As of this writing, I’ve spent the last few days hanging around home nursing a cold. During this time, I’ve listened to This American Life, read from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, and watched more Netflix than I’d like to admit. In short, I’ve been immersed in various types of story—as we all are, all the time, whether we’re writers or not.
Not long ago, I gave a presentation surrounding storytelling to a group of grant professionals. In preparation, I read about what storytelling does to our brains, why humans are “helpless story junkies,” and how story can encourage people to help others. Storytelling is woven into the fabric of our daily lives and thus plays an important role in so much of what we do, both personally and professionally.
I’m not and never have been a grant writer, but I’ve worked for several nonprofit organizations and have a sense of how storytelling might be useful in at least certain kinds of grant work. But when I faced a room full of grant writers—many of whom happened to be working on large, federal grants—I appreciated just how different their work is from mine. And while the majority of grant professionals in that room self-identified as writers, there were a few exceptions.
“For me, grant writing is editing and plagiarizing, not writing,” one man said. “You have to wash your brain out [from this work] to get creative.”
He was responding, in part, to the activity I used to close my presentation: The Autobiography of Anything. I brought and displayed a range of objects from my house—including a stone horse figurine, a shaving brush, an opal pendant, a glass paperweight, a miniature Santa hat, and a wind-up stegosaurus toy, among other tchotchkes—and asked attendees to choose an object and write its “autobiography.” Where did the object come from? How was it made? Who created it? How did it finds its way into this room today?
If I worried the exercise seemed a bit silly for a room of high-level professionals who secure major grants for some of the city’s most prominent nonprofit organizations, my fears were allayed when attendees embraced the assignment. In a mere fifteen-minute writing session, they managed to craft fully formed pieces of flash fiction or nonfiction. (Can we pause here and appreciate the art of the writing exercise and how, once we move past our insecurities surrounding drafting something fresh and reading it aloud to strangers, it can result in some worthwhile writing? Every time I watch it happen, I feel like I just witnessed a mild form of literary magic.)
I was especially pleased that the attendees were game to share their writing with one another. Only one person demurred from discussing her work; she explained that it was so personal and emotional she worried she’d start crying. (That’s either really powerful or else the best excuse ever for not reading out loud in a class. Either way, I’ll take it.) Other attendees wrote richly imagined lives for the objects. Overall, I was incredibly impressed by what these grant writers created.
Afterward, I packed up my objects, which were imbued with new meaning thanks to the stories that had been invented for them, and thought about the power of story. I’m not so naïve as to think my process of writing a short story equates to what’s needed to write a federal grant, but even so, story matters. It matters both to the person who writes grants for a living and to the person reviewing that grant who secretly just wants to go home and watch Netflix. Story is part of us all, and it affects our lives intrinsically. We’re hopeless for it.
I also know that anything in the world can have its own autobiography. You just have to write it.
Over the past few months, I’ve spent time here at The Kenyon Review blog with the art and thought of contemporary poets engaged in formal innovation, focusing in particular on the constraint of the anagram, and touching on unconventional rhyming couplets (“stutter rhyme” or “echo verse”), the acrostic, and the telestich (of which the Golden Shovel form is an innovative contemporary sub-category) as well. I was interested in both the forms themselves and in how (and why) each poet might have arrived at such a form, considering potential lineage and “necessity” thereof. Titling many of these posts “Innovation in Conversation,” it seemed necessary to follow up on my musings with literal conversation with some of these poetic innovators and thinkers. Chen Chen, Phillip B. Williams, Richie Hofmann, and Randall Mann all generously responded to my questions on their poems and process. I have compiled their responses here in “conversation” with each other, though each poet responded individually in writing.
