When I first began to think of myself as a writer, in my teenage years, I did what many artists of colour have done: I mimicked the dominant forms I encountered in school. This is hardly surprising. But just as W.E.B. Du Bois describes in The Souls of Black Folk, I had an early sense of what he calls “double consciousness”—the sense of seeing oneself from two points of view, one from that of the dominant society and one from that of your own position. I had a growing interest in reading Black writers and thinking about Black art, and in those explorations saw how these grew out of areas of my own life, such as music and history, that were specific to a lineage I had at least partly inherited. I had grown up listening to my father’s music: blues, R&B, soul. And when I investigated poets like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, who were using those forms rather than European ones as the basis for their verse, I started to see how I might do that too—how all art wasn’t out there, out of the home, external to me, but rather could come from somewhere closer and more personal, somewhere that branched from the past up through my own present. Eventually I began to work with hip hop as a poetic influence, similarly, I hoped, to the way Hughes and Baraka sourced blues and jazz.
Before and during this time, I was getting two English degrees where I learned, as one does, to read and become familiar with the canon. I was also during that same time participating in Vancouver’s poetic avant-garde scene, the one that was somewhat exterior and independent of the academy, including the Kootenay School of Writing and also less formal organizations and study groups such as Runcible Mountain College and a network of friends and fellow writers and thinkers. Suffice it to say that neither of these spaces, the formal academy nor the avant-garde scene, had much to show me about the Black-identified aesthetics that I was interested in. I was an academic in training, but in some ways I felt like an autodidact in both my scholarly and creative work. I took directed studies courses on topics my professors knew nothing about. I went to study groups and, instead of saying much, I had private conversations in my own mind about the Black writers I was reading because there was little point voicing them in those spaces. I formed some one-on-one relationships with Black writers and artists, but it’s not accurate to say there was a coherent Black literary scene in Vancouver then. I found myself navigating a writing career that clearly had at least dual lineages of influence. That there was a universal white standard commanding both the lyric school and the avant-garde was never articulated and would have been disavowed by all. But I could see in the way that my hip hop interests simply did not fit anywhere that there was a centralization of a singular lineage. I felt it. It was there in the silences.
This is not to say that I was unsupported. Far from it. Many colleagues and teachers made space for me, and the field was full of people who were anti-racist, and who could see that what I was doing had value. But I’m also saying that the underlying assumptions of the scene functioned in a way that also made my work intellectually orphaned. I could see, conversely, that writers whose work did fit easily into lineages that fed from white modernism were a smooth fit. But others whose work was doing things more inexplicable to whiteness seemed uncategorizable and often, frankly, unwelcome. There was an implicit chain of influence at the centre.
You held on to that centre, you engaged with it, you bent the interpretation of your work to fit it, or you made your lonely way outside it.
Wayde Compton is the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and has edited two literary anthologies. He lives in Vancouver, B.C., and teaches in the Faculty of Creative Writing at Douglas College.
Toward an Anti-Racist Poetics is part of the University of Alberta’s Centre for Literatures in Canada Kriesel Lecture series, originally delivered in March 2023. Toward an Anti-Racist Poetics publishes on February 15.
Excerpted with permission from University of Alberta Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.