I haven't been on the submission train as much as I wanted to be, but I've sent out a few pieces for publication. Most have earned rejection letters, and I'm adding those to the pile of rejections I can learn from
. But this week brought good news - an acceptance, and one I was really hoping for! Saturday Night Special, an East Bay open mic that invited me to be a featured reader last October, has put together an anthology zine with the work of some of the show's readers from the past year. That mic has heard from some spectacular writers, so I'm honored to have one of my poems
published among theirs. The poem is a piece that's important to me, so I'm glad to be able to share it with folks who are important to me, too. Tomorrow night is Saturday Night Special's anniversary reading. The anthology will be available to purchase, and I'll be there to read, along with several of the other featured writers.
I'm really looking forward to it. The event begins at 7 pm at Nick's Lounge in Berkeley. For more information on the zine, the reading, and the pre-reading potluck and generative writing workshop, visit the Saturday Night Special Facebook page
. Here's a taste of the delicious words in the anthology - one of the featured readers, Chanel Timmons, singing and reading her beautiful poetry at January's Saturday Night Special.
As I wrote in yesterday's post
about getting back on that submission train, my writing these days is less about trying to find what others want from me and more about creating a room of my own
for my own voice. At least, that's my hope and intention. But as I focus again on the intention of trying to get work published, I'm remembering why it's still important to talk about what it means to feel barriers blocking some writers. Earlier this year, VIDA released their 2011 count, comparing the numbers of male and female writers in major publications.
The results showed that the men were published way more frequently than the women. It's not much of a change since VIDA began the count in 2009, after the Publishers' Weekly list of the year's best books appeared without any books by women. Read more
about how the VIDA count is changing the conversation about publishing, and about how important
this conversation is. As Roxane Gay writes
, "I have to believe we continue having these conversations so someday there is nothing left to talk about but the joy and complexity of the stories we write and read. I want that joy to be the only thing that matters.
Can you just imagine?"I've been following along with one adventure in diversifying the faces of published authors - poet Laura E. Davis has started a group called Submission Bombers. The idea behind Submission Bombers is to
take "action" to increase visibility for writers who often feel silenced. Participants "bomb" a publication with their submissions over a two-week period, and since only consenting publications are selected for bombings, it's like a matchmaking service between writers seeking to be heard and editors looking for writers who don't fit the usual mold of who's being published these days. Read Laura's call for editors and writers to participate, and her blog post on what it means to be a "marginalized" writer. What do you think? Would you participate in a submission bomb? Do you have other ideas for taking action?
I’m getting back on that submission train. It’s been a little while since I’ve submitted creative work for publication. I guess there are a few reasons for that, but I’m glad to say that fear of rejection isn’t one of them.
No, rejection and I are old friends. It might even be nice to reunite. I’ve gotten so many rejection letters now that I’ve come to appreciate what I can learn from them. I’ve learned the logistical things, of course, about formatting and guidelines and making sure the piece is a good fit for the publication.
But here’s the most valuable thing I’ve learned from rejection: I have to stay true to my own voice, regardless of where it’s accepted. Somewhere in me is a fear
that my work won’t be read, especially when I read about the exclusion
of women, people of color and queer folks from many mainstream literary spaces
. Then again, as I’ve pursued my true intentions for writing, I’ve found that many of the spaces that find me irrelevant are irrelevant to me, too. I have my own story to tell, in my own way, and when it comes to an audience, what matters most is reaching those who find it meaningful.
I was searching for an old post
I wrote, which led me to my old blog. I noticed my old blog used to be more fun than this one. A little less professional, maybe, but that’s because I used to write about whatever the hell I wanted, no matter how wacky
it was, so I came across as my authentic self. The voice of that weirdo loner writer rang true.
I think I’ve grown in my writing since then, which is a good thing, sure. I’m more focused, more mindful. I’m trying to make this blog less like my personal diary and more of something that can be useful for other people to read. I just hope I’m not censoring myself. After all, today’s rejection could make room in my life for tomorrow’s most meaningful connection, a connection between my authentic self and someone who feels that my voice matters to them.
1938 Disney rejection letter
Green Apple Books
have pointed out a glaring omission, from a somewhat unexpected source. I say unexpected because I sometimes point out these omissions, of folks like women, people of color, and queer people, and attribute them to the dominance of the publishing industry by straight white men. In this case, however, the omission comes from none other than one of the most powerful women of color in the world, Oprah Winfrey.
Apparently Oprah’s Book Club hasn’t selected a book by a female author since 2004, and none by a living woman since 2002. With all of the great books out there by female authors (Green Apple begins a list here
), what could be the reason for this pattern? I hesitate to call Oprah a “misogynist.” Have women writers simply been overlooked?
Personally, I’m tired of being overlooked. Of all the times when these omissions occur, and because we can find no overtly malicious intent, we steer away from conversations including words like “sexism” and say “oh, they just didn’t think about it…” Why is it so easy to forget? To envision a world in which certain types of people simply don’t exist?
Maybe I’m focusing on all the wrong things. I can complain until my last breath about arenas like the publishing industry and best-of lists
, dominated for centuries by people who often have a particular ideal for literature in mind. But when I interviewed poet Camille Dungy
, for example, she couldn’t have cared less about what happens to her poems in publishing, as long as she is free to write. When I think about it I can definitely say the same for myself, so why am I so worried about what someone like Oprah has to say?
