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Arianne Zwartjes, "Zwarte Piet, The Dutch Tradition of Blackface"

Zwarte Piet, The Dutch Tradition of Blackface: What November in the Netherlands Can Teach Us About Ourselves

*

It was on a morning walk through our mazelike neighborhood in the southern Dutch city of Maastricht that I first saw him. Staring through the glass of someone's front door, below a heart-shaped wooden door-sign with hand-painted letters: Love never takes a holiday. The doll was crafted in Raggedy Ann style, black cloth sewn into a round head, lips of red felt, white lining the eyes. He leaned sideways, grinning, black-yarn knots of hair around his head.

I'd known this moment was coming for some time, though that didn't reduce the shock of it. When my wife started the teaching job we'd moved here for, she brought home the school's yearbook. We were sitting on the couch, flipping through the pages when we stumbled across an entire double-spread of first- and second-graders, posing gleefully with what was clearly a white adult in blackface. Thick red lips, face and hands completely blackened, a curly wig atop. We were floored.

We read in the comments below the photos that the blackface character is known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. I looked at the faces of the kids of color in that classroom photo, wondering how they felt when they saw this person, clownishly made up as a caricature of someone who might look like them.

*

We started to ask around about Zwarte Piet—who is this character? What's the deal with him? What we were really trying to ask, in effect, was: how is it possible that such a celebration still exists in the Europe of today?

We got a confusing array of answers. Zwarte Piet is the mischievous accomplice to Sinterklaas, or St. Nicholas. Sinterklaas was based on a Turk, but now the children are told he comes from Spain. Black Pete was based on a former slave from North Africa that the Turk bought and freed, but these days he's based on a Moor from Spain. No, he's based on a chimney sweep blackened from going up and down the chimneys. He and Sinterklaas sail around from Spain to deliver gifts to all the children of the Netherlands (and, it turns out, parts of Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany too). He brings candy and can be seen jumping around on rooftops, and looking in on families through the chimneys. He is playful and mischievous and all the children love him. Except for the part where they're told that if they're bad, he'll catch them up in his jute sack and take them back to Spain. Or Turkey. He used to be black but now his cheeks are just dusted with soot. It's not a harmful tradition because he is such a source of joy and delight to the children. Everyone, everyone loves Zwarte Piet.

*

At one time, "everyone" in the U.S. also loved performers in blackface—at least, everyone who was white. When the performance of blackface started in America, it started in the North, not in the South as most of us might imagine. It started, in part, because white people in the northern states were curious about the exotic plantation life and about the black people they had little direct experience with.

White performers blackened their faces with burnt cork and performed grossly caricatured black characters who were enslaved in the south. They spoke in an exaggerated black vernacular and portraying bumbling, childishly unintelligent, country-bumpkins who were frequently compared to animals and who were, almost always, the butt of the joke. Posters for minstrel shows of the time show dark-faced cartoon-like characters with gigantic red lips, large white eyes, and a frizz of hair who bear titles like the "Prancing Pickaninnies" or "Mammy's Little Kinky Headed Boy." (1)

*

I began to do some research on the Dutch character Zwarte Piet and learned that he was the servant of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, a regal, white-bearded white man atop a white horse wearing red robes and a bishop-like mitre, carrying a gold staff. Apparently St. Nicholas of Smyrna came from what is now Turkey, but his relics were later moved to Spain, hence the confusing divergence of answers about the geographical origins of these characters.

In 1850 a children's storybook published in Amsterdam first documented the character of Zwarte Piet. The book, Sint Nikolaas en Zijn Knecht, or "Saint Nicholas and his Servant," was written by a primary-school teacher named Jan Schenkman, (2) and it became so popular that it stayed in print until 1950.

Zwarte Piet spoke broken Dutch, wore gold hoop earrings, and performed absurd antics for the entertainment of the children—and he eventually proliferated into a crowd of Piets who accompany Sinterklaas each year. "While some say that their darkness comes from climbing through chimneys (as did the Italian immigrant chimneysweeps of the nineteenth century)," writes one scholar, "their likeness to Al Jolson is hard to miss." (3)

Around the same time as Jan Schenkman's book was first published, minstrel shows were hitting their peak popularity on the other side of the Atlantic. Minstrelsy began to emerge in the U.S. around the 1820s and waned in popularity by 1900, but performances by white actors in blackface persisted well into the 1900s (in the case of the extremely popular Al Jolson, for example, Hollywood produced The Jazz Singer in 1927).

We also exported our practice of blackface: in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, minstrel troupes from the U.S. traveled to Europe and in fact to most other parts of the world. In the U.K., especially, the idea of blackface took a deep hold on the imagination of the (presumably mostly white) British public. (4)

This all started well before Jan Schenkman wrote his 1850 book introducing Zwarte Piet, so one might feasibly imagine that the minstrel troupes of America even helped inspire what has become a widespread Dutch performance of blackface.

*

A few weeks later, in early November, I was paging through the junk-mail catalogs that came in the mail. I opened to a holiday section in the middle of the drugstore catalog, and there he was. Somehow, no matter how many times this happened—this sudden exposure to images or representations of blackface—it never lost its surprise, its shock value for me.

In the drugstore catalog, holiday paper plates and cups sported an array of faces: white court jesters, Sinterklaas with his red hat, and Zwarte Piets—their cartoon-like faces black or brown, their lips large and red, the whites of their eyes outlining large black pupils. For children there was a three-piece Peter-suit, complete with a curly black wig and jester's cap. A holiday Playmobil set contained two figures: Sinterklaas, white-bearded on his high white horse, and next to him a brown-skinned Zwarte Piet, holding aloft a long stick and carrying a sack of gifts. On a third page of the catalog, filled with holiday candies, there was a bag of chocolates that could have come straight from an 1850s minstrel-show poster: dark chocolate faces with round white eyes, big red lips, and large loops of icing-hair.

I knew that the Dutch don't have the same history of slavery, or even minstrelsy, on their home territory to contend with as we do in the U.S., but still I sat there wondering how anyone could look at these clownish representations of black faces and not feel that they are insulting. Or feel that that insult, taken within the larger power structures and wealth inequality of our current world, isn't utterly incriminating of its perpetrators.

A few days later I was in a kitchen-supplies shop looking for Christmas gifts, and I saw a bag of Italian coffee with what appeared to be an Aunt Jemima-type character on the front. And several weeks after that, we were watching a soccer game when we saw that one of the Belgian teams' mascot is a classically stereotypical American Indian head, in full feather headdress. I saw another version of this, a full American Indian costume, headdress and all, in the window of a costume shop that was already gearing up for Carnival. How did these racialized images, which seemed to have originated on another continent, make their way here? I thought in bafflement each time I saw them. Apparently, racism—with its vigorous doses of exoticization and appropriation—is catchy.

*

Many scholars believe the Zwarte Piet figure has its roots in the chained devil-figure that accompanied St. Nicholas in medieval iconography—a permutation of the pagan demon Krampus, who can still be seen in terrifying regalia at winter celebrations in the mountain regions of Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Italy, and Croatia, as a recent photo spread in The Atlantic bears unsettling witness to.

