This is my last attempt at setting the record straight on a topic that has come to seem like it is haunting me. Last June I wrote a poem. In August that poem was published. There was a lot of outrage and controversy, and still, people keep bringing it up (as recently as last week). Someone tweeted at me that they had read it, and they hoped all people would avoid touching me with a ten-foot pole. Because they didn’t like the poem. One site has published response poems to it, even going so far as to appropriate the first page of my work and do an erasure, without crediting me as the original author. Even after I asked them to credit me, they ignored that request, in a blatant and antagonistic show of disrespect. Another website used me as an example of a horrible literary citizen. All because they did’t like ONE of the hundreds of poems I have written in my short-lived literary escapades.
Publishing this poem cost me a lot of friendships with fellow writers. People I had known for several years severed ties with me, and have since refused to respond to any messages I have sent asking them why, or how I could repair the friendship. These are people I thought held a mutual artistic respect, a peer network that I worked hard to establish online and in real life. And now, because I wrote a poem, these people want nothing to do with me. One poem. Many of these people are editors. Many of the harshest critics of this poem stated that they hoped I would never be published again, and that I should be ignored until I disappeared.
I understand how criticism works. I understand the theory that artistic intent is meaningless once work is released to the public. However, I also understand the separation of art from artist, and art from reality. Because a woman is raped in a movie, that doesn’t mean the actor involved or the director of the film are rapists. When a character is a racist in a novel or a film, that doesn’t mean the author or the actor are actually racists. When acts of violence are committed in fiction, on canvas, on page, that violence does not transfer to the real world, despite certain people’s claims that it does, calls for R ratings, calls for Explicit Lyric warnings, calls for boycott or bans. But, I also understand the concept of confirmation bias, and how once something is suggested that a person already feels should be true, the suggestion is confirmed in their mind without evidence. This is why the Anti-Vaxxer movement gained such momentum early on. This is how nationalism works, and how racism refuses to die. This is even why religion continues to thrive in an age of technological advancement. People believe what they want to believe, with or without evidence. When unfounded beliefs are allowed to run rampant, they become dangerous.
When it comes to evidence, I already have a long list of publications and a life lived consisting of 38 years on planet Earth, full of events and stated opinions on events, that show I am not a person who hates other humans for reasons of gender, race, or religious preference. My best friend on this planet, whom I have known since the second grade, is an ordained Baptist minister, and he conducted my wedding ceremony, despite his knowledge of my atheism. I have long been a proponent for equal rights, including marriage equality, gender equality, and racial equality. I have voted for candidates who support those positions in elections and publicly stated over and over again my contempt for actions of injustice committed against oppressed people. The thing is, life is complex. Life is nuanced. A person should be capable of holding within them conflicting ideas about things, and be free to express these ideas without fear of being condemned. This is one reason to use art as a means of expression. It is perfectly within reason to be a supporter of feminism, and yet, see how certain aspects of feminism are used in a perverted fashion to do the very thing that feminism purports to fight against. It’s so easy to fall prey to the temptation to silence others to elevate your own voice. This is no different from being a member of a political party, and recognizing that certain factions of that party are out of bounds with their agenda.
People are more than free to think I am worthy of condemnation, that I should never publish another poem or story, that I should never be allowed to achieve success in something that I love, because I wrote a poem that they thought was disgusting, for the most part I could care less what anyone thinks of me or my work, but when those thoughts are based on misinformation that threatens to hurt my future in something I’ve worked hard to establish, I find myself needing to speak up, wanting people to know they are thinking that regardless of the evidence. A few people made a conclusion about a poem, and shared that conclusion with conviction that was believably passionate. This conclusion played into a preconceived notion, and was thus held up as truth, without evidence. And then that conclusion was shared and spread.
It isn’t true. At all. I did not steal another person’s abuse story. I did not purposefully single out someone as a means of attack. I do not hate anyone even remotely that much on this planet. I may have once hated my father that much, but that is a resentment I have dealt with my entire life, and truly, I have exorcised all those demons already. I especially do not hate women, and I think it is bordering on absurdity to suggest that a work of art counts as an act of violence. The poem in question, if approached with a mind ready to see sarcasm and hyperbole, can be seen as a list of allusions to actual events (in section 1), taken so far over the top that it should not be in any way seen as serious. Honestly, if you can read lines like “ballerinas dancing on the head of Charles Bukowski’s cock” with any illusion of seriousness, I wonder how you’ve managed to read or sit through any performances of artworks without going completely insane. And yet, there are those out there who contend that the entire poem exists WITHOUT IRONY and is the voice of an ANGRY MAN. To those people I have to ask, did we read the same thing? Taking such a work, and then turning it into something it isn’t, like a personal attack, seems to me more of an attempt to discredit the point of the work, and also to turn the attention to claimed victimhood, rather than allow the work to stand on its own merits. This is a trend in the arts that only continues to grow, and works to erode much of what we have taken for granted as freedoms of expression.
I don’t know why I’m putting this out there, yet again, but I have noticed so much in the wake of this poem’s release, and how many friendships seem to be damaged from a perpetuated falsehood, that I felt a desire to try one last time to see if anyone would actually listen to what I had to say about it. If it makes any difference whatsoever, I am deeply concerned that people took such personal offense to my work, and felt hurt by it, but I can never be sorry for expressing myself or putting out work that challenges notions of acceptability. It feels like an empty gesture for any artist to apologize for their work, as reactions are something beyond their control, because art is purely subjective. I have received many positive remarks on the offending work as well, some from women who stated they were too afraid of backlash to state their public support. Imagine what the creative environment must be like for such an atmosphere to be present, where people have to hide their opinions of other artists to protect their own reputations! It does pain me though, to think anyone I knew was actually upset and angered, or in some form anguished, over something I have written. Again, I did not intend to hurt anyone, I intended to prove a point, one that I think, despite all the fallout, was proven. One should accept that it is possible for a writer to write things they do not personally feel, even in poetry. I am open to more questions and conversation, if anyone cares to ask them.
Thank you for listening.