Tucson recently held its 35th annual Tucson Poetry Festival, sponsored by the University of Arizona. I didn’t go. In the 20 years I lived in Tucson, working mainly as a cab driver, I never went once. I was never invited, contacted, or acknowledged, despite the fact that I was widely published. I wasn’t WAITING for my invitation—for a long time I didn’t even know about the damn festival—and I’m not writing this now out of some resentful feeling of being left out of the club. I’m only stating it as a defense against those who would accuse me of benefitting from my white male privilege within the poetry world.

The executive director of the Tucson Poetry Festival was Em Bowen. Her bio reads:

Em Bowen is a storyteller, a writer, an essayist, a poet and a person who thrives and is always changing (much as we all are, whether we realize it or not). Their work has been published in the Tucson Weekly, The Atlantic, Zocalo, Wild Gender and The Feminist Wire. Em earned their MFA from Goddard College and is the former producer of the Tucson Gender Identity Project.

The president of the festival this year was Neil Antonio Diamente, “a lover, librarian, educator, father, and musician. His poems have appeared in Many Mountains Moving, genesis, and After Hours. He plays with the world music group GSol, which won the RAW Tucson award in 2013 for Best Musical Act.  Recently, he has taken up hang gliding and hopes to fly like an eagle, to the sea, his spirit, finally, free.”

Every featured poet this year was transgendered and/or non-white, except one white guy, Isaac Kirkman. Isaac may be a white guy, but he is at least disabled. Plus, he dresses funny. Maybe he’s gay, I’m not sure. He presided over a “workshop” titled “Occult and Freeing the Verse Through Archetype and Tarot.” Really sorry I missed that one. For this hard day’s work, Isaac was paid, of course. The amount of the “appearance” money is never made public, and when you ask how much, you get the old “What’s THAT got to do with anything?”

Tere Fowler-Chapman, previous executive director of the festival, was a featured poet.

Words on the Avenue’s founder, Teré Fowler-Chapman is a gender fluid writer, activist, and playwright—by way of Sonoran desert |by way of Boot’s Bayou. This poet was the first African American executive director of the Tucson Poetry Festival. This poet thinks that being the first is uncool. They took over their grandfather’s legacy and published their first chapbook, Bread &, released by Hope Etcetera Press in Spring 2017. They are a National Arts Strategies’ Creative Community fellow, and a Bettering American Poetry 2016 nominee. They are an educator, a spouse, and a family man. You can find Teré or their work forthcoming or published/performed in/at: Centennial Hall, Thinking Its Presence Conference, TENWEST Festival, March on Washington Film Festival — The Smithsonian National Arts Museum, University of Arizona’s VOCA, University of Houston-Victoria’s Downtown Art Series, TEDxTucson, Tucson Weekly, Feminist Wire, Arizona Public Media’s PBS & NPR, KXCI National Radio Station, Literary Orphans & more. When Teré grows up they want children with their wife’s smile, pronouns to no longer exist, a tiny house with a lot of land, and time to go to soccer games on Saturdays.

This is a typical bio of the hard-tilling, marginalized literary warrior via an uber-slick webpage. Tere’s got dozens of videos; oh, they love to make videos, videos about how they’ve been fucked by society, how nobody understands and how they are fighting for a better world. They’re whizbang marketers and packagers of their schtick. They glide their hands around as they recite, reaching up as if to cup the moon, gazing lugubriously into the rafters of the auditorium. They orate wisely and seriously, using eloquently pregnant pauses and rhetorical “tools” and it’s all so moving, if you can manage to keep from throwing up. There’s no meat to it, it’s all Martin Luther King rip-offs about “dreaming of a just world” and “I hold the clouds of the future in my brown hands.” Hippy slogans, “folk being woke,” “songs of the bones of my ancestors.” They love to play the victim, that’s their mainstay. They gloriously rehash the same old media blow-ups, skewered statistics, virtue-signaling, broad-stroke finger-pointing, “I can wear a necktie even though I have a vagina, so take that, colonial robber-baron slave-holder shitlord suppressor.” They never acknowledge that they are personally capitalizing from this system they claim to despise and are suppressed by; they are simply preaching and preaching with the most sickening maudlin verse. It’s bad, it’s watered-down goo, bloodless poetry “honed and crafted” in workshops where nobody is allowed to say anything negative, unless it’s about whitey. They are clones churned out from the silicone PC poet factory of the modern university. They want a piece of the pie, I understand that; white men and women have been eating this academic pie and now “homeboi” wants their piece. They want to gorge themselves on it. But they never acknowledge that they want this pie, this relatively easy pie-life; oh, no, they claim to be forging a new world! Brave and courageous! If the pie just happens to come along while they’re creating a superior reality for all of us, well, that’s just a coincidence. It’s a milieu of propped-up art-stars spewing dumbed-down corporate liberalism, with no more emotional depth, thinking, or writing skills than your average parakeet.

