Sunday March 1, 2015
Yesterday afternoon Small Press Traffic and Mills College collaboratively hosted a conversation/field report with Jennifer Tamayo, Amy De'Ath and Cassandra Troyan on the subject of gender and sexual violence in the writing scenes in New York, Vancouver and the UK, and Chicago. The Bay Area writing scene has been grappling with these issues as well. Artists Television Access (ATA), where the event was held, was packed with people standing, sitting on the floor, and spilling on to the stairs.
Each of the three presenters spoke for 10-15 minutes, informing attendees about recent events, the work they and others are doing, and articulated their own questions, doubts, and concerns about actual and potential possibilities for action, change. After Jennifer (who went by JT), Amy, and Cassandra spoke, the audience was invited to ask questions while Samantha Giles and Stephanie Young recorded these questions on large sheets of paper. Each speaker then addressed some of these comments and concerns, the event culminating with all present invited to offer up ideas for action. Below I've tried to capture some of what I heard the participants saying. There have been a number of sexual assaults and gendered violence in writing communities and various public discourses around these events, many of those under discussion in the last year or so. Some of these I was hearing about for the first time. I've done my best to reflect a small portion of the content of this urgent discussion. For more info on this event and the discussants, please see Small Press Traffic's web site.
Jennifer Tamayo (JT) told us about her experience working with Enough is Enough, a group that came together after several sexual assaults against women in New York in August of 2014. JT expressed frustration with
· pervasive sanctioned sexism
· unsafe poetry events
· the promotion of poets accused of sexual assault
· a poetics of domination that operates under the guise of aesthetic gesture
· the valuing of reputation over accountability
· the lack of institutional and community memory (the aggressors are forgotten)
· and both the lack of resources and the continual refrain of "the lack of resources" as a rationale for an absence of response.
JT spoke of various concerns and tactics--
· considering who maintains a safe space
· attending other events and meetings
· supporting the shutting down of readings with men who are sexual assaulters
· working on developing a site to maintain institutional memory.
JT closed with a list of "15 Things I've Learned." There was no way for me to record all of these but I found this list powerful in its ethos of critical assessment, for example, when JT asked "What is preventing me from using these resources?" Other things on the list include:
· "Organizing poets is hard and infuriating"
· Demand what you want and be direct
· Writing and thinking together is empowering
· Shaming works
A number of these statements were interwoven into larger points and thus do not indicate discrete items, but as I was so engaged with listening, my pen couldn't keep up.
JT also noted "Ways I have Failed":
· my efforts are too sectional
· and are focused around cis women
· Enough is Enough hasn't reached out to older generations
This last claim I found particularly provocative and engaging; throughout the discussion, we returned to this a number of times.
Amy De'Ath's talk began with outline of three topics: First Nations in Vancouver and here in San Francisco, class in the UK, and online organizing. She explored how one might use gossip and conjecture as a feminist strategy. De'Ath contextualized her own position in Vancouver as a settler on unceded Coast Salish territories, reminding us of the more than 1,017 indigenous women and girls who have been murdered in Canada and how the Canadian government refuses to launch an investigation into these murders, considering them isolated criminal cases rather than sociological and racist. Amy offered a critique of Rachel Zolf's Janey's Arcadia worrying that it risks implying catharsis, suggesting that white settlers can cathartically work through settler issues, but also noting that this might be part of the problematic that Zolf intends to present.
Amy used to live in London and was part of the UK poetry scene which she described as "macho and exclusionary along class lines.” De'Ath expressed frustration with the confidence and rhetoric of entitlement among the dominant male writers and wanted to think about how this is linked to "the poetics of difficulty” particularly associated with Cambridge poetry. She discussed the posting of Elizabeth Ellen's "An Open Letter to the Internet" to the UK poetics list-serve and the fallout of that discussion. A group of feminist poets collectively left the list as a result. There might be a piece in the Chicago Review that is forthcoming on all of this. I'm not sure. De'Ath also discussed her participation in a group and list-serve that excluded cis males but did have one male queer feminist artist. Amy noted that she (ambivalently and hesitantly) thought that he should not be in the group, for reasons not at all to do with his personal politics – a position he later confirmed when he thoughtfully volunteered to leave. She also recounted the fact that a woman of color left the group because she did not feel welcome there. There were only two direct immediate responses to this woman's email announcing her departure, and for De’Ath, this event raised several serious problems in relation to issues of race and the question of what kind of content gets the most attention, and who is most comfortable speaking up in a space. At a number of points throughout the evening the conversation turned to the ongoing problems of white supremacy and racism across numerous writing scenes.Last but not least, Cassandra Troyan spoke about their experience in Chicago which, because of geographic, racial, and class segregation, doesn't quite have a central writing "community." They noted that when it comes to gendered violence, "silencing is extreme," with few women willing to name the men involved since many of them run institutions, presses, etc. Troyan spoke of their work with the Chicago Feminist Writers and Artists (CFWA)and Feminist Action Support Network (FASN), noting that there is a cross-cultural scene there, with people coming from punk, radical, art, and music communities. Troyan expressed interest in an accountability process, in facilitating safe spaces, in collective goals, discussing ongoing Sunday workshops on a variety of topics, from mental health to self-care, healing justice, generational violence--that have been taking place.
Some of the Questions/Comments Proposed by Attendees:
How do we surface unconscious bias?
How can people support individual work?
What can we learn from what others are doing?
Someone wanted to know why JT read off the list of names of the 72 attendees at the first Enough is Enough meeting.
How do we respond in the moment? How to call shit out!
Exclusion and transformative justice and how these are related to systems of incarceration
What are the limits of gossip?
How does information move?
How to differentiate between aesthetic preference and closed communities
What is the link between aesthetic difficulty and class, gender, race?
How to dismantle white supremacy in poetry circles?
The problem of indigenous issues not being able to be made present. An attendee mentioned someone who did not come to the Sunday event because of this concern. There is simply no space to address this issue, given the community. Another participant underscored this claim noting that race cannot be addressed precisely because the community is largely white and cis.
Some of the comments under A Call to Action, generated by the entire group included (The discussion was out of time as ATA needed to close for the evening. Some of these were more notational or working propositions, rather than explicit calls):
An understanding that not everyone wants to take action in the same way. How can we make this possible?
Creating individual healing for those most affected.
Establishing Support Liaisons
Organizing Rage Liaisons
How to collectively lower inhibitions around booing and hissing
Some people suggested that writers of color do not need white people or cis men. A brief discussion about who is needed or wanted ensued.
The atmosphere was alive at this event. Stay-tuned: there may be follow-up meetings.