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.
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.
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?