On February 13, after almost a two month delay due to the U.S. government shutdown, the National Endowment for the Arts finally announced its recipients for the 2019 Creative Writing Fellowship in poetry. For most of the winners, this was an occasion to celebrate on social media. But for Rachel Custer, the elation of finally being able to announce the prestigious grant (one of 35 out of nearly 1700 applicants) came with the dreadful anticipation of the outrage that would (and did) predictably follow. This was nothing new for her.
Last summer, when Anders Carlson-Wee proudly announced the publication of his new poem, “How-To,” on Facebook, Custer was at home in rural Northern Indiana, watching as controversy erupted online. “I felt that sick feeling in my stomach,” she says, as the initial joy of Carlson-Wee’s post got quickly sucked out with each hateful comment he received. “I knew so well from the many times I read similar threads about myself. And I just felt immensely bad for him, and so disdainful of anybody who would say things like that based on what I saw as their inability to read a poem.”
Then came the inevitable calls to retract the work, followed by groveling apologies from both the poet and his editors, which, of course, appeased nobody. Poetry had made the news at last, but for all the wrong reasons. For those of us active in the poetry community, intimidation, bullying, and calls for censorship were nothing new. The same tactics that have turned college campuses into de-platforming playpens have been infecting the community for a while now. Only now it was receiving national attention. “I mean there were so many people who are professors of poetry commenting and policing Anders’s use of language and actively trying to get the poem pulled from the site,” says Custer.
It used to be that the people who wanted to censor artists were members of powerful institutions like the church or the government, but these days, they are more likely to be artists and professors and publishers themselves. The same people who, at one time, testified against the state of California and saved publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti from going to jail during Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial for “Howl” in 1957. So, half a century later, what do we do now that they are the ones calling for censorship? “Even if you are truly offended by a poem, then all I want to say is fine, that’s your right. Be offended. You know what adults do when they are offended? They feel offended and move on,” says Custer. “I am offended in my very spirit by people who use their power to try to silence the art of others, under some guise of righteousness.”
Custer is no stranger to attempts at silencing her work. Though, truth be told, her work isn’t very offensive. It’s often quite eloquent. Most of the offense elicited by her work has little to do with her poetry, and more to do with the heated political disagreements she’s had with other members of the poetry community online (she’s a member of the LGBTQ community and a conservative Christian, which makes her an anomaly in a very secular and radically left-wing poetry world). You can’t blame her for being defensive, though, after the vicious attacks and calls for censorship she received when Rattle magazine published her poem “How I Am Like Donald Trump” back in October 2016, as part of their topical “Poets Respond” series. “There were never any calls to remove a specific poem that I can remember, until Rachel’s,” says Timothy Green, editor of Rattle.
The irony is the poem hardly endorses Trump. It is a poem about emptiness and depression, expressing the author’s loneliness in beautiful and bleak lines like:
… People travel for days
to look at the most important canyon, which is to say
the biggest empty space…
“The main complaint seemed to be that I had written a poem about Donald Trump that not only did not condemn him outright, but actually humanized him,” says Custer. “I find this ludicrous. First, I would suggest most of these critics re-read the poem, because the poem is not, in fact, about Donald Trump at all, except tangentially. That being said, of course, I would humanize him. He’s human…Dehumanization is ubiquitous and boring and easily done. It can be done in a bad tweet. Why in God’s name would I seek to do it in a poem? The challenge of good art lies in humanizing those with whom we disagree, not in simply preaching about why they’re wrong.”
Dehumanization can lead to the worst of human atrocities. It is also precisely the type of complaint Trump’s critics make of the president’s own behavior. “It was a powerful little poem,” says Green. “[I]n many respects, it was more critical of Trump than the thousands of other poems I’d been reading about him that year. But it was critical in a way that was infused with empathy, and humanized him as the nuanced tragic figure that he is. It’s a complicated poem, in the way that life is truly complicated and the way that art is supposed to work at making sense of.” But complexity and nuance have never been useful to a mob.
“I have never experienced such intense and constant hate aimed at me, my family, my race/religion/you name it, in my entire life,” says Custer. At the time, she was in the hospital with her 5-year-old daughter, who suffers from a rare form of leukemia, and who was going through one of the most difficult phases of chemotherapy. “The thing about people like them is that it will never matter what I say or do not say, even now. If they could not recognize my humanity at a time when I was desperately floundering inside the darkest well of fear a mother can feel, then they will never recognize it.”
