This Report from the Field is the author’s account of events regarding the developing controversy regarding a member of the poetry community.
In mid-November, a press that published a chapbook of my poems closed without any warning because the editor refused to hear criticism of his behavior towards women or to answer questions about misappropriated crowdfunding monies. This story feels like a cliché at this point. I can name at least half a dozen presses that have shuttered under similar circumstances. Someone says, “Hey, you did some things that made some people uncomfortable,” and the man being told about his behavior lashes out disproportionately. The ripples of his anger are a new punishment to the people he’s already hurt.
But let’s backtrack a little before I say why it hurts to have a book you loved into the world disappear simply because a man can’t reckon with accountability. It’s important to rewind and work my way up to the fuckery, because originally I was writing towards my own survival. (Aren’t we all.) My chapbook You Can’t Pick Your Genre is a bunch of poems about the Scream movie franchise. I wrote these poems in the wake of walking away from a deeply abusive relationship where my partner repeatedly tried to get me to enter into a suicide pact, to move to a city where I knew no one so they could control every aspect of my life. I was with this person for a year and my mental health suffered immensely as I was gaslit on a daily basis, told I was being violent whenever I tried to advocate for myself or set healthy boundaries. I had to be available to this person at all times, whether I was at work or at a reading or writing a poem or going to the bathroom or even asleep. Not answering a text or phone call, no matter the hour, was not an option. When I finally found the strength to get away, I left deeply afraid that walking out of the relationship would result in stalking and further harassment. For a time, I was harassed by my ex-partner to the point that I withdrew socially and spent more and more time alone in my room binge-watching horror movies and chain-smoking.
In this lonely fugue, I fixated on Scream because the main character, Sidney Prescott, is harassedagain and again by killers who try to control her behavior with fear, attempting to rob her of every meaningful connection or joyful moment in her life. But none of them truly succeed. I’m ruining nothing when I tell you she escapes every time, alive. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling perversely comforted by this particular strain of horror. I’m a survivor of childhood domestic violence and emotional abuse, as well as rape and repeated assault and intimate partner violence. I have been through many hells and am still here. Watching every Scream installment alone in bed, I started to be able to write about the frameworks that entrap survivors in networks of suffering—how we are silenced in our survival by those who demand politeness and the elision of struggle in service of maintaining normalcy.
I tweeted constantly about writing these poems. Twitter gave me a way to connect socially even when leaving the house for anything besides work felt impossible for fear of my ex. A publisher I knew tangentially responded with enthusiasm about the poems and I private messaged him to ask if that translated into a solicitation. He said yes. When the chapbook was close to done, I sent it to him as promised. Unfortunately, communication broke down. I was devastated. I needed these poems to meet the world and felt desperate about my options.
At this point it feels important to say that I’m not an academic poet. I have no MFA and no intention of getting one. I’m a working class person and felt alienated constantly during undergrad by well-meaning peers who didn’t recognize the world where I originated, one where my family is supportive of my art in many ways but also concerned about the energy it takes away from my financial survival. Academia affords community to writers in a way I admire from a distance. I’ve never had a mentor who cared to show me how to behave in the world of letters or publishing. I came to poetry through slam, which has a DIY aesthetic that empowered me when I first started calling myself a writer. Living as a writer outside the academy, I felt largely in the dark on how to get people to pay attention to my work. I think a lot of us have that anxiety: that we don’t know the right people, that our network of artist friends can never be deep enough, that we are missing out on opportunities others seem to locate with ease and alacrity.
I’m lucky to have published my first collection, Pelican, with YesYes Books. They treated Pelican with extreme care, a kind of attention that is so inherent to how KMA Sullivan and her team approach publishing that it made me believe that any publisher that wanted to work with me would be equally upright and transparent. The indie press that solicited You Can’t Pick Your Genre was not YesYes, but I found it the same way: through sharing my published work online. Losing the intended publisher for You Can’t Pick Your Genre undermined my ideas of publishing as an arena where everyone only agrees to work they firmly intend to accomplish, but I had another option. Justin Daugherty had reached out to me to solicit a full length poetry manuscript from me for his new indie press, Jellyfish Highway. I was flattered, but told him YesYes will likely always be the first home I look to for my full lengths. I said I would keep him in mind for future projects. When my finished chapbook manuscript got zero editorial attention at the press I’d written it for, I emailed Justin and asked if he’d like to see the manuscript. We corresponded about the book. He sent me a contract outlining how and when royalties would be paid out. It was all boilerplate, but it put the important responsibilities in writing. I was just grateful that the poems I’d labored over, the work that I was sure could be important to other people in need of survival narratives, would see the light of day after all.
