Examining Vanessa Place: Genius, opportunist, ignorant or next-level trolling?

So much has been written across the literary blogosphere and social media about the Vanessa Place controversy since my last post on May 17 that I can't possibly link them all here. Go ahead and Google her name and you'll spend the better part of a day trying to digest it all. However, I will link you to Atticus Review, which has just published a series of essays on Place.

Of particular interest to me was Jay Sizemore's essay defending Place and her appropriation of the Gone With the Wind text. Jay writes that those who signed the petition to have Place removed from the AWP panel selection subcommittee should be "ashamed of themselves." I signed the petition. I am not ashamed.

I signed the petition not out of coercion or "groupthink," but because Vanessa Place has lost her credibility to fairly adjudicate or make selections for an organization that claims diversity as part of its mission. It goes beyond racism – real or perceived – but is about her ability to be objective, especially after a large number of writers who have denounced her failed art project are sure to be on panel applications under review for next year's conference in Los Angeles.

I don't believe Vanessa Place is racist. I do, however, believe she is a tone-deaf, ignorant, opportunist. And thanks to Jay's essay and another bit of Place appropriation that happened today, I've come to the conclusion that she is also next-level trolling the poetry world for her own self-promotion. Someone pointed out that Place appropriated, without attribution, a Facebook post from poet Adam Fitzgerald, who announced he had a poem chosen for The New Yorker. Most of the people "liking" and responding to her post believed she had a poem chosen for publication. What could possibly be the point of that? Maybe her art is just trolling to see how much of a reaction she can get. My response: don't feed the trolls.

You can tell from interviews and other posts that Place is one of those who believes all publicity is good publicity, so she's flying with it. Jay claims in his essay that Place is smarter than us, yet she has been unable – or maybe just unwilling – to clearly articulate her appropriation of racist images and text in an attempt to make us see our internalized racism. Her explanation that tweeting out the entirety of Gone With the Wind is to provoke the estate of Margaret Mitchell to file a lawsuit against her – forcing the estate to claim the racist text – was not only late, but ridiculous. The Mitchell estate will never rise to the bait and since Place is also a lawyer, she knows better.

Maybe Place's zeal to mirror back racism has blinded her to her own white privilege. Maybe she sees herself as an ally, but she's critically misunderstood the mood of the nation, and especially writers of color. Frankly, they don't want to hear black voices coming from the mouths of white women (or men, if you're Kenneth Goldsmith – another conceptual poet working to get some extra ink by reading the autopsy report of Michael Brown). Neither do I.  There are plenty of opportunities for white poets to write and engage about race – appropriating a person of color's voice to do so is not the answer.

I've seen a few tweets and Facebook posts about trying to get a petition going to have Place banned from speaking at universities. For the record, I will not support that effort and will stand against it no matter how offensive or opportunistic I find Place's work. If there are students and professors who want her to come and speak, she should be allowed to do so. Having Place removed from a committee where she has tainted her credibility to be objective is one thing; trying to have her voice banned from college campuses is something else. Let Place go to the campuses to defend and debate her work with students who are interested in doing so. I'd like to sit in on one of those to see if she actually can.

I was debating with Jay about his essay on Facebook earlier this evening. During one of his responses, he called Place "quite intelligent." My reponse:  If by intelligence you mean attention-seeking, button-pushing troll then, yes, she's a goddamn genius. Until a couple of weeks ago, most of us had never even heard of Vanessa Place or only read a smattering of her published work. Place has plenty of supporters, her profile in the poetry community is off the scale – good or bad – and more people are reading her work than ever before.

Judging from the tweets on her second Twitter account and the things she's posted on Facebook, it's never been a better time to be Vanessa Place. And maybe we've all been suckers for indulging her.


Kelly McQuain said…
I might end up quoting you in a piece I am writing.
Collin Kelley said…
Go for it. :)
BLUE said…
Lovely, Capote. A balanced perspective.

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