Art, Free Speech, Poetry, recent

Poetic Injustice and Performative Outrage

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.”

Rachel Custer

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.”

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.


Clint Margrave is the author of Salute the Wreckage (2016) and The Early Death of Men (2012), both published by NYQ Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Threepenny Review, New York Quarterly, the Writer’s AlmanacRattle, Cimarron Review, Verse Daily, the American Journal of Poetry, and Ambit (UK), among others.  He lives in Los Angeles, and you can follow him on Twitter @clintmargrave


  1. Morgan Foster says

    Am I to understand that I’m paying for some of this crap with my taxes?

    Dear God.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Yet another cautionary tale of the perils of narcissism. This is starting to get a bit monotonous on Quillette. Gee, what a surprise, blowback for intentional provocations. Out here in the real world, nobody reads this sort of stuff unless some teacher whose grade you really, really need has that metaphorical gun to your head. Here’s news, but most of us really don’t relate to the LGBTQ “experience” and are sick to death of hearing about it. Should we encounter such content in some obscure magazine, it would be skimmed, skipped and dismissed as “not our taste, dear.” But wouldn’t that disappoint you terribly, if there was no “outrage?” That’s what you were after, wasn’t it? Attention? What if you knocked yourself out trolling and nobody noticed?

      People who fling paint at walls, calling the mess “art,” and expecting we normies to “appreciate” it at our peril are pretentious bores. Goes double for aged rock ‘n rollers who think their noise is High Culture, and “poets” who just want to see now many naughty words it takes to piss people off. You can hoist it up the freak-flag pole all you want, but you’re not in control of whether anybody salutes, or which finger they decide to do it with. I’d recommend taking a stab at some kind of paying work; verily a paycheck will be your reward. First world problems . . .

      • Morgan Foster says

        @Lightning Rose

        I’m finding that a lot of the empathy I used to feel about all sorts of things is being steadily replaced with contempt.

        • bumble bee says

          Yes, me too. I used to be a sucker for a sob story. Now it’s like, stop whining for the most part. Every slight someone feels, interprets, imagines is turned into the greatest tragedy ever committed. If you notice too, most sob stories concentrate on the sobbing poor me part rather than magnifying the overcoming of challenge. Every ant hill is now a mountain and I no longer want to hear it, I no longer care any more, we all have problems.

          • M Barclay says

            @bumble bee

            Why are you here? what stories would you like to hear? To use the article in a explanatory aspect to you…if you don’t like the magazine….don’t READ it! go play scrabble or something. If anything I’m tired of bozo’s lamenting that people are discussing issues that should frankly not be an issue but sadly are.

        • I’m right there with you, Morgan. I think too much empathy is what has landed us in this mess to begin with.

      • David Turnbull says

        I apologize that some of us paycheck earners are interested in ‘this sort of stuff’ and haven’t moved on to Masterpiece Theater and other sophisticated entertainment that only you higher minds can appreciate.

      • Agore says

        I would be tempted to admonish them “Learn to code” but we wouldn’t want the kind of software they would turn out.

      • Not bad, but I’d maybe break it up a bit more. Do you have a title in mind?

    • Alice Williams says

      Modern poetry is almost without exception diabolical.

      • David Schwankle says

        I would say that contemporary poetry is mostly lazy prose on the level of stuff that should be left in a “poet’s” private notebooks. This has been the case since at least the ’80’s. The Golden Age of American poetry died with the Beats. Academic poetry has always been a hermetic enterprise done by and for climbers of the tenure ladder.

        A bunch of pretentious little magazines getting their undies in a bunch about work that does not conform to their political orthodoxy would be a non-event if it were not the case (as this article points out) that such bluenosed bigotry has spilled out of the academy into the wider wired world.

        Intolerance, political orthodoxy, racism, and sheer stupidity have been given a “platform” (I hate that word) by Twitter which, it turns out, has been actively purging users to the Right of Hillary Clinton.

        And it is only going to get worse now that journalism has become openly biased and totally unethical, again thanks in part to Twit and the lazy anointed Ivy League shitheads that use it as a source without bothering to do the proper legwork.

