I’d like to talk a little bit about power in poetry world, which is to say I’m interested in starting with the fear that surrounds and motivates power—power being defined as the publishing industrial complex; the major and indie presses that have asserted themselves cultural tastemakers and the white supremacy inherent therein; the lie of the top-tier journal; the entire system floating on the deception that “success,” as a poet, is ever completely accessible. Before I talk more about power, success, visibility, and more, it’s important to assert this fear as a fundamental motivator for it all.
The world, as it always has been, is burning; the systems of control, as they always have been, are at risk of crumbling into the ocean. I see the fear this causes— a fear of losing power; a fear of obsolescence, both on the level of the individual and the system; a fear of never having power, or of being exposed as a fraud—as motivators for the actions of people engaging on every level with these hollow systems.
I’m not interested in sympathy for those who hold the keys to the kingdom. But I am interested in specifics, and articulating why the gatekeeper seems to be listening so intently to the goings on at the margins of his empire. My own susceptibility to these same fears.
Because these fears, and the violences they underwrite, are everywhere one looks.
I’m writing about power in poetry world specifically because, firstly, I am a poet; it’s what I can speak the most to. But poetry is also the least resource-intensive art form and therefore the most accessible. This is something I feel is important to never forget; it’s something at the core of my own writing and so many different queer, Black, disabled, and liberatory poetics throughout writing history.
But by the same token, systems of imperialism and complacency with the dominant order have infiltrated poetry for a long time as well. From the founding of the Iowa Writers Workshop with CIA money in the 1950s to the rise of Billy Collins and the bland, white, straight, able-bodied poet as a model for financial success and aesthetic maturity, to—even now—the funding of new work with blood money from predatory pharmaceutical industries, Wells-Fargo, Amazon, and elsewhere, the castle is crawling with agents of corruption.
Perhaps it’s the very accessibility of poetry that allows these forces to disguise themselves, much as the sheets hanging over them have been wrinkled and pulled down repeatedly. Certainly, there have been some reforms of late—more diverse writers are being published now, which is deeply important; and they, as far as I can tell, are getting paid more for this work than they have in the recent past. But it’s important to notice a select few writers, brilliant as they are, are elevated in this way, that the same writers are elevated again and again, and that the reform these institutions engage in mainly stops with those writers. (Indeed, these same writers appearing across publications becomes a mark for all of these publications’ diversity, rather than their desperation— by publishing the same marginalized writers who have been anointed by one or two cultural tastemakers, white/rich/abled/male editors are able to celebrate their own critical taste without engaging with minoritized literatures writ large.)
The problems with these surface-level reforms should be obvious, but I want to return to the people living in the tower, making these decisions, lurking in their unquestioned chambers and foundations. Despite the racial and sexual diversification of “career-making” awards, first book prizes, and endowed scholarships over the past ten years, these institutions maintain the same extant power structures internally. Which is one of the most sinister effects of this commodification of minoritized writers. Invariably, it’s a white straight cis man who receives the largest check at the end of the day.
While the spotlight hasn’t been placed on me in the same way it has other marginalized writers, I’ve experienced the bitter fruits of these reforms nonetheless. As a white trans woman, my transness is converted into a curiosity and then a cultural currency; I note the increasing frequency with which I am paid to be the only trans woman in the institutional room. This power and isolation I’m granted are both intoxicating in their focus, but it’s a self-reflexive process; each reading I give leads to another reading, each poem I publish leaving a bread trail for other magazines to hoist me up—a chain that both keeps me busy and keeps me visible. It’s not incidental that my own consumability is a motivator here; the trans women poets selected for prizes and published in the pages of the “top tier” are almost invariably white, thin, non-disabled, conventionally pretty, and able to pass as middle class or higher. And our writing, more often than not, exists in a state of what’s falsely called “accessibility”—which is not to say it’s actually accessible to disabled writers, but it fits within the starchy, over-chewed palate of what the gatekeeper thinks poetry should look like. That is to say: lyric, emotionally direct, rooted in discussing individual violence and its aftermaths, among other attributes.
This is one of the most insidious ways in which institutions diversify. Bodies are let in who are the least threatening to existing orders within their identity categories and political orientations; identity is simplified to one or two discrete points of diversity; acceptance is predicated on a tacit agreement not to question why you, specifically, were accepted. “I was accepted, so I am good” is the bromide this enforces again and again. Again, this isn’t to diminish the work of the many, many brilliant writers who are and have been “chosen” by these powers; but the lie of meritocracy, as it always exists, obscures the machinations of the ones who are doing the choosing. My whiteness, my thinness, makes my transness palatable; my transness allows the institutions who support me to use my identity to subtract focus from their own. When I talk about the rot in the kingdom, this is one of the foremost ways it appears, and conceals itself.
