Thursday, May 11, 2006

Open Letter

So I signed an open letter this week. For those of you who aren't already caught up in what's going on, a short version of the story: As alert readers of squiddity know, I spend a lot of time hanging around with a community of (mostly) experimental writers and poets here in Toronto. One of these poets, the energetic and talented Angela Rawlings, has been getting slagged off a lot lately by jealous and mean-spirited people. It's really gotten out of hand, and some of the verbal abuse has had an ugly misogynist quality, and other people have been targeted as well. So, some of Angela's friends felt enough was enough and wrote an open letter expressing support for her and denouncing harassing and hateful behaviour within the community, and I've put my name to it.

Rather than repost the letter here, I'll give you some links to check out, because if you haven't read the letter already, you might find some context useful. The letter's been reposted by Sharon Harris, Derek Beaulieu, Gregory Betts, Jason Christie, and Rob McLennan (possibly more, these are just the ones I've seen). As well, discussions about the situation are happening on the blogs of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Sina Queyras, Jay Millar, Katherine Parrish, and Gary Barwin.

I wish I had more time to blog about this, but I'm under head-exploding levels of deadline stress this week. It's a complicated situation, and some thoughtful criticisms of the open letter have been raised. As a strategy, the open letter has its imperfections, I'd agree, but it does seem like a good way of getting some of the problems that people have been facing out into the open. I signed the letter because I really don't like bullying, and I don't want to be the person standing around looking at her shoes while a friend gets picked on.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too bad because unfounded accusations like this end up in bullying as well. If you don't like bullying, don't be a bully.

5:10 p.m., May 12, 2006  
Blogger Nadia said...

Ah, the first negative comment to appear on squiddity! This is a milestone. And it's anonymous, too, upholding a grand tradition in the realm of internet negativity.

I am unsure what you mean by "unfounded accusations." The assertion that there has been a pattern of nasty and sometimes sexist behaviour developing in the community for some time seems well-founded; much of this activity has been public or semi-public (ie. on listservs), and several people have complained. And the letter doesn't accuse anybody. The decision not to name any names was carefully taken. We all agreed that what we refuse to tolerate is damaging behaviour; we're not intolerant of any specific individuals. I think the wording reflects that.

The open letter isn't about hurling accusations; it's about voicing our support for Angela, naming the "elephant in the room" (the types of actions that, intentionally or thoughtlessly, have been really hurting people), and calling for a general change in attitude and more constructive discussion about this stuff. If you'd like to join in that discussion, I invite you to do so, either here or on a blog where the conversation's a bit livelier, like Gregory Betts's or Katherine Parrish's. It would help if you signed your name, though.

5:59 p.m., May 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The comment is positive actually, and I am agreeing with you wholeheartedly. Sorry that wasn't more obvious. Let me explain. Like you, I don't like seeing my friends bullied. Until the other day, I didn't realize how widespread the defamation of character of some great writers had gotten. I felt compelled to respond to your blog, since you mentioned -- with no irony it would seem -- that you can't stand idly by while a friend is picked on. I agree with you.

Some of the discussion this has spurred is great. Community is fundamental to growth in the arts. It is very important to ensure that all voices – women, men, black, white, and from diverse cultures are given the opportunity to be heard. By the way, do I really need to remind you all that no community is really all that vital without critical voices? My perceived negativity by stating something so obviously true, can only be taken to be negative if you are not prepared to entertain other perspectives. Groups that are not prepared to entertain other perspectives have been called intolerant, which I think is what others are being accused of.

I am friends with all of the writers who read recently in ottawa, but don't know greg bets. I heard about the reading, and afterwards read about it on john w macdonald's blog, as well as on amanda earl's. Their reviews of this event were positive, and it would seem that the event was great fun and that it rocked a bit. Please check these blogs so that you have another informed perspective on the event.

Angela, who I've met a couple of times, has impressed me as a conscientious, sincere and hard working person. I’m sure that she would not support this kind of fox hunting innuendo. Please keep in mind that most of you have not met my friends, who share many of the same characteristics you have attributed to Angela in the open letter. One of my friends has been accused of being rude to people in the past, but I don’t think he is the only one who has ever behaved rudely. I don’t want to be a contrarian, or to rock anyone’s boat, but I have always found him to be perceptive, kind, insightful, hilarious talented and knowledgeable. Please remember as well that your community is a community of poets. This man who some consider rude is among the best poets in the country, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Also know that he has endured his share of derision and mockery, as have we all from time to time.

Here is what has shocked me most about the situation overall. A group of 39 writers has responded to news that sexist attacks happened in ottawa -- responded with one voice to condemn this behavior. It would have been so impressive if this story had been true. I am not sorry to be the one to tell you that same ones you have accused would also have signed your list had there been an attack of this kind. Instead, there are several points of view at odds with one another, each attempting to describe the same event. People who attended the event and did not perceive any sexism present, and even those who signed the list have stated that what has been said is ‘dangerous’ and ‘unhealthy’. It surprises me that no one bothered to check their facts before attacking these innocent people.

How did everyone who signed this list choose to believe a man who admitted he was quite drunk, and hiding behind his bottle, when there were other laudatory reviews out there? The reason I’m asking this is twofold. Firstly, good poets should be perceptive, creative, critical and interested in investigating the truth about this world. Secondly I’m in total disbelief that after choosing to believe a drunk who was hiding in a corner, that writers drew conclusions from this source only, and then extrapolated, assumed, or made up false details and accusations from it. The blogs that now only refer vaguely to the initial event retain the innuendo that something bad happened in Ottawa, and that the responsibility is generalized. This is slanderous. I have no doubt now that there is an obvious problem with regard to sexism in the Toronto poetry scene, but is this behavior something writers are proud of? Are you so sure that those who have signed your open letter are guiltless, or is this about something else?

