From my time as a crisis counselor, I learned that the term “crisis” refers to a moment when the body identifies intense danger, either in response to a new trauma or triggered by a former one, compelling it to make the most immediate choices for survival. In curating the following responses to the topic of sexual violence in literary spaces, I cannot help but return to this definition of crisis. On March 6, 2016, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts published “Reports from the Field: Statements Against Silence,” a collection of anonymous testimonials from women naming a well-known poet as a perpetrator of sexual violence; someone who has leveraged the power and prestige of his reputation to ensure their silence. What does it mean that the responses that have followed are not one of shock and dismay but of the acknowledgment that sexual violence has historically pervaded the spaces in which we write and build community? That other writers have spoken up and forged connections between this incident and sexual transgressions of myriad other forms perpetrated by mentors, teachers, and others who wield certain power across literary spaces?
I think of crisis now because these moments force us to confront the urgent matter of what it means to work within literary spaces that perpetuate violence and silence their survivors. In a sense, what we are experiencing is a series of crises that bring the immediacy of this violence to light. Yet somehow the urgency dissipates just as quickly. Though we often look to the act of writing as documentation and witness, the writing of violence somehow becomes the burden of those who have endured it and forgotten by those with the privilege to ignore.
We at Apogee Journal put out a call for contributors to respond to this very subject because we are against forgetting. In the following responses, contributors turned to poetry, prose, and essay to address a recurring crisis. At times they force us to sit with the grief of surviving such violence. Other times they demand that we take back the spaces that have become unsafe. Contributor Mahogany L. Browne writes that for us to stop this violence, we all must “become louder, even still.” We ask that you consider these responses as echoes—as a response to a history of responses to violence. May they resound with such volume that every response following becomes an even brighter and more unrelenting noise.
Natalie Park | The Writer Chooses to Remain Anonymous | Cantrice Janelle Penn | Swati Khurana | Leila Ortiz | Lauren Whitehead | Emily Brandt | Kenzie Allen | Justine el-Khazan | Ben Pease | Annie Won | Maria Ramos-Chertok | Sarah Certa | Mahogany L. Browne
The Word Inside
I try to be explicit but the blade
grazes back, close to my neck.
I relent to the wisdom of why I can’t talk—
finding space to praise the deep running
underneath my skin. I spend each day
putting to rest what I remember.
It takes me years to learn the story of my life.
Not easy to feel, so I don’t sometimes,
preferring flatline against hemorrhage or blaze.
Abuse, a quiet lawn grown over, with the frail
sweet scent of blossoms speaking nothing.
I’ll persist. Through silence, the threat
that who I am is just a rumor, and last thing
he said to me: liar.
Natalie Park is a New York native in pursuit of what makes her happy. Healing and growth will always be a part of that gentler mission. She currently lives and writes in Pennsylvania, with her partner and a black-and-white mutt named Creek.
taking women writers seriously
“‘He owns form,’ ‘doesn’t he?’ ‘The tyrant’ ‘owns form'”
—Alice Notley, The Descent of Alette
the following is an edited version of a facebook post from march 8, international women’s day:
“i often think about and sometimes teach adrienne rich’s vital essay ‘Taking Women Students Seriously.’ it really crystallizes how little we actually learn about our own history, our own bodies, and what elena ferrante called our ‘symbol system’ in last year’s vanity fair interview.”
“Yes, I hold that male colonization of our imaginations—a calamity while ever we were unable to give shape to our difference—is, today, a strength. We know everything about the male symbol system; they, for the most part, know nothing about ours, above all about how it has been restructured by the blows the world has dealt us. What’s more, they are not even curious, indeed they recognize us only from within their system.”
rich describes the implications of this colonization in a passage sadly still relevant today:
“The capacity to think independently, to take intellectual risks, to assert ourselves mentally, is inseparable from our physical way of being in the world, our feelings of personal integrity. If it is dangerous for me to walk home late of an evening from the library, because I am a woman and can be raped, how self-possessed, how exuberant can I feel as I sit working in that library? how much of my working energy is drained by the subliminal knowledge that, as a woman, I test my physical right to exist each time I go out alone?”
right after this rich devotes a brief but charged paragraph on what she calls ‘a rape of the mind.’ my students take issue with the turn of phrase but too many of the young women can list lecherous teachers or describe experiences of being hit on by male authority figures to varying degrees of assault.
