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It's Time to Confront Conflict in the Poetry Community
Poet addresses online bullying within the poetry community
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
My sincere intention behind this article is to ask how might non-traditional communities, communities that do not have the normal mechanisms of conflict de-escalation and intervention at their disposal, find healthy ways to create such mechanisms for the people they find themselves in community with. As artists, creating with our own internal conflicts is the very life blood of what we do in our work if it is not to be superficial. How then might we create “deep” forms of intervention and de-escalation that do the same on a wider community scale?
The diverse communities of activism offer us so many good examples of how we might model such forms. From restorative justice circles to de-escalators, activists have often been on the front lines of dealing with the internal conflicts that arise in their non-traditional movements. Perhaps it helps that they are somewhat bound by a common cause and so it is in the best interest of their very survival structure to find ways of resolving conflicts with their community members.
But what binds a literary/art community together? Is it the work we do? Is it the publishing and networking opportunities alone? Or is it also the deep friendships we form and the sense of camaraderie and support that inevitably feeds the heart of our work just as much as our own attempts to work out our conflicts, the great human conflict, through our art does? If it’s also this, what happens when that is consistently undermined or eroded? What are the emotional and psychological costs? The physical costs? The community costs?
When there are no roads to resolution people are left to wander like exiles in the fields outside the great cities of belonging. This seems to be a problem humanity has suffered from for a very long time. And yet we’ve also gotten better at finding inroads to many of our problems in these thorny areas. One of the very unfortunate side effects of modern technology is that it has made dehumanization preferable and desirable. Literature and art have been democratized thanks to technology in a really beautiful way, allowing people a voice who for so long did not have one in the traditional, and just as often, non-traditional, creative spaces. Nonetheless, if most of the opportunities for our work to be read exists online, the costs of not confronting what happens to artists who are scapegoated, bullied and dogpiled online are too great to ignore.
Trauma is so often cumulative. Over time it can erode a person's sense of well-being to the point of self-destruction. What is most insidious about forms of online conflict, which are often very abusive, is that they suffer from the illusion that there is no real person on the other end of conflict. We just don’t do that in real life. Yes, we sometimes come to blows, but we are much less under the illusion that the person in front of us is a real person. If I were to call you a “whiny little bitch” to your face, I would be forced to see your face, the hurt and shock or even anger, and such seeing would help temper my recklessness, I would hope, however imperfectly. But there are no faces to see online.
If most of the opportunities for our work to be read exists online, the costs of not confronting what happens to artists who are scapegoated, bullied and dogpiled online are too great to ignore.
Emmanuel Levinas calls the face the place of ethical injunction: thou shall not kill. No face, no injunction. Such great damage that is then caused. With no mechanisms of intervention or conflict resolution to be called on, we are each left quite literally at each other's throats.
So why wouldn't we want to create such forms of intervention for our diverse creative communities? If silence is rewarded, conflict encouraged, accountability so distorted as a term as to mean almost its opposite, then the implication is that to do so would be tantamount to making oneself voluntarily an exile. “We just don’t talk about that,” as many dysfunctional families would say.
We need to talk about it. Let’s talk about it. I want to share a bit of my personal story and a few vignettes of things that my friends and colleagues have gone through in the poetry community, as a way to ask what ought we to do to help in such moments. It is my hope that doing so might prompt a re-evaluation of what matters more: opportunity or community.
A few years ago, I found myself at the center of a Twitter storm that would wind up taking a great toll on my mental health. It began with my co-editor at my literary magazine tweeting something in regards to a person in the community who had been deemed “problematic.” My co-editor spoke up in defense of this person. Another lit mag editor objected to my co-editor’s statement. What could have been an honest, good-faith discussion among adults with differing viewpoints quickly turned into heated arguments, insults and what amounted to a twitter dogpile upon myself and my co-editor that lasted weeks. Many poets, writers and journal editors joined in with comments that in some instances felt so personal and abusive that I felt compelled to report their tweets.
For someone outside this sort of situation, it might be easy to say, “Ignore them,” or “Just block them.” But as anyone who has experienced this knows, these dogpiles are very difficult to ignore. Those hurling insults often demand a response, weaponizing your own boundary-setting (your “silence”) against you. When I did eventually block one of these editors, that actually made things worse. I was singled out and insulted even further, both on Twitter and then on Facebook, where the mob continued its campaign on my personal page.
My emotional world spun into turmoil. It felt like I was watching events from outside of my body. What was happening? It was all so disproportionate to anything tangible that I could only assume the malice was deeply personal and not about me at all. Of course I didn’t think that right at that moment. At that moment I wanted to die. In fact, one person, a poet who my magazine had actually published in the past, messaged me on Instagram to suggest I should maybe do as much. I had thoughts of relapsing. My whole life felt like it was ending.
