Phoebe Wang writes and teaches in Toronto. She recently edited a supplement issue on the theme of inheritances for The Puritan, and her chapbook, Hanging Exhibits appeared with The Emergency Respon…
Source: BWS 14.09.16: Phoebe Wang
Phoebe Wang writes and teaches in Toronto. She recently edited a supplement issue on the theme of inheritances for The Puritan, and her chapbook, Hanging Exhibits appeared with The Emergency Respon…
Source: BWS 14.09.16: Phoebe Wang
Jael Richardson, author and artistic director of The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), wrote a valuable list a few days ago for Open Book:Toronto on the difference between tokenism and inclusion. I urge everyone who is a part of a literary community in Canada to read and to absorb it. It’s an extremely meaningful resource for me, because now I can pass it along to well-meaning editors, publishers, hosts, festival organizers, etc. and say, “this is why your request for my participation is tokenism, and not inclusion. This is why I’m saying ‘no’, even though it means more exposure and greater opportunities for me.”
I would like to add to this discussion with a few additional strategies on how to improve diversity in literary organizations and publications from the bottom up. I’m often asked by organizers, editors and writers about how they can become more diverse. Their tone is generally abashed, worried and attentive. As a result, I usually praise them for their ability to recognize that there’s a problem. However, they don’t seem to realize that essentially asking me to do a part of their job. If they have failed to grow their audience, or they are coming under attack for their cultural and racial homogeneity, then their original vision wasn’t well-thought out or reflective of their communities’ needs in the first place.
Very carefully, I ask these worried people to look closely at their social circles. At their staff, their peers, the writers they met in university, etc. How many women, queer or trans writers or writers of colour are in their immediate networks? It’s important to phrase these questions with caution because once I told a friend and fellow writer that he didn’t, as far as I could tell, have any friends who were people of colour and perhaps that was the reason why he was having trouble coming up with non-white writers for his event. He was horrified, and asked if I was accusing him of being racist. Defensiveness ensued. Again and again, writers I know of Egyptian, Indian, Japanese, Singaporean and First Nations descent are reporting the same thing–there is so much fear and defensiveness around discussions of race and diversity that it’s undermining real change. Everyone is so afraid of accusations of racism and of saying the wrong thing that the lessons we can learn from acknowledging systemic power imbalances aren’t being learnt. Like all learning processes, there is some discomfort and misery before their can be renewal and fulfillment.
What to do if you see that the writing program, chapbook press or conference you have worked so hard to build and promote has an absolutely dismal ratio of gender balance or diverse writers? As you work to overcome feelings of discouragement and to look for solutions, you may see there are larger forces at work operating in an extremely effective way to maintain the status quo. In my experience, minorities are both visible and invisible, that is, when we’re in the room and our names are on a masthead, we are very noticeable but when those faces and names are absent, it’s difficult to see we’re not there. The presence of women and minorities confirm the dominant culture’s self-image as inclusive and diverse; however, if they’re missing from the conversation, the discourse switches channels and becomes about ‘artistry/maintaining artistic integrity’ (implying that the lack of minority writers is due to the fact that they failed to meet arbitrarily-set standards), being ‘thought-provoking’, ‘international’ (!) or ‘stylish’. I find it fascinating to watch these convenient cover-ups, these maneuvers of rhetoric that separate writers into different categories but that still ensure the organization and institution is viewed in the least critical light. Do founders and publishers not realize that publically admitting one’s shortcomings (i.e. Tin House, Taddle Creek, and Invisible Press) is both refreshing and instructive?
I know I will never stop wondering about whether I am being included or tokenized. I wonder this even when I get a Facebook invite to a launch or reading, which brings me both joy and anxiety. I scroll recklessly through the guest list, wondering if I’ll be the one of the few visible minorities in the room. I weigh the variables– I’ll be troubled if the room is entirely ‘white’ even if it contains friends, but if I don’t attend, the event will have one less Asian-Canadian woman in the room, and it’s always important we’re in the room because no one will notice if we’re not. I look at the track record of previous events. Have the organizers been inclusive before? Are they active in diverse communities? Have I seen them at events outside their own demographic? Have I seen them at events like Writing Thru Race or The Fold or Toronto Poetry Talks or on the #diversecanlit Tweetchats? Have I seen them speak up on behalf of diverse writers? These relentless questions are a tad unforgiving, but I’m aware that other writers of colour also keep very close tabs on the public statements, personas and activities of organizers, editors, publishers and other ‘gatekeepers’. It’s how we determine who is benefiting whom. Whereas tokenism benefits those who are maintaining or reifying their position of privilege, inclusiveness benefits everyone.
