I’ll begin by confessing: I fucked up. I fucked up as a friend, an acquaintance, a stranger, a neighbor, and as a partner. I said cruel things; I said provocative things; I said obscene things; I said manipulative things; I said psychotic things—to men and to women. My language crossed boundaries countless times, usually online. And my behavior, on a few occasions, crossed physical boundaries.
In 2009, I inappropriately touched a woman at a bar after a poetry reading. In 2005, I got into a fist fight with a man—again, after a poetry reading. As someone who attended the reading said, in a comment posted on the website of the press that published the book I read from that night: “I remember the tension, angst, rage, and insecurity—all funneled through the 40oz’er he was drinking while performing—and that my main impression of the work was a deep, devastating suffering…one that aroused concern.” I was 26 years old.
Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I rarely appeared in public unless alcohol was promised. I drank to protect myself from a constant state of anxiety, always verging on full-blown panic.
I’m now 40 years old. For years, I’ve worked to reverse and dismantle my destructive patterns. I was in therapy for six years. At age 35, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous. A year later, I joined a group called Ananda, which taught me how to meditate. I also learned how to breathe and break through symptoms of trauma. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t fear anxiety and panic. I didn’t fear fear. I wasn’t depressed anymore, and the anger that was lodged in my chest—those knots dissolved. (I still meditate every day.) I made many apologies; I mended friendships; and I ended associations with people who preferred the person I was in the past.
Because of those changes, I acquired renewed vitality, which allowed me to write my best work. Illocality, a collection of poems published by Wave Books in the fall of 2015 (reprinted by Hollyridge Press in 2018), was reviewed in The New York Times and other high-profile publications. I was invited to give readings at several universities. The University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House invited me to give a reading, which eventually led to my participation in “ModPo,” the school’s online course in modern and contemporary poetry—a worldwide community serving thousands of students. I also ran my own course on my late mentor Cid Corman’s poetry, which was virtually attended by hundreds of people. Had I still been the perpetually angry, boundary-crossing drunk I was in the past, I would not have experienced so much good fortune. After a decade of suicidal behavior, I realized that I could have a life—a decent, stable life—in poetry.
* * *
I discovered poetry while reading a biography of Jim Morrison. The Doors did nothing for me — I was 12 at the time and my favorite band was Fine Young Cannibals. I’m not sure what drew me to the book, but it was probably the urgency of the title, No One Here Gets Out Alive. The story of Morrison’s adolescence appealed to me. He was weird; I was weird. We were both borderline delinquents. The book talked about the poets and philosophers he was obsessed with. I sought all of them out.
My discovery of poetry kept me company during a nearly year-long in-school suspension. I only lasted a few weeks in the 6th grade. Harlan Elementary in Wilmington, Delaware, was a rough school. I fought with students who challenged me. After several suspensions, the principal told me to stop going to class and to go directly to the auditorium. I sat there, alone, every day for the rest of the year. I read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Arthur Rimbaud’s Collected Poems (the Penguin Classics edition, with prose translations by Oliver Bernard), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I was far from alone. I was in fascinating company.
Those books were pure transgression and rebellion. This was alchemy. This was poetry, a world that I now knew I wanted to inhabit.
* * *
My parents conceived me while they were still in high school. They married shortly after they graduated, and my brother was born two years later. The following year, they split up. My mother and stepfather (she remarried shortly after the divorce) had primary custody. My brother and I spent every other weekend and most summers with my father, who lived with my grandmother and grandfather.
My uncle lived there as well. My dad wasn’t around most of the time—he was busy working and hanging out in bars. So my grandmother was the dominant parental figure when we visited. She was nurturing in ways other adults in my life weren’t: big meals, outings to Philadelphia to see museums and historical sites, activities that helped shape me and spark my interests in books, art and history. My grandmother enhanced my world—a world of abuse and neglect. But she was also abusive herself, in ways I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.
My stepfather was consumed by hair-trigger rage. My earliest memory is of him pinning me against a wall until I pissed and shit myself. I was no older than four. My grandmother’s mode of abuse was stranger. She regaled my brother and I with stories about how she was abducted by aliens. They operated on her. We heard all of the gruesome, vivid details. Those traumatizing conversations, more like monologues, were frequent.
Sometimes the topic wasn’t alien abduction, but Jesus Christ. She had a clear plastic cup that she would hold to her ear to communicate with Jesus. She took questions from me and my brother. “Is there a Showbiz Pizza in heaven?” “Does Jesus need to brush his teeth?” The sessions would last for hours.
