It takes so much courage.
When Poeta en San Francisco made its way into the world, way back in the day, I got trolls. Ron Silliman had posted up some cursory review on his blog, along with one of my poems from the book, and an author photo.
The hate flowed so thick and relentless.
People in this industry, or maybe I should say, people who want badly to be recognized in this industry, all came out of the woodwork, not to criticize the book or the poem he posted, but to say hateful, racist, sexist, hurtful, immature bullshit. Silliman did not do anything to intervene. I don’t know that it was his “job” to intervene. But it says something when some old middle class white man doesn’t appear in any way upset or affected by this kind of hatefulness in his own internet space. It was just like a water off a duck’s back.
That’s called cis hetero white male privilege.
I learned who weren’t my allies in the industry.
I recall this now, because that incident was exactly when I decided not to put my personal “business” out there on my blog, and especially in my poetry, if I was going to continue being in this industry. I started working heavily in persona, discussing my poetic speakers as exactly that, personae and poetic speakers. I rarely said “I,” when referring to the work, except to say I constructed it. I did my best not to talk about myself and my personal feelings, my personal emotions. It was all about the personae, and speaking in this amorphous “we.”
I should also say that the kind of painful, lovesick, fed-up “I,” in Poeta en San Francisco, I think, has something to do with its being the lasting work it appears to be; it opened up readers who maybe didn’t know they needed this work. It was also that kind of speaking from the heart that made classroom visits for the book so contentious. I was also quite young, so my filters weren’t so fine. But for sure, the most noticeable of the students who found me off-putting were in fact white students. Some of them said offensive stuff to me, asked rude racist and sexist questions; others white-splained me, all openly, in front of their professors and classmates. I was socially shunned and belittled in literary academy events, literally told I could not sit at the table at which I had rightfully earned my place.
I regularly received mean-spirited emails and blog comments. I learned to mediate my online presence very carefully. The people in my community who were aware of all of this trolling — they felt attacked themselves, they went into internet flame wars, few of them ever asked me if I was OK. A lot of them propped me up as their symbol in their clever little internet battles. So this is a kind of objectification and pimping too.
This is not to say you cannot and should not do this, write and speak from the heart. For me, this becomes the place where my professionalism becomes something of a hindrance to connecting with the community. I think a lot of young POC and WOC, especially young Pinays hoping for connection and resonance, found a hard-nosed, salty Pinay who was all business to the very damn bitter end. Sure, there is something to be admired here, this persistence and hard work despite very real obstacles. But it is hard to love. I know this; I have been hard to love.
Poeta en San Francisco became a long lasting trauma for me; speaking from the heart made me so vulnerable to attack, and so I had to close myself. And I believe I am only coming out of it now. It’s been over a decade. I am older, more experienced. I’m at the point where I can say I’m OK now. I’m OK to publicly write from the heart. I have a number of books I have yet to write. I mean to continue having a long life in the literary world.
If there should be any takeaway from this post, I will say it’s this: know who you can really, truly trust in this industry. Be strong, and be real. Acknowledge there is trauma; do not let anyone including yourself speak as if it’s not a thing. Where it is toxic and hate-filled — those spaces do not deserve you. Where your community are pimping and objectifying you — call them on it. Don’t let them.
Finally, I still believe we can and should be ambitious and brave in this industry. I still believe we should propel one another into our successes. I still believe in abundance and generosity over scarcity and jealousy. If I did not believe in these things, I would have given up and disappeared a long time ago.