We begin our interrogation into rape culture and poetics with this essay from Lisa Cattrone. Read on for how radical poets can be surprisingly and disappointingly conservative in their actions; how Janey Smith's appropriation of a woman's personal story of assault in his "On Rape" is not new or unique and, in fact, exposes truths about literature and the internet in general; how such appropriations shine a light on our literary and academic cultures; and what feminists and poets and academics must do in order to face down rape in our culture and transform that culture according to our ideals. --SBB
The Intellectual Class Of Poetry: On Rape Culture in the Literary World
And An Examination of Janey Smith’s "On Rape"
Isn’t intellectual life about having an argument?
Introduction: Ideals and Reality in the Radical World of Poetry
The internet, with its click bait and comment streams, has exacerbated the already problematic functioning of an intellectual class of poetry. (I realize I’ve made some assumptions here with this classification, which will be addressed). With poets openly admitting that they don’t even read literary journals anymore unless they’re online and then brought to their attention through social media, and sometimes not even then, but only when their curiosity or intrigue has been peaked enough, a snowball we can call the snowball of narcissism, has rolled itself into an endless heap of provocation. In terms of Alt Lit, but not exclusively, one element that is becoming a staple of provocation is the listing of living poets by name for various reasons. Poets scan to see who is on the list and if their name was also listed or not and then, upon seeing who got a black or white marble (whether or not it is really desired depending upon how the names are being used), develop reactive opinions, usually in comment streams or on blogs, thus bringing lots of undue attention to some pretty idiotic writing. The dilemma, however, doesn’t stop with this narcissistic snowball but is paired with a current fashionable opinion, one that has developed over time and from the various sub-sub-cultures of poetry, that our writing has absolutely no effect on our lives or the lives of others. So while work becomes more and more idiotically provocative, the writers of these pieces are free to throw their hands in the air as if they never even touched the thing, because after all, our writing is nothing beyond what you might find in a cookbook. (I actually saw this in a comment stream on Facebook where a question was raised of whether or not poetry has any effect. Each commenter tried to one up the previous to show just how little importance they feel their work has. I personally felt the cookbook comment won).
Recently, our literary community has had a revelation. We now can see that, after several women have told about their experiences on the internet and elsewhere, writers and editors are not immune to participating in sexually predatory behavior. Some have observed that many of the accused (along with some of them publicly admitting their guilt) are almost exclusively from the Alt Lit community. This has led some to believe that Alt Lit must somehow be suspect, having an effect on the writers of Alt Lit who present as left-thinking allies of women but then grab every opportunity to take advantage of them. I am not one of these people. I do not think the writing of Alt Lit nor engaging with this community somehow produces or even attracts a more sinister character. Instead, I think it has served as a microcosm of a much more widely diffused problem.
Let’s return back to the concept of poets as a class of intellectuals. Currently, there is an ill-formed class. It is hard to deny that poets present and operate through a series of gestures, methods and platforms on a variety of active levels, as well as milieux, with an intellectual intent. The intellectual turn of poetry is one with a long history, and much of that history is saturated with the same patriarchal and colonial history that saturates the real world of events and experience.