    • derek smalls says

      I would donate a million dollars to the ontario provincial party if Doug ford would immediately shut down all funding for the arts for the entirety of his term. all it does is fund out of touch totalitarian marxists like the ones mentioned in this article. let them all get real jobs and then we could have fun listening to them complain about paying taxes. lol .

  2. Itzik Basman says

    I shouldn’t be, but I’m constantly shocked and surprised by all the places the tentacles of this totalitarian inclined new Puritanism reach. I’m heartened to read about the pushing back against it by courageous people who stand by their convictions and refuse to bend to the mob. This is an excellent piece, the substance of which I wholly agree with.

    • All right, Itzik, you’re going to get yours. You are going on six lists that are linked to 600 others. You’re going down, pal.*

      *Just kidding. I agree with everything you said.

  3. Cultured Philistine says

    A phrase in the third paragraph identifies the fundamental problem:

    “for those of us active in the poetry community”.

    When the only people who read poetry are all people who write poetry themselves (and think they deserve awards and grants for their work) this kind of petty viciousness is unavoidable.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Search GamerGate for more fun with petty viciousness. Pirhanas swimming in very tiny jars indeed.

      • Defenstrator says

        I’m still shocked that people think the gamers were the bad guys and not the totalitarian feminists. I see people comment on gamers doing positive things and how they are better than gamergate. And you have to tell them, gamers were always good people, they just said no to sexists who blamed them for there being less women in the hobby.

        • peanut gallery says

          The problem for GG was it was a non-centralized, non-organized internet “movement.” Thus their opponents that were organized and had access to media leverage, because they WERE media in many cases, got to narrate the entire thing. They could paint GG with whatever brush they pleased. Therefore GG is forever labeled as just being angry white sexists.

  4. Peter from Oz says

    If poetry can only be written that offends no-one from a ”victim group”, then there will precious little to write about, because the activists from these groups are offended about everything.
    I say that it is time to ignore the PC trolls. Or, even hit back with abuse of the foulest kind.
    Bullies need to be hurt, a lot. Then they need to be hurt even more.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Peter from Oz

      There’s a phrase that leftists in America use frequently: “Because fuck you.”

      It’s time to throw it back at them. On television. In the US Senate hearing rooms.

    • Scott says

      It is my firm belief that if being offended or outraged required a hand written letter, and an envelope with postage, 99% of it would go away. It would be too much work for most to bother.

      • bumble bee says

        You’re so right. Social media has allowed crack-pot ideas, theories to go more mainstream. All you need is a few hundred agreeing and suddenly it becomes or thinks it becomes the will of the people. End social media and you solve 99% of today’s so called problems.

      • SemiAdult says

        Hand-written, in cursive, on plain paper with no lines, by a quill pen.

        • Daniel says

          Just have a correct spelling requirement. It’s amazing how much time one has to be offended if one never reads, or only ever writes with one’s thumbs.

    • If not a victim these days, you are no longer one of the crowd. So, we need bullies more and more, hello teachers, are you listening??

  5. Theresa says

    An investigative journalist from Quillette could make an interesting story out of diving deep into the structures that propagate these social media mobbings that lead to censorship and even job loss. Some people become suicidal and end up hospitalized. It’s a horror show. Start with Vida, who were the first to promote “SaferLit” before the creator of “SaferLit,” one of their board members, resigned under dubious circumstances, along with two other Vida board members. “SaferLit” is a weapon used against anyone who is not in lock-step with the politics of poets who have control now over academia and literary venues.

    • bumble bee says

      I would not call it “social media mobbing”, I think it is outright social media bullying. Of course these are the ones who will scream at the next rally that bullying needs to stop. When social media stopped being about getting in touch with people, and became a political platform to push agendas is when it became toxic. How to end the madness is the big question.

      • Lightning Rose says

        You end the madness by logging off and walking away. No one can be “bullied” on social media unless they are complicit by continuing to click on the “place” where this illusion is happening. Most of these critters have the attention span of a fruit fly; stop giving them attention and they’ll be gone by morning.

