A Conversation with Paisley Rekdal
BY JIM WHITESIDE
Paisley Rekdal is the author of ten books of poetry and prose, including Animal Eye, Nightingale, The Broken Country, and Appropriate: A Provocation. Her work has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Foundation, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship Trust and various state arts councils. She was guest editor for Best American Poetry 2020 and currently serves as Utah’s poet laureate.
Published by Norton in February 2021, Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate: A Provocation is a nuanced and compelling rumination of the history and nature of cultural appropriation in literature. Drawing upon a deep historical and theoretical framework to provide context and critique of appropriative texts, Rekdal’s book does in a long form what is often lost in conversations on online platforms or even in classrooms—Appropriate gives nuance to controversial texts, alternately providing rebuke and generosity towards writers accused of appropriation, providing a path forward for healing, justice, and better writing. Appropriate is a charged, tender, and engaging text, taking the form of a series of letters from a teacher to an unnamed student. Adroit Journal Poetry Reader Jim Whiteside spoke with Rekdal about the collection, the nature of cultural appropriation in literature, and other vital questions being tackled in the contemporary writing community.
JW: I’d like to begin with a question of form that I hope will lead us to matters of content. Appropriate: A Provocation is primarily comprised of six letters, each addressed to the same student from a creative writing workshop–– “Dear X,” each begins. How did you arrive at the epistolary mode for the book? Do you feel that something about letter-writing allowed you to strike a desired tone when writing about a controversial subject like cultural appropriation?
PR: The epistolary form was instinctive: as soon as I thought about writing this book, I thought about it as a letter or series of letters, in part because the epistolary form would allow for me to backtrack, contradict myself, explore some of my own backstory and artistic (and ethical) stakes in the game. But it had another surprising effect once I sat down to write the book. After reading an early draft, a writer friend of mine said that I actually needed to know WHO I was writing to in order to make the letters really work. So I created a very specific compilation “student” in mind when writing it: a person who I thought I would have to explain things to in very explicit ways. My addressee was someone who had a vested interest in the subject, someone who wanted to do right in the world, and was also someone who had never experienced the painful effects of appropriation and racism in a direct way. The surprising thing for me was that, in addressing these letters to that particularly imagined person, it forced me to articulate theories and feelings that I myself take for granted as widely shared or felt. By articulating these theories and feelings to myself, it also made me change my mind in ways that I might not have done were I speaking to someone more, oddly, like myself.
JW: That’s so interesting! I had wondered whether the addressee was a particular student, an amalgamation of several students, or a device for making the book cohere. Of course, as teachers of creative writing and literature, we’re often having these conversations with our students, ourselves, and each other, but I’m glad to hear that focusing on your specific addressee was fruitful. Could you point to one of those instances where articulating your theoretical knowledge and personal experiences for this addressee caused you to change your mind?
PR: I changed my mind—or, better, altered the course of my argument—in a few places, actually. One was when I thought about W.E.B Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness and how it might help writers of color in particular navigate subject appropriation in their own work. But by remembering that I was writing to a white student about double consciousness, I had to think “like” that student and realized a likely question he might raise was whether white people, too, could experience double consciousness, and what the implications of that might be. I myself hadn’t considered that a possibility, so I spent some time reading and thinking more about it. I also spent more time considering the question of whether or not appropriation, as a practice, might have some unacknowledged politically positive aspects of it. This is something that Cristina Rivera Garza considers in her wonderful book, The Restless Dead, which largely thinks about appropriation—or what she calls disappropriation—as a way of decentering the author’s primary position and putting the author’s voice in a larger community of, usually, archival voices. Basically, by appropriating another community’s narratives and artistic motifs, do we create a larger sense of shared political community, a transhistorical memory? Hip hop, for example, has been used across the globe by other artists who see in an African American musical tradition a way to express their own political and social resistance. Is this wrong, or a way of understanding that power—wherever it exists—often reduces people to dehumanized subjects, and that art itself becomes a form of transnational resistance? By thinking of the person I was addressing, I had to ask myself whether appropriation was really a practice only undertaken by a particular identity. It isn’t of course: we all appropriate. But I had to articulate to that imagined student exactly how and why our own historical meanings in the world affected how others would understand our particular appropriations.
