Yesterday morning I woke up to something many writers can only dream of receiving: an e-mail from the New Yorker. Sadly, it was from a publicist "reaching out," not an editor writing to accept a poem of mine for publication.
My correspondent nudged me to adjust the headline of a post I wrote up Wednesday called "Calvin Trillin's Nostalgia for a White Planet," which reflected my reading of a Calvin Trillin poem called "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?" in the April 4 issue of the mag.
Initially, I read the poem as a pile of xenophobic garbage. When I shared my post that said as much, an old prof of mine reminded me that irony existed, and that Trillin was employing it in the poem. A little embarrassed, I updated my post to show that an ironic reading was possible and that I had missed the joke.
But just because you miss a joke doesn't mean the joke is good, or worth making to begin with.
The objection to my objection rests on the assumption that Calvin Trillin would never write, nor would the New Yorker ever publish, a piece of writing that betrays casual xenophobia. I confess that I hadn't ever really heard of Trillin, but just because he has four decades of writing experience that include a book he wrote in the 1960s about the first black students to study at the University of Georgia doesn't mean he's the infallible model discretion. I further confess that I don't proceed from a total faith that venerable institutions like the New Yorker are necessarily bastions of righteousness, especially in light of the Best American Poetry 2015 controversy. It's true that I missed the joke-ness, but having had it pointed out to me, I find the joke itself hard to swallow. It was a poor choice for both Trillin and the New Yorker to make.
The kind person from the New Yorker said this about my piece: "I see the update you added but the headline of the piece (and other elements) don't reflect the poem's intention, as noted by your former professor." That person continued:
The intention of the poem was to satirize “foodie” culture. Calvin Trillin has been writing about food for decades, in a variety of forms: profiles, travel writing, light verse.
Trillin has this to say about the poem:
The poem was simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie who are fearful of missing out on the latest thing. Some years ago, a similar poem could have been written about food snobs who looked down on red-sauce Italian cooking because they had discovered the cuisine of Tuscany. In 2003, I published another poem in the New Yorker about food fashion. It was called "What Happened to Brie and Chablis?" It was not a put-down of the French.
I'd appreciate it if you provide further updates, especially regarding the headline.
The thing is, though, my headline isn't meant to reflect the poet's intention. It reflects my reading of the poem. However flawed that reading may have been, the attitude suggested by my headline is supported by the New Yorker's e-mail, by Trillin's statement, and even by this cheeky headline from the New York Times ("Calvin Trillin’s Poem on Chinese Food Proves Unpalatable for Some"). (Lucky for me I got turned onto irony just in time to see the paper of record making me out to be a little slow.)
I wasn't making this stuff up.
Wednesday morning I awoke to my Twitter feed and noticed a few Asian-American poets making jokes about Trillin's poem. Most directly I'd seen a few funny Tweets by the great Jenny Zhang:
Then I saw several other jokes, a few of which are listed here.
I also read a Facebook post from Jane Wong, who described the poem as "a nursery rhyme of white privilege and Orientalism." To these writers / writing teachers, Trillin's poem seemed to be poorly written and steeped in xenophobic and racist ideas.
I read the poem in question and couldn't help but agree. I had the choice to report on the reactions of other poets or to throw in my two cents and blog about it.
In retrospect I should have, for many reasons, reported on the poem. To take offense on behalf of Asian-American writers suggests that I have the authority to determine what is offensive or painful to them in the first place. I'm a white writer, so I don't have that authority, and to pretend that I do makes me no more sensitive than the person I'm accusing of being insensitive.
But as a book critic, as I mentioned in my post Wednesday, the Trillin poem reminded me of Hoagland's poem "The Change," and a poem that made the same mistakes as Hoagland's seemed particularly galling. I also really hated those rhymes (though now I see them as part of the conventions of doggerel). I also thought Trillin's buried etymological turn on the word "fret" announced a certain earnestness, and I wanted to say that thing about cliches coming from stereotypes, and so I decided I had my own special take, one that focused more on the poem being bad than the pain I have no access to, and so chose to blog about it and hit publish.
Several funnier and smarter responses to the poem went up around the same time. Franny Choi's poem, "Have They Run Out of White Poets Yet," is a good example. She deftly inhabits Trillin's doggerel form and delivers a brief history of white poets using the labor of Asian writers and other writers of color to bolster their own success, a literary history that parallels the speaker of Trillin's poem, and Trillin himself if you read the poem in the way I initially read it.
Word of Trillin's response got around. He intended the poem as a joke. He was "simply...making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie." Of course I would be embarrassed to have missed that.
And yet, I am left with the sense that Trillin's poem rewards the bougie prerogatives it purports to satirize. It's all surface, all safe, and he never acknowledges that the ideas he's regurgitating—even in a joking way—are rattling around inside his own head.
[The poem] does employ satire as its main conceit—which in and of itself is fine—satire being an effective and viable form of creative expression. My own question, as an Asian American, is whether such satire is defensible when it harms the culture it seeks to educate. In other words, does the mere replication of ignorance cure ignorance? And even if so, is it worth it when this results in the replication of hurt—hurt that has real social implications on real lives? The poem is racist not because it is 'out and out racist' but because it fails to consider the harm it creates for Chinese people.
Even if I do grant Trillin's intentions and see the poem on his terms, and wholeheartedly admit how wrong I was not to notice at first, I still think it fails. It's bad doggerel and it's cheap and easy irony. In its winking and coy way, it reveals not self-awareness, but self-congratulation for a trait that is at best not charming and at worst a lot worse. Sorry to get all internet outrage voice on you, but I don't think that kind of soignée colonial loucheness expressed by the speaker in the poem is to be lightly poked fun at. It's to be objected to and shouted down.
I get, in short, that it was a joke. I just don't think it was funny.
By way of contrast, I can't help but think of Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "Arrival at Santos," published in the New Yorker in 1952. Here we have a similar situation. A tourist from New York arrives at the harbor in Santos, São Paulo, dismisses the mountains as "self-pitying," confesses to not even thinking the country would have its own flag, and generally assumes that the place is for them and not for the people who live there. And yet at the end, Bishop makes a move that implicates herself:
Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,
but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,
or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps—
wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letteres we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;
we are driving to the interior.
Talking about the surface impression the ports make draws attention to the fact that the speaker has been making surface-y impressions the whole time. The self-referential line "or, like this," is Bishop's clue to the reader that she's being ironic—imagine what kind of impression these women are making to the people at Santos. That final ominous moment—"we are driving to the interior"—suggests that Bishop is confessing her complicity in this colonial way of thinking (as in, we the readers are driving to the poet's interior, the things she maybe doesn't truly believe but keeps upstairs anyway) and hints that Bishop suspects such thinking doesn't do anyone any favors in interior places, where people have less sympathy for the ignorance of haughty tourists.
Since those self-aware and self-critical moments never really apear in Trillin's piece—though a dark turn similar to Bishop's final move would work well against the infantilizing tone of the poem's rhyme scheme—I find myself agreeing again with Zhang:
don't say, "it's self-aware parody!" just say: "I accept this has no value except as an example of failure." truth + precision are best :D
— Jenny Zhang (@Jennybagel) April 6, 2016