November 19, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - This Will l Now Sing Deftly - Kia Groom

With a sweeping view of the history of the "poetess," Kia Groom takes apart academia's gendered reading of confessionalists. Starting with the question of why Lowell is remembered for his poetry while Plath is remembered for her suicide, she traces poets' use of the "I" from Sappho through to the present day. And she argues that, in a canon that assumes the "I" is always male, the female poet has to fight to get her "I" recognized. --SBB

This Will I Now Sing Deftly

In my second year of graduate school, I took a literature class on mid-century American poets. I was excited by the course—in addition to studying Lowell, Roethke, and Jarrell, we were also to spend time on Sexton, Plath, Bishop, and Brooks. I was thrilled. The 1950s was a time of revolution: the birth of the confessional mode enabled women, perhaps for the first time, to write in their own voices. When it came time to pick a research topic for my essay, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to address the subject of confessional poetics. We had spent some time on Lowell’s Life Studies, and I wanted to talk about the gendered “I,” about the public reception (both then and now) of the confessional poems of Lowell, in contrast to the poems of Plath and Sexton. Because I saw a difference there. Claiming the “I,” as a woman, is not the same as claiming the “I” as a man. 

I went to my professor and pitched the idea. I told him I perceived a difference in the way critics received the work of these poets. I told him I found it interesting that Sexton is often dismissed as hysterical and melodramatic, that Plath is written off as “a poet for teenage girls”—as Becca Klaver and Arielle Greenberg put it in their essay, “in the unwritten handbook for aspiring female writers, it’s understood that the chapter on Plath ends with adolescence.” You’re supposed to grow out of Plath. Nobody is supposed to grow out of Lowell, I said, and I believe that’s tied to this idea of the confession, of how making the private public is a political act, an act that cannot be separated from gendered construction. 

He looked at me for a long time—that well-practiced, thoughtfully considered look that I assume tenured faculty members spend hours practicing in the mirror, when they’re not writing impassioned defenses of Ezra Pound. The look was equal parts patronizing and paternalistic. I felt his verdict before he delivered it. 

“Well,” he said “I don’t think that’s really a good idea. If you want to write about Plath and Sexton, why don’t you write about suicide instead?”


This is the attitude of an entire generation of scholars, when it comes to reading the work of female poets: our confessions, our words, our lives are only interesting if they are explosive, if they are scandalous. More than once I’ve heard it said that we might not pay any scholarly attention at all to Sylvia Plath, had she not killed herself. As if she is not notable for the fierce, white-hot anger of poems like “Lady Lazarus,” but only for the emotion behind them, the emotion that was more memorably expressed in her tragic, violent death. 

I take a deep breath. I try not to become incredibly angry. They want me to become angry, I remind myself. Because my anger is easy to dismiss. Because my emotions are easy to dismiss. 

Because we expect women to be emotional, don’t we? There is nothing interesting about a woman sharing her feelings with us. There is nothing revolutionary or surprising about a woman saying “I feel….”

We’ve become desensitized to women’s verbal and textual confessions. There was a time, perhaps, when to violate the sanctity of private life, to publicly state “I feel…” was, for women, groundbreaking. But today, we value women’s confessions only when they go one step further. We need her to enact those feelings, preferably violently. Preferably publicly. Preferably with gross finality. Then, she has our attention. Then, we might buy her books. 

One of the first poetic lessons I remember being taught: don’t say “I.” I have an entire folder of poems edited to omit the fateful pronoun. “It’s not universal enough,” I was told. “It will alienate readers.” 

The subtext of this lesson: the “I” is only alienating when there is a gendered tension between the “I” who writes and the “I” who speaks. The default “I” does not alienate the reader, because the default “I” is male. You don’t catch anyone saying that Walt Whitman alienates readers.

There is a long history of what Corinne Blackmer calls, in “Writing Poetry Like a ‘Woman’,” “the authoritative, traditionally masculine “I” of lyric poetry.” But to occupy “I” as a woman, to speak with confidence from that place of authority and—worse!—to dare expose private feeling to the public sphere….this can never be universal. Women who choose to confess behind the shroud of the established “I” are taken seriously only if they are willing to sacrifice their gender identity. As Jane Hedley points out in I Made You to Find Me, the blurb on the back of the first print of Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus, penned by critic Alfred Alvarez, reads “…Plath…steers clear of feminine charm, deliciousness, gentility, super-sensitivity, and the act of being a poetess: she simply writes good poetry.” The subtext here is that Plath’s identity as a woman ought to be irrelevant to her identity as a poet. If she wishes to inhabit “I”, she must perform a kind of intellectual castration. Only then can she move past “feminine charm” and “super-sensitivity,” and transcend this awkward, unevolved, diminutive distinction of “poetess.” 


Here, we must go back. We must understand that “poet” has only recently come to include and embrace women, that the poetic tradition, despite enthusiastic participation from female-identified persons from as far back as recorded history will allow (hello, Sappho), has repeatedly failed to canonize its sisters in ink. 

Women always wrote, of course. They wrote letters, and they wrote plays, and yes, of course, they wrote verse. But if a woman was to profit off her writing, it was as a novelist—novels, considered low-brow potboilers whose primary readership was, itself, women, were an ideal outlet for the woman writer. Poetry? Well, perhaps. But one should not expect to be widely read, much less to be considered as equal in talent and skill to the likes of Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, or Coleridge.

