backlash, choosing to be erased, own your story, personal experience, protest, Quaint Magazine, re-center the conversation, Revolution John, Savannah Sipple, self-erasure, silence, un-silencing
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.
Okay, part two is Rilke:
“[One has] to take one’s impartiality to the point where one rejects the interpretive bias even of vague emotional memories, prejudices, and predilections transmitted as part of one’s heritage, taking instead whatever strength, admiration, or desire emerges with these, and applying it nameless and new, to one’s own task. One has to be poor to the tenth generation.”
And: “One has to be able at every moment to place one’s hand on the earth like the first human being.”
Of course, the necessary caveat re: privilege: easy for him to say. But just because it’s easier for him — because his interpretive bias is a privileged bias — does that necessarily mean it’s not true? Too, he’s pushing a particular conception of the role of art / the artist that’s certainly not universal. But since I share it, I’m more willing to accept his argument for impartiality.
But it’s so, so hard. Sometimes I feel like it’s a cop-out, like I’m failing all of womankind by not consciously writing from a feminist perspective, like it’s privileged. But then I think, seriously? Wandering the halls of my emotional funhouse until I get to a mirror that’s not distorted is a privilege? Fuck that. For me, binding myself aesthetically to trauma is like self-inflicted trauma. It perpetuates the cycle of abuse.
I sound like I believe that 100%, don’t I? Ask me again tomorrow 😦
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“One has to be able at every moment to place one’s hand on the earth like the first human being.” That is lovely. And consider that the very fact of your writing at all is a feminist act.
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I want to get to a point where I don’t feel “[bound] aesthetically to trauma.” It DOES feel like self-inflicted trauma. Or, when it doesn’t, like giving too much credit to the one who actually traumatized me. That, I think, is what those who haven’t endured trauma don’t get. Maybe I’m objecting too hard to the fact of their not getting it. Or maybe we could all be more compassionate. I wrote a prose poem about abuse called “No After.” I wrote an essay about abuse called “Not everything is about being abused except it is.” Maybe someday… As always, thanks for reading and commenting with such thought, thoughtfulness, and the best quotes. Rilke! ❤
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Embarrassingly, it took me this long to get the title of your post. 😛
That’s my righteous anger, too — them not getting it. Trying to get rid of *that* interpretive bias is a dismissal of my own experience that I guess I’m just not ready to make. I know it’s necessary, I believe it’s necessary, I can’t *feel* it’s necessity cuz I’m still pissed off but at least now I’m trying to write into that resistance, which I guess is the logical step. So, patience. And faith. And strength from excellent women — thanks, as ever 🙂
“I want to write past and around these people to get to my own experiences, but I don’t exist in a vacuum” — yes. This. I have been struggling with this for so long that I barely remember what it’s like to not feel this way. If I am very present, I can talk myself to the place where (I think) art happens. My current pep talks:
Last spring I heard Jamaal May say “You have to get close to the bone — that’s where everyone is.”
Ahhh, got interrupted by a student — stupid office hours. I’ll be back later.
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