Social media, bullying and poetry critique

The business of words keeps me awake...
Last night, Georgia Center for the Book kindly selected my poem, "Saving Anne Sexton," to lead off its Poem-A-Day project to mark National Poetry Month. Shortly after it was posted on Facebook, a number of readers took offense to the poem. The comments were strongly worded, but polite. I explained that my intent was to praise Sexton, not victimize her. I apologized for any offense, my metaphors not landing and contemplated having the poem removed.

Then I saw the critique by Kia Alice Groom and Sonya Vatomsky – the two commenters on Facebook who were opposed to the language I used in the poem – posted at their online literary magazine, Quaint. That led to my discovery of their personal comments on Twitter. Both Groom and Vatomsky were dabbling in what is known as "subtweeting," one of the methods used by cyber-bullies. Rather than include my Twitter name in their comments to address me directly, they were doing so among their followers. I found it cowardly to personally attack me and not have the courage to include me in their actual bullying. That's when I decided to withdraw my apology and informed Georgia Center for the Book to keep the poem on Facebook.

The subtweets labeled me as a "broet," (I would love to know what that term means, since it obviously wasn't a compliment) a "misogynist," a "stupid idiot" and gleeful postings about "taking me down" and "tag teaming a stupid broet." This kind of language undermines any kind of valuable critique offered by Groom and Vatomsky at Quaint or my willingness to engage with them. Their social media comments prove that this was an exercise in cyber-bullying gussied up as critique. They close down discussion or debate by using language that is meant to demean and silence the artist. More on that in a moment.

Both Groom and Vatomsky said they did not know my work or me – I was just going to be the next privileged cis white male who needed to be taken down a peg or two. Ironically, they overlooked their own white privilege while claiming ownership and possession not only of Sexton's body of work, but her physical body as well. Their colonization of Sexton is far more patronizing, dehumanizing and silencing of the woman they claim is a "dead girl" victim of misogyny. Referring to Sexton as a girl, infantilizing her to make her part of their coterie, removes her power as an artist and woman. As they have similarly accused the poem, Vatomsky and Groom graft their own words, actions and thoughts onto Sexton also robbing her of her agency.



Perhaps the most damning tweet was in response to poet Emily Van Duyne: "Well, it's clear you don't get his metaphor. Probably no white man should ever speak again. That would fix this." Groom's response: "True." The wish to silence an artist – no matter their gender, race, orientation, faith – speaks volumes. It's a dangerous mindset and flies in the face of Vatomsky and Groom's argument. When another poet, Hannah Stephenson, objected to Groom and Vatomsky's language, they were both quick to claim their comments weren't personal. All evidence to the contrary.

Yes, the poem is open for interpretation, but Vatomsky and Groom go much further. The parsing of every line and metaphor in search of misogyny is one thing, but the duo's appropriation of the poem to play out some twisted necrophilia on Sexton is quite another.


The most disgusting part of the critique is the bizarre, sexualized imagery created by Vatomsky and Groom of exhuming Sexton's corpse. The use of the words “pristine” and “tight covers” seems particularly problematic, but are just further examples of a deliberate misreading of the poem. Both those words belong to the book selling trade, especially used and antiquarian books. Pristine is defined as a book in original condition, unchanged in any way. Tight covers are used to describe a book that's binding has not loosened to the point that pages will fall out. I plead guilty to the love of rare books and its nomenclature. Even the image of Sexton autographing the book is declared too intimate and the further sexualization of a dead woman. This section of the post goes beyond critique and into grotesque, craven autopsy. My "saving" Sexton was little more than an effort to "fuck, save and dismember" her, according to Groom.

The poem also, according to the assessment, tries to rob Sexton of her agency to commit suicide. If I were a time traveller, would I try to prevent Sexton from killing herself? Yes. Just as I would try to prevent someone – anyone – else from doing the same. The mind-boggler here is that general care and concern, according to Groom and Vatomsky, are just further examples of a man dehumanizing and humiliating a woman. According to Groom, suicide intervention shows a "lack of regard for women, and particularly for women poets." I wonder if the same holds true for my wanting to keep John Berryman and Paul Celan alive for a few more years?

If this is contemporary criticism and I'm out of touch with it, I will happily stay out of touch forever. This incident has also taught me a lesson that a personal experience doesn't always translate and that some people will interpret your experience to match their own solipsism.

As a gay man from blue-collar rural Georgia who is often dismissed from certain literary circles because he is not an academic, I am well aware of how demoralizing marginalization is – perhaps this is why my work so often attempts to give voice where there has been none. I will continue to give that voice, and precisely because of this kerfluffle I will continue to do so loudly. Thank you for reading this.


Update:  More thoughts on this in my conversation with poet Reb Livingston at Queen Mob's Teahouse at this link.

