In her Dispatch for this issue, the scholar Marta Figlerowicz steers readers to Cathy Park Hong’s 2014 essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” a lyrical and polemical piece that concludes with a rousing call to other poets of color: “Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.” Hong’s essay appeared in Lana Turner, which calls itself a “Journal of Poetry & Opinion,” and in the near-decade since, she has arguably become more well known for the latter than for the former: in 2020, after publishing three books of poetry, she released Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, an essay collection that landed her on the New York Times Best Sellers List and Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2021. It’s not everyday that a poet becomes a public intellectual; it might even be a way to fuck the avant-garde.
As part of this issue’s exploration of the role and reach of artists, we sat down with Hong to talk about both minor feelings and major issues, from the future of magazines to the threat of A.I. to the generational political divide.
In Minor Feelings, you describe feeling implicitly discouraged as a student from writing about questions of identity out of fear of being branded “identitarian.” Today, some young writers seem to feel the opposite expectation — to write about nothing but identity issues. Have you seen these pressures manifest in your own classroom and elsewhere?
I felt those same pressures when I was young as well. When I was coming of age as a poet, both in college and in graduate school, there was a sort of wary expectation that I would write about my identity, that I would write about my mother, my family history. And there was also that same expectation from the publishing industry — that, because I’m an Asian American writer, I would write about such issues and I would be commoditized as such. So that hasn’t really changed. I think perhaps what has changed is the intensity of attention to that kind of literature. So whereas before there was really a niche market for identitarian literature — I don’t like to use that term, but you know — now there is a real market for that. The publishing industry is really interested in the black experience, the Asian American experience, the Latinx or Muslim experience. It’s the same with the art world too, where the black experience is now “hot.” If you look at it strictly from that perspective, I wouldn’t necessarily call that progress, because it’s based on a white capitalist expectation of the kind of racialized experience you should write about.
But I prefer to be optimistic. I think there has been this explosion of different ways of writing one’s experiences, or not even experience — one’s consciousness, one’s perception of the world, one’s perception of the self. My students of color feel much more liberated and much more comfortable writing about what they want to. They also feel it’s not so much about representational politics, but more about all the different formal ways they can express how they see the world.
Tell us more about the term “identitarian.”
First of all, it’s a word that’s weaponized by the right to minimize and dismiss injustices that BIPOC people rightly speak out against. It’s used as a pejorative term to minimize their experiences. “Identitarian politics” is also a term that is used pejoratively by white liberals who think that progressive politics have gone too far and that their freedom of speech is curbed. The subtext to “identitarian” writing is that it’s just people of color writing testimonials about their trauma. And this harkens back to the way BIPOC literature has been positioned in academia and publishing for decades, where, instead of being recognized for their formal innovation or craft, these texts have always been taught for sociological content. When in fact a lot of the most exciting writing out there, the most cutting-edge writing out there, is by BIPOC writers where their racialized perspective is fused to narrative form in a way that subverts language and the way we traditionally tell stories.
It’s been more than eight years since you published “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde.” How has your thinking evolved when it comes to radical art and poetry, especially art that challenges racial hegemony? Where is radical work coming from today?
I tend to be a little cynical about the avant-garde itself. I don’t think it exists anymore. But I also do think there’s radical writing out there. There are collectives of poets and art makers out there that are doing interesting work that could be categorized as “avant-garde.” But ultimately, capitalism has eaten the avant-garde and there’s no space for it. I was at a talk in 2018, before the pandemic, and Gregg Bordowitz — he’s an artist, as well as the new director of the Whitney’s Independent Study Program and a former AIDS activist — said that there’s no counterculture now. And I thought it was a provocative statement, but that it also made sense. His comment reminded me of this video artwork by Wu Tsang, who hosted a Tuesday queer party at a Latinx trans bar in L.A. called the Silver Platter, where queer artists of color got together and danced and put on these very outré art and music performances. It was considered a safe space, an underground space, a space where, she was saying, you didn’t have to constantly react against the status quo and instead just be and create. The whole experiment offered a way to think about how joy, queer joy, could be an act of resistance. But then she realized that this party she was throwing at the Silver Platter was actually a gentrifying force because it started attracting media and assholes, and it was also disrupting the lives of the Latinx trans community in the club.