Charlotte Smith, in her Elegiac Sonnets, makes use of the “I.” Published first in 1784, the sonnets are woeful meditations on love (unrequited or lost), artistry, and the poetic tradition. Had she been writing not in 1784, but 1984, we might have put it this way: Charlotte Smith is a big ‘ole goth. She waxes lyrical about her painful emotions, her otherness, her isolation and loneliness. Yet despite the deeply personal nature of her poetry (if one peels back the veneer of that universal, genderless [read: default male] “I” and examines her life—a husband in debtor’s gaol and 12 children to feed—it’s impossible not to read her sonnets as, in a sense, confessional), her “I” is a smokescreen. Charlotte Smith cannot speak for Charlotte Smith—indeed, her status as poetess demands that deference is paid, every step of the way, to her male contemporaries and forebears. Sandwiched between her pastoral musings on her own misery (which of course never directly address her feeling, but are masked through observations about the seasons, the weather, the landscape) are poems dedicated to and in celebration of her male mentors, friends, colleagues. This might be perceived as a sweet gesture, were the poems themselves not exercises in damage control, a bow and a scrape to the greater power of the male poet. 

This self-effacement was not peculiar to Smith. Anna Letitia Barbauld, another female Romantic poet now proposed for inclusion in the (still overwhelmingly male) canon would often round out her poems with a strophe dismissing her own skills and talents. In “The Invitation to Miss B…” Barbauld waxes lyrical for 184 stunningly wrought lines before closing with:
Here cease my song. Such arduous themes require
A master’s pencil, and a poet’s fire:
Unequal far such bright designs to paint,
Too weak her colours, and her lines too faint,
My drooping Muse folds up her fluttering wing,
And hides her head in the green lap of spring. 
Modesty? Maybe. But it seems more than that. Barbauld, after giving us 184 lines of exquisitely rhymed and metered verse, tells us ultimately that she is not a master of her craft. She is not a poet. That indeed, whatever little skill she has can be attributed only to the Muse—and her muse, unlike perhaps the shining, glorious muse of Wordsworth or Coleridge, is “weak” and “drooping.” This would be the equivalent of Audre Lorde rounding out “A Woman Speaks” with “I am/woman/and not white./And not very good/sorry for wasting your time.” 

The shocking truth is that, for their time, Smith and Barbauld were doing something highly radical in daring to pick up a pen, daring to publish their poetry at all. But the “I” they were located in was necessarily restrictive. They were not free to confess, to blend the writing “I” with the speaking “I.” Smith, her verse already so concealed behind the tropes of the Romantic period, by the muse, by the pastoral, by the constructions of myth and artifice, was, as Stuart Curran notes in his introduction to Elegiac Sonnets, still torn down by her contemporaries for being self-pitying and weak.  Reviewers worried that she was suicidal. Are we sensing a theme, yet? 


Historically, women were not allowed to be poets. A woman, in a pinch, might be a poetess. But really, a woman was the force of inspiration, not creation. She was the muse. 

And that’s a complicated relationship, isn’t it—woman as muse? To what degree is it symbiotic? To what degree does the male poet need his muse? Who holds the power there?

Key, I think, to answering this question is the fact that the muse has no agency, no purpose but to inspire her charge. She’s a slot machine, an ATM dispensing art and music and poetry. And she is always a woman. And she is always beautiful. And she exists for no other purpose than to satisfy a man’s needs. 

I think of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the story where Calliope is trapped and repeatedly raped by Erasmus Fry, who can’t for the life of him seem to come up with an original idea without her.

Nowadays, poets don’t directly address the muse. You don’t browse any of the slick new indie lit journals and find odes to Calliope, to Erato, to Melpomene. The contemporary male poet’s muse is no longer the mythical woman but the actual woman, and this is evidenced every time her body is invoked as an object of desire or, so often (too often), as a site of violence. Men, the predominantly published, predominantly reviewed poets, can take ownership of women. Women are still struggling to own “I.” 


In 2000, Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States between 2001 and 2003, published Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes. The poem from which the book takes its name is about exactly what you think it is about. Oh, sure, certainly—it’s a metaphor—the last great defense of the misogynist writer. Dickinson was so private, so withdrawn from society. Collins “undresses” her, and we are supposed to believe that this is about the discovery of her work (arguably, in its own way, a violation)—her private made public. 

Mary Ruefle, in her book Madness, Rack, and Honey, gives an eloquent explanation of why this poem is not the pithy, amusing little verse Collins must have thought it was. The poem, she says:
is based entirely on the supposition that Dickinson is an icon of virginity and that it would be fun to do something with that idea, to be the first to do something with that idea. Poetry is subversive for a good reason, but for me it should never be rapacious, living on prey…
Rapacious. To grasp. To be greedy. As a culture, we can’t seem to stand the idea of a woman comfortably occupying her well-deserved place in the canon. Not even if that place is bestowed posthumously. We must rip. We must tear. We much undress. All this to say: you can be a poetess. You can have struggled hard your whole life to shed that “ –ess,” become instead just poet. Your work, brilliant and powerful, may even have been acknowledged by scholars and critics, may even have clawed its place into the canon. 

But you will always be muse. You will always be object. Your “I” is subservient to the predatory “I” of Billy Collins (who comes to stand here for the mighty “I” of the academy, of the canon, of the history of Western poetic tradition). Of the 50 poet laureates/consulting poets of the United States, how many have been women? Twelve. Twelve, out of fifty. 24%. And yet anecdotal evidence and informal polls suggest that MFA programs across the country are receiving applications from, and accepting, more women than they are men. What’s the deal? What is happening here?

If even Emily Dickinson cannot be spared, then folks, I am scared. I am terrified. Because I don’t know how I can exist in a poetic landscape that is so hostile to my experience, to my body, to my secrets and my truths and the ownership of my own voice.


