Race & Gender Theory: A bell hooks gallery

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AWP Is NOT Us

Over years of working on literary publications, I have never felt particularly compelled to self-disclose as a radical queer editor, instead hoping that the writers I support would make clear my editorial interests. Today, Red Hen Press editor Kate Gale’s tone-deaf, reactionary—perhaps satirical?—piece “AWP Is Us,” posted at Huffington Post, illustrates publishing’s implicit & explicit intolerance for critical engagement with intersectional oppression and its influence on art & literature. Today, I realize that my silence has been a mistake.

So here goes: I, Jesse Rice-Evans, hereby vocalize my ongoing commitment to seek out and publish queer & trans writers, authors of color, writers of varying dis/ability & class, and any writer similarly committed to dismantling the exclusionary fascist bullshit demarcated by Kate Gale’s oblivious editorial. As a queer, educated, white grrl-presenting poet, I am fully able to slip into privileged literary spaces, evidenced by my gatekeeper status as editor and writing instructor. It is of utmost importance to my practice in both of these spheres to remain committed to inclusion, challenging neoliberal & apologist discourses, and the act of becoming as necessary for any person of privilege interested in challenging the very real oppression within publishing.

The challenge of who discloses in submissions is also up for debate; I have not felt it integral to the experience of my work to self-identify as [whatever], but I am also questioning if this is misguided. Publishing is still incredibly insular, overwhelmingly white, cis, straight, wealthy, and otherwise paralleling normative, exclusionary patterns that dominate our cultural narrative. By neglecting to explicitly come out as an editor (or a writer) committed to rejecting those paradigms and publishing authors who challenge hegemony, I have done all writers who have submitted/will submit to Identity Theory and other publications I have worked for a great disservice.

I am deeply disappointed that an editor at an influential small press such as Red Hen would show her (racist) ass quite like this, but in truth, I am not surprised. (And I’m not surprised one bit at Gale’s affiliation with and blind defense of AWP, aka Apologist White Poets.) For my own well-being, I have elected to stay the fuck out of publishing as paid work for exactly this reason, but I am now doubly committed to signal-boosting writers of color and queers, and publishing them whenever I am lucky enough to have the opportunity.

I’m so pleased the online response to Gale’s willful ignorance of how institutions operate and her baffling writing style has been so strong. There are enough politically literate writers & publishing folks to push hard against these unacceptable incarnations of oppression in our community, and folks are out there fighting back. Let’s find each other! And buy each others’ books!

New

Did y’all know I was really sad in Seattle? This seemed too ironically typical at the time, since Seattle has a reputation for being depressing. Boy, was it ever. Chett and I arrived smack dab in the middle of a huge wave of gentrification, and in our naive millenial reliance on public transportation, we soon developed fraught and, in my case, furious relationships with Seattle’s ineffectual infrastructure.

Not to rationalize my emotional state: I was just flat-out depressed. I have long struggled with powerful mood shifts and anxiety brought on by not being able to tune anything out, but Seattle really cranked my freakouts up a notch. If I could help it, I wouldn’t leave the apartment for days at a time, for fear of overhearing some misogynist Amazonian bullshittery or having dozens of encounters with the same crew of hipsters who pretended we had never met after three or four conversations about their apathy, their band t-shirts, their expensive haircuts.

So, we hustled back to the east coast, to a place I’ve described on more than one occasion as miserableso over, and debilitatingly expensive: New York.

Some context: every trip I’ve taken to NYC has been overwhelming in great and terrible ways. My long-time best friend’s incredibly cool cohort all ganged up to laud the city after a wine-fueled dinner party. My ex had a full-on freakout and insisted on crashing in a Brooklyn Best Western and ordering Chinese take-out. It thunderstormed and I wept under an awning in Midtown, soaking wet with a deep gratitude for East Coast rainstorms.

Last May, at age 59, my mother took a job in Manhattan, rented a studio apartment, and solidified her status as the most badass, fearless human I’ve ever met.

Fantasizing about a life without scooping ice cream, with some of the spectacular friends I’ve managed to accrue in my many ill-fated friend trysts, I started to get serious about abandoning yet another potential: did I want to reforge a life for myself in a sea of strangers and a super-white literary scene, or could I imagine being as poor as I have been for my entire adult life once again, but in the most wild and alive city in the country?

No question.