Having spent time with Randall Mann’s “Straight Razor” and “The Heron,” both of which cohere through the tradition of rhyming couplets, while troubling our expectations of that tradition (the first poem, through a kind of “stutter rhyme” in which the second line of the couplet is comprised of just a single stress, the second poem, through anagram rhyme), I asked Mann about the formal genesis of each of these poems, in terms of influences and innovations. Mann responded:
“The Heron” is one of the first true poems I wrote, in 1993, as an undergraduate, an ekphrasis about a painting in the Harn Museum in Gainesville, Florida—in which there sat a heron. At the time, I was reading J.D. McClatchy’s The Rest of the Way, the first poem of which is “The Landing,” which uses anagram rhyme, as you call it. I loved the form and thought anagrams would be perfect: the poem both mirrors and rearranges the details; also, in the painting the heron is mirrored in the water, but changed. I wrote “Straight Razor” in 2008 or 2009: the words in the first five and a half lines came to me the moment I started writing; I chose the structure because I liked the stretch of the first line coupled with the tense pullback of the second; for me, the pairing seemed appropriate to the subject, the speaker wanting to go with the formalized roleplay but then being unable to, always abruptly turning away from it. The disparate lengths of the lines also help to represent, perhaps, the uneven coming together of the active and passive participants of the roleplay.
When I asked Mann to place these poems in a broader context in terms of a relationship with form, he said:
I would say both of these poems build on the tradition of the couplet, but each offers, I hope, a renewed sense of possibility—form, in other words, is a puzzle for the upending of form. The innovation comes not just from destabilizing the couplet itself but allowing the subject matter to qualify both the choice and the destabilizing; form informs content informs form; it’s not enough to acquit oneself well in a form if the subject matter is not itself qualifying the choice. The choice of form—just as the choice of diction and syntax—is an extension of content. Is content. And I think the innovation comes when a poet listens to what he or she wants to say and allows it to be said in the best way possible, the only way, through whatever formal choice (and by that I mean free verse, too, because no poem, one hopes, is unformed). I continue to be shaped by so many, including Marianne Moore, Countee Cullen, Derek Walcott, Louise Glück, Philip Larkin, Adrienne Rich, Thom Gunn, Marilyn Hacker, Frank Bidart, and Jorie Graham.
Richie Hofmann, too, explored both the “stutter” rhyme and the anagram rhyme in the couplets of “Mirror” and “Illustration from Parsifal,” respectively. Of these poems’ origins he elaborated on the aesthetic “conversation” as such:
I wrote both “Mirror” and “Illustration from Parsifal” while staying at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut. A third poem from this time period is “First Night in Stonington,” which I wrote in rhyming pattern (abcabc, etc.) of corresponding tercets, though the poem appears as a block of text. The work of James Merrill, his house, his imagination, suffuses these poems in their contents and in their forms. My poem, “Erotic Archive,” which also appears in Second Empire, is a later, more retrospective meditation on some of my time in that uncanny place.
“Mirror” is, of course, about the large gilt-framed mirror in the parlor. It was such a strange experience to see myself in that mirror, and to see around me the room that is at the heart of The Changing Light at Sandover (and so many other poems by James Merrill): the bat wallpaper, the little objects. Is rhyming a kind of mirroring? Of course, we recognize the sonic correspondences between words, but what comes out of the mirror is not quite the same goes into it. I like your phrase “stutter,” Dora, for the rhyme, because it suggests something of an affective surprise, as if there’s something almost involuntary about the word we arrive on.
I’ve loved Randall Mann’s poem, “Straight Razor,” (and so many of his poems, which I love also to pass to my students) since the time I heard him read it on Poetry Magazine’s podcast the summer I wrote my “Mirror” poem. I love rhyming couplets for the closeness of the rhymes, for the way the rhymes seem to carry the poem forward while always looking back. In Mann’s poem, the proximity of rhymes was even more daring and tantalizing and suggestive. I want my poem to be in conversation with Mann’s work, and also to Merrill’s, and to the tradition of poems about mirrors—Cavafy’s (“the old mirror was all joy now, / proud to have embraced / total beauty for a few moments.”) and Merrill’s (“I grow old under an intensity / Of questioning looks”) and Plath’s (I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.”) and Gluck’s (“AIAIAIAI cried / the naked mirror.”)