In saying “intellectual” some may think I mean to say the same thing as “philosopher.” However, there is clearly a distinction, especially since poets have taken up the act. Philosophy and poetry have been at odds for millennia because the modes of thought are so incompatible. Philosophy and/or theory, while there are leftist “thinkers,” is rarely considered leftist or progressive in any way as an institution writ large or wholly inclusive. Poetry, however, is almost always occupied with radical processes of thought and very often invested in counter-cultural ideals as well as a radical politics. It is safe to say calling a poet and/or their poetry conservative is a major insult. When things get really heated in a public discussion, the phrase “that’s very conservative” fits nicely on the foot like a steel-toed boot when aiming below the belt. While sometimes I think the attack is unjustly used to silence and derail someone, I often enjoy it because I find it hilarious that this is our biggest and nastiest weaponry, to call someone conservative! If only some of the people I know who are actually conservative knew… I can’t help but delight in it almost every time! But that is beside the point. And the point is this: the institution of poetry prides itself on being radical because the best poems are the ones that move in the wild spaces of the mind, which is important not only for good poetry but also for how the work we do with language fits in with the greater intellectual community. This unordinary kind of intellectual mixing with the greater intellectual community through our discoveries with language is how the edges of poetry overlap with other political, intellectual and radical thought processes in the real world. This all sounds pretty utopian, but there is room for further investigation later. With this modern and unorthodox intellectualization through poetic thought and its radicalized manifestations of communal ideals, a misguided and unrealistic trust has formed. There is an assumption that the best interests of all marginalized people (of course including women), are, with all seriousness, taken into account and so held up to counteract the cultural norm of the sickened, current human relations (because isn’t that what radicalizing our community of poets would mean?). At some level we all know this is a utopian ideal but the assumption that remains is that it is, in fact, the utopian ideal of nearly all poets who, it is assumed, hold the collective ideal of radicalizing our minds, politics and also hopefully the world. This has left us wide open for shock and torment when it is revealed that real people—real poets and editors who have, in one way or another, aimed for these ideals—are working against them in drastic ways. No one feels shocked when you say “rape culture exists” or “1 in 6 women are raped at least once in their lifetime” but we do feel shocked when similar things occur in our “radical” community.
Alt Lit and how it functions is not the cause of this disconnect between ideals and the unfortunate behavior of individuals. Alt Lit is, however, a very shiny example of some of the cultural factors behind the problem so I will use it here as an example. Alt Lit is internet based, which is a major factor. And it is a younger crowd, and young women are the world’s target pretty much anywhere you look, with other modes of marginalization just increasing that staggering reality. (For instance a Black young woman can expect to find herself against even greater odds than a White young woman and a Black lesbian has even more to combat than a Black straight woman). The poetry world is not immune to this system of marginalization and it is important to look at the unique ways in which this subculture functions. What Alt Lit has done in this current wave of scrutiny is not create an unfortunate problem but expose a long-standing, festering wound of the reality of our institution. I have already discussed how the internet has affected not only our poetry (to become more and more provocative by sometimes preying on the narcissism of others, and sometimes purposely pushing the buttons of others, in order to get more clicks) but also the ways in which we interact with the poetry of others, in the midst of social media, comment streams and in quick and isolated instances. The reasons Alt Lit exemplifies this is obvious, but let’s look closer at a less known example that fits nicely with the topic of “rape culture” to further clarify, and then to also touch on, intellectual trends and their impact, their hidden agendas, and the very real capitalistic/patriarchal tendencies of the structures and workings of our community and institution.
On Janey Smith’s “On Rape”
In February 2014, Janey Smith, one of the Alt Lit writers on the Blacklist here, constructed a piece entitled “On Rape” and posted it to HTMLGIANT. The editors of HTMLGIANT removed it due to many complaints from readers. The piece was a sampling of text from Mary Beard’s work entitled “The Story of My Rape” overlaid with a series of kitsch-laden images of rape scenes (or what could be construed as) from various pop culture sources and movies. In the sample Smith chose from “The Story of My Rape,” Beard wrote about having been raped on a train more than once and how she wasn’t really drastically affected by it. I was personally traumatized just by reading the sample, so to have experienced that as a young student backpacking across Italy and emerge untraumatized is a testament to her resiliency. Smith’s “On Rape” included Beard’s entire account of the events surrounding and including her rape as well as her reflections—reflections that have caused an outpouring of response in various online locations with many people expressing that they think she’s just in denial. The images Smith chose to combine with the text were over the top and exaggerated to the point of some being almost humorous and, if sampled without the backdrop of the quote, could be seen as a commentary on the fetishization of rape in pop-culture.
