Report from the Field: Seeing Is Changing


[This Report from the Field is a post by KC Trommer, regarding the controversy surrounding a member of the publishing world and a UK-based for-profit press.]

What the poetry world can learn from the UK publisher Eyewear’s scandalous July 2018 Twitter meltdown

If you’re not on Twitter much and not a poet, you might have missed the mid-July debacle that enswarmed the UK independent publisher Eyewear, which Todd Swift founded in 2012. As a poet who had only recently signed a contract with them to publish my first collection, I was monitoring the situation closely. While the Tweets involved are specific to one press, the issues raised by them over the course of the past few weeks speak to larger concerns in the world of poetry publishing, including the inherent flaws of the poetry contest model and the perils of relying on whisper networks.

Eyewear’s Twitter account—historically managed by Swift—was deleted on July 20, but not before a few spectacularly awful Tweets were sent that attacked emerging and established poets—including its own. Jenna Clake and Dustin Pearson were reproached for sending their second collections to “rival presses,” and the poet Kaveh Akbar, an Eyewear supporter who was slated to judge the press’s fall contest, was called out in a Tweet that wrongly alleged that Akbar had not spoken out about sexual assault allegations made against Donald Futers, a poetry editor at Penguin Random House.

A Twitter post from @EyewearBooks, from July 19th, 2018 at 4:53PM, reading: "In light of the decision by several Eyewear poets to happily announce new books with rival presses today without warning Director @toddswift_dr has suspended all further poetry projects. Poets who abandon their debut presses do severe damage in terms of sales and funding to them.
A Twitter post from @EyewearBooks, from July 19th, 2018 at 4:53PM, reading: “In light of the decision by several Eyewear poets to happily announce new books with rival presses today without warning Director @toddswift_dr has suspended all further poetry projects. Poets who abandon their debut presses do severe damage in terms of sales and funding to them.

It was awful to see the press’s authors faulted for publishing with other presses even when they were not contractually obligated to offer Eyewear the right to look at their next collections. Swift’s ambush of Akbar was conspicuous for other reasons, not the least of which was that it was wrong. Akbar had, in fact, publicly spoken out about Futers. When Akbar called Swift to task for his mistreatment of Eyewear’s authors, Swift clumsily tried to change the conversation and to leverage an example from the #MeToo movement in his favor.

In recent years, Akbar had supported many poets published by the press, blurbing their work, and had generously offered to judge Eyewear’s fall contest without taking a fee so as to ensure that more of award money would be available to go to the winning poet. Akbar responded to Swift’s attack with a factual rebuttal, withdrew as judge, and requested that the submission fees be refunded to poets who had submitted to the fall contest.

After attacking these poets, Eyewear decried those who would criticize it, touting its history of publishing women and writers of color, and citing that “every editor at [the] press is disabled in some way.”

In several subsequent Tweets and in a statement posted to Eyewear’s site that was later taken down, Swift denied having responsibility for the press’s account, playing the old blame-it-on-the intern game and generating at least one hilarious hashtag in response: #ToddtheIntern. This “intern” also sought to garner sympathy from those following the debacle, noting that the publisher had “mental health issues.” While this seemed to be increasingly plausible, Swift, or the “intern,” or whomever was handling social media content needed to step away because no less than 100 poets had trusted Eyewear with their work, and this incident was making it the talk of Twitter—in the worst sense.

Those familiar with Swift and his communications style, myself included, were certain that he was the author of the problematic Tweets and that he had deleted evidence of them once they sparked attention and blowback. Swift later claimed ownership of the Tweets, boasting on Facebook of his “most infamous tweet.”

Over the course of a few days, it came to light that Swift’s wild behavior on display on Twitter is consistent with how he had treated writers who came into contact with the press. He had been verbally abusive to many writers in the past and it seemed he was possibly a grifter, giving the press’s Gatsby-like eyeglasses logo an altogether sinister echo. Poets and critics on both sides of the Atlantic called him out and shared stories, both publicly and privately.