Comments

Kirsten said…
Wow, they are a classy pair, are they not? It is possible to disagree with someone without resorting to name calling and profanity.
You know I love that poem, and you know that I love you. I love the imagery of Anne Sexton signing that beautiful book. I love that you want to save books from an uncertain future. I love that you want to save Anne Sexton`s voice and I love that you will not have your voice silenced.
Anything they had to say that could have been constructive immediately was tainted by their immaturity and hateful rhetoric. It`s hard to take a "critic" seriously when all they do is personally attack someone.
Like I said yesterday, I pity them. Outrage is exhausting and it makes you mean. But they seem to want to be mean. That just makes me pity them more.
Love as always, sweetie.
Collin Kelley said…
I appreciate that, Kirsten. The last 24 hours have been eye-opening to say the least.
Adam Vines said…
Strong and necessary post, friend.
Anonymous said…
I did not care for the poem whatsoever, I found it a familiar trope of man in shining armor saves woman in distress.

I would have been much more interested in the first line of your poem, an expansion upon that.

I know it is hard to feel ganged up on, but unwittingly or not your poem features violence against women (I know, I know your defense here but do not think it is very strong, violence as a metaphor is still violence), and this is a hot button issue, as it should be, correct?

You mention yourself as a member of marginalized groups, would you not rally if you saw a poem subjugating a group of which you identified? If not, I am sad for you.

You appear to now be portraying yourself as the victim, and I understand that you must be surprised and upset at the reaction to your poem, but please understand you've written something larger than yourself that participates in a tradition where women are treated as objects.

Your poem no longer stands for just your poem now. Be surprised at the reaction, but is there not space to learn from it as well? I had empathy for you when I read the initial thread, but this self-pitying because people are calling you names seems unfortunate. A real lesson seemed in the making for you, and now you are resistant because people are angry. Can't both exist: that you are wrong and that they are name callers?

I know you are an individual and not the patriarchy embodied. I know you have feelings and are probably hurt and surprised.

But you are not the victim here. Please understand that.
Collin Kelley said…
I love when "anonymous" people don't have the courage to actually leave their name. This is part of what I'm talking about in the response. If you want to support cyber-bullies and artists who attempt to silence other artists, be my guest. You won't get far here.
Tracy said…
My work is full of violent imgagery. Actual violent imagery, too; not the stuff people are making up in their own heads here. Lots of time I use violence to explore issues of - oh, well, anything I damn well feel like. I write and I try to write what works. It won't work for everyone, but for those who aren't happy with it to assume violence should be avoided because (why avoid it as symbolic of other struggle, again?), and more laughable still that I'm a misogynist because of it is just cray cray.

But no one would say that about me, would they? Since I'm a woman, I can write about violence to women, right? Just not to men or children, and while I'm at it I'd better not try to look at anything in the world empathetically, because that would *surely* lead to a world view so inclusive I was allowed to include myself...

Sorry; I generally try not to rant (oh, who am I kidding?). It's just...the stupid...it hurts my head...
Amos J. Hunt said…
Hi, Collin. I second everything said by the anonymous commenter.
I have no patience whatsoever for those who took issue with the poem, most especially anyone who doesn't have the grit, guts or confidence to use his or her name.

Those people need to go get a life.

