I went to a poetry event the other week where multiple poets read. I went to hear one poet in particular, but because I tend to be disgracefully early to things (I blame my father), I heard the end of a talk on publishing.
I was only half listening, but when someone asked a question about diversity in publishing, I started paying attention. There were two white late-middle-age publishers on the stage and a younger white publisher. I knew two of them slightly and respect their work.
However their answers were unsatisfactory. “I publish the best poems I receive,” says one.
“Well, unless they have an obviously ethnic name, I don’t even know the race of the poets,” said another.
“[My press] does not discriminate on the basis of anything, nationality, or uh,” stumbled the third. I don’t think they even knew what the problem was.
I looked around the room. The majority of the people were late-middle-age and white. There were a few people of color, a few older people, and a few people under 40.
What the well-meaning publishers were missing, I think, is the acknowledgment of the institutional racism. If you don’t see people who write like you or look like you contributing to a magazine, you are not likely to submit there. It didn’t occur to them that they could reach out to underrepresented poets whose work they liked. They seemed comfortable with what they were doing so far.
I listened to the poet I came to see (who was good) and a few of the poets that followed. But after a while, dissatisfied, I slipped out of the room. Not too much later, I stumbled across a different group of poets.
Louder than a Bomb is a youth poetry project. Students from all over the Boston area, neighborhoods far from shiny Cambridge and gentrified Somerville, came together to read poems. These poems were not free-floating superficial description. Sure there were lines played for a laugh, but they were about life and death, racism, and misunderstanding. They were about hope and opportunity.
There was not one cheap joke about being gluten-free.
The fact that these two groups were presenting in the same library without any apparent knowledge of each other is part of what is wrong with the poetry world. My own poetry fits into the more formal page-bound model. But it did my brain, creativity, and spirit good to hear these kids doing their presentation-based poems. And it’s all good for my writing.
I need to get out more.