Rhyme is such a dramatic limitation. I feel, when I rhyme, like I’m relinquishing some responsibility for writing the poem to the poem itself. That phenomenon feels supernatural, or divine, to me. And it feels Merrillian.
Aside from the mirrors and the coastal light, the other things that fill the rooms in the James Merrill House are books; and in every book, Merrill is scrawling hilarious, ingenious, ungenerous, clever anagrams. One memorable instance was Merrill’s transformation of DYLAN THOMAS to HOT LADY’S MAN. My “Illustration from Parsifal” is an ecphrastic poem, in a way, about one of Willy Pogany’s fabulous drawings of scenes from the Wagner legends (a book in Merrill’s extensive and eccentric library) and nod to Merrill’s anagrammatic play. The anagram-rhyme poem I knew of was J. D. McClatchy’s “The Landing.” Anagrams are fun and clever and they’re visually very stunning and impressive. But it’s not the visual aspect of the anagram that draws me, but the sounds they make. What I love most about the anagram-rhyme form is the unusual symphony you get to create in the sonic resonances between words. Of course, words that are anagrams of one another share the same sonic building blocks. The sound effect that results from their proximity is really interesting and really beautiful to me. Of course, “treasure” and “austerer” or “spread” and “drapes” don’t rhyme in the traditional sense, but you hear the recombined relationship of their vowels and consonants in a way that feels original and forceful and striking—it’s like painting a new subject with the same palette; whatever shapes they take, they share a kind of primordial essence. They’re made of the same stuff.
As Hofmann’s “Illustration from Parsifal” and Mann’s “The Heron” each engage with both “traditional” form (through their “rhyming” couplets) and the anagram as poetic form, Phillip B. Williams’s poem “A Spray of Feathers, Black” uses anagram rhyme to craft a terza rima sonnet. When I asked him about the formal genesis of the poem, I referenced a previous interview in which he had noted the influence of his professor Carl Phillips. He elaborated and contextualized “A Spray of Feathers, Black” as follows:
I can’t say that I recall reading anyone’s anagram poems outside of what Richie Hofmann has in his collection Second Empire. I’d read a late manuscript version and remembered a poem I wrote that was an acrostic sestina in my no-longer in print chapbook Bruised Gospels and in the chapbook I have in an anthology of chaps called Frequencies Vol 1 through YesYes Books. I have been playing with acrostics for a few years but only a couple of those poems have been published. Seeing Richie’s use of anagram was very useful for me. Richie himself is an exquisite formalist but I had no use for anagrams until I got the assignment from Carl Phillips.
In Carl’s class, we focused on the history or prosody and the “why” of it, meaning why do some poems take their formal constraints. Is it to show how difficult it is to trust a lover? Is it to reflect on having too many choices from which to make life decisions? Is it to show trauma or lapse in memory? To arbitrarily have a poem in a form that the poem itself did not demand was something I was taught against. Every sonnet is a sonnet because it must be, not because it can be. So part of my portfolio for our prosody class was to write a fifteen page essay explaining why the two poems we included (one in a traditional form and another in a nonce form of said tradition) had to be in those forms. The poem that is paired with “A Spray of Feathers, Black” is called “Sonnet with a Cut Wrist and Flies,” which appears both in my book Thief in the Interior and in an earlier issue of The Rumpus. I suggest reading those two poems together to get an idea as to what I was going for.
When asked more broadly about his relationship with formal “conversation,” Williams said:
I believe every poem I write is in conversation with poems and traditions that came before it, regardless of any intention on my part. I am a sum of my knowledge and ignorance. What I don’t know lives within my poems as well. So I suppose my viewpoint is one of being in conversation with tradition in such a way that it builds on tradition.
I can list writers who have inspired me formally. That would be easiest for me to do: Camille T. Dungy, Evie Shockley, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ben Jonson, Sonia Sanchez, Jorie Graham, David Baker, Tyehimba Jess, Terrance Hayes, Octavio Paz (particularly his long poem Blanco), Airea D. Matthews, Douglas Kearney, Orlando White.
