Report from the Field– What We Don’t Name: The Delicate Path of Literary Crimes

When I launched The Atlas Review a bit over two years ago, I felt certain that the best way to highlight new and exciting work was through anonymous submissions. I did not want anyone, least of all myself, to be swayed by the idea that a name knows what it’s doing. Every moment we course through this life, our bodies and minds are different, cheated slightly this way to the left or that way to the right. So I wanted the writing to speak for itself. This does not come without its share of issues, of course, the obvious being representation. The yielded results of such a venture as anonymous submissions often leads to both gender, queer, and racial disparities and, equally reprehensible, editors who eschew blame under the obtuse auspices of ‘objective’ vetting. In choosing to do this, I wanted to prove to myself and others that lack of diversity in anonymous submissions is a reflection of the editors and not the process. Would my own commitment to the process yield more diverse results? Going in, it was a real concern, and I couldn’t tell if my commitment would self-destruct in my lap. My goal was and remains to avoid how one’s name affects our reading of a given piece, in the hopes that we publish more under-represented voices—not simply as a test of our tastes but as a show of range. Since the beginning, I have rejected National Book Award finalists and accepted first-time authors entirely removed or divorced or in hiatus from the literary community. This is an enormous feeling for me, and why I wanted to contribute yet one more literary magazine to the seemingly endless pool of literary magazines.

atlas_foundraiserWhen we set out to engage pieces, we hold the writing and art accountable for whatever statements they are making, being mindful of certain attitudes that are inherently bankrupt and problematic. I reject work that feels mindlessly normative, patriarchal, and privileged. I’ll be honest: the mission makes me anxious and in the past I’ve wondered about the efficacy of such an endeavor. Having a mindful, women-majority staff is invaluable. Our outreach work is primarily focused on woman writers and opportunity-based organizations like Cave Canem and Kundimann. So far, we’ve had incredible results, publishing more women than men, and publishing more previously unpublished women with each new issue. Submissions are still blind. This system, though, does not come without other unpredictable scenarios.

One thing that I do at the magazine is write letters to all our accepted contributors. These letters provide a closer reading of the text/art, to the best of my abilities. At least two full paragraphs of praise. Only then is their identity revealed. If I reject people I know, I have no idea, and that’s a great and unnecessary burden in the writing community to lose. As mentioned, this is not perfect. A major issue is that I have no direct control over gender or race or nonbinary identities. But when I look for submissions, I’m looking for a range of experiences. I want the raw, the desperate, the gritty confessionals, the shifting avant-garde, the difficult. I tend to look for work based on one of two criteria: 1) This will be taken quickly if I don’t jump, and, much more importantly, 2) I rarely see this voice showcased in literary magazines. When we understand and appreciate multiple aesthetics, we can avoid real problems in the literary community like tokenizing, I think.

When I accept a submission, I have thought long and hard about how that work has affected me, giving my experience as an anonymous reader validity and vocabulary. I wait to see who is on the other side of the work because, honestly, I (mostly) never know. I always feel a jolt of pride when I write my letters. A swell in my head lifts up my limbs and sends my feet tapping as I type up my letter, anxious for the person who certainly moved me with their extraordinary work to be revealed. My resolve to find voices from the slush that move me in great waves is working, and I feel great about whom I’ve chosen so far as contributors. Perhaps this success blindsided me to one particular circumstance I didn’t think I’d have to predict. I’d done so much work to remove my biases from the process that I neglected to consider what could happen when faced with personal triggers, triggers that forced me to remember my vulnerabilities as a woman in this literary scene, in this world. In a system that was imperfect from the start, I was faced with the bruise of being human. I accepted a man who was violent to me once in my home, and this led to a year of anguish and alienation. What to do when that is the name on the other end of the submission wall? One doesn’t know. One doesn’t expect they will have to know.


I walked for a long time after the accepted name glared back at me. In school, the university gave me the choice to report this man or not, and I did not know the answer. There was a lot of pressure to do so, and quickly—I don’t know how—I had a whole rapt audience. No longer did the wrong fall on the man who wronged me, but, like a good patriarchy, the wrong fell back on me. But I will save you the hem and haw: For a number of important factors, I did not report him and so naturally, I was the one who was ostracized. I was defriended. I was sneered at across rooms. School events would quiet when I entered, then crescendo as if under a great canopy of breeding cicadas. Maybe you are sitting in your safety too, sneering. It roiled in a way you might expect. My feelings about this school are bruised for good, to the point where it is hard to speak well of it, despite how invaluable other experiences were. I remembered what I so desperately needed to forget to move on as an empowered women in the lit community. So I walked for a long time.

