I had a beautiful weekend in “the Berkshires” of Western Massachusetts, where I got to do a poetry reading with Terence Winch at poet Geoff Young’s gallery in Great Barrington.
In the audience were old friends I hadn’t seen in years, as well as newer friends. My two grown children were there too, and my youngest child and grandson and godson and daughter-in-law, who is also a long time friend.
Terry read from his newest book, BOY DRINKERS, as well as from the book Geoff Young’s press, The Figures, published, THE DRIFT OF THINGS, and some newer unpublished poems.
My grown kids were moved, as I was, as I’m sure everyone there was, by the deep and profound sentiments and observations in his poems, as we all were moved to laughter by the humor in them (I had tears in my eyes from both reactions).
The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. The ride up and back was as good as the rest of the weekend, traveling through the lush green of summer landscapes, with Terry and my little boy, and my good friend, poet Simon Pettet.
The stay there, at our friend Karen Allen’s home, was full of deeply satisfying conversation and much laughter. And music, after I sat down at her piano to riff around on some blues chords and found everyone joining in on various percussion instruments, my little boy and grandson carrying the beat with a precision and artistry that amazed us all. Then later my older son playing bass with my godson on guitar, more punk than blues jamming ensued.
These are the kinds of experiences that so enrich my life I can hardly keep from bursting with gratitude.
But life is ever changing. And as my old friend, the artist Sylvia Schuster has said: “Everything’s always fucked up and good at the same time.”
Because the weekend ended in Terry returning to Washington DC, Simon to Manhattan, me to Jersey, and my little boy to his mom, while my grown children and grandchildren and Karen and my godson remained in “the Berkshires.”
And then to help me to accept the end of a weekend spent with so many people I love, I ended up at a local gathering of friends, at which I shared a story about an upsetting phone conversation I had just before the gathering, in which someone I loved revealed some meanness from her husband that included the “n word” used as part of a nasty, as well as racist, put down.
There was an African American friend at this gathering, who let me know she was angry with me because in telling this story, sharing my anguish over my friend’s suffering, I actually used the word and didn’t substitute the phrase: “the N word.”
When I tried to defend myself, saying I never used that word in my life, except in writing where I was quoting a racist character, as I was in this story I told, and that in fact in the 1950s and ‘60s I had been beaten and harassed and worse for defending people from that kind of racism, and over the years had physically thrown people out of my various homes for using that word, she cut me no slack.
Every time I said I never use that word myself, she reminded me that I just had. And when I said I was quoting someone, she would remind me that even so, I had said it and I could have said instead: “the N word.” I tried to point out that wasn’t what this man used, he used the word itself, and the dramatic point of the story would have been diluted if not missed by substituting that phrase.
I’m obviously a pretty outspoken person. Back in the 1970s, poet John Ashbery once introduced me, to a class he was teaching, as “the X-rated poet” and others have objected to the graphic sex in my writing as well as the foul language in my writing and often in my every day speech.
I have been trying to stop cursing since my first words, which two of my older brothers told me were curse words. I have successfully put a brake on my cursing at times, but once I get emotional about something all bets are off.
I don’t want to offend anyone. When I was younger I did, part of being young perhaps, at least for some of us. But I no longer want to offend anyone, nor need to. But it is difficult not to. I called someone a “twit” in response to a right wing parroting comment on one of my posts recently and instantly regretted it, but didn’t edit it or censor it because I have great reverence for the truth, not as some absolute possibility, but as an ideal we can only approach, never fully achieve, and thus I have no desire to start censoring or editing anyone.
As much as some words might offend someone, the truth of who is using them and for what purpose can be very helpful to reveal, by allowing them the freedom to say them and thereby reveal themselves for what they truly are. Which is what I was trying to do, reveal the man who had said those words for what he truly was, by quoting him accurately.
But my friend said I should not have, no matter what my purpose, whether quoting someone to reveal their racism and nastiness or not. This argument has been going on for years, and I’m not going to settle it here.
I remember that old Lenny Bruce routine, which caused such a stir. He’d look out over his audience and start characterizing what ethnic groups were there by using the offensive slang terms for each. It wouldn’t have worked if he had substituted the phrase “the N word” or for Jewish people, “the K word” etc.
It would be impossible anyway not to offend someone with almost any words we use.
For instance almost everyone, including most notable historians, refer to the years in the 19th Century when the population of Ireland was depleted by two thirds as a result of death and emigration caused by the repercussions of a series of potato blights, as “the famine.”
Whereas those of us who seek to get closer to the truth know that there was no “famine.” There was deliberate genocide.
Because, aside from the Irish Catholics who were refused the help that was offered by not only various governments, including the USA, but by Frederick Douglas and other freed slaves here, as well as by native Americans, like the “Choctaw,” no one else in Ireland suffered any “famine.”
The deprivation of the Irish Catholics during those years was initially caused by the failures of the potato crop, but worsened and sustained by the failure of the English authorities who ruled Ireland then to allow any help to get through (in accordance with their theories of “laissez faire capitalism”).
But the reality was, if you were English living in Ireland at the time, or an Irish Protestant, you didn’t starve. In fact, nothing even resembling a “famine” was anywhere in your life other than the reality that you could now kick Irish Catholics off your land, because they couldn’t pay the rent, either in a share of their tiny patch of now blighted potatoes or in the money made from them, etc.
Just as for decades and decades you could get into a fight or worse by using the English name for the city Northern Irish Catholics call Derry, but the English and Northern Irish Protestants call “Londonderry.” There are instances like this across the board, for every ethnic or other kind of group, for words that can offend.
I know that in the history of the USA African slaves suffered in many ways worse than any other group, and that “the N word” was used as a part of the cruelty that caused that suffering (although Native Americans certainly suffered more death and disease and displacement en masse, as a direct result of genocidal government policies).
But I also know there are very few groups in the world, and certainly in the USA, who don’t have a history full of suffering caused by other groups or the powers that be, and that though being sensitive to anything that recalls that suffering is human and understandable and nothing to dismiss, being oversensitive to it can sustain the pain rather than contribute to a healing of it.