Though this aspect of the story has apparently softened somewhat over time, Zwarte Piet was initially used to strike fear into the hearts of children to inspire good behavior—he was often shown carrying a rod or a birch stick with which to frighten or punish any misbehavers. Even today, a professor at the University of Maastricht describes the tradition thus: "the children know Zwarte Piet as the one that hands out sweets and gifts from his big bag... [but] the children also know that once the big bag runs empty, Zwarte Piet fills it with all the children who have been 'naughty' in the past year, and then takes them away with him—back to Spain!" (5)

It is impossible to read this without hearing echoes: the association of black men with fear is not a new concept to those of us from the U.S., where we've progressed from the era of lynching black men who were accused of looking at white women, to the era of shooting black boys in hoodies as they walk down the street, sometimes with a bag of candy held in one hand.

*

Today, there is a Pete for every function, and they have proliferated like the profits clearly being made from the selling of holiday toys, decorations, TV shows, movies, costumes, and candies. There is a navigation-Pete to steer the steamboat, a wrapping-Pete to handle all the gifts, and a head-Pete to be in charge of all the other Petes. The children's Club van Sinterklaas, or Sinterklaas Club, has a lineup of Petes on the website that includes test-Pete, who tests the gifts for breakage ("a true Pete-maid, who loves her pink clothes"); a music-Pete, who looks like a cross between a dark-skinned Elvis Presley and a vampire; and a kitchen-Pete, who "cooks the most delicious meals for Sinterklaas and the rest of the Petes."

Pete's role may have changed somewhat, from unintelligent and unintelligible jester to a "full assistant to the absent-minded saint," (6) but in most cases, the only change to his blackface costume has been to lose the gold earrings.

In the U.S., blackface has also been a profit-making endeavor, and has continued far past the era of minstrel shows: Hollywood has never fully relinquished its use, in the 1930s and '40s producing a number of films starring Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Bing Crosby in blackface. In more recent decades we've seen Dan Akroyd, Ted Danson, Ashton Kutcher, Robert Downey Jr., and Julianne Hough appear in blackface in a variety of contexts, including in feature films.

And the Metropolitan Opera just announced last year, in 2015, that it will finally cease its use of blackface (facilitated by stage makeup with names like Indian Red and Otello Brown) (7) in its staging of Verdi's Otello.

*

Looking around online, I stumbled across an old photo of Josephine Baker, on a 1957 visit to the Netherlands, meeting Sinterklaas and a blackface Zwarte Piet. I tried to image her reaction, which is not clear from the carefully schooled smile on her face, and could only come up with a sense of horror. Though I searched and searched, I could not find anything else written about this moment.

Prior to moving to the Netherlands, I had imagined the racialized landscape of Europe dividing primarily along lines drawn by Islamophobia (which is certainly partially true), and so to find this striking visual remnant of Europe's colonial and slave-owning past still being vibrantly and gleefully celebrated was a shocking surprise.

I remembered what two of my Belgian students told me in class the year before, when we were analyzing racialized narratives from U.S. literature. "We never talk about these things in Europe," one of them said. The other student nodded. "They do exist, but no one really talks about them, it's all just ... kept quiet and polite."

Of his time in the small Swiss village of Leukerbad, James Baldwin wrote in his 1951 essay "Stranger in the Village":

Some [people in the village] thought my hair was the color of tar, that it had the texture of wire, or the texture of cotton. It was jocularly suggested that I might let it all grow long and make myself a winter coat. If I sat in the sun for more than five minutes some daring creature was certain to come along and gingerly put his fingers on my hair, as though he were afraid of an electric shock . . . In all of this, in which . . . there [was] no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human.

Europe's black possessions remained—and do remain—in Europe's colonies, at which remove they represented no threat whatever to European identity. If they posed any problem at all for the European conscience, it was a problem which remained comfortingly abstract: in effect, the black man, as a man, did not exist for Europe. (8)

Though in some ways living in Europe allowed Baldwin to escape the narrow role of the black man in America, it brought a different kind of encounter with racism, one more rooted in the distance and abstraction Baldwin writes of above.

Perhaps that abstraction is in part what has allowed such problematic representations of people of color to continue to this day: I even saw one Amsterdam party-supply shop that had displayed President Obama dressed up as a Black Pete in its front display window.

Or perhaps this distinction is less useful than it seems, as it has been only a handful of decades since popular opinion in the U.S. has (mostly) deemed such portrayals as crossing an unacceptable line.

As late as 1969, for instance, the performance of blackface was still a part of such celebrated traditions as the University of Vermont's Kake Walk, an exaggerated dance competition performed by pairs of white fraternity brothers in clownlike blackface, with one person of each pair also in female drag. When a movement started to eliminate this tradition from the campus, the initial response was to do away with the blackface and instead paint the dancers' faces with green paint, but to retain the "dialect." (9) As I write this I realize I have written "green pain," which is perhaps an accurate if poetic description of what any students of color must have felt upon viewing this hallowed annual performance.

And, really, one needn't turn to traditions that ended in the sixties to look for examples of blackface still being practiced in the U.S. In her article "13 Racist College Parties That Prove Dear White People Isn't Exaggerating At All," (10) Samantha Escobar looks at parties from the last decade that took place on campuses including Dartmouth, Arizona State, Penn State, U.C. Irvine, Duke, and on and on. Some of the parties feature blackface (along with watermelons and gang signs), others caricature Mexicans or "Asians," writ large.

*

In another bizarre layer of the ongoing Zwarte Piet blackface character, its celebrations spread to Suriname, which the Dutch colonized, as well as to the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean. In an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post, Agnes Titi Kusumandari writes, "I remember being terrified of being whipped by the curly-haired black guy," and he continues, "My father ... still remembers how his father was sometimes asked to play the role of Black Pete in his days, 'as he was black and small, not like Santa Claus.'" (11)

Black Pete makes those who are dark skinned feel "inferior and wicked," he concludes, "while Santa Claus represents the strong, good, white and wise other." The image of the Playmobil set, with Sinterklaas sitting high and noble on his horse wearing his gold miter, while a brown-skinned Zwarte Piet stood beside him wearing basically a jute-sack tunic, plays in my head.

I even came across one Facebook comment by a parent at the Netherlands International School Lagos, asking how the Dutch faculty could possibly think it appropriate to show up at a school in Lagos dressed in Zwarte Piet blackface. Her comment was subsequently removed, which made me wonder if she received blowback for the post.

And in one more layer of distortion laid atop this already-rather-creepy tradition, I read in the newspaper that in 2015 there were a rash of burglaries committed by white men in Zwarte Piet blackface, (12) and one instance from northwestern Belgium where a murderer used the disguise to stalk the wife and daughter of a man he'd killed. (13)

*

Not surprisingly, there is a growing anti-Black-Pete movement within the Netherlands, led by campaigns like Zwarte Piet Niet ("Not Black Pete"), Stop Blackface, and Zwarte Piet Is Racisme ("Black Pete is Racism"), and signed onto by groups like the National Council of Moroccans, MAD Mothers, the Caribbean Dutch Foundation, and the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers.

It has not been a kindly received push for change. There have been death-threats sent to those who protest the tradition all over the Netherlands (and even those in the U.S. who have published critical articles or films), and threats of assassination against organizers of a protest in Antwerp, in Flemish Belgium.

