I was eleven years old the first time I submitted my writing for literary consideration: a state-wide short fiction contest open to all middle and high school students. I was the youngest person in my school but I had big dreams and big determination. I spent weeks working on an adventure story about an independent young girl surviving on her own after fleeing her troubled home. The story was promptly rejected. However, the deadline had not yet passed, so—fueled by the sting of rejection—I quickly set to work on a new piece. The second entry was about a recent widow compelled by grief to return daily to the site of her engagement. Wildly, it won.
While I found it ironic that the piece rushed in petty defiance won, I was too young to critically question any greater implications. Sure, the first piece may not have been sufficiently written, but the second was a sad bag of melancholia steeped in patriarchal hooey. Even so, I was too young to critically examine gender roles and reader bias. I was too young and too excited and too emboldened to do much more than revel in irony’s face. I was eleven years old and I had big dreams and it was all very, very cool.
By high school, I was noticing the red flags. Once, my creative writing teacher questioned the authenticity of a journal entry—a piece of fictional dialogue between two men. Written in red along the margin: “Is this yours?” I reread the question thirty times. Yes, it’s mine. Fiction. A fictional boat. A fictional harbor. A fictional sea town. 2,000 fictional miles from this non-fictional classroom. I’d been proud of the construct. The hardiness of each man’s demeanor, the rugged I’m-not-even-sure-this-makes-sense sailor-speak, the candor of their fears. None of the boys in class were questioned about writing fiction from variable perspectives, yet my integrity was called into question for doing so. I was shocked. Insulted. Confused. Hurt.
Because white, straight, cis men like my then-classmates are born into the default perspective, their imaginations are scarcely ever challenged. This grooms them to believe—implicitly—that their voice can be any voice. Meanwhile, women everywhere still cringe at the majority of female characters written by men, characters whose primary contribution to dialogue is from a place of ineptitude or helplessness: “What do we do now?” “What’s next?” “How do we get out of this?” At least my imagined sailors had some complexity.
College was a minefield of the male gaze—both upon my craft and my person. I became a body judged entirely on a spectrum between fuckability and exceptionalism. Male peers who deemed me “wild” or “exotic” instead of adept. The young man from a freshman poetry class who, upon learning I was straight, abruptly shifted from total dismissal of my work to praising my every word. The male professor who suspiciously appeared each time I was walking alone through campus or in the theatre dressing rooms, and eventually wrote an ode to my “tight little ass.” Each red flag, a lesson in worth.
For nearly ten years after college, I didn’t write. Slowly, through the throes of an early and dysfunctional marriage, I turned my creative efforts to almost anything else: sewing, painting, even horticulture. My husband would periodically question this, and I could only offer the weakest lie: I’m happy now, no need to write. The truth, of course, was the opposite. I was afraid of what I was most compelled to write: us. I didn’t want to hurt or shame him, so I stopped altogether. Fear, its own flag.
Years later, newly divorced and starting over in a strange city, I began attending a weekly poetry reading series at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. I made friends, participated in workshops, started generating poems again for the first time in a decade. After my first reading, the organizer, a man thirty years my senior, mused, “The pretty ones aren’t usually so smart.” Exceptionalism and gender-shaming. Cool.
Not long after that, at a group dinner after one of the readings, a poet I scarcely knew inched his hand up my knee under the table as his wife sat beside him. I froze. This can’t be real. This only happens in movies. He groped my thigh and I gasped, started choking. I shoved his hand away under the tablecloth, apologized to everyone. “I’m okay,” I sputtered between coughs, “I’m fine.” I was not fine. He perched his left hand atop his wife’s on the table and I could not look away. I could not understand her unknowing laughter. I felt impossibly small.
On the way out, I demanded he never touch or speak to me again or I would address his behavior publicly. Then, the demoralizing introspections: Should I voice this now—potentially putting a wedge in their marriage and positioning myself for backlash and ostracism? Should I do as I said and await a future transgression—again, knowing ostracism would be almost certain? How important to me is my inclusion in this community? This group helped me climb free of my divorce-induced depression, gifted me a network of peers, offered encouragement, but now this—and it would most certainly land in the murk of he-said/she-said. More specifically, he stays or I stay. And why? Why is this litany of concerns mine to bear—not his? All I did was eat a goddamn salad.