While Chen’s poem “Chen [No Middle Name] Chen” doesn’t progress through a end-rhyme scheme, like the three previous poets, it is a poem entirely composed of anagrams (using only the letters of the title), and it too, through its internal rhyme, tonal turn, and 14 line stanzaic form, engages with the tradition of the sonnet through its anagrammatic experimentation. Of the formal genesis of the poem, in terms of influences and innovations, Chen said:
The poem started as an assignment in Curtis Bauer’s 2015 graduate poetry workshop. Curtis asked us to write a poem using only the letters in our names. He said, “You can use middle names, too,” as an act of generosity, I guess. Except I don’t have a middle name. Trying to write this poem, I felt limited; I felt like my name yielded little, not anything very interesting or meaningful. I also felt that not having a middle name was a terrible thing. Another limitation. Everyone else in the class had middle names and a range of letters with which to work. So many more vowels! These feelings of limitation and being on the outside felt familiar.
I’ve grown to take pride in my name (I think it’s a marvelous name for an author), but when I was younger I was deeply ambivalent. I liked that people wanted to know the story behind my name. I liked that my name was easy to remember, sort of catchy. I disliked many of the nicknames people ended up giving me, cutesy diminutives that sounded a bit too close to a racial slur poking fun at Chinese language. At times I disliked the simplicity of my name, the exact repetition, which isn’t the case in a tonal language like Chinese. Also, in Chinese characters, the two names appear completely different. In Roman letters and American pronunciation, all the richness and beauty of my name seemed to vanish.
So for the poem assignment, I began to wonder if I could tap into these complicated backstories and understories, dominant narratives and counter narratives involving race, culture, and naming. I started out very frustrated with Curtis’s assignment. But the thing is, I love prompts and I love creative restraints. I love a good challenge, especially one that allows me to dive into something huge and personal and heartbreaking and political. I didn’t go in with this goal but I think part of what I was trying to do in this poem was restore to my name, as it appears in English, the full magic I see in it.
And I needed that “[No Middle Name],” a phrase that appeared on school forms (in full or as the abbreviation “nmn”) so many times that my first email address was chen_nmn_chen. I needed “[No Middle Name]” to complete the spell of revealing and transforming “Chen Chen” . . . I’ll just add: Growing up, I felt the absence of my middle name as a serious presence. It was never a blank. It was always, No Middle Name or NMN. So I wanted to call on this NMN in my life, to help me out, give me some more letters. I wanted to use a perceived/imposed lack to help spell out (and create the spell of spelling out) the lack and my alchemizing of it.
This poem taught me a certain concision and swiftness when it comes to writing about the politics of identity formation and transformation. If I can unlock this much messiness using only these letters and this sonnet form, then I can try harder in my longer poems to pare down and hone in.
Of his broader relationship with form, Chen elaborated:
I love sonnets. I’ve written quite a few poems in this form, but I’d say I’m definitely still at the beginning of exploring and experimenting. No mastery. I don’t know if I believe in “mastery.” Writing sonnets allows for a kind of unmastering, actually. A letting go of habitual ways into a poem. A shedding of tired or unnecessary word combos. An unlocking of imagination while straitjacketed, Houdini-like. But the fun isn’t in escaping the form; it’s in taking up residence, putting in a breakfast nook without destroying the kitchen, trying to cook an omelet with only a pan.
Sonnet makers I look up to: Robert Hayden, Jack Agüeros, Henri Cole, Marilyn Hacker. One of my favorites is Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…” Amazing, the single sentence sonnet that feels effortlessly spoken. Rufus Wainwright does a gorgeous “cover” of this poem. Amazing, that a Shakespeare sonnet can be sung. Then again, I think of the word “sonnet” from the Italian sonetto, little song.
