By Tyrone Williams
In every woman and man lies the seed of the fear
Of just how alone are all who live here
Denying the fear is the name of the game
To stare at the fear is going insane….
For over a decade now, various poetry communities have been roiled by what has come to be known as call-out culture: the publicizing, via social media, of alleged harassment or bullying of poets (mostly but not always females) by other (predominantly male) poets. For more egregious behaviors (e.g., sexual harassment), these call-outs sometimes, though not always, lead to invoking what has come to be called cancel culture: the attempt to devalue or erase the offending poet’s social and/or cultural capital. Although the nomenclature is relatively new, the phenomena are not. Long before social media, paper petitions, rumors, and gossip served the same purpose. The scandals and public outcry over both the writings and behavior of poets like Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, to name two, has no doubt played a role in the general public’s association of poets, if not poetry, with dissolution and antisocial tendencies. The professionalization and institutionalization of poetry in the last century only facilitated the storied myth of the drunken, lascivious poet, almost always male, almost always white, staggering through a poetry reading and leering at female graduate students.
I first saw the term call-out used in relationship to certain users on social media advocating kicking certain heterosexual male poets off e-lists (e.g., the old Buffalo Electronic Poetry e-list) and defriending them on social network platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I associate the term cancel culture with those encouraging poets and readers in general to avoid purchasing books written by certain heterosexual male poets as well as magazines and anthologies in which, conferences and readings at which, these poets appear. As is apparent, the majority of those marked for excommunication, however unsuccessful, have been males, mostly white, mostly heterosexual, suggesting that call-out and cancel culture primarily target the privileges or “capital” of white heterosexual males whose published poetry and social behavior allegedly reinforce heteronormative, phallocentric, and Eurocentric aesthetic, cultural, and social hegemonies. Most of us are familiar with the names, which cover the gamut from Conceptual Poetry (e.g., Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith) to narrative/ lyric poetics (e.g., Tony Hoagland, Joseph Massey, and Anders Carlson-Wee). Call-out and cancel culture have even taken down a poetry publisher.1Bruce Covey, editor and owner of the now defunct Coconut Books, was one of several men whose names were scrawled on a list of alleged sexual abusers and harassers in a women’s restroom at the 2015 AWP conference in Chicago. While a number of women affirmed on Facebook that Covey was indeed an abuser, other women came to Covey’s defense, noting that Covey self-identifies as a rape survivor and a person with Asperger and decrying the anonymous and undocumented accusations. Several weeks later, Covey, having had his lawyers issue cease and desist orders under the threat of libel lawsuits, closed Coconut Books, citing concerns about the safety of his family. Covey’s social and cultural capital in the poetry community were cancelled. Rightly or wrongly, he suffered two “deaths.” I discuss the interplay between social and cultural capital below. Some of the offenders have apologized to the individuals/ communities they offended; some have not.
In thinking through these terms that have become part of the lingua franca of U.S.A. poetry communities, I believe it’s important to note that while the words call-out and cancel have been used by those calling attention to and challenging the poetry and/or behavior of certain poets, the conversion of these declamations and hectorings into cultures has largely been the response of those targeted, or sympathetic to those targeted, for shaming and/or excommunication. “Culture,” in this context, is negative, a diseased cell, tissue, or organ whose etiologies can be attributed to historical or mythic causes.2For example, the historical exclusion of ethnic and racial minorities from the public spheres (magazines, journals, presses, etc.) of poetry is often cited as one reason why poets of color are sensitive (some say hypersensitive) to what they perceive as cultural appropriations. At the same time, the myth that poetry can be drained of its historicity orients those offended by certain attitudes or expressions in certain poems. Thus, when I employ the phrases “call-out culture” and “cancel culture,” I am marking these as givens only within the logic of the alleged aggrieved, those responding to being called out, being cancelled. Moreover, despite call-out and cancel culture sometimes being used interchangeably by alleged perpetrators, there are important differences between the terms. Call-out culture is, as it were, the charges brought against individual poets; cancel culture is the attempt to sentence the guilty. Of course, both call-out and cancel cultures are controversial since, as many have pointed out, the accused poet rarely has an opportunity to “respond” to the charges, much less mount a “defense.” Although some have consequently associated call-out and cancel culture with lynch mob psychology, I believe this linkage has to be qualified by the context in which these accusations often occur, by which I mean what has come to be called rape culture.3Connell, Noreen & Wilson, Cassandra, Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women by New York Radical Feminists, New American Library, 1974. In such an environment, the legal platitude “innocent until proven guilty” takes a backseat to the argument that inasmuch as the testimony of rape victims is usually insufficient to prove guilt (the old he-said/she-said dilemma), multiple testimonies by victims can serve as compelling evidence in the absence of any other physical proof of assault. The psychology behind this phenomenon, along with the familiar argument that almost every facet of U.S.A. society—its economics, its politics, its social worlds, etc.