“Even if turned aside, such gestures constitute mental rape, destructive to a woman’s ego. They are acts of domination, as despicable as the molestation of the daughter by the father.”
having been in this situation myself in college i had to stop and consider the gravity of what she’s saying here. at the time i felt honored, chosen among other students as a woman that a man like that could want. it took years of therapy to even recognize the power differential, to reposition myself as a victim, to understand that instead of guidance and mentorship in the literary arts i got a glimpse into a grown man’s crumbling marriage and distraction from my work.
but i got out relatively unscathed, if a bit heartbroken and cynical about bright men of letters. i certainly would not have called it a rape of my mind but something in rich’s essay struck a nerve. i believe it is that destructive because, like the daughter with her father, we are turning to our male educators for something other than sex. where we want intellectual validation and stimulation we are reminded once again that we are firstly our bodies or the pleasure they can offer men in power. the sex and the flirtation is a betrayal of the authority, the responsibility they are endowed with by trusted institutions. it’s no wonder we can’t trust them. they keep failing us.
in light of ferrante’s optimism i wonder how we can use this calamity, this colonization of our imaginations, even the rape of our minds, as a strength, as a private language in which women can understand each other, as particular to women across race and class divides. who among us has not felt the predatory pernicious eye of the male gaze on our bodies because we present as feminine in the world? who among us hasn’t felt the humiliation of it? and is this a language of womanhood? is it a language the courts and universities and even journalists have a hard time understanding?
i edit this now weeks after a thread of anonymous posts confronted the abusive behavior of thomas sayers ellis, an influential man in the mythical ‘literary community,’ a relatively insular and disappointingly academic space where radical experimentation can somehow coexist with vintage racism, sexism, and classism.
in a long breakdown of the scandal on jezebel optimistically titled ‘Is This the End of the Era of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man?’ the writer wrestles with the ethics and efficacy of anonymous accounts v. legal testimony, or it seems to be the difference between poetic language and the language of the courts.
she excerpts one anonymous post in particular, a harrowing account of an experience i hesitate to copy here for fear of aestheticizing someone else’s trauma.
citing this post she goes on to write:
“Let’s say you truly believe a man like this is dangerous. Say you want to get him out of his prestigious teaching position. Do you write an anonymous account about blood and trees and sunlight? Or do you contact someone in a position of power, confirm their protection of your privacy, and write down, as clearly as possible, your account of anal rape?”
i believe women can do both, but have found the former more effective. but the larger issue sounds to me like a question of gender and language. can we believe a piece about blood and trees and sunlight? can our story be told in a different way and still stand as testimony? can we hold it as our truth and take it as the truth? or have we been trained, colonized, not to?
on facebook i wrote ‘this intl women’s day i’m thinking about that as praxis, that ritualized believing, that faith in our symbol system, and teaching it from one woman to another.’
this has been in many ways a matter of survival—the writing on the bathroom stall warning us about certain college guys who violate consent, the word-of-mouth recommendation against certain professors or advisors who prey on their students.
i’ve only managed to avoid rape myself (or so i like to believe) because i’ve had to limit myself in the world, missed opportunities and lost connections because of a general distrust of men and fear-based decision-making. this isn’t freedom, intellectual or physical. this is fight-or-flight. it’s war and only one side knows it.
according to that jezebel piece the one woman who attached her name to her account has since received death threats. 4 women just got publicly dragged through the mud in toronto just for accusing celebrated music journalist jian ghomeshi. anonymity, the decision to de-identify, can be a saving grace, a loophole in a cycle of private victimization then public re-victimization of women.
when asked whether she was in a sense erasing herself by choosing to keep her identity a secret, elena ferrante replies:
“No, if you write and publish you are hardly erasing yourself…Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”
painful and, given the scope of the internet today, actually life-threatening. it’s no wonder we call women brave for speaking and writing in public. i’ve heard horror stories of feminist writers who can’t even leave the house because internet trolls know where they live and have threatened to rape and kill them.
i myself have been internet-stalked after meeting a stranger and blamed myself for giving him my real name. i researched laws and found nothing to protect me, only more horror stories of stalking and abuse and sometimes murder. who among us hasn’t felt targeted by virtue of being a woman, a public woman, who believes women and chooses to believe them?
believing women is a choice, a radical feminist practice when so much of the media we consume tries to convince us not to. but i suspect, as optimistically as ferrante, that our ‘symbol-system’ can be a space in which women recognize each other, like a coded language among sisters, and trust each other as writers and thinkers, and honor that.
