Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation

Is it Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation? Can you tell the difference? Is close reading dead? The issue of cultural appropriation has flared up in the last ten days or so thanks to The Writer’s Union of Canada and syndicated conservative columnist George Will. How many times are THOSE two paired? Bear with me.

From the CBC:


The Writers’ Union of Canada apologized Wednesday for an opinion article in the latest issue of its quarterly magazine advocating for more cultural appropriation in Canadian literature. In the article, novelist and Write magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki writes that he doesn’t “believe in cultural appropriation.” He goes on to say he thinks “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and suggests there should be an Appropriation Prize in literature. According to the Oxford Reference website, cultural appropriation involves “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.”

Keep in mind this edition of “Write” from TWUC featured – Indigenous Writers! You can imagine that such included writers saw this act, rightly so, as a betrayal. And in The National Post, Niedzviecki elaborated on the “Appropriation Prize”:

Q: People took issue with the suggestion that there should be a cultural appropriation prize. Was that satirical?

A: It was Swiftian. I don’t know if you could say satirical exactly. But the intention is to push some buttons a bit … We have a lot of book prizes. There are book prizes for just about everything now. I was poking a little bit of fun at the number of book prizes out there, and saying why don’t we just have an appropriation prize as well? It was that context… Absolutely not meant at all to be taken seriously or to be insulting… It becomes this whole thing of, when am I allowed to write what and from what perspective? As Lionel Shriver said, in the end you can only write memoir. That’s all you can write? That to me is very limiting.

Then comes George Will in the Washington Post on the subject, with:

The hysteria du jour, on campuses and elsewhere, against “appropriation” illustrates progressivism’s descent into authoritarianism leavened by philistinism. This “preening silliness” — the phrase is from the Federalist’s David Marcus — is by people oblivious to the fact that, as Marcus says, “culture blending is central to the development of, well, everything. Indignation about appropriation is a new frontier in the ever-expanding empire of cultivated victimhood: “Marginalized” persons from a particular culture supposedly are somehow wounded when “privileged” people — those who are unvictimized or less victimized — express or even just enjoy the culture of more pure victims without their permission. The wearing of sombreros at tequila-themed parties triggered — to speak the language of the exquisitely sensitive — the anti-appropriation constabulary at Bowdoin College. Oberlin College’s palate police denounced as “appropriative” an allegedly inauthentic preparation of General Tso’s chicken. Such nonsense is harmless — until it morphs into attempts to regulate something serious, like writing fiction: Do not write about cultures other than your own.

Which reminds me of three things:

1) George Will went to his wheelhouse for an example, the USAmerican 1950s;
2) Sam Hamill posted (or re-posted) on Facebook, this:

and 3) My own experience of being accused of writing about something of which I had no right to do. When I won the Robin Blaser Award by the Capilano Review, the announcement of it was given as sort of an afterthought by the blogger whose job it was to tell the news, so it came out:

Following “a portrait of thinking” and a story by Sheila is a poem by Paul Nelson, whom Thea’s father has chosen as this year’s recipient of the Robin Blaser Award. The title of the poem, “The Day the Weather Decided to Die”, is parenthetically subtitled “(After a Haida tale told by Robert Bringhurst)”, which sets off bells given the controversy over Bringhurst’s right to tell these tales, but also the form he tells them in, which is poetry, not prose. As Haida scholar John Enrico has argued, these (oral) tales belong in paragraphic prose form, not as Western poems. And while I, like many others, agree that Bringhurst has made something pretty with these poems, I appreciate Enrico’s point, for it too carries the title of a play.

Never mind the form in question was a Haibun and, as such, was not a typical – left-margin-justified – “western” poem, no. That is not as important as someone deciding what other people should write, ESPECIALLY when it is done with reverence, as I believe my poem is. It, like all the other Haibun in that series of 99 is made up of dense prose paragraphs with a “haiku-like” poem in the middle or the end. (I guess I get a pass for “appropriating” haiku!)

Never mind I’ve interviewed Indigenous leaders like Russell Means, Beaver Chief (who also served on the SPLAB Board), Cheryl Seidner, Richard Atleo, Jewell James, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and others. Never mind I created a place for Beaver Chief to hold a Sacred Circle for a couple of years in the Coastal Salish tradition and learned many sacred Shaker songs, or that I ran several of my poems which include Lummi cosmology by legendary storyteller Johnny Moses who said they were: “brutal, honest and a true telling” of what had happened. Never mind I earn about 1/2 the median income in King County and continue to write and present poetry events. There is a righteousness to many people, mostly NOT indigenous, when this issue comes up. There also is a little truth to what each person is saying.