Later still, I was collaborating on an anthology project with another poet from the same series. He contacted me to change plans last-minute, insisting we meet at his home instead of the coffee shop due to a “knee sprain.” I was cautious, but went. I arrived to an apartment dressed for romance (flowers, candles, scratch-made dinner). He stood above me. Too close. My heart was thundering. I feigned an urgent incoming call and excused myself. I reached the sidewalk panting as if I’d just run a marathon. I never contacted him again. I never returned to that reading series.
This is how many women practice self-preservation: we vanish.
After a long hiatus, a friend introduced me to a different poetry series with both an open mic and slam hosted at Manhattan’s Bowery Poetry Club. I attended periodically for a year before I braved my way onto the open mic list. After I read for the first time, a male organizer approached me, welcomed me to the series, and complimented my poem. He then suggested my work would be better received at a different venue because of my poetry’s dark nature. “After all,” he said, “we’re the funny venue.” A herd of red flags unfurled in my chest. What does that mean? Doesn’t “open mic” mean open? What other venues? I fled the only other series I know—where else can I go?
Despite being encouraged to leave, I stayed. Call it determination. I read on the open mic weekly for months. I learned to enjoy the excitement of the game of slam, the energy of the thriving community, the oddly economical beers. Each week, the series host and founder—an exuberant young woman—encouraged me to slam. Each week, I deflected. I was intimidated by the competitive nature of the game. She was relentless. It was another several months before I finally tried. When I did, I won. I was in shock. Joy. Filled with adrenaline and excitement. Wonder. A male stranger at the bar leaned over and said, “You know you only won because you’ve got good tits.” I was instantly small.
Still, I returned. Learned more. Wrote more. I won some, lost more. Eventually, I earned my way onto the venue’s slam team and was introduced to the broader national slam community. I worked. I learned. I wrote. Eventually, I became one of the organizers. And then coach. Ultimately, I became director. I encouraged those who appeared most hesitant. I lead by example: participating, taking risks, listening, cheering, writing. Each week, I thanked the people in the room. I invited them to return.
At varying intervals during my tenure, I was challenged about rules and procedures. Often, the complainant dismissed my response and took their inquiry to one of the male organizers, assuming one of them was in charge. Once, while addressing an incident in which complaints were made about a competing poet who appeared to be friends with one of the judges (a disqualifying offense), the young man reacted violently. He cursed and shouted at me, pounded his chest and toppled chairs—juvenile bullying tactics. I did my best to de-escalate but because he didn’t believe I was the director, he would not be quelled. Not until a male community member stepped in to correct him did he yield. It became immediately apparent that he would not have been so explosive if I wore a more imposing body.
As I continued to perform across the US, touring all manner of literary spaces, I noticed how women are routinely introduced with mentions of physical appearance (“Welcome now the beautiful…”) while men enjoy nods toward intellect or accomplishments (“Next up, x-time award winner…”). The introductions are not unkind, so we tolerate it, despite the marked contrast to our male counterparts. In spaces that encourage audience participation, crowds often follow suit: whistles, catcalls, and appearance-based cheers as women approach the stage. I grew to accept this, and even participated.
My perspective was forever changed one evening at the former LouderARTS Project in Manhattan. As I was welcomed to read amid an orchestra of gendered catcalls, one of the women organizers countered from the back, trumpeting, “SMART!” I heard her voice ring out high and loud across the room, drowning all other voices. I was stunned. I felt strong, reminded of my worth. I now employ similar tactics when a room is drowning in lazy, patriarchal bluster.
My personal life has not been spared. Once, a boyfriend perusing my journals came across a poem about assault and spiraled into a temper tantrum, insisting I shouldn’t write poems about violence and trauma. I asked rhetorically what he’d prefer I write and though he knew he had no right to answer, he spouted off a list of banal topics. I was reminded of the years I went silent to assuage my first husband’s ego. The power I reclaimed when the poems came back. I am not here to assuage anyone’s ego.
Later, a different boyfriend who was highly supportive of my work curiously began to refer to any of my successes as “ours.” He insisted we were “a team.” He began to claim shared credit for my intellectual work. I am not this generous. The relationship failed.