Justin did very little in the way of editing, rushed us through proofing, slapped a cover on the book that I didn’t get the opportunity to meaningfully critique, and then there it was, a real book with an ISBN. It wasn’t the polar opposite of my experience with YesYes, not quite, but it felt like less than I had expected. And then nothing. No statements of sales. No follow-up contact about doing readings to promote the work. Not much of anything. Per my contract, I was supposed to be paid royalties on a semi-annual basis. Twice a year, the press owed me statements of sales and a check or PayPal transaction with what I had earned. That never happened.
Meanwhile, Jellyfish Highway launched a Kickstarter to gather funds for book prizes for women and writers of color, a writing residency in Atlanta, for greater payment for press authors. All the language therein made it sound great. But I felt strange that I had yet to be paid for a book I knew for a fact was selling. The press was in violation of my contract for not paying me or even giving me the promised sales statements, but it felt weird to make a big deal about it. Didn’t other presses treat writers much worse? Intimidate people into less than ideal publishing arrangements or not pay them at all once they were published, not even in copies of their own work? Or, like the first press I’d tried for the book, just stop responding to inquiries at all?
In spite of all my misgivings, Justin and I started to work on a second book together in the spring of 2017. It’s a fiction collection, a bunch of ghost stories from a town where it’s important to literally feed the dead. I’d sent the manuscript to Jellyfish Highway Press through their open reading period before Justin and I corresponded about You Can’t Pick Your Genre and it sat in the press’ Submittable queue for over a year. Then I published a chapbook with them and suddenly this book was brilliant! Of course Justin wanted to work with me again! The attention for work I felt anxious about was again intoxicating and I pushed through long periods of unresponsiveness, comforting myself by saying I didn’t feel like the book was ready yet anyway. I sent revisions of stories as I worked my way through them and was told he’d get to them soon, then nothing. I kept at my writing and made excuses that he was busy and would give me more attention once the book was closer to done. Never mind that the point of working with an editor is to have meaningful dialogue about the work in question that pushes said work to be its best possible self. Never mind that I was again getting virtually no editorial feedback, just constant apologies for late or absent responses to drafts and deadlines kicked farther and farther down the road without concrete explanations or any in depth discussion of what the timeline for the book was based on.
The Kickstarter went really well for the press, but then Justin was finishing his PhD and unreachable. He posted constantly about a tough job search and tight personal financial situation. I have empathy for that but wondered why he didn’t just get an interim job while continuing his quest for a tenure track position (I even said as much, since bartending has really helped me stabilize my own finances, but he dismissed it out of hand). Instead, he launched a personal GoFundMe to help him cover his bills while looking for a job. I contributed to his campaign and received a heartfelt email from him about how supportive I’ve been in his personal struggles. I want it to be clear that I have done very little in the way of offering him personal support other than making momentary mention of his very public troubles in our professional emails. His response to the $25 I pledged felt out-sized, almost patronizing, and made me uncomfortable.
Then I got an email at the end of the summer that the press was going on hiatus and I was free to find a new home for the fiction collection we were working on. This let him off the hook for all the feedback he’d continually promised and never provided. It also kept me from sending an email I still have in my draft box about how frustrated I was with his inattention to a project he seemed wild about when we first started kicking the manuscript back and forth. Instead, I told him I felt it needed a few more stories anyway and that I was going to work on that. Again, his enthusiasm about my writing was appreciated, but he did no meaningful work for me as an editor on the project and I fully intended to seek out a different publisher when the time came. He offered to read those new stories once they were drafted but said he couldn’t be sure of the fate of the press until he had found stable employment. It bears mentioning here that though he was copied on all YCPYG emails, I never once corresponded with Matt Fogarty, the other listed editor on the press website. Justin seemed to be acting monolithically, another detail that felt off.
In November, Justin was confronted by several women who know him both personally and within his academic community for sexist behavior. He responded to this with what amounts to an internet tantrum—deleting all social media accounts rather than dealing with public criticism. He wrote to me and the other authors on JHP to say he was closing the press because of these “allegations” and insisted we find new homes for our work, releasing the copyright for our work back to us and saying the books were now out of print. In conversations I’ve had with the other authors, we realized we’d had similar experiences with spotty or non-existent communication, as well as absence of royalties and sales statements. Justin posted a goodbye letter from the press website and attempted some transparency around where the Kickstarter funds had ended up, but the letter only proved to confuse us all further. Why promise book prizes and a residency funded by that campaign if you were really using the funds to pay off press debts incurred from biting off more than you can chew financially?