That was more than a decade ago, and she was saying that today such a party would not have gone as long as it did because social media would expose the scene early on. When I say that capitalism has eaten the avant-garde, I’m thinking of the socioeconomic circumstances that we live in, with increasing disparities of wealth between the rich and the working class, the housing shortage, the really high rent, and how we have to brand our personhood as artists and writers online. It’s harder to find this underground.
There’s a mistaken assumption that the avant-garde is for people who formally innovate. And that’s not exactly the original definition of avant-garde. The original definition of avant-garde was art or artists who tried to fold art into their everyday lives, artists who really tried to separate art from being a form of capital production. And I just don’t think there are a lot of young writers and artists who are interested in that enterprise anymore. Part of it is because they’re all trying to survive and we don’t live in the kind of New York City where you can live in an apartment for $300 a month and just eke by. I think the gig economy has really destroyed that.
Having said that, I do think that there’s a lot of great work out there. In the literary world, writing has diversified, and I think poetry has gotten much more exciting. Maybe it’s more so in poetry because, of all the art forms, poetry is most divorced from the market. So there’s less of this expectation that you have to commercialize your writing in some way. However, I don’t think there’s any kind of reluctance about publishing in mainstream venues. Take the example of Language poets. Language poets were against prize culture and publishing their poetry in magazines like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. They thought of it as an ethical issue, whereas I don’t think the majority of young writers nowadays really see it as that. They’d be really excited to get their poem published in The New Yorker.
A lot of poems coming out now are innovative, but would I call them avant-garde? No. Do I think there needs to be an avant-garde? No. I think there could be other terms. I like Fred Moten’s term, the undercommons. I think that’s a more necessary term. What are the ways in which writers and artists can go off the grid and steal from the institutions that feed off of their labor? What I would like to see is a resistance against digital capitalism. One of the answers is to just unplug. The problem with unplugging is that your writing is never going to be heard about again, but perhaps that is one way a true underground can be created. I’m also curious how ChatGPT is going to affect literature and how that’s going to interrogate or change the role of authorship. That’s been on my mind.
You anticipated one of our next questions: is social media a threat to poetry? Is A.I.?
How should we be thinking about its influence on the landscape of poetry? What tools can poets use to fight back?
It’s definitely changed the language. The kind of poetry that is popularized on the internet — it’s a double-edged sword, right? Platforms like Twitter and maybe even Instagram were a huge benefit to democratizing poetry, from white male establishment writers to BIPOC writers. Before, there were fewer avenues to voice your exclusion, and so social media allowed for marginalized writers to explicitly express these exclusionary practices. It has really opened up literary spaces. However, that’s always temporary, right? It’s also because of social media that a lot of magazines that publish more difficult writing or under-recognized poets folded. It’s great that The Drift exists, but it’s really hard for print magazines to survive because of the internet. The algorithm privileges a certain kind of poetry, which is a very metabolizable poetry. It’s poetry that has the perfect ending that just lands, and that you are able to consume very easily. Whereas the kind of poems that I adore — by poets like, say, Douglas Kearney or Jenny Xie or Vanessa Villarreal — are poems that aren’t easily metabolizable, poems that you really do have to pay attention to. I think what’s really detrimental about poetry online is that the way you read is different than the way you read on the page, which is why I always insist that my students buy books, because when you’re reading online, you’re skimming, right? And when you’re skimming, you only actually absorb twenty percent of what is being read, which is not conducive to poetry. Whereas when you read poetry on the page, it slows down your attention span.
Poems that I think are the most radical are poems that demand that you read interactively rather than passively, and poems that are polyphonic, that use different kinds of English vernaculars. With some poems — I’m thinking again of Douglas Kearney — you have to read them out loud, and use your whole body. And I think that’s also the danger of being online is that it disconnects us from our bodies. The way we read online is just optical rather than with our whole body. So ChatGPT, who knows? I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. I’m sure there are going to be some poets and artists and performance artists who will use it as a gimmick to produce their own writing, as a kind of commentary on technology. But that gets old really fast. I think it will definitely change literature — in what ways, we’ll have to see.