In a 2009 interview with The Poetry Foundation, W.D. Snodgrass, “the original confessional poet,” was asked to give his thoughts on Plath and Sexton. Of Plath, Snodgrass admits that he doesn’t recall whether he actually ever met her, that he “[doesn’t] like most of her work” (even though he has only read the widely anthologized pieces), that she is “good, but not that good.” Of Sexton, who was Snodgrass’ student at Keyon College, the father of confessionalism said: 
I thought she was tremendously talented…[but] very derivative. A lot of her poems showed the influence of Lowell…or of me. I thought in time that she would get over that and she would come to her own style. I don’t think that she ever did.
He describes his correspondences with Anne as increasingly “less of a pleasure,” that her requests for feedback and guidance were “troublesome.” Later in the interview, when describing how Sexton would often cry during readings of her work, he makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t stand for such melodramatic nonsense. “There is a difference,” he says “between exposing yourself and displaying yourself.” 


I wonder in which category Snodgrass would have placed this poem by Alt Lit poet and publisher Stephen Tully Dierks: 
it’s hard
I’ve been thinking about you
that’s why
i’m strokin it
Or this excerpt from a delightful poem by Brian Le Lay, appropriately titled “Suffrage”:
But my penis is more than just a pretty face
The ghosts of their lips around the base of my sheath
The steam swirls around me
Don't say I've no decorum

Woman can smell sex when she enters a room
(as she is sex when she exits) let alone in the cave of my thighs
where you hibernate
and choke
Then there’s Nick DAndrea
Why does that one poet talk about penises and stuff
Its weird and turns me on, I’d fuck her. 
All these from a fifteen minute trawl (at random) of Alt Lit monolith New Wave Vomit’s website. It would be unfair to suggest that this is all that NWV publishes. But I was able to turn up a surprising amount of it within a very, very short space of time. Confessionalism, it seems, has grown tired of emotions—even those rare and splendid jewels, the emotions of men. While it’s still the case that men’s feelings attract a cult-like admiration amongst certain readers of poetry (the assumption being, I suppose, that men are traditionally stoic and rational, and so for one to bear his soul is a beautiful, remarkable thing, no matter how banal his sentiments) the really hot young poets are the ones bluntly waving their dicks around—you know, metaphorically. 

One wonders what the reaction would be if the situation were reversed—if women writers took to penning short, inelegant strophes about their wet vaginas. There are, of course, women who do write about their sexuality, but I’d quietly suggest that it’s executed in a way that is far less lewd and on-the-nose, and therefore transgressive in a way these poems utterly fail to be. If I wrote so bluntly about my cunt, about how many people I’d slept with, or what those interactions looked like—if that was the only content in my poem—I’d be at best ignored, and at worst dismissed and decried as a hack with a gimmick. We put the burden of context and meaning on women in a way we seem not to with contemporary male poets. 

Look, write about your cock. I don’t care. I’m sure it’s really great, and you probably have a lot to say about it. Shine on, you crazy diamond. But when those dick-poems migrate into the realm of the muse, when they become not just poems about your body, but poems about my body too—or about the nebulous body of the feminine “you,” with whom I am forced to identify—then, then I have a problem.  

This problem is perhaps best exemplified in the book Alt Lit author peterbd wrote by/for/with (it’s unclear which) accused abuser Janey Smith/Stephen Trull. The book, titled We’re Fucked, was a litany of sexual vignettes wherein peterbd forced Janey Smith’s theoretical penis inside a whole host of characters. Except, of course, that they weren’t characters: they were real people, male, female, transgender, and non-binary folks whose identities were appropriated without their consent. “What was the purpose of this…but to indulge Smith/Trull’s own sense of toxic masculine entitlement?” asks poet and activist D. Dragonetti in this article, published on the now defunct HTMLGiant, “The juxtaposition of the likenesses of prominent minority writers…with this presumptuous premise…is demeaning and explicitly misogynistic.”

And it’s not an isolated incident. The Alt Lit scene is rife with abuse accusations, many of which intersect with the art produced by the (predominantly male) authors within the scene. When poet Kat Dixon came forward earlier this year to speak out against her former boyfriend, poet and novelist Gregory Sherl, she noted that Sherl’s third collection, Monogamy Songs, read as a confessional tell-all of their relationship, masked behind the ‘universal’ (read: male) “I.” And readers loved it. Sherl seemed so sensitive, so in touch with the feelings patriarchy tells us men aren’t supposed to express, and women need to shut up about. 

Going back through Monogamy Songs, in light of the numerous allegations made against Sherl, is like reading a handbook for misogynistic sad-boys, a DIY guide to abusing your lover—poetically. Dixon, who had to fight to have her real name omitted from the book, tweeted excerpts with commentary:


There are boundaries placed on what women can speak about, boundaries dictated by the supposed universality of the “I” that speaks. The academy insists that when we say “I,” what we really mean is us, and us is never exclusively female—sometimes, it’s not female at all. I must be mindful of the male reader, because the male reader dominates the literary landscape, large as a monolith, eclipsing everything in his sight. 

Male poets are under no such pressure to keep the “I” universal for women. Instead, they’re encouraged to aggressively exert their emotions, their sexuality, their literary bodies onto the page, and often, onto the women they write about. What do I do about that? How can I feel comfortable in my own “I” when it has such a heavy history of excluding and oppressing my identity? How can I write, when I am so frequently consigned to muse, and to the muse’s 21st century counterpart, the sexualized body? 

“Write about suicide,” my professor said, because as an older, white, cisgendered male poet, it was impossible for him to see that gender had anything to do with the divergent reactions to Lowell and Sexton’s work. Plath’s suicide was, for him, far more worthy of class time than was an analytical deconstruction of her poems. Women writers have fought to call themselves poets. They have fought to be seen as more than the muse, and they have fought to wrest “I” back from masculine discourse. It’s exhausting, sometimes—all this fighting. We tread and we retread old battlefields, waging wars with words in the classroom and on the page, and as soon as it seems like we’ve made a little progress—BAM, some entitled male poet is attempting to strip away our agency. Again. 