I wrote to Justin asking for sales statements, and though I got a lump sum amount in my PayPal account, he has yet to provide me with a statement of sales for the year+ life of my book. I also had a very acrimonious email exchange with him about getting the Amazon listings for all of the JHP catalog removed as actively for sale. If the press is closed, why would the books still be available? How could we prove there hadn’t been further sales after his announcement of the press closing if he refused to provide sales statements? How could any of us move on with finding new publishers for our orphaned books if he hadn’t moved to have the ISBNs listed as out of print? Why did he think it was okay to keep the books available for sale after releasing our work back to us in writing, via email, with a time and date stamp as proof of the exact moment our rights reverted to us?
To have a book I wrote in the wake of abuse be the point of connection between myself and a new person trying to take advantage of me is the irony of all ironies. In all the Scream movies, there are jokes embedded throughout the script of how horror movies telegraph who will be harmed in the end and how what appears to be true about the world is forever constructed by those in power. Publishing is the same breed of monster. There are so many things we endure in hopes the end result of our own words printed, bound, and held in our hands is enough to justify how we got to that point. In many cases, we act against our better instincts in pursuit of a book. Having a physical representation of effort feels like the most important end result a lot of the time, but working with someone purely out for their own gain is not the only way to get that book out in the world.
Here we are again, asked to believe what someone insists is true over their actions. Justin Daugherty relied on the flattery of publication to absolve him of failing at his responsibilities as publisher. I have no doubt he feels victimized by this narrative, but in the absence of transparency on his end there’s nothing to show me he wasn’t publishing out of selfishness on some level. To pad his resume, to feel more valuable in the writing world, to leverage his own work getting published, to gather more power to himself. He insisted that the lag in Amazon listings for my book and the other press titles being removed was on Amazon’s end and not his fault, but I have reason to believe that’s categorically untrue. According to several small press editors who weighed in on the situation when I posted about it on Twitter, all it takes to remove an Amazon listing when you’re the owner of that listing is going into your admin page and deleting it manually.
Our last correspondence has been over the sales statements I’m still owed documenting how many copies of my chapbook sold from the time of publication until the day he closed the press. Per my contract, I was supposed to receive official numbers twice a year, but I’ve never gotten any statements of sales or royalties from Justin at all. When he did finally pay me royalties upon the press closing, he did so without telling me what that figure corresponded to in terms of sales. When I questioned him about it further, demanding any official record of how many copies were printed and distributed—from Amazon, from Ingram Spark, both companies that I’m sure have a number easily accessible—his response was simply, “I have paid you the money I believe you are owed. I do not have more formal documentation of sales to provide you.” To date, he has yet to provide me with sales statements for my books and has not responded to repeated messages asking him for the paperwork I’m owed per our contract. It feels like my only recourse beyond telling this story publicly is to take him to court over what almost certainly amounts to less than I’d spend suing him.
My last email begging for clarity has gone unanswered, and that’s probably because of how thoroughly I’ve lost my patience. I inquired again about sales statements, saying, “Maybe your language choice in our last correspondence didn’t have the intended meaning, but as I read it you have no official records of book sales, which presents a logical fallacy since royalty payments (per the previously agreed upon contract) are meant to be based on a percentage of book sales. Without an official record of sales numbers, what figures are you basing final royalties paid out to me and the other authors on? A little transparency here would go a long way.” To date, I’ve received no response, and I don’t expect one. But I won’t let Justin retain power at my expense, or the expense of the other authors he’s taken advantage of. I refuse to let the poems I wrote about survival be stolen from me this way. I refuse to believe this whole nightmare was only an honest mistake when all the evidence outlines a systematic victimization of the very people who looked to Justin for proof that what they made was worth someone’s focused attention.
Emily O’Neill teaches writing and tends bar in Boston, MA. Her debut poetry collection, Pelican, is the inaugural winner of YesYes Books’ Pamet River Prize for women and non-binary writers and the winner of the 2016 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Series. Her second collection, a falling knife has no handle, is forthcoming from YesYes in 2018. She is the author of four chapbooks and her recent work has appeared in Cutbank, Pinwheel, Redivider, Salt Hill, and Washington Square.