Poetry and Apologies: The controversy over Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem “How-To”

by Emrys Westacott

On July 5 The Nation published a 14 line poem by Anders Carlson-Wee entitled “How-To.” The speaker in the poem is giving advice on how to beg. The poem begins:

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,

say you’re pregnant–nobody gonna lower

themselves to listen for the kick.

The speaker exhibits a fairly sophisticated understanding of how the sensibilities of potential givers can be manipulated:

If you’re crippled don’t

flaunt it. Let ‘em think they’re good enough

Christians to notice.

The outlook of the speaker can reasonably be described as cynical, both regarding acceptable strategies to use when begging, and regarding the motives of the people targeted, who are taken to be moved not so much by compassion as by a desire to uphold a certain self-image. The poem concludes:

Don’t say you pray,

say you sin. It’s about who they believe

they is. You hardly even there.

The poem provoked fierce criticism on social media. People objected to Carlson-Wee using black vernacular speech patterns, to his making the speaker black, and to his inclusion of the word “crippled,” which some viewed as “ableist. The criticism prompted the editors at The Nation to issue an apology in which they wrote:

We are sorry for the pain we have caused to many communities affected by this poem….When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read it that way.

Anders Carlson-Wee also offered an apology on Twitter, writing:

I am sorry for the pain I have caused, and I take responsibility for that. I intended the poem to address the invisibility of homelessness, and clearly it doesn’t work. Treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me and I am profoundly regretful.

One of the downsides to social media is that controversies can easily reduce to a few verbal missiles–brief assertions, sharp put-downs, expressions of incredulity or outrage–tossed back and forth. For example, essayist Roxanne Gay, condemning Carlson-Wee (who is white) for using black vernacular locutions, offered all writers this advice: “Know your lane.” Katha Pollitt, who writes regularly for the nation, opined that the magazine’s apology “looks like a letter from a re-education camp.” What is needed, though, is a more careful reflection on the theoretical issues involved.

I think it is reasonable to assume from the outset that Carlson-Wee’s intentions in writing and submitting the poem for publication were honorable. According to his own account, he was seeking to “address the invisibility of homelessness,” thereby heightening readers’ awareness of a social problem; he certainly wasn’t intending to disparage people who beg. If the poem disparages anyone, it seems to be the “people passing fast” who think themselves Christian but who barely notice the human being on the ground before them asking for their help. It’s also reasonable to assume that Carlson-Wee believed the poem succeeded sufficiently to be worth publishing.

In his later apology, he said, in response to criticism elicited by the poem, that “clearly it doesn’t work.” But actually, it is not at all clear that the poem doesn’t work. Many readers tweeted responses to Carlson-Wee’s apology and left comments on The Nation’s web site defending the poem, describing it as, among other things, “beautiful,” “strong,” and “compassionate.” Given that so many–including, initially, the poet himself and the magazine’s editors-considered the poem to have merit, it would be exceedingly dogmatic to just assert that the poem manifestly fails in its aims, that Carlson-Wee should have realized this, and should therefore have dumped it in the trash rather than sending it off for publication.

Still, some readers found the poem morally objectionable. So the basic question here is: Did The Nation’s editors do something wrong when they published the poem?

In general, we can say that for an action to be wrong it must violate some moral principle. Thus, stealing is usually wrong because it involves taking someone’s property without their permission; promise-breaking is usually wrong because it involves betraying a trust. And if we dig deeper, we can give reasons why such violations are wrong. Stealing and betraying a trust make the victims of these actions unhappy. They also involve treating other people merely as a means to one’s own ends rather than respecting their autonomy.

Anyone who believes that “How-To” is morally reprehensible should therefore be able to identify some principle that it, or its publication, violates. At the risk of being pedantic, let’s consider some possibilities.

  1. It’s wrong for an author to try to enter the minds of people belonging to ethnic groups other than their own.

This is, rather obviously, a non-starter. It would put the kabosh on a vast quantity of excellent literature going back to Homer, who does a fine job of representing both Greek and Trojan views of the Trojan war.