—facilitate the objectification and denigration of women, accounts in part for the widespread belief that, in the absence of physical evidence, only if two or more women or men say “it” happened, it did, in fact, happen. Although the concept of rape culture applies to the nation at large, the academic and poetry worlds, however distinct, have their own units of macro- and microaggressions that regularly express the underlying values of rape culture. It is not surprising that some of the accusations of harassment against primarily male poets have been made during and after academic and creative writing conferences where convivial social interactions and the consumption of legal and illegal substances often constitute a potent cocktail. Thus call-out culture, as a weapon against those presumed innocent because they cannot be “proven guilty” in a court of law, offers a necessary, if draconian, corrective to the “anything goes” atmosphere that sometimes pervades these academic and social events. Unable or unwilling to seek redress through the legal system, victims of harassment and their supporters resort to harassing alleged perpetrators via social media. In thus converting alleged perpetrators of harassment into victims of harassment, and themselves into perpetrators, call-out and cancel cultures embed themselves into extralegal circles of accusations and counter-accusations that too often conclude with the threat of legal action by those initially accused or with all parties exhausted by the exchanges.
Call-out and cancel cultures are not phenomena only of the world of U.S.A. poetry. The art world may be even more notorious for these kinds of flare-ups, attacks and counterattacks around certain artworks (e.g., Dana Schutz’s 2016 painting, Open Casket), and while the world of fiction and nonfiction have had their share of potentially career-cancelling events (the current debate about American Dirt or James Frey’s disastrous appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006), I must admit I tend to be more attuned to poetry matters than the controversies that pop up in the fiction and nonfiction business. Still, my curiosity peaked when I came across an essay by the well-known and well-received fiction writer and essayist Zadie Smith. In her October 24, 2019 essay, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” in The New York Review of Books, Smith offers less a general “defense” of imagining and inhabiting the lives of others, characters and people unlike her in every possible sense (gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, etc.) than a description of her own idiosyncratic practices and prejudices. Nonetheless, she does take some broad swipes, criticizing the culture of “likeness,” that one should only write about, inhabit the bodies of, people who are “like” us in terms of sexual orientation, gender, race, class, etc. At the same times, because her view of the function of fiction is, as she writes, “indefensible,” she acknowledges that her assumptions about the capaciousness of fiction may well be passé.
Because the traditions of narrative and lyric still dominate the way most poets and readers conceive and frame their understandings of what poetry “is,” the problems of the traditional fiction writer—how to imagine and construct credible, interesting, characters that in no sense “resemble” the author—rarely coincide with the problems of the traditional poet (the Anders Carlson-Wee “case” is the exception that proves the rule).4Carlson-Wee’s poem, “How-To,” published in the July 5, 2018 issue of The Nation, was widely criticized for its attempt to “speak” Black English. With all this in mind, I began to wonder about the extent to which, if at all, Smith’s analysis pertains to recent debates over “likeness,” over “staying in your lane,” in writing poetry. To what extent is a popular phrase like “cultural appropriation” both a potential tool of analysis and, as Smith suggests, a form of containment that orients and predetermines the act of writing poetry? In short, to what extent is one effect of call-out and cancel cultures another instance of what I will call preemptive culture: the self-censorship that predetermines what cannot be written before pen is put to paper, before a key is pressed. As I will try to show, preemptive culture is neither new nor negative since it refers to the ethical, moral, social, and cultural constraints all artists labor under. It was precisely these redundant, overlapping enforcements that the Surrealists attempted to overthrow. For Zadie Smith, cultural appropriation can be understood as a form of containment that predetermines conclusions and serves as a productive tool of critical analysis and creative expression. Cultural appropriation, like surrealism, can offer an exit from the internalized limits of preemptive culture. But in order to talk about preemptive culture I will need to take seriously the claims and ethical stances of call-out and cancel culture, not in relationship to rape culture alone but also in relation to the social and cultural capital they target.