JW: I think that you’ve really succeeded in crafting an argument that is fittingly nuanced and strikingly sympathetic. It sounds like using the device of the imagined student really helped foster that nuance. The easy argument is that all forms of appropriation are bad––and as you say in Appropriate, many are indeed bad and genuinely harmful––but I was struck by moments in the book where you discuss the gray areas of appropriation. We all appropriate, as you just said, so it seems to me that it becomes a question of centering, of the author’s positioning with their subject, and how/whether an author interrogates their own identity within the text (this obviously brings up much, much more as well). Do you see white readers as the primary audience for Appropriate?
PR: Appropriate is for everyone, since everyone appropriates and will engage in some kind of appropriative practice in their writing life. My addressee’s white identity only required that I be extremely explicit in articulating the differences between culture and race. It required that I give a clear working definition of Orientalism and double consciousness, as well as carefully think through how a writer’s intentions have almost nothing to do with the publishing industry itself, which—even as it, too, may be structured on well-meaning principles—capitalizes on particular narratives about BIPOC identities specifically framed for white audiences. Basically, I had to think about what someone with no personal experience of being negatively imagined or appropriated in popular culture might know or feel about appropriation. If I’d written the book only to a younger writer of color, I might have spoken in a kind of shorthand, because that addressee would understand some of the issues I raise in the book more intuitively. It was about choosing and then being conscious of speaking to a particular person who would force me to lay out all the arguments coiled inside the question about literary appropriation.
JW: Is this book, in part, a way of acknowledging that appropriation is inevitable for nearly all writers, with the book serving as a guide for avoiding harmful forms of appropriation?
PR: Though people of color experience the consequences of racial formation and its social perceptions every day, not all people of color have the theoretical vocabulary to describe how and why this happens, or what the consequences of these might be in our literature. In that sense, the addressee’s whiteness helps everyone get on the same page in defining terms. I hope the book models what a good close-reading practice looks like, since everyone can benefit from that, too.
There’s also a practical side to my decision about making the addressee’s identity white, since we tend to scrutinize more rigorously the appropriations of white artists, such as Jeanine Cummins or Adele. But artists of color certainly appropriate too, and have also been accused of harmful appropriations. Kara Walker, for instance, as well as Rebecca Roanhorse. And, most recently and startlingly, H.G. “Hache” Carrillo.
JW: As a white reader, I was really grateful for your discussions of concepts like double consciousness––a concept I hadn’t encountered since some time in grad school. You really lay a great foundation for the arguments in Appropriate, and the generosity and patience you have throughout for bringing folks like “X” up to speed is commendable. I’m glad you used the word “recently” just now. The book struck me as so patently contemporary––the examples you provide certainly explore a deep history of appropriation, but they also run right up to Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem “How To” from 2018, and even Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, published in early 2020. It feels like you were adding pieces to the book up until the moment it went to print. As a result, it feels so relevant, the examples are familiar, but given new context and nuance. The book brings together so many conversations many of us witnessed or participated in––maybe on Twitter, maybe in the English Department office––in one book. What sparked the book’s project?
PR: Technically, I was asked by an editor to write the book based on a Facebook post I had written about Carlson-Wee’s poem: I never would have thought to write this book on my own. But once I considered the request, I realized how much I wanted to write it, or at least to think through what I thought about appropriation. These are conversations I have with my students in nearly every writing class, nearly every semester, but I’d never “codified” or spent time creating a framework for what I believed about appropriation and why. What’s funny, of course, is that not a day goes by without another story about appropriation hitting the news. Whether it’s someone wearing an ill-considered outfit or trying to fake an ethnic or racial identity they don’t actually have, or—as in the case of “Bad Art Friend”—perhaps writing too closely about another person’s experience (even using another person’s words), appropriation scandals happen constantly and often without any socially agreed-upon resolution. The reason for this is because appropriative practices are themselves so nuanced that we have to examine each new appropriative act or work within its own specific context, its own ethical ecosystem. So I’m grateful that you find my book to be so timely, because I find now that I could have added at least two other chapters to it, based on new questions that I have around what a good appropriative practice looks like. And as I’m engaged in my own archival project now with the transcontinental railroad, I find myself asking very hard questions about how to creatively and respectfully approximate voices that come from oral histories and archival documents.
