Social media, bullying and poetry critique
|The business of words keeps me awake...|
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.
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.