Later still, I dated a poet who stealthily deployed a series of abuse tactics, escalating from minor deceit to gaslighting to threats and ultimately, sexual assault. As we were members of the same poetry circles, this was another occasion of being forced to choose between silence and ostracism. I went into a period of social paralysis, fractured and afraid. I eventually sought help, pulled myself free from his stalking and harassment. When it later became evident that he had been abusive toward a bevy of women, he resorted to public humiliation by publishing a manifesto to a broad community of poets denying his predatory behaviors, accusing those who came forward of lying, and dismissing me as “just crazy.”
Meanwhile, every few months, another lauded male literary figure is revealed to be an abuser or rapist—some of whom have been my friends, lovers, or mentors. Some of whom I still miss. All of whom are culpable for their harm. All of whom at one point or another have dismissed their survivors as “delusional.”
And then there are those men who I only later realized befriended or dated me for some perceived benefit to their status or career. Or those who mistakenly addressed me by the names of other women writers because on some subconscious level we are perceived as interchangeable. Or those who were initially supportive, but later revealed envy or disdain by undermining my work, choices, accomplishments, or intellect.
These ongoing encounters remind us that regardless our individual paths, women and non-binary writers remain mere bodies subject to male judgement. From the Fuckability–Exceptionalism Spectrum to scales of Status (what-can-she-do-for-me), Association (who-does-she-know), Malleability (how-quickly-will-she-bend), or what I’ll dub Bro-factor (is-she-cool-enough-to-take-a-sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic/fatphobic-joke).
Once, while introducing me, the male host read my bio to the audience, then laughed, questioning from the stage if one of my awards was even real. Snicker. Chortle.
Once, after a feature, the organizer—a man fully twice my age—approached me to pay my stipend, then cornered me, leering. He reached over to stroke my hair and confessed a lifelong “obsession” with redheads, noting his mother had red hair too. Blink. Blink.
Once, a promoter I was working with used my awards in their promotional materials to “lend literary muscle” to their (primarily male) roster of poets. Except…my awards were not attributed to me. In fact, I was never invited to perform. Uh. You’re welcome?
Once, giving a speech about the dangers of the neo-Nazi movement, a young man interrupted my presentation, leapt to his feet, called me a bitch, and devolved into a frothing, nonsensical, racist tirade. By all means, sir. The floor has always been yours.
Once, as a writer’s assistant, my employer presented me with a bustier made of shells that he’d purchased overseas, suggesting it would look good on me as I shelved his books. Har-de-har.
Once, the head of a literary organization—a man I was fond of, but had never spoken to—reached out drunkenly and pulled down the top of my dress, exposing my breasts in public. Oh, boys.
Once, during an interview for a podcast, the host dismissed the poem he asked me to share and instead spent an uncomfortable amount of time asking about my new husband’s pursuits. When the episode aired, both of our websites were posted in the online summary, even though my husband wasn’t interviewed. I said nothing. I’m tired.
Once, a male poet contended that I was overrated, suggesting I should be grateful that others think highly of me. Make no mistake—I am. I am immensely grateful.
I am grateful to professor Sandra Doe for pushing me ever toward specificity. I am grateful to professor Marilyn Hetzel for broadening my understanding of the power of live performance, the need for authenticity, and for introducing me to the concept of art for social change. I am grateful to writer Sarena Straus who offered me my first-ever featured reading, and relentlessly pursued me when I was initially too shy. I am grateful to author Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz who tenaciously encouraged me to participate at Urbana Poetry Slam, spent hours reintroducing me to the publication submission process after my ten-year hiatus, and encouraged me to pursue book publication and apply for grants and prizes. Who continues to model a leadership of example and encouragement.
I am grateful to author and organizer Rachel McKibbens who pushed my craft, challenged my lazy tics, asked hard questions, and shifted the axis the day she shouted “Smart!” across the room. Who still today provides insightful feedback, honesty, generosity, and example. I am grateful to author and educator Patricia Smith for encouragement to slam with poems of witness and introspection. For inviting me to open for one of her book releases. For spending time with my work, providing generous blurbs, routinely booking me to visit her classes, and inviting me to submit to various publications. I am grateful to author Roxane Gay who was the first to accept my poems for publication at PANK after a decade of not submitting, who later supported my first book though interviews and reviews, and who offers continued kindness within the daunting literary landscape.