Should we write ONLY from our own culture or experience? It seems to me we need the opposite right now. We need to support creative people and free expression. Back to Niedzviecki, he suggests a writer writing from something other than their own cultural background ask these questions: “…are you doing it thoughtfully? Are you doing it for the right reasons? Only you know that. Only the author knows that. And only the audience is ultimately able to judge that.”

I have used Indigenous stories in A Time Before Slaughter because they are the last stories that come out of a deep connection to the land and may awaken something in the settlers and their descendants that could help save the biosphere and this place which I have come to love since moving here in 1988. They have tremendous energy, surprise mind and an openness that is rare in non-Aboriginal culture. They are often funny. It is material that deserves a wider audience and maybe someone reading my book might go to the texts I used as sources to dig deeper. When I was a teenager just getting into Jazz, it was Jeff Beck covering Charles Mingus that made me aware of Mingus, so Jeff Back was kind of a bridge. We need more bridges. Like the Kentucky native (Greg Watson) who helped re-publish the Indigenous tales collected from Muckleshoot People by settler Arthur Ballard. When I met Vi Hilbert she told me Greg Watson was her “best student.” Good thing he was interested in a culture other than his own, like Arthur Ballard. We are the richer for it.

So to take a form like the Haibun (from Japan) and use a neo-barroco writing style (pioneered in Latin America) using epigraphs from Spain’s Ramón Gómez de la Serna (who also lived in Buenos Aires) to write about events happening here, in a bioregion known by some as Cascadia, seems pretty original and in the spirit of cultural appreciation not unlike the fusion of Jeff Beck or the fusion of contemporary chefs who create things like Kimchi Pierogies. Bon appétit!

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Neukom Vivarium Variations

It is part public art sculpture, part environmental education project. Unlike any other art project one can imagine, the Neukom Vivarium in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park is a nurse log decomposing in a very public setting.

Your humble narrator visited the Neukom Vivrium on consecutive Saturdays in late winter 2017 to bathe himself in the atmosphere created by artist Mark Dion, and installed in 2007. From those sessions has come the poem Neukom Vivarium Variations, from which an excerpt is featured below. The poem will be debuted at the Easyspeak Seattle reading series and other literary venues in the next few months and a publisher of a chap book is being sought.

Bryan King is Headworks Operations Manager for Tacoma Water, the public entity that provides drinking water for the City of Destiny. He was instrumental in the Neukom Vivarium project. On April 4, 2017, we caught up with him to discuss how a log from near the Howard Hansen Dam ended up being chosen to be the Nurse Log for the Neukom Vivarium, or as Bryan puts it “The art log.”

Paul Nelson with Bryan King

Segment 1 – The sincerity and care with which the “art log” was sought and removed from the intake area of the City of Tacoma’s Green River water supply. Listen to Part 1 – 7:14.

Segment 2 – He compared Tacoma’s management of their watershed with Seattle’s Cedar River watershed management. Listen to Part 2 – 7:59.

The following photos of the Nurse Log’s removal from near Howard Hansen Dam were provided by Bryan King:

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Evan Flory-Barnes Interview

Evan Flory-Barnes

On Tuesday, April 25, 2017, I sat down with bassist, composer and Seattle native  Evan Flory-Barnes in my apartment in the Angeline to discuss his work, his vision for Seattle’s arts community and his upcoming concert at the Neptune Theater on May 18. I think you’ll find that such thoughtfulness, talent, humility and hunger for liberation are very rare in our world, and that we are lucky to claim this man as a product of this city at this time, when so much in our world is so much less than what he exemplifies.

His OA2 Records bio states:

Bassist and composer, Evan Flory-Barnes, is a Seattle native, who has been composing and performing music since he attended Garfield High School. He was a member of the award winning symphony orchestra at Garfield while writing music for the hip-hop group Maroon Colony. He is purposeful in his resolve to use his music to remove the barriers imposed on music, musicians and society–no genres. His vision is to create music that reflects beauty; stirs the emotions; and, enlightens the soul.

In the first segment, Evan says: “I’ve always heard music in a very particular way.” He reports being moved by film scores, like Star Wars, being exposed by his Dad to artists and groups like Curtis Mayfield. Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers and hearing the bass while being a student at Washington Middle School. He also reports being interested in basketball, creating comics and playing air bass with a t-square to the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He says the music of the era when Curtis Mayfield was popular has more of a depth and personal nature than much of today’s music. He cites the warmth and character of the music of that era. He says the highest thing about Black American art is that it is inclusive. Listen to Part 1 – 7:20.

