An online advice column for writers is busying itself with the pressing question of the day: Should white men even bother writing these days, or is the mere act of putting pen to paper too oppressive of women and minorities to be tolerated?
“I am a white, male poet… who is aware of his privilege and sensitive to inequalities facing women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals in and out of the writing community,” an anonymous letter asks The Blunt Instrument, a feature at the online literary journal Electric Lit. “But despite this awareness and sensitivity, I am still white and still male.”
Anonymous says he’s tried just about everything to avoid oppressing those cursed with vaginas and melanin, including deliberately writing poetry about those unlike himself.
“Sometimes I write from other perspectives via persona poems in order to understand and empathize with the so-called ‘other’; but I fear that this could be construed as yet another example of my privilege—that I am appropriating another person’s experience,” he laments. So, he suggests an alternative: maybe white men should just stop writing at all.
“I feel like the time to write from my experience has passed, that the need for poems from a white, male perspective just isn’t there anymore, and that the torch has passed to writers of other communities whose voices have too long been silenced or suppressed,” he says, adding that he feels bad that this solution even seems like a problem to him, because “for so long, white men made other people feel terrible about who they were.”
Elisa Gabbert, a poet and the advice-giver of The Blunt Instrument, offers Anonymous some consolation, though she admits that being white herself she is only partly qualified to answer the question. She says the solution is not to stop writing entirely, but rather to make sure that his writing doesn’t overshadow that of the oppressed.
“You should do what you can to make sure your own perspective is not getting more exposure than it deserves – that you’re not taking up more than your fair share of space,” writes Gabbert. “Many people have been angered, rightfully, by recent stunts in conceptual poetry that exploit real tragedies, like the death of Michael Brown, for the benefit of white artists.”
Rather than writing less, Gabbert suggests that white men should simply try to be published less, so they can stop hogging all the spotlight.
“We should tell men to submit less. Pitch less. Especially white men. You are already over-represented. Most literary magazines are drowning in submissions. Instead of making things even harder for overworked, underpaid editors, let’s improve the ratios in the submission pool by reducing the number of inappropriate, firebombed submissions from men. You – white men – have all the advantages here, so you should work to solve the problem of imbalance, instead of putting all the burden on women, POC, and LGBTQ to fix it themselves.”
Ultimately, Gabbert settles on an analogy to another favorite progressive concern, climate change.
“Think of this as something like carbon offsets,” she says. “You are not going to solve the greater problem this way, on your own, but you might mitigate the damage.”
Gabbert admits, however, that her advice is more moderate than many would recommend.
“I’m sure some people would tell you to stop writing,” she says. “I’m not even going to tell you not to write about race or gender.”
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