Here are some lines from a poem by Tere published on the site, “A Warm Green Linden”:

If the Prompt Could Talk

What’s the point of a prompt?
How do you finish a sentence?
When sentences grow up do they want to be paragraphs?
How many pair(of)graphs does it take to kill a man?
How many men does it take to kill a statistic?
How many statistics does it take to dismantle a stereotype?
Hey. DJ. Can you please flip this stereo’s type of noise to sound like change?
Is change somewhere dreaming of better days?
Do days dream of weeks?
Are weeks afraid of months?……

How many guns to kill a nation?
How many nations to create one love?
How many nations to create one love?
How many nations to create one love?

Boy howdy. This person is the Boss, the head cheese at the Tucson Poetry Festival. I don’t even know how to talk about a poem like this. Imagine her reciting that last line three times (four for an encore) in front of the crowd. Love of course is the answer. Except for whitey, fuck him, we’ll burn his fucking house down. And heteros; fuck them, too. Other than that, it’s all about love.

Another of the featured poets was Kay Ulanday Barrett. This is a quote from the PBS News Hour website:

Ulanday Barrett, who uses the pronouns “he,” “they” and “K.,” testifies to living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities: “transgender, disabled, a person of color [and] from a rough economic background,” he said. It’s been my struggle and my commitment to elaborate on these experiences that overlap.

Growing up in Chicago, Ulanday Barrett found community among poets and performance artists, both groups that welcomed them as a gender non-conforming, working-class youth experiencing homelessness.

Poetry is particularly important in giving visibility and voice to people who are disabled and LGBTQ — people who are too often silenced, or told that only one part of their identity is valid, he said.

Unquote. In the new poetry world, the more sanctified identity-tags you have, the better. It’s a tag-contest and Kay’s got a full-house. She is transgendered, disabled, a person of color (Korean-American) and (can’t forget this one) “from a rough economic background.” She never gets around to explaining how rough, but I’m sure it was pretty darned rough. One of the criticisms aimed at identity poets is that they have commonly neglected to consider economic class in their victim-narrative; they have seemed oblivious to the fact that the disadvantages of poor people compared to wealthy or even middle-class people are just as relevant if not more so than skin-color and sexual preference. The identity poets can’t be outdone, so now they are “pushing back” against this criticism and taking care to add to their bios the fact that they are also poor. In fact, they’re probably poorer than anyone’s ever been. Kay says she found her community in Chicago, so I guess she wasn’t that isolated after all. Poets like this are always talking about how they’re “invisible” and “silenced” while standing in front of a crowd with a spotlight on them. More invisible than a bum on the street? More invisible than my grandmother in her nursing home? More invisible than a poet typing alone in a room their whole life and never getting published? And silenced? Ha! They carry microphones with them every place they go! The latest Pulitzer Prize winner is gay. Many of the recent big lit award winners and honorable mentions are gay and people of color. The world of literary agents now is predominately female and the list of literary publications dedicated to people of color and gender-fluids is as long as the road of the dead. But they can’t admit that; that would undermine their whole gig.

Identity writers draw definitions around themselves and define themselves in direct opposition to white, heterosexual people. All white people suck, men most of all; that’s a given, that’s an unquestionable truth. No intellectual conflict is tolerated. Identity writers don’t want to be treated equally, they want to be treated specially. The writing is subordinate to identity politics and the effort to turn those identity politics into cash. Kay’s bio:

My work as a seasoned speaker, facilitator, and movement builder have featured at The Allied Media Conference, The National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA), The Transgender Leadership Summit, Queers for Economic Justice, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Northeast Queer Trans People of Color Conference (NEQTPOCC), & The Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference (CLPP) to name a few. I have performed at colleges and stages globally; Princeton University, Columbia University, UC Berkeley, Brooklyn Museum, Musee Pour Rire in Montreal, and The Chicago Historical Society. My ideas have featured in Race Forward, PBS News Hour, POOR Magazine, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and WBAI Radio. My first book, When the Chant Comes, was published Topside Press this Fall 2016.

So much for being invisible and silenced. Identity writers drape themselves in murkily-defined catchlines, they’re activists, advocates, organizers, connection-builders, community-ambassadors, facilitators…they got a million of them, more tags, all emitting the same self-righteous vapor. But of course, it’s not about Kay, it’s about the greater good, Kay is sacrificing herself for the cause. What cause? What “ideas?” That anybody who wants to can write poetry. Now that’s an astounding, revolutionary idea. Nobody ever thought of that before. I read the five available poems on Kay’s website, and to her credit, they were at least passionate, in a kind of queer-Taylor Swift diary way. Queers get their hearts broke too, motherfuckers.

