From Our Authors | June 27, 2016
Contributors on Craft: Allison Pitinii Davis on Writing to the Rust Belt
Today, the Missouri Review presents our sixth installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Allison Pitinii Davis, whose poems appear in our Summer 2016 issue.
The Ethics of Address: Writing to the Rust Belt in the Age of Trump
Once I saw Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer of the Pretenders, play a show in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. I grew up about an hour away, and Chrissie Hynde symbolized everything I wanted: to leave northeast Ohio and become an artist. Before she sang her iconic song “Brass in Pocket,” a song I associated with getting the hell out of Dodge, she said, “I feel pretty silly singing this song in front of my parents. Hi Mom and Dad.” I understood then that it’s easy to make art for strangers. What’s difficult is coming back to northeast Ohio where your bad attitude isn’t poetic. It’s the same regional scowl of the old men at the bar.
Eight years after that show, I was still in Ohio. My poem about my family’s trucking motel was just picked up by a national magazine: it was going to be my first major publication. In my graduate-school mind, this poem was a feminist exploration of my experience cleaning motel rooms. My father, who runs the trucking motel, focused on the parts of the poem that were potentially bad for business. We fought about it, and I published the poem under a pen name to remove any connection between the poem and the business. While I still doubt that customers would have canceled their reservations based on a poem, I now see his point: one person’s subject matter is another person’s livelihood. Sometimes when you try to be a feminist, you end up being classist.
It required a lot of reading and fights with my family for me to learn this. When I started graduate school, I edited poems by thinking, “What will the professor/poetry community think?” For me, fitting into this community was daunting—only weeks earlier, in a teaching training workshop, I learned that “further” and “farther” were different words and that “the dog needs walked” was improper English. I didn’t start writing feminist poems because I finally had the bravery to write them—I started writing them because before I got the privilege to go graduate school, my exposure to feminist theory didn’t extend much past the Spice Girls. I felt like I had to choose between the world I knew and academia—I had no model for how to have both. A professor talked me out of dropping out. I began writing more about the motel and my home—the area in and around Youngstown, Ohio—and I edited these poems by asking “What will my subject matter think?”
When I asked this, I learned two things: 1) I don’t know what people think and 2) I especially don’t know what people outside of my limited experience think. Taking these into consideration, I only feel (somewhat) qualified to write about a specific Rust Belt experience: that of white, working- to middle-class northeast Ohioans with Southern European or Jewish heritage. The kinds of people with mezuzahs on their doors and basements full of commemorative, plastic Cleveland Browns cups. The kinds of people with a sweet, hard-working Papou yelling “liberal pinko” at the TV news.
This created a new problem—what if even this limited group didn’t need someone with comfy poetry fellowships documenting their experiences of working on assembly lines and selling six packs of Coors at trucking motels? I posed this concern to another writer who also focuses on his upbringing. He said, “Your (or your ancestors’) life experiences are material. One doesn’t treat one’s subject material as property: it doesn’t belong to you, it is you.”
This combination of “what will my subject matter think” and “it doesn’t belong to you, it is you,” allowed me to rethink poetic accountability. I was raised to prioritize family, labor, and heritage—to be myself is to think with a mind that thinks about these things. For example, my recent poems in the Missouri Review focus on my Ashkenazi Jewish Rust Belt experience. In “Arriving in Canada,” my great grandmother escapes Nazi Germany and comes to work in a sweatshop in Canada. I go to Canada to meet her in “Language Loosened Back,” a poem that juxtaposes generations of Jewish misunderstanding at the familial and national levels. My grandfather washes English out of my father’s mouth while Lenny Bruce is arrested for obscenity. I cannot understand my great grandmother’s Yiddish while Abbie Hoffman screams Yiddish at a broken American justice system. In “Greetings from the End of the Line,” one generation defends the ways in which it has tried to be true to its heritage even though the methods may look like assimilation. For example, in “The Motel Clerk Gets Bad Reception of Cleveland 100.7 FM,” a young motel clerk spends Shabbat listening to the radio and lights a joint instead of candles, but, with the help of Cleveland DJ Murray Saul, he reaches a sense of sincere, if contradictory, spirituality. I recently read these poems in downtown Youngstown, and my family came out to support me. My dad used his business and marketing expertise to help me sell chapbooks.
While I and many other writers have been thinking carefully about the ethics of addressing the Rust Belt—while Chrissie Hynde’s been singing “Where’d you go, Ohio?”— a racist xenophobe who’s made billions exploiting workers has been flying into our hometowns on his private Trump jet and receiving thunderous applause. Most of the people I know at home aren’t voting for Trump. But some are. Why? Because his hate speech isn’t directed at them. Because unemployment and deindustrialization continue to lead to desperation and anger. Trump exploits this anger and, like any good businessman, directs it away from himself and towards groups facing the most oppression. It’s an old maneuver: businessmen used it to create the Steel Belt, a region built (like all of America) on racism, xenophobia, and class exploitation.
My poems aren’t just about preserving my specific experience—they’re complicated love-arguments to the culture that made me who I am. Poetic remembering can serve as a tool of resistance, and I, unlike Trump, actually remember one family’s version of what it means to be from northeast Ohio. I and other writers will keep writing about the Rust Belt until, together, our work puts forth some kind of complicated, collective accuracy. Because the many communities of the Rust Belt deserve to be thought about seriously. Because we know what our families went through, we collectively know that the perfect Steel Belt that Trump promises to restore is an illusion. It only exists in the minds of billionaires who didn’t have to work to build it.
Allison Pitinii Davis is a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work is forthcoming in Crazyhorse and The Best American Poetry 2016. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. She is the author of Poppy Seeds (KSU Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. Her full-length collection, Line Study of a Motel Clerk, is forthcoming from Baobab Press in 2017.
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