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HOW ANDERS CARLSON-WEE PROVED THE IDENTITY POETS WRONG

HOW ANDERS CARLSON-WEE PROVED THE IDENTITY POETS WRONG

This week a poem was published in the “pages” of the esteemed political magazine The Nation. Written by a highly regarded poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, his poem, a 14 line modern sonnet titled “How-To,” was quickly targeted by the niche group of people on Twitter and Facebook I have come to call the Identity Poets. The accusations came swift and hard against Anders Carlson-Wee and the editors of The Nation, with people demanding apologies and for the poem to be taken down. One poet even wrote a response poem to the piece, posted it on Twitter, and had other poets telling The Nation they should remove Carlson-Wee’s poem and put the response poem up instead, because it blatantly ridiculed white people. The Nation did not take the poem down. What happened instead was Anders Carlson-Wee issued an apology for the poem on his social media accounts, and The Nation issued an apology and posted their apology as an Editor’s Note above the poem in question, neither of which seemed satisfactory to the communities of the outraged.

I’ll freely admit, when I first read “How-To” I was unimpressed with it. It seemed a simple take on a subject I myself have happened to write many poems about, being a poem about homelessness. However, I knew from the opening line that people were going to be outraged over it, given what I have personally endured from my own work, and knowing the climate of the artistic community and the sensitivity toward “cultural appropriation” and other such topics the Identity Poets obsess over in order to draw attention to themselves. As soon as I read that opening line, “If you got hiv, say aids,” I said to myself, whelp, that is going to piss people off. If only I could earn a dollar for every time I correctly predicted outrage on the internet, I could potentially have a fistful of dollars!

In spite of myself, the more threads and discussions I saw about this poem on Twitter and Facebook, the more I began to analyze it, and try to find either the truth behind the accusations being leveled at the poet for writing it, or the truth of the merit of the actual poem. The more closely I read the poem, the more the layers peeled off, and the more meaning I discovered hidden in the misleading simplicity of the work. I was drawn into a debate with another poet on a thread hosted by another writer friend of mine, Robert Peate, in which this poet felt inclined to demand us to try and defend the merits of the poem based solely on the content of the poem. In doing so, I had several epiphanies about this poem, about how it succinctly and very cleverly reveals the faux intellectualism of the identity movement by showcasing their brazen nature to jump to conclusions about the artistic intent of white poets and how these conclusions are based on their own hidden biases and their own actual predispositions to fall prey to the same stereotypes they accuse other people of using. In doing this, in proving the fraud that lies behind the motivations of the identity poets when attacking other writers for perceived slights, micro-aggressions, and other offenses, their true natures are thusly revealed, in that all their outrage, all their virtue-signaling, all their attempts at silencing writers for producing work they perceive to be offensive, is in fact rooted in their own biases, their own versions of racism, and their own desires to see their work succeed, their communities succeed, to shift the attention always from the work at hand to themselves. It is simply put, phony posturing, a fallacy upheld by selfishness. And this poem, this utterly brilliant 14 line poem, proves it once and for all.

There are several things about the poem that work on a basic fundamental level. From the outset, the poem plays with the perception of the reader and immediately has the audience questioning exactly what the heck is being said and why. The opening line is a shock to the system. It is outlandish, and yes, offensive, but offensive with a purpose, as the best versions of shock-value ought to be. This is not shock for the sake of shock. This is shock meant to jar the reader and create a different mentality, to make the reader search deeper, to look inward and ask why. Who is speaking? Why are they speaking this way? What is the purpose? The narrator of the poem never reveals that information. The narrator could be masculine or feminine. The narrator could be black or white or any other variable of physical identities. This narrator reveals only that they are homeless, and through the lines of the poem, offers twists upon perception that play into making them more visible to others, and might earn them some version of charity. This is a shapeless entity in the context of the poem because in the world homeless people are generally the most ignored and invisible group no matter what country you reside in, what city you live in, what sidewalks you walk down on a day-to-day basis. Just yesterday, to illustrate this very fact, I saw a post someone shared in my Facebook timeline that showed people eating at a nice restaurant on the outside patio, enjoying their fancy cuisine and sipping wine from goblets, while two homeless men slept on the sidewalk not twenty feet away from them. This is a daily reality. On an even more personal level, when my wife, her parents, and I went out to eat last week in Portland at an upscale seafood place, a homeless man wandered the sidewalk and up and down the road in front of where we sat waiting for our table, shouting obscenities at an invisible person and trying to fistfight him, swinging his fists at nothing as he screamed incoherently, this shirtless man, so thin all the veins in his abdomen bulged bright blue and his ribs protruded grossly with every gasping breath, and NO ONE SAID A WORD TO HIM. One woman walked over from another restaurant at one point to make sure no one was calling the cops on this obviously mentally ill gentleman, but no one offered to help him or to console him or to look after his needs in any way. On his wrist was a hospital bracelet from where he had recently been discharged. Again, reality. Homelessness is a problem the world ignores. Carlson-Wee’s poem highlights this fact extremely well. The narrator even takes a very pointed stab at Christianity, the religion that prides itself on its supposed humanitarianism, when they say “Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is.” These lines point out the hypocrisy of the Christian religion that claims to love everyone, but notes that Christians only use charity to make themselves feel better, rather than to actually make a difference and a lasting change. A very apt, and a very cutting critique of religion, which pays no taxes in America, but generally doesn’t use their power to solve any problems, just let them exist so they can mete out tiny measures of subsistence to make them feel like they’re helping. The very last line of the poem “You hardly even there.” illustrates the invisibility and the bitter truth the world just continues to turn a blind eye toward. This is a solvable problem if only anyone really cared.

