It’s been a particularly draining week to be a person who identifies as female. The story that hit the mass media involves phone hacks, celebrity nudes, and a bunch of self-important douchecanoes taking to Twitter to rant that Jennifer Lawrence, Jill Scott, et al deserved everything they got (because how dare they be famous and naked in the privacy of their own homes? Those sluts).
But there’s another, smaller story circling in the indie lit community—another violation that’s part of an all-too-common trend amongst ‘artists’ (usually white, male, cis-gendered artists) who want to write about women but can’t conceive of anything brilliant or original to say. Like the Great Celebrity Phone Hack of 2014, this story involves stripping women of their agency, reducing them to meat that can be puppeted for the benefit and gratification of their oppressors. It makes a mockery of the supposition that not being naked will spare you from the kind of humiliation and abuse JLaw et al experienced.
Alt Lit and Indie Lit exist, in part, as a way to balance and equalize the more restrictive types of literature upheld by the academy. If mainstream publishing is the corporate daddy, suit-wearing, whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking, then indie lit is his mid-twenties daughter, with a nose ring, ironic flamingo leggings, and a penchant for home-cooked vegan meals. One degree separate again is alt lit, the a-gender teen surgically attached to their iPhone, hooked on prescription meds, and prone to yelling “YOLO” at any given opportunity.
While indie lit exists as a broad umbrella term for any work published outside of major publishing houses (if you’re a contemporary poet, you’re probably indie lit), Alt Lit is a little different. The movement has a grass-roots ethos that encourages self-publication and heavy use of social media to network and market work. It’s irreverent, self-referential, and eschews many of the conventions upheld by the academy. It draws heavily on internet memes and internet culture. In short, Alt Lit is to literature what punk rock what was to 1970s London. They don’t need your rules, or your help. They’re doing their own thing.
Context and background are important here, because those of us who are repeatedly shut out of and neglected by the mainstream tend to assume that counter-culture movements are safe for us. We’re used to corporate daddy abusing and belittling us. It comes as quite a shock when we get the same treatment from our peers. In November of 2013, Janey Smith (Alt Lit persona of Steven Trull/ Mike Buffalo, none of which are his real name) published his “Fuck List” on HTMLGIANT—a list of about 150 names, in no particular order, of writers he wanted to “fuck or be fucked by.” That he chose to do so under the gender neutral if not somewhat feminine moniker of Janey is telling: Smith has a history of using avatars and aliases to market his work and gain access to publications and platforms that might otherwise be less receptive to him. Of his alias Mike Buffalo, he wrote: “[that’s] also a totally fake name. He has stuff coming out in PANK in October because he is gay. He is also working on a novel, which is gay, in a really fake way. He writes a lot like that one fag whose name I totally forget.” In short, it’s not a big jump to suggest that Smith chose to make his Alt Lit persona feminine in order to deflect criticism and attempt to conceal the pretty blatant misogyny that he so frequently pedals.
Smith’s Fuck List contained some well-known names, some less so, and was interspersed with crudely drawn MS Paint porn edits. The idea, it seemed, was to add a click-bait gimmick to a list of writers Smith enjoys, and should your name appear, the only proper reaction was to be dutifully flattered that the popular kid noticed you. I’d almost buy this explanation—that the Fuck List was intended as a good natured (if somewhat ill-conceived) tip of the hat to other writers—were it not for the fact that anyone who spoke out against it or dared to suggest that it was juvenile was summarily added to it. In short, there were two criteria for being on Smith’s Fuck List: be a writer Janey Smith ‘likes,’ or be a writer who doesn’t like Janey Smith.
The original list was removed from HTMLGIANT several days ago by one of the site’s editors, who stated that “it has no place on the site, and I apologize for not [taking it down] sooner.” But if you think that’s the end of it, you haven’t been on the internet very long…
Smith’s Fuck List paved the way for a full length book of poems, written by peterbd (with a foreword by Smith) and published by Plain Wrap Press. “We’re Fucked” took the writers on Smith’s list and repurposed them as intellectual blow-up dolls for a fictionalized Smith to fuck. Without their permission or consent, the real names of the writers listed by Smith in 2013 were used as characters in bd’s (often graphic, often belittling) ‘poetic’ sex scenes, existing on the page as crudely rendered caricatures of themselves whose sole purpose was to be a body, a hole, a vessel.