Other forms I love and would love to write better in: sestinas, ghazals, haiku, zuihitsu. Last year at the Kundiman Writers’ Retreat, Kimiko Hahn led a fabulous workshop in zuihitsu, the form in which Sei Shōnagon wrote her magnum opus The Pillow Book. I think of Patrick Rosal’s reinterpretations of Kundiman, a genre of Filipino love song that takes on political concerns. I also think of Marilyn Chin’s work with haiku and quatrains steeped in both Chinese and English traditions. I’m interested in Asian American poets’ engagement with forms typically labeled “Western” and with forms that emerged out of “Asian” locations—keeping in mind the politically constructed and contested nature of these labels.
In considering all of these poems, I kept returning to Rickey Laurentiis’s description of “Queering Form,” a course he offered last year at Poets House, of which he wrote:
Since at least the mid-1990s, “queer” has emerged as a socio-political and theoretical framework set in opposition to the normative, “stable” or strictly binary. In 2016, then, what might it mean to write a poetics queerly, to insist upon a queer reading of a text or, indeed, to queer a form?
While critics have used this terminology for some time now, I wanted to know how these practicing poets engaged (or chose not to engage) with this kind of critical framework. I asked each of these poets if they have any sense of themself as poet engaged in “queering form,” and in what ways might they embrace or reject this critical construct.
I embrace this construct; in particular, I like Laurentiis’s designation of “troubling” a form to queer it, which gets to the heart of the “queer,” which I see as an inclusive designation of an outsider. Here I think of Bidart’s opening lines in “Borges and I”: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.” I think poems, even those written in the traditional forms, are most affecting when they undermine the form itself, not for its own sake, but to subvert expectations and evince change. My work is as queer as it comes, both in meaning and method.
There’s something queer to me about poetic form, in general, I would say. Even though certain rules and structures of poetry can become codified as artistic law over time, poetry—or poetic utterance—remains disruptive. It remains uncategorizable. It remains, in some sense, in opposition to identity. It’s performative. What it is and what it does are inextricable. It expresses itself as it moves, in action.
Rhyming is about brining things into relation, often in surprising and non-normative ways. That seems queer to me.
I don’t think I embrace or reject it. I think poetry is at its most interesting when it constantly refers to the past as it moves within the present. With the passing of time also comes the passing of the baton but each writer has to run their lap in their own way, hence transformation, hence innovation. So I think my approach to poetics is possibly in line with queering form. And, really, this is my approach today. Tomorrow my answer could be drastically different and different the day after that. Perhaps that is also queer.
As a queer Asian American, matters of race and ethnicity are inseparable from matters of sexuality or from matters of the non-binary more broadly conceived. For example, the ways in which I am racialized as “Asian” have so much to do with how I am desexualized and rendered invisible as “male” or rendered hypervisible as “unmasculine male.” The category “Asian” contains within it a multitude of assumptions about gender and sexuality. I have to queer poetic forms or else I would never see myself or the ones I love appear in any real, complicated way in my own writing.
To take things a step further, I want my poems to question and resist the reassertion or recuperation of “authentic” masculinity as the “answer” to the binaries we who identify as Asian American men find ourselves in. I do not wish to reproduce patriarchal thinking or behavior. A queer approach to form must be rooted in an intersectional feminist approach.
You can order Randall Mann’s most recent books of poems, Straight Razor (Persea Books, 2013), here, and you can pre-order his forthcoming collection of poems, (his fourth) Proprietary (Persea Books, 2017), here.
You can order Richie Hofmann’s debut collection of poems, Second Empire (Alice James Books, 2015), here.
You can order Phillip B. Williams’s debut collection of poems, Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016), which recently won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, here.
You can order Chen Chen’s just-published full-length debut collection of poems, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), here.
Charles Portis’s first novel, Norwood, is a comic masterpiece. Have you read it? I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially if you’re trying to figure out which of Portis’s five novels to start with. If this rollicking road trip novel can be said to be about anything, I’d have to say it’s about personal growth and the process of expanding one’s worldview. Specifically, this is a story about a naïve, sheltered hillbilly from Arkansas broadening his awareness by experiencing alien cultures and a variety of people during a trip from Arkansas to New York City and back. The essential scene comes on pages 100-101, after a self-proclaimed New York Jew invites Norwood into his Lower East Side apartment for a cheap lunch of potted meat.