Not surprisingly, Smith’s essay has generated a great deal of negative feedback. Criticism of her essay has swung between attacking her for living a privileged life as a light-skinned person of (partial) African descent to being a hopeless nineteenth century Romantic, out of touch with current issues in fiction and nonfiction. The heat—if not light—generated by the responses to Smith’s essay suggests that the issues raised by her naysayers cannot be brushed off as New Puritanism even if call-out and cancel culture can indeed be understood as a kind of aesthetic fundamentalism, one akin to its religious, social and political cousins. That is, aesthetic fundamentalism within the realm of United States poetry has to be taken seriously in all its permutations. For example, I am going to be discussing this issue in relation to poetry written in English—the U.S.A. language I know best—for an English-language online publication. These preconditions of my writing and publication already serve to marginalize, if not cancel, the concerns of U.S.A. poets whose first language is not English and who may be no more fluent in English (writing or speaking) than I am in, say, Spanish or Thai. This is the first, maybe most significant, qualification of what follows.
In the West, call-out and cancel culture can be said to “begin” with “hard” and “soft” call-outs and cancellations during Greek antiquity: Socrates’s death sentence and Plato’s Republic. Socrates accepts his death sentence (however much he disputes its rationale) because he accepts the laws of his society, and since he valorizes moral integrity and “the good” above all else, both of which depend on obeying immutable (natural) and mutable (cultural) laws, he cannot, in good conscience, violate his principles in order to save a life even if that life is his own.5In certain Islamic traditions the burning of books one has written was perceived as the apex of religious devotion and humility. Less dramatically, Plato wishes to only exclude the poets from his ideal state but he does not wish to kill them. Although it might appear to be counterintuitive, excommunication is a more effective method of culture cancellation than a death penalty precisely because the former is soft, because excommunication removes, but does not destroy, the body. Those who suffer the penalty of death, who die for causes (aesthetic, civic, political, or religious), may actually have their cultural, if not their social, capital recovered and preserved once they have been sainted as martyrs. Those who are “merely” silenced, removed from social bodies, may have greater hurdles to reclaim their cultural capital since martyrdom has historically proven to increase one’s chances of posthumous fame.6Of course, losing both social and cultural capital can “double,” as it were, one’s chances for posthumous fame. Zora Neale Hurston’s ignoble death and burial in an unmarked grave long after her books went out of print is a classic, though by no means unique, example.
Few U.S.A. poets suffer Socrates’s fate, which is one reason American poets sometimes romanticize the imprisonment and deaths of East European and U.S.S.R. poets under Communism. When American poets do die relatively young, their deaths are sometimes interpreted as “suicide by society,” gestures meant to nominate the deceased for martyrdom. However, even American poets who die largely ignored, largely unpublished, or “silenced” due to racial, ethnic, class, or gender prejudice and/or discrimination still have a hard road toward martyrdom. This is because, from the 1950s to the 1990s, American culture developed into a dominant force worldwide. Thanks in part to the economic rations and war bond purchases that helped finance the Second World War, the U.S.A. emerged from the worldwide conflagration flush with economic resources (its main trade competitors in Europe having suffered devastating infrastructural damage) that would help build unprecedented cultures for adults (museums, libraries, arts foundations, etc.) and youth (the film and popular music industries). Tethered to a tradition of liberal free speech (as opposed to the more conservative libel and slander laws of England, for example), these industries helped usher in a cultural epoch during which free speech was enhanced and distributed in both analog (newspapers, brochures, flyers, mimeographs, etc.) and digital (social media platforms, chat rooms, email, tweets, etc.) formats over the course of a century. In such a culture of combined analog and digital information overload where one may say anything short of yelling fire in a theater and write and publish anything short of calling for the assassination of political figures, what does it mean to “cancel” or “silence” someone (short of killing them)?
For example, thanks to the advent of small press publishing, it is more difficult for poets to go unpublished in this country even though the majority of people writing poems in the United States will never be published. At the same time, the widespread venues for publication means that every poet has a greater chance of being published today than, say, twenty years ago even as publication overload devalues each and every poem, chapbook, and book of poetry published regardless of their aesthetic, social, cultural, or political value. And since small presses sometimes (but crucially, not always) offer themselves as divergent aesthetic havens in relationship to a perceived “dominant” aesthetic, even aesthetics different from those that orient academic aesthetics (more heterogeneous than ever thanks to the hiring and tenuring of post-New Critical scholars in universities and colleges) can find a “home.” As a partisan of avant-garde aesthetics, I understand that this particular historical intervention remains pertinent only to the extent “mainstream” (that is, narrative and lyric) poetry and poetics—academic and not—retain their hegemonic grip on the infrastructures underlying the “po’ biz.” And yet, precisely because avant-garde aesthetics have failed to dislodge mainstream poetry and poetics from their strongholds within U.S.A. cultural institutions, post-avant-garde poetics have understandably asserted their rights to take over the fight and “retire” the old guard.7Of course, not all poets and poetics cloaked in the garb of the historical avant-garde or post-avant-garde are committed to undercutting the value of cultural hegemony per se. Many simply want a seat at the table.
