The wonderful poem you're republishing with us, "Why We Don't Have Children," was originally in Rattle. Could you talk a little bit about your decision to take it off?
Rattle has a mixed history. On the one hand, it does publish some absolutely amazing poems by amazing poets — right now I'm thinking specifically about Tiana Clark, Jennifer Givhan, and Zeina Hashem Beck, but there are plenty others. On the other hand, they've been supportive of poets who I can only describe as problematic and when questioned or critiqued about this support, the staff at Rattle usually fall back on vague ideas about focusing on the poem disassociated from the poet.
There's a valuable debate to have there but sometimes, I think, people can cross the line and make it impossible to distinguish between the two.
Recently, one Rattle poet began posting poems on social media that were incredibly graphic depictions of violence against women. Added to this, these poems all were directed at real women poets, many of them friends of mine - though, friends or not, real women or not, these poems were beyond the pale. The poems were nothing more than rape porn. I read them, unfortunately, and there was nothing I could find to redeem them.
I'm not one to shy away from content. I write about abuse. I read poems about abuse. Mostly, as in my work, these are pieces where the poet tries to address their personal experiences with abuse. In some cases, such as much of the work by the late poet Ai, the poems are persona poems that explore the psychology of an abuser but, beyond simply a character study, they point towards the societal causes and implications of abusers. The problematic poet in question did none of these things. He simply reveled in fantasies of abusing women.
I, like many others, took to social media to denounce this poet's actions and to report the pieces to the social media platform where they were posted (they've since been removed). But, I'm also one who, in these moments, looks to see if there is anything I can do beyond social media activism. Because this poet had been published by Rattle, because he had been supported and defended by Rattle over the years, I found it upsetting that I had published "Why We Don’t Have Children" in Rattle. Since the editor of Rattle had decided not to say anything publicly about the threatening poems, I contacted the editor and asked if he would remove my poem from the Rattle site.
This was an act of solidarity with the women being threatened. Was it a big act? Something that ended the threats of violence? Not at all. In the long run, my decision probably won't be very significant. But it was a real action I could take, one that maybe helped some of the women know that there were people listening to them. One that maybe gave them some small comfort.
And maybe it helped shine a bit of a light on the concerns many within the poetry community have expressed about Rattle over the years. I believe in actively creating the poetry world that we want to see by working with people who exemplify the values I want to see. I try to do this through my press, Glass Poetry Press, and through who I submit my own work to. Pulling "Why We Don’t Have Children" was one more small attempt to create the literary community I want to see.
I've been hearing about that writer and their actions for a while, and it's honestly astonishing to me that big, reputable publications continue to promote their work. But that situation concerns an interesting discussion in the lit-journal world over whether submissions should be read blind (to guarantee emerging and established writers will be read with equal care) or non-blind (to prevent promoting and enabling harmful people). Where do you stand on that debate?
That's a really great question and a really important debate. So, I think there are two ways to see this one. On the one hand, blind submissions should, in theory, allow an editor to focus just on the work and the work alone. That should, again, in theory, level the playing field for everyone regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender presentation, and celebrity. On the other hand, it is true that art, all art, isn't created in a vacuum. A writer's background influences the work they do. And knowing that perspective can help an editor assess the work. For example, a poem about water -- just about water -- written by someone in Marquette, MI, along the banks of Lake Superior would (perhaps should?) be read differently than a poem about water written by someone living in Flint, MI.
Camille Rankine has a great essay that is reinforced by the editors of Apogee where she explains that, often, blind submissions reinforce the dominant culture. So, if we're taught that "good" poetry is the poetry of Whitman, Browning, Shakespeare, Poe, etc. (all white men), then we'll read blindly from a white, male perspective. Other voices, which come with other aesthetics and other influences, will be left out.
At the same time, I understand what the editors of The James Franco Review are doing with their blind submissions — their attempt to confront and break down the cult of celebrity within the writing world. (Incidentally, my favorite discussion of blind submissions comes from TJFR, in which they discuss how [white] editors really need to stop using blind submissions to avoid the problems of racism within the literary world).