I still feel chills when I see the classic image of Caucasian Jesus with his bleeding, beaming heart exposed, and his half-smile of boundless compassion. My grandmother wasn’t Catholic, but her home was decorated with Catholic iconography: crucifixes, framed pictures of Jesus, palm fronds hanging from the frames. On Good Friday my brother and I were forced to kneel on the floor as she wept and convulsed over Christ’s crucifixion.
She insisted on bathing us when we were far too old to be bathed—bathed and then told to lie down on her bed with our legs in the air as she powdered our genitals. I remember her saying to me, “if you touch your dingle, it’ll fall off.” Until the age of 13, or thereabouts, whenever I used the bathroom to move my bowels, she insisted on cleaning me.
The first summer after I discovered poetry, I walked into the backyard and saw my grandmother standing over my notebook—it included the first poems I wrote. The thing was already in flames and dissolving into ash. She said something about “blasphemy” and “filth,” and stomped out the fire. From then on, I had to hide my writing when visiting her home.
My uncle Jack lived in a room on the top floor of the house. He was deeply closeted and seemed miserable when he wasn’t engaged in his hobby. He had one of the largest collections of Gone With the Wind memorabilia in the entire country. (This was confirmed after his death, when my grandmother sold the collection.) His life revolved around all things Gone With the Wind, a film I despised then and refuse to watch now.
He liked to sit with me in his room and drill me on trivia about the film. Sometimes, whether I got one of his questions right or wrong, it didn’t matter, he would pin me down on his bed and stick his tongue in my mouth while groping me. I was 7, 8, 9 years old. One afternoon, he grabbed me and threw me into the trunk of his car and drove away, screaming about how he intended to drive off the Commodore Barry Bridge. As I write this, my entire body feels frozen from the inside out. It only struck me recently that maybe he really planned to do that, to kill us both. Instead, he drove around the block a few times. When the trunk popped open, I crawled out and fell flat on the asphalt, numb with terror.
By the time I was approaching adolescence, large enough to defend myself, he stopped touching me. He became verbally cruel instead. He’d walk by me as I played outside with friends and mumble insults: “fat boy,” “asshole,” “piece of shit.”
After a trip to Rehoboth Beach with my grandmother and grandfather when I was 13, we pulled up to the house and it looked as if the entire block were standing on the front lawn. An ambulance was there. One of the neighbors was drenched. Apparently, my uncle was found floating in the backyard pool, and the neighbor had jumped in to pull him out. He killed himself, but I was told at the time that he’d accidentally drowned. A month or two prior to that, he’d been hospitalized for overdosing on aspirin.
My grandmother always wore floral-patterned mumus with a low neckline. I remember a scar on the center of her chest, thick and pale, the size of a large fist. She mentioned that she had surgery there, but that was all she ever said about it.
She killed herself when I was 23 years old by overdosing on pills. My brother, who lived with her at the time, found her half-dead on her bedroom floor. My father told me that day that she tried to kill herself in 1978, the year I was born. She laid down in the bathtub and shot herself in the chest with a gun. I don’t know how she managed to survive it, nor did I ask.
* * *
When I was 15, I wrote to poets I admired. I found their addresses in the reference section of the public library, in a large book titled Contemporary Poets. Allen Ginsberg was the first poet to respond:
Dear Mr Massey…“Attack” is confusing, sounds like you cut your foot on an icicle? If so describe the situation’s details more clearly. “Crickets familiar chant from/ heavy dark grass beneath / trees silhouetted / where water choking…flows / Crisscross vehicle sounds / dawn hard solid rises / sudden lapse in blue”—all that has elements of good poem! Read W.C.Williams (old poet) & Gregory Corso (New Directions Publishing). Best take care of little details. See my “Mind-Writing Slogans.”
This confirmed things. I was a poet. The fact that my family had no idea (or just no interest) in what I was up to didn’t bother me. I was content to follow through on my own.
I also heard back from Philip Whalen, Robert Bly, Jack Hirschman and many others. I lived to check the mail every day, to make vital connections with practitioners of the art I loved—an art that still was a blessed mystery to me: a sacred pact with language, with silence, and other minds always alive, even if they were dead, on the page. I’m as committed now as I was then to the daily practice of poetry, despite being a fuck-up.
I dropped out of school in the 9th grade. I was hospitalized so many times for suicide attempts and suicidal ideation that I missed two years of school. By the time I made it to high school, I was as old as most of the juniors. My correspondence with poets, and the long hours I spent at the public library—that was my education.
At the age of 19, I wrote to Cid Corman, a key figure in what came to be known as “New American Poetry,” whose first letter to me announced: “Your life is about to change!” He was right.