echoing ferrante in a final inspiring gesture, adrienne rich writes:
“To think like a woman in a man’s world means thinking critically, making connections between facts and ideas which men have left unconnected…
It means a constant critique of language…listening and watching in art and literature, in the social sciences, in all the descriptions we are given of the world, for the silences, the absences, the nameless, the unspoken, the encoded—for there we will find the true knowledge of women. And in breaking those silences, naming ourselves, uncovering the hidden, making ourselves present, we begin to define a reality which resonates to us, which affirms our being, which allows the woman teacher and the woman student alike to take ourselves, and each other, seriously: meaning, to begin taking charge of our lives.”
facebook for me has become a semi-private space where i can test ideas in a larger community of trusted followers, where i can feel safe in my name and still be on the internet. but beyond the scope of these guarded friend requests i am not brave enough to be a woman writer. and no woman should have to endure the kind of humiliation and assault we are taught to swallow for the sake of our careers.
so in light of these overdue conversations about sexual violence in literary and academic spaces, i believe it also means protecting anonymity and safety, trusting the language of trauma, and naming aggressors, to begin taking charge of our institutions.
– The Writer Chooses to Remain Anonymous
i wonder why you insist
on stuffing my body
into a box
you know, the kind
made of cardboard that
sometimes chafes on the edges
made with that strong, sturdy kind of tape
you know, the kind that they use
in warehouses and post offices
that squawks like hurt birds
when rolled out
sticky side up
i’m talking about the kind of box that
can hold anything inside
as long as it does not
or spit bullets
like the kind
that shoot out
but you wanna claim
it’s all in my head,
but you know that i can’t do that
because my brown skin
would surely show those wavy welts
those scratchy edges, corrugated
not a nice, neat straight line
like the red one i almost etched
below my forearm
with the knife
in the kitchen drawer
that had lopped up banana slices
baked into that quickbread
i brought to the table
because you see, my arm
it would dangle
between the two top flaps
and struggle to get free
with the rest of me
as my breath gets quick
muffled, inside my mouth
inside the box
that you make
so when you spit at me
with what leaks
from your pores
exploding with hot white fire
i wish that you would look
into a mirror and stare back
at the face
worn with lines, embedded
with broken blue loss
of one who was once stuffed
inside a cardboard box, erased
but has now crawled
out and away
to some kind
i know how you erase
my name and face
from the room
from the page
what i have to bring
to the eager,
to the evolving
so that less people know
that i exist
but you don’t know me
because if you did
you would know that
ain’t no box
in the world
that could hold
what i have to give
what i’m made of
of my self
choose to section off
to fill up
that empty space
inside of you.
Cantrice Janelle Penn is an award-winning writer, multilingual educator, and movement artist. Her work has appeared on/in LUMEN, Fabulously Feminist: Art for Eco & Social Justice, Firefly Ridge Literary Magazine, and After Ferguson, In Solidarity (Mourning Glory Publishing, 2015). She is a VONA/Voices Fellow and the recipient of the 2016 Firefly Ridge Literary Magazine Women’s Writing Award. Cantrice is currently developing a full-length work of fiction.
Thank you for not raping me. Thank you for listening, when you laid on top of me, pulled down my pants, to my saying, “No, stop, I don’t want this, get off me, stop, what are you doing, do you know what you are doing, stop, no.” Thank you for not drinking alcohol, so I didn’t have a drink either, so I can remember that February night so clearly. Thank you for nodding in agreement when I said that I didn’t want things to go too far physically that night. Thank you for being the first man of many who didn’t respect my physical boundaries. Thank you for liking my choice of 1970s Hindi film music that played in my bedroom, and for telling me what else I thought would happen, that the music, which sang of love of tulip fields, was a song that meant that sex would take place, while it was a song that I associated with the smells of fried eggs, chai, and newspapers, weekend breakfasts with my parents, a song that I have spent years using film stills, lyrics, and footage, to make embroideries, collages, and drawings that I have exhibited widely, but you wouldn’t see, because art wasn’t your thing. Thank you for art not being your thing. Thank you for making it so I cannot hear that song without feeling your weight on top of me. Thank you for rendering it impossible to even type up the name of that song. Thank you for getting off of me and feeling sad, so I could comfort you. Thank you for staying an extra hour, until you felt awake enough to drive home. Thank you for complimenting me on my chai, which I made for you to take on the road.