In the comment stream beneath the piece, several people vacillated about whether the text or the image selection was more disturbing. Some questioned Smith’s selection of the excerpt and what his intent was. Others, who felt the images were more disturbing, wondered what Smith meant to say with such a collection. But, if you look at both elements in isolation, as one or the other, neither says much about what Smith meant because taken alone each is mere reflection. However, the real reason the piece was problematic was not in its constituent elements but the working whole of it and what the two extremes presented do to each other and say of/to each other. It is this imposed, dialectical construct by Smith that should be considered. In the comment stream Smith argued for the importance of art in and of itself regardless of topic or reaction, that it is the art we should study and not the ramifications. I felt that was suspicious. Somehow art that denies its real world affect is something that should be revered and considered with the utmost importance? But regardless, there is a real possibility of a darker message in the intent of this piece. It’s hard to say. Perhaps Smith found his creation just as disturbing and unfortunate as I did. But since Smith has said things like “art is what you can get away with,” I’m sure he’s thrown his hands up and walked away from this one a long time ago, probably the moment he put it out into the world.
What is not hard to say though is that, like camera obscura, we can look through this example and the greater example of Alt Lit like a pinhole and diffract the larger image of a troubled “class.” There are so many things to consider with this piece in relation to intellectual life and literary culture. Not only is it curious for a man to use this excerpt, considering all of its implications and history of response, a man who after the fact was accused of predatory behavior in the poetry scene, but also that the loaded excerpt was written by Mary Beard, someone who has been widely acknowledged for taking a great deal of abuse over the internet including death and rape threats due to her feminist ideas. The appropriation of this particular woman’s personal story of rape highlights a general cultural issue with the internet. It is open season on women throughout the world and behind the drape of the internet, the socially less-constrained ego—the male ego—has put the particular challenge of speaking publicly as a woman under a shameless microscope. Mary Beard can be held up as a more publicized and, in most cases, more intense example of a greater, less obvious problem that women encounter daily on the internet but also anywhere else she might speak, or rather, choose not to. Interactions on the internet have a more vitriolic nature due to a sense of anonymity but have served as a looking-glass into the unbelievable misconceptions of how a woman’s ideas should be responded to. The exaggerated consequences of the internet in relation to this general problem are not a creation of how women’s ideas are received but an exposure. Women are harassed, belittled, threatened, called names, mansplained to (a controversial portmanteau, perhaps controversial because of its clever truthfulness and accuracy) or simply ignored or laughed at. Men, on the other hand, are engaged with in a more serious manner, by men and women alike. Rarely could a woman ever assume the privilege of security and public confidence in what she says as not warranting immediate correction, threats, name-calling and the like. To use this excerpt from Beard was, probably without realizing it, very telling.
Rape Culture, Academia and the Intellectual Class of Poetry
The dismissal of women and their ideas cannot be denied on a large scale, but I mean more to highlight that this problem is very real in academia on the internet but also, for as long as academia has existed, off the internet. It is just as pronounced, if not more so in the testosterone-laced, aggressively argumentative, oracle-driven atmosphere of academia where status is often won by intellectually knocking someone in a lesser position than you. And women have always held that lesser position in academia. Where the internet has shone a light on the problem, more pointedly, Alt Lit has brought out the flood lights and “On Rape” by Smith is made out of highly reflective glass. It’s blinding really, but let’s not be blind to the fact that men in Alt Lit are just doing what they’ve been taught for years, just in a more visible way.
Real men have taken it upon themselves to participate in a culture that denies women the comfort of being taken seriously and for their word. They have utilized their privilege in being believed and revered within an intellectual class to take advantage of people who do not hold the same privilege. If men thought women would be readily believed, they would not do things and then deny them to the world, to their victims, making them think they’re just crazy, and to themselves, telling themselves they’re good because they have radical ideas or maybe they think they’re religious, or whatever, and so what they participate in must be good regardless of their actions. If women thought they would be readily believed, not attacked or suffer further repercussions, they would be less likely to doubt themselves, everyone around them and their own capacity to effect change.