The probability that someone will misinterpret your work and react negatively is, of course, just part of the vulnerability to which one necessarily exposes oneself when making art. There will always be critics willing to denigrate an artist’s work due to a lack—or a surfeit—of sensitivity. Critics, academics, and colleagues have always challenged and objected to the work of their peers, be it on aesthetic, political, moral, or historical grounds. But what seems to be different now is that the critics are behaving in bad faith, less interested in debating a work’s merit than assassinating the artist’s character and clamoring for censorship. “I call it ‘performative outrage’,” says Green. “No matter how many angry tweets I get, no one ever says anything to me directly. No one ever calls or emails me their outrage or shows up at our events. They only care to be outraged if their friends can see; that’s central to it all.”
In his 1901 essay, “Corn-Pone Opinions,” Mark Twain observed that people do not arrive at their own opinions through careful examination, but through association and sympathy. “It is our nature to conform,” he writes. Our self-approval comes first from the approval of others. “It can happen on college campuses because of physical proximity, and it can happen online because social media is a big stage,” says Green. “But it seems to me that it does not exist in the ‘real world.’ It’s a kind of collective pathology that can’t manifest in most other mediums, because it’s not even aimed at the target; it’s a show for the bystanders.”
This kind of outrage may not exist in the “real world,” but it can certainly have real world consequences. “b(OINK) accepted a poem and then dropped it, and specifically stated it was due to my online opinions,” says Custer. “Lambda Literary accepted a poem and then dropped it, though they were less forthcoming as to why. Up the Staircase quietly removed a feature they did very early in my publishing journey…The Rumpus accepted a #MeToo essay I wrote, then ghosted me…” Custer even lost her first book contract with the (now defunct) publisher ELJ. “One really weird one was this little fledgling press called Half Mystic, who solicited me through Twitter DM, accepted two poems I sent them, then summarily ‘dis-invited’ me from publication for my violation of their inclusive mission.”
As recently as the 1990s and early 2000s, a literary magazine’s mission was normally to publish the best work—quality was the most important measure of acceptability. Often their submission guidelines said little more than “no taboos” along with a few technicalities such as a reminder to include a return address if a writer wanted a response. But these days, guidelines seem to be less about the poetry than a poet’s character and politics, and it is not uncommon for a magazine to stipulate a list of behavioral requirements. For example, cahoodaloodaling magazine’s submission guidelines state that:
Any demonstration of a public profile that goes against cahoodaloodaling’s commitment to equality, diversity, social justice, and safe spaces for writers and artists of all backgrounds will be considered breach of our publishing agreement in that it damages the cahoodaloodaling brand, and will be considered grounds for removal of your work from our site.
I can’t help but laugh at the use of a capitalist marketing term like “brand” in such a collectivist statement. But to criticize it risks creating the impression that one is Not An Ally in the fight for equality, diversity, and social justice. This is why Slavoj Žižek argues that the totalitarian elements of modern political correctness are much more difficult to resist than the unambiguous totalitarianism of the past. Instead of simply dictating what a person can and can’t do or say, political correctness uses emotional coercion to leverage feelings of guilt and shame. We are now supposed to care more about the collective “feelings” of the community than the individual artist or artwork. A work no longer speaks for itself, but for a community, and an artist’s whole public persona—how virtuous they are, how they behaved on a Saturday night, their correct (or incorrect) political beliefs or opinions, and so on—can all either hurt or help that community. This seems like a lot to ask of a writer just to remain published in a magazine that probably didn’t even pay them.
I asked Joanna Valente, publisher of Yes, Poetry magazine, if it should be a publisher’s business what a writer does outside of their interaction with that publisher. “I wouldn’t say it’s a publisher’s ‘business’ to know—and publishers aren’t private investigators and do have lives of their own (and often, day jobs, since most editors don’t edit full-time). However, I do think if someone’s behavior becomes a public concern, and it does violate ethical, safety, moral, and/or legal matters, then it should be of concern.”
No doubt Valente and the editors at cahoodaloodaling have good intentions. But these good intentions seem to be very shortsighted. Anyone who has ever silenced someone has done so under the guise of “public concern.” And, while libel is a legitimate concern for a publisher and a condition (along with personal attacks and by request of the author) under which even Green says he would “de-publish” a poem, none of these considerations were at issue in the cases of Rachel Custer or Anders Carlson-Wee. Call it performance or moral panic, but a small but powerful and vocal minority of community members is seizing control of the message—any breach of orthodoxy marks you an apostate or a blasphemer, and then it’s off to the poetry gulags.
