Saturday, June 4, 2016

Call for diversity leads to blowback for litmag

An editor requests submissions from diverse writers and the public loses its mind.

This happened last week when my friend Anthony Frame posted a call for submissions to the journal he edits, Glass.

Brace yourself, but here is the highly controversial post:

Glass: A Journal of Poetry remains open for fee free poetry submissions. Any subject, any style, any length.

During our first month of reading, we hit our Submittable limit of 300 submissions and hope to do so again in June.

I also noticed that the majority of submissions (at least 60%) came from straight, gender-conforming, white men. Glass would very much love to hear from under-represented voices.

I look forward to reading your work.

If you read this note and saw hatred of straight white men, you’re not alone. On the social media site where Frame posted his call, the response was both quick and heated.

The first commenter jumped in to note that good poetry speaks for itself, and sex and skin color are irrelevant.

Soon after, another commenter attempted to make a case for blind submissions that allow work to be judged on its own merits, since Glass is a literary journal instead of a political one.

Next up came a male with an Anglo name who eeyored about his work not being desirable. And then came the doubters—how would Frame even know gender or race without asking? And isn’t Frame censoring these unfortunate straight white men, whose pale skin, at the very suggestion of not being in the majority, breaks out into vivid pink hives?

I asked Frame why this issue is worth the fight. He replied that he wants any and all working writers to feel free to send. He stated, “I know why, and understand why, many writers do not feel comfortable submitting to some journals, journals that seem uninterested in under-represented voices or, worse, are hostile to those voices. I also think it is important to encourage those voices because I see so much that discourages them.” Frame specifically mentioned the recent transphobic essay in the Antioch Review, Calvin Trillin’s problematic poem about Asian food in The New Yorker, and Michael Derrick Hudson’s yellowface Best American Poetry entry.

Frame noted, “There are poets writing great poems who come from all kinds of backgrounds and their voices matter and deserve to be heard. But if they are constantly bombarded by these micro-aggressions, then they might not be heard, and that is a tremendous loss for American poetry and society.” He added, “The best way I know to counter that as an editor is to make it clear that I am eager to read submissions from any and all voices and I will give any and all voices a fair read.”

We live in a trollish culture, where damning voices quickly lay siege to an open attitude toward otherness. It’s part of the answer to the question I can’t shake, which is how the United States became a country where the racist Donald Trump can become a serious contender for the presidency.

A friend of mine, Colette Arrand, recently told me that she would no longer be submitting work to university literary journals—a move that surprised me, because, as a former editor of such a publication, Mid-American Review, I had an idea of them as accepting places. I know myself to be an accepting person, and I had a lot of editor friends I considered to be very decent and inclusive people.

But the Antioch Review situation is a reminder that safe-seeming spaces for majority populations can be minefields for minority ones. A journal founded in 1941 and based at a liberal arts college with a distinguished history of social justice should be a safe space … shouldn’t it? Presuming that makes the decision to publish a transphobic screed all the more devastating.

Arrand explained, “The Antioch Review only exposed a problem that exists in a lot of established literary magazines. While a Mid-American Review is pushed forward through its editors’ frequent engagement with the ever-evolving literary scene and a turnover of assistant editors due to the MFA that frequently supports it, many university magazines and established litmags are run by people who have been at the helm for decades and remain active the same way Dracula does, which is to say that they exclusively stalk the corridors of their own crypt-like institutions and refuse to evolve.”

She continued, “As a trans writer and a progressive feminist, it is hard for me to trust these entrenched literary publications because even if they are accepting of a trans woman's work, POC work, etc., there is no way for me to know if they simultaneously won't be fooled by a Daniel Harris or a Calvin Trillum or a Michael Derrick Hudson. For me, the potential that I might eventually be embarrassed to appear in the same journal that publishes a poem like ‘My White Feminism’ far outweighs the obvious benefit to my career that appearing in the Boston Review would be.”

Concluded Arrand, “It's easy to look at what I'm doing as a form of self-sabotage, I suppose, but at the same time I'm ensuring myself to the best of my ability that I will love the publications that I'm in, and that I won't be a novelty within those pages.”

While universities are thought of as progressive places, in practice, they are rather conservative institutions. Though they offer classes in gender and ethnic studies, they remain populated with white males in uppermost positions and women in the lowest-paid and least powerful ones. Arrand’s concerns start to make sense when this reality is factored in.

Glass is not a university journal, and Frame notes that he is a working-class poet instead of an academic one. And his request for submissions yielded a very large response in a short time, so he knows that many more writers are appreciative of his welcoming attitude than otherwise. Frame noted that when he posted his modest request to hear more from under-represented voices, he pretty much expected blowback.

