I co-wrote an essay with a former MFA colleague about the experience of pulling my work from a publication in protest, and I want to talk, here in my safe space, about some of the struggles of writing about experiences that include other people, without writing ABOUT those people.
Savannah Sipple is a former editor of the lit site Revolution John. I’m a former columnist for the same site. Read our collaborative essay on what went down there, but here’s the short haps: RJ runs poem mocking known survivors of DV and rape >> poet and RJ editor scream freedom of expression >> known survivors and their supporters protest loudly >> RJ editor and poet get defensive to the point of harassing with nasty tweets that RJ editor will later say weren’t from him (rogue tweeter jumped out from behind bushes and usurped the RJ account. No really, that’s the claim) >> protesters get louder >> RJ editor deletes entire RJ site, therein erasing and silencing ALL his writers, then insists upon “standing by his writers” by republishing only the offending poem (first) and work of those who didn’t protest or ask that their work be removed (as I did) >> lots of people write think pieces >> the end.
It’s never the end, though. This kind of shit will just keep happening.
Savannah and I wanted to write about the experience of being erased or silenced. The work she selected as an editor was erased. The work I selected as a columnist was erased (by choice, but it would’ve been erased two days later, anyway). Besides this seeming to be a unique situation–when is the last time an editor was criticized and responded by having a public meltdown and then deleting an entire publication, only to resurrect it a few days later?–we felt we had interesting perspectives.
We wanted to re-center the conversation on the erased and silenced, not blast the editor or the poet because 1) the important facets of this situation aren’t about them at all, and 2) they already tried very hard to make it about them when they accused their dissenters of being stupid and their protesters of being harassers and censors. They tried to make it about themselves when they suggested, each on their own blogs, that the backlash they suffered was worse than their own serious missteps.
A serious backlash is necessary for serious missteps. A serious backlash means you misstepped in it big-time.
A serious backlash is difficult to explain without continuing to comment on the initial offense, and the initial offenders. For example. The RJ editor insists on the story of the rogue tweeter in the bushes, but if you’ll see my first bullet point in the essay, I know it’s BS. I could write a whole diatribe about just that–if I want to make all my points center around the editor. I don’t. I gain nothing by making him look worse. I care more about those hurt by this situation.
And speaking of those hurt by this situation. The offending poem is dedicated to someone named Sarah, and a lot of the details in the poem sound a lot like details of trauma suffered by a known writer whose first name is Sarah. The poet and this Sarah have engaged in heated debate on social media. I’ve witnessed it. The masses who object to this poem generally agree that certainly the poet was targeting her. Mocking her. Using her own speaking-out bravery against her. I could’ve written an entire essay about that, too. I wanted to defend my friend, but I knew it would invite argument that would derail the conversation Savannah and I were trying to have. I knew I would be accused of reading too much into it, that it would be too easy for the poet to stand on the ground that he didn’t use a last name, so I can’t prove he was targeting my friend Sarah. And worst of all, I knew it would put Sarah’s story back under a microscope, and that’s not my place.
I can’t help but liken this entire situation to trying to write about abuse without naming my abuser, or centering the story on him and what he did. I want to write past and around these people to get to my own experiences, but I don’t exist in a vacuum. Silence is a black hole into which I refuse to be pulled, so I write to un-silence. And I can’t write about my experiences as if there are no other players in the story.
I won’t shut up about those experiences just because sharing them makes some men look bad. That isn’t vengeance or vindictiveness; it’s, ahem, freedom of expression.