JW: Is there something about the literary community at large that made you feel like the world was ready to have this conversation in a different, more formal way?
PR: I do think we’re at a moment where people are hyper-aware of cultural and racial meanings, how they were historically formed and who benefits from them, and we’re also at a moment where people are hyper-aware of being observed, and having their mistakes widely broadcasted. People are trying to do the right thing by other people; at the same time, we aren’t always sure what behaviors, beliefs, and even terms go into the concept of “right” and “wrong.” I think people recognize that we live with complexity and ambiguity; at the same time, people are demanding clearer answers and resolutions from their institutions. For all these reasons, I think the time is right to have a conversation about what we THINK we’re talking about when we talk about appropriation, race, writing, and ethics.
JW: I think your impulse is right to say that people want to get things right. Good art, of course, often pushes boundaries and sometimes needs a level of defiance, envelope-pushing, transgression, etc., in order to be effective. The distinction you make in Appropriate between the art that succeeds and that which offends is an important one. It seems to me that it’s at once a question of proximity and one of centering: What connection does the writer have with the subject? Who is being uplifted –– the speaker and the experience that they have with the world, or the writer themself? For my own writing, I’m invested in writing about family history, which sometimes necessitates invoking family stories or voices from the past. Reading Appropriate has given me a new lens through which I can look at my writing about family, these stories I have some connection to, but ultimately aren’t “mine.”
I’m interested to hear about how the process of writing Appropriate caused you to change the way you think about your own creative work. Are you viewing your own past work differently, now that you’ve collected these thoughts all together?
PR: I’m always reconsidering my work—or aspects of my work—since my ideas about everything around writing evolve. Most people can’t stand their first books, largely because of formal reasons, but some of those formal reasons also have to do with how profoundly we engage the subjects and points of view we first tackled. I actually see some level of appropriation now as being a formal question, which I think helps me take criticism “better” when an editor or a fellow writer points out something I’m doing that could be harmful. I think one reason why these conversations around appropriation get so fraught is that we look at the discussion itself as a form of emergency pedagogy: we don’t talk about it in classes until it’s already happened, usually after someone has done something that offends. But if we were to consider that appropriation itself is a creative process that can be seen as imaginatively transgressive but not necessarily morally so, then what kinds of craft exercises and essays might we explore that teach us to appropriate well?
JW: That makes sense—so often writing pedagogy is centered around exercises, assignments, guidelines, drafting, failing, and re-drafting—so why shouldn’t we center some of that pedagogy around teaching ourselves and our students how to be responsible in this kind of writing? How is your work on Appropriate and the ideas it generated shaping this new project about the transcontinental railroad?
PR: I’ve gathered a few texts and exercises myself, and some of them went into my transcontinental railroad project, which uses a variety of published and unpublished texts as my source material. I used everything from letters to the editor written by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century to Chinese-English phrasebooks to letters by Irish immigrants to North America to the oral histories of Black porters working on the railroad during the mid-20th century. I had to develop a working “ethic” for appropriating these voices. First, all the poems would be clearly attributed to specific identities and archives that could then be found by readers. Second, while oral histories forced me to do a lot of editing (most people tell stories within stories), I would only use the verbal or dialectical tics that the speakers themselves used: I would not fabricate a voice, but hew as closely as I could to how people expressed themselves within the record that they left. Third, and most importantly, no one would say something they did not say. This is the trickiest thing, of course, since sometimes it’s clear what someone tonally is expressing, though the language itself gets quite vague. Or, in the case of some of the letter writers and memoirists, it’s also clear what the implications of their arguments are, though they don’t entirely state those implications. In those cases, I would intensify some of the imagery or language around those ideas through my own lineation, or through clarifying their syntax to express those ideas, or by re-organizing some of their ideas and narrative to let certain facts and details better shine through. In the book, there are also a series of mini-lyric essay notes that accompany each poem, and often I’ll make comments there about what else these speakers really said. But basically, I approached my appropriations here with the understanding that, with writers with a vast published record like Robert Louis Stevenson or Frederick Olmsted, I could take more creative liberties since they could and have spoken for themselves. For those with little to no record—like the workers on the railroad—I wanted to be as careful and as thoughtful as I could to preserve their own subjectivities.
