Last weekend I attended a poetry event and I walked out.
I was plagued with one question:
What about the words?
The first session I attended was hosted by an editor of a literary journal. She started with basic information on professionalism as a writer. She also talked about ratios of submissions compared to what is actually selected for print. I jotted down a few interesting statistics and was eager to learn what she had to say about finding journals for your poetry. She then stressed to us the important information we must include in our cover letters when submitting to literary journals:
Age, race, gender and whether or not we have a disability.
She said that journals are tired of publishing straight young white males and that you have a better chance of getting published if you are anything but. “Journals love to publish you if you have a disability or if you’re queer,” she explained. (Side note: The journal she edits is not centered on disabled Americans. It’s your run-of-the-mill, fairly well-known literary journal.)
What about the words? Why do these discriminatory factors surface as the litmus test for one’s eligibility to appear in print?
The next session was intended to educate poets on how to bring musical devices into poetry. We were taught alliteration and repetition. I remember Mr. Lentini, my sixth grade teacher, teaching us the same. The event I was attending was not intended for beginner poets. Most of the dozens of writers in attendance have published several books; elementary poetic devices are not something one pays money to learn about. For this particular session we had to submit a poem in advance and bring seven copies. We didn’t review a single writer’s poem during the class.
I didn’t want to spend the rest of the day in further disappointment, but I was a few hours from home and felt like I should at least stay. I spoke with one of the people who organized the event and expressed my concerns to him.
In regards to the second instructor, he said he had “taken a gamble on her.” They “needed a black instructor” and that is why she was picked.
In regards to the first instructor, he agreed that discrimination does still take place in publishing.
So I left. I lost respect for the event. I want to read poets who write—and attend events that contribute—based on their talents regardless of any other factors. Fantastic writing is fantastic writing. I am not writing this to open a dialogue on color, sexuality, ageism or the like. I am writing this because I want to know:
What about the words?
Where are the publishers who look exclusively at the literary merit of a writer? What publishers and editors select material based on the quality of the writing? Are there any places that publish for poetry?