Compassionate Curating: Creating Black Intentional Literary Spaces
I will always remember this past summer as one riddled with Black death. I was living in isolation at the time, with my parents in a small rural Ohio town. Through social media I witnessed the murder and slander of cisgender men, alongside the murder of women (trans and cisgender) who received considerably less public acknowledgement and mourning. The common thread I noticed between these postmortem smear campaigns and complete erasure was a proximity to social death. At this time I also watched white editors on social media engage with Black poets in extremely entitled ways. We ourselves were trending. Our pain, relevance, and language was the latest literary fad. I say all of this to acknowledge a sense of heightened tokenization, and not to diminish the ways that we are consistently overlooked and expected to exploit our pain and culture. The grandest irony to me was the way that this demand for diversity in the literary world actually served to diminish the humanity of those being showcased. It was clear to me that we needed more Black literary spaces, and we needed literary spaces constructed by Black people without catering to non-Black audiences.
Before I continue discussing my process for developing an intentionally Black literary space, I have a bone to pick with the politics of diversity. As I mentioned before, diversity initiatives function to assuage white guilt, but rarely sustainably aid racially marginalized individuals. Diversity means demanding emotional labor from Black writers in times of collective trauma, and in the same breath, expecting them to be grateful for the exposure. Diversity welcomes oppressors into safe spaces for the sake of fairness. Diversity is visual. Diversity is an appearance of progress that falls short of recognizing and remedying lineages and present modes of marginalization. I am not diverse, and I have no interest in existing in or creating spaces that fulfill a liberal quota.
In July, Winter Tangerine’s editor-in-chief Yasmin Belkhyr, and poetry editor Sarah Maria Medina asked if I was interested in curating a literary space for Black people. I accepted the offer on the condition that I would work with an all-Black editorial staff, and have full independence to shape the call for submissions and issue. We all recognized the necessity for the privileging of Black voices and I agreed to curate Love Letters to Spooks with the help of Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah and L.G. Parker. Within a matter of weeks, Love Letters to Spooks, a space for Black writers to interrogate existentialism, social death, and mortal liminality, was open for submissions.
As I proceeded with the editorial process I asked myself the following questions:
- Am I accountable to expanding the scope of humanity? or Will intersectionally marginalized Black people feel comfortable submitting to LLTS?
- Does the call for submissions demand a performance of pain?
- Which communities will this actually serve? Who is the work addressing?
- What am I asking of people? How am I asking for it?
- How is LLTS compensating contributors?
I noticed that it was often during initial moments of contact where white editors fell short in their empathy and compassion. They didn’t recognize that some us could barely leave our beds and homes. As I drafted emails, I saw solicitation as an opportunity for affirmation first, and any form of exchange second. I made it clear to all potential contributors that their work was urgent and appreciated, that the issue was open for submissions, and most importantly, that I in no way expected creative or emotional labor from them; submitting was their choice, not their responsibility.
For me, the work in Love Letters to Spooks is exemplary of the particular kind of stardust we are left with following the explosion of a false monolith. Contributors troubled notions of gender, sexuality, self-identification, pain, and love, all within the scope of Blackness. It brings me infinite joy to know that Love Letters to Spooks will continue to exist as a space for Black people to have access to poignant depictions of our life, death, and soul growth.
A brief reading list for those interested in building intentional literary spaces for Black writers:
XANDRIA PHILLIPS is the author of Reasons For Smoking, (forthcoming from The Seattle Review) a chapbook selected by Claudia Rankine. She hails from rural Ohio where she was raised on corn, and inherited her grandmother’s fear of open water. Xandria received her BA from Oberlin College, and her MFA from Virginia Tech. Xandria is Winter Tangerine‘s associate poetry editor, and the curator of Love Letters to Spooks, a literary space for Black people. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem and Callaloo. Xandria’s poetry is present or forthcoming in Callaloo, Beloit Poetry Journal, West Branch, Nashville Review, Nepantla, Gigantic Sequins, Powder Keg, and elsewhere.
This essay is part of a series on compassionate curating with a focus on editors’ and curators’ thoughts, experiences, and advice on putting together crucial, urgent collections about difficult topics or work from marginalized and at-risk writers. And how to navigate bringing these important projects to fruition while navigating stereotypes and tropes, caring for writers and readers, being mindful of writers’ emotional labor and trauma, and how to put into practice or imagine a praxis that avoids doing harm.