One Editor’s Take on Diversity in Poetry

It’s hard for me to stay dialed in to the politics of the literary community. I can, sometimes, listen in to the conversations taking place, but I can’t really contribute to them. After parenting, editing, writing, political organizing, administering of the arts, and all the other projects I have taken on in my life, there just isn’t time. But I do know that vitriol is flying around the chattersphere — it’s hard to avoid it even when I try to.

One of the most vitriolic conversations taking place has to do with whether there is enough room in the world of poetry publishing for all manner of folks writing poetry. My answer is: of course; however, it’s not that simple. There has been much talk about gate-keeping, biases, and so forth. As the editor of a journal, the Rise Up Review, I suppose I am the keeper of a very modest gate, so I am going to reveal what kind of work I prefer to let in.

Poetry is the language of urgency. It is the medium of right-now. It’s about what is imperative, needling, and on people’s minds. To that end, the voices that seem to be rising are those that speak with a fraught sense of emergency that addresses our culture’s deep flaws and chronic tragedies. It is no surprise to me that poets of color, disabled writers, LQBTQ authors, and other marginalized folks are being keenly listened to. The leering threats of authoritarianism, nativism, and fascism have me practically choking, and I’m a privileged white woman. I’m a privileged white woman with an autistic, white son. Can you imagine — given the repeated proof that our society has been programmed to fear black men — what the parent of an autistic, black son must feel?

I receive mostly poems by well-meaning white people, which is to say that I’m not seeing a great influx of work that demonstrates a true, widespread diversity within the world of poetry. I see dozens of poems by very talented white women who write of the Anthropocene and our warming planet. I see dozens of poems by non-toxic white men who are trying to make it clear that Trump is not their president either. What I am not seeing are poems from black mothers that reveal the constant fear they must live with. I’m not receiving poems from undocumented writers separated from their families. I’m not receiving poems from refugees, Muslims, or trans men, but I’m drowning in poems from good white folks.

Which is to say that any suspicion that white poets are being shut out is patently untrue. On the other hand, if I, as a publisher, want to elide myself with the belief that poetry is the language of ever-shifting paradigms, then damn straight I’m going to want to publish diverse work, because diversity isn’t just a PC buzzword; my need for diverse reading comes from this idea that I have more in common with, say, Jericho Brown — a gay, black poet — than what would polarize us. For the record, however, he looks way better in a tight shirt than I do.

In the end, I’m going to want to publish the best of the environmental poems sent to me by white women, and I’m going to want to publish the best of the simpatico poems sent to me by progressive white men. But I don’t want my whole journal filled with these poems, because then, in the aggregate, the poems lose their urgency. In the end, diversity makes every poem more dynamic as it rubs up against the other clamoring voices needing to be heard.

There are plenty of white poets being published and listened to, being retweeted and adored, and I don’t think I need to name them. But when a poet begins complaining about anti-white bias, that poet’s work is not going to be published — even if that poet has written some lovely poems, even important poems — not because that poet is white and believes in God, but because that poet has been actively making a pariah of themselves for years. What a poet like this might consider is how their voice, their poems, could be a part of the fabric of this paradigmatic diversity we’re seeing in the literary community, which, by the way, still has a way to go if the lack of diversity in my journal’s in-box is any reflection of true demographics.

Part of the privilege of living my sheltered life is that I harbor no ill-will towards any writers. Strike that. Little ill-will towards most writers. Some are irredeemable. Some would do well to seek redemption. Even the granddaughter of the founder of the Westborough Baptist Church was rehabilitated. I would like to see a healing in the poetry community, but short of that, I would like to see more diversity hitting my journal’s in-box.