I speak in a general way here but I also want to add that I mean this intellectually as well. Women have been brave in coming forward and putting their stories into a hostile environment. They have found a (hopefully) secure way to do this and I applaud them. However, in Sunday, A Theory, Nicole Brossard maps out the three elements of feminist consciousness, the first being motivation. These stories that we’ve encountered are but a motivation for our community. To do our part to support the people who have done this initial work, we must move into decisions through intellectual discourse as women, despite being taken less seriously at a world-(even poetry-world)-view level, and finally a concentration. Women must write essays of intellectual discourse on feminism and all topics of intellectual interest. This is key. We need to not only talk about feminist issues to level the playing field. Everything that is discussed in our communities needs to also be discussed by women. We must. Even if our intellectual engines have been stunted by years of disbelief in ourselves, we must, even if we know we’ll be met with either ridicule, dismissiveness or complete silence and disregard, we must. And editors must publish our contributions to these discussions once they’ve been written. Poetry is operating in an intellectual sphere and so we must turn a critical eye upon that sphere, how it functions and how historically intellectual discourse has functioned. Because in this sphere, and, more pointedly, in its functioning through the poetry world, there is an assumption that women know less of what they’re talking about. A direct line can be drawn from this to rape culture.
And, while we must engage intellectually with discourse, we must also push on the functioning of our poetry in the intellectual, unconscious, and real worlds. It is a patriarchal assumption and repeated announcement that our work is meaningless and has no effect on anything at all. I disagree. I do not mean to say poetry is protest. There is no physical space poetry takes up. What poetry does do, though, is create possibilities for new forms, shapes and linguistic possibilities of and for thought. It is so much less like a cookbook in this way! The linguistic functioning and shape of thought is intimately tied to the functioning of the greater world and our human conditions, autonomously as well as relationally. Another way of saying this is, so far, most of our intellectual passageways to thought lead back upon the patriarchal/capitalistic structures we hope to think against and perhaps, finally, find a way out of. Current dynamics are testament to that.
One possibility for further consideration in relation to our poetics, is to consider how critics group us and then use coined titles against us from various positions. It is dangerous to say that Alt Lit is at fault when in fact it is the perpetrators who willingly participate in the design of their privilege, who just happen to be classified as Alt Lit, who are at fault. It is a function of the institution to group people in this way in order to understand them from an institutional point of view and that is a perpetuation of an ill-formed class as well. Further, it might be noted that there is little, if any, discussion of a Black movement in poetry right now even if one is flourishing. This is, institutionally speaking, ill-formed and serves the privileged working within our system. Certain groups of people are linked and then studied as linked and the only purpose it serves is to further the institutionalized functioning of a privileged and ill-formed class.
Likewise, we must be diligent in critiquing how we are grouped as women. It is an intellectual assault on our community to group a mainly white, middle-class group of women into a women’s movement in poetry and then transform women’s writing conceptually into what will fit that description. Critics utilize such groupings in off-handed sorts of ways so that they can check “women” off their list of the well-roundedness of their criticism without even having to discuss anything a woman has actually said.
The women’s movement in poetry is an inclusive bag of all types of feminisms, equally, not mainly white and middle-class. It is a concentration and a oneness that must fight through a poetics against externally and institutionally defined spaces of thought. We must be free to follow each other as we wish and trust in the wild edges of our own minds where new shapes can be forged. And we must find an intertextuality of poetics and poetry to grow in externally unguided and flourishing ways. This wild and unguided growth is important because poetry is neither a cookbook nor a recipe of nonexistent (regardless of how damaging) ingredients. The thought processes of poetry in relation to the intellectual world are not isolated and ineffectual frivolities. It is a purely dialectical synthesis (in terms of how we are affected as poets by history and the world, and in turn, affect intellectualisms that are imbricated with the politics of the world) and it must not be restricted to the confines of an externally articulated categorization and its stagnant ramifications.
Lisa Cattrone received her MFA from Saint Mary's College. Her work has appeared in various literary magazines including Chicago Review, The Awl, Lemon Hound, The Volta, The Claudius App, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, Volt, West Wind Review, Interim, Fourteen Hills and several others. Her review of Jean Day's Early Bird is forthcoming from The Volta in January. Her chapbook Mutations for Jenny is currently out from Horse Less Press, and her full length book entitled Last Year's Schizo is forthcoming from Trembling Pillow Press. She has two children.