  6. August says

    Hurrah! Much thanks and encouragement to the author, Custer, and the many other artists who are taking a stand against mob and right-think censorship. But what a fascinating phenomenon, that, after so, so many years of breaking down barriers of discrimination, we as a society have unwittingly found ourselves erecting new barriers! Something there is that loves a wall…

  7. Farris says

    “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.”

    It’s called cowardice. All bullies are cowards. But worse cowards are those who back down from bullies. I have more disdain for the cowardly publishers than the mob. Cowardly publishers perpetuate the mob by handing them victories and trophies. One who claims to be a champion of Free Speech only to back down demands of censorship are poseurs. “Bravery is hard or else everyone would do it”, to paraphrase “A League of Their Own”.

    To these authors I would say, “fret not these cowardly publishers are not worthy of your talents.”

    These people (the mob) do not want art. They desire the echo chamber of propaganda. They are low brow philistines, despite their degrees and titles. My advice would be to endeavor to offend them.

  8. I am very pleased to note that all the 20 comments on the poem in ‘The Nation’ condemn the apology and most praise the poem.

    ‘(“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.)’
    Sounds like Norman Spinrad’s 1972 novel ‘The Iron Dream’.

    But we DO need ‘SaferLit’! Books are DANGEROUS, particularly large hardcovers. I’ve had them fall on my head, toes, and cat. And I’ve hurt my back trying to lift them. Mass market paperback are safer…Oh wait, that’s NOT what they mean?

  9. Jezza says

    I have written many poems and the only person I have offended is myself. However, there is one poem of which I am particularly proud. It is titled “Nothing”. Here it is:


    Please post my award money to me via Quillette. Thank you. I apologize if this hasn’t offended you.

  10. Dazza says

    When did bullying become OK? Perhaps some people believe that if they feel a sense of righteousness, then it’s OK to be a bully.

    Interesting article, regardless of whether you like poetry or not.
    Poetry is not the issue here, the issue is some people’s sense of entitlement to silence somebody or something they dislike. And then feel the need to share their “displeasure and outrage” to feed their narcissism.

    “They only care to be outraged if their friends can see; that’s central to it all.”

    That’s hitting the nail on the head.

  11. C Young says

    “The pinkish bud has opened,
    Rushing to the pale-blue violet
    And, stirred by a light breeze,
    The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.”

    Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili

    Stalin was a poet. He published under the name Soselo.

    The role of literature, or art in general, in suppressing our darker side is overstated.

  12. Barney Doran says

    Can you imagine what it might be like if these social justice mind/speech control people actually gained political power in our country? Oh, wait a minute…


    It’s the first rule of the internet, and has been ever since usenet groups.

    It applies to offence-mongers every bit as much as it does to common-or-garden flamers and threadjackers.

  14. “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.”

    Rachel doesn’t appear to me to be over…30? Thats quite a statement, wise beyond years. I wish Rachel the best of luck and fortitude….

  15. peanut gallery says

    Personally, I never learned to appreciate poetry. More of a prose guy. I’m sure there’s value to it, but I don’t know how how to identify it.

    • Craig WIllms says


      me also… Poetry – short of quick, quirky, rhyming limerick-like stabs at humor has always bored me or come off as pretentious. But that’s just me, I’m sure it touches others and has redeeming value, so I would never degrade it as art.

      I am a painter, my work is realism (from photographs mainly) and in today’s world that is deemed passe and beneath comment let alone contempt – except from the patron’s who commission it.

      I guess I’d be almost flattered if my paintings stirred such a reaction. Maybe I should paint Trump!!!

      • I bet you are one of those horrible painters who still uses paint instead of semen and elephant dung. You monster!

    • Heike says

      Poetry isn’t for you. Poets long ago decided on a full divorce from society, and now reside in ivory towers where the world is not allowed to participate. They’ve taken our art from us in an act of deplorable tyranny. Now they keep it to themselves and any deviation is punished, as we see in the current essay.

      “Poetry is nobody’s business except the poet’s,” wrote Philip Larkin, “and everybody else can fuck off.”