Cid Corman was my own private university degree. He saw the strengths and the weaknesses in my poetry, and in one letter after another, mailed from his home in Kyoto, Japan, he helped hone my work. He introduced me to poets in nearby Philadelphia, as well as poets all over the world. Cid Corman gave me a community.
When I was 23, I moved with my girlfriend from Dover, Delaware, where I’d been living alone in a roach-infested studio apartment, to Humboldt County, California. Up to that point, I’d never had much interest in drinking. But once I started, which was shortly after moving west, I found that it removed all my anxiety. I liked that feeling.
When my girlfriend and I broke up, I moved into a slanted shack—a woodshed barely converted into a livable space, which was my home for the next twelve years. The drinking increased.
During that time, this was the early to mid-aughts, I started a blog. I made contact with other poets with blogs. Facebook and Twitter weren’t around then. The blogs were a way for us to communicate and to form community online. I often posted on my blog when I was drunk. I wrote manifestos; I agitated people. I was aggressive; I was an asshole. Not always, but most of the time.
Throughout this period, I was able to write poems that had no connection to my public persona: They were still, focused, image-based, and economical in their language. The online bravado and blathering masked the sensitivities, the need for silence, that was conveyed in the poetry.
I was desperately poor and unable to work due to what was eventually diagnosed as PTSD. I don’t know how I survived those years.
* * *
In 2014, I became romantically involved with the poet Kate Colby, who is married. The affair lasted for two and a half years. I did not abuse her, as was later claimed, but the situation itself was destructive for both of us, and did not end well. I tried to exit the relationship, but the correspondence always started up again. I was weak, caught up in a toxic cycle of what felt like love, but in reality was a distortion of other emotions: namely lust and self-loathing. To put it plainly, the affair was an epic mind fuck.
Our relationship mostly took place through email. In-person visits were infrequent—once every three to four months. We rarely talked on the phone, and we rarely texted. For the first year of this, I was happy to be used. Rarely a week went by during those two and a half years when I wasn’t sent a small portfolio of her poems to edit and comment on. When I failed to do so, she threatened to end the relationship. I shared my professional contacts with her. She often complained about her lack of fame—and told me that my own success made her jealous—despite the fact that she’s widely published by reputable presses, regularly gives poetry readings, and has won awards.
In February of 2017, when I thought I was having, or close to having, some kind of nervous breakdown over the relationship, I wrote to her husband on Facebook, anonymously, and told him his wife was having an affair. That was a cowardly, pathetic move. Several days later, using my own name, I wrote to him again to apologize for the affair. I said it was over. Kate called me, angry that I’d told her husband the truth, and said she wouldn’t speak to me again. I screamed on the phone. I don’t know what I said, but I know I used vile, hurtful language.
We didn’t speak again until a few months later. On April 15, she wrote to me: “I have been in hell and I don’t know where you’re at, but I think one way forward for me would be to try to clear the air. Let me know if you want that. If you don’t, please just don’t respond.” We spoke on the phone the next day, and I apologized for the language I used when I screamed at her. She accepted my apology. We continued to email each other throughout the day. She said: “You don’t have to keep apologizing. The whole 2.5 years was a shitty situation for you, and I was highly aware of that. I think it’s my fault for letting it get out of hand, but we both knew there was no good way out.”
Eleven days later, my manuscript What Follows was accepted for publication by Wesleyan University Press, a respected poetry publisher that had rejected Kate’s work on two occasions. If you have followed similar personal dust-ups in the publishing world, you can see where this is going.
When I told Kate that Wesleyan wanted my book, she cut off all contact. I was blocked on all social media and she refused to respond to my messages. On July 6, she wrote to me with a list of grievances, ending with: “Then you decided to tell me that my personal dream press, over which I’ve worked so hard and suffered a lot of pain, is publishing your book.”
In an article published in 2018, I was accused of being jealous and controlling—adjectives that, in my opinion, described Kate’s own behavior. She thought I was sleeping with all of my female friends, in particular the ones who are younger than she is. There are thousands of messages of this variety in my Gmail archive.
* * *
On January 10, 2018 I received a call from a friend I hadn’t heard from in a few years. “Someone named Kate Colby posted on Facebook that you’re a ‘serial abuser,’” she told me. “She tagged a bunch of people, and there’s a link to a website.”
That site, The Poet Joseph Massey Is An Abuser, contains an anonymously written letter. Its author (one of Kate’s friends, it turns out) sent the letter to various publishers, including Wesleyan University Press, and my part-time employer, the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. Kate tagged all of them in her Facebook post. As the anonymous letter put it, “I hope you end relations with him and make a public statement about it, especially in light of cultural shifts around believing victims.” The MeToo movement was in full swing, and social media was a no-holds-barred outlet for accusations. The release of the letter was timed perfectly:
To Whom It May Concern,
This is in regards to Joseph Massey, a poet with whom you collaborate. Over the past several years, far too many people have told me about his verbal and psychological abuse. I no longer feel okay sitting silently with this information. For many people in ‘whisper networks,’ it is now taken for granted that Massey is a predator.
