May 29, 2015
Dear Intrepid Readers,
Last week, I weighed in on the debate surrounding Vanessa Place and AWP’s decision to remove her from the 2016 panel planning committee—I’ve linked some of the articles for a quick rundown in case you’re not already following the controversy. As expected, there’s been quite the backlash over AWP’s decision to remove Place from the committee—some of it due to AWP’s refusal to call out inherent racism and cultural appropriation on Place’s part as an artist; others are in disagreement with AWP’s decision for what they perceive (wrongly) as censorship or the curtailing of artistic freedom (really, it’s a matter of action/consequence). This dialogue has been playing out largely in social media, and this week, the Place controversy continued on at the same time that many writers received letters of notification regarding the selections for Bread Loaf, which The New Yorker calls “the oldest and most prestigious writers’ conference in the country.”
The beautiful/awful thing about social media is that it allows for the immediate transmission and reception of information. It reveals patterns of privilege in a way that should make all of us who benefit from privilege profoundly uncomfortable. When we see not one or two, but a wave of notable, vibrant writers of color—ones who are active, vocal, and working to change the status quo in the literary world—denied a place at the conference that is held up by our community of writers as the top tier of achievement as a writer, it is not a coincidence, but a pattern. A pattern that we all acknowledge as a flaw in most writer’s conferences: the preferential treatment of writers who conform to the internalized “norm” of literature: the educated, cis-gendered, white male voice. Seeing this pattern of systemic racism and gender inequality continue to play out in 2015 should make us all as humans profoundly uncomfortable, and yet, it persists.
Every week, Editor-in-Chief Lise Quintana and I have a “state of the union” meeting about Zoetic Press. This week, we again touched on the discussion surrounding Place, as well as the lack of inclusivity of writers of color and other marginalized voices at writer’s conferences as a whole, not just at Bread Loaf. This two-pronged discussion led to us talking about an idea, which, like social justice, we can’t exactly define, but we know that we as publishers, editors, writers, and active members of our writing community both online and in our physical region, we must keep in the forefront of our minds: What does it mean to be an ally? How can we effect change in larger, influential groups that are resistant to change (such as AWP or many of the writer’s conferences) by being strong allies? How can we be good allies in deed as well as in word? In short—we all know how to talk the talk, how do we learn to walk the walk, and to keep walking, even when the path is treacherous? How do we keep walking as allies instead of returning to the well-trod path of safety that exists in positionality and privilege?
We know that privilege endures because we collectively keep using it and exercising it when it’s convenient. We know that this is ethically and morally wrong. We know that it is a lazy choice, often made out of convenience and/or cowardice. We also know that it can be exercised unconsciously—after all, we are all the result of years of cultural conditioning—and to undo that conditioning isn’t an end goal, it’s a process. One that we have to consciously choose daily, where we will often fail and make mistakes; one that we cannot be lazy about. If we choose to step outside of our privilege and call ourselves allies, we must be aware that we are going to fuck up sometimes, and when we do, we must shut up and listen, take accountability, and try harder.
To me, this is the lesson that Place hasn’t learned yet, and why as an editor, poet, and dues-paying member of AWP, I believe the decision to remove her from the panel planning committee is justified. A poet who is in a position of influence and authority should absolutely have freedom of artistic expression, which, make no mistake, Vanessa Place has. What a poet who is also a planning committee member should also have is what Place is decidedly lacking: the ability to listen, and to be accountable for her actions when they are resoundingly rejected by the very group of people she is purporting herself to be in allegiance with. To ignore the anger and very real pain being expressed by writers of color to her Gone With The Wind project demonstrates that Place does not understand—or worse, refuses to acknowledge—that her project has missed the mark. That kind of short-sightedness is dangerous for an artist, but absolutely lethal to the end goal of an AWP planning committee member. An unwillingness to see past the parameters of one’s own experience is detrimental to the goal of inclusivity and diversity in AWP’s panel offerings, and as such, a committee member who demonstrates an unwillingness to listen to the voices of others and call her actions a “necessary cruelty” is not one who should be trusted to make even-handed, unbiased, diverse and inclusive decisions with regards to AWP panel topics and presenters. Likewise, as a community, we can’t shake our head at writer’s conferences, shrug, and say the equivalent of “Boys will be boys,” to the trend of catering to writers of privilege. This applies to class as much as it applies to race: not only should writers conferences change in terms of their inclusivity, but they should not be so financially prohibitive as to exclude authors of a lower socio-economic standing, or force them to depend on scholarships and grants which barely make a dent in the overall cost of attendance.
I don’t have any answers to any of these multi-layered questions, or solutions to the prickly bits they bring into the conversation. But here’s the thing about open, honest communication: sometimes it sucks, because it’s hard, and hearing real talk when you’re wrong is humbling and means that instead of defending yourself and making it about you, a lot of the time it means shutting up, saying you’re sorry, and trying to do better next time. It’s not about your guilt. It’s about your desire to see balance in the world, and your ability to humble yourself to achieve that. One of the reasons we choose words as our medium for art and change is that we understand that language gives us power. I can’t define social justice or tell you the right way to be an ally, because it’s something that I’m learning and screwing up and learning again very day, every time I sit down to write, as I’m writing this editor’s letter. But I know that the act of writing is a good start. The act of listening is another. If you’ve got something to contribute to this discussion, we would love to hear it & hand the mic off to you at Rhizomatic Ideas: email@example.com.
Since so much of this conversation is happening on social media, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that we’re on Facebook (Zoetic Press, Lithomobilus), Twitter (@ZoeticPress and Litho) and Pinterest, and that whenever possible, we post audio/video of our contributors’ work on our YouTube channel. If you’re interested in hearing more from us, sign up for our monthly newsletter. We’re serious about your privacy, and promise not to flood your inbox. If you haven’t already seen what we’re about, download the app and get to reading—it’s free, and available for your iPad and iPhone.
I’d like to end this week’s letter on a positive note—this week, several members of our team are in New York at BEA (BookExpo America). Our parent company, Narrative Technologies, who produce Lithomobilus, the unique reading platform of Zoetic Press & our imprints (NonBinary Review and Unbound Octavo) is a semi-finalist in BEA’s Startup Challenge, which is both an honor and a fantastic opportunity for us.
Until next week—
Allie Marini Batts, Managing Editor