Soon my career was also hit by the storm. Two editors removed my poems from their journals. (They did not notify me of the removals, nor did they explain their decisions.) Another editor took down an interview I was the subject of on the very day it was published. I was not conferred with. No one asked for my side of the story. These editors’ actions made clear what they thought: while they had once found my writing worthy of publication, they no longer considered me worthy enough, as a human being, to appear in their magazines.
Two writers withdrew their books from our press. One of those authors, who I was very close with, ended our friendship abruptly, and though we did eventually converse privately, and found some closure, that friendship’s ending was especially painful.
A friend of mine was threatened that their book would be pulled by a publisher if they continued to be friends with me. Not if they continued to associate with me, but if they continued to be friends with me.
How did we get here as a community?
I present all this here not in order to re-litigate the specific details of what happened. (All of this transpired over five years ago.) Rather, to show an example of the type of Twitter dogpile that can take place and the psychological and material consequences such dogpiles can have.
I would like to make people aware that this takes place, also, so that we as a community can do a better job of seeing it, recognizing it, and addressing it.
As I was managing issues in my own personal life, and as I was struggling with mental health issues that pre-dated this incident (and which I had been quite public about in the past), it was nearly impossible for me to understand what was happening and how to deal with it in the moment. Several people reached out to me at that time. I can tell you now, those people made a real difference. Their messages of support quite literally saved my life. And it also taught me something very important: sometimes the best thing we can do in such moments is to reach out privately to people who are being scapegoated and dogpiled on the internet and make sure that they’re ok, and let them know that they are cared about.
A large part of the pain in these situations is community silence. But members of the community have good reason to be fearful when certain other members make it very clear what the costs and consequences of speaking out will be. So what are our options? I will end with what I think are a few healthy and pragmatic suggestions in a moment, but first I’d like to share a few stories of similar events that have happened to friends and colleagues and I’d like for you to try and put yourselves in their shoes for a moment. To close your eyes and feel just a bit of what they felt in the difficult moments when the internet was tearing them apart. I believe our empathy is the main road that leads the exiled back to the land of the living.
A large part of the pain in these situations is community silence.
A few years ago, a young poet was caught plagiarizing another poet's work. They were not just called out and asked to be accountable, they were brutally made fun of, and to this day the occasional cruel reminder will be posted online about them as if they are not even a real person. You could tell it was never really about accountability to many of the people who went after them as, when this person accepted full responsibility for their transgression, and apologized personally to the poet whose work they had plagiarized from, no one cared. It wasn’t what they had really wanted. They wanted someone to make fun of. They wanted someone to take their anger out on. A person who is trying to be accountable is just spoiling the fun.
I reached out to this person, as had been done for me, and found that they were actually handling it much better than I had. I admired the tenacity, perseverance, grace and maturity with which someone so young was handling such a hard life event. We both had recently lost grandparents we were close with, and this person shared with me a poem that they had written for their grandparent, a beautiful poem, in their own beautiful and unique words, and I couldn’t help but feel so sad for this immensely talented young person who had made, and genuinely sought to atone for a mistake, and who told me “I will always keep writing, but just for me. I will probably never publish again.” It sounded like both a deeply personal choice and an inevitability of the current culture we live in, where redemption is not as desirable as cruelty.
I hope this person does one day publish again, but oh the hard difficult work we’d have to do to make such a thing a possibility. It was cruel enough to have gone through what they went through, but to have to go through it when they lost both of their grandparents, and to have to see the online vitriol, must have been even more painful. I know as I too lost a grandparent that I cared for on hospice during my “cancellation.” In my case, people used it as an opportunity to make fun of my “dead Grandma.” I want to think that these deeper stories would matter to those who often refuse to see the hurting and human face of the other, but for whatever reason we live in a time in which we just do not take the time to really see and hear each other in these deeper, more thoughtful ways.
Two other poets I know were “canceled” for personal conflicts with their ex-partners. They both permanently deleted their social media and quit publishing in addition to having much of their work removed from magazines. While I didn’t know them as well as I did the poet described earlier, I can only imagine their solitary journeys of exile were very similar and just as painful. The events surrounding their cancellations were very confusing, as personal conflicts tend to be, and it wasn’t obvious to me why it was a community concern.
Many of the same people were involved in their cancellation (if it isn’t obvious by now when I use the term “cancellation” it is used as a placeholder for what is more accurately bullying, scapegoating and dogpiling group behavior, which often leads to removal of a writer’s published work and/or a writer’s own decision to quit.) Once again it seemed obvious that accountability was not the goal, whatever that even would have been in such a personal situation, an apology and making amends to one’s ex I would imagine. Why that should translate into never being allowed to publish again eludes me. How sad that we have made a world for these young people in which redemption is derided and held in contempt, that they should feel they have to abandon their creative passions publicly rather than find pathways towards repair and reconciliation.