On July 20, poet Kei Miller posted:

“I think the poetry community must take some responsibility for how, over the years, we’ve enabled the man-baby-editor at Eyewear and his abusive ways. This latest meltdown is nothing new. And we all know the playbook by now. He has some spectacular breakdown then deletes the evidence – the tweets or the Facebook post of the current hissy fit. Then the excuse of mental health. … Then the virtue signalling. … When none of that works he threatens a lawsuit. A month passes and all is suddenly forgotten. But our silence means so many poets, unwittingly, end up in his stable and in the path of his abuse. It’s us, the community of poets, who are partly responsible for that.”

But by the time many had chimed in, Eyewear’s Twitter account and Swift’s own account were deleted and the press had announced the “suspension of all further poetry projects,” declaring that it would be closed until August.

The publisher set off a bomb and then ran and hid. Sadly, to many, it wasn’t a total surprise to see the press on social media Tweeting up a storm and, in the process, internationally and very publicly destroying its reputation.

In response to the Twitter meltdown, and in support of the poets affected, Akbar and other poets began tweeting and retweeting work published by the press. Over the course of two weeks, recently published Eyewear poet Ricky Ray tweeted work out from 70 poets published or slated to be published by the press. Several presses in the US and the UK, notably Sundress Publications and later Diode editions (both in the US) and Broken Sleep (in the UK), came forward, offering to read work. Poet Robin Richardson, editor of the Minola Review, offered to publish the poems of “femme or femme-identifying poets” per the mission of the journal. Richardson’s call was prescient, too. All the other poets I found who were newly under contract are women; we connected to share our stories and experiences and to strategize on what to do next. Ironically, this fiasco has connected us more than Eyewear likely would have on its own.

A Facebook post from user Todd Swift, stating, in all capital letters: "I HAVE DECIDED TO CLOSE EYEWEAR. I SIMPLY CANNOY TAKE THE PRESSURE AND LACK OF FINANCIAL SUPPORT OR SALES. SORRY."
A Facebook post from user Todd Swift, stating, in all capital letters: “I HAVE DECIDED TO CLOSE EYEWEAR. I SIMPLY CANNOY TAKE THE PRESSURE AND LACK OF FINANCIAL SUPPORT OR SALES. SORRY.”

It also came out that, earlier that month, on July 10, Swift had announced on his personal Facebook page that he was closing the press. Nine days before the Twitterstorm of July 19, he posted (caps his): “I HAVE DECIDED TO CLOSE EYEWEAR. I SIMPLY CANNOT TAKE THE PRESSURE AND LACK OF FINANCIAL SUPPORT OR SALES. SORRY.” That post (also deleted), was alarming enough that people took screenshots of it.

I learned from several Eyewear authors that Swift had told them that the press, unless it were able to secure funding or a backer, would close in June 2018. During the spring, Swift approached numerous authors, both published and under contract, and asked for their financial support to stave off closure.

The whole incident was equally wretched and laughable. If there’s one place where the prospect of profit is nowhere in evidence, it’s poetry. I couldn’t help but wonder where Swift got the idea that any of us had any.

The ink on my contract was hardly dry. If the publisher had known his press was in peril, why was he signing new authors? I felt conned. On July 20, in the midst of the Tweetstorm, I wrote to Swift and my other two contacts at Eyewear and politely suggested that perhaps a clarifying public statement should be made. I received a quick reply from Swift: “I think we will be back in August to all our authors.”

The response was typical. Any message I’d previously sent him yielded a dismissive one-line response or none at all. On June 1, per my contract conditions, I delivered my work to Eyewear and asked for confirmation of receipt. It took me sending three more emails over the course of two weeks just so get acknowledgement of delivery of my work—a minor slight compared to what I learned he had done with other prospective authors and those under contract.