You used to be the poetry editor of The New Republic. What was it like to curate poetry alongside journalism and criticism that was expressly political? How do you see the role of magazines in the broader literary world?
Human curation is more essential now than ever as a way to fight the algorithmic selection of writing. That’s what magazines can do. More and more, what we chance upon is based on algorithms rather than curated by people we are friends with or editors we respect. I think it’s really important that magazine editors try to think about what aesthetic or which writers are underrecognized.
And magazine editors can also find connections that we wouldn’t necessarily see — creative connections, critical connections. There’s a shrinking space for literary criticism, especially poetry criticism, and I think magazines are one of the few places that still allow for longform criticism. We need to find other outlets besides Goodreads.
At The New Republic, I think I was the first woman of color to be a poetry editor. The New Republic has a very checkered history — publishing articles about, for instance, The Bell Curve — and some of its previous editors got #MeToo’d. So there was a lot of reckoning the magazine had to do, and when I came on, it was really important that I publish poets as a kind of corrective to its history. But I also just wanted to publish poets who I was really excited about who wouldn’t traditionally be published in the pages of The New Republic. And so I saw it as a really great opportunity to do that. It was 2015, after Ferguson, when Black Lives Matter was gaining ground, and I solicited a poem from a young poet, Rickey Laurentiis, who wrote a dense, searching, beautiful elegy to Michael Brown titled “Continuance.” I thought their poem was a powerful way to start a new chapter for poetry in The New Republic.
As an author of three books of poetry and one book of essays, do you think differently in each genre? Is one better at expressing certain ideas or feelings than the other?
The way I think about genre is more like a conceptual artist, and by that I mean I have an idea in my head first and then I use the medium that best suits the idea. So in that way, I’m not really disciplined about disciplines, you know. I’m very restless, which makes my job hard — to leapfrog from genre to genre. Ironically, I also treat poetry more like a fiction writer does because it’s a space for me to just use my unfettered imagination. I like to use personae and write about invented spaces. I see it as an artificial form because it’s such an elevated form. I use it as a space to sing rather than talk.
With poetry, I can really indulge in language, and in the sonic textures of language that I don’t really give myself permission for in prose. Minor Feelings started out as poems, but it wasn’t working because I realized I wanted to write autobiographically, and poetry wasn’t quite the right form for it, because it didn’t give me the tonal range that I wanted. The essay was a much more capacious form, and it was a form that allowed me — to quote Baldwin — to lay bare the questions hidden by answers. It’s harder to do that with poetry. I wanted to make an argument, and it’s harder to make an argument using the lyric form, although it’s been done before.
Why aren’t there schools of poetry anymore? How do you view the state of the field now, as opposed to ten or twenty or fifty years ago?
There will always be schools of thought, they just might not be as visible right now. I do see certain practices that are having their moment, such as what Hal Foster calls the archival impulse — that’s been prevalent in poetry, but also in art and maybe in fiction, I’m not sure. Since the election of Trump, there’s been more inquiries into the nature of what truth is, such as what I see in documentary poetry. Perhaps this will become more pressing with the prevalence of ChatGPT.
Documentary poetry is based on what the poet Muriel Rukeyser calls poetry that extends the document. It applies to poets who are interested in writing counternarratives that have been erased from official histories. But it’s not just writing a poem from the persona of someone who was historically erased. The subject matter is also the systems of knowledge that have done the erasing. Formal decisions often borrow from previous avant-garde techniques like collaging with found material. A scholar who I think has been really influential for poets has been Saidiya Hartman, and her notion of critical fabulations, which parallels documentary poetry. A lot of poets and artists, black poets and artists especially, have been inspired by her approach to write with and against the archive and to imagine disappeared voices without replicating the violence responsible for the disappearance. There’s some really interesting poetry that’s coming out of that. Whether that’s a school, I don’t know, but as long as there are poets writing, there will always be movements. It’s just that we’ve gone beyond the binaries of past schools of thought, where it was mainstream writing vs. innovative writing, a binary that has historically excluded the voices of women and people of color. I would hope there’s just more at stake now.
THIS INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED BY REBECCA PANOVKA AND KIARA BARROW. IT WAS CONDENSED AND EDITED FOR CLARITY.