These poets don’t free poetry or people; they are all about limits. They have no self-doubt, they are 100 percent sure they are right and will not tolerate anything or anybody that questions it. They are crusaders marching down a path that has not only already been made safe, but profitable. They are the opposite of artists; they are professional lobbyists seeking money and power and fame. They want to create groups of like-minded people to use that group as leverage. When they achieve leverage, they use it to snowball anybody who disagrees with them or writes something that isn’t “aligned with the proper ideals.” People do this all the time, everywhere; it’s the history of humanity. But when this is the focus and the priority, art is always a distant second and never gets beyond a kind of contrived, pre-approved script.

Another of the featured poets at Tucson Poetry Festival was Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Hispanic. Also a teacher. He’s another one who’s having a pretty rough time getting exposure. His bio:

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is a poet, essayist, translator, and immigration advocate. He is the author of Cenzontle, which was chosen by Brenda Shaughnessy as the winner of the 2017 A. Poulin, Jr. prize and will be published by BOA editions in 2018. His first chapbook, DULCE, was chosen by Chris Abani as the winner of the Drinking Gourd Poetry Prize and will be published by Northwestern University press in the fall of 2018. His memoir, Children of the Land is forthcoming from Harper Collins.

He’s 30-years old and he’s written a memoir. Well, maybe it’s marvelous. Here is an excerpt from a poem by Marcelo, published on Lambdaliterary: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color.


after Brenda Hillman

Yes, we drowned, then changed our minds,
then drowned again,
because we could,

because no one would know the difference—

a leaf to its trembling
when it is no longer a leaf
but just a trembling.

What the hell differentiates this from anything any one of millions of poets could write? What distinguishes this as the voice of the marginalized Mexican immigrant that the world has been ignoring up until now? What makes this trembling leaf so special? Well, nothing of course, until you read the bio and then you KNOW that he’s a Mexican marginalized poet and then it all makes sense and the profundity sinks in. It doesn’t matter that it’s a shitty poem; what matters is that it was written by a Mexican immigrant. Poor Marcelo is drowning in anonymity while he cashes his check from Harper Collins and his appearance fees at the Tucson Poetry Festival and any other place that will pay him for being Latino.

Identity writers cling to their identities like life-jackets, but at the same time wonder why people mention it. In a piece on Letras Latinas Blog, Marcelo says:

In an interview, I was asked, yet again, “[Marcelo], do you feel that there’s a pervasive aesthetic box Latino writers are frequently pressured (or assumed) to inhabit? If so, what does that box look like? What are some of its limitations?” This was my response, verbatim: “Whatever you want to call it, or however you want to describe it, I think the point is that Latinx writers are at once challenging this aesthetic and uplifting it. But why is this only asked of us, or of POC in general, as if we’re the only ones who can be pigeonholed into these narrow definitions? So, I guess I’m wondering why this question is always asked of POC.

Poor Marcelo. All these annoying interviews. In the first place, this question is NOT only asked of POC, it’s asked of many writers in some form or another. If you’re a “working-class” poet, they will ask you about that “box”; if you’re a Southern writer, they’ll ask you about that “box.” It’s a thing that interviewers do. In the second place, if you’re going to do everything possible to ensure that your whole livelihood and creative output stems from BEING A LATINO, if you received a scholarship for being a Latino and you publish in POC journals and you got a book deal for being a Latino and speaking engagements for being a Latino and grants and fellowships for being a Latino, if you lead with your bio, if you have forged your “brand” in this way and are benefitting from it, if you purport to speak on behalf of Latinos, what the fuck do you expect the interviewers to ask you? That’s who you are and you have made it who you are, not them.

Identity writers like Marcelo ride their status and their bio all the way to the bank while positioning themselves firmly against “white folk” and this is what they are about, not writing or art or creation or intellectual freedom or spiritual freedom or mind-expansion or critical thought, all of which would lead to a more open and interesting world of art, and world in general. The identity poet elevates identity well above the writing, to the point of being rewarded and propelled forward by that identity alone. An average or stinking rotten poem suddenly becomes high art simply because of the bio which follows it, or forwards it. We now have an arts culture where this is rampant.

You might say, “How can you blame them for taking advantage of opportunities?”

I can’t blame them. The publishing business has always been a con game of insider-trading and trend-worship. But I can say that literature and the world are not being made richer for it. The gatekeepers aren’t white heteros anymore, but they’re still opportunists and hypocrites, artists of nothing but sham.