Report from the Field: My Body Is Not Your Receptacle

June 15, 2015 | by Caroline Klocksiem, OP-ED | 14 | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , ,

 

It was less than a month ago that B O D Y literary journal came under fire via social media for apparent misogyny. In short, editorial comments about a young woman writer—including about her face—were accidentally forwarded to her. My initial impression—and to my mind, the overwhelming consensus, at least on the social media discussions I’ve closely followed regarding this—is that this was clearly a case of not only unprofessionalism, but blatant sexism. Out of this discussion, it became clear that this particular young writer is not the only one who has experienced this type of objectification from this journal. On a larger scale, the number of women writers who felt they had been judged by their physical appearance rather than the quality of their work (through various journals/ by various editors) is deeply unsettling.

11358604_10206816606317593_259972265_nSome more charitable voices wanted to say that perhaps this editor at B O D Y was simply letting off steam, because after all, isn’t editing a journal a nonpaying and thankless and tiresome job, and haven’t we all felt like complaining about submissions from time to time…? Or they wanted to say—to paraphrase one (not popular) defense—that this journal has published this one poem that is quite the feminist poem, so therefore they deserve some grace.

I didn’t get much involved in this other than to express my support for the fifteen-year-old writer who fought back against her objectification by this journal, and to decide that I would certainly not be submitting my writing to B O D Y.

And yet. Here it is less than a month later, and I am involved. I am involved because my body is involved. Because when I saw B O D Y’s Facebook post this morning, I got so worked up that tremors took over my fingers. I’m still a bit shaky as I write, even though it has been three hours since I saw this:

11414805_10206805380476954_167172002_n“THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM.” I am a woman. I am the mother of two young boys. And despite the fact that it’s only been a few years, I am already so intensely fatigued by the unrelenting fight to protect them from misogyny. I just woke up and I am checking my Facebook feed in between diaper changes and snack requests and I see “congratulations” to “THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM.” I am a woman writer. I am a mother. I am a feminist. I am a person. “THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM” is one of “the best.”

Ok. I read it. “THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM.” (I do not wish to quote this poem, but if you’d like to read it, please consider following this Do Not Link url so as not to drive up B O D Y’s web traffic here.)

In the opening line, the speaker tells the kitty (yes, kitty) on the street, “‘Hey kitty, she swallowed my cum!” And the rest of the poem is a parade of what amounts to street harassment—the speaker proclaiming to any available bystander, even the sun, that everything is great because the object of his sexual desire has behaved as the sort of receptacle that best suits his sexual desires. The speaker feels a little awkward telling everyone this, but oh well, what can you do? Boys will be boys, right?

Now, you might expect that a poem that is ostensibly about a sex act involves two people. But there is one person here. There is one whole person and that person is a man. And then there is one sexually gratifying mouth.

Regretfully, I read this poem several times. Why? I am a meticulous and sharp reader. But… “best of?” “Highest quality work?” What am I missing here? Despite my initial negative reaction at the shock-jock/ clickbait quality of the title, I decided to read this poem because I know that a good poem can surprise us. It can subvert our expectations. It can challenge us. I’d hoped this poem was going to challenge me. I’d hoped it would redeem this journal for its prior act of sexism. I’d hoped it would show that the editor(s) took the opportunity to grow from that experience.

Sadly, I can find very little, if anything, that is subversive or challenging in this “best of” piece of writing. I do not find surprising word play. I do not find an especially masterful sonic quality. I do not find a unique perspective. I do not find formal complexity. I do not find a fresh voice (quite the opposite). Is there something to this poem besides its surface message that imparts what the editors of B O D Y and this Best British Poetry Anthology consider valuable? 9781907773686frcvr.indd

A male writer writes a poem in which he uses a woman as a receptacle, and it makes him feel alive. If anything, this is about as status quo as literature gets.

And women writers all over the world are not read/published. And women writers all over the world are scrutinized for their bodies, for their head shots, for their make up or lack of make up, for the thickness of their lips.

And editors whose feathers are ruffled by the VIDA Count say, “Well. We just publish the ‘highest quality work’” (indicating that women do not write as well as men), or “Well, women just don’t send to us so oh well.”

Congratulations to “THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM.” We applaud “THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM.” We stand behind this. This is the “best of.”

After a few hours, this post had received eight “likes.” All were men. One person, a man, thinks that this is “just great.” When women writers look at a literary journal and physically feel their fingers shaking in anger at the intense level of misogyny, it is not a mystery why we are not submitting to that journal.