      • Lightning Rose says

        How far we’ve fallen from the days of Robert Frost. I remember when poetry was a metaphor for beauty, timelessness and a zen-like appreciation of the moment. Now, like rap “music,” it’s just ugliness, degeneration and anger. Yuck.

        You really have to wonder, don’t you, what all these people are so eternally dissatisfied with? It used to be a compliment to say someone was “well-adjusted.” As in, “not mentally ill.” All these change-the-worlders are just plain out of joint with The Way It Is. The “problem” isn’t the world, it’s the way they’re taking every bit of it they don’t like personally.
        Because EVERYTHING is about YOU, right? Like a 4-year-old.

  16. OwntownDartScene says

    ‘By the time I returned, an editor from another poetry magazine had written (about me): “Lol that dude has always been a real problem.” ‘

    That’s your pull quote right there.

    Also, starting to see a pattern with every damn thing becoming a “community”. Or a “fandom”.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Nowadays, a “movement” can be 1 asshole with a Facebook page and 2 followers. Kind of like in Alice’s Restaurant Massacree . . . 😉


    I occasionally went to poetry readings in the 60’s and 70’s in NYC. They were usually worthwhile, electric in some cases. Anne Waldman organized some remarkable readings at St Mark’s church. My interest in poetry faded after that but I respect it as an art form, even slam poetry. And yes, NEA grants are inefficient, in terms of expectations of future returns, but what is the alternative? No doubt there are Anne Waldman’s and Paul Blackburn’s out there. Get together and make something happen!

  18. Instabelle says

    I, with rolling eyes, read the “poem”. The title is awful. The poem is beautiful. It is so good, that I momentarily forgot I am against tax dollars spent on most “art” grants.

  19. Brian Villanueva says

    One of the journals mentioned is “cahoodaloodaling”. In their current issue is a post from the editor which begins: “During Stalin’s rule, poet Anna Akhmatova memorized her poems because she was afraid to commit them to paper. The written poem was evidence of a crime—the insistence on thinking and feeling for herself. To write joy in a time of fear is an act of resistance and repudiation.”

    They are oblivious that they have become the Stalinists, enforcing the same kind of thought-crime mentality. Rachel herself (in this article) says that she fears publishing her work; how long before she stops publishing and just commits it to memory? As Anna says above:

  20. Is this the first quillette piece with twitter screen grabs?

    That’s a slippery slope to shit journalism.

  21. I would call this mobbing phenomenon “outrage orgasm”. It is form of collective sexual thrills from bullying someone else in the name of virtue.

    • I would call this mobbing phenomenon “outrage orgasm”.

      That’s a good term for it, particularly as it seems to be something this generation only experiences in front of a keyboard.

    • Rev. Wazoo! says

      @AR If i may offer a tweak, how about “outrage onanism”? That turns some of their own hypocritical contempt back on them; echoing the double-standard disdain that a woman masturbating with a machine (vibrator) is self-empowering fulfilment but a man masturbating with a machine (computer) is a selfish distraction.

      Here’s another suggested term: “a cappella poetry” to indicate the poetry referred to in the article and distinguish it from the enormously important and widespread poetry called lyrics. No need to let the creators of one largely obscure branch of poetry co-opt the name of the whole field to refer only to themselves.

  22. DiamondLil says

    While I sincerely doubt that Custer supports Trump, his politics, or his style, she is capable of the following, deeply insightful comment:

    “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.”

    Professors, pundits, and pols alike with more experience and influence than she are not sufficiently wise to come have understood what she does about humankind.

    I applaud this poet, wish her well, and thank her for giving me hope for our future.

    • Heike says

      It’s because the Left considers Trump The Other. Malignant, stigmatized, outcast. That goes for all the laid-off blue collar workers who voted for him. You’ll notice you don’t hear much about labor today from the Left.

      Here’s an outstanding essay about how the Left otherized the Right and now feels it’s OK to dehumanize them.