Thanks to the pervasive individualism of North American culture, the trope of the ‘personal journey’ often pervades conversations I have with editors and organisors about diversity. Of course, it’s vital to grow and learn, but editing the work of a female, queer or trans or minority writer shouldn’t turn into a story of that editor’s personal development. Similarly, organizations and festivals that point to their inclusive practices in a self-congratulatory and shallow way are mainly interested in their image, satisfying granting requirements, or appeasing public opinion. This can happen when the writer in question is approached for the first time only when their work or their body is viewed as a benefit to the organization or publication, nor have they been included in a wider conversation. There’s been little to no effort to see if the writer’s pursuits or projects align with the person who is making the request. This way of approaching writers is antithetical to collaboration and productive networks.
It disturbs me to see younger writers and peers my own age fail to build these kinds of long-term relationships and to get writers from less privileged backgrounds involved in higher levels of planning and decision-making. Politeness and my own passivity keeps me from saying, you have barely spoken to this queer/trans/female/minority/first nations writer before now. You haven’t attended any of their readings and you are barely familiar with their work. You heard about them because they won a prize. You’re only inviting this person because you’re concerned that you only have ‘white’ male writers putting themselves forward, mainly because you didn’t have a clear mission or vision to begin with. You’re also concerned about the quality of the work you present, though you would never call yourself canonical or a formalist. When the writer in question says no, you tell everyone you ‘tried.’ You still don’t attend this writer’s readings or read their work because you feel you have already done your job. You’re barely being paid to do this job anyway. How much can people expect you to do? You don’t ask again. You don’t think that maybe it’s how you’re asking that has something to do with their inexplicable refusal.
I don’t want to be asked for my work only because someone feels guilty and wants to pass another signpost on their road to enlightenment. I want to be the greater part of a seismic change. This changes comes from the shift in thinking about how we can benefit writers who have been underrepresented. Many writers don’t believe that they have anything material to offer. Yes, writers in Canada are struggling financially, emotionally and mentally just to write everyday, sometimes just to get dressed. But writers benefit from knowledge, support and dialogue. Writers whose parents didn’t speak English at home and whose parents opposed or weren’t able to support their children’s hunger to write often don’t even know how to go about writing or starting to write. They don’t know the resources available to them or how to apply, the steps in preparing a submission, the mindset necessary for seeing themselves as professional, or know-how and networking skills on how to approach an editor in a bar, because they or their families don’t drink and don’t belong to social circles where cocktails were served.
The longer I spend in Toronto, the more I realize that everyone is an outsider in some way- an outsider to the city, to middle-class stability, to the coteries that spring up around MFAs and writing programs. But if no one admits to their insider-ness, then what we will end up with is a disconnected and discrete assemblage of writers, each of them scrambling for fingerholds in an unsustainable industry that could support everyone if we actively think about how we’re benefiting others. When I think of all that my friends do— designing and editing chapbooks, organizing reading series, writing reviews, making podcasts, hand-stitching books, showing up night and night at events, shouting-out writers online at all hours like sleepless owls, I’m speechless with astonishment. To say they aren’t doing enough feels like I’m slowly pushing a penknife through their never-still hands.
I have already benefited in enormous ways from the writing industry’s shift towards inclusivity. In some cases I have been afforded opportunities that male writers and Caucasian writers have not because of my gender and background, and I’ve felt very self-conscious about being given more than my allocation of limelight. While my parents adapted to Canadian culture more easily than the Chinese parents of my friends, they imparted the values of modesty and lack of vanity by example and without conscious effort. While they believed that both my sister and I would storm the world, they were painfully humble about their own talents. I balk at submitting my work to programs and prizes, but I remind myself that my parents didn’t come to Canada for me to squirm with misplaced modesty. If anything, they wanted their children to have the sense of entitlement that they never did. The small boosts that my racialized body has given me doesn’t change the fact that my parents own no property, that they couldn’t afford my university tuition, that I didn’t believe for an inordinate amount of time that I could ever presume to teach English, or that I feel the constant fear that my Asian features and olive skin are off-putting, disruptive, unwanted. To work towards inclusion, then, means also overcoming the prevailing suspicion many underrepresented and minority writers have that we should be grateful and keep to our place. But what place is that? It’s the greater part.
