To Mr. Paul Goodman, concerning his review of my novel Another Country, which he called mediocre:
I’m writing here, slight negro-and don’t get any ideas about this- accent
intact, a few words in response to your recent critique of my lack
of world-building. Look, Paul. You said it yourself. There are two things I am
expert in: Blacks and homosexuals. You admit, that some of my scenes I write
pretty well. My prose is personal, and how could it not be. Where I see
a fire you see a Wednesday. You wrote that, unless one identifies with my
characters, they are useless. I never do. Consider my book a play, consider
no place for you in the crowd. Consider art not meant to serve.
Too much to handle, I’m sure. You can make King a teddy bear,
Malcolm a devil, but what do you do with the gay one? Give me
the soapbox and please Sodom. I am so à la mode I can’t bear it. I forgive you,
Paul. Perhaps next time you’ll begin to see. For now, you have the Times.
Editor’s Statement (written by poetry editor Malisa Garlieb)
Written in the imagined voice of James Baldwin responding to the author and critic Paul Goodman, this poem rebukes a dismissal of the 1962 novel Another Country. With muscular language, Martin is asking us to consider “art not meant to serve.” This poem, along with Baldwin’s book, instead reflect, offer space, and amplify marginalized voices. Recognition is primary. Fifty years on and we’re still wrestling with her posed question, “You can make King a teddy bear,/Malcolm a devil, but what do you do with the gay one?”
I was recently asked to write a persona poem. After finding this negative review of Baldwin’s work, I wanted to imagine Baldwin writing to the review’s author, to think about the ways Black art has been (and continues to be) dismissed and excluded from the canon. I wanted to think about the publishing world determines what constitutes Good Writing. I imagined Baldwin as having a witty and acerbic tone—aspects that are clear in his writing and interviews.