It's a tough call and it's one each editor has to make on their own terms and in conjunction with their own mission as an editor. I don't read blindly at Glass and I have no intention of doing so. Not because I think I am a perfect reader with no influence of privilege. But rather because I am a straight, white, cis-gendered male and because I am aware of the privilege I bring to the table. Constantly fighting that privilege, to me, means reading the poem on its own terms, which includes trying to understand the influences an author's background bring to the poem.
I think so much of that debate hinges on what the purpose of literary journals is, and there's as many different views - 'missions', as you say - as there are editors. What do you see as your mission as an editor?
Well, there's the easy answer, which is to put out the best 10 or so poems that I can in each monthly issue. And I think that's a fair and noble mission. But, I have an extra privilege, beyond the ones I mentioned earlier, in that I am completely independent. Because I am not associated with a university, because I don't rely on grants or a foundation, I have the ability to do anything I want. I only have to answer to myself and my readers. For me, that privilege comes with responsibility. If I am able to take a risk on a poem or a chapbook, a risk that another editor might not be able to take, then I probably should take that risk.
So, my mission — it's hard to put into words beyond "take risks" and "take the poem on its own terms."
I believe in equity in publishing. I believe in giving every author, regardless of their background, a chance to have their voice heard. I believe quotas are bullshit. I believe submission fees restrict access to the publishing world. I also believe a lot of writers should wait to publish but feel pressured — from peers, from academia, from the writing and publishing industries — to publish as soon as possible, as quickly as possible. I also believe there are a lot of young voices, like yourself, that need to be heard, a lot of young writers, like you and the rest of the staff at Ellis, doing amazing work with your writing.
So my mission is complicated. It's to publish the best poetry I can get my hands on while understanding the systemic forces, within the literary world and within the world in general, that overtly or covertly elevate a certain narrative and voice over other voices.
Could you elaborate on the benefits of waiting to publish? Because I definitely feel that pressure to get work out, and I think a lot of young, emerging writers do as well. Maybe that atmosphere is inescapable — it's interesting to hear from people who think publishing work as fast and often as possible has its detriments.
It's interesting because I just thought about an undergraduate course I took, Writers on Writing. We were reading Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, which has his famous chapter of rules he follows. And if you're not familiar, they're very specific to him - the type of paper he used, the ways he would require himself to repeat sounds at certain intervals during the initial draft, things like that. And we were all asked to come up with a rule of our own. My rule was "Nobody reads my first or second draft ever." Another student's rule was "Wait as long as possible between idea and actually writing," which we all sort of scoffed at. But in this conversation, I kind of get it.
Like, that pressure — that sense that you're not a real writer if you aren't either, in the case of my fellow student, writing everything that comes to mind, or in the case of a lot of young writers these days, if you're not publishing and going to workshops or being in mentorships, then somehow you're not a real writer. But, of course, you are a real writer whether or not you are currently publishing.
I think the opportunities available for young writers right now are amazing. The mentorships are Adroit and Blueshift and other places, where young writers get to work side by side with these amazing poets. But, I worry about how much emphasis is on that. We saw that this summer, when a young writer didn't get into a mentorship and said she was going to quit writing because of it.
I didn't feel that pressure as a young writer. I remember going to the Young Writers at Kenyon Workshop and, honestly, I don't know how I got in, if it was competitive, because I was a really bad writer, from a technical standpoint. I had no training, I went to a math and science high school, and I just read a bunch and wrote whatever came to mind (mostly Spiderman and Sandman fan fiction, to be honest). YWAK was the first time I had ever — ever! — been around other writers. And that's sad, that I was pretty much all alone, but at the same time, it was just me, my pen, and my page (and, privilege alert, my incredibly supportive family).
Certainly, the professional answer here is that that allowed me to develop my craft and my voice. But I think there's more to it than just giving yourself time to explore your craft and your voice — I think we all do that throughout our entire careers — if we're lucky enough to have a career. I also think the professionalization of writing at a younger and younger age risks taking away the fun of writing. I'm constantly reminding people, young and old, how important it is for this to be fun. But once it's about publication, which leads to a mentorship, which is needed to get into the BFA program, then it's a lot harder to have fun.