One woman, who requested that a popular department store remove the black models dressed as "Petes" from their display windows, was severely harassed: she received thousands of threats in just a few days, expressing hopes that she would be raped, advising her to jump in front of a train, or—most evocative of Europe's painful past—to crawl through the chimney of a crematory. (14)

Watching video of the November protest (and antiprotest) at the children's event where Sinterklaas and his entourage of Piets made their national arrival "on their boat from Spain" was unsettling. The camera panned across a sidewalk eight deep with white faces, mostly men, chanting their support for Zwarte Piet. "Fuck off, go away!" they tell the camera as it pans over them. (15)

The protesters are lined up on the opposite sidewalk, a small sea of mostly brown faces in an otherwise-white landscape.

"Look at the monkeys! Look at the monkeys!" a white girl in a black hoodie begins to chant at them, her face twisting into the distorted grimace of her chant. The white adults and young teens around her snicker, hands over their mouths, in a mixture of discomfort and amusement.

In another video, from the Reigersbos neighborhood on the southeast side of Amsterdam, a well-dressed older white woman asks the police about the protestors: "Why do you let this happen? Just arrest them all!" "We cannot do that, m'am," replies the white female cop standing next to her. "Well, put a noose around their necks and then they will all go," she says agitatedly, gesturing forcefully at her own throat. (16)

This moment, to me, was almost more disturbing than the chanting girl, who seemed to want to be a provocateur; in contrast, this woman just wanted the disturbance to all go away so she could resume her day unbothered. Her words revealed a more unrehearsed, un-self-aware racism, one that tapped into imagery and symbolism of the centuries-long racial violence we are all too familiar with in the U.S.

*

That evening, biking to meet my wife for dinner after watching hours of video, I suddenly began to see them everywhere—in shop displays, apartment windows, hanging in the doors of houses—Zwarte Piet dolls propped up and grimacing. I imagined they were stalking me, skulking in every corner, until I began to feel almost paranoid. They seemed like the lurking evidence of a hidden, malevolent white supremacism in what was, just weeks ago, a placid and tolerant-seeming society. It felt suddenly like there was an angry undertone to all the festivity, ready to stab out at any dissenter in the flash of a moment.

I began to ask all the white people I know here how they see or understand the tradition of Zwarte Piet. I was not looking for their justification of this blackface character; I wanted to understand how they see themselves in relationship to the celebration of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. I suppose I should not have been surprised that most of them seemed to simply shrug it off. Yes, the critiques are probably right, but it's a long-standing tradition. It will undoubtedly eventually fade away. One recurrent answer that stood out to me is along the lines of, "eh, it was an innocent tradition, fine when Holland was only full of white people, but now that the country has more communities of color, we should probably change it." What I found fascinating about this response is how stubbornly it ignores the colonial past of the Netherlands, the wealth the country amassed from the slave trade and extracted from the colonies—not to mention how deeply a practice such as this can affect, for example, a country's foreign policy and interaction with the rest of the world, even in a hypothetical example where the entire population of the Netherlands is suddenly white.

A few days later, a Sunday, we went into the center of this little city to wander the Christmas market, and there were the live Zwarte Piets themselves, standing in the shopping area, handing out flyers with their makeup-blackened hands. I danced away from them in deep discomfort as we walked by, unsure where to put my gaze.

*

Reflecting on the experience of witnessing "Zwarte Piet season" in the Netherlands, it does not feel particularly useful to me to rest in the easy critique of the foreigner, scandalized at this clear remnant of colonial racism, so easy to express because it does not—for once—implicate me. And I am not speaking from the moral high ground here, as anyone who's been paying attention to the rash of publicized police killings and abuse of black bodies over the past several years in the U.S. can attest (and as has been pointed out by a number of people, this violence is not new and not limited to police abuse).

Certainly it is impossible to look at this Dutch tradition without thinking of the individuals whose bodies have been brutalized in horrifying ways over hundreds of years in the U.S., in lynchings and beatings and dragging-behind-trucks. Or without thinking of the vicious Belgian colonization of the Congo. Or of the Dutch-owned West India Company's domination of the shipping trade in bodies, from East Africa to the shores of the Americas, or of Dutch slave-holding in Suriname. Or of the colonial exploitation—of coffee, sugar, tea, human labor—that produced the great wealth of northwestern Europe.

I also cannot look at this practice without thinking of the images we've seen from Europe in the past year—images of boats overturning and drowned bodies washing up on beaches. Images of massive, terrifying, human-made fires crackling in the dead of night outside of asylum buildings that finally offered some refuge—after so much dark, rough ocean and stifling heat waiting for trains and sleeping on benches and being put in overcrowded camps—to those who survived the arduous journey north, after surviving the years of bombings and mass executions and chaos and loss in their homeland.

*

The ubiquitous representations of Zwarte Piet certainly evoke all of these painful and deeply troubling connotations, and there is no way to escape their inherent racism. But, clearly, it is not the shock of the innocent that white Americans express when we look at the Dutch's joyful celebration of this blackface character.

Perhaps our aghastness comes from the disruption of our romanticized notions of the northern European countries as worldly, socially "enlightened," socialist Democracies with strong protections for liberty and human rights. I know for me this disillusionment is part of it—I had idealized Europe as somehow more successful at dealing with so many of the issues that are tangled and ugly on US soil.

Or, perhaps, our shock is a kneejerk reaction against something that feels a little bit too close to home. And then the comfort of indignant outrage in condemning it.

I suspect it is also disturbing in part because it peels back the illusion—increasingly difficult to hold onto in the U.S., as cameras have made racialized police violence more and more visible to the mainstream—that we as former colonizing nations have advanced far beyond our days of racism and white supremacy; it makes impossible the skewed white liberal affirmation of "tolerance" that denies racism by insisting "we don't see color."

*

There have been a number of creative and at times bizarre strategies employed recently in the Netherlands to try to refashion Zwarte Piet into a more "acceptable" character. Some cities have introduced an army of "rainbow Petes," and in Gouda, some of last year's Petes dressed as Gouda cheese (complete with circles on their yellow faces to represent holes in the cheese) or as stroopwafels, the classic caramel-filled Dutch waffle-cookie. (17)

There is also a somewhat desperate effort to insist that Zwarte Piet is in fact just covered with soot. At the Meppel arrival of Sinterklaas, a young blond man being interviewed said, "I think everybody knows that Black Pete is black because of the chimney ... and not because of other reasons. But this is my opinion!" he concludes, smiling and shrugging. (18) A professor from the University of Maastricht writes, "Despite the fact that [this explanation] makes absolutely no sense, it is held by a surprisingly large number of Dutch people." (19)

And, in many cases, there is simply total refusal to acknowledge any reason to change. In Meppel, a white man in Zwarte Piet blackface, as he prepared for the parade, said forcefully, "I am a normal average Dutch person in the Netherlands!" And an article in The Independent quoted Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as saying, "Black Pete, that already says it, he's black. We can't change much about that." (20)

*

Zwarte Piet offers us, in the U.S., a clear lesson in how easily cultural traditions can embed racism, and how insistently a society can then deny it. While it is not particularly useful—or honest—to look at the Zwarte Piet tradition and cultivate a self-righteous horror and outrage, it is useful to ask, where do our similar blind spots lie? To what traditions are we deeply attached, and which of them are damaging or exclusive to other identities? A quick scroll through Facebook on Thanksgiving, for example, provided plenty of links to articles reminding us that our understanding of that holiday's history is likely pretty far askew.