Swati Khurana is an artist and writer living in New York City. She has been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Asian American Literary Review, The Feminist Wire, The Margins, and The Weeklings, and has exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Brooklyn Museum, Zacheta National Gallery of Art (Warsaw), Chatterjee & Lal (Mumbai). A MFA Fiction graduate Hunter College and Kundiman fellow, she is working on her first novel. Her website is www.swatikhurana.com
The Yellow Dress
I was seven years old and at my cousin’s wedding wearing a pale yellow culotte dress my father let me pick out at the bargain store on 5th avenue. My mother told him to help me pick out a dress and was furious when we came back with the too-casual ensemble. But with so little time left, she had no choice but to let me wear the dress. I was thrilled. The reception was in a dimly lit, chintzy hall. There were no other children there. Every so often the guests would bang on their glasses with forks, a signal indicating the bride and groom should kiss. It was embarrassing, not to mention boring. There was an older, red-faced man seated next to me at the table. He took an interest in me and asked me lots of questions. He was kind. He was also tipsy. I had seen adults in his condition many times. I come from a big Irish-catholic family. At holiday gatherings the aunts and uncles would sit around a table drinking and singing all night long. At some point, the man seated next to me took my hand underneath the table. I felt a mix of emotions. Part of me was comforted. I was a child, bored and out of my element. Here was an adult giving me some attention. On the other hand a wiser part of me knew something was amiss. He was the one getting comforted. I sensed he was lost and needed me to ground him. I wasn’t ready for the emotional weight of the interaction. He never did anything but hold my hand under the table, but the memory has haunted me. The weirdest part of it was the guise that he was caring for me, when in actuality my wellbeing was not accounted for. I don’t believe this man was bad, or meant me any harm. However I can say the same of men who have unmistakably abused and traumatized girls and women. There is so much confusion about our bodies, what they are meant for. As for me, I didn’t want to believe the worst. I wanted to love everyone. Even now if someone were to hurt me, a man I trusted, it would be confusing. I might still hold his hand under the table, wishing he meant to nurture instead of drain me.
Leila Ortiz is a poet and social worker from Park Slope, Brooklyn. She currently lives in Bay Ridge. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Apogee, Cold Front, Glitter Mob, The Grief Diaries, No, Dear Magazine, The Ledge, Referential Magazine and Stone Canoe.
on being kissed unexpectedly by your mentor
i guess i was 21. i guess we were the same cause my poems also came out fully formed sometimes. guess that made me a woman—how, when i exposed, it looked effortless. perhaps you mistook exposure for easy. sure, we were drunk. i was 21 after all. had all this brown skin on, likely under overalls with a midriff t-shirt with beads on it like any reasonable 80s baby would. but one thing was sure—i wasn’t buying the drink.
c’mon. i was broke. i was hungry. it was summer. there were poems wherein i’m sure i said the softest, most stripped bare things out loud, finally. like black holes, i’m sure i was a tight chaos spinning. 21 and knew so many new words: spurious, esplanade, excoriate. you were teaching me. we were rhythming together safely buckled up in the back seat of who knows whose car. it was summer.
we were poets. we sat at picnic tables and patio tables and round tables and squares. we thrift shopped for cheap sweaters. shared cigarettes and books. poured over each other’s mother tongues for hours. hours. we were drunk. we were both drunk on who knows whose liquor but there we were: in a backseat, in a driveway, in a college town on a warm night, laughing. i remember we were laughing. until we weren’t.
Lauren Whitehead is a writer, performer and MFA recipient in Dramaturgy (Columbia University). She writes in a variety of forms including poetry, songs, non-fiction and drama. Lauren has performed or presented her work in various venues across the country and currently, she teaches dramaturgy at The New School and facilitates a poetry and performance workshop at Juilliard. More info here: laurenawhitehead.com
What to do if you’ve been raped by a man in your community, especially one who is older than you/has more status than you and who you admire(d):
Whereas, at any given literary (or any other) event in New York City (or any other city/town/province), within a room of 30+ people, at least four or probably more have been raped or sexually assaulted. Whereas, at least one person in the room or possibly more has perpetrated this crime against another. Notwithstanding the systems (lack of evidence/he said she said/women lie about these things) that protect perpetrators of sexual violence (which is gender-based violence). Notwithstanding the police and pornographers and the relationship between the two. Notwithstanding the strangeness of the term Call-out “Culture” within our larger (rape) culture. Is it really a culture when it’s such a small percentage of survivors naming names? And there are still so many names to name to make it a culture. Let’s discuss our options.
If I am sexually assaulted/violated/abused/harassed by a man in my community, what am I to do?
Option 1. Keep quiet. Smile pretty. Live and let live. Despite the sickened stomach, the heavy heart, the terrible dreams, the pervasive anxiety. Despite the saturated messages that it/I don’t matter. Maybe tell a friend, a therapist. For(give and for)get. Know it will happen again to someone else/is happening right now.
Option 2. Call the police. Know that the impact will be slim to none/is likely to result in further trauma to self, most likely a sense of not being taken seriously, possibly continued harassment, hopefully a shred of empathy, but in all likelihood a dead end. At best, may result in trying to prove to a court full of people that women should be trusted despite the lack of physical evidence. Recall how many women and men you know who have been raped. Consider how many of their rapists have experienced consequence.
Option 3. Vigilante justice. But then have blood on my hands too.
Option 4. Hire a lawyer. Sue. Settle out of court. Possibly receive a sizable sum of money and give a percentage of that money to said lawyer. Sign papers agreeing not to name names, ever. Know that it will happen again to someone else/is happening right now.
Option 5. Muster up immense amounts of courage. Publicly declare what has happened. Name names. Continue to muster courage to deal with the onslaught of harassment, disbelief and shaming that may/will result from doing this. Do it anyway so that others can be warned. So that others can know with whom they’re dealing in their institutions, social spaces, bedrooms. Muster courage to deal with potential lawyer letters and threat letters, to deal with potentially nothing happening at all. Do it so that he will know that he is seen and that I am not invisible. Know it’s inevitable that others will come forward with similar stories. Know that this will come with costs. Know that at least some people will listen. Know that this may/will save someone.
Emily Brandt is the author of three chapbooks: Sleeptalk or Not At All, ManWorld and Behind Teeth. She earned her MFA from New York University where she facilitated the Veterans Writing Workshop. Emily is a co-founding editor of No, Dear, Web Acquisitions Editor for VIDA, and a contributing writer for Weird Sister. She lives and teaches in Brooklyn.
Here, the boundaries blur. The workspace trickles into hallways, into before-dinner drinks and the after-reading schmooze. There aren’t office walls to tell you when the rules have changed. We don’t clock out. We’re always on the job, and always available to those who would take advantage of fuzzy distinctions.
After reading the latest entry in the on-going issue of sexual assault in our communities, I posted a series of tweets about attending conferences as both emerging poet and fresh meat. For some, this is fair game, dalliances as extracurricular bonus—“we’re all adults here,” so why not? But we fail to consider the power dynamics which make these encounters fraught, which pressure young writers into corners in which they are inescapably gendered and where the body becomes asset or liability.
We don’t consider differing backgrounds or experience, existing wounds or vulnerabilities. We assume all involved are neurotypical, and that hookups result from free will. Sometimes they do. But just as often there is fear at work, fear of being blackballed at a publication we’ve always admired, fear of retribution or professional consequence, and then later, fear our work will no longer be considered on its own terms. When justice is so often denied to the victims of assault, it’s no wonder we’ve living in a culture of silence.
In a competitive market, we’re told to take advantage of every opportunity. In the arts, networking can feel like it rules one’s chances of success. We know a young actress might be expected to endure harassment in order to keep a job, a young model’s price of entry may be a nude photoshoot or late night “work-session,” and a musician’s chances of continuing to perform could be shattered by the refusal to stay subjected to a predatory relationship.
Yet when we hear outcry, perhaps it is survival instinct which makes us shut down. Perhaps we want to keep seeing our industries and our own place within them as above reproach, as exceptions, as unbiased, where good work rises whatever the odds.
We demand names, details. We demand to see it for ourselves, such is the extent of our disbelief, or our denial. But for those of us who have experienced it firsthand, we need no further proof. We just need the breaking of silence to lead to conversation, about solutions, about ethics and boundaries, especially absent the legal safety of office walls.
I am a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, and a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. My work has appeared in Sonora Review, The Iowa Review, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, Apogee, SOFTBLOW, The Puritan, and elsewhere, and I am a managing editor of the Anthropoid collective. I was born in West Texas, and currently live in Norway.
In drawing attention to the power dynamics of fame, student-teacher relationships and creative mentorship, Anonymous Collective helped me see my own experiences with hostile gender and sexual politics in this community as symptoms of how social creative writing is. The balance of power in almost all of our important relationships as young writers is complicated by friendship and the personal nature of our work. I haven’t been hurt, but I have allowed myself to be sidelined, silenced rather than risk confronting people and cliques that seem menacing. Until recently, I thought I was being smart, strategic, surviving. Now I wonder if I’ve been complicit with people who’ve actively sought to marginalize me. I learned in graduate school to accept my place outside the boy halos configured around authority figures, and I learned by watching others that penetrating those boy halos necessarily meant being sexualized, maybe not in classrooms, but later, at parties, and that being sexualized meant boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed often were, the hard line of consent blurred by complex social pressures. I sometimes sensed sexually aggressive energy in the way a poem or a certain style of poetry was critiqued: prejudices are asserted and violations occur at an intellectual level in the classroom in what Leslie Scalapino calls the disbelief of others, in your writing, your project, you, and outside of the classroom those violations are enacted more bluntly. To be clear, and especially in light of recent events at Iowa, I’m not referring to any of the current faculty at my grad program. I was older when I enrolled, wiser, so I withdrew from situations where I felt threatened, and I’ve probably continued to hold that position, safely at the edge of the community, in ways I don’t even realize. I’m ambivalent about most of Jia Tolentino’s response to Statements Against Silence, but I agree with her on one point: when rape is treated casually by the courts, colleges and the culture generally, I worry about what it means to call someone out for rape on social media. But I also worry about the silence of these women, what happens if their identities aren’t protected and if their stories aren’t given a platform. We can’t change our community, and ourselves, if we don’t foster a dialogue about how power is abused within it, and the only way to do that is to empower survivors to speak.
Justine el-Khazen was a 2014 Emerging Poets Fellow at Poets House and a 2015 apexart International Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, The Margins, Harriet and Beloit Poetry Journal among others. She is an Editorial Adviser at VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts.
What is the responsibility of literary event curators when it comes to sexual violence in literary spaces? The prevailing approach seems to be threefold: Pretend It’s Not An Issue – Pray It Doesn’t Happen to Us – Respond Slowly If At All. As long as an act of violence does not occur (or goes unreported), the curators can rest easy. From my sense of it, many readings seem to be less about the readers or the audience and built for the benefit of the hosts themselves. Small gestures such as more hosts including themselves in lineups or reading their own work and promoting readers with an air of “Look who I got to read at my series” speak to this phenomenon. It’s not unusual (or entirely a terrible thing) that a curator would state they started an on-going event to meet new authors and become a part of the community, but if this is the only acted-upon reason for being, it perpetuates an unsafe environment. There’s no hesitation to gain access to the benefits the poetry community may have, but that enthusiasm makes a French exit when the hard work needs to be done.
Turning the previously-mentioned threefold approach on its head is a good place to start creating a healthier environment. These ideas were put forth or inspired by the Enough is Enough planning group and bear repeating. 1) Address the issue at every reading—a simple statement on the event page/shared at the reading. 2) Have a designated contact person both at the event and online. It might be a good idea if this person wasn’t blotto at the event so as to have the wherewithal to handle a situation that may arise. 3) Act quickly and decisively. This could be anything from asking an attendee to leave to issuing a statement/calling out aggressors. More thorough or different approaches could certainly be taken, but all curators have a responsibility above and beyond the all-too-common silence.
Ben Pease is a board member of the Ruth Stone Foundation and an editor of Monk Books. His first full-length collection of poems, Chateau Wichman, is forthcoming from Big Lucks Books, and more work can be found online at fugitivesofspeech.tumblr.com/works. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the poet and artist Bianca Stone.
When I think of this call, I think of trauma. I think of a trumpet call by a faceless child into the larger depths of darkness. Who is listening? Who gives witness? What does any of this mean? I think of questions of image and power superseding an accountability of the self to itself. And what is the self? The nature of the self in a body as a being, or the larger version of an atom in space, which moves. And in a sense, a discrete object lacking emotions or feelings, a clash of atoms in space in perpetual Brownian motion. We clash, we don’t clash. There is no accountability for what matter already is known to do. It’s a little Heisenbergian, tracking the mind and the body both at once. Grasping one of them doesn’t mean that one has the other. Add time, and each gets slippery through the fingers.