The letter goes on to describe an alleged encounter the writer had with me at a poetry reading: “He was extremely drunk and told me several times, in front of a large crowd of published writers and my partner, that he thought I was hot.”
There’s no mention of a location or a date. I’ve given only a handful of poetry readings; I don’t like reading in public and avoid it as much as possible. I lived in Northern California for 12 years and traveled outside of the area only three times to give poetry readings. To the best of my knowledge, the encounter described in the anonymous letter didn’t happen. But that was beside the point: The letter was an invitation for others to pile on with additional allegations.
The link was shared hundreds of times over the course of the next several days and continued to occasionally reappear, and regain traction, months after Kate posted it on Facebook.
But in fact, I knew all this was coming. The previous October, I’d been contacted by the University of Georgia Press, which had invited me to serve as a preliminary judge for the University of Georgia Press Poetry Book Prize. I was told an employee received a letter from a friend that expressed “concern” over my involvement. This person, who was not named, said that I was verbally abusive. I knew this was connected to Kate Colby and explained the situation in detail, on speaker phone, to a room full of University of Georgia Press employees—strangers to me.
In a panic, I posted about my feelings on Facebook, explaining to my friends that I was being smeared by an unnamed “married woman” with whom I’d had an affair. I also described my plan to drop out of the poetry world, having seen what happened to other poets who were “called out.” Within minutes after that Facebook post went up, Kate emailed me and told me, “I forgive you.” I asked her to stop smearing me and she agreed. That was four months before her Facebook post.
* * *
Kate spent months reaching out to my ex-girlfriends, friends, and anyone she thought I had anything to do with who happened to be female. I heard from several friends she contacted. Some of them sent me screen shots that showed Kate’s overtures—such as “If you need to talk about Joe, I know how it goes and I’m here for you.”
In the wake of her Facebook post, I was mobbed relentlessly on social media. When I attempted to apologize, my post instantly attracted hateful comments from strangers and people I barely knew. I deleted the post. I had to rely on close friends to maintain my stability. I was in shock.
Within 24 hours, Barrelhouse magazine told me they no longer wanted me to host one of their online workshops. Four poets who’d asked me to blurb their books wrote to me, telling me that I shouldn’t bother. The pile-on allegations came thick and fast. “At a poetry reading, he looked at me like I was a meal, and it chilled me to the bone.” “He invited me to his hotel room to have a drink with him.” “He made a homophobic remark about a fellow poet.” “He was rude to me on Facebook six years ago.” “He messaged me once, trying to talk about poetry.” “He was creepy toward me on Instagram.” Some of these were from people I’d never met. Others were from people who’d been friendly toward me until that day. Some close friends cut off all contact. I was ghosted.
A week later, Al Filreis, the director of the Kelly Writers House, wrote to me to sever all ties, and to cancel several projects and events scheduled for later in the year. His letter was laden with legalese and he said he would not even identify the allegations that had motivated his decision, let alone hear my side of things. I had no opportunity to face my accusers.
Only a few months before he sent that email, I gave a poetry reading at a fundraiser for the Kelly Writers House in a New York City art gallery. Al introduced me, calling me “a gift to the Kelly Writers House.” At length, he lauded the work I’d done for them over the years.
He was one of the people Kate tagged on Facebook. Kate knew exactly who he was, and what he meant to my career, because I helped introduce them. I even proposed to Al that we record a podcast about Kate’s work. I was also asked to call in to a ModPo webcast featuring Kate, whereupon Al asked about our relationship as poets. You can view that discussion here. Kate is now a regular fixture in ModPo, and is scheduled to read at the Kelly Writers House in the Fall. She swept in to replace the ghost I’d become.
On May 16, an article about me appeared in The Outline, titled The Poet Joseph Massey’s Disturbing History of Abuse, written by Rebekah Kirkman. When Kirkman contacted me in February to say she was “investigating” the allegations against me, she requested an interview. I was still in shock, and desperately wanted to be transparent. I never should’ve spoken to her. This is someone whose Twitter feed contained entries like “No matter how cool things seem in my life, I am always mad about men,” “perennial hatred [of] men and their abuse of power,” “fuck power fuck abusers [and] fuck men especially.”