I think it is also useful to ask ourselves: where are we—white America—willfully blind to our colonial heritage? In a reiteration of Baldwin's observation about the comfortable distance at which European colonial rule took place, a UN working group investigating the Zwarte Piet tradition found that a lack of education about their own colonial history "contributes to the surprising tolerance the Dutch show towards the continued use of this form of imagery." (21)

In the US, where, as Baldwin has also observed, we have none of that distance, our colonial history is in some ways "an inescapable part of the general social fabric." So that when there is an attempt to change the wording in our school textbooks, as McGraw-Hill has been accused of in Texas, to say that the Africans brought to the North American continent were immigrant "workers" rather than enslaved, (22) it is obvious that an egregious whitewashing and erasure of history is taking place, and there is a public outcry.

But when those of us who would never have dreamed of attending a college party in blackface—and indeed are horrified at the prospect—make the error of referring to Africa as though it were a single country and culture, as happens so often it is the rule rather than the exception—or when the only authors we've heard of from anywhere on that continent are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinua Achebe, or when we've never seen a film made by African filmmakers, or when our research investigates the development of human civilization as though that development occurred only in Europe and Asia—then we are also perpetuating our own blind spots, the cultural ignorance and dehumanization of others that comes down to us directly from our colonial and slave-owning roots.

*

Almost every person of color I spoke with in the Netherlands expressed a dread of the late-autumn season. Almost all of them had been called Zwarte Piet, at least once, by other school children or by their peers or by their coworkers.

In an appearance on the Dutch talk show Pauw, Dutch Guianese actress Sylvana Simons said, "I wish I could explain how my entire life I and many others have had to maneuver the public domain from September through December. I recently spoke to a friend of mine [who] has an afro and went to a party. She said: 'I'm not going to wear red lipstick and golden earrings because we all know what'll happen.'"

Simons continued, "I'm here at the table to tell you about pain. It may be a pain you can not feel and a pain that you cannot understand but I am telling you about it.... You dismiss my pain and turn it into something like 'yes, but you must have been wearing strange clothing [when someone called you Zwarte Piet].'" (23)

She was the only person of color at that talk show table—or anywhere in the roomful of studio audience, as far as it was possible to see, and I thought how intimidating it must be to sit at that table in that very white room and to speak out publicly on this topic, especially when others have been so aggressively threatened and harassed in response.

This was early December. December 6th would arrive and be gone, and with it, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet would disappear back to Spain for another year, to be replaced by Christmas crèches and other such decorations. But for the moment, the festivities were in full swing.

It made me feel sad, out wandering through the glittering, holiday-bedecked, bustling streets filled with the excitement of white people. The little black faces tucked into corners of displays, suspended from the ceilings of department stores, or hanging in shop windows felt like constant reminders to any person of color who walked by: You are an outsider. This is not for you.

 

 

Notes

1. "History of Minstrelsy: From 'Jump Jim Crow' to 'The Jazz Singer'," The University of South Florida Library, 2012. <http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu>
2. Dr. Markus Balkenol, in a talk entitled "Zwarte Piet, A History," Dec 2014. Online video clip. Dr. Balkenol is a postdoctoral fellow in Ethnology at the Meertens Institute of Dutch language and culture in Amsterdam and is also a postdoctoral fellow at Utrecht University. YouTube. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.
3. Markha Valenta (Radboud University, Nijmegen), "Saint Nicholas: The Hard Politics of Soft Myths," OpenDemocracy.net, December 2010.
4. Charles Hamm, "Reviewed Works," Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 53, no. 1, 2000, pp. 165-183.
5. Lutz Krebs, "Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet, and Everything In Between," blog for the Maastricht University School for Public Policy and Human Development Class of 2014-15. Oct 30, 2014.
6. "Wie is die Zwarte Piet eigenlijk?" nos.nl, Oct 23, 2013.
7. Michael Cooper, "An Otello Without Blackface Highlights An Enduring Tradition in Opera," NYTimes, Sept 17, 2015.
8. James Baldwin. "Stranger in the Village." Notes of A Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, 1984. pp. 159-75.
9. "University Archives, Record Group 53: Fraternities and Sororities, Series: Kake Walk," UVM Center for Digital Initiatives, Bailey/Howe Library. May 29, 2010.
10. Samantha Escobar. "13 Racist College Parties That Prove Dear White People Isn't Exaggerating At All." The Gloss. Oct 17, 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.
11. Agnes Titi Kusumandari. "The Opinion." Jakarta Post, Dec 23 2009. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.
12. Janene Pieters, "Zwarte Piet armed robbery unsolved one year on," The NL Times. Nov 25 2015.
13. "Als Zwarte Piet Verklede Moordverdachte In Frituur Van Ex Slachtoffer Eddy," HLN.be. Nov 17 2015.
14. "Twentse Sandra ontvangt duizenden dreigberichten vanwege Zwarte Pietendiscussie," Tubantia.nl. Nov 24 2015. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
15. "Zwarte Piet (Blackface, Black Pete) in Meppel 2015," New Media Platform. YouTube. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
16. "Zwarte Piet 'Blackface' in Reigersbos – Amsterdam SouthEast," New Media Platform. YouTube. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
17. Elisa Criado, "Black Pete: 'Cheese-face' to partially replace blackface during Dutch festivities," The Independent, Oct 15, 2014.
18. "Zwarte Piet (Blackface, Black Pete) in Meppel 2015," New Media Platform. YouTube. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
19. Lutz Krebs, "Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet, and Everything In Between," blog for the Maastricht University School for Public Policy and Human Development Class of 2014-15. Oct 30, 2014.
20. Elisa Criado, "Black Pete: The Netherlands plan a nationwide consultation on the controversial tradition," The Independent. Aug 15, 2014.
21. Elisa Criado, "Black Pete: The Netherlands plan a nationwide consultation on the controversial tradition," The Independent. Aug 15, 2014.
22. Kiah Collier, "Some Texas school leaders brush off complaints about textbooks that call slaves 'workers'," The Washington Post, Oct 7, 2015.
23. "Sylvana Simons: Zwarte Piet Hoeft Niet Meer Terug Te Komen." Online video clip. Joop.nl. Dec 5, 2015.

Contributor's Note

Arianne Zwartjes recently relocated from the Netherlands back to the U.S. Her most recent book is Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy (U Iowa Press); her work is in Tarpaulin Sky, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere. Visit her at ariannezwartjes.com

Joshua Ware, Three Visual Translations

Visual Translations of Paul Celan

Please click on an image to enlarge. These translations serve as a digital supplement to our "Experimental Translation" portfolio (curated by Aditi Machado and Michael Joseph Walsh) appearing in issue 50.4 (Summer 2016). A Translator's Note has also been provided below.

Ware Visual Translation 1

 

Ware Visual Translation 2

 

Ware Visual Translation 3

 

Translator's Note by Joshua Ware

In her essay "The World as India," Susan Sontag poses the rhetorical question: "Is it the first task of the translator to efface the foreignness of a text, and to recast it according to the norms of the new language?" She tacitly answers her own question when she concludes: "There is no serious translator who does not fret about such problems."