[The Jewish man said,] “This stuff is cheap but it’s very nutritious.” He picked up the can and read from it. “Listen to this: ‘beef tripe, beef hearts, beef, pork, salt, vinegar, flavoring, sugar and sodium nitrate.’ Do you know what tripe is?”
“It’s the gut part.” [said Norwood.]
“That’s what I thought. I suspected it was something like that.”
“It’s all meat. Meat is meat. Have you ever eat any squirrel brains?”
“No, how are they?”
“About like calf brains. They’re not bad if you don’t think about it. The bad part is cracking them little skulls open. One thing I won’t eat is hog’s head cheese. My sister Vernell, you can turn her loose with a spoon and she’ll eat a pound of it before she gets up. Some people call it souse.”
“Why do they call it that?”
“I don’t know. You got to have a name for everything.”
“Yes, I hadn’t thought of that. Well, they’re both good names. Tripe. Souse.”
On the surface, this scene is a comic exchange between two men from very different parts of the country. It’s a clash of cultures: these guys are as fascinated by each other and their differences as they are eager to share information about the worlds in which they were raised. Fortunately, they sense these vast differences and strive for understanding. Norwood discusses squirrel brains—a rural Arkansas delicacy—while the New Yorker discusses the lifeless meat sold in cans in Manhattan bodegas. They trade names for the same item, because few things represent cultural differences more than the names we assign to things, and here they are discussing gastronomical terms.
In the context of the book with its large cast of characters, the list of ingredients becomes a commentary on the eclectic nature of the human race and, in a narrower sense, a symbol of the oddballs that Norwood encounters on his trip. Flavoring can be said to be each person’s character, including Norwood’s, though writing that makes it sound like a weaker symbol than it is.
When Norwood says “You got to have a name for everything,” what he is also saying is “What’s in a name?” He’s implying that sometimes labels are hollow since they don’t always impart additional information, or give access to a person or thing’s essential core; it’s just an odd facet of human nature to assign labels.
To me, the lines “Well, they’re both good names. Tripe. Souse,” mean: we’re all the same underneath. It’s the other character—who can be said to represent all the characters Norwood encounters, as well as all the book’s culture clashes in general—agreeing with Norwood that sometimes a name means absolutely nothing: Jew, hillbilly, head cheese, souse. Whatever.
When Norwood tells him, “It’s all meat. Meat is meat,” it seems Portis is telling readers that people are people, no matter what you call them. We’re meat, we’re matter, and names don’t even matter. A person by any title is a secondary distinction from the primary truth of our universal similarities, our shared traits. We’re all the same when you look at us close enough, despite our different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, or upbringings. Portis is imparting a deep message, yet at the same time, he also just seems to be riffing on a goofy idea and having fun. He’s got us reading about potted meat and calf brains. That’s hilarious. Everything in this book is hilarious. Without question, Norwood is one of my favorite books of all time, partly because it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read or will read. It’s strange. It’s deadpan. It’s so compressed that it hits you like a blast from a hose, and before you know it, it’s over. There’s nothing like it.
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster…when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Baldur’s Gate, 1988
“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” – WarGames, 1983
Name a game you lose before you learn to understand the rules.
There’s a popular conception, widely held by gamers themselves, that games don’t mean anything. Don’t take them so seriously. They’re just for fun.
When I was 7, I helped teach my brother how to read, not with a book but with a Nintendo Entertainment System. Neither of us were interested in picture books—I had read everything there was to read twice, and my brother’s attention was impossible to keep. But our dad had bought himself Final Fantasy (the first in a series that spans decades), and it was a video game that featured a story, characters, foreshadowing, dialogue, and, strangely, hundreds and hundreds of words. Dick was playing fetch with Spot somewhere in a saccharine book, but my brother and I were commandeering pirate ships and inhabiting characters with motivations we had to look up in the dictionary in order to understand.
