Image Credit: Jebulon
Imagine writing an essay about harassment in the literary community. Imagine writing an essay over several months, adding paragraphs every time a new development occurred. Imagine the emotional stress. Imagine your mental health.
Imagine explaining the very complex and equally exhausting world of poetry publishing to your immediate supervisor at your job for fear of harassment spilling over into real life. Imagine crying over the phone to your mother when you reveal this situation to her. Imagine how silly you must sound talking to your therapist about everything. Imagine your body shaking from anger. Imagine wanting to delete all social media accounts. Imagine never telling anybody. Imagine being so close to telling your truth, only for the opportunity to be pulled out from underneath you.
Have you stopped imagining this now? Can you feel it? If so, then you understand what it’s been like for me.
However, let me rewind to April 2018. I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across The Journal’s tweet about their newest issue. I liked The Journal, had read some of the available poems online. It was on my to-submit list. I have friends who have been published in their pages. However, it was one of their newest contributor names that ceased my mindless scrolling
The Journal is Ohio State University’s literary journal, with a mission statement of promoting “diverse voices . . . and supporting people of all marginalized identities, including race, class, sexuality and gender identity, age, and those with disabilities.” The Journal has published people like Jericho Brown, D.A. Powell, Laura Kasischke, Natalie Shapero, Kaveh Akbar, Chen Chen, and countless others. Indeed, people of all races, identities, sexuality, etc. have been published. In the several Facebook writing groups I am part of, The Journal is always at the top of people’s dream journal list. Their Twitter account has over 7,000 followers and over 2,000 likes on their Facebook page. Clearly, they have a presence and a platform.
That is why when a writer with a documented history of making racist, transphobic, and malicious remarks on social media was published in their Spring issue, I was immediately concerned. I decided to do something I have never done before — send an email to the journal’s managing editor.
For a long time, I did not do anything above and beyond when it came to the literary and poetry community. I just submitted my poems to journals that I liked, journals who had published people I admired. I wanted the best publication credits and to connect with other poets and writers. As I continued to get more and more publications, I became aware of certain problematic journals and people.
Sometimes I saw these outbursts online. But I mostly observed, watching things play out. I was sick at what I saw, but I didn’t say anything or confront anyone. The vitriol wasn’t directed at me. I just wanted to publish my poems and make friends, to stay away from those causing trouble. It wasn’t my business.
When I became co-editor of an online literary journal, I inevitably became part of a group of editors who would message each other about questionable submissions. Has So-and-so sent you this story? This person sent us a packet of poems about raping women; watch out for them. We do this because I have opened an unfortunate number of disturbing, graphic, and violent submissions and wished someone had warned me. For this reason and many others, I ask for content and trigger warnings when people submit work to my magazine.
I trust very few people in the online literary community. You could say that I rely on a whisper network of sorts. I recognize how gated this must sound, and I acknowledge the criticism from those who have told me how whisper networks keep out the less-informed writers and new writers, that writers “in the know” accuse other writers of not knowing better or being complicit when they submit to controversial presses or journals. I get that. I really do.
I guess my answer for that is keep your eyes open. Trust your gut. Googling always helps. Ask around. Unfortunately, I also gained this insight from my own experiences with sketchy presses and editors. However, even I can’t spot all the warning signs or red flags. Just try to be aware and if you mess up, apologize and work harder to prevent making the same mistakes.
I sent an email to The Journal’s managing editor on April 12, 2018 about them publishing this writer. I sent them screenshots of this person’s online behavior on Twitter—tweets that had all been deleted since. I even gave the editor the benefit of the doubt, assuming they had no idea of this writer’s online behavior. I explained that publishing someone who makes horrible comments online is harmful to a journal that wants to provide spaces for marginalized voices. I got a response the next day.
Even though the signature of the managing editor email contained the name Margaret Cipriano, I only ever had contact with editorial staff member Kelsey Hagarman. Kelsey seemed keen on correcting things. She appeared sincere in our correspondence and told me “[their] current staff [had] never experienced something like this before”. Another writer, E. Kristin Anderson, also emailed The Journal editorial team about her concern over this contributor. In a little over a week, they removed the poem from the website and apologized (via email) for the harm it might have inflicted on the writing community. I even wrote a thank you email, thanking Kelsey and the editorial team for doing the right thing.
Sometime in May, The Journal republished the person’s work online. No one from the editorial team told me about this decision, and it wouldn’t be until June that I learned Ohio State University’s legal team had released mine and E. Kristin Anderson’s names, email addresses, and our email correspondences to the writer without redacting our names — this writer eventually named us in a tweet as someone “out to get [them]”. I had no idea about any of this until a friend of mine sent me a screenshot of the writer’s tweet (I had blocked the writer at this point).
I emailed Kelsey on June 13, informing her that I had learned about my name and email(s) being released to this person. I stated that this was why people didn’t speak up about harmful writers in the community. Kelsey apologized and said she had no idea the legal team would be involved. According to Kelsey, they had forwarded our emails to the dean “simply to help prove why [they] were justified in taking [the writer’s] poem down.” She told me she would keep me updated on any news from the legal team. Spoiler alert: she never did.
I had pushed this uncomfortable situation to the back of my mind and was content to let it rot there. Eventually, this person named me and E. Kristin Anderson in a long (now deleted) Twitter thread, comparing their plight to the criticism of a poem that was published in The Nation. Both situations are similar in that despite the backlash, the poems are still available online on their respective journal sites. There were no consequences.
