May 20, 2015
AWP and Vanessa Place respond to this week’s events
by Kirsten Reach
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) announced on Sunday that poet Vanessa Place would no longer sit on a committee that determines which panels will be accepted for next year’s AWP conference in Los Angeles. The announcement came after 2,000 writers petitioned the AWP to have her removed, claiming Place’s “racially insensitive, if not downright racist, projects violate [a] sense of trust” as well as the AWP’s desire to foster inclusivity and diversity. Place’s most recent project seems to have sparked it all: a Twitter feed that reappropriates Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone with the Wind, with an emphasis on the voices of black characters.
A Change.org petition to take Place off an AWP subcommittee was initiated by Timothy Volpert. He and other writers took issue with the project, and they put together a concise plea to AWP to consider whether she was the right candidate to determine next year’s panels:
We acknowledge Place’s right to exercise her creativity, but we find her work to be, at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist. Her recent work with Gone with the Wind re-inscribes that text’s racism–she does not abate it–in the flesh of every descendant of slaves. Indeed, she herself claims to be constructing “a slave block” with the work. AWP’s stated desire for inclusivity and diversity in the panel makeup requires an atmosphere of trust on the part of POC, LGBTQIA, and Disabled panel applicants, and Place’s racially insensitive, if not downright racist, projects violate that sense of trust. She furthers her career on the backs of Black ancestors–the hands that filled the master’s pockets now fill hers. We ask that you remove her from her position of authority over writers of color.
The petition gained traction on social media, including a tweet from poet and Buzzfeed literary editor Saeed Jones. The number of signatures jumped from 700 to 1,500 in a day, then 2,000. The AWP responded on Twitter over the weekend, and followed up with a formal statement.
Place released a lengthy artist’s statement late Monday via Facebook. She imagines it shaking out a bit like the Richard Prince-Patrick Cariou controversy last year. She also wants to reproduce the manuscript to get the Mitchell Estate’s attention:
There are two book versions of Gone With the Wind by Vanessa Place. One version gleans the racist language and imagery of the original. The other simply reproduces the entire book, such that there are two complete volumes of Gone With the Wind in WordCat, the collective library catalogue, one by Margaret Mitchell, one by Vanessa Place. The Estate of Margaret Mitchell is notoriously litigious, and the State is the enforcer of its copyright. By isolating the appearance of blackness in the first book, I invited Mitchell to sue to recover the “darkies” she claimed ownership of; by reproducing the entire book, I invited suit for wholesale theft of intellectual property. The question was whether the State would uphold Mitchell’s right to profit from her appropriation against my appropriation of her.
…I am stealing the material from Mitchell because I believe she stole it first.
Gone with the Wind has been reimagined by several notable writers prior to Place. Alice Randall‘s The Wind Done Gone, published in 2001, gave voice to the perspective of Scarlett O’Hara‘s imagined half-sister (a child of Scarlett’s father and Mammy). An authorized prequel to the novel, told from Mammy’s perspective, was released early this year: Ruth’s Journey by Donald McCraig.
This is not the beginning of Place’s project. Poetry Magazine published a poem from Gone with the Wind submitted by Place in 2009. It was a transcription of Prissy’s famous birthing scene in the film of the novel. Below the poem ran a note: “Through the simple act of transcription, Place inverts our relationship to Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling and beloved American epic by prioritizing the formal aspects of language over Mitchell’s famous narrative.”
In 2012, Place performed “White Out of Gone with the Wind,” where she stood in silence for two minutes before reading the final line of the book. (You can watch it on YouTube.)
Jacob Edmond wrote for Jacket2 around the same time:
Apart from signaling that she is rewriting Gone with the Wind by reading aloud the novel’s famous final line, Place’s performance is a non-reading, erasure, or “White Out” of the entire novel…. Of course, “white out” might also refer to the original text’s racist, white supremacist ideology and its silencing of other voices. The silence, then, is ambiguous: it could mark Place’s attack by deletion on Gone with the Wind’s racist ideology, or it could be a performance of that racist ideology’s stifling of other voices.
This “ambiguous silence” has made the latest iteration of her project a controversy. Place has been tweeting the complete text of Gone with the Wind. She chose an image of Hattie McDaniel, the Oscar-winning actress who played Mammy in the film in 1939, to accompany the lines from the book. There’s been plenty of debate about the message behind the project and its execution.
The AWP had released a short statement on Monday, too. It says that some writers who submitted proposals to AWP found the work objectionable, and the organization is responsible for giving those writers fair consideration:
AWP believes in freedom of expression. We also understand that many readers find Vanessa Place’s unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel to be unacceptable provocations, along with the images on her Twitter page.
AWP must protect the efficacy of the conference subcommittee’s work. The group’s work must focus on the adjudication of the 1,800 submitted proposals, not upon the management of a controversy that has stirred strong objections and much ill-will toward AWP and the subcommittee. Perpetuating the controversy would not be fair to the many writers who have submitted the proposals.
Place has said she will not stop tweeting the work until she completes the text or receives a cease-and-desist letter. Without commenting on Place’s work, or getting into a discussion of race or copyright, AWP is clear it does not want the work of committee members to affect its potential panelists or attendees.
Scott Martelle wrote yesterday for the Los Angeles Times that the AWP made “the wrong move. When an organization dedicated to advocacy on behalf of writers and writing programs, inherently extensions of free expression, penalizes writers for expressing themselves freely, the mission seems lost…. Where does the offense belong, with Place, or with the original work?”
As the replies on Twitter to the AWP’s announcement show, however, many other writers expressed gratitude toward the AWP for the way the organization chose to respond.
Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.