that’s fine. So let’s start this by saying outright that this is a tentative tract about something that has existed, changed, and continues to mutate. This is a strategic bracketing that will necessarily need to be unbracketed.
By now, many poets who spend time on the internet have probably noticed the Boston Review’s series on racism in US avant-garde poetics and the anti-racist/anti-colonial poetry manifestos of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG). Both are critiques of the self-centered longevity of racism and white privilege in US avant-garde (and certainly other kinds of) poetry, whose most recent and tiring manifestation was seen in Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy, a white appropriation of Brown’s corpse.
The basics of the Boston Review conversation can be found online, so no need for me to repeat what has already been knowledgeably said. What I really want to look at is MCAG, or rather the possibilities their manifestos open up. Of the MCAG’s messages, these can be found at their website, Twitter feed, and Harriet the blog.
MCAG employs the strategic use of high intensity critique to interesting effect. In my view, it’s a recognition that more polite forms of engagement often go unheard. Politeness and respectability are the entry fees to middle-class whiteness, preconditions one must meet before whiteness deigns to listen. It’s a privileged refusal to listen unless the other submits to civilized (colonial) terms of conversation. MCAG is a refusal of that refusal, as well as a firm, sharp poke into the nest.
What might “mongrel poetics” look like? Is there a connection to feminist avant-garde poet Mina Loy and her poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose”? Perhaps. Loy’s manifestos and don’t-fence-me-in life seems to echo a found-familial relationship with MCAG. Elizabeth A. Frost, in her chapter “Crisis in Consciousness: Mina Loy’s “‘Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose’” in The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry, describes “Loy’s mongrel poetics [as an attempt] to breed feminist politics from racist and patriarchal rhetoric…. [a]dopting overwriting to mock.” There seems to be a lineage here of some kind.
Like much of Loy’s writings, some avant-garde poetics takes as its task the interruption of dominant and oppressive language and institutions through the innovation of language interventions. The practitioners of these interventions often have feminist, anti-racist, and/or queer commitments—for example, Myung Mi Kim or Bhanu Kapil. For an excellent scholarly consideration on this topic, see Nest and Strangers: On Asian American Women Poets (2015, Kelsey Street Press).
What I appreciate about MCAG is that they open a space for a kind of non-prescriptive ferocity for anyone who wishes to take it up for themselves. In a recent panel called “Mongrel Poetiks” at CalArts &Now 2015 conference, the four presenters were extremely varied in their approaches, ranging from trauma release-based exorcism to vibrant academic mic drops. Whether gentle or militant in tone, this ferocity is immersed in anti-racist, anti-colonial politics.
Of course, there are those who are put off by MCAG. The problem with the way whiteness generally “reads” anti-racist tracts, no matter what the tone, is that it takes everything as a personal attack rather understanding itself within a system of institutionalized ugliness. So no matter how nuanced the analysis presented, whiteness whispers “you’re being called a horrible human being” and the conversation is over. This then allows everything from basic defensiveness (assertion of personal innocence or goodness) to refusing to be outraged that a black man is shot and killed every 28 hours. Meanwhile, the rest of us are trying to have actual substantive conversations.
So rather than the question of whether the MCAG is right or wrong in its approach or whether their critique is somehow a personal attack, how about a more interesting question? Assuming we believe racism, colonialism, and other oppressions should end (one should never assume), what does a “mongrel poetics” call for in our writing? If we hold ourselves accountable to an unjust system that impacts everyone asymmetrically—in many cases, through various kinds of death—how must our poetics change and erupt? Can we radically push language and form without losing ourselves in post-modern relativity and irrelevance? To riff off of Bhanu Kapil, can our writing generate, in whatever way possible, a deep “mongrel cry?”
Kenji C. Liu‘s writing appears in The American Poetry Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Pinch, Asian American Literary Review, Barrow Street Journal, CURA, RHINO, Split This Rock’s poem of the week series, and several anthologies. A recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, VONA/Voices, Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and Community of Writers at SV, he holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation.