'Why are White Editors so Mean?' (My AWP talk on race and inclusivity in the publishing world)

For last year's AWP, I was supposed to be on a panel called "Poets and Editors on Race and Inclusivity." Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend the conference due to back problems. Since the issue of the panel is important to me, I've posted the talk I was going to give below. Please feel free to share: 

Good morning,

My name is Craig Santos Perez, and you may remember me from last year’s acclaimed AWP panel “American Hybrid and its Discontents,” where I presented a paper titled “Whitewashing American Hybrid Poetics.”  I asked: why would white poets want to be hybrid when hybridity theory is soooo nineties. The answer was simple: if you weren’t hybrid then you had no choice as a white poet but to become either Ron Silliman or Robert Penn Warren.

You may be asking, when did I become such an expert on White-American poetics? Well, I have a B.A. in Literature and MFA in Creative Writing from USAmerican institutions, which means that I’ve only been required to read White-American poets.

With that background, I’m delighted to be on this year’s panel, “Poets and Editors on Race and Inclusivity,” with Rich Villar (director of Acentos), Barbara Jane Reyes (editor of Doveglion), Don Share (editor of Poetry Magazine), and Dan Chiasson (Editor of the Paris Review).

For my talk today, I will not only explain to you [smile modestly to the mostly white audience], how to make the poetry publishing world more racially inclusive, but I will also reveal the root cause of this inequity.

You’re welcome.

Some people have asked me why there isn’t an equivalent organization like VIDA for racial minority poets that can provide numerical data proving racial inequity actually exists in the poetry world. Rich Villar explains it best at his blog in which he diagnoses what he terms “Table of Contents Anxiety”:

Table of Contents Anxiety arises when the first reaction to holding a new journal or anthology in your hands, before you even read one line of literature, is to flip open the Table of Contents and quickly scan it for black folks, or Latinos, or Native Americans, or anything, ANYTHING, besides the usual Smorgasboard of the Unsurprising when it comes to editors and their lists. I know I am not alone in this TOC Anxiety. I know some of you in this room suffer in silence. I know some of you in this room haven't shut up about it since the 1970's. However you deal with your particular anxiety, know that is it very real, and it goes to the heart of this perceived mistrust within the literary community… 

So that leads me to the complex, difficult, and soul-searching question of this panel: how do we make the poetry publishing world more racially inclusive? The answer is also complex and difficult, and may seem incomprehensible to many of you, some of you may even laugh at its seeming impossibility, some may scoff at my hubris for even mentioning such a utopian dream. But I’m going to say it anyways: Publish More Writers of Color. 

 Gasp. Gulp.

I know, I know, you’re asking yourself how we can achieve this dream. Together, my friends, together.

First, we need to understand why so few writers of color submit to your journals. The reason is because you most likely have published very few, if any, writers of color in the past. A vicious cycle. We don't like being the only person of color at an all white party. 

So how can you make your party more attractive to those who can actually dance? 1) Have a special race issue! You know, the kind where you invite an editor of color to bring other people of color to the party. This always gets our attention because we like feeling special.

What? You’ve tried this before and it didn’t sustain long-term submissions from these special people? Hmmm…how awkward.

Okay, how about this: whenever your submission period opens, you send an email to the leaders of each racial community (as in the folks at Kundiman, AAWW, Cave Canem, Acentos, Letras Latinas, IAIA, or the many emerging editors of color) and politely ask them to circulate your submission call to our respective communities. Sustain these relationships long term and over time you will get more submissions, you will find more work that fits your journals’ aesthetic/mission, you will cause less TOC anxiety.

Of course, we can’t solve the problem completely until we get at the root of the problem.

To get at the root of the problem, let me tell you a story: a few months ago, I gave a workshop at an elementary school mostly populated by students of color. After our workshop, I showed the kids many copies of different poetry journals, including Poetry Magazine and the Paris Review. One kid, after he flipped through several Table of Contents pages, asked me:

“Professor Craig, Why are white editors so mean?”

I didn’t know how to respond, but I knew what he was feeling. I tried to soothe his anxiety:

“White editors aren’t mean, it’s just very hard for them to publish writers like us. It’s hard and often unrewarding work being an editor.”

He responded: “But you’re an editor, Professor Craig. And you’re not mean.”

It’s true.

So I reflected: is there something essential about being a white editor that makes them mean? Something inherently mean about whiteness?

Later, I reflected into a mirror: What makes editors of color, like myself, and writers of color in general, such nice people?

Have you ever noticed that even though writers of color are rarely published in mainstream journals, rarely receive major prizes or awards, rarely reviewed in major venues—and moreover all we write about are our difficult and traumatic histories, our oppressed cultures, our forgotten stories—yet we are such jolly people.

Have you ever been to an Asian-American, African-American, Latino, or Native American poetry reading? The poems are fucking depressing and people sometimes cry during the reading. Yet before and after the reading is a party! Everyone’s so happy, so friendly—there’s sometimes singing and dancing too!

Have you ever been to a Pacific Islander reading—the most underrepresented group in American poetry--? We always have a ton of food at our readings, and we spend more time talking story and laughing around the food than we do actually reading our depressing poems!

Perhaps if we can understand why writers of colors are so happy, then we can understand why white editors are so mean.

Despite everything we’ve been through, writers of color are happy for one reason, and one reason only: anthological loving. The word, “anthology,” comes from the Greek “anthos,” meaning “group hug.”

That’s right, every month a new anthology for writers of color is published: New Latino Writing, African American Nature, Queer Native American, Diasporic Pacific Islander, Asian American Women, South Asian American, Old Latino Writing, Experimental African American, Global Indigenous, Midwest Latinos, New Generations, Next Generations, Emerging Generations, etc, etc, etc. 

Every time one of these anthologies is published, a historic publication gets its wings. We gather, celebrate (with lots of food), and embrace. We finally arrive. Or arrive, in a different way. Again and again.

We love the Anthology (to the point of fetish), and the anthology loves us back.

And the anthologies sell like tortillas, like frybread, like dumplings, like Spam.

Now, let’s return to our question: Why are white editors so mean? They are so mean because there has never been an anthology of White-American Poetry. Think about that: white poets have never had an anthology to call their own. They have never experienced the unconditional love of an anthology that is just for them. This sad exclusion has made them bitter and mean to the point of displacing their feelings of exclusion onto writers of color.

White-American poets, hear me: you have come a long way since your barbaric yawps and mystic circumferences. Through my education, I’ve watched you evolve over the last century and develop your craft. It’s time. You’re ready.

Today, at AWP 2011, I call upon you to submit to Manifest Destiny: The First Anthology of White-American Poetry.

Just like in the formation of other emerging literatures, the first anthology needs to be edited by a cultural outsider (me) and a cultural insider. Don Share, I invite you to co-edit this historic anthology with me!

I believe this anthology will settle upon the canon and breed other anthologies of White-American poetries and, over time, white poets and editors will feel more loved, more included, more celebrated—and thus less mean.

And they will sell, like white bread.

Now, let us anthos.