  1. It’s wrong for an author to make use of speech patterns associated with ethnic groups other than their own.

Ditto. This principle would rule out most literature that depicts any sort of interaction between ethnic groups: e.g. Richard Wright’s Native Son, or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

  1. It’s wrong for white authors to enter the minds of black characters and employ speech patterns associated with black communities–or perhaps, more generally, for members of privileged groups (e.g. white Americans) to attempt this with respect to disadvantaged or oppressed minorities (e.g. African-Americans).

This principle also immediately runs up against the same objection: viz. that it would rule out a lot of fine literature in which there is interaction between characters of different ethnicities, including works like Huckleberry Finnand To Kill a Mocking Bird. But it also raises the question: why the asymmetry? To limit black authors to creating only black characters would clearly be a pernicious and insulting restriction on the scope of their work. Couldn’t the same be said of any such restriction?

The only plausible justification for treating white and black authors differently in this way is one that appeals to inequalities in the history of relations between the races and/or in their current relative power and social standing. When members of privileged groups make use of characters belonging to oppressed minorities in their literary work, they are practice an objectionable form of “cultural appropriation.”

There is a considerable literature on this notion of cultural appropriation. It can be understood in a neutral way as simply referring to the way that different cultures adopt or absorb elements from one another: Indians took up cricket and Brits started eating curry. But it is often used pejoratively to criticize cultural appropriations by the more dominant group that mock, give offence, show a lack of respect, disparage, reinforce stereotypes, offer insufficient acknowledgement, and so on. American sports teams such as the Washington Redskins using native American motifs is often cited as a paradigmatic example of this.

Whether or not something should be considered an instance of objectionable cultural appropriation, however, is often disputed. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was recently accused of objectionably “appropriating” traditional Jamaican cuisine in calling a recipe he marketed “Punchy Jerk Rice.” Critics said the name was offensive because the recipe fell short of authentic Jamaican jerk. Oliver responded that in using the term “jerk” he was simply trying to indicate where the inspiration for the recipe came from.

Given that Carlson-Wee’s poem uses black vernacular locutions, most people would agree that it involves some degree of cultural appropriation. The question, then, is whether the appropriation is objectionable. Let us consider some possible grounds for finding it objectionable.

(a)  It disparages African-Americans.

How does it do this? Well, a locution like “It’s who they believe they is” may be viewed as ungrammatical by some and hence a sign that the speaker is uneducated. Yet this way of speaking is fairly common. And as John McWhorter argues in an article in The Atlantic, black English “is not a degraded variety of the language–it’s an alternate form of English.” To see its supposed incorrectness as insulting is thus, ironically, to side with the linguistic snobs against whom McWhorter is arguing, the people who view Black English as inferior.

(b)  It reinforces a negative stereotype by depicting a black person as a beggar.

It is certainly true that he poet could have given the speaker a different ethnicity, or possibly have used speech patterns that indicated no specific ethnicity. Yet a poem like “How-To” is arguably more effective for the speaker being a specific identity. And given the statistics on poverty and homelessness in the US, making the character black is hardly unreasonable. (According to a report by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, in 2010 blacks were seven times more likely than whites to seek refuge in a homeless shelter.[1])

Now, there is no doubt that African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Jews, women, gays, and other oppressed groups have suffered from negative stereotyping. So criticism of negative stereotyping is certainly sometimes in order. But this line of criticism should be advanced with caution. Writers surely have to be granted the freedom to create a diverse and complex cast of characters that are not boringly predictable. If they try to steer clear of all conceivable accusations of negative stereotyping, they will not be able to do this.

Two points, in particular, should be borne in mind. One is that the writer’s intention matters–and in this case, Carlson-Wee’s intention clearly was not to reinforce a notion that black people are cynical scroungers but, rather, to call attention to the sad truth that ordinary people, who think of themselves as decent, barely notice a phenomenon that ought to cause moral outrage. The second point is that it is usually unreasonable to assume that a writer intends a character to represent some group they happen to belong to. Sometimes one hears this sort of criticism: “The author ought to realize that not all Xs are Y.” But in the absence of evidence that the author is guilty of some such fallacy, this kind of criticism is likely to be misguided and unfair.