So with this very, unarguably and objectively positive message behind the poem, succinctly and pointedly achieved in the 14 lines of a modern sonnet, the most beloved of poetic forms, one must wonder why all the outrage over it? Aside from the shocking lines in the poem about conflating HIV with AIDS, and the word “crippled,” which earned accusations of ableism and insensitivity to the LGBTQ community (another grossly biased assumption there), the poet was accused of donning literary blackface for the language choices in his vernacular usage, accused by many of co-opting AAVE (commonly known as Ebonics) for the voice of the poem. In this accusation, the accusers are truly showing their own inability to fall prey to cultural stereotyping, as it is only in the mind of the accuser that the speaker of this poem is a person of color. There is nothing whatsoever in the poem to lend credibility to the accusation. The speaker of the poem never reveals their identity, as previously stated, the speaker of the poem can be anyone. The language of the poem is a simplified dialect, perhaps someone hardened by life on the street, someone perhaps less educated than most, or just a person used to speaking in shorthand. Nothing about the language is intrinsically connected to AAVE. So, again, the poet has played with the perception of the reader to reveal the inherent biases of the audience! If you leap to the conclusion that the speaker of this poem is a person of color, what does that say about how you perceive people of color? YOU, the reader, have just unknowingly admitted that YOU BELIEVE THIS IS HOW BLACK PEOPLE TALK. This is a stereotype you allow to exist in your own mind. By accusing the author of using a stereotype that they did not use, you are admitting you hold this stereotype in your own psyche, and it is something you must contend with on your own.

This is ultimately why I believe this poem is perhaps one of the most important poems to have been written in the last ten years. It reveals so much about humanity, says so much about human perception, and ultimately pulls the curtain back on identity politics. In causing so many people to leap to such vile conclusions about the nature of the work and the intent of the work, to cause them to lash out at the author, to cause them to demand the work be removed and the author and the editors to make apologies for things they did not do, the outraged audience in this case is shown to lack an ability to think critically about art, to look past their own biases and knee-jerk reactions, and their accusations reveal more about their character than that of the character of the person they are attacking. This is the ultimate example of art being used as a mirror. The accusations came against this poem because the writer happens to be a white male. The current trend in these circles of outrage is to attack, silence, and delegitimize the works of white male authors who dare to write things outside their own identities. But, Carlson-Wee, in his ability to shine his poetic mirror back at the audience, has proven very effectively, that these accusations are coming from a place of inauthenticity. In this case, the accusers are showing their own inherent racial bias, in fact their own guilt of holding racist presuppositions, because in accusing this author of racism, they are the ones being racist. Their racism comes in two forms, first making the assumption that the speaker of the poem must be black, and second, that Carlson-Wee is wrong for writing it because he is white. How beautiful is this twist of irony?

I firmly believe that this was all intended to happen. That the author and the editors knew this outrage scenario would play out just as it has and they would issue apologies knowing those apologies would not be acceptable to the mob. The final act of this should be when Carlson-Wee issues an artist statement explaining everything as I have outlined in this essay, and drives the final nail in the coffin of this phony identity movement in modern poetry. This has gone on long enough. No one has the authority to police others as to what content their art can contain. No one has the authority to demand art be removed from the public because it happens to encroach upon their own sensitivities. No one has the authority to demand apologies from other artists, and artists should never have to apologize for their work. Art is in itself one of the purest manifestations of freedom. And art criticism should have never started meaning artists have to accept censorship by mob rule. The way this has played out shows just how vapid and meaningless the concept of critique has become. There was no real attempt at critique of this poem! It was simply shouted down from the pulpits of self-righteousness by people hoping to earn pats on the back from their conformist peers. This has to be why The Nation, although issuing their seemingly spineless apology as an editor note, did not actually take down the poem in question. They know this is all a performance piece still in action. When it is all said and done, many people will have to eat a large plate of crow and be forced to admit some hard truths about themselves. And for that I say thank you, thank you Anders Carlson-Wee, for writing a brave poem, for being a true poet, and for shining a hard light into the darkness that has become the identity movement in modern poetics. It had to be done by someone, and it is better now than never.

Some thoughts on Identity

The Rise of Identity and the Downfall of Free Thought

There is a culture war being fought right now in America and across the globe that remains mostly hidden because it is happening primarily online, but it has found a pervasive presence in politics and in the poetry community. I am speaking about the war of identity.

In my mind, the identity war built itself on the roots of social media and how this form of online networking worked its way into a staple of average everyday life. Social media has become such a presence in popular culture at this point it seems impossible to imagine life without it. What began as a novel way to connect with people all over the world who shared common interests and to keep in touch with friends and family who live miles to states to countries away, became a way to build networks of entrepreneurship, became a way to broadcast daily lives and build what we perceive as individual audiences we try to hold enraptured by our own personal brand. The larger the number of “friends, followers, subscribers” the larger the perceived audience, and I believe this is what has driven people to feel like their purpose in life is to share opinions on every subject imaginable, no matter the level of education on any given subject, and to develop the perception that every opinion about such subjects holds some kind of relevance to larger society. This has in the end only served to create divides among people and to create bubbles of self-confirmation, and has driven people to seek out new ways to differentiate themselves from the crowd. In effect, I believe our brains are being rewired in a such a way that the dopamine addiction one develops using social media becomes intrinsically connected to attention-seeking behavior.

When a person is seeking ways to get the most attention possible for themselves, of course they will seek to replicate whatever method they have seen work for someone else. It’s a basic concept that happens over and over again in every field imaginable, because the end goal of the individual is achieved perception of personal success and of course monetary gain in a capitalist society. This is why in entertainment industries, if one thing becomes insanely popular, all competitors will try to mimic the concept that achieved the popularity and the original creator will try to duplicate the previous success as well, until the market becomes over-saturated and eventually the public loses interest or a backlash happens. Companies and people see something that works, and they flood the market with what works until it doesn’t work any more. Basic supply and demand stuff. To take this a step further, once the market becomes over-saturated and creators are forced to pull back or find something else that works, if they successfully integrated a large enough supply into the public for a product, eventually what will happen is they can bring that back again several years later for a resurgence of interest due to nostalgia. It becomes a cycle that they can manipulate for a stream of perpetual revenue. This is why film companies build movie franchises, and why music companies build catalogues of similar sounding musicians, and why art goes through community movements, and publishing companies produce swaths of books in the same genres, etc. It’s no coincidence that so many bands came out in recent years trying to sound like Nirvana and then later Nickelback, that so many rap artists have their sounds distilled from the successes of Dre and Tupac, that movie studios today have their entire infrastructure bases around Star Wars and Marvel films. The companies are pushing what works until they reach the backlash stage.