In this context, two of the most potent tools for silencing a poet in a climate of virtual non-silence is call-out culture and cancel culture, umbrella terms that cover a number of shut-down tactics: flaming, shaming, petitions, boycotts, etc. Both call-out and cancel cultures comprise groups of individuals (“coalitions” or “mobs,” depending on one’s view) deploying social media campaigns against individuals (institutions are largely impervious to these campaigns) deemed unworthy, for a variety of reasons, of the social and cultural capital they have accrued. To the extent call-out and cancel cultures attempt to deny these individuals the capital they and their defenders believe they should retain, they and their opponents can appear in many political guises. That is, the battles between them can appear as a conservative defense of manners and etiquette (and thus a dampening down of cultural, class, and/or social antagonisms), a liberal arbitration or moderation of entrenched antagonisms, or a revolutionary struggle against cultural hegemony itself. In the wake of a leveling of the aesthetic field (which is not equivalent to cultural relativism or a “loss” of standards) more and more dependent on performative acts (e.g., readings, conferences, networking, etc.), social capital and cultural capital become almost indistinguishable. It was the historical avant-garde that first explicitly demonstrated the various ways that social formations and the accumulation of cultural capital, while not indissociable, were interdependent phenomena within any given context.8One may have either social or cultural capital. That is, one’s “reputation” among poets may depend on one’s sociability and “service” (e.g., book reviews) more than one’s own cultural products (e.g., poems, plays, etc.). The late Kevin Killian may have been one an example of this phenomenon. And the reverse also holds: a poet may have accrued a great deal of cultural capital without much social capital. This is the phenomenon of the “reclusive” poet whose fame may rest more on their isolation than their creative works. In denying an individual social capital, however, the proponents of call-out and cancel cultures may unwittingly contribute to the person’s cultural capital. That is, the closer the reprobate approaches social death the closer that individual may approach martyrdom and thus, become a candidate for “rescue” by supporters. But even if the individual poet disappears into silence and oblivion, he (and thus far, it has primarily been some he) may, at some indeterminate moment in the future, accrue posthumous cultural capital that nears or exceeds human accountability.
In short, while call-out campaigns can be effective tools for calling attention to “bad” or even illegal behavior by poets, cancel campaigns almost never achieve their goals. Despite the widespread democratization of the poetry business thanks to desktop and small press publishing, the playing field is not level. All this means is that traditional aesthetic values held over from and during the historical avant-garde interventions still orient the field of poetry. For many poets, publishing in small presses instills a reverse snobbery that has no justification in a cultural or political commitment to not doing business as usual. That is, for many poets, small press publishing is fine, even preferred, until a major trade—say, Knopf or W.W. Norton—comes a-calling. So silencing or canceling a poet often simply means forcing a major trade or institution to cancel a contract with a poet, sending the unlucky soul scurrying for an obscure small press or other sites that will not draw too much attention.9In February 2016 poet, Thomas Sayers Ellis had his Iowa Writers Workshop classes cancelled because of allegations of sexual harassment and rape made against him by a number of women writers. He subsequently was disinvited from a summer teaching post at the Poetry Center at Arizona State University. A stronger mode of silencing is one dependent on the proliferation of published poetry, journals, and magazines. I mentioned above that in this situation of near egalitarianism every publication is intrinsically devalued according to the currency of evaluative standards (traditional or not). In brief, every publication is fighting for a tiny share of a shrinking publicity market even as the publishing market expands. A corollary to this state of affairs is that obsolescence is built into the larger poetry market at every level: publication, publicity, and reviewing. This means that if a poet is the target of a call-out or cancel culture campaign that results in the loss of conference, lecture, and reading invitations, to say nothing of banishment to the hinterlands of obscure, micro-press publishing for a period of a few years, that person’s career as a public poet could very be over because he will have been rendered obsolescent. To that extent, the canceled poet and the mid-career poet share a common dilemma—everybody knows them (for better and worse) so there’s no need to bother reading, much less reviewing, their newish, much less newest, publications.
