An Offensive Conversation

If for no other reason, because it took place on the servers of a social networking giant and is the property of whichever corporation wants to buy it for data mining purposes.  Engorge.  Enjoy.
“August 12

Dirt don’t hurt. Do it?

Bethany, whom I’ve never met:
  • Hello Nick!
    I have recently read both your chapbook and your self titled book and have a question.
    What is your intended tone/purpose of using words like “cunt” or “nigger”? How do you see words such as those? Do you believe if one uses them more they lose their power or that the dead bodies hanging on such words make it too heavy to ever lose the offense that may come along with them? I notice that you use a lot of “offensive” words and wondered why, just curious.

    My response:

    “Hey Bethany,

    thanks for your patience on this one. And thanks for taking the time to not only read, but think about my work. The real answer is probably: I don’t know. In the same way that the old bards felt like they were just scribes for muses–vehicles for something else’s voice–I feel that way too. And, to be honest, there are lots of times when I feel like it would be a great relief to be rid of the office of transcribing their dictations, especially when they’re ugly, ugly dictations. But then I think of the old prophets having to report to rulers and say “Well, basically, I portend that your kingdom will fall to rubble,”–which of course they would then be killed for, or something– and I think maybe I got it kind of easy, in retrospect.

    It is a hard question to answer, though, either way. I will say that in a strange inversion of sense, one of the things I find most offensive is the resistance to profane language. Like the recent version of Huck Finn that was published with all instances of the word nigger bowdlerized from it: That scares me and disgusts me way worse than any words…but that’s not to say that I’m not offended by words also. I’m pretty sensitive, honestly. I use these words very little in my daily speech, more just when I’m in some sort of prophetic possession. Sometimes I worry that the people who know me best might just see me as some kind of open wound, actually, because I’m so sensitive to things, but I feel my sensitivity (even if some think it’s an oversensitivity) is a great gift. I’m offended all the time, pretty much constantly, which makes for a heavy burden. I think part of what I’m doing in my writing is trying to recreate that for others that have been desensitized. But, usually, the thing that seems most immediately offensive in the poem (the nigger, the cunt, whatever…) is really the least offensive thing in the poem, or maybe just the most superficially (as opposed to profoundly) offensive thing in the poem. I’ve actually made a term up for this literary strategy I’ve imagined: “decoy offenses.” Those curse words, or the lines that use them, would be the decoy offenses, distracting us from the much much much more horrible things inhabiting the poem right before our very faces.

    One more thing I’ll say–I’m not usually offended by things people do when they realize they’re offensive, or are even intentionally being offensive, like I am in the poetry. I’m usually profoundly offended more by people when they think they’re being perfectly civil and humane.

    This is a really worthwhile question, to me. I’ll post it on my blog, along with my answer, and that way whoever wants to chime in on this conversation with us can. And definitely feel free to add more questions, or just your own reflections on this, too, whether publicly or in a message just to me again.

    And for real, thanks for taking time with the work. I hope it heals us both.


7 Responses to “An Offensive Conversation”

  1. Christian J Says:

    Nick, I whole heartedly agree with your literary usage of “offensive” words. It was only recently that I decided not to avoid adding words in my poetry that are typically labeled as offensive because I believe that they hold a significant value that is beyond what people see on the surface.

    I like how you use “decoy offenses.” I think that pretty much is the correct term I see in you work. With poetry, many people say the art itself is writting the best words in the best order, so when I see you use “nigger” or “cunt” I regard them to have a specific purpose that drives the poem somewhere or rather hides the intentions of a particular poem.

    By first recognizing that they are a distraction, am I able to find the dark humor or just plain message behind every poem. Of course the meaning might be different than others as is all interpretations of poetry, but I find it to be a fun/unsettling journey by delving deeper to find the rawness of the poem.

    Many thanks for being such an inspiration.

  2. Rachel Mayes Says:

  3. hey guys, thanks for dropping words (and symbols ) And thanks for sharing your insights on whether to say certain things or not…I feel like there’s a lot of value in both, but I’ve been interested a lot lately in the Biblical message (which I have to imagine is paralleled in other traditions) about how if a person doesn’t represent what’s in their heart, even if it’s awfulness, then a greater awfulness is made. scary, potentially confusing, hard thing for me to wrestle with. but that’s the point i guess, right?
    preach on,