In the middle of Swift’s social media mess, a fiction writer friend explained that agents are like an author’s union—they know all the insider intel. Poets don’t have that. Few, if any of us, are represented by agents. We are our own agents, producers, and publicists. With no industry insider working for us, we have to rely on the kindness of friends and mentors and a whisper network, on how people publicly speak about their presses. Don’t ask the right person, and you might not know you’ve stumbled into a problem. Despite asking around about Eyewear before signing my contract, I had no idea what a real problem Swift was until it was too late.

Since its founding in 2012, Eyewear has developed an estimable list of poets from the US, UK, and Canada. It has also run several contests, opening its submissions to poets writing in English from around the world. In announcing the shortlist poets, Swift often approached them to offer contracts. They were usually offered a small signing bonus—50 pounds in some cases—and then were often asked to pre-order author copies on signing. For Eyewear, this was also a means of generating more contest submission fees and of reaching out to poets not connected to the UK who were less likely to discover Swift’s reputation.

Prior to signing my Eyewear contract, my book had been a finalist or shortlisted for well over a dozen poetry prizes. The contest model, which I half-jokingly call the poetry Ponzi scheme, is the main route to getting published and noticed. It relies on the goodwill of poets willing to pay anywhere between $10 and $35 to submit their work. Those contest fees are forwarded to the winning poet while some of the money pays the cost of judging. The remaining funds are then used to support the running of the press. After my book was a finalist for Eyewear’s Sexton and Beverly prizes, Swift told me he wanted to publish it. I was relieved that even though the work would not be winning an award and I would not recoup any contest submission fees I’d paid over the years, it would finally be published.

Even though poetry readership is on the rise, most readers do not read, let alone buy, poetry. Writing a collection of poetry is a difficult achievement in its own right; getting a collection published is even harder. Poets have few routes to publish. When we feel we’ve exhausted the contest model and see an opportunity to be published outside of it, invitations like Swift’s seem appealing.

I’d had serious concerns about signing with Eyewear—Swift’s confusing and terse messages, his failure to communicate even the most basic information about the work I’d entrusted him with, and the request for pre-orders of author copies on signing—all gave me pause. I was also more than 10 years out from my MFA with a collection that had been a prize finalist many times over and without a book in hand to show for it. I was working on my next collection and had tired of seeing this one not make it. The book seemed like a perpetual bridesmaid, festooned in orange taffeta, hanging out by the punchbowl, getting hit on by someone’s creepy uncle.

My gut had told me not to sign; I went against it to my peril. Efforts to allay my fears by speaking with people who knew the press and people it had published yielded diplomatic confirmation that, though I was right to be concerned, all would be well. Yes, the publisher was difficult. But the editorial staff and designer were wonderful, and in the end, I’d have a beautiful book. Granted, I was cautioned that I’d have to promote it myself, and would likely have to create and pay for my own bound galleys.

I decided to take the long view, to sign, to pre-order my author copies even though it was financially difficult for me to do so, to be patient, to send the book out for blurbs, to set up readings, and to take the long view. I had no reason to think, based on the people I spoke with, that the press was going to go up in flames and my book with it.

On July 11, a scant month and eleven days after I signed my contract, I was bcc’d on what appeared to be a group email which began “Dear future Eyewear author” and was signed “Lots of love from the Eyewear team.”

The email touted the press’s virtues, its double markets, how it considers the poets and writers it published family, how it promotes diversity in publishing, and how much it does to support its writers. The self-congratulatory missive, likely penned by Swift, buried the lede. In the last paragraphs, it said:

“Finally, and perhaps more controversially, we have had to make the difficult decision to not publish any new books between January and May 2019 – this means we need to move all our forthcoming 2019 titles to the second half of next year (and a few into 2020). This decision is based on the most basic need to survive as a company. This is a difficult time for everyone in the industry – us included – and we rely on your support. We also need to think sensibly about ensuring our future, and the future and posterity of all of our authors, including you. This decision, agonisingly taken, will help to do this.  