(c)  The representation of black English in the poem is inaccurate.

This line of criticism is also quite common. It seems to be what underlies Roxanne Gay’s advice to “know your lane.” Yet according to McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia, Carlson-Wee “got it right.” The Black English he uses “is true and ordinary black speech.” I can’t pretend to offer any sort of expert opinion on this matter. I can only say that the poem succeeds in conveying the impression that it is black person speaking. So if there are inaccuracies, they are probably minor. And it isn’t clear to me why minor inaccuracies, provided they don’t disparage, should be considered so very sinful. It is, after all, a fairly common failing in literature and film for dialects and accents to be slightly off. Getting a way of speaking “right” can be difficult for the non-native. American writers creating British characters often use exaggerated mannerisms of the English upper classes without thereby undermining their work’s clam to artistic merit.

Of course, one is entitled to criticize a text for unintentionally misrepresenting the way people speak. But if the only problem is inaccuracy (and not, say, disparagement), then this criticism is essentially aesthetic rather than ethical. This is an important and fundamental point that often gets glossed over. It is not a crime to write a bad poem or a bad novel–bad, that is, in the sense of not satisfying certain criteria of good literature such as formal excellence, inventive use of language, interesting themes, plausible characterization, representational accuracy, and so on. True, some writers and critics will occasionally use moral language to condemn aesthetic failings (“So-and-so’s poem is a crime against the English language!”). But this is just a combination of hyperbole and affectation: a  way of expressing intense dislike for a work while at the same indicating just how seriously one takes questions of aesthetics.

4. The poem causes pain to some readers.

Our guiding question, remember, is: what moral principle does the poem “How-To” violate? A final possibility to consider is that it causes unnecessary pain–it being generally accepted that to cause unnecessary pain is morally wrong. This idea certainly seems to underlie the apologies issued by both the magazine and the poet. The editors of The Nation wrote, “We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem.” Carlson-Wee wrote, “I am sorry for the pain I have caused, and I take responsibility for that.”

Two responses to this argument suggest themselves. First, one can question whether the poem really has caused much genuine pain. Poetry does not enjoy a wide readership these days, and but for the controversy “How-To” would presumably not have been read by all that many people. Clearly, though, at least some readers found the poem objectionable. But is it accurate to describe what they experienced as “pain?” I realize I invite the charge of being obtuse and insensitive here, but I can’t help wondering whether a negative reaction to a poem, even finding it to be somewhat offensive, is properly described as an experience of pain. But perhaps it can, if “pain” is used as a general catch-all term that covers most forms of physical or mental discomfort.

The second response goes more to the heart of the matter. Just because the poem causes someone pain, that does not in itself prove the poem is at fault: the pained reader’s response must also be reasonable. This qualification is necessary, since otherwise the pain felt by someone who utterly misinterpreted a text, or who overreacted to it in a quite absurd way, would be grounds for condemning that text. And this brings us back to the basic question at issue: Is the reaction of those who object to the poem reasonable and legitimate? Which also, as it happens, brings us back to the thorny question of cultural appropriation.

Debates about whether something constitutes an objectionable kind of cultural appropriation have arisen frequently in recent years. Overall, this should be seen as healthy, since it bespeaks an increasing sensitivity to the many subtle ways in which privileged groups may exploit or maintain their privileges. Inevitably, though, there will be occasions when the accusations seem hypersensitive or unreasonable, and in my view, those who find “How-To” morally objectionable are open to this charge. For a powerful polemic against what she sees as hypersensitivity in this area, I recommend Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival. And for a trenchant critique of Shriver’s speech, one should read Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s account in The Guardian of why she walked out in the middle of it. As the controversy over “How-To” demonstrates, the debates continue.