  4. Robert Houghton Says:

    I love your work Nick, and was actually debating your book’s use of the n-word with a friend of mine just recently. The use of terms such as that, but specifically that one, belie the fact that American poetry privileges language for its expressive value, beyond the cultural weight that those words might carry, or even the pain they might inflict. Poets value jarring their readers. No one wants to read or write a boring book.
    But where many people who might be involved or interested in social justice, critical theory, or rhet. comp. are focused on the inherent danger and oppressive tendencies of language– poets have an idealistic (and in this sense somewhat socially conservative) relationship to language which celebrates it for aesthetic reasons, while simultaneously attempting to grapple with the fraught nature of using certain words and phrases which have “bodies hanging on them” as Bethany so beautifully stated.
    It’s impossible for a white person to justify using the n-word without making some apologies. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As white persons (of which I am one) we have a historical legacy still demanding of many apologies, and a current sociopolitical climate that will likely warrant even more in the future… but that doesn’t mean that as poets we should shy away from using dangerous or even potentially offensive language.
    The only prescription is self-awareness. A self-aware poem can say anything it wants so long as it gestures toward the knowledge that the words it employs, if they’re potentially offensive, can never be divested of their cultural weight– at least not by those who are (albeit inadvertently) members of a historically oppressive class (i.e. white dudes).
    Poetry walks a very tight rope in this respect. Can a word such as nigger be beautiful? I don’t know. Do I have the right to use it? Probably not. But poetry is not subject to the same conditions that everyday speech is. Poetry asks the reader to occupy a certain space where he or she becomes subject to a unique worldview. Sometimes that is troubling. If it’s “good” poetry then that is likely the case.
    In the end, as a reader of poetry, I value an aesthetic relationship to language, and I value poems and poets who are willing to take positions and make statements in their work that some readers might be offended by. The muse dictates, the poet writes. And there is nothing more offensive than self-censorship.

    • hey Robert,
      thanks for chiming in on this. your concluding statement reminds me of the whitman line: “The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book.” As for most of what you’re saying, i really feel like it’s out of my jurisdiction, to be honest–I don’t feel like I have much authority on all of this. I just feel like when i hear my orders, I follow them. Hopefully that doesn’t ring too much like a copout. Regardless, I really am digging some other people’s perspectives on this topic, especially cause it’s an easy one to be too scared to speak about, so thanks for taking the time and clearly trying to choose your words carefully on this. Word ’em up : )

  5. Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. I think I was unsure of how to respond to your response to my question. I, like you, am very sensitive and try not to offend anyone, however I understand that one of the most offensive things is the “resistance to profane language”, for this is our medium, and we need to pull it/bash it/test it to get new experiences. And reading your book was definitely a new experience. And I am glad you got excited about a reader asking questions because I think that shows humility. Lately I have been listening to the album Cruel Summer by Kanye West and GOOD music, and I write while I listen. It feels rather like I’m channeling something only accessed while listening to that kind of music and I understand more in the past few months what you meant by channeling. And if one hears any words constantly especially if one is immersed in pop culture then those words will show up in writing. And why not, after all? It’s a good way to witness what arrives in our ears and settles as language patterns or association.

    This section of your response in particular made me see the issue in a different way. “One more thing I’ll say–I’m not usually offended by things people do when they realize they’re offensive, or are even intentionally being offensive, like I am in the poetry. I’m usually profoundly offended more by people when they think they’re being perfectly civil and humane.” How do we move when we get uncomfortable? What are the places or lamp posts we cling to? For me, the feeling I get when a white comedian using “nigger” or a man uses “cunt” mutated to a similar monster when reading your book. Who can say what? It’s not for any one person to say. Will words like these always be knives, in garments of historical abuse, or if we use them more shall they be rendered harmless? I don’t know. But I see the bravery in exploring a way to change the life of such words.

    Thank you for your response and I understand better the processes involved in writing those poems.

    • Hey, thanks again for opening up the discussion, Bethany. And thanks for following up with this, too. I think I said this earlier in the discussion–I don’t feel like I am ever completely sure that the line I’m walking is the right one, but being available for conversation about it is important to me. And, so far, the line I’m walking has felt like the most honest option. So that’s the compass I’m using, until something changes. Although it’s very appealing sometimes for me to just not say or do certain things that I know will merit tons of scrutiny and criticism (this is the reason I so rarely get on a dance floor, for instance : ), I’d rather go this route, put myself out there as the mess that I am and offer it all up to the criticism of others than withdraw the only things I really have to add to this life. It does feel like a burden sometimes, though, that what I have to add can seem so freaked out.

      I hope this is far from the end of this conversation. I feel pretty confident that that’s actually a guarantee. So until next time.


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