Minneapolis poet Anders Carlson-Wee 'profoundly regretful' about poem everyone hated

Anders Carlson-Wee says he didn't anticipate his poem inhabiting a homeless character would go over so badly. Huh.

Anders Carlson-Wee says he didn't anticipate his poem inhabiting a homeless character would go over so badly. Huh. Vimeo

When the latest grist for the outrage mill is a piece of modern poetry, you're safe in assuming this must be some pretty messed up verse.

Reader, you will not be let down. 

Unless you had faith in Anders Carlson-Wee, a writer and performer native to Minnesota and based in Minneapolis, or in the editorial judgment of the Nation magazine, which published Carlson-Wee's poem "How-To" in the first week of July. 

By the end of the month, both the author and his editors were backing away from their decisions to publish.

In the poem, Carlson-Wee adopts a writing voice that is ... well, it's not that of a young white guy who got a Masters in Fine Arts from Vanderbilt University. 

"If you got hiv, say aids," begins the poem, the first in a series of pieces of advice offered, in theory, from one beggar to the next. In one run of four lines, Carlson-Wee writes:

"Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop."

The man who wrote those lines graduated from Edina High School, class of 2003.

This deeply affected style drew quick and negative attention, as did the idea that a highly privileged white guy tried his hand at playing a homeless character, especially in one of most progressive magazines in America. As critiques of Carlson-Wee's poem mounted, the author first defended the piece with a (since-deleted) tweet that listed Hieu Minh Nguyen, a queer Vietnamese-American poet who also lives here, as one of its "editors."

According to Nguyen, his role on the poem was less "editor," and more "early detractor." 

By the following day, both writer and magazine had thought better of defending the poem as an act of artistic license. Two editors at the Nation issued a statement saying they saw "How-To" as "a profane, over-the-top attack" on behalf of marginalized people, but—having actually heard, and loudly, from some of said marginalized people—they "can no longer read it that way."

The Nation has even decided to change its approach to freelancing submissions, though the editors don't reveal just what's changed, saying "we need to step back and look not only at our editing process, but ourselves as editors."

Carlson-Wee tweeted out his own similar statement that day, effectively disavowing the poem's entire premise, which he "did not foresee" causing such a controversy.

"I intended for this poem to address the invisibility of homelessness," Carlson-Wee writes, "and clearly it doesn't work. Treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me, and I am profoundly regretful." 

Carlson-Wee's attempt at contrition and damage control comes at a perilous time in his young career. His debut book, titled The Low Passions, is coming out next year, and based on its description—"the narrator ... hops freight trains, hitchhikes, dumpster dives, and sleeps in the homes of total strangers"—this might not be Anders' only attempt at slumming it for his and the readers' benefit.

"How-To" ends with the lines "It's about who they believe/they is. You hardly even there." These days, Carlson-Wee, who borrowed a beggar's identity for this poem, probably wishes the poor man could lend him some of that invisibility.