The truth is, only “professional” poets, those who make their living doing reading tours, teaching at poetry institutions and centers, and conducting writing residences are at risk of having their social and cultural capital cancelled. As the Vanessa Place case demonstrates, the non-professional poet is largely inured to cancellation however called-out. Place is a well-known advocate of Conceptual Writing, a post-Language Writing “movement” dedicated to what was once called “found” poetry: reframing preexisting texts in a manner analogous to Conceptualism in the art world.10Judith Goldman has written a cogent critique of the problematic attempts to appropriate methodologies from the plastic arts and apply them to the language arts. An attorney, Place was, before 2015, known for her appropriation and repurposing of transcripts from court cases as poetry. However, Place, who had unsuccessfully sought to gain permission from the Margaret Mitchell estate to use excerpts from the novel Gone With The Wind for a project, began tweeting some of the more explicitly racist passages from the novel in 2009, hoping to goad the estate into a copyright infringement suit. Because Twitter at that time limited tweets to 137 characters, each of Place’s tweets fell within the Fair Use limits. Her stream of tweets in toto, of course, violated the policy, so presumably Place was hoping to force the estate into a legal showdown over whether or not this new technology—Twitter—facilitated copyright infringement. It is not clear why it took nearly six years before some online users of Twitter noticed Place’s tweets but once they did, many, including members of the Mongrel Coalition, began criticizing and calling-out Place for racial insensitivity.11It may be that Kenneth Goldsmith’s controversial performance of his Conceptual piece “The Body of Michael Brown” in March 2015 set the stage for Place’s tweets coming to light later that same year. More controversy followed as Place was disinvited from a Bay Area Writers Conference and removed from the selection committee of the 2016 AWP conference.
Strictly speaking, these two widely publicized cancellations of speaking and judging engagements do not rise to the level of cancel culture since Place continues to write and read her work. Part of this has to do with her status within the poetry community. Place does not do reading tours; she only accepts discrete reading and lecture invitations. Moreover, Place publishes her work under avant-garde imprints largely immune to public indignation. Finally, and unsurprisingly, the sales of her books experienced a small uptick during her fifteen minutes of infamy.
So how does cancel culture relate to what I think of as preemptive culture, the self-censorship that occurs both in relationship to subject matter and the formal strategies that signify “poetry”? Because self-censorship is, by definition, largely invisible, a form of negation that cannot show up in print except as the underbody of its positive shadow, one might imagine that one effect of call-out and cancel culture would be the proliferation of so-called politically correct poetry. That is, the poet, sensitive to not offending any racial, ethnic, or economic group traditionally marginalized within poetry communities and the United States at large, might take fewer risks in both content and form. This avoidance of risk has its mirror image in the increasing visibility of poetry by these same groups. And indeed, magazines like Poetry, American Poetry Review, and others now feature a wide array of poetry by writers from various non-European nations, writers who identify as members of the LGBTQIA communities, and so forth.12Obviously, I am not commenting on the aesthetic merits of the poems, much less the poets, themselves. Rather, the focus is on the market and its accommodation for what it regards as “new voices” even if these poets, to say nothing of their traditions, are only new to the magazines and journals and their purported audiences.
Like call-out and cancel cultures, preemptive culture is nothing new. Poets have always censored themselves for political, religious, and cultural reasons. Thus, preemptive culture is not necessarily a by-product of call-out or cancel culture. Nonetheless, Kenneth Goldsmith has never “performed” another black person, or any person, autopsy report since the Michael Brown fiasco at, ironically, Brown University in 2015. And Vanessa Place has ceased tweeting the entirety of Gone with the Wind. Of course, these authors may simply have chosen to move on; few poets like to repeat themselves and even fewer can be browbeaten into remorse or self-censorship. He may be the exception but Anders Carlson-Wee did issue an apology for his so-called “blackface” poem, as did the poetry editors of The Nation. I imagine he will not be writing any poems in the voice of a black homeless person anytime soon.
For me, preemptive culture risks preventing poets from trying and failing, from trying to say what they dare not say, and to that extent I side with Zadie Smith. Don’t get me wrong; I would not want to muzzle the mouths of those whose sensibilities are offended or outraged by a poem or performance. On the contrary, that’s the point: poets taking risks and agitated or offended readers taking the poets to task. The great thing about call-out and cancel culture is that they remind us that the ancient debates about art, the artist, community, and responsibility are still up for grabs, that neither side has “won.” I’m not being cavalier about the real lives, the real bodies, at stake in all this. On the contrary, these arguments must unfold as they have, as they will, precisely because actual lives, actual bodies, are at stake. The risks, real risks, are shared by poets and readers, teachers and students, even if the risks are not shared equally. In that sense, the poet must struggle against the preemptive culture impressed upon, absorbed into, the body, just as those whose bodies are threatened by the poets’ creative expressions and performances must continue to call out, must attempt to cancel, the poet’s social and cultural capital. In the arts alone (thus far), in this struggle between expelling preemptive culture and enforcing call-out and cancel culture, two permanent revolts against what we might call “manners” and “audacity” dance crazily with one another toward the conditions of permanent revolution.
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