But we keep at it. We teach our children and our students and our friends and our peers how to be better readers, better humans—how to think critically about the media they consume. We stand up to our teachers, to our editors, to our colleagues—to the people who tell us we are not entitled to our own “I.” And we write. Oh, God, do we write. 

In A.D. 100 Sappho wrote “This will I now sing deftly/to please my girlfriends.”

And that is universal enough for me. 

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays and poems in the series, click here

Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine and an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches freshman composition and works as associate poetry editor for Bayou Magazine. Her work appears in Westerly, Going Down Swinging, and Curbside Splendor, and she tweets @whodreamedit

November 12, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape Culture - Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen's essay engages in a radical experiment in empathy: she reads Elizabeth Ellen's An Open Letter to the Internet with generosity and care--despite being a survivor of rape herself. Though she approaches Ellen and her mother--and Stepen Tully Dierks--with empathy, Cohen hardly agrees with their beliefs or excuses their actions. She interrogates the rapist/scumbag dichotomy set up by Ellen and proceeds to take it apart, piece by piece, in an effort to get at what it will take to bring rape culture to a shuddering collapse. --SBB

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape Culture: Bridging the Gap with Elizabeth Ellen (and her mom)

Okay. So, I’m going to start and say that when Elizabeth Ellen’s essay first came out, I wanted to tear it apart, to smash it. But responses have rolled in, tearing and smashing, and I’m not going to pretend for a second that I felt anything other than joy at the smashing, joy that what appeared to be a defense of sexual violence felt so obviously wrong to so many people. But because of those early responses, I no longer feel such a need to smash. Instead, I feel a need to bridge—to try to understand Elizabeth Ellen’s point of view and maybe invite her back into the conversation, rather than barring her, rather than censoring. I think it’s important to note that, at least outside the lit community, Ellen’s perspective is so pervasive that it hardly makes sense to censor or bar it—lets think back to Steubenville & all the media anchors lamenting the fate of the young, promising boys who were so nice and so good except the one time they gang-raped someone—I want to consider this perspective, deal with it somehow. In her essay, Ellen asks us to have empathy, for everyone. Im going to try.

One crux of Ellen’s essay is this weird, insistent distinction between the terms “scumbag” and “rapist.” Steven Tully Dierks is a scumbag, not a rapist, she says. To get at what Ellen is communicating, I want to talk about both these terms—“scumbag” and “rapist.”

Ellen claims that Dierks is not a rapist. So, then, who IS a rapist? The rapist is not only one who rapes. Because rapist is a signifier, right? The rapist is wearing a ski mask and has, like, a crow bar which he uses to push girls’ shoulders into the outer brick walls of city buildings before he attacks. The rapist does nothing but rape and plot rape and think about rape. The rapist rapes violently, shoves the crowbar up the twat of every lone, scared woman he can find walking down the street.

This is how Elizabeth Ellen’s essay conflates “rapist” with “monster,” a term she also uses a few times. This rapist/monster conflation makes sense. This is how we’ve constructed the signifier of the rapist. The rapist is a monster. Monsters are hardly ever real. So rapists are hardly ever real. Transitive property.

So okay, Elizabeth Ellen, I’m with you. Let’s forget “rapist.” Steven Tully Dierks is not a rapist. Stephen Tully Dierks is a normal boy. The stranger who forcibly fucked me in the lobby of my building was a normal boy, too. (He was wearing those REI canoe pants that zip off into shorts at the knee for godsakes = not a rapist.)

And here I think is the center of Ellen’s argument: Dierks is a normal boy, so it’s unfair to treat him as an aberration—the word “rapist” suggests monster suggests aberrant violent freak. Dierks is not an aberrant violent freak. The boy who raped me is not an aberrant violent freak either.

And this is the problem with using the word “rapist” within Rape Culture. “Rapist” suggests monstrosity and aberrance, but in Rape Culture, normal boys have sex with normal girls without those girls’ full consent.

And here I want to define Rape Culture:

In Rape Culture, we have a system in which bodies are gendered, in which gendered bodies are perceived to have different kinds and levels of desire, in which some bodies’ desires are understood to be more pressing and important than other bodies’ desires, and in which the sexual violation of some bodies by other bodies is naturalized and permitted, if not encouraged.

Ellen doesn’t seem to recognize that Rape Culture exists. For Ellen and her mom, Rape Culture is just Culture, inherent, The Way of Things.

Ellen’s mom says, “We’ve all had sex we don’t want to have.”

The normalcy of this “sex we don’t want to have” is, for Ellen and her mom, a reason to find Sophia Katz’s story of her violation perplexing and unnecessary; for me, it’s a reminder of the pervasiveness of Rape Culture and the silence around casual sexual violation. It’s a reminder of the importance of storytelling to the project of dismantling rape culture. Ellen and I have extreme differences re: the place of narratives of sexual violation in lit, but more on that later.

For now, in the interest of storytelling, and to help define rape culture, I want to talk about my own rape:

I was 20. This boy I had just met at a club walked me home from the club and then pushed me into the lobby of the building where I lived. He held me up, against a wall, and fucked me. I said the word stop. And no. And please. I was wearing a knee-length denim Marc Jacobs skirt and brown calf-length leather boots, since I hear people like to ask. I remember the skirt because it was pushed up around my hips and also the boots because I could see them behind this boy’s zip-at-the-knee REI canoe pants, which were still on. After he pulled out and released my legs to the ground, this boy apologized. He said, “I’m sorry,” and then he said, “Do you want a cigarette?” I said, “Yes.” I stood outside with this boy, after he raped me, and smoked a cigarette.