Lastly, I’ll say this: appropriation here might be considered a transgressive act in that it is meant not just for me to imagine the experience of another, but to imagine how the political, social, and personal struggles of these people touched upon the struggles of other people also unlike them during the 19th century and today. For me, I wanted these appropriations to create a kind of transhistorical and transnational memory: a way of seeing a shared event that both drew people together AND fractured them into conflicting ethnic and national groups. Whether I succeed in this aim is up to critics and readers, but with this project, I treated appropriation as a tool that was less about colonizing other people’s voices than trying to show patterns of commonality—and legally enforced difference—that sometimes had tragic consequences that echo even into today.
JW: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what writers should avoid –– or, at least, where they should tread lightly –– but I’m also interested in what you think is being done really well in the writing that’s being done in the world today. What excites you about contemporary writing? What, if anything, is vital about the conversation today that hasn’t happened before?
PR: I think a lot of things are being done really well. I think, even as people may be more tentative about appropriation, writers at almost every age and in every genre are asking lots of questions about the current moment’s relationship to history. There’s a lot more interest—and wide-ranging interest—in pushing documentary work in new and surprising ways, and in engaging with very ambitious questions. Not just questions of race or gender or politics or the environment, but questions that interrogate the relationship between all these things as well: it’s no longer a question of “or,” it’s a question of “and.” By asking “and,” you have to think in more transhistorical, transnational, and interdisciplinary ways, and I think a lot of poets and prose writers are becoming more formally inventive because of this as a way to tell stories that incorporate more perspectives. I came of age in a workshop culture dominated by a high degree of suspicion about poems that tackled “politics”—what was then a catchall term that included everything from writing about one’s identity to writing about specific political events. In many ways, I was trained as a poet to think small, even (ironically) as professors kept arguing that this way of thinking would make for “great” art. Now we’re in a moment where we are encouraging people to tackle those political subjects, and the results are—if not always uniformly excellent—formally exciting. I suppose I’m less interested personally in preserving or defining specific ideas of greatness, and more interested in any work that expands the range of what could be considered great. For me, I think small works of art are those that ask easy questions or come with predetermined answers, and thus demand very little of the reader.
JW: I remember in your workshop with the Stegner Fellows last fall you’d mentioned that writing, for you, is a process of asking yourself questions and seeking answers –– and that the process of seeking those answers might also reveal new questions for future writing projects. Appropriate is certainly a great text attempting to answer some really big questions the community is asking, but what else do you see emerging in the larger conversation? What questions are being asked in the contemporary conversation, and what do we have to look forward to for the future of American writing?
PR: I think the biggest questions we’re asking now are what relationships we have and should have with each other, with the past, with our ideas of what we want for the future. Are we simply producing art that will be consumed by faceless individuals who have no connection to us or to each other? If literature is an expanding conversation, can we really pretend not to have heard certain voices or, worse, can we afford to ignore other voices? I think we’re increasingly aware of how connected we all are, and that because of this, writing may have an undeniable ethical dimension to it. That’s not to say that literature should be moral or moralizing, only that one of literature’s effects is in revealing the myriad social, political, and ethical values that we actively hold, or have held. Readers coming to literature are implicitly asked to feel the effects of these values on characters’ lives, and to choose for themselves what values and beliefs they themselves want to reproduce in their own (real) lives. I think literature has always done this, but as we become more aware of the ramifications of this, I think we’re going to continue to evaluate how literary texts are selected, for publication and the classroom. I don’t know what this means for writers formally, but I suspect we’ll see even more books actively bringing theory and history into their textual structures. Something like with The Committed or There, There. Texts that declare their lineage, that make explicit to the reader their usually private conversations.