Regardless of how much or often a translator frets over the effacement of foreignness, though, Sontag believes that "literary translation is an activity with unrealistic standards," at least to the extent that the standards that literary communities create "are bound to generate dissatisfaction." This dissatisfaction, ultimately, renders all translations "imperfect" and, thus, "provisional."

I agree with Sontag's assessments about dissatisfaction and imperfection. And if the goal of translation is, indeed, to "efface the foreignness of a text," then the project of translation is an utter failure.

But I do not believe that translation is a failed project. To my mind, translation succeeds when it raises foreignness to an aesthetic imperative. In doing so, it acknowledges and revels in the fundamental impossibility of its own task. What better way, then, to highlight imperfection, complexity, and foreignness than through visual translations of linguistic texts.

Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things, wrote, "the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation." For the sake of my argument, I willfully mistranslate Foucault's "painting" as "image." And the relationship between word and image, being infinite, is necessarily incommensurable. It is the fulfillment of foreignness: immersion within perpetual difference.

I also would argue that, far from inducing anxiety, the incommensurable and the foreign imbue translation with necessary differences, diversities, and playfulness: a way in which to exceed our creative technologies and knowledges, so as to commune in shared imperfection with the other.

 

Contributor's Note

Joshua Ware is a poet and collage artist who was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley and Unwanted Invention / Vargtimmen, both published by Furniture Press Books. He lives in Denver, Colorado, where he sells cars.

Richard Froude, "God of the Gaps" Extended Version

The following is close to the transcript of a lecture given at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, delivered June 2015. Only minor edits have been made. An edited excerpt from this lecture was also featured in Denver Quarterly issue 50.4 (July 2016).

 

God of the Gaps (On Distraction, Process, Dock Ellis, and Privilege)

 

1

My name is Richard Froude and I am a medical student.

2

I was born in a blizzard outside London in February, 1979.

3

My mother is Welsh and my father is English. They both left high school before high school was done. During the Second World War, my father’s father served in Saudi Arabia. My mother’s father, in Italy. They both returned home, alive, the former to a tiny shop on the Gloucester Road in Bristol that sold coal, light bulbs, and radio parts; the latter to fill billboard space for the Daily Express newspaper beside the chemical works that flank the Swansea Bay. My mother’s mother worked in a bakery on the Mumbles Road and brought Welsh Cakes home every Friday. My father’s mother worked from her home as a seamstress, smoked Du Mauriers but did not inhale.

4

It was my parents that moved from the British working class firmly into the middle class. And this was where I began, in Thatcher’s Britain. While the savagery of capitalism crushed my mother’s brothers in South Wales, it was what enabled me a comfortable childhood, a life of unrivaled privilege, and in turn the chance to leave the country where I was born, where I had been a child, to come here and write poems among the mountains and blue skies, to make my life here, to study literature and now, medicine.

I bring this up now because you should know at least something of who is talking to you. Because it is my intent to ask you questions, and I ask those same questions of myself. It is not my intention to hide.

5

For months, when I thought about this lecture, I planned to talk about DISTRACTION. I wanted to address the threats to an artistic life, but beyond that, I wanted to investigate how the things that can be classified as distraction can also be components of an artistic life. That is, to live as an artist is to exist as fluid, to inhabit a liminal space with the capacity to integrate the initial pursuit and all its distractions, so that these distractions become part of the pursuit, the way the human genome, with no necessary detriment to itself, integrates genetic information from the myriad viruses the body has hosted. I will still talk about this, but as I have thought more about it, the more deeply I have seen DISTRACTION entwined with OTHERNESS, and OTHERNESS in turn with an ISOLATED SELF. And when I use the term OTHERNESS here I mean anything that is observed to exist outside of—or distinct from—an ISOLATED SELF. In these terms, an investigation of DISTRACTION requires an investigation of the structures that uphold both the private and public selves. That is, to talk about DISTRACTION is to talk about PRIVILEGE.

6

I want to create a SELF before you, in soft isolation, among these paragraphs. Because I want each of these concepts to be embodied, or at least to come forth from an embodied self. I want to speak into the essential tension between the self and the body it transcends—this fluid space.

I believe in the voice to unite body and self by its occupation of their interlude. I believe in its own dual lives of timbre and semantics.

I believe in the voice to dismantle and expose the self, by way of its embodiment. This is why I still want to be a poet—because I want you to watch me take myself apart.

7

This was to be the argument:

DISTRACTION requires OTHERNESS. There is the TRACT and the DIS-TRACT. If attention is to be divided, then it follows that there must be a plurality of targets for that attention. At least one of these targets must be outside of the self, as such, an other.

In turn, if there is to be OTHERNESS, then there must be an ISOLATED SELF from which that OTHERNESS is distinct. This simple schema creates a binary: to be DISTRACTED is to allow one’s thought to move from the pole of the SELF to the pole of the OTHER.

Because there is a distance between the SELF and the OTHER that can be traversed in the activity of DISTRACTION, then this distance is representative of a liminal space between the two poles: an interlude, a gap that can be occupied.

To occupy this space that exists between the poles is to dissolve the binary of SELF and OTHER, to dwell in the infinitude of possibility, to maintain contact, to allow attention to rest upon pluralities, as we know, a negative capability—the activity and practice of ART.

8

I do not believe there is an intrinsic benevolence to the world, nor do I believe in an essential malevolence, only a blunt and whistling indifference. Please do not mistake this for disinterest. It is up to us to be the most interested in this indifference, because it is the indifference of the surrounding world that is the surface upon which we pound out whatever it is we are doing as human beings. And although I believe this is true for everyone, it is never more true than it is for artists: to impress the “unspeakable visions of the individual” onto the indifference of the world, and to listen to the visions of others especially if those visions differ from your own, to bring engagement to what is elsewhere flatness.

I wonder now if ENGAGEMENT could be a synonym for DISTRACTION, these apparent opposites? Consider this: an intentional DISTRACTION that brings you to the complexity of the world, that surrenders the self, that reaches out to clasp the hand of the OTHER.

What if this ENGAGED DISTRACTION could be artistic practice itself? If we could reject the idea of a single moment for the totality it represents. It is not a new idea: “to see the world in a grain of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand / and eternity in an hour.”

9

Over three days in March this year, I listened to the Paul Simon song “Graceland” more than 100 times. I could listen to it exactly four times when I drove from my house to the hospital parking lot. It drew me so completely out of the immediate reality of my life: learning the features of various microorganisms, the drugs with which to treat them, blah blah blah, blah blah. It had rooms. But when I tried to enter them, it was as if they comprised a dwelling designed by Escher, or some other intelligence who had built a reflexive narrative into the architecture—like the holocaust museum in Berlin, these staircases that lead nowhere, structures that take you either to dead ends or back on yourself because there cannot be forward movement. There cannot be progress. There can only be cause to revisit, over and over, this resistance of meaning.

I go crazy with the word meaning, the sense behind it.

What does “meaning” mean? A ghost sense. This wispy bastard who is always hanging out, mediating our contact with the world. Whenever you move your head to see it, it is gone. It moves that bit faster.

I want to live like this. Haunting a liminal space between the task at hand and the persistent pull away from it. I want to make art this way, to speak in a voice that unites my body and constructed self. That does not justify but expresses the shattered self. A voice that drifts.

“Where have you all been?” I will ask you when I brush against your lives.

“Where are you all going?”