Kirkman made it clear during our interview that she was interested in how I used “power” over people. I’m still trying to figure out what that “power” was exactly, and how I would have used it. I’m poor. I don’t leave the house often. I am not a professor, nor have I ever been a professor (unless you count my role as a teaching assistant at U Penn, where there was never a complaint from anyone about my work). I am not an editor. I am not a curator of a reading series or literary salon.
The article tells the story of “Emily,” someone I met 13 years ago. She lived in Seattle. I lived in California. We spoke on the phone often and met in person a handful of times. I know I said all manner of inappropriate things during those conversations. I was a wreck and an asshole. But The Outline article goes way beyond that, claiming I held her ankles during an argument. I don’t remember that—not in the way it’s described. Kirkman’s article is full of these kinds of vague, torqued, unverifiable accounts.
I remember arguments. I remember Emily once punching me hard in the chest. On two occasions, once while walking home from a bar in Arcata, and once while walking home from a bar in Seattle, in front of traffic and pedestrians, she put her hand down my pants and pulled my penis out. She thought it was hilarious. That relationship was mutually damaging, and I’ve had no contact with her since at least 2012. Nevertheless, I apologized to her for my behavior in 2014 when I was enrolled with Alcoholics Anonymous.
* * *
Throughout 2018, there were other disappointments, betrayals, disconnections, more online mobbings, and efforts to erase my work completely. My publishers were hounded to the point where they buckled, or maybe they were happy to give in—I wouldn’t know because Omnidawn Press and Wave Books refused to communicate with me—and they removed all mention of my books from their websites. In the case of Wave Books, my book was taken out of print. I voluntarily withdrew my manuscript from Wesleyan University Press after they decided to “indefinitely delay” publication of What Follows. The relationship was tainted, and, at that point, so was the book.
The Academy of American Poets deleted many years’ worth of my work. I was featured often in their Poem-A-Day series, which transmits poems to subscribers’ inboxes every morning. The poems are then archived on the website, along with a profile of the poet. All of my poems were deleted in June, 2018, along with an essay about my work by Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout and my entire profile. The director of the Academy, Jennifer Benka, claimed that the Academy was now abiding by “SaferLit” guidelines. I later found out that Benka is friends with a close friend of Kate Colby’s, this friend being the founder of “SaferLit.” What a coincidence.
More than a year has now passed, and I’m still the only poet The Academy has erased from their website. Benka still has not responded to any of my emails, other than to issue a form email to me and everyone who wrote to her on my behalf.
Hi, Joseph. In response to your email regarding Poets.org, content on the website is curated by our staff in accordance with standards designed to meet the purposes and rules of the Academy of American Poets and changes are made to website content whenever deemed necessary or desirable.
I contacted several people who are chancellors of the Academy and they were clear in letting me know that they had no idea my work was going to be deleted. Supporters of the Academy might well ask: Who’s next? Will Anne Sexton be deleted because she allegedly molested her daughter? What about Sherman Alexie, who was recently accused of misconduct? The list could stretch for dozens of pages.
* * *
I was hospitalized in June when I came close to making good on suicide. I had a plan and the means to execute it; I then had a panic attack and took a cab to the ER. I spent a week in a psychiatric ward, which was precisely what I needed. The staff were angelic. I was placed on medication and felt remarkably more stable after discharge.
Throughout the second half of 2018, I continued to write poetry. It was my lifeline, and I stayed in touch with close friends who’d stuck by my side. My forthcoming book, A New Silence, was composed during that period of time. I view it as evidence that my spirit was not extinguished. My life was not extinguished. The “cancellation” only went so far. I lost opportunities; I lost several dozen friends. I still feel like a pariah. I live in poverty. But poetry remains. Poetry was, and is, my survival skill. I wrote a poem to address all of this, “Poem Against Cancellation.” I wanted to raise the vibration of the discourse, to transcend bile and sing through the static.
Poetry is made of breath before any sound, any syllable, is uttered . The inhalation is the first word — and reclaiming my craft taught me how to breathe again. I believe it can teach others to breathe and remain open to their perceptions, too. It is a human art.
To those I’ve hurt, know that I’m not who I was, and that not all narratives are linear. I didn’t give up on becoming a better person when it felt like my life was destroyed. I persisted on the path I’ve been on for a long time now. I’m a better, stronger, more compassionate person because of it all.
No human being is immutable. No one is irredeemable. To believe otherwise is to diminish our unlimited capacity for change.
Joseph Massey is the author of A New Silence, Illocality, and a trilogy grounded in the landscape of coastal Humboldt County, California: Areas of Fog, At the Point, and To Keep Time. His poems have been translated into French, Dutch, Bengali, Finnish, Czech, and Portuguese. He lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Follow him on twitter at @jmasseypoet.