I smoked a cigarette with this boy in part because I was unable to use the word rape for what had just happened. It took me about three years to use the word rape for what just happened, and here’s why, I think: the feelings I felt after this episode were the same feelings I had after a lot of the “sex” I’d been having in college—“sex” that happened in frat houses, where boys would tell me I looked like I needed some water, show me the water cooler in their room, and be suddenly touching me while I went limp on their beds and tried hard to leave my body.

These boys, obviously, were taught this water cooler trick. It was a culture. And because it was a culture, I accepted it as The Way of Things. This is Rape Culture.

This boy who raped me apologized for raping me because he didnt want to be a rapist. Because, for a second, maybe he thought that word in his head and it felt horrible and he wanted it to go away. He hadn’t wanted to rape me. He had suggested we go back to his hotel several times during the walk home, and after my several rejections, he suggested he come up to my place. He wanted me to consent, wanted to hear yes or if not yes, sure, or okay, or at least, well come up for just a minute. But my consent wasnt mandatory. Probably he didnt even realize this until he was fucking me. This boy was not a rapist, not an aberrant freak; just a normal boy product of Rape Culture.

It’s not that Ellen doesn’t want Rape Culture to end; it’s just that she doesn’t want normal boys, normal boys who sometimes violate girls’ consent, to get hurt in its collapse.

So then how do we deal with boys who have raped? Boys who are normal boys?

I think Ellen is asking us to ask this question and I think it is a good question. I think it’s a generous question. Ellen comes down on the side of not hurting the normal boys who thought they were playing by the rules. But I say we must dismantle Rape Culture as a first priority. In the collapse of any culture, some will be wounded, and I say let the boys who rape be the wounded ones.1

But collapsing Rape Culture requires pointing to specific incidents, specific people, in order to say, this is what our culture has permitted but will no longer permit. Discussing Dierks publicly is useful because, based on his public reaction, it seems Dierks is in the midst of a personal crisis stemming from the realization that he’s raped people, which is likely to stop him from raping people. Because of this public internet explosion, Dierks is forced to think about the word rapist in connection with himself and possibly begin to understand how his actions have affected others, which seems, to me, a productive form of justice. I can see why Ellen feels sad for Dierks that this example has been made of him and that it is causing him pain. But I say, it’s an example that will ultimately cause a reduction in pain, by preventing future sexual violations. I say, too, that Dierks’ pain is useful for him—it is helping him become someone who doesn’t rape.

This public conversation is also useful, unfortunately, in making an example of Dierks, of letting boys (and also girls) know what constitutes sexual violation—steeped in Rape Culture, we feel confused about what constitutes rape. The word “rapist” causes reactionary responses because the faces of the ones who rape so rarely match up with the signifier of the rapist—maybe we need something like the This Is What A Feminist Looks Like campaign, which is supposed to show people that only some feminists have unshaven bodies and shorn heads. We need more examples of This Is What A Rapist Looks Like, in order to move beyond ski masks and crow bars and restore meaning to the word “rapist” as one who rapes rather than conflating it with monstrosity (or criminality).

But I’m curious, does Ellen have other ideas for stopping the commonplace boy practice of not respecting girls’ consent? How can we stop rape culture without telling these stories, without naming names? I’m open to suggestions.

Now I want to turn to this word “scumbag.” I don’t like it. Saying “scumbag” makes me feel like I’m throwing my handbag at someone’s chest as a fake weapon, and pouting. What’s weird about “scumbag” is it gives me the idea that what’s lacking is decency. Like if decent people had the chance to do this thing the scumbag is doing, they would enjoy doing it, would profit. The scumbag steals bottles of rosé from the open bar table at an event. The scumbag steals the idea you had for a brilliant invention and never credits you or gives you any of the proceeds. The scumbag takes what he wants without concern for how it will affect anyone else.

Ellen’s mom describes Dierks’ actions as “capitalizing on his literary position.”

Note: Sophia Katz is not capital.

Inherent to the idea of “scumbag," I think, is taking. Which, 1) If this taking is of a person’s body against that person’s will, I’m not sure where the distinction from rape happens. Like, in using that word, are we just handbag-tossing and pouting in order to temper our reactions to violations with serious consequences? And 2) The term “scumbag,” when applied to a man in a context like this, implies that men, and only men, have choices to take or not take, while women are to be taken, as Dierks did when he “capitalized” on Katz.

“Scumbag” is predicated on the idea that boys want, and can take or not take, while girls do not want. “Scumbag,” even if it’s an undesirable thing to be called, gives boys agency. “Scumbag” sounds like boys are the desiring ones and girls are desire-free people scumbags can do things to. And I think it then suggests that decent boys—boys who are not scumbags—don’t do things to girls unless they’re willing to give those girls the things they ostensibly do want—a baby, money, a declaration of long-term committed love. (Incidentally, my gay male roommate just admitted that until his early twenties he believed that women did not desire sexually at all, but only used sex as a means to obtain these things).

This is a problem, obviously, as people want to have sex, even when they’re not ready or inspired to make such investments. When our culture tells us in ten million ways that girls don’t want to have sex without investments, though, what choice do (normal) boys have but to use some form of coercion? The idea that girls don’t desire is necessary for the existence of Rape Culture, and the term “scumbag” is one of many terms that insinuates this absence of girl desire. If girls don’t desire as much as boys do, boy desire comes first. It’s so obvious to point it out, but this is built into the language: boys get some; girls give it up.

And so both the “scumbag” and its opposite, the “decent boy,” perpetuate Rape Culture by assuming an absence of girl desire, by reaffirming the idea of girls (& women) as capital.