Here's a quick story about fun: my mentor, Rane Arroyo, had a wicked sense of humor, and it often came out in his poems. He did a reading at our school after his book, Home Movies of Narcissus came out, and he read this poem from the book. As he's reading, he's laughing at himself, laughing at the words he had written. And this was a serious book -- it was, if I remember, a finalist for the National Book Award. And some people were kind of put off because he's up there laughing at his own poem. When he finished, he looked up and said, "It's okay to laugh. It's a funny poem. Just because we're in a library doesn't mean you have to take everything so damn serious."
That's what I worry about when I see young writers (and old writers, to be honest) stressed out about the business of poetry. I worry that they're not having fun. I worry that all the silly things that I worry about -- submission fees and conferences and the ways the money side of poetry hurts some and benefits too few -- I worry that a young writer, who should only be worried about how they want to put words on the page, is worried about those things. Like, for real, teenagers should be spending their money on gas, not on submission fees or conference fees. Pressure to succeed can crush the beautiful dream of being a writer.
I can absolutely relate to that worry - both for other writers and for myself. There's a certain mentality of 'a poem is only worth writing if it is publishable' that has been very toxic for me. In a world where you're up against not only other teens, but often adults, you're forced to grow up faster.
When and how did you first discover the contemporary literary world — what effect did it have on your approach to writing?
My introduction to the literary world was slow. I did YWAK and I got introduced to some writers there. Most notably, I was introduced to Stephen Crane's work, and he was my first poet love. He has a poem, I can't remember which number and I think my copy is in my work truck, but it starts "Many red devils ran out from my heart". And it goes on to describe his poems as these devils and how strange it was to write from his heart and create these bleeding things. I don't know, as a young, angsty, Kurt Cobain-loving kid, I guess I just thought Crane got me in a big way. Ha. I also first came to appreciate Whitman at YWAK because, prior to that, I had a lot of really really bad English teachers who had ruined Whitman for me. It was a long journey from those bad classes, through YWAK, to finally understanding and loving Whitman (and now I have approximately thirteen copies of Leaves of Grass).
In senior year, I was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which was as close to contemporary writing as I got until I went to college. Once I got to college and started taking creative writing classes, I found the wealth of contemporary literature that I previously hadn't known about. I was introduced to Li-Young Lee and Gary Soto ("Oranges" still makes me cry!) and Bruce Weigl. And by senior year of my undergrad, I had a pretty solid grasp on how to keep finding new authors.
I didn't submit anything until my last semester as an undergrad and that was because it was required in both my poetry workshop and in my thesis workshop, both of which I was taking at the same time and both of which were taught by Rane Arroyo. I still remember my first submission. It was to a journal called Albatross, and I don't even know if it still exists. I sent them a pack of three poems, including one called "Just Jason." It had these lines, "Jason lunges/like a nail toward the dome light/of his rusted black truck." The editor returned the poems, with a nice little form rejection. He circled my bio, which obviously had no publishing credits, and added a note, "Keep at it! You got this!" and he circled the last line I just quoted and wrote, "maybe 'rust-black'?"
I was really really blessed to receive such a kind first rejection. I honestly can't tell you how lucky I feel. Rane told me, when I told him about this, that my next submission should be to Beloit, so I sent some poems to them, and sure enough, a week later came the rejection letter along with a little note saying such and such poem came closest. Rane was tricky that way. I had no idea that Beloit always includes an encouraging note, but Rane knew that if I got two handwritten notes in a row that I would have the confidence to keep writing through the form letters, through the confusion of my developing voice, through the rigors of my MA program and, he hoped, through the difficulties and pressures of an MFA. I never finished my MFA, but I kept writing, and kept those two rejection letters close, and Rane's encouragement too, and with them I managed to keep writing even while doing the adjunct teaching and eventually, after I left academia, even while running from cockroach job to bedbug job to yellow jacket job.
So, bringing it back to your actual question — I first discovered the contemporary literary world fairly late and the publishing world even later. And I've tried not to let it affect my writing. Another lesson from Rane: "I can make you famous. We can read who's winning awards and I can teach you how to copy them. Or you can write yourself in your poems and maybe you can get a real long term career as a poet." So, that's what I've tried to do. I've tried to read and to love what I read and to learn as much as I can from what I read. But, when it's me and the page, it's just me and the page. I try to be myself.
