What we enact, replicate, and empower / the work that is there


In her introduction to Timothy Yu’s reading, UA MFA student Sophia Terazawa said, “If you aren’t laughing, you are crying. If the silence doesn’t scratch you, come a little closer.”

Earlier this month, Timothy Yu and Layli Long Soldier visited Arizona. They gave a phenomenal reading in Tucson, and they followed that with another phenomenal reading in Phoenix. They were generous with their time, their energy, and their work. It also wasn’t an uncomplicated visit for either of them; in one of Timothy’s and Layli’s class visits, a lot was asked of them, and we’ve been thinking about it ever since.

When the poets showed up to one of their two class visits, it quickly became apparent that the students had read, appreciated, prepared for, not Timothy Yu’s book 100 Chinese Silences, but instead the poems of another contemporary poet, Timothy Liu.

There are a number of reasons this is upsetting, infuriating, hurtful, confusing, inexcusable.

First, because it is an undeniably racialized mistake.

It’s a number of other things as well—it’s a mixup between poets that the Poetry Center has recently engaged (Timothy Liu is a great poet in his own right, was a judge for our student contests, and read in our Series in 2014), and it’s a human error that took place when transferring information into a syllabus. But we want to be really clear that this is a mistake that would not have occurred—or, had it occurred, would have had a very different weight—when distinguishing between two invited white poets.

Timothy and Layli were denied the chance to be at ease in that room, appreciated for who they were and the remarkable work that they were invited here to read from, to discuss. We told Timothy and Layli after the fact that if they had chosen to leave the room we would have completely understood (something which they maybe could not have known—that their time here wasn’t contingent on their staying in that space). They chose instead to stay and do the hard work of rerouting the emotional and intellectual tenor and content of the classroom. This, too, is upsetting, as it likely would have been, again in different ways, had they left.

Upsetting, too: the UA students, who were not the ones who made this mistake, were denied the chance to prepare to talk with Timothy about his work. They found themselves inside of a tricky intellectual terrain that day, with ramifications that almost certainly landed differently for each of them. I would be interested to hear from these students about how this experience was, and/or was not, educationally informative for them.

We regret this mistake and take responsibility for it. While these courses are taught outside the purview of the Poetry Center (and the UA Creative Writing MFA program, which is a separate UA unit), this was a visit that was facilitated by us, and we have to be accountable for what happens and how our guests are treated in these spaces. We are open to all possibilities and conversations when it comes to what role we could have played, and will play going forward, when it comes to avoiding this kind of mistake. We’re also aware that this kind of incident has happened more than once in the last calendar year: that a POC poet, invited under the auspices of the Poetry Center’s Reading & Lecture Series, was mistaken at an event for another POC poet with a similar name. So we’ve been thinking about this: this happening, this happening more than once, what we can do about it.

I’ll admit, too, that while I was apologetic and embarrassed at the instance that occurred last year of mistaking one POC poet for another, I was also willing, when the visiting poet was, to let it go. I was willing to shake my head with that poet and say “that’s a shame,” while also being comfortable in the fact that I can’t be responsible for every audience member’s care and attention to detail (though “detail” is certainly too euphemistic here; we’re talking about mixing up entire people with entirely separate publishing histories and ways of showing up in the world).

While we know that it is true that no one person can be responsible for another person’s individual mistake, it’s also not enough to leave it there. To be done thinking about it doesn’t demand enough consideration of the systemic issues that take place in this building as in any other building, on this campus as on other campuses, in this country with its vastly varying standards based on demographics for proper treatment, mutual respect, and individual (intellectual, bodily, livelihood) sovereignty. And just because the visiting poet in question laughed it off after a long day last year, was willing to put this mistake in an “it happens” context, that doesn’t mean it’s enough for me to shrug and move on, for us as an institution to shrug and move on. Instead, I wonder about how proactive literary organizers—especially white literary organizers who are presenting poets and writers of color—can be about asking more from our community: students, local community, instructors, introducers, audience members.