I am grateful to author, editor, and coach Mahogany L. Browne for repeated invitations to feature at The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, inviting me to submit to and periodically edit for Penmanship Press, and modeling unwavering honesty and encouragement. I am grateful to author and organizer Marty McConnell for years of support, critique, and encouragement across teams and workshops, and for the example she sets through the thoughtful curation of her many salons and writing programs. I am grateful to writers and editors Syreeta McFadden and Lynne Procope for believing in my work and my critical eye, inviting me to join Union Station Magazine as poetry editor. For continuously encouraging me to write, perform, and submit across genres, and for hauling across state lines in celebration of an award Syreeta herself had suggested I submit for.
I am grateful to author Angel Nafis for inviting me to participate in the Greenlight Bookstore Reading Series, engaging unparalleled craft talk, and providing careful and precise review of my work. I am grateful to writer and editor Yasmin Belkhyr for inviting me to participate as contributor, editor, and presenter in various incarnations of Winter Tangerine Review. I am grateful to author Aracelis Girmay whose close read and thoughtful summation of my second book nearly brought me to my knees. For her exacting sight of me, the person; for her understanding. I am grateful to author and editor Stevie Edwards for manuscript feedback swaps, invitations to submit, and modeling careful curation and solicitation practices in her varied publication roles. I am grateful to dancer and poet Keomi Tarver for repeatedly inviting me to collaborate in multidisciplinary performances and sustaining me both on and off the stage. I am grateful to writer, artist, and musician Shira Erlichman for inviting me to submit, contribute, and perform across several different platforms. I am grateful to writer, artist, and educator Eboni Hogan who consistently raises the bar, modeling courage and self-reinvention. For inviting me to collaborate, trusting my critical eye, and reading my oftentimes grueling early drafts.
This is not to disparage the white, straight, cis men who have supported, encouraged, and offered me opportunity. By no means. I am immensely grateful, and I have always voiced it. This is only to evidence the barriers and hazards women and non-binary writers continually navigate. To elucidate how taxing it is most days for us to even walk out the door, hold down steady employment, sustain families and households, teach, write, publish, travel, perform, and more—all while simultaneously volunteering overtime to organize, mentor, workshop, host, and otherwise ensure other marginalized voices have space and sanctuary in which to create and speak.
These women, and countless others, have taught me how to no longer be made small in literary spaces. How to honor the red flags, to name and confront them. How to serve as gatekeeper by encouraging participation, work ethic, patience, understanding, and acceptance. How to sustain and nourish my own determination. These women never reduced me to a mere face or body. They never expected recompense by way of what a face or body can do for them. These women considered me neither lesser nor exceptional for my gender, they simply considered me—the person.
It is important to underscore that many of these women are women of color. Queer women. Women of varying intersections of race, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, class, wellness, and age. It is important to underscore that women of marginalized identities often do the heaviest lifting: demanding sight, building sanctuary, and encouraging others. I aim to laud and support and listen always to such individuals.
In writing this, I am acutely aware of how personal accounts like these can provoke defensiveness among men. How quickly I may be earmarked as difficult or ungrateful. A whistleblower. Bitch. Or (just two weeks ago, addressing misogyny) “cunt.” I’ve witnessed men in literary communities—particularly white, straight, cis men—become belligerent when challenged to alter the status quo.
Here is an alternative: Don’t. Instead, believe. Instead, make effort to see, hear, and engage with the work and experiences of women writers; writers of color; queer, non-binary, and transgender writers; writers of all body types and abilities. Recognize the compounded ostracism experienced by those with multiple intersections of these identities. Spend time with stories that vary from your own perspective and challenge your comfort. We have been fighting against being made small our entire lives. We work harder and write bolder because we must in order to be seen and heard at all. Such personal accounts are not idly bemoaning the obstacles and maltreatment, but evidence of consistently surmounting them. Through hard work. Big dreams. Big determination.
JEANANN VERLEE is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow and the author of two books, Said the Manic to the Muse (Write Bloody Publishing, 2015) and Racing Hummingbirds (2010), winner of a silver medal in the Independent Publisher Awards. Her third book, prey, was first runner-up for the 2016 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award and will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2018. She is a recipient of the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize, and her work appears in Adroit, BOAAT, PANK, and BuzzFeed, among others. Verlee collects tattoos and kisses Rottweilers. She believes in you. Find her at jeanannverlee.com. Author photo by Jonathan Saunders.