You could fight monsters outside the town without reading, but before long, you would have no idea where to go, what to do, unless you could read. My brother never fell in love with books, but to this day he plays games.
Read War and Peace. Read it again, front to back. That’s about how many words there are in the video game Baldur’s Gate 1.
My brother and I know the Nietzsche quote above not from a book but from Baldur’s Gate, a game I vividly recall reading and playing between reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Part of my literacy I owe to video games. Part, in fact, of my identity. And while it would be years before either of us saw a black character in a video game, for a long time, video games were the only media I was reading that had characters that reflected me. Because I was the character I was playing. Final Fantasy let me name my character. Baldur’s Gate let me name my character. And each time I named him Keith.
Resident Evil is perhaps more famous to some people as a movie than as a game, but it began and remains an extremely popular video game series. The game centers primarily around the dread surrounding undead monsters, and, in popular video game fashion, the joy of killing as many of those creatures as you possibly can. The fifth game of the series takes place in an apocalypse. Well-trod genre material for any American. And like the Walking Dead, much of Resident Evil’s world is overtaken by zombies that seem to suffer from what must be a kind of disease. Resident Evil 5 takes place in Africa. The short of it: in many scenes, you spend the game as a white character in impoverished cities emptying round after round into crowds of diseased Africans.
It is easiest to believe this doesn’t mean anything, that games don’t mean anything, if pulling the trigger doesn’t trigger any sort of negative response in you. This isn’t to suggest that games need to be non-violent, or that someone who plays Resident Evil 5 and enjoys it is likely to want to harm black people. But it is easier to play a game without a critical eye under certain conditions.
That is, when you look like the heroes and not the monsters.
I teach high school students, often students of color in the Chicago Southside, how to write poetry. But I also teach other groups of students, often in neighborhoods with the money to devote toward technology-based education, about designing analogue and digital games. One of the first exercises I have game students do forces them to question their understanding of games, because they almost always actively resist taking them seriously.
Who can name a game where winner takes all?
What about a game that doesn’t have a winner?
Jenga (Some would argue here, but the primary driving force of Jenga is not to win so much as to avoid losing. Jenga really has one loser and 1 or more schadenfruede participants).
Great. Now name a game that doesn’t end.
Tag (Tag has no winners either, or, for that matter, losers. Tag has no end game. You can be bad at tag, and you certainly can be good, but never good enough to win).
Great. You just lost The Game.
“Welcome to Africa,” Sheva Alomar says to a broad-shouldered white man (you). His name is Chris, and he might be related to Channing Tatum. Sheva is the other playable character in Resident Evil 5. She is light-skinned, with a gye nyame adinkra symbol tattooed on her arm.
Later, she (you?) will ask: “Wouldn’t you rather be back in American than a place like this?”
The origins of The Game are unknown, but it has been popular on portions of the internet for as long as I can remember. The rules vary, but the most consistent ones are as follow:
1. Everyone is playing The Game.
2. Whenever you think about The Game, you lose.
You don’t opt into The Game, and you can’t opt out. You’re playing it now (and losing). Your boss, wherever they are, is playing too. If your parents are alive, they are playing. The guy you went out on a date with one time, and you don’t remember his last name or even his face, really: he’s playing The Game.
A popular tactic (tactic is the wrong word, as you will see) of The Game is merely to announce its existence, on a message board. On a Facebook status. Aloud. In doing so, you lose The Game, of course, but so does everyone else, there, at that moment. Even if they’d been winning for years, suddenly they have lost. Lost, of course, until they forget they are playing The Game.
In the opening scene, Sheva and Chris walk past a group of black men beating what appears to be a human figure wrapped in cloth. The men’s clubs are makeshift. When you approach, they stop, staring at you silently.
The game has given you no weapon. Not yet. These are not the monsters you are looking for.