I don't always succeed. I know of a number of poems I've written — and published — where I'm clearly following a trend because, for whatever reason, consciously or not, I had decided I needed to break into this journal or that. But I hope I have the skills and the self awareness to stop myself and to get back to the real work of writing my poems as only I can write them.
What a fascinating story! Rane Arroyo sounds like a genius teacher.
Yeah — Rane was an incredibly generous and genius teacher and I was really lucky to have him as a teacher and, later, as a friend. There probably isn't a day that goes by that I don't wish he was still here, to talk with about these different things. And I absolutely think my approach to the community is drawn from his influence on — his insistence that when someone else succeeds, that is not bad for you but good for the community — his insistence that we celebrate each others' successes rather than become jealous.
I think that shows; from your support of young writers to your decision to pull that poem from Rattle, you seem to be really driven to make the community a better place.
That publishing community — especially poetry — seems to be in a very odd place now. In some ways it is beautifully thriving, but in others it's being pushed even further to the fringe (such as the proposed NEA defunding). As someone who has contributed so much to this community and cares so much about it, what do you see in the future of the poetry community — what do you hope to see?
I love what I'm seeing in so much of the literary world. The internet and social media have offered so many new spaces for both writers and editors. And as important as it is to have equity in publishing, it's as important — perhaps more — to have equity in editing. And we're seeing it happen. Jennifer Givhan at Tinderbox, and Eloisa Amezcua at The Shallow Ends (shout out to my absolute favorite journal!), Jasmine and Logan here at Ellis (shout out to my tied-for-favorite journal), and so many others. And, if the poetry world has a flagship journal it is Poetry Magazine which, under Don Share's editorial guidance, has been brilliant and exciting and fresh — I actually stopped my subscription during the previous editor but am so glad I came back!
There's so much exciting work being done and being published. And so many exciting presses publishing the work. I keep getting chapbooks and they're just such beautiful little books. Nicci Mechler makes such beautiful books at Porkbelly Press, and so does Margaret Bashaar at Hyacinth Girl Press. And the quality of work from places like Sibling Rivalry Press and Button and Big Lucks and so many others is just phenomenal.
We have our challenges. There's no question about that. And if the NEA does get cut, it is going to be a big blow, both directly and indirectly. The NEA funds individual artists but it also, more importantly, funds programs, groups, and communities. $25,000 is a really big deal to an artist, don't get me wrong. It's a life changing amount of money. But the funds to programs that help kids in underserved communities are so vital. And the funds that support local arts groups, like the Ohio Arts Council, which indirectly helped start Glass as a chapbook press by awarding me an Individual Excellence Award, end up supporting so many people in so many ways. So, yeah, I'm really concerned about the NEA being defunded. I hope we find a way to rally together and not lose the great progress and publishers and poets we've gained over the last decade or so.
So, what do I see? I actually asked Juan Filipe Herrera that question when he gave a lecture here in Toledo a few months ago. His answer was, "The future is bright and endless. There's nothing but great things in the future for poetry. Because nothing can stop the beauty of our languages." I think he's right. I think the future is very bright. I think there are really smart, really talented, really exciting people working on and behind the page. And I think poetry has always survived. It is one of our species' oldest art forms. I just hope it survives in as vibrant and wide a form as it is and, more importantly, in the more vibrant and more wide form that it has been trending toward.
What do I hope to see? Less problematic crap. In a utopian world, there'd be no white dudes pretending to be Asian Women and saying they're doing it because it's the only way they can get published. There'd be no writers using poetry to attack women. There'd be no editors using their position to coerce women at conferences. There'd be no need for writers to keep informing each other that this person or that person is kind of shady or really shady or outright dangerous. I'd love to see that world but I also know that shitty people are going to keep being shitty.
So, in a more realistic way, what do I hope to see? Loma, a while back, did a Facebook event, I don't know, kind of like crowdsourcing, where he asked people to donate subscriptions to literary magazines and he would match those subscriptions to people of color who couldn't afford to buy subscriptions to magazines. I don't know the exact number of subscriptions donated but it was, at least, around fifty. I recently had a reader donate a Glass Chapbook subscription to a marginalized reader who couldn't afford to buy chapbooks and, within 24 hours, 7 other people donated subscriptions!
I hope to see more of that. I hope to see more kindness. More generosity. More community within the community.