I, like very many other women, am a victim of sexual violence. My past is perched immediately behind my eyes, waiting. Everything I take in passes through it and is judged against what I experienced. Anything that feels remotely similar to my assaults or seems familiarly unsafe sounds all the old alarms, floods me with every feeling I thought I had processed long ago.
This is why trigger warnings exist.
When I read Collin Kelley’s poem “Saving Anne Sexton” on Georgia Center for the Book’s Facebook page, I cried – not because it was a touching tribute to a beloved poet, but because the vigilant history that lives behind my eyes immediately saw its own reflection there.
I was not the only person to respond this way to the poem. Kia Groom and Sonya Vatomsky at Quaint Magazine wrote a scathing critique of the piece, calling Kelley a “broet” (a portmanteau of “bro” and “poet,” invoking the image of a clueless, privileged frat boy) while itemizing the ways in which the poem employs misogynistic tropes and sexual violence under the guise of an homage. Kelley responded with a blog post, pointing out his own marginalization as a “gay man from blue-collar rural Georgia” and including images of tasteless personal tweets about him made by Groom and poet Kat Dixon. He stated that he had initially apologized and contemplated the removal of the poem, but after he saw the article on Quaint and the tweets, he “decided to withdraw [his] apology and informed Georgia Center for the Book to keep the poem on Facebook” as a response to his belief that the post and tweets were cyber-bullying and an attempt to silence him.
In addition to being a woman and a victim, I am a feminist, a poet and a member of the literary community. And I am angry.
The conversation about violence against women in art is an important one. It is also a complicated one. I do not have an answer for the question of whether it is ever appropriate for a man to write violence against women, or whether it inherently contributes to the problematic narrative our society has about gender relations, objectification, violence, and privilege. I do not know how to balance concerns about freedom of artistic expression with sensitivity to the potential re-victimization of those whose past lies in wait to be triggered. Frankly, I don’t even know how to tell my own stories of victimization in ways that help rather than harm, though I want to desperately.
I am not angry at Collin Kelley, specifically, nor at any individual who commits incognizant misogynyi. Rather, I am angry at the system that affords him the luxury of writing the lines, “I find her bound and gagged in masking tape” and “Anne is pristine for all her travels” without seeing even a modicum of sexuality or violence, as he claims he did not.
I am angry at the system in which it can happen that, as Quaint points out, “[T]his interpretation was not even considered during [the poem’s] creation or subsequent publication,” even though that interpretation occurred to me singularly and inescapably.
I am angry at the system in which Kelley is able to choose to leave his violent words in the world as a protest against being called a “stupid broet,” but in which I was unable to use my words to protest against the immediate violation of my body.
I am angry at the system in which two men received such a lousy social education that they didn’t even realize what they were doing to me was rape.
I am angry at the system in which using my words, now, risks moving this important conversation to whether or not I am a “worthy enough” victim to have a voice on these issues.
I suspect that Groom and Vatomsky carry a similar sort of anger, the kind that collects like plaque on your soul every time you get cat-called in public, or get a creepy sexual message from a stranger on the internet, or when yet another of your friends confides that it happened to her, too. But when the full force of the anger at the system is directed at individuals, as Quaint has done here, it removes the potential for individual growth. It allowed Kelley to take the role of the victim – which he readily did – rather than contemplating the ways in which his work was hurtful to people and reinforced problematic cultural narratives. And now, the conversation is about literary criticism – and, worse, feminism – veering into the world of personal attack and reflexive vitriol, instead of about how to balance the complicated nuances of art, expression, and social issues.
There is really only one thing that had a chance to prevent my rapes, and it was probably not shaming, name-calling, or dismissive portmanteaus. My attackers were, in fact, “clueless cis-gendered white [men],” but there’s only one cure for cluelessness: education. While I can absolutely appreciate the need for catharsis, I’ve never seen much education happen through one-sided, cathartic rants – even when they do make some excellent points, as Quaint did.
As to whether Collin Kelley’s piece should be “allowed” to exist even though people find it insensitive and traumatizing, well, that is not a decision for me to make, nor perhaps anyone but Kelley and the Georgia Center for Books. Maybe an artist makes a really beautiful piece of art to go into a park, but it has some spiky bits, and for some reason the sidewalk near it slopes and people keep stumbling into it and hurting themselves. It wasn’t intended to hurt anyone, and it’s not the artist’s fault, necessarily, that pedestrians are unable to walk through the park without falling into sculptures. Their pain is no less a fact, though, and at that point, the artist has to make a decision: do my intent and artistic expression matter more, or does the harm it is causing people matter more?
I, personally, would take my sculpture down, even if someone had called me a stupid broet. And then I’d work to change the system that kept pushing pedestrians into my art.
i It seems specious that Mr. Kelley had never considered the double reading of the “book” as both the book and Anne Sexton herself. However, I see no reason to believe that Mr. Kelley was being intentionally offensive or victimizing, and he, too, is a product of the social education we all receive that implicitly condones violence against women. I think it’s fair to say he committed an act of “incognizant misogyny” inasmuch as he was apparently unaware of the way in which he performed and perpetuated misogyny.
Krista Cox lives in Indiana, where she works as a paralegal, single mom, and student of creative writing. Her poetry has recently appeared in Stirring: A Literary Collection, Words Dance, and scissors & spackle, among other places in print and online. Once, her 7 year-old daughter told her that “inside everybody is a kind, loving person. Some of them just don’t know it yet.” Krista’s most important work is trying to find that person inside everyone, and help them see it, too.