What do we do? Do we “bomb” journals like this? Overwhelm them with submissions by women writers? Do we unfollow, unfriend, denounce, cut them off? I don’t know. I don’t know. I know that my hands are still shaking.

~~~

11639323_10206816571436721_506358814_oCaroline Klocksiem is the author of a poetry chapbook, “Circumstances of the House and Moon,” (Dancing Girl Press), and her poems are published or forthcoming from such journals as The Iowa Review; Hayden’s Ferry Review; CutBank; The Pinch; BlazeVox; H_NGM_N; Super Arrow; North American Review; and others. She is a Swarthout Award and Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship recipient. She teaches at the University of Alabama.

14 Comments to 'Report from the Field: My Body Is Not Your Receptacle'

  • Preach! And thanks for doing so! I followed the Tim Hunt story and he was systemically forgiven because he’s “too old to know any better” or “he meant it as a joke…blah blah blah…same shit different field.

    I have 2 girls…we’re all going down.

  • I am a male editor who believes deeply in exploring all options of expression, and who appreciates risk-taking by authors. I was a college student in the late 60s, and I remember the struggle for free speech, and I fear censorship in any guise.

    Nevertheless I would not have published this poem, in part because of its misogyny, but also in part because as Ms. Klocksiem points out, it just isn’t very good. The language is ordinary, and the poem ends as it starts, with no surprise, no twist, no insight or epiphany.

    It is easy to conclude that the poem is shallow because the poet is shallow.

    However, a quick wander through the internet took me to three other poems by the same poet: “Blue Movie,” “Vanish,” and “Heroin Lullaby.” Any of these is better than “Thank You for Swallowing my Cum” — probably not good enough to be chosen as a Best British Poem, but better.

    I am left to conclude that it is a matter of bad editing. We all write some things that aren’t up to our normal standard. It is the job of the editor to send these poems back to us. This editor failed at his (yes, I’m pretty sure of the gender) task.

    As to what women authors should do, I don’t have a simple cure for the institutionalized sexism of the publishing industry, but I do have some advice. Write the best poems you can, send them to the best journals you can find, workshop together and support one another, and when you find a welcoming venue, spread the word.

  • Gerald St Genesius says:

    This may not be a “good” poem, but that is what one gets for playing the “best of” game. A million poems go by; we are afraid to admit we missed any, or admit we can’t judge them (didn’t you go to school, don’t you have a critical apparatus, don’t you have cultivated taste?) with dispatch. No one is willing to just let a poem lie there for a few generations; no one is willing to see if our great-grandchildren are still reading it because they want to. Just imagine if we did…much less stress, and about the same amount of money.

    However, I disagree that this poem is misogynist. I think this not because the poem lacks any of the rage (open or coded) we find in misogyny (though it doesn’t), but because the poem is, in fact, a celebration of a woman’s free choice. The mood of the poem is not one of entitlement. Quite the opposite, it is one of surprise. The speaker is shocked at what has happened. So shocked he is giddy. The implication is that his lover acted unbidden and now he is “stoned” with surprise, and like all stoned folks is quite out of synch with the straight world, unable to self-censor, over-sharing…because he is possessed by what has happened to him. And like all lovers he exaggerates

    “I saw myself clean in her company,”

    One of the historical complaints the lovers of poets have had is being a muse. “You don’t love me, you love the occasions I provide to write a poem!” That is often true, and it is a objectification, but it is not necessarily hateful or destructive, and certainly not misogynist.

    But there still remains the strong reaction this poem has created. I wonder if it is because the poem is about a blow job, which is a sex act that straight people usually mess up. It is a staple of straight men’s fantasy, and a strong marker of sexual subordination and degradation for straight women. Between these two poles, it is probably best that straight people leave blow jobs to gay men.

    I suppose we can take this observation back to the original concern with the poem: “This isn’t about what happened, it is just the usual guy fantasy.” Fair enough. But I still maintain that that does not make it misogynist.

    But I sit a good poem? God knows…I wouldn’t worry about that.

  • Anne says:

    I didn’t find this poem nearly so offensive as the author of this article. Offputting, yes, gross even (that word) but not abusive or hateful. And there is emotional complexity, depth even, in it. It’s uncomfortable and troubling for sure. I don’t agree with the commenter above that the poem doesn’t move or contain any surprises. FWIW, The Best British Poetry 2015, published by Salt, is edited by a woman.

    • Barnaby says:

      Okay, this argument that because it is edited by a woman, a journal cannot be sexist is flawed. It’s related to the classic ad hominem argument; it focuses on a person and not actions. Which is wrong. A black man can be racist as much as a white man can, even though he may not benefit from institutionalized racism as much as said white man. A woman can be sexist just as a man can; damn, women are sexist all the time! Who calls women sluts? Only men? Hell no. Who tells women they shouldn’t boss others around? Only men? Hell no.

  • His blog is gone, but the Wayback Machine has it:

    web.archive (dot) org/web/20130517185621/http://bobbyparker (dot) co (dot) uk/blog/
    which makes this poem, and the line

    “as the tide rolled over my shoes and my ex-wife hates me.”

    sad.

  • Trish McDermott says:

    I am not a writer, but I am related to the young writer who was at the receiving end of comments about her face, when only comments about her work would have been appropriate. Let’s just say I’m paying attention now, in a big way.

    I have followed the VIDA count as well, thanks to the women writers in my family and my own book club. This issue, sadly, goes well beyond the literary world. I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, where women in technology face similar issues. Take a look at senior management and the boards of leading tech companies.