10

The first time I saw a dead body was in the Emergency Department at University Hospital. I was 31 years old. Earlier than some, much later than others. I don’t know what to say when people ask me what I write about. It always, now, in some way, involves this body. The roughness of its skin as we zipped the vinyl bag around its legs, its torso. The way we posed its arm in the viewing room. The absence it left. How it feels wrong to say “it,” as if it were any other object.

11

“She comes back to tell me she’s gone.” This is a line from “Graceland.” It comes out of nowhere and even after listening to the song so many times it still catches me off guard. What can I say about this? The obvious fold in coming back to say “I am gone.” The utter fluidity of this moment. The ghosts returning to remind you that they will not return. The staircases in Berlin.

12

In the first week of medical school, you meet your cadaver. You walk into a room on the fifth floor of the education tower and stand in preassigned groups around metal humidors. They look like stainless steel coffins but with doors that run the length and meet in the middle. Through the windows there is the city, and beyond, the mountains. Somebody is allergic to formaldehyde, and so is wearing a gas mark much larger than her head. The smell sticks to you. You bring it home, to your kids. Some students have preemptively shaven their heads. You wear two pairs of gloves to stop your hands going numb.

At first, the head and extremities are wrapped in bandages. You stand in a circle as the doors open. Somebody wants to give him a name. The disconnect between the body on the table and the person it once was. It is staggering. When the bandages come off. The horror of a human hand. The familiarity is wrenching. What is this object that once contained? That once was? And still is? And who the fuck are you to be doing this? But you do. And you continue. After 14 days you unwrap the face. The mouth is frozen open. You cannot see the eyes. And again, you all stand in a circle and it looks like the woman in the gas mask is praying. You didn’t even need to be there today but you had to see, before the skin is removed.

But somehow you get used to it. Because you have to. And for this particular interlude there is your body, your teacher, and there is your body, your carriage. Your body your own, your body that is not yours. How do you reconcile this? You cannot. It is not a question of reconciliation. It is holding space with the irreconcilable. Body and self, self and the other, tract and dis-tract. There are interludes here. To dwell in them is to float. To be fluid. To listen and defer. To speak. To hold space. To listen. To speak. To defer.

I want an art with the capacity for all of this.

13

Here is my body. It is white. It is the body of a man. It gives me—without petition or reason—a dangerous power. But you know this. You know that I enter the world in the easiest possible circumstances. How do I say any of this, without acknowledging that?

Here is my voice that touches my body and emanates from it, and so is always colored by my body. My body that is a brute fact of my power. What will I do with this voice? What will it do with me?

14

Toward the end of the Naropa Summer Writing Program in 2004, I sat on the stone benches outside Upaya Cottage. It was early evening, after classes had finished but before readings start. Across from me sat Akilah Oliver. I was about to move to Hollywood, which with hindsight, or indeed without, was a highly questionable course of action. At that time, I was something of an idiot, or perhaps more kindly, I was just a boy who dressed in confidence but was really deeply afraid of myself.

There was one thing Akilah said that has especially stuck with me, that day, this day, the day I missed her at a reading I gave in Brooklyn only to return home to Denver and learn she had been found dead in her apartment in New York.

There was an orange light outside Upaya as Akilah spoke: “People are listening to you, so you better figure out what it is you’re going to say.”

What will I do with my voice?

15

When I was 15, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that interrupted my teenage years but is much easier to negotiate today. I sometimes wonder if my medical education is only a means by which I will more perfectly understand my disease and my eventual death from it. A means by which my body is physiologically demystified and its pathology understood. There is a huge power here. And there is a circularity that feels both appropriate and terrifying.

I want an art with the capacity for all of this.

16

My wife is Indian. My son is American. We live in a house in east Denver. There is a crabapple tree in the front yard. When it stormed this past May, the blossoms caught the wet snow and ripped a huge limb from the tree. There is no way we would be able to afford to live in this house without help from my wife’s parents. I do not mean to suggest that telling you any of this gets me off the hook. I am on the hook. And I mention all of this to make sure that the hook is visible.

17

What will I do with my voice?

What do I have to say that has not been already said many times already? Perhaps the better question is when will I remain silent? Refrain from speech and listen.

It is the voice, with its negative capability, that has the potential to touch both the body and the world, to speak or to be silent, to defer, and as such carry the body’s deference to that which exists outside it.

18

One of the last books I read with my father was The Pilgrim's Progress, when I was still young enough to read books with my father before I went to bed. And it became, unconsciously at first, the blueprint for the Jackie Robinson section of my first book, FABRIC.

I thought about this as I listened to “Graceland” over and over: a pilgrimage that posits Elvis as a warped American messiah. I know this is not an original idea. But I care more about what is behind the idea than the idea itself.

What is left when all your dreams come true? Barbiturates, getting fat, show tunes? Elvis is a ghost in the 1968 comeback special. He has returned from the Underworld of Hollywood back lots where he has cycled through many different versions of himself. He is dressed in black, a sham ghost. He has returned to tell us he will never return. The graven American calf, fashioned and destroyed. The original falsehood of the aftermath. More counterfeit Adam than Jehovah.

19

It is sometimes good for me to occupy this body and be terrified.

20

I am not sure how to tell a story without fiction. I am not sure how to explain what I am thinking without a certain element of artifice, a kind of scaffold for the truth to hang on. You can see this scaffold here. It is made of words. The truth is in the gaps between them.

21

I have been thinking about distraction for a long time, at first as an enemy to generating creative work, then as a tool that could be utilized, and finally as an essential part of my own practice. This thinking gradually became necessary. I am a medical student with a one-year-old child, and I still claim to be a writer. My own propensity to be distracted by anything that is not sitting in front of my computer screen and writing has become critical in the last few years, and it has led me to revaluate why and how I write. Although this paucity of “writing time” has been my driving force, it is a process that started several years ago.

The first writing I did toward FABRIC, before I knew what the book would look like at all, was about my great-grandfather, Alfred, who was killed at the battle of the Somme in 1916. I wanted to write about war. How do you write about war? I wanted to write about the fact that at the school I had attended in England, there was a bronze statue of old-boy Sir Douglas Haig that we had to walk past every day, the general who ordered the attack that led to over a million casualties, one of whom was Alfred. We had to take our hands out of our pockets when we walked past his statue. We were not allowed to talk. 

didn’t know how to start writing about this. It felt that there was too much, coming in from every angle, pulling me in different directions. I could not maintain focus, and the more I tried, the more I stalled. There was more here than I could deal with.

22

In 1970, on a road series in San Diego, Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Dock Ellis dropped acid in a hotel room. There is some disagreement about the details here. And indeed, some skepticism about whether what happened next actually happened. After losing a day sleeping off a hangover, Dock had his Tuesdays and Wednesdays mixed up. He dropped the acid, and the phone rang. You’re starting tonight, Dock. First pitch in 3 hours. So Dock gets himself to the ballpark and he starts the game. And he doesn’t just start the game, he throws a no-hitter against San Diego, the first (and only to date) no-hitter in the history of the major leagues while under the influence of LSD.

23

In Dock’s own words:

I can only remember bits and pieces of the game. I was psyched. I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the [catcher’s] glove, but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times.

The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder.