They even have their own informers—members of the community who dedicate themselves to rooting out transgressive views and behavior so they can report it to the publisher. “I was so excited to be published in The Journal,” says Custer, “which puts out such lovely work, and then I was just heartbroken to have that work removed.” Ohio State University’s esteemed literary magazine took down her poem after a few members of the poetry community emailed the magazine alleging Custer was a “racist, an Islamophobe,” and—perhaps the strangest allegation of all—that she, “ridiculed dead children.” “Just all kinds of insane allegations,” says Custer. “The student editor removed my work without ever talking to me about the allegations, and never even told me the work was taken down. I think I found out when I was updating my personal website.” The editor told her the problem wasn’t her poem or its contents, but her personal opinions as expressed by social media.
“If someone reaches out to a publisher,” says Valente, “I think the publisher, for instance, should take what that person says seriously and act in a way they see fit. No one can tell a publisher what to do, but I do think at the very least acknowledging what a person says is important, and ultimately hopefully they make a decision that ensures the integrity of their magazine and the safety of their audience.”
Wanting to protect one’s staff from, for instance, personal harassment is obviously understandable. But the “safety of their audience”? Whoever said art was safe? The idea of safety is prevalent throughout the poetry community right now—there is even a hashtag called #saferlit. But safety from what, exactly? From a poem that might offend someone’s sensibilities? From an idea someone else might not agree with? To describe protection from ideas, art, or words as “safety” is a sinister misuse of language, and it has always been the righteous excuse offered in justification of censorship. “If a work is harming others, and taking away someone’s humanity, then I think it’s ethical to remove the work, because it’s not helping anyone, and just promoting dangerous thought that has led many countries to violent wars and aggressions,” says Valente.
This kind of reasoning may sound like a kinder and more empathetic kind of censorship, but protecting our own best interests has always been the benevolent justification for the banning or burning of books. And in today’s feverish and intolerant cultural climate, a “dangerous thought” may simply be a “thought” with which the self-appointed censor disagrees. Too much protection makes a population naïve. Pushing boundaries is practically a condition for creating art, and artists have either been rewarded or punished for pushing the limits of acceptability and challenging the voices of cultural or political authority, depending on the political temperature of the time. And that is why artistic censorship is always high on the list of priorities of totalitarian regimes.
Although poetry is afforded scant value these days, especially in the United States, it is important to remember that, in some times and countries, poets have been not only blacklisted for “promoting dangerous ideas,” but even killed. One of the first things Hitler did upon his arrival in Paris in 1941, was to order the destruction of exiled German anti-authoritarian poet Heinrich Heine’s grave. In January 2014, an Iranian poet named Hashem Shaabani was branded as an “enemy of God” by the Khomeinist regime and hanged. In the West, attempts to ban books and censor writers are rarely lethal, but poets have nevertheless been condemned for the perceived threats they posed to the prevailing cultural authorities, as in the famous cases of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du Mal and Ginsberg’s previously mentioned “Howl.”
“For me it’s contextual,” says Valente. “It’s not my first choice [to remove somebody’s work], if that makes sense, since I take freedom of speech and censorship seriously, but I have done it and would do it again if I felt it was the right thing to do.” Ethical or not, an individual publisher has the freedom to make such decisions for themselves. Valente founded Yes, Poetry magazine and is obviously free to decide who to publish or de-publish there. But, unlike Valente, a lot of the community calling for other poets’ works to be retracted are not satisfied with starting their own magazine—they want to exercise control over what and who other magazines can or cannot publish. And if they don’t like a poem or feel comfortable with it, they will turn to intimidation, harassment, blacklisting, or doxxing.
After Toby Martinez de las Rivas was nominated for the Forward Prize, a critic named David Coates posted an essay on his blog alleging that Martinez de las Rivas is a “tendentious and damaging thinker,” whose poetry is rife with fascist imagery. Coates’s analysis of Martinez de las Rivas’s work and of an interview he gave to the Los Angeles Review of Books creates a portrait of Martinez de las Rivas as a dog-whistler fascist, nostalgic for a purer (and whiter) England. Whether or not one agrees with Coates’s interpretation (and many do not), Coates, as a critic, obviously has a right to his view and to critique the symbolism of Martinez de las Rivas’s poems. But then, this past November, critiquing turned once again into calls for censorship when Poetry magazine came under attack for publishing an excerpt of a long poem by Martinez de las Rivas called “Titan/All is Still.”
Are you gonna address this or what? This poem has harmed a lot of your readers and has marginalized artists you claim to care about and celebrate. You have a platform to a white supremacist. What are you going to do about it?
