Letters From the September 10-17, 2018, Issue

Letters From the September 10-17, 2018, Issue

Letters From the September 10-17, 2018, Issue

Poetry, wide open… The poetry editors reply…


After we published Anders Carlson-Wee’s “How-To” [July 30/August 6], the poem received considerable criticism. Poet Nate Marshall, for example, noted that it felt like it was “trafficking inappropriately in Black language.” For his part, Carlson-Wee apologized on social media, and some readers asked that we take the poem down. Instead, in keeping with our tradition of encouraging debate, and in deference to the independence we assign the poetry editors, we posted a note by them explaining their view that publishing the poem had been a mistake. This note also raised strong objections. Some, like our former poetry editor Grace Schulman, worried that it reflected “the backward and increasingly prevalent idea that the artist is somehow morally responsible for his character’s behavior or voice.” Others argued the poem should not have been published to begin with. And still others insisted that the statements by the poet and poetry editors demonstrated a “deepened understanding of race, class, and the magazine’s readership.”

For our part, we’re glad that we live in a world in which poems (and apologies) can still arouse such fierce opinions—and we remain absolutely committed to airing them.

The Editors

Poetry, Wide Open

I find your choice to publish Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem “How-To” disturbing. Its sloppy handling of disability is demeaning to those who daily inhabit these bodies and circumstances. While I believe in a writer’s freedom to write the poems that excite them, I deeply question your editorial choice to publish yet another person of privilege enacting the voice of the “other.”

Issues surrounding disability justice and the disabled voice are nearly entirely lacking in The Nation. A magazine which bills itself as a forum for the left seemingly has no disabled employees or regular writers on disability issues. I find the poetry editors’ choice to publish a poem which enacts the disabled body as a stereotype of the impoverished person on society not overall surprising given the exclusion of disability throughout.

Perhaps this could be a real moment of change for The Nation, a chance for the magazine to expand its focus beyond abled bodies.

Jennifer Bartlett
brooklyn, n.y.

I was dismayed to read the craven apology of the poetry editors for their publication of “How-To,” which they rightly read initially as “an over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization.” Only the most literal of surface readings could miss that that was the poem’s point. It was satirical, using the repetition of insult to expose its venom and so answer it back; its empathy was all on the side of the disparaged and degraded. Instead of taking the time to instruct the tone-deaf readers who objected, the editors endorsed their rights of censorship. The apology read like a forced confession to some authoritarian police force.

I’m afraid that this is only the latest example of the dumbing down of our culture, treating satire, irony, and other genres in the most reductive, literal way, as if words had only one meaning and the power only to wound. I look to The Nation to maintain a higher standard than that. You could have published letters from the critics, rather than submit to their censorship. That censorship will have a silencing effect that bodes ill for the poetry you can publish in the future—who would dare submit something that required that no word in it might offend or insult a reader?

Joan W. Scott
princeton, n.j.

The classic black American canon—the gatekeepers of which have mostly been white, let’s be honest—has allowed it before: Zora Neale Hurston cracks open a world using black English; so does Toni Morrison. The New Yorker devoted a whole article to a guy, John McWhorter, who studies and has written books on the dialect, calling it “the black lingua franca.” It’s how some of us talk all the time because that is how we talk; it’s how others of us talk sometimes, when we’re in the comfort of our own people; and it’s how others of us talk all the time as an act of defiance. For all of it, for any of it, we are censured, except, of course, when it suits the white gatekeepers.

It isn’t that white people are barred from using our language on the page; by all means, if you feel compelled, go ahead—though know we’ll be judging you. (For what it’s worth, I thought Anders Carlson-Wee did it poorly.) And, dear readers, don’t think I’m not aware of the debate behind authenticity and how it stretches far back and into so many different spheres. It’s an important debate to have. But that’s not why I support Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith’s decision to add an editors’ note to a poem about black suffering written by a white man in a hackneyed version of my language.

The reasons why it’s OK that The Nation’s editors acknowledged where they fell short are myriad, but it’s important to spell them out. The first: Since there are so few black people with access to the page, why not just give it to us to handle? It’s not like white people are suffering from being underrepresented in the pages of The Nation!

Second, are we not, as an institution, striving for equity? The predominant line of thinking, I think, is that black economic and social equality will come with laws. But there cannot be laws without language. There cannot be equity without talking it out. There cannot be communication without words, just as there cannot be parity in the pages of The Nation—a place so white in its leadership and readership it blinds—if there is not accountability for the history of how those words appear on the page and who is doing the appearing and who is in charge of the words that appear.

Third, The Nation is not knuckling to pressure or stymieing free speech by acknowledging the power imbalance that led to such a poem getting published in its pages; it’s simply acknowledging the incredible and sheer force and power of language: its violence, its beauty, and, in this case, its ability to silence.

Collier Meyerson
brooklyn, n.y.

The poetry editors’ apology was histrionic and self-abasing and embarrassing. All that was missing was a fainting couch. The poem itself was meh, in my opinion—but Exhibit A for racism and ableism? I read it, and so did the four or five people I read it to, as a sly attack on the “Christians” of the poem, who want to think they are good and generous, but don’t want to see the homeless as anything but stereotypes. It’s saying: This is how you have to act to get their attention and sympathy. I didn’t even think it was necessarily spoken by a black person; I took the speech for a combination of “poetical” and addled—after all, panhandlers come in all colors. The poem has been attacked for sloppy use of African-American Vernacular English, but the black linguist John McWhorter, writing in The Atlantic, says that dipping in and out of AAVE is true to life. Also, ordinary people do in fact use the word “crippled.” Google it and you’ll find contemporary references.