After several years of piecemeal existence in Toronto, I’ve a rough grasp of how the year of a writer’s work cycles through the seasons. It’s less like the migratory arc of a Canada goose and more like a crocus bulb that sits cold and incubating nearly half the year. Similarly, in the winter months after the holidays, I hole up in my giant fisherman sweaters and corresponding fish stews, and stew over new work. In spring, writers flower forth in bars and bookstores to celebrate their offerings. Summer is another fecund time, though now reading, revising, meditating and drinking can be done out of doors, and if you’re fortunate enough, to go away on a retreat or residency. It’s the time of year I try to earn a much income as possible, writing grants and teaching the influx of international ESL students that alight in our cities. Fall becomes a kind of long writers’ reunion party with festivals and events, after that the hiatus of family and the new year.
Midway through January of this year, I found myself out of work, but a fortuitous combination of severance pay, accumulated vacation pay and a small grant meant that I could spend a few months writing (while still doing a few odd jobs.) I haven’t been able to have a long stretch to produce new work since starting my TESL training last February, and was pretty abashed at how immediately I devolved into rolling out of bed at eleven and falling asleep at 4am amidst printouts and empty, chili-ringed cup noodles. I worsened my prescription reading A.V. Club, Slate, Hitfix and Vulture TV reviews and took to leaving bottles of water around the apartment to remind myself to stay hydrated. I had done it all before, and I will probably do it again. Because in the end, I’m overjoyed to be able to brag about:
So tell me, what have you been working on?
“Persistence matters, ” I heard myself saying, like some kind of jerky puppet. “Keep trying and eventually it’ll happen.” The exact phrases I heard from published writers 15 years ago were now gushing out of my mouth and I couldn’t stop them. I looked over at Kateri Lanthier, who was letting me ramble to her third-year creative writing students at UTM about publishing. Kateri nodded and supportively wove in anecdotes and experiences of her own. I reminded myself to make eye-contact with the 15 students scattered around the room, who were listening politely, barely moving. I saw small sparks going off in the quiet eyes, and in a strange way, I could feel them listening harder when I talked about self-validation and creating opportunities for themselves.
It’s easy for a published writer to say, “Persevere and you’ll topple the mountains of indifference towards you and your writing,” but I’d forgotten until this week the huge challenge of submitting work to a magazine as a young, unknown writer. The act is more than just slipping an envelope into the mail. There are many tips and guidelines detailing how to submit work, including Doretta Lau’s excellent presentation, How to Submit to Literary Magazines, with her submissions spreadsheet and details about how she finally found a publisher for her short story collection, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood, 2014.)
I want to focus more on the mindset of seeking to publish. When writers decide to send out their work, it’s more than a physical act, it’s adopting an attitude of taking your work seriously and seeing yourself as a professional. It’s an opportunity to find out if your mere words can reach and affect an editor, someone who has no ties to you and cannot be biased by a relationship with you. There is something very pure about this, even when you take into account an editor’s inevitable bias and subjective tastes.
The unpublished writer also must learn to develop their own instincts about when a piece is ready for submission. I recognize the feeling now— when I read a poem that has been redrafted many times, that has been read by my trusted fellow poets and revised again until every word and line of it is as meaningful as I can make, when I get a little feeling of pride and excitement about the creative leaps I’ve made with the piece, then I know it is ready, though doubts can still overtake me like a bad smell.
If I can dispel them, I look for a place to submit it to and take into account the style of the publication or the tastes of the judge, whether it’s promising enough for a national prize or better suited for an online journal. I make many mistakes and through long trial and error until miraculously, my writing finds its proper home.