How does this relate to identity? Well, in the age of social media, the individual comes to view themselves as the product that is for sale. And in many ways, that is what the CEOs of companies like Facebook and Twitter are counting on, because to them, yes, you are for sale. You are what generates their income. Some might even say, the users of social media act as free labor for these companies, and have been successfully duped into being voluntary slaves. Everyone willingly participates, or maybe at this point not even willingly, because society is so entangled with social media to try and extricate ones self from this web of voluntary publicity is to become an outcast, a perceived luddite, someone who is “not connected.” The public has sacrificed any illusion of personal privacy for their shot at becoming the next viral hit that gets millions of clicks and earns them a brief or maybe somewhat sustainable moment of celebrity status, depending on how inventive the person at the helm of the viral success can be. How this relates to identity involves an extremely complex narrative build-up of events over time that cannot be seemingly dialed down to one root-cause. It comes from a casual evolution of thought, through repetitive positive reinforcement of what generates the most response from a stimulus. Throughout the brief but total dependency social media has manufactured for itself in its short history, humans are being taught, and teaching themselves that their singular identity matters more than the collective identity of humanity. This manipulation of thought was deceptively easy to conjure in humans, because humans apparently have primitive and innate narcissistic cores in their thought processes. The more positive attention one gets from a stimulus, the more they desire to seek out that stimulus, resulting in a feedback loop, resulting in an addiction to chemicals produced in the brain from that feedback loop, an addiction that becomes harder and harder to break free from. More and more time gets devoted to seeking out the positive reinforcement, and the brain gets hardwired to need that reinforcement, otherwise, like any addiction, it creates an incessant and overpowering urge to come back to it. It’s like any drug really that causes chemical dependency in that sense. What happens next is the brain ceases to be able to function in a normal capacity without the chemical it constantly needs. Critical thought becomes more difficult to manage. Concentration starts to suffer and attention span gets shorter and shorter. In effect, the brain is damaged, unable to do its job at its previous levels of quality, because the neurons have all been recoded and redirected for a streamlined path of pleasurable interactions. We become, basically, hamsters in wheels being fed dope directly to our brains every time we press a button. And we are happy in this version of hell.

Again I went on a tangent, but bringing it back to identity, somewhere along the line, in the public fervor to find more inventive ways to create more unique personal brands in which to create the most attention possible for the self, there has developed a trend to define the self in more constantly varying levels of degree from the previous standards, and then to make everything about the self defined in that perceived value of uniqueness. In order to differentiate one’s self from the massive and mostly homogenous population, the self seeks to find an identity from which it can feel more powerful, more singular in existence, more of a diamond in the rough, from which more attention will become focused from the crowd onto the shiny object refracting light in the dark sea of sameness. Much like companies and organizations mimic and attempt to duplicate the successes of other products, in social media where the person sees themselves as the product, the person tries to mimic the successes of what has worked for others. So, it’s easy to deduce that persons have learned through experience that altering aspects of the individual identity create more attention for that identity, be it through sympathy, or through creating perception of difference, or through genuine achievement, which is the hardest of all to actually duplicate, and thus people will naturally congregate around the easiest tactics to replicate success, while also trying to gain a genuine achievement for themselves at the same time.

What becomes divisive in this quest to build up the personal identity, is that in order to sustain and drive the success of this identity, you have to do two things: you have to create the perception that everything about the self revolves around this created identity, and second, you have to push back against things or ideas that work against this perception, which requires pushing back against everything that is not this version of identity, because identities unlike the identity you create for yourself must be enemies of that identity. This is a reinforcement of primitive tribalism. The groups trying to replicate success of other identities form tribes against the previously held notions of standard identities. This goes on until the new versions become accepted as standards, forcing deviations from the standard to foster a furthered need for separation of the self from the growing crowd of people taking on the versions created before. Take the way fashion trends work. A person finds a way to change their outward appearance, perhaps they decide to wear a shirt with one sleeve when most people are wearing shirts with two sleeves. There’s the initial response of wow, that is different, but some people see it and find the value in it, and so they start wearing shirts with one sleeve. Then, before you know it, most people are wearing shirts with one sleeve, and so the person who started the trend doesn’t stand out any more, and then they find another way to do that, or they disappear into obscurity. The difference on social media and the internet is everything is based on perception of reality rather than physical reality, and so a person can create whatever identity they wish, meaning the limits of what can be changed about the self lie strictly in the realms of imagination. Everything online is simply a sharing of information, and we have seen that information can readily be altered and manipulated to the needs of whoever does the sharing. Boiled down to basics, the internet is an illusion, a shared mass delusion when the information being shared is completely dependent upon perception, and if misinformation is shared widely enough and accepted enough, it can become a perception of the truth, in such a way that the internet has become the ultimate medium of propaganda and allowed for the greatest deception of the public in human history.

These battles of identity have manifested themselves in varying forms, most prominently in politics, with larger and larger degrees of the public aligning themselves in either liberal or conservative camps, and a very complicated fracturing of these camps into more and more fanatical subsets, each fighting over the most preferable version of the truth to their own perception of their identity. This becomes more and more volatile and divisive when factoring in elements of self-affirmation about deeply held concepts of religious belief, race and gender, proliferation of misinformation, and a disconnect from perception with reality, allowing things to happen in the actual world that under normal circumstance would never get off the ground. It is this disconnect with reality that has brought us the Trump presidency and gravely endangered democracy in America because of how far the public is willing to go to push back against perceived threats to their identities. A combination of cognitive dissonance and allowance of confirmation bias through living reality in an information bubble has caused mass-delusion in avoidance of factual information for the couch-comforts of being told what one wants to hear that reinforces preconceived notions and protects the self. In the age of social media, the self has risen to purest manifestation of ego, and proven that humanity loses appreciation for the bigger picture the more the self is nurtured and convinced of its own assured success.

This battle has also reached its fever pitch in the land of independent publishing, and the poetry scene, which is just a symptom of the entire cultural obsession social media has helped produce in mainstream society. The cultivated importance of identity has generated such a tipped scale of relevance to the identity of the writer rather than the content produced, that if one wishes to achieve any sort of wider audience, they have to conform to this notion or be ignored. The groups of identity-centered writers ruthlessly self-promote and self-congratulate those who appeal to this self-aggrandized cult of individuality that is merely conformist thought-policing in disguise. In order to be a member of the club now, you have to identify in some fashion as marginal or have been victimized by the status quo, which is to say, not be a cishet white male. Any casual glance through the popular ranks of current poetry writers and the glut of online independent magazines and journals and prizes reveals that this trend has taken a firm hold on this artistic community. It’s such a widespread phenomenon it is almost impossible to break it down and understand the how and why it has worked itself into the fabric of the arts. From what I have observed personally, the trend established itself through simply an incessant wave of outrage and outright attacks on anyone daring to try and ignore the identity movement. Writers have been attacked and shamed, editors have been attacked and shamed, accused of things ranging from being as tepid as socially awkward, sexually inappropriate (by as little as commenting on a person’s appearance to more serious accusations), cultural appropriation, racism, etc, and these accusations result in instant assumptions of guilt and excommunication, to the point that any writer found to have violated the unwritten rules of the identity movement has had their works scrubbed from online publication and their names routinely blacklisted from future publishing. This is because of one of the main precepts of the identity movement, which is to protect itself at all cost. To protect the notion of identity, any challenges to identity have to be destroyed. In the land of social media, this destruction is applied unapologetically through the means of public shaming, and results in an environment of conformity to ideals out of fear of being the next target, because there is no court of appeals on public opinion or groupthink.

In large, this movement has only taken hold over the past decade. And it will ultimately be unsustainable, due to the transient nature of internet culture and the fickle human attention span coupled with the exhausting struggle of keeping up a facade. An illusion that requires pretense to maintain cannot be maintained on a permanent scale without succumbing to its own inherent weaknesses and fallacies. Application of the ideals of the identity movement will prove themselves irrational in their own biases and self-serving interests in who they choose to praise or ignore, who they choose to shame or applaud, who they choose to critique or award, even when faced with similar scenarios of circumstance. The only thing a rational person can do is choose to wait, to let this movement burn itself out, even as it tries to burn everything else down around it. These outrages flare like candle flames and flicker out, forgotten and easily replaced by the next candle being lit, something political strategists now use so well to serve their interests they practically play the public like a well-tuned piano. In the grand scheme of human history this will be but a small footnote, a brief blip of conflict during which humanity tried erroneously yet again to redefine itself and failed to be capable of elevating beyond its physical form, bound wholly by the gravity of the real world, where these things invented on the internet are merely just a grand illusion of self-nurturing falsehoods. The internet had such potential to bring the world together under a common umbrella of the shared wealth of knowledge, but perhaps we were better off without it. Perhaps this hell by means of good intentions revealed the tragic flaw of the human condition, that we are individually ourselves but candle flames hoping to burn the brightest in a world made from straw.

The Whisper Network

The Unreliability of the Whisper Network

Having been a victim of the Twitter Shame Mob and knowing what it is like to be chased across the virtual landscape of the internet by an outraged group of crazies hefting their pitchforks and torches, I wanted to touch on what I believe to be the main and inherent flaw of this form of internet activism, and that is how it’s based on a grievous and perilous perversion of the truth. The people involved in these gang-shaming activities do not rely on factual information. Instead they rely on what they refer to as their “whisper network.” This is information that is shared between individuals on a secretive basis, and then networked out between them through private dialogues that no one else gets access to. They say they do this to protect the original sources of the information, but what ends up happening is the accusations become more and more exaggerated, and the original subtext or context gets lost in transition, until all that remains is outlandish and scandalous accusations that spread like wildfire through the Twittersphere and elsewhere.

Anyone who has ever played the game Telephone as a child knows exactly what I am talking about. You don’t even have to have played the game to know the basic concept of it, and how it works. Someone whispers something in another person’s ear and tells them to pass it on. It could be something as simple as, “Billy thinks Susie is cute.” But by the time it has been passed on by twenty to forty people, the message that is spread by the fortieth person is completely different, having morphed into something that could be as outlandish as, “Billy put his tongue in Susie’s butt.” As a game played by children this is funny, but when rumors and gossip or serious conversations are spread this way by adults, the results are quite unnerving. And this is why the Whisper Network fails and should not be trusted.

I have personally witnessed the horrific effect this type of information sharing has had on others and have witnessed its effects on a personal level. Having differences of opinion on hot-button discussions quickly had me labeled “asshole,” and then “troll,” and then “misogynist, sexist, racist,” and then “serial harasser.” All of course bullshit, but on the internet people use these labels in an effort to delegitimize their perceived opponents and to silence them. The heavy-handedness and weight these labels carry make them nearly impossible to combat, because they are loaded with such vitriol and disgust, a person finds themselves immediately trying to disprove the label placed on them, rather than being able to stay on the original topic. As such, throwing one of these labels at someone is the ultimate distraction from a contested topic, especially if it is a topic of debate that is un-winnable.

This was most recently apparent in glaring fashion with another internet outrage fallout that took place over an acquaintance of mine, Rachel Custer, having the Twitter Shame Mob go after her and get her work removed from two separate journals. When I defended her, this time, the editor of one of these journals went so far as to call me “Everyone’s favorite rapist.” This was clearly a distraction tactic, and it worked to a degree, because I was so incensed over being called a rapist, that I focused on trying to get that accusation taken down from facebook/twitter for several days after it happened. And despite this outlandish term being hoisted upon my name, not one of the proponents of the Twitter Mob and protectors of the “Literary Safe Spaces” stepped in to condemn the editor for their obvious misstep by slandering me with such a falsehood, despite none of these people ever setting foot in the same room with me, having no knowledge of me whatsoever other than a petty literary feud and some occasional mudslinging. The excuse I got from one Mob Member on this was, “Well, I don’t know you aren’t one.” This is another extension of how the Whisper Network version of Telephone works to distort perception. Since the editor making the statement, Topaz Winters, was an 18 year old POC, I was supposed to just not say anything about it, and to demand an apology and a retraction from her was somehow supposed to be bullying, despite the extreme nature of the slanderous term she attached to my name.

This is all a game to these people. And why not? No one gives a fuck about poetry except poets.

What had I done this time to deserve their vitriol? I had defended another writer. Rachel Custer is another writer who has been wrongly vilified by the Twitter Mob, in much the same fashion as I have. It’s the same group of people who repeatedly go after writers such as her every time their work gets published somewhere. It’s like a group of mad ravens that start dancing and cawing every time a worm pops its way out of the ground for a peek at the sunlight, and they all start fighting over which bird is going to gobble up the worm until it decides to go back into hiding and leave them back at their starvation unto cannibalism ritual. As far as I can tell, Rachel has done nothing to any of these people that deserves such hatred. Much like me, her encounters with this group of indie publishing Nazi hacks have all occurred online, in much the same fashion. She friended fellow writers on facebook. She had arguments with writers over issues like politics, police brutality, immigration, the presidential election, etc. Her beliefs are different from a lot of poets in that she is an evangelical Christian and a conservative. So naturally, her ideas about some topics like, abortion, healthcare, feminism, they are going to be leaning in a slightly to more moderately different direction, and this caused conflict. Her ideas about police brutality for instance, which was a hot button issue after the Ferguson riots and other similar situations at the time, had her defending the police force while everyone else was saying “fuck the police.” I remember clearly that many folks were calling her a racist for her views. And it got so old to her she started sarcastically replying, “So what,” or “I’m not even arguing with you about this, you want me to be a racist, fine, I’m racist.” This was clearly her way of trying to point out that calling someone a racist over a difference of opinion about a complicated topic was a copout, a way of getting frustrated and ending the argument, taking the ball and running away from the game instead of trying to finish it. It’s simply self-defeating and polarizing rather than working toward any kind of common ground.

The other BIG problem people have with Rachel Custer is that she supports Donald Trump. I can’t defend that stance because I don’t understand it at all, but politics is a complicated arena and people have many different reasons for supporting the candidate they choose to support. Not everyone is a single issue voter, though many people are. Personally, I don’t see how anyone can still support Trump given everything that has happened since he took office, but there is a lot of misinformation spread, and many people buy into it rather than try and own up to the truth. At any rate, Rachel wrote a poem that got published in Rattle that supported Trump, and basically the internet mob lost their fucking shit over it. It was like the culmination of three big taboos in one atomic bomb explosion of an event. You had Rattle, already hated. Rachel, already hated. Trump, very hated. A perfect storm of social outrage. An unprecedented VIOLATION of the literary safe space! It was unconscionable. It was an OUTRAGE. The Twitter Mob has never forgiven it.

There was also the big blow up around this time of Rachel getting kicked out of the secret Facebook group, the Binders of Women and Nonbinary Poets. See how complicated all this is? It’s like layer upon layer of high school cafeteria cliques, a metaphysical onion of seedy gossip and nepotism and self-righteous corruption. It just goes and goes and goes.

I don’t want to go to much into the Binders of Women and Nonbinary Poets, but it is the source of the Literary Gestapo’s power. It’s a facebook group of something like 20,000 women where they have networked and share opportunities and spread these stories of gossip and outrage so that it only takes a few hours for one of these posts about an event that they disagree with to go viral and have a veritable mob of angry keyboard warriors rioting to take down the poet who dared infringe upon anyone’s perception of safety. The admins of this group are E. Kristin Anderson and Kenzie Allen, and they have strict policies in place about keeping their work and their discussions in this group secret. No screen shots. No taking anything said in the comments of the posts or the posts themselves public. The only time any of this abuse of power was ever tried to be taken public was when the editor of Thank You For Swallowing, Cat Conway, started an anonymous Twitter page called @problematicpubs. On this page she had a list of everyone she considered to be problematic for whatever reason. I was on the list. As was Rachel. As was several other people and magazines like Rattle and B O D Y. Also on the list were actual people accused of actual sexual assault. There seemed to be no real metrics by which one was considered to be problematic. The violations ranged from being accused of being an actual rapist, to simply being an argumentative troll in facebook threads. The list had no real legitimacy, but people in the Binders believed it and added all the people to their personal “do not publish” lists for their magazines that they ran, and they told other people not to publish the perpetrators on the list. Eventually there was conflict over this Twitter feed, because obviously it promoted censorship, and it attacked people who had not really done anything wrong. The page was eventually taken down, but now you have Cat Conway once again posting threads of lists of “problematic” people and publications on Twitter, and you have things like Vida forcing publications to take their “Safer Lit Pledge” much like they force their vision of diversity through the publications of their pie charts every year.

And now, all this feels like it is reaching a point of peak hysteria. Luckily, amid all this insanity, one of the journals who removed Rachel’s work apologized to her and had it reinstated to their online archive. That journal was from OSU, and being a publicly funded university, it actually has to abide by federal discrimination law, so it could not just remove someone’s work due to their political beliefs, unlike the other journal being run by an 18 year old child. So, where does this all end exactly? I feel like we must be coming to a fork in the road where important decisions about the future of the literary landscape will need to be made. Either writers and poets will need to take a stand for TRUE FREEDOM of expression, or they will decide to do nothing and succumb to the will of a few very outspoken bullies, preaching from their pulpits of conformity. If we do nothing, I wonder just how far we can slide down this slippery slope of fascist thought-policing in art. The political landscape has certainly shown us how easy it is to let things slide past points of no return. Much like our politics, if we keep allowing the bullies to decide the rules of the game, it won’t be long until the game is rigged for just the bullies to keep winning time after time, and freedom of expression in the arts starts disappearing from even our memories, as surely the canon and any offensive work made by any problematic human will be stricken from the history books and the collective human consciousness, leaving us with only what is approved for consumption, what is safe, what is sterile, what is trigger-free, where nothing hurts and everyone is happy, or at least convinced they are in their emotionless world. Ask yourself if that’s the future you want to live to see.

Some Notes on Literary Outrage

Offensive poems, annotated

I was on the radar of the Twitter mob before I ever published a poem they considered offensive. The chief members of the mob, the ones who exert their control over independent publishing through rigid conformity standards and an idealist notion that “safe spaces” must exist in which ideas that infringe upon their perceptions of safety are to be removed from the public sphere, were connected with me on Facebook. I, like most writers trying to build a network of publishing connections, or at any rate most writers who think networking on social media is a necessary evil of the modern age, had befriended all the editors and writers on social media that I could locate, and had connections with almost 3,000 people at one point.

I was placed on the radar because I dared to disagree with some of them on issues they posted about that showed up in my feed, or about issues they attacked other writers on. A few of the key disagreements that I remember are:

  1. I thought the work of Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith was thought provoking and brave, they thought it was racist and rallied to get their work and their careers destroyed.
  2. I disagreed with the growing popularity of Trigger Warnings and their applications in academia.
  3. I believe out of sheer principle that the work of the VIDA count is flawed because it presupposes an arbitrary standard that all publications should be equally split among the genders, that despite an unknown base of submissions somehow the quality pool should still equal at least 50% of what’s published going to women authors. This is based on assumptions that patriarchal standards still control the publishing industry, when in fact those standards have been handily reversed and (in the field of poetry anyway) women control the majority of publishing opportunities out there.
  4. There was a poem published in Jawline Review by J. Bradley that was found offensive because it was seen by this group as promoting violence against women. They rallied to boycott the magazine and get the work taken down. Jawline Review refused to take it down. I disagreed with this and was very vocal about my disagreement, which got me called a misogynist and a woman hater. The magazine has since folded, due I am certain in large part to their boycott.
  5. The magazine B O D Y published a poem by Bobby Parker that caused an outrage titled “Thank you for swallowing my cum.” Once again I found myself defending the poet and the magazine and their freedom to publish the piece while this small vocal group caused a shit storm on Twitter and Facebook and tried to get the poet blacklisted from publishing anywhere again and tried to get the magazine shut down, because to them the poem in question signified objectification of women to the male gaze, while in reality it was a poem about someone who had never experienced true intimacy with a woman and didn’t know how to react to it.
  6. There were prominent cases of accusations of sexual abuse against celebrities and so forth well before the #MeToo movement was ever conceived, and I had a few discussions about them with some of these people. The overarching rule of the day was that these folks stated again and again “believe women” no matter what. I just find this mentality to be a bit naive. No one deserves to be judged as guilty of something without any more proof than a verbal accusation. Once you start accepting verbal accusation and guilt by trial of public opinion, the power inherent in the justice system and due process becomes irreversibly undermined. In fact there were prominent cases of rape accusation that had to be rescinded once held under scrutiny around the time of the conversations that I used to back up my opinion. One was against Conor Oberst. And another was the huge deal with the college student who carried around a mattress on campus in which Rolling Stone had to publish a public apology. My opinions on this matter once again earned me the title of misogynist.
  7. There was a very large debacle around the publication Rattle, which has now made Rattle this group’s public enemy number one. The gist of it was the editor Tim Green refused to be bullied by a writer he had rejected and said something to the effect that maybe the writer should stop trying to blame his rejections on his racial identity. People were outraged he would say such a thing and he apologized, but then someone else brought up that Rattle had produced an entire issue dedicated to New York poets that somehow had no persons of color in it. Even though this accusation was provably false, and even though the magazine doesn’t judge work they receive based on racial identity at all, they in fact read work without even knowing the identity of the author. The truth of the accusations had no basis in reality, but that didn’t stop this group of people from becoming a shame mob. During the fracas I was one of the prominent defenders of the magazine, even though I had never been published by them at this point. The result was basically I was called a racist by this group.

That is basically it. Given this history of contact, when I published work that was indeed meant as a criticism of this type of thought-policing and bullying through gang-shame pile-ons and manipulations of the truth to push an agenda-fueled narrative, I was an easy target for their perversion of justice.

I published three poems they found offensive in the outset. One poem was in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. In it, I pervasively pictured the deities of all religions, but especially the Prophet Muhammad, as it was the violation of the Prophet Muhammad that was the root cause of the attacks in France. This poem was meant to take a stand against censorship, meant to say no religion is free from critique. It was published in Revolution John Magazine.

The next poem was also critical of Islam. It was a response to members of ISIS destroying historical relics in the Middle East. The poem juxtaposed Islamic phrases of peace taken directly from the Koran with images of violence. This poem was published in Crab Fat Magazine. The Twitter Mob gathered and bullied the editors into taking it down.

The final poem that culminated in solidifying my status as a publishing pariah, was the poem SCOWL, also published in Revolution John Magazine. I have already said, and much has already been said by others, about this poem. But let me just say concisely one more time, this poem was a critique of the mentality that allows thought-policing in literature through a stringent application of identity politics cultivated in MFA workshops, and my final stanza of this poem was meant to show that empathy and understanding of each other’s pain works as a better method of expressing our common humanity than trying to pretend we can censor offensive ideas out of the fabric of existence.

So, a couple years of dealing with the fallout of being a target on the radar of the Literature Gestapo, and I published a series of poems responding once again to all of this. The way the series of poems came into being was a complicated and convoluted path of me trying to process the way all of this made me feel, while at the same time make a lasting statement about how true artistry can never be censored. There’s a lot going on in the misogyny poems that people refuse to acknowledge due to their knee-jerk, surface level reactions to the work. Really, that is the point though, as shock value in art is supposed to create a gut-level reaction that has to be dealt with before anyone can start to see past it to the depths of true artistic intent, and what meaning can be derived and applied to the environment from which the work was created. My biggest critics attempt to ignore any of that with a blanket accusation that the poems were written about real women, and they call the collection nothing more than a book of “rape fantasies.” If anyone actually took the time to read the book, they would see how ludicrous that is. Rape is barely mentioned in this book! Although it appears, the brief references to rape are generally allusions to other stories. One key example is an allusion to the horror film Don’t Breathe. In a way, this collection of poems was my own collection of horror film poems, a response series to a group of poems published by another of my critics, a former friend who turned on me simply because I had an argument with his finance. The real irony here is the things I am being critiqued for, are a key component of what he does with his bizarro literature, another reason the outlandish accusations against me and my work should not be taken seriously at all. The critics of Jay Sizemore will roundly disparage his name and ask everyone else in the literary world to forget they ever knew him, while they commit their own versions of heinous atrocity, stabbing each other in the back without a second thought just to get a bigger slice of the poetry audience pie, maybe a step up the ladder of the slush pile, maybe a name more prominently remembered when judging poetry contests, maybe one day as famous as Rupi Kaur.

It’s all a joke. Don’t take any of this shit seriously. The pretentiousness and sanctimonious nature of in-house back-biting and circular logic are why most people say they just “don’t get” poetry. Can’t we all just make art, express ourselves, and let what will be…be.

Poem for Anthony Bourdain

Parts Unknown, for Anthony

This poem almost writes itself,
except it doesn’t.
I had to be here to write it,
as you had to be here to read it,
except the person I’m writing it for
slipped out the back door
without saying goodbye,
leaving us wanting more
of his infectious light.

There’s a darkness I find myself in,
a cold place, damp as a cellar
with leaky soiled walls
and a chilled breath that shudders
free of its body, an odor
like fresh mulch mingled with spilled wine,
the kind that stains clothes and skin
the color of a bruise,
and every reflective surface
is a doorway
saying go ahead, step inside.

Even the extraordinary
holds something back,
eyes like keyholes
whispering a hollow wind
only heard between smiles
and casual affectations
when the mask slips.

We see each other
and nod, across that precipice.
We press our hands together
through that pane of glass.
We see ourselves
and feel so alone,
surrounded by those
who’d embrace us and take us home
if we only knew how to ask.

A Dumpster Fire Speaks

Trash fire
for VIDA

“You can have it all,
my empire of dirt.
I will let you down,
I will make you hurt.” ~ Trent Reznor

I used to be fierce, but now I am afraid.
I’m afraid I’ve lost my ability
to tell the truth, to know
what it is I stand for.

Everything I sought I saw stripped away
when it was just out of my grasp,
like some award I felt entitled to
or the keys to a new car
car of my dreams
with its paint so shiny
and reflective
it almost seemed liquid,
or the girl at the basketball game
with the supermodel body
and the pornstar fuck-me eyes
who dared me to approach her
with her lips wet and slow
sucking a Blow-Pop and staring me down
like she wished it was my cock,
who when I finally worked up the nerve
to walk over and say hello,
just curled like a leaf
into the shoulder of her guy friend
laughing, her and her friends laughing
at how stupid I was
for thinking someone like her
would ever be interested in someone like me,

and I felt myself slip
just a bit closer to the edge
of a cliff I’d stared off of many nights alone,
down into a darkness that seemed to have no bottom,
I felt another filament of light spark out
inside myself and this time I wasn’t sure
if I’d find another bulb to replace it,
but of course I did,
and somehow I added another layer
to my person suit, zipped it up
over my previous self like a fresh baby skin,
and I managed to move on,
to find small measures of happiness
over the years, people who loved me
and then stopped loving me
only to be replaced by someone else,
and that’s how it goes
if you don’t manage to fuck everything up
beyond your scope
of seeing a way to rebuild it.

This poem isn’t even my own voice.
I should know better than to write
after reading someone else’s books,
but sometimes that’s when I’m most inspired,
I see the genius of others
and my mind starts trying to duplicate it,
to find in myself
what I found so captivating
while living in another writer’s mind.

And by now, you’re thinking I’ve lost the thread.
Wasn’t this supposed to be a poem about Truth,
you’re probably thinking to yourself.
Truth, that comically noble notion—
hold your horses, lady or gent, I’m coming back to it.
You see, when I first started writing,
I had a rabid desire to protect
the sacrosanct freedom
that I saw coming under attack:
nobody poets telling other nobody poets
what they should or should not be writing,
what was offensive and infringing on the safe spaces
of literature, what was appropriating other cultures
through the oppression of colonialist patriarchy,
what was objectifying women
treating them as totems or victims
of a fetishized male gaze,
misogyny, sexism, violence, homophobia,
transphobia, racism, ablism, Islamophobia,
agism, all these things signaled a problematic author,
someone entrenched in an outdated worldview,
someone who was probably a trash fire
and didn’t deserve to be read or even to be alive,
even if they didn’t believe what they wrote,
even if they just considered these elements
to be part of a complex reality
that needed to be seen in order to be critiqued,
they were to be shamed and shunned,
driven from literature like lepers
forced to live in caves
on the outskirts of civilization.

Fuck Bukowski. Fuck Hemingway.
Fuck Browning, fuck Carver, fuck Lowell,
fuck Ginsberg, fuck Stafford, fuck Collins.
Fuck David Foster Wallace and Brian Easton Ellis.
Fuck Chuck Palahniuk and John Updike.
Fuck Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, Joseph Massey.
Fuck Kenneth Goldsmith and fuck you if you like him.
Fuck William Shakespeare.
Fuck Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson.
Men are cancelled.
Fuck the Canon. Fuck the Patriarchy.
BURN IT ALL DOWN.