The personal attacks that I witnessed in the hours following this event on one blog in particular shocked and disappointed me deeply. I hope now that the dust has settled a bit, these accusers feel some shame. Some have at least admitted that they would rather distance themselves from commentary on the Ottawa event altogether. The issue of sexism and misogyny is too important to be taken so lightly by those who should know better. It is not a tool with which to punish those we are very sure we dislike. As for the responses to these initial attacks from the authors, which have also been characterized as ugly, I presume they were all bewildered and truly stunned by the vitriol of sudden accusations coming from their community. After a reading like this one, a poet might expect some praise, dialogue or even critique, and perhaps it was this disjunctive shift that caught them so off guard.

In this unfortunate episode, some of my closest friends have been publicly accused of spewing misogyny – by people who were not there. One specific accusation has been retracted, since it was patently false – however the ensuing discussion is so generalized that it is a brush that has succeeded in painting everyone involved with suspicion. Even in this case, the accuser adds that my friend should watch whom they hang out with. This threat seems to reveal a very real malice that is motivated by tactics reminiscent of an unhealthy censure. I expect better from those publishing and writing poetry since I believe poetry is interested in investigating the world with a view to humanism and truth.

Most of all, I am shocked that all of you have been so quick to defame the publisher – indeed to put his actions into question at all in this case, since he never had any control. Shame on you all – a person who demonstrates such courage, compassion and dedication to taking risks and revealing the multiplicity that hopes to be alive and well in contemporary poetic exploration is your friend and should be admired, not watched suspiciously for who he considers publishing. Herein lies a very dark jealousy that is poison to creativity and community alike.

I applaud the idea of uniting against sexism and misogyny, but I find this behavior disturbing, shameful, shortsighted, immature, foolish, disrespectful to craft and community, and must consider it to be the result of some other collusion. There is indeed much to consider and examine within the past two weeks regarding community, truth, tolerance, and love. Something has gone astray in this community, but it will take more than an open letter to resolve it. I believe that some hard questions need to be asked, and that people need to deal more directly with one another. It also seems obvious to me that individuals should stop to consider what is really going on in order to avoid creating division, censure, and glee clubs, which ultimately undermine and falsify any sense of artistic community.

Best wishes,
Sergio Forest

11:18 p.m., May 16, 2006  
Blogger functional nomad said...

Hi Sergio,

Thanks for the post; glad for it and hope you continue to post in the blogosphere.

One of the difficult things about any amorphous trans-communal phenomenon is the difficulty in knowing who has access to what and when. I think a lot of the points in your email, which raise good questions, have been asked and addressed in various forms in other forums -- this is a centre-less community, after all. There is definitely a lot of discussion that I am not aware of, or have access to, and certainly everybody involved has their own take on things, but I have a very different perspective on some things you mention in your post.

For instance, you write:
"A group of 39 writers has responded to news that sexist attacks happened in ottawa"

The 39 writers all had their own reasons for signing, some of which may have been related to Ottawa, but most certainly not. My response to the readings (which were generally positive, but had some pointed criticism) pushed out into open discussion the feeling that a consistently hostile smog has been smoking through Toronto for some time (for some people this smog has stretched back over a decade, for others it is merely weeks old). The letter, which needs to be distinguished from my original response, was a public committment authored by many to end the silence that has characterized the response thus far.

As I wrote on my blog, I think that is about the extent of the unity on the topic; the BookThug readings were not the story, more like the period that ended a chapter. From all of this all, and looking to the next chapter forming, I suspect more people will be willing to speak out instead of bottle up in the future. Unless I'm missing something, I suspect that is all that will come out of this.

You write:
"I have no doubt now that there is an obvious problem with regard to sexism in the Toronto poetry scene"

This is the whole point; stuff needed to be and still needs to be addressed. It's not about 'being right' or 'being wrong' or judging others accurately (or inaccurately), it's about a festering undercurrent that doesn't seem to be going away, and about showing support for one writer who has been unfairly treated on a number of occassions (going back several months). Furthermore, the letter emerges from various and varied individual experiences.

It was a very conscious and long-discussed choice to not explore the nuance of any specific incident or individual experience, except for a declaration of support for Angela, because it wasn't "about" any specific incident or individual experience, though it was built on many.

You write:
"Most of all, I am shocked that all of you have been so quick to defame the publisher"

This confuses me because the letter includes a declaration of support for the publisher.

You write:
"however the ensuing discussion is so generalized"

Your ensuing discussion after this point is also generalized, so I'm not entirely clear who you are really talking to -- an individual? the community? -- or what you are actually responding to.

In any event, thanks again for your comment. I remain a little confused about the dramatic shift in tone from the beginning ("positive ... great") to the end ("disturbing, shameful, shortsighted, immature, foolish"), but recognize that it takes a lot to say anything in an emotional context. Saying something, I remain convinced, when you are concerned about something is better than saying nothing.


8:03 p.m., May 19, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi GB:

I have to admit I am a little confused (and have been for a while) by how you continue to discuss matters with such authority. And by matters I mean not only the current issues you discuss with regard to the community, but pretty much everything. It concerns me. I think that you are a very nice person, and I think that your motives in general are noble, but I also think that your work both as an artist and as a social critic are somewhat transparent. You should stop and consider the position of authoriy you have chosen to inhabit linguistically before everything you do and say becomes clear as glass.

6:10 p.m., May 20, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not sure your response says very much at all. Maybe you could read my letter again. Since you are the origin of this particular topic, you will recognize much of what is being referred to.

Sergio Forest

6:45 p.m., May 23, 2006  

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