“Honestly, I'm a little numb to it, Frame said. “I expected it. I've seen it happen at least once a month, usually the same few people doing the yelling. It is disheartening that we can't make a simple encouraging note without getting trolled - but it's also important to remember that these are just a few people yelling.”

It’s probably a mistake to regard any space as safe. But it’s never a mistake for a journal to announce its intention to be welcoming to all kinds of voices. More editors should take a page out of Anthony Frame’s playbook.


  1. I saw this call, and others like it, and I always appreciate them. I interpret them as saying "It's important to us to see a variety of voices" rather than "We don't want submissions from ___ or ___." However, I have seen calls that do say "We want work from ___ only" and I'm cool with that as well. It's their journal to do with what they want. I don't think there's any harm in being reminded that the world isn't all about me.

    It's been a long time since I worked on a journal. I am curious about the way editors now approach submissions. Blind submissions are (presumably) read blind: the idea is, we like the work or don't, regardless of who wrote it. But how do editors find out writers' identities? Is it up to the writer to reveal them? In their work or in their bio or where? I would never misrepresent myself but at the same time, some of my identities/labels aren't part of my bio. Does that affect the way an editor might approach my work?

    I ask out of curiosity really; I feel comfortable with my work, my identities, and how my work reflects my identities. If any editors would like to share their process, though, I'd appreciate it.

    1. I'd love to hear some answers to this, too, if anyone is willing to share their processes. Gender breakdown is fairly easy to ascertain, although not scientifically -- most names suggest gender. People send bios with submissions, typically, and that's another clue. Subject matter is a clue. Social media can be consulted, as can author pages or past publications. This, of course, is an invitation for diverse populations to submit; my guess is that some people responded with an explanation of how the invitation applies to them (thus, they self-selected). Once work is accepted, my journal used to do occasional surveys to determine gender identity and ethnicity. We were sporadic about it, but we wanted to get a sense of whether we were truly open to diverse writing. I found that I used to favor male poets for some reason, and I had to scrutinize my editorial judgment -- why was I choosing male poets over female ones time and time again, and how did that relate to the submission pool? It took some study and some soul-searching. I should blog about that, too, come to think of it. It was an interesting discovery and it led to some changes in how I do things.

  2. As a cis/white/straight/able-bodied male, I'll admit to having the initial disappointed reaction, but two seconds after that, I knew that this was a good thing for publishing. And I don't just mean that it's good for writers of color, I also mean that it's good for writers like me. I've started a blog where I use the Bechtel test to revise the stories in my first book, and even though I'm in the early stages, I've already recognized that I need to expand my reading list. I think that the more literary magazines that publish diverse voices, the more folks like me will read diverse voices, and the more diverse characters (and, therefore, conflicts, situations, etc.) we'll be able to use in our writing. Why resist having more tools in our toolkit? Not to be too much of a leech, but here's the link to my blog:

    1. Thank you for the post! This sounds like a fascinating project. Checking it out!

  3. The trollish reactions to the Glass call for diversity seems like the literary equivalent of telling people who dare to point out instances of racism that THEY are being racist for bringing it up. I hope Frame ignores the whiners and stands fast. Blind submissions don't lead to diversity when diverse artists are not submitting because they don't feel welcomed or supported.

  4. “I know why, and understand why, many writers do not feel comfortable submitting to some journals, journals that seem uninterested in under-represented voices or, worse, are hostile to those voices. I also think it is important to encourage those voices because I see so much that discourages them.”

    I wonder if "all kinds of voices" also include the Christian experience. These seem to be left out as they are perceived synonymous with conservativism, the public enemy of literary arts. And why can't a POC be conservative and Christian, two mutually exclusive identities, or three for that matter? Are these the voices included into that battle cry for inclusion? It's a question I've asked myself for years now as I re-enter the literary community and observe exclusion and exclusivity in the elite echelons of publishing.

    1. I actually see Christian voices excluded, too, sometimes. I think a devotional instinct can sometimes lead to a sentimental poem. Also, good poetry puzzles over issues; some Christian faiths discourage befuddlement because we're supposed to have faith. I'm really just gnawing on the issue a bit here, and while these things may be a factor, but there is such good Christian work out there that I can't help but believe more of it should find homes. I hope you're aware of some wonderful faith-related journals, like Image. Some of the best poets writing are to be found there, talking about their faith experiences. There are others, but Image is my favorite.

      I like thoughtful poetry from a Christian perspective. Would love to see more of it, myself. I don't care for the sappy or uncritical stuff, but there's so much more out there.

  5. Another wonderful post as usual. I am amazed to see how you write such a long and informative article. This is something very rare in most of the writers. Great to see...