I started writing poems specifically aimed
at pissing these people off.
They demand Trigger Warnings?
I’ll write the most triggering poem I can imagine,
and I’ll mock trigger warnings in the process.
Fuck your trigger warnings.
They say you can’t write about rape?
Challenge accepted.
Fuck your coddled victimhood mentality.
Don’t use racial slurs in poems.
Watch me.
Fuck your book-banning stereotypes.
Don’t mock the Prophet Muhammad.
We’ll see about that.
Fuck your precious religion.
Accuse me of appropriating someone’s abuse?
I’ll put my accusers names as titles
of the most offensive poems of all time.
Fuck you.

And this is how I lost the truth,
by fighting a battle that wasn’t mine,
in which I ended up defending myself
more than I defended the cause,
by becoming the villain
of a story that has too many villains,
attacking my attackers,
becoming a scapegoat
for what’s wrong
with white male writers,
someone no one would defend
for risk of their own credibility,
someone even a good friend
couldn’t or wouldn’t stand beside
any more
without putting their own neck
in the path of the guillotine.

Welcome to the world of internet poetry,
where years of work
building a name
can vanish over the course of three days,
where it has become commonplace
for gangs to demand
publications to remove the poems
that dared to cross imaginary lines,
and then for that poet’s work
to be scrubbed from the archives
as if they never existed
or ever wrote poems at all.

I often wonder how many of these poets
whose books I have purchased over the years,
and who I reached out to in email
or through social media chats
to express what their work meant to me,
ever bothered to buy one of my books,
or to even read the books I mailed to them
just to show my appreciation,
how many of my books
have never even been cracked open,
were just moved from padded envelopes
directly to dusty bookshelves
to begin collecting their own sheens
of shed skin, the sloughed off cells
of the poets coating the covers
of the work of a friend or a peer
they never respected enough to begin with
to give their work even the fleeting chance
of a few precious minutes
of their own attention.

In the end, it doesn’t matter,
everyone thinks they’re burning down the world,
but they’re just dancing
in their own fires,
and once the flames have all burnt out
there’ll be no one left
who cares enough
to sweep up the ashes.

Swan Song

Out now, on Amazon, is the final collection of poetry from Jay Sizemore. This collection I have been working on for most the past two years, with a big chunk of the work written and revised during the month of April. The collection focuses on guns and gun violence, with poems responding directly and indirectly to shootings and their correlating politics. There is also the theme of nature running through the book, as a way of contrasting the violence of the human condition. In total, the book runs 136 pages, and is priced extremely low for a collection of this size, at just 10 dollars. Please consider picking one up.

Primal sonnet

Primal urges sonnet

Rhythm was found in a makeshift drum banging
two sticks against an open rock face
or perhaps the hollow of tree long before
violence was born from necessity,
before stone was sharpened and woven
onto the ends of clubs, there was dancing,
a primal stomp and chant around crackling flame.
Then, came the rival clans and the instinct
to protect the water and the camp,
and war became another kind of music,
banging these crude instruments like breath
out of the skulls and bones of the enemy.
All these centuries learning the best ways to kill,
to dance, to chant mine mine, to make the drum bang.

Right to bear arms: NaPoWriMo #24

A right to bear arms

It’s my right to feel powerful,
to protect what’s mine,
my family, my home,

come into my cave uninvited,
come near my children
and face the consequences,

these claws I’ve sharpened
on the trunks of so many trees,
these teeth that have gnawed

marrow from bones,
I am not hibernating.
When I stand, I’m ten feet tall,

my arms are strong enough
to break bodies like promises
of a peaceful night’s rest

during hunting season
when animals disguise their scents
beneath their bright orange vests

and their hands still stinking
of lavender and axe,
of oil and steel folded and honed

into things alien of the Earth,
but their arms are not my arms,
and their deaths are my self-defense.

Poem for Waffle House : NaPoWriMo #22

Ode to a Waffle House in Nashville, TN

You’ve never been good and truly drunk
until you’ve entered this little haven
of greasy floors and fingerprint-smeared tables
with its soft glowing lights
hung like Chinese lanterns in the windows
and its cheap laminate menus
sticky with syrup or spilled soda,
mists of grill-seared oils wafting
like waterfall-churned moisture
in the lamps and fluorescents
amid the odors of fried egg, sausages,
hot waffle irons overflowing with batter,
all a-sizzle and sweat condensing
on a short-order cook’s brow
at 3:30 in the morning.

You’ve never lived until after ordering
your hash browns scattered, smothered, and covered,
you have to make a dash for the dirty
swinging restroom door
and spill your stomach of beer-and-bile-laced
vomit, wiping the saliva strings
from your lips with cheap harsh toiletries
dispensed from a plastic hood
engraved with racist logos and lighter burns.

You’ve never seen heroism
until you’ve nearly shit your pants
while choking down a mouthful of burnt steak
with its flakes of open-face griddle residue
attached like artisan confections of American spice
like a living document of countless meals
shuffled onto white plates and under warming wicks
before being served to the inebriant starved,

when the shots start pinging through the glass,
and the patrons start screaming
and your friend slaps at his neck
with blood spouting between his fingers
that for just a moment you mistake for ketchup,
before you see the man, just an ordinary man,
probably just as intoxicated as you,
wrestling the rifle from the naked shooter,
scalding the skin from his ordinary hands,
and the silence settles in like slow-motion
as the murderer runs away
and the freeze-frame glitter of shattered bulbs
cascading into the night
sparkle like displaced galaxies
waiting for the sirens
and the shuttering strobes
and your heart to return to its normal beat.

After all that, you’ll want to shake his hand,
but there won’t be time, and it would hurt
beneath his bandages, and maybe your friend
is dying in the ambulance, and maybe
you’ll ask for a coffee to go
because the adrenaline withdrawal
has left you more drunk than exhausted,
and maybe they’ll say, sure,
it’s on the house
just like your life
and maybe this is your church now,
say Hallelujah for America, amen.