There are many, many more stories like these I could tell. But I would like to end with one other, because it touches on the emotional tone I hope is coming though in this piece: the emotional toll such events take on us, what it feels like to feel so alone and abandoned. An editor I ended up befriending was bullied online for their religious beliefs. I don’t happen to share their beliefs but the point is that I saw a person in pain, much as I was, and I reached out to them to try and offer some comfort and counsel. They were finding, much as I had found, that the most painful part of an online dogpiling campaign is the friends who abandon you, or who slowly ice you out, or who unpublish and de-platform you.
Or, sometimes even worse, the friends and colleagues who don’t necessarily make it clear where they stand, leaving you to have to fill in the blanks when you’re already emotionally reeling. If this sounds abusive it’s because it is. Over time it erodes one’s self-esteem and it can make one question one’s own reality. Do I deserve it? Maybe I deserve it? Much like the cycles of grieving: denial, anger, and sadness, all the feelings one can feel arise and take turns as we navigate life in exile.
“No one really knows what it’s like unless they’ve been through it themselves,” this person told me. And they meant emotionally. It’s one thing to know what something is like intellectually, and it’s another thing entirely to know what it feels like.
I repeat: to lose our friends is the most painful part. Some might say they were never friends to begin with, but I don’t believe that. Some people find conflict very hard because they came from very abusive households where being in conflict meant being in imminent danger, and it makes sense to want to avoid that.
So, we have traumatized people, bystanders, who feel too frightened to speak. We have opportunists who value publishing opportunities and surface community more than they do the hard work of forging real community and real redemption and repair. We have traumatized bullies who are trying to work out the pain of their past, the disappointments and failures of their families of origin, and the unatoned and unpunished abuses of their past abusers on people who have nothing to do with the pain they’ve experience and haven’t yet been able to process. And then we have the traumatized people with similar life histories to these bullies who are the targets of their abuse. What to do? What to do?
One of the great things about restorative justice circles and conflict de-escalation is that it encourages a non-shaming intervention for all those involved. Accountability is to be had, not with cruelty and arbitrary acting out, but with reasoned and ethical intention and intervention. It’s also something I encountered in rehab, confronting people’s behavior, which often includes telling someone how it made you feel, can and should be done, and is the best way to foster accountability and self-reflection.
Ironically telling someone how their behavior is making you feel online would be but gasoline to a raging fire. Nothing could make a bully laugh more than knowing your feelings are hurt. It’s worth remembering that this is so because, once, long ago, nothing made that person’s tormentors laugh more than that person’s pain. Or there was no one around who believed and held their pain, and so they learned to wear the mask of their enemy as a way of keeping themselves sane and safe. Better to become the thing that hurt you than to feel the pain caused by the one’s who hurt you.
So how do we deal with such a powder keg of fraught life stories and irrational behavior? How do we reel and call each other in? The first step, like addiction, is admitting that we have a problem. Unlike addiction, however, this is a problem we aren’t entirely powerless over, (in fact we aren’t entirely powerless over our addictions either, that’s what the program is for.) We have the option of creating forms of healthy intervention for our non-traditional communities as much as activists themselves do and have. We can learn from them, utilizing what works and adapting along the way. But we have to admit that there’s a problem, that its emotional costs on real people are too high to pay, and that we care enough to intervene in ways that will benefit everyone at no one’s expense.
We have the option of creating forms of healthy intervention.
What that will ultimately look like is up to each and every one of us. Perhaps for some of us it will simply look like reaching out privately to make sure someone who is experiencing online dogpiling is ok. Or for some of us it might mean stating emphatically and clearly that we find such behavior unacceptable and that we will have no part in it. But what it can’t look like is silence or avoidance. We are each called on to look out for one another by talking about the problems we face honestly, compassionately, and truthfully. There are ways to do so where we can move, over time, as Jessica Benjamin says, from positions of “only one can live,” to positions where “all can live.”
I’d like to end by asking you to imagine what it must feel like to be such an exile. Or to be a person who is in so much pain from the unresolved abuse of their past that all they can do is wear the mask of the people who hurt them. Or to be an onlooker who can still hear the booming voices of their parent’s fighting and feel the cramped closet of where they hid against the small of their back, and of all the ways they learned over time to dissociate in order to survive. If we can feel all of that, if we can access it inside of ourselves, and connect it to our own stories, our own struggles, and if we can learn from communities that wade also into these waters and have found ways to confront and work with conflict and relational damage, then maybe, just maybe, we really all can live. And create. And love. And grow.
Create. Love. And grow.
Who doesn’t want, who doesn’t need these things?
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