      In this election, if you support Donald Trump, you are “the others.” I have zero interest in knowing, interacting with, tolerating or otherwise sharing my time or bits of my life with anyone who supports Trump. I don’t say that defiantly or righteously, just as fact. Don’t follow me on social media. Don’t talk to me at parties, at school functions, as a neighbor or even as a friend. Your decision says all I need to know about you. You can’t unspin it or rationalize it to me.

      — Tim Goodman, journalist

  23. Shatterface says

    No doubt Valente and the editors at cahoodaloodaling have good intentions.

    We need to stop attributing good intentions to authoritarian assholes.

    Social justice is just a pretext for authoritarian behaviour. If they didn’t have that pretext they’d just find another (communism, religious fundamentalism, racial purity) – they wouldn’t become tolerant, liberal human beings.

  24. markbul says

    “No doubt Valente and the editors at cahoodaloodaling have good intentions. ”

    On the contrary – I have no doubt that the editors at whatthefuck do not have good intentions. Based on the evidence, I would say that they are probably very bad people; exactly the kind of people who did the paperwork to send people to concentration camps. See: banality of evil.

  25. Mazzakim says

    My ex-girlfriend is a moderately-sized fish in the puddle that is the haiku community. There is absolutely no money in that genre, but it doesn’t stop the kind of in-fighting on display in this article.I I’ve seen it in the niche communities (text-based role-playing games) I’ve participated in as well, so I suspect it’s less a function of the artistic dynamic and more about how competition for recognition works within group settings.

  26. Thank you all so much for your comments. I enjoyed reading them, and appreciate having been able to spark a conversation – the type we need to be having. Thank you for open engagement and long live free speech!

    • A straight white male says

      Thanks for not bowing down to censors. If your work doesn’t offend at least a few herbs, it probably has no literary value.

      I’m about to start dropping some WASPy pagan prose. Lots of blood rituals and tree worship, no characters “of color.” How fucked am I, do you think I need Cloudflare on my site?

      What were some resources you found useful for responding to the outrage mob?

    • codadmin says

      And thank you for sharing your story. Keep fighting the good fight. Fascism will never win!

    • Wayne Simmons says

      Hi Rachel. What you have been though in regards to your poem about Trump has been disgraceful. Sadly this isn’t surprising to me. As someone who has an interest in poetry and is also a person of colour, the diversity that the poetry world proclaims to promote is only diverse in regards to race, gender and sexuality but not diverse in regards to thought.

      I’m not a conservative. But only poetry that supports a left wing or even far left narrative tends to be heard. As a result, a lot of poems tend to have essentially the same point of view on certain subjects just told in different ways. It would be nice to have a wider range of perspectives on display.

      Much respect to you Rachel.

    • jbowen82 says

      Neil Young’s song “Campaigner,” about Richard Nixon, faced similar outrage in its time because he dared to conceive of Nixon as a human being. Even Richard Nixon has got soul.

  27. Thomas Barnidge says

    As a poet in the antiquated style (you know, using rhyme and alliteration) I find modern poetry to fall into two categories:
    Moronic poetry with a political agenda;
    Moronic poetry without a political agenda
    I wouldn’t give a dime to either purveyor of the modern prose posing as poetry.

  28. ““If someone reaches out to a publisher,” says Valente, “I think the publisher, for instance, should take what that person says seriously ….. at the very least acknowledging what a person says is important,”

    No they should not. Not every random crank is worth listening to. The more importance you place on every opinion the more you encourage them. Some of these people should not be ‘validated’ they should be told to EFF OFF. Do people in professional settings just not have a backbone anymore? Or do they secretly think they have no business working in publishing which is why they have to placate every single grievance? Silly!

  29. James says

    Double down. Always double down. Stand in the doorway with one middle finger extended vertically – “That’s for you.” – and one horizontally – “That’s for the horse you rode in on.” Use lots of four-letter words.

    If you back down one inch, they will eviscerate you.

  30. I’m starting to realize why all those useless professional tweeters and offendatrons constantly call for income redistribution.

  31. D-Rex says

    One of the things I love about Quillette is that I have absolutely zero interest in poetry but read this article with interest as it resonated with the broader issue of leftist censorship and Trump derangement syndrome.

