17 thoughts on “Regarding SCOWL and Reader Response

  1. I want to start by saying I’m a fan of your work.

    I read the ISIS poem twice and SCOWL about 5 times. My initial reaction to both was (I’m sorry to say) offense. They both hit me with the force of a bullet. I’m not one who flinches at vulgarity, but I found myself flinching at the anger/hate/defensiveness that underscored the vulgarity. You use words much like a bullied kid uses his grandpa’s gun to shoot up the schoolyard. And that’s why I had to pause and think and reread your words. I needed to know why you were saying what you were saying the way you were saying it.

    After rereading each poem I clearly saw that the writing itself was brilliant. The main thing that lingered discordantly with me (and probably provoked all the knee-jerk emotions in other readers) was the tone of ‘I am an angry white guy who is tired of having to acknowledge other people’s anger.’

    Particularly in the “check your privilege” parts of SCOWL did I cringe, not at the obscenities, but at the schoolyard bullet impressions it left. The I’m-a-victim-too-so-shut-up tone. It is true that hate speech is the new obscenity. It is true that in 2010s, everyone’s agenda (feminist, anti-feminist, black, racist, muslim, Xtian, atheist) is smeared all over the electronic forums that we can’t seem to look away from. Personally I am pretty worn out from seeing all the rancor between genders, races and religions being played out in such visible space. But even after reading SCOWL several times, I’m still not sure if the writer is speaking for me or shooting me down.

    I confess to being a Ginsberg fanatic, and HOWL to me always read as a poignant lament for all the things gone wrong in the writer’s world: the friends who lost their minds to drugs, the mother who lost her mind to mental illness, the government that wanted to instill paranoia in its citizens, the lovers the writer couldn’t have because gay sex was beyond obscenity in the 1950s. I could feel the writer’s pain without feeling personally attacked.

    But that was then and this is now. Personal attack is something we ALL have to deal with on a daily basis, and maybe it’s time we have a close up look at “people attacking people.” What better way to do that than through art, poetry? You are far from the only poet who is writing about such things, but I think you are more provocative than most. This is not a bad thing, but you have to be able to handle it. You’re going to get hated on, and attacked personally (hopefully only in words and not physically).

    I believe we are in the middle of an evolutionary shitstorm that looks really hateful and chaotic, but which is the growing pains of becoming a global community. That may sound hippy-dippy, but we are all looking very closely at one another’s lives (check your privilege) and there is nowhere to hide anymore. We’ve dug things out of the hole that used to be called privacy, denial, or polite society. And you have put them all on display in the 2 poems that are stirring up so much contention.

    I’ll end by saying I disagree with Crab Fat’s decision to “unpublish” your ISIS poem. They chose it, it offended some folks…too bad. And although I admit to being offended by some things you write, I am overall a fan of what you do and I’m not just believing the hype and kissing your ass because you’re going to get famous from all this controversy. I think this is what writers should be doing.

  2. Hi Jay,

    I guess what I’d say is this: I’m happy to take as a given that your intentions were good and just here, but part of being a good person, I think, is realizing that sometimes intentions aren’t enough, and trying to work through why so many people found your words hurtful, trying to work through why you might have been wrong here. That’s not to say that every single poet thought your poems were terrible (I’m sure you got some positive feedback) or that every single piece of criticism you got was fair (I’m sure it wasn’t). But MANY members of the writing community found these words problematic and these poems bad. If your intentions were good and just, then, sad to say, I think the problem really may just be that the poems are bad.

    As a fellow writer I know this sort of thing is hard to hear, but I’m not sure you’re a good enough writer yet to write these poems on these topics. One of your poems takes aim at MFAs, but honestly–being in an MFA workshop, or any sort of high-level workshop, would have really helped these poems become much, much better. To clarify, you should always feel free to Write whatever you want, of course, but should be much more judicious about publishing. A long rambling poem written in June as part of a poem-a-day challenge isn’t necessarily something you should publish two months later, and I think Revolution John did you a disservice by publishing it. I hope you can also understand why publishing the sort of poem you did in that particular venue, which has a history of being insensitive toward these matters in the past and as we speak is going beserk on twitter, might cause some to not give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to your intentions.

    You may be a good person, but I don’t think you’ve shown the introspection, empathy, and ability to revise and self-criticize that are necessary to be a good, and improving, writer. Sorry to be that stranger swooping in on the internet to be the judge and jury of your work, but frankly your writing would benefit from you surrounding yourself with more dissenting, critical voices who are willing to tell you when things suck, or could be better, or aren’t yet ready to send out into the world without a little more polishing, tightening, clarity, thought, nuance, etc.


    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Two things to say to your commentary: 1. If people waited until they had the approval of the public opinion to publish anything, or even for a unanimously agreed upon verdict from a small council of fellow writers, most things would never get published. Here is a newsflash, I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops actually. Though I enjoy them, one thing I have learned is workshop groups rarely agree on anything, even on minute details of one poem. If a serious poet tried to take into consideration every comment he received in a workshop, their poems would lose all voice, originality, and passion that they started out with. It takes a good poet to learn the difference between a helpful commentary and someone simply trying to find fault in their work to have something to say. Not saying I am that good of a poet, but I do feel like I understand my own voice and how to self-edit at this point in my journey.
      2. No one on this Earth needs a $40,000 piece of paper to be a writer, and no writer needs anyone’s permission to tackle a subject they want to tackle. The public will decide the merit of the work after it is presented, not before.

  3. Wow. Just wow. I applaud you. Thank you for answering some questions I had because when this whole brouhaha was brought to my attention I wasn’t just going to automatically believe the detractors and was thinking about going directly to you and asking some questions, but you have actually answered anything I was considering asking plus made so many other great points.

  4. I learned a long time ago that going back and forth online arguing with people just takes time and energy from you that you should be putting into your creative mission as a poet.

    Don’t bother defending yourself like You’re doing. People believe what they believe and you won’t change them anyway.

    Push forward with the poetry and remember, when you are gone, the poetry will remain to speak for you.

    You will reunderstand and reinvent yourself and grow and change all through your life. Ultimately, you will understand that you are making great poetry. You won’t need anyone’s affirmation nor will you care about any detractors.

    Then you will be there. So, now, relax and go write a poeem.

    Best regards,


  5. Sorry, Jay. I don’t buy this. If you really don’t want people to think of you as a bully, a hate-monger, and a troll… well, then you should probably stop acting like a bully, a hate-monger, and a troll.

    But seriously. Want people to stop “bullying you?”

    Here’s a hint. Next time, try abstaining from using vicious, reductive, and unthinking hate speech. Don’t indulge in misogynistic first-person rape fantasies (regardless of whether or not they’re appropriated from someone’s personal trauma). Don’t harass people. Don’t call people names. Don’t presume that martyring yourself in front of everyone excuses you from a larger, more cogent conversation about your work. Don’t belittle people who are different from you (this extends to race, gender, belief system… whatever). Don’t indulge in the sort of rhetoric that would make a even Fox News anchor blanch and expect all of us to be all hunky-dory and nonplussed.

    Try thinking a little harder about the consequences of your words and actions. Because indulging in such vile rhetoric, even under the auspices of “free speech,” is a reprehensible thing and beneath anyone who wants to call themselves “a writer.” It’s offensive, hurtful, dispiriting… and yes, the sort of things a “bully” might do. And I think you should know from experience that “being bullied” does not mean you can “become the bully.”

  6. I love it that someone you told you to throw yourself into a wood chipper had the nerve to accuse you of hate speech and didn’t see the irony/hypocrisy in that. George Orwell predicted this kind of abuse of language, but I wonder if he could have imagined so-called poets resorting to double-speak like that.

  7. Jay,

    I was offended by SCOWL. For the same reasons others were offended, but especially because of the approach and my perception of the intention.

    Of course, I respect your right to feel, write, and publish however you’d like. But in my view, speaking as a white male poet, empathy, attention, and non-judgmental inquiry ought to be the white male writer’s posture in poetry these days.

    I challenge you to write a poem on the subject using the opposite approach. Instead of angry declarations, write tender questions. I think you might be happy with the results.


  8. Anyone who thinks this is offensive has gotta be under 30. Back in the 90’s we had real offensive art. This is tame. But still great – on a literary and political level. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  9. Yesterday I was idly skimming my Twitter feed and suddenly ran across a shit storm generated by Jay Sizemore, a poet whose work I had read a few times on Facebook and whose poetry I have found worth reading, but with whom I have never exchanged personal correspondence and do not consider someone I “know,” even by internet standards. I read the links to an editorial in an alt lit and art zine, several provided tweets by outraged readers, the poem Scowl, itself, which is a parody or homage to Ginsberg’s Howl. I also read a response by the publisher, someone I did not previously know and with whom I have had no contact.

    Today I found the response by the writer. The points he makes ring true and accurately reflect my own view after reading the poem last night. I think it is a good poem, a compelling and well-written poem, with shocking allusions to current events in order to criticize many things in today’s world that I find horrible and wrong. I read those allusions and the entire poem as a critique of these abhorrent events, using outrageous language to reflect shocking reality, rather than an endorsement or even a parody. I found the poem fully within the tradition of Howl, for which Lawrence Ferlinghetti was jailed for publishing, as it was considered obscene and was suppressed, contrary to the First Amendment protections of free speech.

    I want to add that I am a staunch feminist, a prior victim of intimate violence that has scarred my body and my psyche, and I consider myself a friend and ally of many activists who work daily against the abuse of women and girls and who steadfastly challenge rape culture. I am outraged that these women face constant, unambiguous threats of violence aimed at their bodies and their girl children and I will continue to respond with vehemence to oppose their mistreatment and abuse. Further, I strive to be what is all too often sneeringly referred to as politically correct, as I think that epithet is usually hurled against people who just ask for common courtesy and compassion, who want freedom from hurtful and offensive labels, who want their children and loved ones to feel comfortable anywhere they choose to go. In short, I think belligerents use the term political correctness in attempt to belittle, humiliate, and intimidate others who stand up for themselves or their community. I am also a lawyer and a poet who believes that the First Amendment should be sacrosanct. I do not see those two roles I claim, feminist and free speech proponent, as in opposition.

    Among other invective and justifications of violence against the writer and publisher of Scowl, many people have read the poem as a personal threat against a particular woman or against women or feminists or victims of abuse. I honestly do not read the poem in that way. My interpretation of the last section of the poem is a symbolic offer of solidarity and empathy, the opposite of a direct or veiled threat. Even taking the most critical view of the poem, in no way does it rise to the level of justifying threats against either the writer or the publisher. I find the ad hominem attacks used in response to this poem to substantially weaken my respect for the complaining writers and to reduce the credibility of their complaints. I understand that radical reactions often originate in a place of personal pain and suffering, but still believe that valid, impassioned complaints can be made without reducing the exchange to the level of vituperation and vilification I have read in response to Scowl.

    Earlier I posted this same comment on the publisher’s site.

  10. Here’s my take on this. “Scowl” is not my favorite poem. I liked Amy Newman’s “Howl” much better. But that’s not the point. I love poetry, read poetry, write poetry, occasionally publish poetry. I do not love, or even like, everything I read. But that’s beside the point. To me, this is all of a piece with the trigger warnings that pervade our hypersensitive society today. I’m sorry, kids, but life itself is a trigger warning–get over it. To say someone should not publish something or speak on a campus because you might possibly be offended is beyond asinine. When I was in grade school a century or so ago, I complained about a book in our library that I thought had too many swear words in it, and the response, to cut to the chase, was “Too bad.” Today they’d remove the book, the author would get flamed and have death threats issued on social media, and the school would be picketed for carrying it in the first place. And the people who are so offended think it’s okay to issue death threats? Really? Where are we going? And what’s with the hand basket?

  11. If we were to compare sexism to an illness, like the flu per se, then call-out culture is a form of vaccination against it. Recent studies have shown that there is a such thing as too much antibody and that the illness can worsen in the case of too many antibodies. Call-out culture over-accentuates the illness and possibly worsens it. A man is “called-out” for making remarks that may have shades of sexism, such as Shuleem Deen’s story about the roommate. Readers who lack clarity of thought and let their own traumas and fears enter their interpretation of a work are dangerous when they become vocal. I myself was a target simply for liking a poem that hyperfeminists deemed racist and disrespectful, even though careful discrimination of the poem showed it was neither. The fact that students in literature classes want to be coddled with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other censorship shows how narcissistic such people are. You can’t expect to live in a world that caters to your imaginary criteria of prejudice, misogyny, and violence against others. Using intimidation and cyberstalking to antagonize those who voice opinions you find disagreeable in an effort to impose your worldview and agenda on them demonstrates a total lack of understanding of how people behave. Finding hate and perversion in everything, especially things written by white men, only shows who the true pervert is and who is projecting their nuances onto whom. The fact that literature serves the higher purpose of helping us exorcise our demons, deal with our darker natures, and communicate our concerns effectively and safely escapes those who wish to censor it to suit their weak stomachs. I sympathize with victims of all types of abuse, but do you expect the subway to have “safe spaces” if someone in line mentions or says something that could trigger your trauma? I understand that colleges are intended to teach and that teaching is tough when students feel they can’t safely express themselves, but colleges don’t teach only self-expression. They also impart values and strategies for daily living in real life. The value of self-expression applies to those who say disagreeable things that may make someone feel “unsafe” or “violated”. We cannot allow institutions of higher learning to coddle their entrants as if the classroom were a playground. We wind up with people too dysfunctional to deal with life. Another key value of literature is the teaching of self-understanding. Literature does this on multiple levels, but the pursuit of defining human nature seems to be the most vital instruction. For self-understanding, we must encourage open discussion and stomach those things which offend us. We can’t cover Zeus’s penis because of his assault on Leda. As Edmund Burke noted, those things which hold the possibility of terror also contain the foundations for the sublime. Fear, perversion, sickness, disgust, revulsion: all this is part of the world of art and the artist. Joyce, who is popular among female scholars, even sneaked in some sexual malfeasance– i.e. Bloom looking at a young girl’s undergarments in church. This brought him under legal scrutiny. Now writers face not the scrutiny of courts, but the tyranny of democratic opinion. In a sense the art world is free to judge itself without legal barriers. What this poem does is sympathize with the victim and explore her trauma graphically so the reader gets it too– why its necessary to sympathize with the victim. He also shows how political correctness is a dysfunctional way of managing and dealing with trauma because it labels those who were not the perpetrator and limits freedom of expression, and simultaneously places fences around conversations both in person and in art. It asks people to be dishonest with themselves and others. You cannot change a person’s moral force with coercive measures against language. While language is one of desire’s vehicles, it is implied that desire is the modus operandi of language. Therefore attacks on language are superficial at best, and at worst chaotic censorship. People are known best for using their position and experience in life to pressure or convince others of the truth of where they stand– however, each person’s experience is different and each perspective may have something valuable to offer in our battle for justice and liberty. Without liberty, there is no justice. Without justice, no cause for liberty. This poem sums up not just feminism and its rage, but the entire generation of narcissists who hold the attitude that they are the center of importance. Most of what is called out here is a behavior that turns all petty disputes in life into a persecution complex, and the attitudes that perpetuate his scenario. Instead of McCarthy, the raging lunacy of blacklisting takes the form of a kid with a basic knowledge of computers.

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