Those two cases are just symptoms of a larger issue, one that has its roots in power dynamics, insular gatekeeping, and lack of accountability — the literary institution as a whole. The institution of Ohio State University and its property The Journal failed me and by extension, they failed the literary community. Rather than being concerned about harassment, they caved in to the demands of someone who will continue to target others and me.
You absolutely have the right to say what you want. You have free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment, but that does not mean you won’t face consequences for words and beliefs that infringe on a person’s existence and being. If you are someone who attacks queer writers of color online because you feel as if you are the victim of a literary oligarchy made up of powerful minorities, you should not be rewarded publication for your racism. There is no space in the literary community for writers who harm others.
Whenever this report is published, though I have not named the writer, this person will probably claim they are a victim of censorship and/or libel. I will probably continue to be harassed online by them and their friends. The harassment might actually get worse (it has already).
I do not name this writer or their accomplices not from fear of retaliation, but because people like them are not special. Writers are not a unique category of creatures; they too exist as bigots, sexists, abusers, horrible and terrifying human beings. Poets, novelists, editors — anyone who can write or own a device with word processing software is capable of this behavior. What’s more important is taking responsibility and working to minimize the damage.
The Journal only made a public statement on Twitter two months after I had initially contacted them. When The Journal initially removed this person’s poem in April, no such statement was made on their social media accounts. No public apology outside of what was emailed to E. Kristin Anderson and me. It wasn’t until after multiple people tweeted at The Journal about their ethical practices and complicity in our harassment that they decided to say something. At least the poetry editors of The Nation issued a quick apology online after the backlash.
On June 15, I received an email from Kelsey Hagarman offering to consider my poetry for publication in a future issue, stating, “we are still in control of what writing we solicit.” Keep in mind that writer’s work is still on their website. E. Kristin Anderson also received the same solicitation offer. She turned it down. I also rejected the offer and explained I did not want to share publication space with this person. I have not gotten a response since. It is worth noting that The Journal does not pay. According to their website, “[e]ach contributor receives a one-year subscription to The Journal and two contributor’s copies. Unfortunately, at this time we are unable to offer monetary payment to our contributors.” The Journal recently had a poetry manuscript contest judged by one of my mentors from graduate school. The entry fee was $28.
I had hoped that would be the end of it. Of course not. Later that summer, I received a DM and then an email from Hannah Yoest, a social media editor at The Weekly Standard. A quick Google search revealed that The Weekly Standard was an American conservative magazine. Yoest wanted a comment from me about what happened at The Journal and the writer in question. I replied to her email with a decline to comment.
The Weekly Standard published this article in August. Not only did this article incorrectly identify me as a moderator of a Facebook writing group and name me as a bully of social justice poetry, but also it depicts E. Kristin Anderson and me as screeching censorship harpies who had been targeting this writer for years. Until April of this year, I had never even taken any action concerning or against this writer. I don’t recommend reading the article in an effort to not give it any views or clicks, but I am sure you could probably find it. It’s obvious the article was trying to ride on the coattails of The Nation poem outrage.
Since May, I had been working with VIDA to publish a report about what happened for their “Reports From The Field” section. RFTF is a space for personal accounts of problematic editors, sexism, racism, discrimination in the publishing field, predatory writers, and more. My experience was a perfect fit. My report did not include mention of The Weekly Standard article or the Twitter bubblings from this harmful writer. After months of back and forth via email, I was so relieved to get a publication date of September 28. I was dangerously optimistic. Maybe all the threatening DMs, the stress-causing heartburns, the lack of sleep, the harassment of others and mine would have somewhat been worth it.
It was not worth it.
At first, my report was postponed due to a scheduling conflict, and I would be told as soon as possible when the new publication date would be. I waited for a little under two weeks before I queried its status. My contact informed me that VIDA ultimately decided not to run this article due to “an unforeseen conflict of interest”. I pressed for clarification but did not get much of an answer aside from “this turn of events was sudden”.
I’m not mad at my contact, but I am deeply disturbed. Disturbed that a “non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency…in the literary landscape” would draw the line here. I’m upset for my friends who’ve been harassed by this writer and others, for their stories that I don’t have the right or ownership to tell. I’m furious that the organization behind the #saferLIT campaign basically told me I didn’t matter.
It was like The Journal all over again. I cried when I got the email.
I’ll be honest. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t emailed The Journal. Part of me wishes I had said nothing and just looked away. But that sort of thinking and inaction is why things don’t change. It’s what enables journals and presses to continue publishing writers who are predatory, abusive, or harmful.
DM after DM saying that I’m pathetic. I report and block the accounts like clockwork. One DM, in particular, concerns me. This person knows the city where I live. This person claims I live in a “rich-ass house”. The DM says I’m “co-opting the truth of WOC and queer ppl [sic]”. The conversation ends with “keep playing. i’ll [sic] win.”
A poet I admire recently told me I would upset some people when this story came out. Well, I’m pretty f*cking upset and if reading this hurts your feelings, good.
I know most people don’t want to get involved in anything that could cause direct harm to their writing or personal life. I didn’t either for a long time. But let me make this clear to anyone reading this: it is always your problem. You and I are in this together. Distancing yourself, despite good intentions, is a privilege that hurts others.
I will say it again: this is your problem.
Is the prestige or monetary reward from a literary journal or press worth it if their masthead is complicit in harassment? Does your influence matter if you choose to ignore what’s going on in your own community?
I can’t answer those questions for you, but I can answer for myself.
Hannah Cohen lives in Virginia. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). She’s the co-editor of the online journal Cotton Xenomorph. Recent and forthcoming publications include Cosmonauts Avenue, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Drunk Monkeys, Entropy, Longleaf Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, SWWIM, and elsewhere.