  32. Bubblecar says

    “Yet, a month later, Don Share, who used to tweet every day, remains silent.”

    Maybe he’s got the right idea. Taking poetry onto social media is never going to be good for poetry. I never “tweet” and never engage with that sort of trivia.

    A “community” may be necessary for group performance arts of various kinds, but poetry is normally created by individuals, working alone. Those who’ve got into the habit of doing this sort of work within a “community” need to ask themselves whether a social context of that kind is really a help or a hindrance, or indeed at all relevant to their aims as an artist.

    It should be perfectly possible to put your work before the public and let them make of it what they will, without getting personally involved in endless trivial chat and bickering with irrelevant people.

    • Ironically and perhaps unfortunately, poetry is booming (in sales and exposure) in large part thanks to social media – it was only a matter of time, considering how well-suited the form is to the platform. I doubt the poetry world is going to give it up anytime soon.

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  34. Amazing how many ostensibly intelligent Quillette readers don’t seem to appreciate the arts. Poetry is nothing more than painting with words. Poets run the gamut in their styles between representational and abstract. I suspect the animosity toward poetry evidenced here is due more to the effects of postmodernism on the artform, rather than the artform’s existence in civilized society.

  35. I fear,Joseph, this has much to do with geophysics. French and German people, young and old, and even British, are fond of poetry, and even now have their national poets and backgrounds in it. However, in the US, I’m sure this is different, it doesn’t count, you can’t eat it, consume it, make money with it, it simply isn’t valued, ever heard of a cowboy reciting a poem?

    • They do it all the time. It’s called Country Musc. I think that is the main cultural difference. In North America poetry is almost always accompanied by music. Even rap verse has at least a beat.

      • You are very right there, defenstrator, not thought enough about it, indeed, if only for Bob Dylan, Nobel price winning poet (without even coming for it in Stockholm, or was it Oslo? never mind, maybe was part of the beat).

  36. Chris says

    Artists are particularly sensitive by nature. I am not an artist, so would likely less offended/defensive and more retaliatory/aggressive. That said, I wish I could give Rachel Custer a figurative hug and a reassurance that true art exists even in the face of critics, and perhaps because of them. It’s not very inspired to say something with which everyone agrees. That’s not art- that’s simply mimicry.

  37. “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.”

    It’s not quite the same thing but this reminds me of Senator Tankerbell on Mr. Show.

  38. In the March through the institutions, the arts were first to fall, they are long past redemption. Of course they now eat their own, socialism always ends in canabalism.

  39. Duddley says

    “Whoever said art was safe?” I’m putting that one into the tool chest right next to “Whoever told you you have a right not to be offended?”

  40. Amanda says

    At first I thought she was going to be criticized because she won the award and her surname is Custer.

  41. Brian says

    Excellent article. I think I can summarize briefly. Somehow we’ve managed to raise, and enable, way too many weak, immature people who don’t understand tolerance, different views, or the notion that disagreeing with someone or something doesn’t mean you’ve been hurt. Living in a constant state of outrage and offense must be exhausting.

  42. Alphonse Credenza says

    As an aside, may I say this: the Cultural Revolution of ’68 destroyed the common aesthetic understanding of the purpose of aesthetic work and its ideals built over perhaps a millennium. But they called it progress. Frauds always promise but look at what they deliver. What passes for “Art” now is rarely that, but rather a piffle of semi-literate ugly feelings outpoured upon the poor listener, who must suffer for the speaker’s so-called “art.” Poetry no less than music no less than the fine arts no less than the theater, etc.

    They taught this nonsense in the classroom like “the artist must shock” and “make it real” and “just say what you feel” and “there is no truth, so whatever.” Claptrap! The task of the artist is divine in nature and beneficial to its audience and respectful to traditions. The hack claims it is not.

    Now the West has plunged into an orgy of the primitive, the ugly, the profane, the base, the distorted, the perverse. This is the sum total of what these hacks have contributed to the world. I dearly hope the NEA is abolished for it is complicit in perpetuating the post-modernist fraud upon the world

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