And then what? How do our bodies reconcile our relations to our own bodies? To others? The notion assumes an awareness of the body, and even then, my awareness of my body does not mean that I understand your body, or can read your mind. I would like to read your mind, but each of us only has so many superpowers, and our relations to them are sometimes questionable. Questions are difficult enough when we ask ourselves if we know ourselves, if we know our actions and our feelings and where we stand on an Earth that continues to move. To embody ourselves, we need to continue this inquiry. But how?
How do we gather the strength to embody ourselves? No one sentence I can write can straddle this power. Words do not stand alone from the body. Sometimes the body stands without words. It is in this silence that we feel the body’s echoes, a sort of hollow in the bellows, breathing in, breathing out.
The breath persists, or else you die. That’s life. There, I said it. In the meantime, how do we embody and heal from the trauma we have faced and gather the energy to support each other in a world that refuses to see itself, which in turn perpetuates the silence of generational trauma that remains unspoken and unseen, embedded into a thread of humanity, intercalated in our DNA, pulsing through our blood, a steady stream?
How do we bring awareness to what is already moving? Time moves, people move, the violence of bodies within and to each other moves, body to body. What does it mean to begin and perpetuate a conversation that carries the vulnerability and strength of survival through trauma, through the admission of day-to-day life trauma, through the unflinching need not to back down or to succumb to the circumstances and habits that moved us into the trauma we have endured so as not to repeat what we already tend to do which leads us to the ground on which we started, on which I leave you, which is circular.
It all comes back to source. How do we recognize and value the notions we develop—that having been exposed to trauma, we will gain the courage to understand its underpinnings and strive to support each other in our stories, in witness and vulnerability, without reinforcing and perpetuating the need to repeat said trauma in oneself and others. How does that happen?
We have a necessarily itchy relationship to trauma in ourselves and others. We don’t like it. We’d like to ignore it. Sometimes broken limbs make it hard to move. Physics gets in our way. Here are more closed doors than open ones. It is easier to refer to terms like TMI and triggers than to actually embody and face what we see, when we see it, would we like to?
Admitting vulnerability admits weakness but also opens the door to embodying strength. This is not something that is merely repeated or said without the body following the mind, or else the whole notion feels hypocritical. How does one land in the body what the mind would like to do? Our relations to ourselves are necessarily complicated. It is hard work to reconcile our relations to ourselves.
We are human. We fall in and out.
It can be enjoyable to go through the motions without thinking. It can also bring the most harm. There is an aspect of humanity that enjoys violence.
Circumstances tend to complicate things.
It is hard to embody writing when it appeals to the spirit, which is not always connected to the body. And in that sense, the reconciliation is a deep pressure that can be tough to bring to conversation.
What we love can also do the most violence to ourselves because in sharing, we share our vulnerability.
What follows is an open door, and what remains is the open door.
Step through, and see what happens next.
annie won is a poet chemist yoga teacher who lives in medford, MA and writes with text and images at the intersections of body, mind, spirit, and page. her chapbooks include did the wind blow it (dusie), once when a building block (horse less), and so i can sleep (nous-zot). her work has appeared in venues such as New Delta Review, decomp, Entropy, TheThePoetry, TENDE RLION, and others. her critical reviews can be seen at American Microreviews and Interviews.
Every two minutes
One in five
I am not part
of an official statistic
my unofficial status
A neighbor’s cousin
sticks a slimy tongue
in my pre-teenage mouth
A married man
ejaculates on me
before I know
what that white cream is
forces me to kiss his buddy
while he wields a weapon
On my way to a job interview
fists of a stranger
clench unclench clench
and follow me
My college boyfriend
calls me “cunt”
chokes me the night before
I leave for a trip
Some man grabs my ass
in middle school
in high school
in a bar in Europe
while walking with a group of law professors
right after I train them
on sexual harassment prevention
Someone masturbates in front of me
in his car
at a stoplight
Another flashes me on the street
as I walk with my mother
on a lovely day
None of these were captured
or counted or analyzed or bar graphed
they just happened silently
with no witness
and no one knows
What I ask in return
for my secrets
is that you see me
for what I am
each step I take
in this world
as testament to boldness
risking my sanity
on every street
I Refuse to be
left for dead
or indistinguishable from a zombie
in a state of daily challenge
I am a champion
I am a warrior
This is the truth
Maria is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey. In 2014, she launched a Women’s Salon – a gathering showcasing women of color artists who share their work in film, writing and music. She is finalizing her debut novel, Rosie’s Blues a story inspired by the experience of her mother opening their family home in Hackensack, New Jersey as a shelter for battered women and children. She is also working on her next book, Jobs: Life Lessons through Paystubs.