In segment two he discussed his musical family, featuring his maternal grandfather, a pianist from Lake Charles, Louisiana, by way of Los Angeles, whose piano playing featured influences as diverse as Ravel and Scott Joplin. He said he had an Aunt who was a singer and his Mom was as well. His paternal Grandmother sang in the church where his paternal Grandfather was a pastor, the AME church. This was an influence on his music as was his experience with the organ music at his Mother’s church, St. Edwards. He also mentions visual artists in his family. He cites Wayne Shorter as an influence and Shorter’s take on Jazz being freedom of expression. He also talked about his musical education at Garfield High and how Marcus Tsutakawa was a huge influence. He had a hip hop group, was playing electric bass to grunge music and tried out for and was rejected by the famed Garfield Jazz Band. Listen to Part 2 – 7:42.

In segment three he discussed his band Industrial Revelation, a band he calls a “brotherhood.” He met D’Vonne Lewis at Jazz Port Townsend, playing with pianist Aaron Parks and they had an immediate musical rapport. He talked about how he met Aham Oluo and Josh Rawlings, the other two members of the quartet. He also talked about what he understands as the “revelation” of Industrial Revelation, that being the essence and beauty of the listener at their concert being reflected back to them. He sees this work as “a sacred honor” He says it is an alternative to the capitalist system to give people the experience of being in touch with their own value, their own gifts as humans, which is at the core of what the “revelation” is, in his mind. Listen to Part 3 – 9:11.

In the fourth segment he responded to a question about how to maintain that effort to bring out the beauty in people when there are so many police attacks on Black men in this country.  He said history shows him some of the most beautiful, potent, inspired music comes from a “soulful loving defiance” and he said at this time, that effort needs to be “amplified.” He also responded to questions of cultural appropriation, in direct response to Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” exhibited in the Whitney Biennial. He said any such issues comes down to respect and reverence and people “doing their soul-emotional homework.” Listen to Part 4 – 8:29.

In segment five Evan responded to a question about how Jazz in 2017 could be seen as “museum music”, a relic of the past. He talked about artists like Robert Glasper, Snarky Puppy, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper as well as more traditional Jazz artists like Christian McBride and how today, with Spotify, Youtube and other services one can “access their own world” but ultimately that not dumbing down the artistic gesture, and avoiding pretension is key and he feels Industrial Revelation achieves that and that is the key to its success. He feels Jazz is in good shape. Listen to Part 5 – 6:08.

In part 6 he discussed the artist’s dilemma between depth of content and commercial success. He said that often what happens when Industrial Revelation shares bills with other bands, they are exposing the areas where other bands are not “doing their work, their soul work” and are being inauthentic. He talked about his own soul work, being interested in spirituality and psychology, of an experience as a child of feeling something so immense that he likened to “the force.” It did not resonate with religious dogma that he was exposed to and started him on his quest. He cites Wayne Dyer as one of the first people who helped him understand a more spiritual way of being in the world via his PBS programs. He also cited Thich Nhat Hanh, Rumi, Kalil Gibran as influences on his inner life. He talked about meditation, Eckhart Tolle’s the Power of Now and his own practice of “loving what arises.” Listen to Part 6 – 7:29.

In the seventh segment Evan discussed the recent trip to Milan by Industrial Revelation, his own visits to Rome, Berlin and other European cities, the cultural climate in the U.S. in the Trump era and of the cultural vibe Seattle has with people he talked to in Europe. He said we have a chance here to lead the way in terms of issues like “gentrification vs. development.”  He said he would like for Seattle to be known for its cultural richness and that we should claim that and bring it more fully into being. Listen to Part 7 – 5:19.

In Part eight Evan responded to a question about the difference in his view between development and gentrification in Seattle. He discussed being in Florence and feeling the presence of the Medici family, known for their great wealth and patronage of the arts. He described the awe he felt seeing Michelangelo’s statue of David and said that art would be well-served to expand beyond a capitalist value system. Artists should be in the “soul-nourishing business.” He also compared Germany and U.S. awareness of their country’s own atrocities and the U.S. is not even close to what Germany has come to understand about their own dark history. He says that being in the corner of the continental U.S., Seattle has an opportunity to do what’s right in regards to this acknowledgement and to create a vibrant arts culture here. Listen to Part 8 – 5:53.

In the final segment, Part 9, he discussed his upcoming May 18 event: The Music of An Acknowledgement of a Celebration: Inheritance, Authenticity and Healing at the Neptune Theater. He said the event could be seen as a soundtrack to all that has been discussed in the interview and described the movements with their autobiographical nature. He discussed the influences, from Stravinsky to A Tribe Called Quest, among others. “Curtis Mayfield meets Bjork.” He talked about the elegy aspect of the project and gave an example of the singing he does for it. He talked about how the project came to be and what it means to him. Listen to Part 9 – 7:38.

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