So, nine months into our service-industry soaked Seattle life, full of penance for being Southerners and East Coasters, Chett and I packed up our ample book collection and shipped it back across the country, sold our Ikea furnishings, and bailed on Seattle.

Since January, we’ve been settling into NYC-paced life, and despite all the anxieties about being slow-moving Southerners, we’ve done a pretty goddamn good job. In truth, the quick pace matches my own “get-shit-done” mindset, which was unusual in NC and fucking unheard of in Seattle. I never knew that spatial awareness was such an integral part of my human identity, but New Yorkers manage an incredible balance of doing a million things with getting out of each others’ ways, physically and psychically.

I’ve been working on striking a similar balance: work and writing, friends and sleeping. After a few weeks worth of freakouts about my future plans (I got into NYU’s perfect MA program but I couldn’t afford it; I’m working at a restaurant…again; what am I going to do now?), I have nestled into a great pattern of reading on the train, writing poems, sending mail, sleeping, and drinking shiploads of coffee. I’m still looking for exactly the right opportunity, the slippery but ideal mix of work and play, but that would be true anywhere. I’m grateful to not feel hemmed in by my surroundings, but rather, empowered to try stuff. The stuff is endless, and somehow, I am not overwhelmed. I am myself again: sassy, a serious bookworm, always seeking.

Personal

Personal statements are the worst nightmare of even a confident writer. A mysterious amalgamation of ego and sycophantry, decisiveness and open-to-influenceness, personal statement writing often begins with wild listmaking and doesn’t get much further until a panicked, last-minute rewrite at 1AM, wracked by guilt and accompanied by a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michele.

As a writing consultant, coaxing a sophisticated personal statement from a writer is one of the most difficult challenges we face. It takes a certain level of interpersonal connection, which is often not possible in our time-constrained work environment. What are your childhood dreams? how do they connect to the program at [insert school name here]? what conflicts have you faced that specially equip you to research croaking grasshoppers in Malaysia/androgyny in Renaissance painting/Marxist revolution in Harry Potter? 

My students know me well enough to know that I will always ask them to cut their work by at least a third. First-timers are always horrified, but returning students value my insistence on brevity, specific details, and illustrative examples.

Rarely, a productive session will leave a student invigorated to make revisions, and their engagement in the process of detailing their scholarly journey will thrill even the most jaded writing tutor.

More often, though, the student will resent the tutor’s suggestion to start from scratch through a thin veil of politesse, barely masking deep-seated panic. The tutor will notice the resentment and choose to ignore it, or acknowledge its presence and propose channeling that same energy into a stellar rewrite.

Recently, I met with a student outside of my formal tutoring space to go over what I was told was a personal statement. Actually, it was a 7 page letter petitioning the university that the student did not get accepted to the first time around. The student also sent me their detailed college and high school transcripts, their 5-page personal statement submitted with the original application, and various supplementary forms from admissions officers detailing the student’s graduation plan, course schedule, etc. Wow.

Without the auspices of the writing center to justify my non-directive pedagogy, I struggled to clarify what I could offer the student: comprehensive and supportive feedback, suggested edits, assistance in developing writing skills overall and not just for this assignment, blah blah blah. The student balked: couldn’t I just rewrite the letter for them?

In the writing center, I would have kindly explained that writing someone’s paper for them was unethical and wasn’t one of the services offered by the writing center staff. But I wasn’t in the writing center. People hire writers to edit work for them all the time, right? Why can’t I offer a variety of services for a variety of circumstances? The only thing holding me back was my deep-seated devotion to writing center pedagogy.

Further, while presuming competence is one of my primary ethics as a writing tutor/editor, this student was so riddled with what seemed like ADHD that I could hardly get them to answer a super precise question like, “why do you want to major in International Studies” without them going on a 10-minute diatribe about sports, the Korean military, and their favorite burrito place in North Seattle.

In the end, I elected to offer this student comprehensive edits, a full rewrite, and basically to remove them from the text except for their personal details. I wouldn’t offer this in every situation, but the extreme anxiety and lack of focus from the student forced me to choose an approach that worked best for my own wellbeing–once a student veers wildly from their own work, the amount of social & emotional labor that I have to put in directly affects the services that I will offer. When I can use writing center pedagogy to redirect, I will. And when the struggle is just too real, I will offer an alternative.

This realization is freeing as I continue to expand my freelance writing and editing responsibilities; I will continue developing my intuitive skills to accurately gauge which kind of writing help each client needs.