Or not. Before the digitization of everything, rejection slips would arrive via postman months later, sometimes with a handwritten note to soften the harshness of we regret we cannot accept your work for publication at this time. A rejection was the worst that could happen and the worst that could happen is a piece of paper. It’s not dreams crushed under 200lb weights, it’s not losing right hand. No one is saying you can’t be a writer. The rejection becomes an emblem of having tried, not one of failure. Knowing you are strong enough to brush it aside, go back to your now months-old piece, rethink, revise and resend.
If only there was a faster way, an easier way than this long tricky process of revising, waiting, waiting some more and feeling your youth slip away with sleepless nights of editing. I remember a stretch when I couldn’t get anything published for a year. Then the next year, I had four poems accepted, I made it onto the CBC poetry prize longlist and got an arts grant that paid for 4 months of living expenses. Writing successes only feel rewarding because they are so tough to reach, by the time you reach them, you were on the brink of giving up several times and you can only blink like a car crash survivor at the kindness of friends and strangers who praise and congratulate you.
Success of your own doesn’t stop the feelings of envy towards your fellow writers who are publishing in top-tier magazines that keep rejecting you, getting into prestigious MFA programs, winning grants and prizes and/or working on impressive projects. I tend to be envious of younger writers who published books earlier than me. While I published early, at 19, I didn’t publish again until I was 28, and couldn’t finish a poem between the ages of 20-28. I was 29 when I started my MA in Creative Writing, and at that age, I had rubbed away most of my petrifying shyness and had enough maturity to know how to handle my career. Success looks different for everyone and the clichés are ringingly true. Everyone has their own journey, yadda yadda yadda. Which basically means, some things will happen faster for you, some things will take longer.
Envy is both a spur and a wound. The success of others doesn’t take anything away from you, and it’s unproductive to think that there is a finite amount of success. Feelings of awe and admiration spur writers to their desks, but while there, they’re facing battles on their own, and envy is the wound that leaks creativity.
There will also be a time when writers confront the spectres of previous successes. I look back at poems of mine that did well, and feel as if they were written by a stranger. In print form, I don’t recognize them and they are divorced from me, as is the person who wrote it. The finished, successful piece of writing is a screenshot of a moment in time and of my obsessions then, and I cannot recreate it. This is one reason why a writer forgets their successes so fast and appears almost embarrassed by them. Success isn’t as addictive as the rush of getting it right. There’s always the next thing. And the thing after that.
The handout I gave out of my talk, including my submissions spreadsheet from 2010-2012, a non-exhaustive list of print, online and chapbook presses in Canada, and a shortlist of resources: Why Publish Handout PDF.
I would love to hear stories from writers of your first publication in the comments below, on Twitter or emailed to me at email@example.com
When you have momentum, things feel weightless, or at least, less weighty. This year, I have felt the help of some strange shifts in the air—I submit less and am asked for work more, I can sail a little on the strength of relationships built and fed with the tinder of common interests. To gain momentum as a writer means gathering strength from the slow accumulations and conversations and work and blind efforts of the past. So here are some of the things I’ve gathered in the past few months:
Let us wish for the good fortune to carry out the work we are meant to do and the courage to fulfill the beliefs that others have for us.
Last week at the Coach House Wayzgoose I met a couple of the first year U of T MA in Creative Writing students, reminding me of how, just 5 years ago, my classmates and I finished our graduate department orientation in the early sun-dazed week of September and headed to another kind of orientation in bpNichol Lane.
Those first years of going to book launches in Toronto, I stood back as my more extroverted classmates approached their literary idols. I hovered as other writers beckoned to each other and cosily chatted by the bar. The venues were often loud, hot and crowded with various degrees of dampness depending on the time of year. Twenty dollar bills disappeared like burrowing moles. Being shy, soft-spoken, relatively unpublished and often too poor to purchase the new titles, I felt that any attempt to speak to writers and editors would be perceived as grabby and insincere. I conscientiously avoided everyone I recognized out of fear they might think I was warming them up for a favour.
But then, why move to Toronto, the self-proclaimed hub of Canada’s English-speaking literary world? Not many people are able to participate in that world, because of language barriers, distance, poor health, and so on. Here I was, young, able-bodied, well-educated– the main barrier to attending events being my own disinclination and over-sensitivity. Get out your eyeshadow, Phoebe!