I hold the weirdly radical belief that girls desire sexually as much as boys do. I (along with I think most humans?) had very specific and detailed sexual fantasies from the time I was a child. I was excited for college to be a time of sexual exploration and adventure. This excitement, in part, informed my willingness to kiss boys, to sit on their beds. But then there’d come a point where it didn’t feel like we were exploring or adventuring together—it felt like they were taking. Or it felt like they were tricking me into something, rather than inviting collaboration. I can only understand this as a result of the belief that girls don’t desire, they only allow or disallow, acquiesce or don’t. This is Rape Culture.

Rape Culture says: Since you don’t desire anyway, but are necessary for fulfilling my desire, I kind of just have to do what I want. I think that if girls actually didn’t desire, this wouldn’t feel so violating. We’d be like, okay.
And that’s the thing. Even though we want and want and want, we’re told, in a million ways, that we don’t want, really, or that boys want MORE, want in a way we can’t imagine. And sometimes we believe this. Sometimes we believe this and so we’re like, okay.

Sophia Katz was like, okay. Not out loud, but at some point, she gave in to what was happening.

We can imagine this Amazon warrior Sophia Katz with muscles and, like, a shield who jumps up from the bed with panther-like agility and kicks Dierks in the chest and walks out and finds a magical free hostel for Amazon Warrior Princesses. But Katz didn’t do that, she was like, okay. I, too, could have turned into a video game-type fighter and karate chopped my movie-like REI-clad rapist in the nose, but I didn’t. I was like, okay.

Ellen’s mom thinks “the Sophia female” needs to “take responsibility” for her silent okay. And the thing is, I think Katz doestake responsibility. And I find that heartbreaking. At the end of her essay, Katz writes, “I would like to think I wouldnt have let him claim my body as his own. But the reality is that I did. 

I think part of the reason that those of us who find Ellen’s mom’s call to “take responsibility” for our rapes sickening find it sickening in part because we already do.

But Katz’s responsibility-taking isn’t just misplaced victim-blaming. The questions she raises about her rape are good ones: Why do we let boys claim our bodies as their own? Why couldn’t Katz, or I, say no effectively? How did we come to value our own desire so little, to surrender our agency? These questions are beside the point of the rapist/scumbag distinction, and are essential questions to work on in the project of dismantling rape culture. They are literary questions. And the literariness of these questions is relevant, because Ellen, in her strange instructions to Katz on How To Be A Writer, did not recognize Katz’s piece as literary. Possibly this is because the literary questions surrounding sexual violations have yet to be asked.

Ellen writes that stories of abuse are not worthy of publication merely by virtue of their subject matter, but I disagree. I say, if theyre honest and observant, lets publish as many stories of sexual violation as possible—we need more stories, more kinds of stories, about sexual violation. We need more questions to work on and more thorough exploration of the questions we have. The stories we have right now naturalize Rape Culture, and we need to reveal its construction, to dissect its parts.

Ellen says that she’s invested in publishing “strong women’s voices.” This is a good start. I, too, want to read strong women’s voices. But I also want weak women’s voices and broken women’s voices and women’s voices that can’t figure out where their desire is and women’s voices that are wanting so hard but they don’t know for what. I want women’s voices that are undone and manic and can’t make sentences. I want women’s voices that tic and repeat themselves and wander and loop back and change voices partway through because they’ve become some other woman. I want women’s voices that are broken by this culture that is all the time breaking women, voices that can show the culture what it’s doing. I want women’s voices that desire and desire and desire.

So back to the questions Ellen’s essay raises: Was Katz’s essay literary enough to warrant the damage it did to Stephen Tully Dierks? Is it FAIR or USEFUL to have this big public takedown of Dierks when he’s a boy who’s been playing by what he understood to be the rules? Is there a way to overthrow rape culture without hurting the normal boys who rape?

Like I said—I have no problem hurting Dierks; in fact, think it’s productive. And like I said, I’m open to other suggestions—but I’m not open to a feminism that accepts Rape Culture as The Way of Things.

Ellen’s mom writes: “I’ve been in situations where Ive had sex and got the hell out and said to myself, thank god thats as bad as it got.”

I respect Ellen’s mother as the feminist Ellen describes her as: it sounds as though she’s worked for important rights for women—abortion rights, workplace rights, I’m guessing. These rights matter a lot to me. However, I, additionally, want to live in a world where I don’t have to thank god for having nonconsensual sex that is not also violent.

This is generational, I realize. I am able to imagine this world because I have rights that Ellen’s mother and other women in the seventies worked for. I am grateful. I also feel sad that at least some women from that generation are unable to imagine a world in which Rape Culture doesn’t exist.

I am barely able to imagine a world in which Rape Culture doesn’t exist, but it feels crucial to try. I see younger girls imagining this world, and creating it: When I read about new affirmative consent laws, I am shocked and floored and emotional. I can’t believe that actual administrations and governments are discussing passing laws that in some way recognize that sex can be collaborative and not coercive, that coercive sex will no longer be considered normal. When I read stories like Sophia Katz’s, or Emma Sulkowicz’s, or Regina from CalArts’, my eyes well with tears. In some part, they’re tears of sadness that girls on college campuses and within art circles are still being raped, but mostly they’re tears of gratitude and amazement that the world is shifting in such a way that girls are both internally acknowledging and publicly saying WHAT YOU DID TO ME IS NOT OKAY. That these girls—Katz, Sulkowicz, Regina, & others—are making it shift.

We all have a lot more work to do. And there will be casualties. But hopefully, as Ellen suggested, we can treat those casualties with empathy, if not necessarily kindness, and understand that those who rape are not monsters, and that treating them as such is counterproductive to revolutionizing a culture that encourages nonconsensual sex. Hopefully, too, those casualties will resurrect themselves, stronger and kinder and better, with more respect for themselves and other human beings. Maybe we’ll even hear from these resurrected boys, who might have stories and questions of their own that contribute to the project of dismantling or complicating the analysis of Rape Culture—I’d be excited to read.