When I was 12, my best friend at school and I were in the cafeteria. To get my attention, he called me an Oreo. I laughed (I still have nightmares about that laugh). He was teasing, I knew, but what a ridiculous thing to call me. What, like the cookie?
Later, I walked to the library. No more the days of finding a dictionary. The internet made looking up words easy.
Maybe even fun. It was the early days of the internet.
I found that Oreo was a racial slur. At the time, in a diverse school, I didn’t think about my blackness much. Perhaps that’s part of what made me an Oreo: someone who is black on the outside, and white on the inside.
A user named Krellen, from shamusyoung.com, offers one of the most popular defenses of Resident Evil 5:
“A recurring character (who happens to be white) going on his latest mission to a place that happens to be almost entirely populated by people that happen to be black does not make the entire model itself racist…Out of context, it looks pretty racist. In context, not so much.”
Gaming culture is such that players often strongly identify with their games. In much the way that a band, especially in high school, is not just a band but a statement you are making to the world, games tend to be integral to one’s sense of self.
In an all-white high school, part of what led me to listen to rappers like Onyx and Mystikal was to claim my blackness.
And sometimes, for that sense of identity, we are willing to do backflips. About the way our music talks about women, or what the violence in our games might mean. I am careful to remind students that critiquing a game does not make it (them) bad. That a game mechanic can be racist and you might still like the game. I remind them that intention matters, but it is not the only thing that matters. And I ask them if a statement, if a movie or song or situation, has to be designed to make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable in order to make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
I want to ask them “Do women have to feel safe walking alone at night if the city didn’t mean to make it unsafe for her to walk?”
I want them to ask, “Whose context?”
I want them to know that characters never happen to be white men, people do.
1983, the year I was born, the movie WarGames was released. WarGames is about a hacker (Matthew Broderick) who accesses a military supercomputer called WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), a machine capable of predicting the outcomes of a nuclear war. Broderick’s 80s-style hacking nearly starts World War 3, and, famously, leads to one conclusion:
“The only winning move is not to play.”
A reminder: you’ve just lost The Game.
Being a teenager is overwhelming enough. Instead of designing a game from scratch, I have teens modify (mod) games that already exist. Think of them as house rules. The rules don’t have to make the game better. They may make it worse, but we can consider how the rules change how the game feels, what it means, and how we operate within it.
For instance, consider these pretty big house rules:
Imagine playing poker. You’re playing with your life savings, but curiously, everyone else is playing with plastic chips. If you win, you keep your money, and, you suppose, the plastic chips. If they win, they have your livelihood.
Is this fair? Would you play this game, if you had a choice?
Let’s up the ante, so to speak. We’re playing The Game (sorry, you’ve lost again, but bear with me). Only now, knowing that the game exists whether or not you choose to play it, people consider it when their children are born.
So before playing, your parents pass onto you a token. Perhaps their parents had given it to them, in fact. Let’s say the token is tied to your family. You can’t give it away. Like the poker experiment above, this token changes the stakes of your game. Written on the token, perhaps in Tolkien-esque script seen only when the token is thrust, unburning, into a fire, is a script that says, simply, what precisely happens when you lose The Game (sorry). For a majority of the players, the coin says nothing. This is the best case scenario. For some percentage, it says something worse. Perhaps you lose your job. Perhaps your house is taken from you, or your right to choose what to do with your own body.
Remember the two rules of The Game.
1. Everyone is playing The Game.
2. Whenever you think about The Game, you lose.
Some tokens simply say “death.” Perhaps women receive two tokens. Perhaps some people receive many more.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter to you. Perhaps you have a token with nothing written on it. Perhaps you are one of the lucky few who gets to play the same game as us, but with none of the stakes. Or maybe you’re tired of talking about The Game. Maybe you earnestly believe the only way to win the game is not to play it.
But Like Jenga, The Game has no winners. Only losers. Like tag, it has no end.
You can refuse to talk about it, but you’re still playing with the rest of us. You’re still playing The Game.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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