    While we would like to think that literary journals, publishers and technology companies want to do the right thing, represent their customers, provide the insight, empathy and creativity that a diverse group of people bring to decision making, that’s just not how it works.

    How do we change this? Money talks. Numbers move the needle. Failure, or the potential for failure, ushers in new thinking.

    What if women and our allies just stopped showing up? Stopped buying? Stopped tweeting and posting and purchasing? Stopped reviewing? Stopped sharing? What if we put all of our efforts and time and dollars and presence into industries and organizations that acknowledge us as customers, providers of talent and…well….half the world?

    It’s time for a girlcott. Maybe one company, one industry, or one publisher, at a time.

    Imagine if women stopped buying books written by men for one year. Not forever, and not to punish male writers, but to move the needle somewhere closer to the middle. Imagine if we stopped using all social media that did not fairly represent women in the growth and development of their business. Imagine if we stopped sharing or commenting on anything coming out of organizations that don’t represent women in management. What if we deleted apps that don’t represent us, but desperately want our headcount, or numbers or money?

    I’m fairly sure as numbers plummeted organizations and industries and individuals would start paying attention.

    What are we waiting for?

  • Chloe St Germaine says:

    I remember the incident with the editor accidentally sending the critical remarks to that young writer. He came into the thread and apologized, but his apology got mixed reviews, likely because there were qualifiers about the meaning of “duckface.”

    I also remember that some women poets who B O D Y had published wrote to the journal to have their poems removed from the archives. I have been published there, but I chose not to ask to have my piece removed just yet.

    And that is one of the dilemmas that we face here as women, as writers. When do we pull our work, remove it from whatever exposure it might get there, and limit not only our own audiences but also take feminist work out of the hands of readers? I’m not saying it would certainly be less accessible; we’d find other places to publish, of course.

    I agree that this poem is not a very good one. There’s not much that makes it distinctive aside from the crass-ness of it. Had it appeared in a journal where the editors seemed to have some awareness of how this poem may be received, I don’t think I would find it so offensive. Maybe that’s just because I think that people will always write dreck, but editors don’t have to celebrate it, especially when the cost of that celebration to others is greater than the benefit.

  • Larry Sawyer says:

    This is a peculiar poem and a vapid one at that. It barely merits any critique. It’s virtually devoid of any device that holds the attention. Unlike in other (successful) poems that use grotesque imagery or word choice, the speaker’s minor epiphany is, ironically enough, not satisfying at all given the topic. In a successful narrative, a poet such as Catullus or Browning would provide a twist to illustrate some underlying irony or provide some contextual element that would provide a contrast to provide dramatic tension. This poem simply doesn’t work on any level. It would be wonderful if a critique would delve more deeply into its unsuccessful structural elements.

    • Mateo says:

      Larry. I disagree. I can’t say as I love the poem, but I think it has meaning, and effctively conveys it. It is the stoy of a man who has an ex wife who was perhaps controlling, or at least, had fallen into the typical relationship pattern of spending more time asking her husband what he is doing and where he is going than embracing his sexuality. She probably saw sex as dirty and would never consider swallowing his cum because she considered it unpleasant and dirty. Their sex life was not satisfying and their relationship deteriorated. Now, he has a new lover and is elated that she embraces him, makes him feel clean by her willingness to embrace his masculine sexuality as symbolized by swallowing his cum. It may seem cras or vulgar at first blush, but there is a long literary tradition of a man’s semin, his seed, his life creating essence, as metaphor for his sexual energy and sexuality, and it being embraced, engulfed, accepted. It is quite powerful imagery if you think about it.

      Now, does it have a twist? Does it have to have a twist? Perhaps twists are cheap predictable theatrics. But it does have a twist. He is not quite sure if it is okay to talk about, perhaps due to our sex negative culture and slut shaming. He is not quite sure what to make of it, and recognizes that no one else is likely to care. Yet, he is still elated and feels clean and redeemed, and can begin to heal from the trauma of his failed marriage in the arms and mouth of a new lover. Will she remain what she is now, or give into mundane ralationship life is another good question. But for now, he is exstatic and wants to share it with the world, while at the smae time seeking to not be feared or shamed for it. I find it pretty deep. I have no training in poetic analysis, but as they say, I know what I like. I can see why this is considered by some, a great poem.

      • Barnaby says:

        You managed to get a lot about his ex-wife from this poem. Did he really write all that about her?
        I wonder how often we find it acceptable to imagine such negative(or perceived negative) things about women? How much suggestion does one need before reaching such a conclusion? Why don’t we think maybe he has an ex-wife because she was tired of his treatment of her(and other women?) as mere receptacles of some “life giving” substance.
        Maybe women are life-givers, maybe f***ing definitely they are.

  • Carissa says:

    I will never not be absolutely disgusted by Bobby Parker. I’ve only read the one poem, so I suppose I ought to reserve judgment, but “THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM” made me so furious.
    I’ve been subjected to sexist comments since about sixth grade and every year I grow more and more weary of the bullshit men spew. I can’t even accurately express how furious their filth makes me, but even worse are the laughs they get from other boys when they say it.
    Sexism doesn’t make you a man.
    Respect does.
    God, if only we were able to make it so only gentlemen could procreate and/or raise sons.

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