July 26, 2018

Dear Emily Post-Avant,

Everyone in the poetry world seems to be talking about this poem published in the Nation three weeks ago, by the young poet Anders Carlson-Wee. I actually knew Carlson-Wee a bit, when we were both Wallace Stegner Fellows at Stanford, not long ago. He was a nice guy to be around, an easy sense of humor, smart and ambitious, though not overbearingly so. He came from a wealthy background, but had spent a good part of his late teens and twenties hopping freight trains and moving around. He was one of the “next big things,” with a bunch of prizes and a book coming from Norton. I wanted to ask you what you thought of the poem and about the wrathful fallout after its publication. The Nation Poetry Editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, have made a public apology for choosing to print it. Carlson-Wee also offered an apology on Twitter and on his Facebook page, but the FB page is down, and he has apparently gone into hiding. Here is the poem, prefaced by the apology of Burt and Giménez Smith, as it appears now at the online page of the magazine. I am interested to know what you think about all this, Emily Post-Avant, and thank you for what you do! You are quite a bit more interesting than your copycats at the Paris Review RX advice column, I must say. Keep it going.

–Poet at Union Station, Waiting for a Train

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Editor’s note: On July 24, 2018, The Nation and its poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, made this statement about the poem below, which contains disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities:

 

As poetry editors, we hold ourselves responsible for the ways in which the work we select is received. We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem “How-To.”  We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem. We recognize that we must now earn your trust back.  Some of our readers have asked what we were thinking. When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.

We are currently revising our process for solicited and unsolicited submissions. But more importantly, we are listening, and we are working. We are grateful for the insightful critiques we have heard, but we know that the onus of change is on us, and we take that responsibility seriously. In the end, this decision means that we need to step back and look at not only our editing process, but at ourselves as editors.

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How-To

 

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

 

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Dear Poet at Union Station, Waiting for a Train

Yes, I’ve seen some of the self-righteous outcry on social media, even though I don’t use social media. A few people have sent me screen shots of stuff.

I admit to enjoy seeing Po-Land’s new and saintly Mother Superior, Stephanie Burt, finally have to squirm and grovel a bit. (Burt is the conflated successor to Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff. And what could be more apropos to our late Salon poetic period, than to have such synthesis?)

It is clear that Burt and Giménez Smith chose to publish this poem, if that’s what it is, only because it was written by someone who, as you write, “was one of the next big things, with a bunch of prizes and a book coming from Norton.” That is the real secret behind their “serious mistake,” and don’t you doubt it for a minute. The elite, mandarin echelons of Po-Biz are awash in opportunist, insider-tradeoff porn. And the shameless hypocrisy now on display by these Nation gatekeepers serves the lesson up on a shiny sociological platter.

The proof of the occulted poetic politics driving the editors’ “acceptance” is that the poem itself is something of an unprecedented “WTF?” even in this time of lots of headscratchers. The young poet in this case, we should grant, seems “well intentioned” enough, in the well-trod, superior, bourgeois white-liberal manner, aiming to express sympathy for the downtrodden. But he betrays, as he does, everything that is wrong with, precisely, such naïve and privileged white-liberal sympathy. I.e., “We will tell you how it is with you, and this will help better your lot in the end.” The poem is hands down embarrassingly inept, both in its technique and in its obliviousness to current “woke” trends. Astonishingly, Burt and Giménez Smith were smug and big-headed enough in their high stations to think they could slide one in for Norton and get away with it. Or else they were so focused on doing the sliding-in that they forgot to really read the stinker.

And don’t you just love how Burt and Giménez Smith, in their pathetic, self-serving apology, so cavalierly throw this young, hapless poet into the shark tank? They publish his poem, then they spin around and accuse him of racism, ableism, disparagement, and whatnot, refusing even, to mention his name? Their “apology” is shameful, both for its hypocrisy and for its quasi-Stalinist readiness to turn on a dime and demolish the character and poetic life of another person—someone they selected for their pages, and who is guilty of nothing more, in the end, than a big blooper made with decent, if confused, intentions. Too bad, say Burt and Giménez Smith (though without saying it, of course) if you fucked up, kid, with hungry killer fish all around you. We’re sure not going to put in a considerate word for you, even though we fucked up, too, and worse than you, given our experience. This is Po-Biz, and we’ve got our own skins to save!

And, really, Poet at Union Station (I hope you aren’t hopping a train, too!): Nearly all these scandalized reactions on social media the past few weeks by comfy-cozy white poets with iPhones and travel stipends are as insufferable as they are predictable. Smaller sharks finning in fast to feed.

Let’s be honest. Most of these horrified, indignant bards wouldn’t go near a homeless person, if given a choice.

OK, so that’s my take, sent to you with a kiss and a bow on top. Thanks for writing to ask, in midst of your travels. And for christ’s sake, look out where yr going.

 

–Emily Post-Avant