You would think after such an ordeal that the answer to the question, “Should I publish him?” would be obvious. It was not obvious. It is not obvious. There was the question of anonymity, its inherent value imposed solely by my choice as an editor. The most naked reason for it—to not be affected by the significance of a name—had some serious problems. I could ignore my past dealings with this man and allow his beautiful work to shine in a well-deserved space. It would serve the mission. Yet it was a complete volte-face: it would render me anonymous in how the choice would omit me. For years I worked very hard, harder than I’ve ever worked, to carve out this special corner for myself as an editor of a respectable magazine. I made this incredible journal and suddenly a whole lot of people were submitting. I reflected on this notion of being “empowered,” how first you must be without power in order to gain it. It’s obnoxious that we still need apply this term for the oppressed, but we do. I flashed back to the night when I was rendered powerless.

Memory is dangerous in cases of abuse: it can crystallize what happened one way, another way. In the days following the incident, I reasoned that it couldn’t have been as bad as I remembered. I remember his face when I told him he had to go and he did go. I remember holding my body on the floor of my room heaving, bile stinging my throat. Some days, this night shifted in how it panned out, but always these two scenes rose like semaphores in my memory’s darkness. An eidetic and ungraspable evidence for what happened. But I didn’t want to press charges, despite pressure from school and colleagues. Do not be fooled though; I do not regret this decision. I find the notion of spurning problematic personally, even in the face of a crime. This is where I find myself years later, with the letter I wrote twisting as I stomp through Transmitter Park once, twice, fifteen times. The gall he had to submit and my effusive acceptance celebrating this act. The gall of myself and my guilt over how I have chosen to not act.

It has taken a long time, but in the last couple years, I have become more frank in the writing community when it comes to addressing sexual abuse. My sexual abuses. For the first time, I am publicizing accounts of a childhood I did not ask for, and it is painful as much as it frees me from languishing. My entire second book focuses on a dystopian future in which all the men have been wiped out and a woman has decided to sew the dead men back together—the patriarchy and all its violences—piece by piece. In this space, I speak about sexual trauma; in this space, I also play-act the forgiveness that comes with confession, a forgiveness that manifests itself in total male destruction. What are we to do with forgiveness when it can implicate and balm trauma simultaneously. When I have time, I devote my thinking and energy towards the NYC Feminist Poets collective. I am severe when it comes to matters of accountability, and I believe everyone—man, woman, and other—must be accountable for their actions. I listen to friends and strangers who want to account their traumas, and I offer only an ear (and probably hugs, if they’re into that). People ask my advice about such matters and I have so much to say, mostly about self-respect and self-love. The decision to publish this person or not presents a kind of deus ex machina: I have been given a second opportunity to banish this man from my life, and potentially, from the community. The sneers return. The Dean returns. I am asked once more if this is my final decision. I am asked again how to wear my shame, and if it slows how I walk, I am asked why I have to wear it at all.

If you thought this would end in an ultimate reveal and a clean breakthrough, I’m sorry for the letdown. I have no desire to discuss whether or not I published this writer. I am not interested in a public and even quasi-public lampooning. When the Alt Lit community shook with the force of outing Stephen Tully Dierks’ crimes, it came with an ousting. It was a good decision, because it came from the women who were harmed. At the Enough Is Enough meeting at The Poetry Project, only a handful of names were named, with the idea that it wasn’t the time nor the place to shout invectives or hexes. The thought, instead, was to grow as a community and not disavow the motives of organizations and individuals just yet. I have been vague about what happened to me, vague about my reasons to ultimately leave him alone, and vague again years later about my editorial response.

Power is a tricky and intransigent beast, and as a woman who has overcome the physical invasion of male power time and time again, I’d like for our society to be done with it too, this ghost of patriarchal victory. There is already such a small net-worth of power granted to women in the first place without having to rip open these sutures and fall further behind a march toward reinvention. I will say this: I walked until I remembered the value of being so stupidly shunned. It weeded out bad people from my immediate circle until I alone was the circle. It was a horrendous circle full of shaming and doubt and complete isolation. I was miserable inside it but loneliness has its virtues. “To probe oneself is to recognize one is incomplete,” so says Clarice Lispector, and I believe her. I imagined the jeers and gossip. I remembered the poems and my pretty letter. What makes a circle good enough to stay inside it. Whatever the answer, it’s why I got out in the first place.


Eilbert_profile(1) (1)Natalie Eilbert’s first book of poems, Swan Feast, is forthcoming from Coconut Books in April 2015. She is the author of two chapbooks, Conversation with the Stone Wife (Bloof Books, ’14) and And I Shall Again Be Virtuous. (Big Lucks Books, ’14). She is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.