Well, I guess in Oprah’s case, I am disappointed partly because of her position as such a powerful woman. My secret hope, I didn’t realize until now, is that she would be the exception to the rule, someone in the position to do what others haven’t, to recognize the history of silencing folks like women writers and to help reconcile that by recognizing them now. Oprah’s Book Club is popular and mainstream and it’s helping keep the love of literature alive, so I hope it doesn’t simply enliven history’s emphasis on some voices over others.
Then again, maybe I should stop focusing so much on mainstream circles’ treatment of literature and just focus on writing, writing for me and for the folks who matter to me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the recent happenings of the San Francisco lit scene
, it’s that you don’t have to wait for some main stage to offer you a spotlight to share your work. You make your own way to the stage, or you create your own stage, or you challenge
what we all know of what a stage is and who can stand on it. And, someday, you will be heard.
Do you hear us, Oprah? Maybe someday you will. Then again, maybe you’re not the one who’s meant to hear.
I suppose I should comment on the Huck Finn / n-word controversy. If you’re not familiar with the latest race-related storm over publishing, here’s the story: Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben has adapted Twain’s classic novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for New South Books. The change he’s made that’s gotten the most attention is to use the word “slave” in every instance where Twain used “nigger.” Now, much of the media is paying just as much attention to the original story itself as they are to the bonus flap, critic Roger Ebert’s tweet that he’d “rather be called a nigger than a slave.”
I’m commenting on this in part because it’s an important issue, of course, though not because I’m particularly invested in the preserving the book as it is each time it’s published. I have to admit, too, that I’m joining this conversation here partly because I’m a black writer and so I’ve been getting those looks.
You know the ones. The looks you get from someone in a position of privilege, who wants you to give permission to speak on an issue by speaking up about it first. Those looks I complain about now, but that maybe Roger Ebert could have used with a person of color before he went and spoke up about an issue that has nothing to do
with him. The issue of the tweet is simple enough – as a white man, Ebert wasn’t in any position to state his opinion on which term he’d prefer, when he’d never have to worry about being called either. He knows
But the question remains about the use of the word itself, about censorship we’re demanding for not only modern spaces like Twitter, but for literature published as far back as 1884. I think it’s one thing to discuss what the n-word means to us today – to question whether modern hip-hop artists who popularize the term, for example, should be criticized for disregarding its history or praised for reclaiming the word. Personally, I believe that the word’s long, ugly history is enough that we should put it behind us for good.
I think of my position as a writer, however, and I know if I’d used the n-word as much as Twain had in a work of my own, I would feel it was excessive, I’d be uncomfortable with it, and I’d certainly try to avoid it. If I were writing a historical work in which the word has a role, however, to censor myself would be to deny historical truth. Avoiding the use of a word with a violent history simply to allow readers to stay in their places of comfort
is dangerous, and not in a good way
. Rather than attempt to rewrite history in terms we can all find on a page without spilling our morning coffee, we must face the truth of our past, even those uncomfortable truths we’d rather avoid.
The important part of this whole controversy is that it’s led to a discussion
. We can ask ourselves and each other why these words feel so awful to us, so we remember their history and understand how we should move forward. These conversations should happen all the time, though – it shouldn’t take censorship to threaten to take away our words for us to realize their significance. But Mark Twain has already made his statement – I say let that remain as is, and let’s keep the conversation going between you and I.
I know I keep mentioning it and sounding like an amateur in the process, but I’m still settling into
how it feels to share my creative work. In some ways it feels remarkably different to write for the possibility of an audience larger than myself. And in other ways, it’s not so different at all.
I’ve found a few reminders lately that people are listening – Thalia Gigerenze
r took note of my poem “Island Home” during her Litcrawl adventures in October, for example. And check this out
– Michael Berger from The Rumpus shared some of my thoughts on danger in poetry!
Before I become convinced that the whole word is hearing my words, though, I’m stopping to wonder who really listens to a voice like mine. Can my work really be a part of what most people think of as literature, or do I belong in an Other category?
In this piece on The Rumpus
, LaToya Jordan
points out an idea that mainstream best-of literature lists often perpetuate – that stories about white people are regarded as universal, while stories about people of color are believed to be for people of color. Jordan is responding to this brilliant piece
by Roxane Gay
about the lack of diversity in Best American Short Stories 2010.
Gay’s assertion that “segregation is alive and well when it comes to what we read” is unsettling. Am I just being naïve in thinking that I can set out as a queer writer of color to speak to universal truths? Should I simply set about marketing my work to “my people” and accept that it will never be read in mainstream circles?
Being that my poems are my own, it’s impossible for me to read my work as someone else would. So I have no idea if it speaks to people universally or not. I know that I hope my work can speak to folks like me, say a young queer girl of color who feels misunderstood. I’d also hope, though, that I could reach some of the folks who misunderstand her, say a man of a different age who can’t see what it’s like to be her until he recognizes those universal truths the two of them can both hold. Ultimately, I aim for what Gay describes as great writing:
“I believe great writing can and should transcend things like race and gender and class. Great writing should be writing that is so powerful it elevates us beyond the things that characterize us in our daily lives. And yet, I also believe that writing should tell us things we don’t already know and give us insights into the lives of people who are completely different from us or anyone we know. Great writing should challenge us and make us uncomfortable and push our boundaries.”
I’d never get a chance to challenge readers in this way, though, if my work was kept on those shelves designated Other. So, not just for my sake but for all those talented writers of Other whose work you may tragically never know, I hope we can all open our literary leanings to reach beyond what feels familiar.