YOUR BODY IS NOT A WEAPON/ MY BODY IS NOT A WOUND
Your body is not a weapon
Your body is not a weapon
Your body is not a weapon
I know because my body is not a target/ not a punching bag/ not a bullet hole waiting to be born
My body is not a wound
My body is not a wound
My body is not a wound
My body is a three-dimensional expression of holographic Love/ it is an illusion
For you to pretend you have power
Over the God that I am
You look ridiculous
Pretending to be less than the God that you are
I mean that in the gentlest way
Someone has to tell you
You should be thankful people care about you enough
To hold your reflection up high for you
So that you can change it
Secretly we all know
You are better
Because secretly we all know
We are better
Than the way you treat us
Than the way we treat ourselves
The lies we live inside of
Are not worth expending my energy on
I have done too much alchemy on myself
To feel anything less than the Divine Queen I am at all times
My tongue is molecular gold
My body is literal Heaven
When people try to hurt me it is like a mosquito
Flying into the Light & getting zapped
So why would I act
As if your body is a weapon
That could hurt me
I am not interested in reinforcing the subatomic infrastructure of toxic masculinity
That keeps you trapped inside yourself/ from yourself/ the multi-dimensional cosmic miracle
I refuse to be less than myself
Just because someone told you
You were less than yourself
I refuse to be disempowered
Just because you are
You cannot objectify me
Because I am not an object
I am the farthest thing from what you see me as
You are the farthest thing
Sarah Certa is a poet & psycheologist who studies evolutionary consciousness at quantumpsych.wordpress.com. She is the author of several chapbooks, available for free download at sarahxerta.com, as well as the full-length poetry collection ‘Nothing To Do with Me’ (University of Hell Press, 2015). Her second full-length collection, a poetry memoir of the psyche as it heals dis-order, was one of the recent winners of the Civil Coping Mechanisms Mainline Contest & will be published in 2017.
The boys club of the world is an enticing song. The literary space is no different. I understand my position in the world as a Black woman, and my position in the community as a Black woman—are both different. I recognize the privileges I am allowed. So I do not say this without understanding the weight of what is at stake. Sexual Violence anywhere, is an act of terrorism. I will not be silent in the face of it. I will always challenge my peers in the name of safety and self-care. I will always lean toward the light of justice. I cannot afford to be silent. I cannot afford to be silent. I cannot afford to be silent…
Now, this is not a letter in which I ask you to step in front of the danger in this way. I understand this vocal and physically imposing way is not the way for everyone. But I am asking you, the universal you—the reflection; to be aware there is danger. I hope that we have the courage to pull aside our peers who are committing these acts and ask the hard questions. Even if the questions require our friendships changing…or ending. I am asking that you promote and celebrate those that do better, not those that have the potential to do better. There is a difference. The idea that we are hurting one another knowingly, is dangerous. And I am committed to being aware and loud with my awareness. I understand if this type of noise is leveled or even ignored. I commit myself (and the communities of my choosing) to become louder, even still.
The Cave Canem and Poets House alum is the author of several books including Dear Twitter: Love Letters Hashed Out On-line, recommended by Small Press Distribution & About.com Best Poetry Books of 2010. Mahogany bridges the gap between lyrical poets and literary emcee. Browne has toured Germany, Amsterdam, England, Canada and recently Australia as 1/3 of the cultural arts exchange project Global Poetics. Her journalism work has been published in magazines Uptown, KING, XXL, The Source, Canada’s The Word and UK’s MOBO. Her poetry has been published in literary journals Pluck, Manhattanville Review, Muzzle, Union Station Mag, Literary Bohemian, Bestiary, Joint & The Feminist Wire. She is the author of several poetry collections including: Smudge (Button Poetry), Redbone (Willow Books) & is a part of the groundbreaking anthology The Break Beat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket). She is an Urban Word NYC Poet-in-Residence (as seen on HBO’s Brave New Voices), founder of Women Writers of Color Reading Room (housed on Pratt Institute) and facilitates performance poetry and writing workshops throughout the country. Browne is also the publisher of Penmanship Books, the Nuyorican Poets Café Poetry Program Director and Friday Night Slam curator and currently a 2nd year MFA Candidate for Writing & Activism at Pratt Institute.