— Emily Pinkerton (@neongolden) November 26, 2018
If Martinez de las Rivas really is a white supremacist (and he doesn’t seem to be), it was now being insinuated that Poetry magazine’s longtime editor Don Share must therefore be one too, despite his history of championing marginalized writers. I made the mistake of jumping into this fight, when I commented on a tweet made by poet Roy G. Guzmán (whose Twitter account has since been deleted), condemning the poem and calling for its removal:
Guzmán retweeted me with some perplexed looking emojis which soon elicited the following response:
I didn’t reply. I ate breakfast instead. By the time I returned, an editor from another poetry magazine had written (about me): “Lol that dude has always been a real problem.” Most of the mob didn’t seem to have bothered reading any rebuttals of Coates’s theory or even given the poem a close reading themselves, if they read it at all. And why would they? Nobody cared about truth, they cared about advertising their disgust in front of their Twitter audience.
Soon after the outrage, Poetry Foundation posted an explanation by Martinez de las Rivas of the poem in Poetry as well as another poem that had been discovered online, “An Elegy to Young Hitler.” (“Young” being the key word in a poem that seems to lament an alternative universe in which Hitler was a better artist, and in which millions of people consequently were not murdered.) It didn’t matter. He had already been convicted and so his explanations appeased no-one. A few days later, Guzmán co-opted my earlier comment and tweeted a response to those defending Martinez de las Rivas.:
Your views on this/that poem, this/that author, do not and should not invalidate anyone else’s. Dissent is fine. But when you believe that your opinions are immune to critique, enough that you’re often waiting for someone else to convince you otherwise, we got us a problem.
Oh, the irony. However, unlike the editors of the Nation, Don Share stood by his poet and did not apologize for publishing Martinez de las Rivas’s poem. I asked Green if he thinks it was the right move for Martinez de las Rivas to have to explain his poem. “I’ve always looked up to Don Share for his kindness and professionalism,” he replied, “and I think he was displaying it there. Silence would have been fine, too. Anything but another craven apology. His was the kind of response we need to start seeing from organizations across the board. Apologize for genuine mistakes, by all means, but never appease just to appease. The appeasement is the problem.”
Green likens it to middle school behavior. “You don’t apologize to the bullies who start a cafeteria food fight; you send them to detention.” Yet, a month later, Don Share, who used to tweet every day, remains silent. I ask Valente if the community should have any say in what a magazine publishes. “The community is who reads the magazines, so if a magazine does publish a work its community doesn’t emotionally resonate with, or agree with, I think that community has every right to express displeasure and frustration.”
But expressing displeasure and frustration is not the same as blacklisting or calling for a poem to be retracted. The same question always arises—who gets to decide? Famous poets with large platforms on Twitter? Editors of prestigious magazines? The mob? And what if they’re wrong? They don’t only get to decide who writes and speaks but also what the rest of us get to read and hear. And who should award themselves the right to speak for the community? Isn’t “community,” but a collection of individuals, each with their own intellectual and emotional autonomy?
Green thinks it’s just a matter of time before enough people find the courage to risk sticking their heads over the parapet to expose performative outrage for what it is. “Angry letters to the editor have been a normal part of the publishing industry since the invention of the printing press. There will always be outraged cranks looking for a target. The only difference now is that the internet gives them a stage to play on…All we have to do is stop listening to people who have no interest in dialogue. And listening instead to the people with different opinions who want to have dialogue. That’s the only way we learn. And that means reaching out to both the Left and the Right and embracing conversation. I think the tide is turning, actually, though there’s a long way to go.”
An editor like Don Share’s unwillingness to apologize for the Toby Martinez de las Rivas affair, is an encouraging sign. The poets who have been victimized are also pushing back. Since The Journal is part of a federally funded university and therefore cannot legally discriminate based on protected political expression under the First Amendment, Custer decided to contact the Dean of Students who put her in touch with the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and they began an internal investigation. “Upon seeing the evidence, and finding it did not, in fact, prove any of the allegations true, and that all the screenshots sent represented valid and protected opinions, OSU issued me an apology and stated that my work had been wrongly removed, and reinstated it,” she says.
And now, the honor of a $25,000 fellowship from the NEA. In a statement of gratitude she has prepared for submission to the NEA, she writes:
Where I live, where I’m from, the kind of money this fellowship has awarded me to further my artistry is a yearly salary for many people. My neighbors and friends break their bodies against machines most of their waking hours for similar amounts. How do I hold the weight of that knowledge and say enough about what this award means to me—as an artist and community member?
But perhaps the most satisfying part of the award was the unintended endorsement it carried from a longstanding critic—one of the famous poets on the awards committee (which reads all applications blindly), once called her work “sauceless,” declared that she would never be published, and sent a tweet mocking Custer’s “white conservative tears.” It only goes to show that, even in these regressive times, there is still such a thing as poetic justice.
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