3. (An interlude)
I haven’t named names throughout any of essay so far because I see these practices of exclusion and violence everywhere—perhaps more visible in certain spaces, but worthy of critique everywhere nonetheless. Even organizations that posit being outside these systems, adopting a posture of punkness or radicality, frequently have majority white, or majority rich, or majority abled boards of directors and participants; even organizations that are doing disruptive work still are not fully accessible to disabled folks (and to go over a brief list of what that means: for wheelchair access to a physical space alone, the ADA recommends a minimum door length of 32,” wheelchair accessible bathrooms, and ramps everywhere; other important accommodations include live streaming and live captioning at events, scent-free space policies, same-floor gender-neutral bathrooms, cleanly typeset PDFs of publications for vision-impaired folks, & much much more). I haven’t named names because I worry if I start I would never stop; so many organizations that claim to be cutting edge, including ones I have participated in, ultimately cater to whiteness and wealth at the end of the day. By my own participation, one can argue I am complicit in these institutions as well.
And finally, remedies to these surface-level bids for diversity, if dispersed uncritically—as the neat ableism of the “blind submission” contest evinces—serve even further to illuminate the biases present through the editors and the power-holders in general. Whenever work is judged just on its “merit” as literary work, pieces that reify existing white supremacist, cisnormative, and ableist norms—that register, conventionally, as “good writing”—are almost invariably selected. Even when divorced from the popularity contests poetry sometimes turns into, the same sorts of poems surface—again, appealing to the gatekeeper’s aforementioned taste. Even when attempting to ignore it, identity is always inseparable from the legibility or integrity of ones’ art.
I want to reiterate that I am also a target of my own critique, am not blameless in these violences. Much of my own work is concerned with both intelligibility and accessibility for disabled and non-traditional poetry readers—thinking about ways to present formally daring work and performance (including concrete poems, hybrid writing, and digital texts) accessibly for a wide range of readers, including visually impaired folks, non-poets, and more. But of course the flip side of writing something that can be accessed to everyone, even as important as it is to me, is that it can turn into a kind of literary gentrification; in my quest to write in ways that send specific meanings to trans folks, to disabled folks, to other queer bodies, but doesn’t exclude anyone from the work either, I risk cheapening and commodifying my own lived experience in ways these power structures reward. Despite my attempts to deny it, I have existed within institutions—not many of them, but institutions nonetheless. If the oppressor can read the words you are writing, to what extent are you playing into their hands?
I hope that it’s possible to engage in a kind of redistribution of the oppressor’s violent culture and violent monies, but I’m not sure. I’m operating with a perhaps misplaced belief in the ability to transfer what Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey call the “undercommons”— the metaphorical escape routes and networks for resource-sharing and disruption lurking throughout academic systems— into poetry as well. This may be an impossible goal; again and again, the money that organizations invest in young writers, regardless of the writers’ intention, becomes reinvested in the organizations themselves, giving editors or board-members power solely because they give others power. Poetry is by and large published in a capitalist system, and poets, to an extent, can become commodities for the work they do. But despite my apprehension, I still try to engage in quiet actions against this larger world. As a poetry co-editor of Apogee Journal, I participate in a journal paying marginalized writers doing critical and experimental work who are not always embraced by larger literary scenes. I book readings and compensate readers for the work, act quietly as first or second readers for manuscripts, and advocate for people behind the scenes. When I give a reading, when I’m asked to select cover art for a project, if I’m getting paid at all, I try to ensure other trans and queer and minoritized artists are getting money as well. I’m talking about realizing that creative work is work, and trying to allocate resources compassionately and accordingly.
All of these things that I do, I hide, by and large; I’m operating under the knowledge that simply publicly selecting people for things gives one power. I know I can’t disrupt capitalism myself, nor fully distance myself from these institutions if I intend to draw resources from them and pass them out to others, use them to publish my critiques. But I want to minimize the power poets draw from exploitation or branding, the ways in which we’re personally rewarded for (let’s say) being visible. I’m fully aware that in advocating taking resources from institutions and relocating them, I’m not proposing a solution for the violences I’ve described. However, in modeling what I do, I hope to suggest a way to begin affecting change, however small.
But again, I hide the work that I do. Through keeping it quiet, I also risk masking my own participation, disguising the blood dripping off my hands too.
And of course, ultimately and finally, the blood is dripping everywhere. Its extent, and the extent of the fear undergirding it. The way in which these systems, fueled by this blood, are terrified of losing power. The fragile cords that tie the whole thing together. That’s the main takeaway I’m hoping comes across here—how utterly, ineffably, bloody and blood-stained it all is.
Things, are, I hope, changing—but continuing to speak up, name violence, and build shelter from these forces that want to destroy us is so important to further affect this change. To that end, I’d like to end with more questions, perhaps for you, as a reader, to ask yourself. What are your political engagements outside of the books you read, and how does your reading affect your politics? When you go to a reading, who do you listen to, and why? When you pledge allegiance to an organization, why do you do so? When you build a space, who do you allow in? And further: when you purchase a book or check it out of the library, what sort of voices are prioritized in your decision-making? In your commitments, how are you affecting change? I want to suggest the interconnectedness of art and politics, the importance of naming and articulating both of them.
These dangerous systems throughout all of the poetry communit(ies) won’t go away if we just name them; however, there are small resistances, dismantlements, and plans for a less violent future happening every day. I’m calling for an eventual divestment, if it’s possible; a world without this violence I’ve described. A way to live within the coming crises. I’m hoping it’s all possible, that this conversation will mutate and keep going and develop further, as it has been as long as I’ve been following it.
But the violences themselves, as of now, continue. The blood, and the fear, are everywhere.