1 It’s important to note, though, that while Ellen accuses Katz of ruining Dierks’ life, no one is calling upon the fucked up criminal justice system to settle this score. Dierks’ life will not be ruined. Ellen’s concern about the word rapist no doubt is in part about criminality—I realize I’m ignoring the crime of rape in this essay. I think probably something Ellen and I agree on is not wanting to see Dierks go to prison. I also don’t want to see the REI boy go to prison. I’m not a fan of prison as a reparative strategy.

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays and poems in the series, click here

Sam Cohen's writing is in Sidebrow, Pank, Black Clock, Joyland, Gaga Stigmata, RECAPS, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Gossip was published by Birds of Lace Press in 2013. She lives in Los Angeles with her friend Zack and her cat and possibly some ghosts.

November 11, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Further Reading - Poems on Rape Culture

I wish I had all the room in the world to publish every one of the moving, the grotesque, the angry, the sadly matter-of-fact poems and stories writers sent in for the alt lit and rape culture series. In lieu of that, and concluding the micro-series of poems on rape culture, here are some more poems, published in other platforms, for you to read. --SBB

From Two Objects and a Girl, by Staci R. Schoenfeld:

She’s all instinct and scent. Smells too much of her father. He’s been sniffing around. Her fur has come in and her ears grow long. She’s skittish. On guard.

From Crazy Daisies, by Sarah Certa:

. . . the voice
so big there’s no room
for you except in the corner, folded
like a balding swan
into your naked self, all the corners, all the
flowers to say I’m sorry, baby, I love you, they’re crazy
daisies, I got them
for us because we’re crazy
like that, he would say things
like that . . .

From The Rapist Joins AA, in the chapbook And I Shall Again Be Virtuous, by Natalie Eilbert:

Was the only night I ever drove drunk. The dark was not God’s back turned away.

Very drunk.

Drove slowly, imagined my car reeling home on a thick yellow string.

The machine I would carry also imagined this thick yellow string.

Parked delicately in a diner parking lot. Was worried an idle car

on the shoulder would spark interest. Was a very smart girl.

From In the Oven, by Jessica Reidy:
She said, Go on, tell the doctor. You hurt yourself doing cartwheels.

          The membrane glowed under surgical light.
          Mucinous fluid made a full moon, an oven lamp,
          that lit the room as I counted backwards:
I'll fuck you dead.

From It's a Guy Thing, by Jude Marr:
Bone withers in the aftermath.
I wipe my face on your sleeve
before you go.

From Someday, in the chapbook The Glass Sponge, by Jules Jacob:
You kicked the dog
and waited for my reaction,
predictably forgetting
I didn’t live for you anymore.

From The best part of sexual assault is how you can't pass the Bechdel Test anymore, by Sonya Vatomsky:
There aren't do-overs here. No summer school, no tutors. You're just a one trick pony for a while,
and your one trick is isolating yourself
from friends
from coworkers
from strangers, even
because nobody, literally nobody, wants to hear what you've got to say.

From The Way Mommy Bear Eats a Swam of Fire Ants, by Kim Hyesoon, translated from the Korean by Choi Don Mee:
that there are only things that run away when they see me
like the enormous gray bear that sleeps while it walks
like the enormous black lace cloud fluttering above eyelids
like the dump truck leaking dribbles of oil in the middle of a desert
like the house with rotten stairs and six feet of dust collected in the ceiling
that there is no one except me standing all alone

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays and poems in the series, click here.

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Service - Chelsea Carter

Though this essay series has focused on rape culture and literary communities, we know it permeates as many subcultures as society creates. Chelsea Carter, a veteran of the Marine Corps, examines the effects and experience of rape culture in the military in her poem "Service." "Service" is part of her thesis "Read Without Listening" at the University of Washington, which is under a five-year embargo and will be released for public viewing at a much later date. --SBB

(Use the dropdown menu next to the "open" button in the menu bar of the PDF to view the poem full-size in the Lumin PDF viewer.) 

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays and poems in the series, click here

Chelsea Carter is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a graduate of the University of Washington with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Poetics. 

November 10, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - XXXIV - Sonnet L'Abbe

In the series Sonnet's Shakespeare, Sonnet L'Abbé undertakes an ambitious and exciting artistic project. As she describes it, the speaker is "a 21st-century person [who] claims Shakespeare's page, his/another culture's traditional territory, as newly his own. In these palimpsestic poems, he assimilates Shakespeare's original language into his own love-/hate-letter monuments to the contemporary world." I was floored when I read this poem--both its themes and its practice seek to dismantle the systems that hold rape culture in place. Read Sonnet's poem, "XXXIV," and her description of the project, "Eco-Ionizing Sonnets: Talking Over An Old Boy," below. --SBB


Why did those students hoot at uproar condemning sexual assault? Chanting diatribes that support sex without consent, adamant boys manifest, demanding unchecked freedom. Free to ravish damsels for thrills? Words like that distort, students imply. Chicks like innocent rape jokes. To let bra-burners restrict redblooded undergrads and overtake campus shenanigans is mollycoddling, fellows say; fuck chiding, feminist hysteria: bravery is in not chastening our hormonal birthright. Women’s movements cockblock ketamine seductions, although still women swallow drugs that gloating frat hazers coolly put in gin. Fresh meat, they’re called by (joking!) studs. Outside the bounds set by caretakers, teens’ disorder symptomizes harsh gender ranking enforcement. My sisters’ norm-beaten faces flirt, worried no man will quell moms’ fears of unchosen daughters alone forever. Who can speak a stuff that heals the culture’s wound, and cures not only the disgrace of normed crime, and the crying shame of psychological violence, but is also physic to misogyny and grief? The young hotheads mock, unrepentant yet; girls behave as though, ironically, it’s their loss; the offenders’ lack of sorrow doubly offends. Bullies tweet naked pictures of un-Liked ex-girlfriends. To him, that boner, wearing a shirt hardselling ass-trollness in big font (“fuck safe space”) – a dunce’s cap. Porn-bossed mouthbreathers blurt that no means yes, that tears are pearl necklaces which hot rough involuntary love sheds. Amanda, Rehtaeh, Audrie, you are remembered – by a girl of colour, who anonymously endured handsome lady-killers’ ill deeds.