Malcolm
Collin Kelley said…
Jameson, it was not my intention to delete your message. I hit the wrong button as I was approving messages and then couldn't get it back. Please feel free to repost it. All opinions will be welcome on this post - even if I don't agree with them. :)
Kirk said…
Your entitlement has made you dumb as shit.
Amos J. Hunt said…
Is poetry and how it affects us not essential to life?
David Herrle said…
Anonymous: "A real lesson seemed in the making for you..." What lesson is that? What is Collin "wrong" about?
Amos J. Hunt said…
Is poetry and how it affects us not essential to life?
I admire your willingness to respond to the bitter diatribes seen in these postings. As someone who spent endless years in academia, I am especially well versed in critiques of the most savage nature -- often made by those masking themselves in self righteousness and insisting on the "constructive" nature of the critiques as an excuse for belittling and mean spirited comments to highlight supposedly their own superiority. These women and their diatribes go well beyond even that category of abuse. In my old age, I have come to believe in the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson who simply said "never explain, never defend" your works of art. I have been reading your works [prose, poetry and non-fiction journalism] and seeing you advance the causes of literary creativity in innumerable public situations for many years now. I hate that you feel it necessary to spend the time and effort to respond to such attacks but understand the impulse. With all you have on your various "plates," I am hoping that these bitter, destructive people have not taken a single minute from the good things you create as art and do for the larger creative community of Atlanta. As I learned long ago in academia, these people are not worth the time and trouble of a serious response and RWE had it right all along -- "Never explain, Never defend." Wishing you all the best as one of the most creative people I have ever known in 67 years.
Cindy Lou Whoo said…
I am not a fan of anonymous. Sounds too much like coward to me. You rock Collin. We all interpret things differently and that's cool who wants to live in an oatmeal like existence, but to think you way of interpreting should be every bodies way of interpreting is just whack ass bullshit. You are a poet, period. Civilians just don't get it!!!
Christine Swint said…
I did not read the tone of this post as one of victimization, as Anonymous has claimed. It's one thing to write a critique, but quite another to slander someone. I am tired of all these privilege wars that some people want to have. We are all brothers and sisters. Your poem can be read in different lights, I suppose. I understood it as someone opening a package to release the poetry. So the extended metaphor displeased some people. Everyone has the right to like or not like a poem or a painting or whatever. But it IS wrong to suppress the other's voice.
Janet Butler said…
I think envy stems from people who are "wanna be's" but know they don't have a shred of talent, so take down those who do. However, some talented poets can also be a bit nasty towards their fellow voyagers. Envy exists in all facets of life - if your poem was selected to lead off the month, that should tell you that it was good! I would just ignore these folks as much as you humanly can.
Anonymous said…
Art is fair game for criticism, but making ad hominem attacks through mean tweets is just, well, juvenile and mean. I think the critics lose some of their moral high ground when they do that. Why go cherry pick a single poem from a writer's work and use that to indict him as a human being through nasty tweets? Is that what they are teaching in grad school these days? That's not criticism. It is indeed bullying.
--JP
Cleo Creech said…
There will always be people who see everything, read every poem, through their own narrow wold-view lens. If you read every poem bound and determined, looking for victimization, privilege, or whatever gripe one carries - chances are you're going to find it. It's kinda of a sad world these critiques live in, and they seem determined to make everyone else miserable as well. As someone else had pointed out, they're actually raising concerns about real concerns, real issues - but they need to look somewhere else. It's like they're the people who are looking in the wrong room for their lost keys, not because that's the room they lost them in, it's just the room where the light was better.
'Zann said…
Looking for uses of "broet" online, I came across this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-mcgackin/broetry_b_899300.html?
Heidi said…
I am here through a link on the Rattle Facebook page. It's odd to me that I am reading it now, because this time yesterday, i was watching the Monica Lewinsky TED talk on shame. It's really insightful and seems to be in line with this situation. Critique is good. Personal attacks are not, and personal attacks do not promote meaningful discussion or growth.
Kelly McQuain said…
I sometimes wish twitter would go the way of CB radios.
tiffanymidge said…
This is hilarious. I hope that you haven't been too distressed about it. They make much, too much, ado about nothing. Who will they go after next? What other evil white male poet they can point their spears at? Oh FUN! Can't wait!
Anonymous said…
"It is possible to disagree with someone without resorting to name calling and profanity."

It's also possible for someone to disagree with you and critique your work -- at that point, you reflect on what you've done and why people might be upset by it. And judging from some tweets and FB posts by Collin himself, he clearly has no interest in hearing criticism of any kind.
Josh Fernandez said…
The weird thing is that Collin IS offering response, but it's hard to hear over the anonymous commenters ganging up, assigning Mr. Kelley some villainous persona they desperately want him to have, if only so they can show how righteous they can be with their retribution and garner high-fives from the anonymous community.

It's cowardly. You are cowards.

Josh Fernandez
fernandez.josh@gmail.com
Perseus Wong said…
Anonymous: "It's also possible for someone to disagree with you and critique your work -- at that point,you reflect on what you've done and why people might be upset by it."

Well, what do you know.

Not only does the human race have to suffer the imaginary slights, perpetual offenses and sanctimony of fundamentalist clerics and their militant adherents.

We must also endure the noisome terror of their secular equivalent.

Your appeal to some vague moral authority and demand for Collin's repentant 'self reflection' is as about as legitimate as the fatwas issued against writers who broke the mullah's blasphemy laws.

Ignore the harpies, Collin.
Sam Rasnake said…
Strong poem, Collin. Thanks for writing it.
Christine Hamm said…
Hi Collin,

I liked your poem and, and, so much, your reasoned response to the attacks. I would have been sobbing on the floor and cursing for days, but you are obviously keeping it together.
Jennifer Perry said…
As neither an academic nor a poet I can only thank the poets I know for their honesty.
Oh, and a question came to mind, why do the heathen rage?
Ellen Lindquist said…
To me, the fact that these people (whoever they are--are they really literary specialists?) have misread your poem is more worrying than the cyber-bullying. I have just read your poem. I think it's very good. I understood it without difficulty. Here is my take on it:

You ordered a rare, pristine edition of a signed copy of one of Sexton's books. You weren't there when it was delivered. You "metaphorically" rush to "save" the book, to get it into your hands. You turn over the delivery slip, get the package, the outside is wrapped in tape, which you cut with a car key. Inside the box, the book is wrapped in newspaper and masking tape. In "rescuing" this book, you muse on how you wish you could have similarly "rescued" or saved Sexton herself. You weren't able to do that, but you were at least able to pick up your copy of her book, which you obviously treasure and will take care of, as the poet would have wanted you to do. That's a rather flat, workman-like reading of it, but it's the gist of it. I don't think the cyber-stone-hurlers understood the poem at its most basic level.

I once ordered a rare copy of an anthology of poems that was lost by the post office. I always remember with a certain angst how it was lost, so I can relate.

Ellen Lindquist

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