On Being Part of the Problem

I went to a poetry event the other week where multiple poets read. I went to hear one poet in particular, but because I tend to be disgracefully early to things (I blame my father), I heard the end of a talk on publishing.

I was only half listening, but when someone asked a question about diversity in publishing, I started paying attention. There were two white late-middle-age publishers on the stage and a younger white publisher. I knew two of them slightly and respect their work.

However their answers were unsatisfactory. “I publish the best poems I receive,” says one.

“Well, unless they have an obviously ethnic name, I don’t even know the race of the poets,” said another.

“[My press] does not discriminate on the basis of anything, nationality, or uh,” stumbled the third. I don’t think they even knew what the problem was.

I looked around the room. The majority of the people were late-middle-age and white. There were a few people of color, a few older people, and a few people under 40.

What the well-meaning publishers were missing, I think, is the acknowledgment of the institutional racism. If you don’t see people who write like you or look like you contributing to a magazine, you are not likely to submit there. It didn’t occur to them that they could reach out to underrepresented poets whose work they liked. They seemed comfortable with what they were doing so far.

I listened to the poet I came to see (who was good) and a few of the poets that followed. But after a while, dissatisfied, I slipped out of the room. Not too much later, I stumbled across a different group of poets.

Louder than a Bomb is a youth poetry project. Students from all over the Boston area, neighborhoods far from shiny Cambridge and gentrified Somerville, came together to read poems. These poems were not free-floating superficial description. Sure there were lines played for a laugh, but they were about life and death, racism, and misunderstanding. They were about hope and opportunity.

There was not one cheap joke about being gluten-free.

The fact that these two groups were presenting in the same library without any apparent knowledge of each other is part of what is wrong with the poetry world. My own poetry fits into the more formal page-bound model. But it did my brain, creativity, and spirit good to hear these kids doing their presentation-based poems. And it’s all good for my writing.

I need to get out more.

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5 thoughts on “On Being Part of the Problem

  1. Boy, amen. I was once on a state literature grants panel where one of the applicants (from The Ohio State. I mean Thee Ohio State.) had written that, “we have no idea who we are publishing,” and “we publish the very best we receive without regard to blahblahblah,” and I just said (oh god, I can’t believe it), “I am very tired of this response–which we have seen before– in regards to the state’s attempt to include all people by asking that our grantees to do. This response to that question is bascially, “Fuck you.” OMG, I said the “f” word in a state arts council meeting. But it is true. It is utter bullshit that these people don’t know who they are publishing!

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    1. The blog will not let me edit! I missed a quotation mark issue, so here we go again:

      Wow, amen. I was once on a state literature grants panel where one of the applicants (from The Ohio State. I mean Thee Ohio State.) had written that, “we have no idea who we are publishing,” and “we publish the very best we receive without regard to blahblahblah,” and I just said (oh god, I can’t believe it), “I am very tired of this response–which we have seen before– in regards to the state’s attempt to include all people by asking that our grantees to do. This response to that question is bascially, ‘Fuck you.’” OMG, I said the “f” word in a state arts council meeting. But it is true. It is utter bullshit that these people don’t know who they are publishing!

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      1. I just tried to delete your first comment, but that deleted both. So both comments will stand. 🙂

        I agree with you. That response is no longer tenable and worth cussing over!

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  2. I finally found you! Yes, I know you weren’t lost. I was. But I’m glad to be here now.

    The points you make in this post are dear to my heart. I have a theory about the kind of publishers you encountered, the so-called academics who can’t wrap their heads around the idea they have the responsibility to work at being inclusive. When it isn’t about overt racism (and I don’t think the majority of the problem is) it may be their fear that the task is so great that their time will be consumed by it and still not make a dent. They may be afraid that the job they have will change so much that it won’t be the one they want anymore.

    Maybe they’d feel better if they managed their time better, came up with a plan to spend half of each Tuesday searching for bookstores or blogs or whatever in neighborhoods or towns they’ve obviously never considered before, and place ads or posters there for submissions or contests, and see who responds. Unfortunately with this kind of thing, they’re a little stupid and too scared to ask for help.

    As a black woman, I don’t know why I’ve rarely felt that I didn’t belong somewhere or that something wasn’t “for me”, but a few years ago I realized how many people around me felt that way about places I went and things I read. It reminds me of what we were talking about the other day, about monolithic thinking, because that’s what it is to ignore that our society makes so many people feel that way.

    This got pretty long, so I’ll stop here, except to say that I’ve heard of Louder Than a Bomb here in Chicago, probably through my daughter when she was exploring creative avenues as a teenager. So great that you mentioned it here. I’ve got to get out more, too. 🙂

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    1. “They may be afraid that the job they have will change so much that it won’t be the one they want anymore.” I think that is definitely part of it. Half a day reading new stuff, hanging out in a new neighborhood, or going to a new reading is a great suggestion.

      Yes, because you don’t believe in monolithic thinking, it’s easier for you to find a place for yourself. That makes sense.

      Louder than a Bomb was a documentary that takes place in Chicago. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure that’s why you’ve heard of it.

      And I’m glad we figured out the blog thing. It wasn’t you, it was me. 😉

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