I’m not saying editors should refuse to engage with readers’ criticism of their judgment, but there is no need to run screaming for the hills when challenged on Twitter. Why didn’t they just tell people to write a letter and publish a page of them in the magazine? That’s what The Nation usually does when there’s a controversy.

Katha Pollitt
new york city

Re the poetry editors’ apology for publishing Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem “How-To”: On the one hand, this is why I still respect The Nation so much. On the other, I think they’re dead wrong. I think I got exactly where this poem was coming from the first time I read it, and I feel even more so upon a second reading: It is about marginalization from the perspective of the marginalized, who understand very well what they have been reduced to in society’s eyes and also how they must act accordingly to survive. Have we not reclaimed the right to sarcasm and irony since 9/11?
Raymond E. Young
austin, tex.

The Nation has demonstrated political correctness at its worst by apologizing for a poem. If a portion of your readership is deeply offended by well-meaning verse, that’s a story in itself and you should have “run with it” in an attempt to flesh out the issues involved. You could have printed a special edition giving vent to the various opinions on this matter, with insights from the public, poets, and philosophers, on what exactly is wrong (if anything) with such a poem. Instead, by simply retreating on the battlefield of free speech, you have ensured that no one is going to learn anything from this incident. By so acting, you’re helping to create a world in which “good guys” are ousted for an unintentional faux pas while the “bad guys” triumph, à la Tartuffe, merely through giving lip service to values that they don’t believe in. Nor can this ever change, as long as major US publications such as yours are too nervous to address honest differences of opinion on what constitutes offensive speech.
Brian Quass
basye, va.

I think the editors and staff of The Nation owe Anders Carlson-Wee an apology. Carlson-Wee wrote “How-To,” a poem that represents a version of life as experienced by those who struggle on the margins of our society. Through the eyes of his narrator, the author enables us to imagine the pain of those whose suffering we usually seek either to balm with a couple of quarters or ignore. To condemn the author’s use of “disparaging and ableist language” in this context at best misses the point of the poem and at worst deliberately misrepresents its message in order to advance a political agenda.

By apologizing for “the pain we caused” by publishing “How-To,” The Nation has scapegoated and maligned an artist who aimed to strip our minds of pretense so we might see the world more clearly. In doing so, The Nation has betrayed any artist who placed faith in your publication to curate their works, which may transgress our expectations of propriety in order to help us better understand each other and ourselves.

Jason David
new york city

The Poetry Editors Reply

As poetry editors, we try to find poems that speak to our times with acuity and dynamism, which means we sometimes choose a poem that can spark controversy. We hope that poets will continue to send us such poems, but we made a mistake by not anticipating how the poem “How-To” would be received, and we felt it was serious enough to warrant the statement we made on July 24.

We are quite aware that “How-To” can be read as satirical, sarcastic, and voiced by a cynical character. In fact, we read it that way when we accepted it. We were drawn to the poem’s sense of desperate frustration. We saw, in it, an urgent call to readers—especially to white and to nondisabled readers—asking us to work toward a society where such tactics as this character recommends would no longer make sense.

But the poem’s capacity to give offense now seems, to us, far out of proportion to the intellectual and emotional interest that its irony can sustain, in part because of the ways in which it uses (albeit ironically) disparaging language. Such words, however familiar, can mortify those whom they describe, and require deft handling when used, even sarcastically, in poems—especially in short poems published as freestanding works (rather than, say, as elements in a collection, or within a work of prose fiction) in a national magazine with a broad, varied readership, as well as a progressive mission. Our sense that we made a mistake comes not from a reflexive “political correctness,” but from our changed sense of how some of The Nation’s readers can—and did, and do—hear the poem.

After the poem appeared, we heard from many of those readers, not only on social media but also through more private channels. We did not substitute their judgment for our own, but we listened, and we saw the ways in which this poem might be read by physically disabled, or displaced, or chronically ill readers. We decided that it was better—as a matter of ethics, and as responsible editing—to acknowledge their perspectives than to defend, as if it were the only point of view, our own.

Art does not evolve on its own; it is made, and debated, and changed, by artists, and by those (including ourselves) who decide where and how a work of art should circulate. Works of art can change, or open, minds; they can also inflame, or appear to close off debate, or seem to tell writers and readers that they are not welcome.

We do not view an apology as an act of censorship. We recognize the continuing debate over whether, and how, and in what senses, disparaging language, failure to listen to others, and insistence on privileged perspectives can harm the people disparaged or left out. We are not neutral in that debate. We believe that language used badly can cause harm, just as language used well can do good, though we would not equate that harm (or that good) to physical violence. Nor would we equate the language of poetry to the language of the state, or of the law. If we as poetry editors cannot apologize for our failure to see how a work of art might be read, we are choosing to be complicit in the very exclusions that we have tried to critique.

Some readers have asked how the poets we publish, in the future, can trust us to stand by their words. We ask instead how many readers would trust us, and which poets would send us their best work, in a future where we had never apologized, where we had never noticed the limits of our perspectives, nor ever acknowledged any mistake?

The error in judgment that placed the poem in this magazine was our own, and we wish we had recognized it earlier. We look forward to a future in which other poems we choose for The Nation, poems that we continue to admire, get at least as much attention as this one has.

Stephanie Burt
cambridge, mass.

Carmen Giménez Smith
blacksburg, va.

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