That last part became an epigraph for the section of FABRIC that dealt with the Somme. Why? Because in this story I found a way I could approach that writing—to maintain an object of focus but to allow whatever needed to enter the text to enter. To allow these distractions to become part of the text, to warp it if they must but retain that pinpoint focus. To sway this way. To roll.

24

I needed to write with the fingertips of one hand still in touch with the focus of the project, but allow the other hand to reach out toward … anything, to dwell and create from a space between the project itself and all of its concurrent distractions. A state of interlude. A fluid state. It was not easy to hold that space. It was overwhelming. But it was the way to write the book I needed to write, and a space I now return to.

It is a space of openness (I mean quite simply that it is NOT closed, it is jagged and cuts into the world), it is a space that we cannot maintain full control over, where in fact, we MUST relinquish control of what enters, it is, for better or worse, a state of (to use Fanny Howe’s word) BEWILDERMENT that includes every distraction, and is necessary to the text.

25

I wanted to know whether I could harness this state of bewilderment in order to enable my writing. I began to think of it this way: somebody walks into a quiet room where I am sitting alone. I am startled, and in that state of BEWILDERMENT, I make a gesture that confers meaning but comes from a physiological reflex that I do not have conscious control over. I jump in my seat. I rear back a little maybe, flinch. And as a result I feel embarrassment that this was my reaction to only an old friend entering a room where I had been sitting quietly. I am ashamed of this nakedness that I cannot clothe in language, this making of meaning I have issued but that I do not hold control over. I am afraid of what might be revealed in this nakedness, this pure meaning.

I want to know if it possible to write this way, if we can intentionally DISTRACT ourselves into this nakedness, this BEWILDERMENT.

The result, I think, or at least the way this initial method is transposed into my wider life, has been to view artistic practice not only as the act of putting pen to paper, not only the explicit act of creation but all that goes into that at every stage. (I say this like I have solved something, like I no longer have any problems with this and that could not be further from the truth.)

I have often claimed in the past that most of “writing” for me has been thinking, turning things over in my head, walking, allowing language to find itself in relation to these thoughts, which for me has always happened best when my body is in motion. I stand by this. If we can think of the physical act of writing as only an aspect of “writing” itself—an endpoint of the practice, an act that closes the practice and in doing so creates an object—the way death is an aspect of life, that in its closing creates new aperture—the absence of bewilderment in the subject, but a transmission of that fruitful or painful bewilderment to those who remain. In a literary sense: we pass bewilderment to the reader, and we pass it as a gift, as we pass life between generations in all its brightness and wonder.

So what does this look like in real life?

It means that I will always have a focus in mind (previously, during FABRIC, the battle of the Somme, for Dock Ellis the catcher’s glove) and I will keep that focus in the back of my mind and let my life course around it. So if I am sitting in a lecture about the renal system, if I am playing in the backyard with my son, if I am choosing avocados at the grocery store, or watching sports, or reading the internet, I am alert to the potential of all of these apparent distractions to enter the unwritten text, that is, to enter my thinking about how it will arise. Like Jack Kerouac wrote: “submissive to everything, open, listening.”

I try to cultivate entry by this openness, this position in the fluid interlude between the project and all of its otherness. The first step toward that cultivation is to free the name “distraction” from its negative connotations. To embrace distraction as a garden for the text, and to do so, adopt a holistic practice of writing that, rather than focusing on the moment of explicit creation, arcs over every aspect of your life.

26

While I was working on FABRIC, that year, for my birthday a friend gave me a gift. It was a signed photograph of Dock Ellis he found on the internet. I loved it. I kept it in a drawer beside my bed until I could afford to buy a frame, which I did that Christmas. I hung the portrait on my wall. I typed out a little plaque to accompany it.

The next day, I got on a plane to England and drank too much on the flight. I woke up groggy in grey Heathrow and slept in the car all the way back to Bristol. I checked my email when I got there. While I had been drinking those little bottles of vodka they give you on airplanes, Dock Ellis had been dying in Los Angeles.

27

“There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline.”

Simon sings, “She means we're bouncing into Graceland.” I think he has this girl all wrong. Or at least the “we” does not include the girl in any way. He is led by his own situation and we are able to see it from outside. She is the trampoline. People throw themselves into her and they bounce back. She absorbs this, so when they bounce back, she remains stationary but disturbed. He has bounced off her, used her, all the way to Graceland and his gradual supposed redemption. Fuck him.

But the girl: she sees herself as a place of transience, a place that is returned to but left again. She is mistreated, persistently. Then I think maybe she is locking herself into always being the trampoline because she has named herself as such. So which is it? Is she the trampoline or has she just assumed that identity? Or, maybe like pretty much all humans, it is a mixture of both and this makes her MORE sympathetic, even more sympathetic than she already is. I could go on for hours about this girl. Yes. Because we are all this girl!

28

I do not see medicine as a threat to an artistic life. I see it as an artistic endeavor, as I see whatever is undertaken by an artist as an artistic endeavor. What qualifies as an “artistic endeavor” should not be confused with what qualifies as morally defensible—these are different but sometimes overlapping conditions. To be clear, I do not believe that the creation of art as an end unto itself qualifies it as a morally defensible act.

I believe that any two disciplines or spheres, any combination of the artistic tract and dis-tract can be united by the artist, the agent, who dwells both between and within them, and has the power—using Kathy Acker’s language—to “refuse separation,” to unite apparent disparities, and to embody that unity, what others may call contradiction.

I am speaking in favor of fluidity over binary. Of the necessity of occupying the fluid space, the space of the interlude, in touch with our own isolation and thus our own state of privilege, in touch with otherness in all its forms, open to distraction, a distraction unto ourselves, our own auguries of innocence, our own gods or goddesses, or at the very least a surrogate for those personal and individual deities. To live within these gaps, to be not only their gods but also their servants.

29

There is something more sinister here: an inherent danger to distraction. And this danger is due to its very strength that makes art possible: dividing attention. Because when our attention is divided it creates blind spots.

I didn’t know about the exploitative history of Paul Simon’s Graceland until very recently, while I was writing this piece, after the 100+ plays of the title song. I should have. I mean, I should have thought about it, but I didn’t. You don’t hear it on the song “Graceland” but on most of the rest of the album, Simon uses recordings of black South African musicians recorded on an unsanctioned trip to the nation during apartheid. Of course, Simon argues that he was exposing this music to a commercial Western world, a wider audience, and some of the musicians agree, but it is hard to swallow this when considering the context of apartheid, the cultural appropriation here, the colonization of this music. As the journalist Tris McCall noted: “How could Simon approach [the musicians] as equal partners when their own government demanded that they treat him [a white man] as a superior?”

When we place our attention on the art, what do we miss in the artist? Can we separate the art from the artist? Is this ever ethical? And if so, when? How are we complicit?

I think here also of CA Conrad’s project, “from Whitman to Walmart,” and the subsequent discussion of whether Walt Whitman’s poems can be separated from his racist prose. When are we willing to make excuses? For whom? As Conrad writes on the Poetry Foundation blog, “An attack against Whitman is too much for many white liberals to bear.” Are the excuses we make really for ourselves?

How do we describe the responsibility we hold to ourselves as artists? To call out our own bullshit. To call bullshit on the world into which we birth art. In our process of creation, in what ways are we perpetrators of horror?