5 years later, I still forget names and would prefer to stay at home with a new cookbook than to circle like a piranha in the gin-and-ink scented waters of the Toronto literary community. But I’ve found a few ways to fulfill my professional capacity as an up-and-coming poet while still having fun.
Get to know your own cohort first
It’s easiest to talk to other emerging writers if you’re also an emerging writer, no matter what age you are. Support others who are at the same stage of their careers as you by going to their events and mentioning their work to editors and they’ll do the same for you. Writers who only talk about their own work all of the time quickly get a reputation for being self-serving.
Stop dressing like a student
You don’t have to show up at a bar for a casual reading series in a full suit. Although one young poet who always wore a quiet blazer and tie to every event did so because I believe he’s more comfortable that way when he meets older writers and asks them for a coffee. Many people go to events after work and don’t have time to change, so it’s common to see a well-dressed, pin-stripped crowd in various shades of black. You might feel out of place if you’re in a bedazzled hoodie, especially if you’re already a self-conscious person to begin with.
Find a Pretext
I met many more people when I edited Echolocation during my second MA year, as I needed to email publishers and editors for review copies, ad-swaps and myriad other small requests. When I met them face-to-face, it was great to be able to thank them for their help. I’m also much more comfortable promoting organizational interests than I am my own. However, people can see your skills when you’re involved in some way in the literary community. Help with a reading series, offer to read submissions for a literary magazine, volunteer at a conference, etc.
Ask writers out for coffee (or to the zoo)
I don’t do this often, but it’s how Elizabeth Bishop met Marianne Moore. Proof enough that it’s a perfectly socially acceptable way to exchange information and to ask a writer about their particular area of expertise– maybe you want to know more about organizing a literary festival, holding a workshop, running a reading series, and that writer has experience doing one of those things. Offer to meet close to the writers’ home or workplace at a time convenient for them– after all, they’re the ones giving you their time.
Cookies are always appreciated, anywhere you go. Host Jacob Mooney frequently feeds Pivot Reading attendees with delicious oat-coconut clusters. I once brought a tabouleh salad to our program director’s house, and a tiny woman loved it so much she asked me for the recipe. That woman, I found out later, was the poet with 3 published books who has since become a dear friend. So bring cookies really means, remember that you have other interests outside of writing. When utterly star-struck, I’ve found refuge in talking about travel, families, babies, dogs, baseball, raw salads, etc. If I had talk all the time about the status of my manuscript I might bash in my own head with a pint glass.
You don’t need to meet everyone every night at every event. The fall/spring book launch seasons last longer and longer each year, and it’s impossible to meet everyone and if you try you’ll end up forgetting half the names. Allow people to get to know you. A thank-you to someone for hosting the event, a quick chat over a festival book table– over the years these interactions add up and people begin to recognize you and your contributions to the community. Think about their point of view, having lived and worked in Toronto for decades and each year seeing new writers move to city. The famous coldness of Torontonians is mostly a sense of efficiency and even protectiveness. Is it worth it to learn your name if you’re only going to leave in a year or two? Be less in a rush. Act like you’re here to stay.
Come early/Stay late
Do one or the other, not both. Hosts and organizers appreciate first-comers as it means there’s less chance of someone walking in late during a reading. You can get a seat and talk with other early birds. Other people prefer to come late, after the first rush of the crowd or if they’re coming from another event. After the readings, the crowd thins, everyone’s on their 2nd or 3rd drink and starting to unbutton things, the organizer can finally sit down, and some of the best conversations take place on the patio as well as some of the most memorable moments. What will be yours?
Three of my poems are in the most recent issue of Rusty Toque. Thanks to Kathryn Mockler for including them along with the work of fine poets such as Jordan Abel, Julie Brock, Elyse Friedman, Kim Fu, Ted Nolan, Nikki Reimer, Sina Queyras and many others.
I made recordings of two of the poems but I didn’t send them in on time, so I’ll include them here. I liked how these turned out and I’m getting more used to the weirdness of hearing my own voice since relying more on recordings to make revisions. The version of “Latitude” has been revised and is different version than the one that appears in Rusty Toque. Thanks for your ears, and hope you enjoy them.