I am sure this will be disappointing – imagine how we feel! However the aim is to treat everyone the same, share the idea this is a struggle worth engaging in, and understand we are a very small indie press that basically, when lucky, breaks even, and usually loses money on poetry publishing (in particular).

If you wish to be released from your Eyewear contract in an amicable fashion, we are open to this discussion in August, but we would consider that a very unfortunate decision – but we also understand many of you have your own careers and plans to think about. We want to reiterate that we would like to keep you.”

Imagine how we feel! Surely the most galling line of all.

I wrote back seeking clarification and asked if perhaps my book would not be included in this group. One reason I’d signed with Eyewear was Swift’s promise to launch the book at the Associated Writing Program Conference in April 2019 in Portland, Oregon. I received an out-of-office reply message and then a few short volleys from Swift: “It applies to all our books at the moment. For the reasons explained. best. t”. And then: “Reread the email. We are fighting to survive. Either we postpone or close.” The last message was absurd: “Obviously if you or we find a patron or win a lottery, we might make it to awp after all.”

I’m a single parent from a working-class background who lives in New York City, one of the world’s most expensive places. In addition to my full-time job, parenting, and writing outside of work, should I also be looking for a patron to support my would-be publisher?

The suggested publication schedule—suspending publication of books from January to June and then publishing the backlog to June—was not realistic. I knew it was likely that my book would not come out in June, nor in August 2019, when my Eyewear contract was set to expire. On July 26, and in the wake of the Twitter trash fire of mid-July, I asked to be released from the contract and to have the cost I paid upfront and in good faith for my pre-ordered author copies returned to me. After several exchanges with Swift, I was sent a termination memo template that included a non-disclosure and non-disparagement clause. I couldn’t help but wonder if other writers who had worked with Swift and sought to leave the press had been offered the same.

In early July 2018, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about the woman who called herself Anna March who conned people from the in the LA literary community out of thousands of dollars. Embarrassment is a big reason why people don’t speak about having been grifted, or taken advantage of, or bullied. To fight back, we have to be transparent, to speak openly with each other about what we’re agreeing to and what we’re being offered. We have to say this happened to me; I made these choices and this is why. And then we have to work together to make the options available to emerging writers better than the ones we had.

The conversation around Eyewear clearly shows that the poetry community must be more upfront about how works are brought into publication—and the stakes involved. It shows how poets help one another when they can. In the wake of Eyewear, we know how much better the poetry community can be when it’s supportive of fellow writers and honest and transparent about its issues.

This bizarre thumbs-afire incident exposed a known bully who presided over the work of a very fine group of poets, and we now know that the poetry world on both sides of the Atlantic had, for whatever reason, protected him. It pointed to the larger problem of our poetry ecosystem’s fragility, how the contest model on which most independent presses rely to survive is fundamentally flawed, and how poets have to rely on whisper networks to find decent homes for their work. When those fail us, we all suffer.

In my work, I often come back to Adrienne Rich’s lines from “Planetarium”: “What we see we see, / and seeing is changing.” While witnessing Swift’s abusive and dismissive behavior, the poetry world seized an opportunity to see, to speak out, and to change.

~~~

A photo of the author, a woman with light skin and shoulder length dark hair.KC TROMMER, poet and essayist, is the author of the debut collection We Call Them Beautiful, which is forthcoming from Diode Editions in 2019, as well as the chapbook The Hasp Tongue (dancing girl press, 2014). A graduate of the MFA program at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, KC has been the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poem “Fear Not, Mary” won the 2015 Fugue Poetry Prize, judged by Kevin Prufer. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from the Queens Council on the Arts, the Table 4 Writers Foundation, the Center for Book Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and the Prague Summer Program. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The Antioch Review, Blackbird, The Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, as well as in the anthologies Resist Much, Obey Little; All We Can Hold; Bared; and Who Will Speak for America? Her essays have appeared in LitHub and in the anthology Oh, Baby! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love, (Creative Nonfiction, 2015). She is the Assistant Director of Communications at NYU Gallatin and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens with her son.