Eco-lonizing Sonnets: Talking Over An Old Boy

North American contemporary poetry has seen a recent surge in poets practicing erasure poetry, an approach in the avant-garde collage tradition, where the poet takes another writer's text and "writes" by deleting words from the original until a new "edit," a new poem, remains. The most pertinent example for this project would be American poet Jen Bervin's 2004 book Nets,which she made by erasing words/letters from Shakespeare's Sonnets. 

The author in erasure practice has been compared to an editor, to the pruner of a shrub, and to one who "opens" the text to "ventilate" it. I think erasure practitioners can also be compared to censors, to deleters of authorly expression. Like-minded Canadian poets nourbeSe philip, Shane Rhodes and Jordan Abel have all used erasure (on legal documents as well as other writers' texts) to allegorize the censorial practices of colonialism.

But another strategy colonizers have used, besides attempting to eradicate extant cultures, is to reframe the stories of colonized people, to "talk over" existing voices so loudly that the cultures are, at important levels of voice, silenced. Though colonizers often nearly destroy the legibility and foregrounding of the presence of original cultures, they are never fully successful at erasing the original cultures they mean to displace. 

I am similarly successful and unsuccessful when I write, from the perspective of both colonizer and colonized, over the "traditional territory" of English literature and attempt to impose upon it my own descriptions of the world. This is a different mode of erasure, one that hides the original text in plain sight, and attempts a muted bivocality in the reading experience. The original poem exists in its entirety on the same page, but reading it requires a cultural knowledge that remembers what to look for. 

For example, the first words of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 31" are: 
Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts.
The first line of my colonized sonnet, "XXXI," is as follows: 
The academy sabotages promising energies by demonizing a real world.
I have written over forty of the 154 sonnets, and plan to write over all of them to create the complete manuscript. I trust that the "vanity plate" nature of the title makes sense given the alignment of the stars, and the context of my themes.

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays and poems in the series, click here

Sonnet L'Abbé, Ph.D. is a Canadian poet and literary critic.

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - testimony (the first apocalypse) - Marty McConnell

After reading "testimony (the first apocalypse)," by Marty McConnell, I just couldn't get it out of my head: the sinister atmosphere, the "willing" and their desire to be "chosen," and the implication that violence waits for all of us. --SBB

testimony (the first apocalypse)

A:          Once upon a time, there was a creature
with the face of a bear and the body
of a lizard. Could swim
and climb trees, shake

the young cubs by the loose scruff
at the back of their necks.
The creature loved the sun.
Afternoons it would find

a broad rock and lie there, gleaming.
But soon the heavy, furry head
would begin to sweat. So the creature
licked its claws and torso and tufted

head with a broad and cooling tongue,
and ambled off to a shady bed.

B:         Once upon a time, there was a creature
with the face of a bear and the body
of a lizard. Could swim and climb trees,
shake the young cubs by the loose scruff

at the back of their necks like a mother.
How marvelous its skin was, tough and shining
in places. The creature loved the sun.
Afternoons it would find a broad rock

and lead the willing there to watch it gleam.
But soon the heavy, furry head would begin
to sweat. Reluctant to abandon
this perfect spot, the creature

asked who among the cubs
cooling themselves
would be willing to bring it
a drink. All the willing were willing

so it chose among the oldest. Such
a fine job it did bringing the water,
the creature offered some creature
wisdom, querying My dear, what kind

of creature do you want to be? And the sun
and the rock did not look away
as the cubs kept dozing in the shade, their long fur
moving sweetly with their breathing.

C:         Once upon a time, there was a creature
with the face of a bear and the body
of a lizard. Could swim and climb trees,
shook the young cubs by the loose scruff

at the back of their necks like a mother
or rough cousin. How marvelous
its skin was, tough and shining
in places, and bright teeth

shown only to keep the wolves away.
Most of all, the creature loved the sun.
Afternoons it would find a broad rock
and lead the willing there

to watch it gleam. But soon
the heavy, furry head would begin
to sweat. Reluctant to abandon
this sought-after spot, the creature

asked who among the cubs
cooling themselves in its shadow
would be willing to bring it
a drink. All the willing were willing

so it chose among the oldest, the one
with the most luxurious coat. Such
a fine job it did bringing the drink, over
and over, the creature offered

it a secret. Do you want
to know the secret, it asked.
Yes, the willing answered,
yes tell me the secret. The secret

isn’t told, the creature said. The secret
is given. And with that licked
the willing’s furred paw with a broad
tongue, the hair coming away

in clumps. The secret hurts a little,
the willing said, not pulling away
the paw. But look what’s underneath
said the creature, pausing

for another swig. What kind of creature
do you want to be? And the sun
and the rock did not look away
and the cubs kept dozing

in the shade, their long fur
moving with their breathing,
knowing someday they too
would be ready, brighter, chosen.

Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the essays and poems in the series, click here

Poet and educator/coach Marty McConnell lives, works, and teaches in Chicago, Illinois. Find more at