At Naropa, we like to quote William Carlos Williams: “the task of the poet is to move the century forward a few inches.” Is your poetry doing this? And don’t get hung up on the word poetry—is your ART, whatever form it takes, moving the century forward? And if not, why are you doing it? For your own edification? For your own distraction? And I ask this as much of myself as do of any of you. I mean, let’s not even get hung up on ART here: is your LIFE moving the century forward?

What I think this boils down to is this: the things we are able to classify as distraction depend almost completely on privilege.

You could read it this way: distraction itself is a privilege, and perhaps more importantly, privilege itself is a distraction.

30

To talk about DISTRACTION is to talk about the INTERLUDE.

To consider the GAP is to consider its boundaries: the SELF and the OTHER.

To consider the SELF is to consider privilege: the windows through which we view the world which are the limits on our perception, our reading frame, the meaning we make there and how arbitrary this meaning is due to all our inherited complexities.

The meaning of “Graceland” became a space I tried to occupy, the harder I tried to hold that space, the more I realized that its boundaries were completely illusory, as the perceived SELF and OTHER are surrogates for the finite boundaries we need to begin to understand our own understanding. Here, and throughout this piece, “Graceland” can be substituted for anything we have ever tried to understand, anyone we have ever tried to know, the impenetrable world itself in its beauty, horror, and indifference.

It is not “meaning” that we can occupy but the interlude from which we might touch it.

Let this song from the 80s stand in for the utility and pain of isolation. Let this photograph of the sky stand in for the presumed infinity of the cosmos. Let this grain of sand stand in for the world.

Whatever it is we choose, we must choose.

But HOW do we choose the interlude? This is the wrong question.

The better question: How do we recognize the boundaries of the interlude? And the answer is an honest and lucid assessment of how we view ourselves and others. That is, an investigation of our own privilege, our prejudice, the claimed truths that we cannot live without—to paraphrase Anne Waldman, all that remains when we look into the mirror at 3 a.m.

And how then does this microcosm become indicative of the whole? How does the interlude reach outside of itself?

It can only be when the microcosm becomes as demonstrative and inclusive as the macrocosm it represents. THIS is ART.

And this is the task of the artist, the activity that marks an artistic life: to harness intuition, imagination, and the full fluid spectrum of the intellect. To what end? To inhabit and create interludes that both suggestively and convincingly stand in for a larger reality, be it known or unknown.

To create art is to create windows into all possible worlds. And we create them from everything we have.

A poem is an interlude. A painting is an interlude. A novel is an interlude. A scene in a novel is an interlude within an interlude. The unrecorded thought is an interlude. The artist herself is an interlude.

31

The God of the Gaps. The use of the concept of God-the-mystic to explain what we cannot explain. These gaps in our understanding of the world for which we cannot supply a rational or scientific explanation. It must be god! To call upon constructed omnipotence where easy meaning refuses.

Let us discard the possibility of omnipotence and inhabit these spaces for ourselves. Where there may be no need for deity. There is only introspection, openness, and art. Reach out to the dis-tract while keeping the focus of your work in tact. Engage selflessly with others. Look to your present, your past, your projected future. Measure your actions and reactions to establish an understanding of your own boundaries, the places where you touch the world. Artists, be fluid. Poets, be like god.

32

When I lived in Manchester, there was bamboo furniture in the living room. I was 21. It was always raining. In December we each wrote four Christmas cards and signed them from the people we thought would give the others the biggest kick. Princess Anne, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, the Big Pun, I forget the fourth. I did everything I could to avoid walking outside after dark. I smoked at least a pack a day and most of the time wore sweatpants. There were spiders in my room, so many of them, huge ones. I found a way to think of them as my friends. I downloaded photographs of authors from the early internet and tacked them above the bricked-in fireplace. I had a recording of Jack Kerouac that was a little over 6 minutes long. It talked about the sun. I was alone. Desperate in a way that I can now see as paralyzing. Sometimes we drove to a huge shopping mall outside of town. In the food court, the ceiling was painted like the sky on an island somewhere. I never bought anything. Once, on the way home, kids threw stones at our car. We stayed up late. Occasionally I put on jeans instead of sweatpants and we went to a bar and drank only vodka. The most popular place to puke was by the side of the toilet, at home, between the bowl and the wall. Somebody covered it up with the bathmat.

Five years later I took a Greyhound from San Jose to Hollywood. Through the South Bay we passed each of the places named in the Kerouac recording. Bayshore. Millbrae. Hollister. Places that seemed impossible in the rain and the dark. The man beside me on the bus had a teardrop tattoo beneath his right eye. He asked me what I was reading. The Pillowman. He didn’t know it. I cannot remember it, other than there being a man, or a boy, who could not understand his own violence. Maybe it was his isolation, this thing he could not grasp. Or his isolation was the source of his violence and it formed a buffer around him. A layer of protection at the price that he could not be touched. When we got to the Hollywood station I walked home, past the stars on the sidewalk, the free clinic, across the freeway, and left at the 7-11. I was afraid of the man on the bus because I thought his tattoo meant he had killed someone. Then I found that it could have meant that he had lost someone, or that when he was in prison he had been raped and this way had lost himself. The next morning I woke before six to get to work downtown. I took the red line to 7th and Metro, the blue to the Staples Center. For eight hours I administered questionnaires to a focus group, capturing their opinions on compact cars. On my lunch break I sat on the concrete steps outside and stared down Figueroa toward the buildings in the city. I did not walk among them. I did not eat.

Now sometimes when I drive home in the night I stop the car, reverse, get out and make sure I haven’t hit anyone. I do it even though I know there was no one there. I cannot leave the house without checking the range, the refrigerator door, the back door lock. My son is beautiful in a way I don’t think I have ever been. I am so completely uncertain of how to relate to people that I stop myself from speaking, make resolutions that are not reasonable, purchase bus tickets I do not intend to use. It is 15 years since we wrote those Christmas cards but I am still signing my name as someone else. That person has seen California. That person has recorded his voice. He does not smoke. He lives among the spiders. He thinks he understands his own violence. He is not afraid.

33

How could I condescend to wrap this up? It is, like the body after death and the being it contained, irreconcilable. There is no closure, but something that must push into the world. A jagged border of aperture. To cut, the way a question is a shard, not a curve.

And I ask these questions as much of myself as I ask them of you, and I do not ask them to be answered in finality today, but considered, if there is anything from the last hour to be recalled.

Do you feel a sense of competition with other artists? Why do you feel this? Is it a product of the isolated self?

What is the utility of distraction?

What interludes have you established and how?

Who have been the casualties of your art?

Does poetry really move the century forward?

Does YOUR art move the century forward?

Why are you doing what you are doing?

What does your distraction accomplish?

What is your isolation worth?

In what ways are you a perpetrator of horror?

What has enabled you to be here, doing what you are doing?

What are your blind spots?

How are you implicated?

How is your work not trivial?

What does it mean for you to be an artist?

What does it mean for YOU to be an artist?

What is your artistic life?

What will you do with your voice?

Where have you all been, I ask, as I brush momentarily against your lives?

Where is it that you are going?

 

Contributor's Note

Richard Froude has written three books: FABRIC (Horse Less Press, 2011), The Passenger (Skylight Books, 2012), and Tarnished Mirrors: Translations of Charles Baudelaire (Muffled Cry Editions, 2004). He lives in Denver.