I want to take a second to point out a few factors that can be uncomfortable to consider: when the Poetry Center invites poets to visit, we are paying them a significant amount of money and covering their travel and lodging. For some of our guests, our honoraria are well under their typical asking rates; for the majority of our guests, however, we’re their best paying 2- to 3-day gig all year. It’s a good engagement to put on resumes, especially for early-career poets, and it’s not easy to say no to (we did, however, once have a poet say she wouldn’t come because of the state of Arizona’s regressive laws, another factor in what might make visiting Tucson complicated). We are inviting poets to come to a mainly white room (our average 133-person audience is vastly majority white; I am the literary director and I am white; our executive director is white; the student groups the poets visit are vastly majority white-taught, and the undergraduate students they visit—we can assume—at the very least match the UA’s general demographic trends: 51.5% white, 25.3% Hispanic/Latino, 1.3% Native American3.86% Black, and 5.42% Asian.

If you are an audience member at a University of Arizona Poetry Center reading, if you are an instructor or a student, we’d like to talk with you more about this all. We’d like to encourage you—as we encourage ourselves and each other, within this building and on this campus—to think about the ways in which our actions can and do enact, replicate, and empower, white supremacist traditions and patterns. To think about the ways in which we are participating in the “mostly white room” where it exists (and even forgetting that not all of the rooms on this or any campus are mainly white). We encourage you, as we encourage ourselves and each other, to think about how it must feel to be invited to the University of Arizona Poetry Center to read because of your excellence—the poets we invite are, they’re excellent—and to be boiled down to “the other Asian poet,” or “the other Black female poet” due to the carelessness of a brief interaction in which the wrong name is called out, the wrong book title is cited. If there’s a burden in bearing the racialized weight of this all, it isn’t a burden that belongs to the visiting writers we invite, it is a burden that must belong to us—we organizers, we audience members, we instructors and students and university community members. If it’s going to be uncomfortable and unpleasant, let it be uncomfortable and unpleasant for us. If it’s going to hurt, let it hurt for us for once.

Layli’s Whereas looks directly at the nature of apology, and nonapology, including how merely gestural apologies can indeed act as nonapologies. Timothy’s 100 Chinese Silences moves satirically through the many ways that western poets have used China and the Chinese to their own purposes, while erasing the particulars. There is deep irony, sure, and also possibility, in these two books being at the centerpiece of this discussion.

Both books are about violences that U.S. Americans—poets, legislators, white and nonwhite U.S. Americans—enact on each other, how we recoil from and respond to those violences, how they make us cry and occasionally laugh our way through, and at, that pain (“Yet I’m serious when I say I laugh / reading the phrase, “opened a new chapter.” I can’t help my body. I shake”), how we generate new selves out of them. The “we,” here, of course, is necessarily fractured, but work is there for all of us. Ultimately, we’re glad that it was these two books that can be at the center of this conversation, while there is deep pain and regret that these authors—people, teachers, community-builders, both—have to add more grist to an already full mill.

We want to thank Timothy and Layli for being generous enough to let us see how shaken they were by this class visit. We want to thank Layli for orchestrating a necessary shift within that classroom, and making space for the students to engage with Timothy’s work after all, while we also want to acknowledge that that’s not what we invited either Timothy or Layli for: they were there to be brilliant artists, talking with students about craft and publishing and the feeling of their first books—not to be facilitators of racially charged, politically problematic, and emotionally taxing labor.

We want to thank both Timothy and Layli for being here, for enacting everything that their poetics stand for. For their generous readings, which you will soon be able to watch here, and for their amazing—year-changing, conversation-making—books, which you can read parts of here and here, and here and here.

If you’d like to continue this conversation with us at the Poetry Center, please be in touch.

Thanks for reading,

Hannah Ensor
Literary Director
UA Poetry Center