peterbd is a somewhat shadowy figure in the world of Alt Lit. Like Smith, he’s interested in molding and controlling his identity in order to leverage interest in his work (his simplistic, off-the-cuff poetics would doubtless have garnered little attention were it not for their method of delivery—dropped anonymously into the email inboxes of the poems’ subjects). He’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a douchebag, and the internet sure does love mysterious enigmatic douchebags. Luke Stoddard Nathan, writing for The Daily Dot, does some impressive digging into the phenomena of Alt Lit, and peterbd’s work specifically, but the cliffnotes are as follows: bd writes poems that re-imagine members of the Alt Lit and Indie Lit community as grandiose caricatures of themselves. The poems are pretty amateurish, with all the grace and style of drunken YouTube comments.
bd appears to have written “We’re Fucked” as a response to Smith’s “Fuck List”—Smith says the book appeared in his email inbox a few months after the list was published. Whether Smith had any further creative involvement is unclear, though it would seem that Smith co-runs Plain Wrap Press, who published the book. A review of “We’re Fucked,” still accessible on HTMLGIANT, suggests that the poems in it are “nothing but inclusive” because “everybody cums,” implying once again that the people whose identities are being reframed as pornographic puppets ought to be pleased, honored even, by their violation. “It’s people writing things for their friends and not some abstract serious audience,” says reviewer Jackson Nieuwland “It’s fun.”
“Friend” is a pretty loose term these days, but I’d hazard that Janey Smith and peterbd are not friends with Roxane Gay or Lynn Melnick, both of whom appeared on the original Fuck List. Dianna Dragonetti, who posted his own rebuttal against “We’re Fucked” on HTMLGIANT after finding out that he’s featured in the book, does not count Smith or bd as friends—bd is, in fact, barely an acquaintance.
Dragonetti was horrified to be included in the manuscript: not only because (in his own words) it “[reduces] complex, talented artists to two-dimensional peep shows,” but because it is indicative of the kind of masturbatory circle-jerk that grants white, male, cis-gendered poets unencumbered access to other people’s bodies. Dragonetti’s identity wasn’t co-opted for a joke amongst friends: it was appropriated, mangled, and debased (Dragonetti, who identifies as trans*/non-binary, was also mis-gendered in the poem).
Carleen Tibbetts, also named in the original list, had no idea that both she and her fiancé were featured in Smith and bd’s book. “How do I fucking tell Plain Wrap I do not want my name in that book?” she Tweeted me. “I was on that list but I had NO idea it was being turned into a book! I disabled FB & blocked [Smith] on FB/Twitter/Instagram.” Is this beginning to sound less like a joke between friends?
Both Tibbetts and Dragonetti were understandably distressed that their identities had been appropriated. There is nothing celebratory going on here, nothing kind. It is not homage. It is not an honor. Tibbetts and Dragonetti are stripped for parts, reduced to “luscious lips,” to receptacles for the fictional Smith’s cock and his engorged ego. Their work, when it’s mentioned, is dismissed and mocked (“write something mysterious”). They exist as 2D versions of themselves.
But this isn’t the first time bodies, particularly women’s bodies, have been seized by broets and manipulated in the service of their ‘art.’ Earlier in the year, poet Kat Dixon came forward about her abuse at the hands of poet Gregory Sherl. What made Dixon’s experience all the more chilling was that Sherl wrote and published a book based on their relationship: “Monogamy Songs” is a collection of memoir-style vignettes that position Sherl as a broken, tortured young man desperate to make his tumultuous relationship with “K” work. Unsurprisingly, there is no talk of the abuse “K” suffered, no attempt on the poet’s part to plumb the depths of his psyche and analyze or atone for what “went wrong.” “K” is a character who is defined by her body, defined by what her body can do for Sherl. Unlike the writers mentioned in “We’re Fucked,” some small measure of anonymity was at least granted to Dixon—but only after she spoke to the publisher herself and begged them not to let Sherl print her full name.
What makes these cases particularly shocking is that they occurred in a small, close knit communities where we have been told we should feel safe. Poets, after all, are outcasts: Indie Lit, Alt Lit—these terms imply a subversion of the status quo, a political position that ought to stand in opposition to the kinds of institutionalized oppression women and trans* folk face in the wider community. We’ve learned to expect ignorance and misogyny on the streets, in the workplace, at our universities and colleges. We know that the world of literature is marketed as an equitable environment, but so often fails to be a safe space for all of its members. But the writers who are perpetuating these kinds of abuses, these violations, are the self-proclaimed avant garde: they’re not the rigid gatekeepers of patriarchal publications. They’re not tenured professors, poet laureates, best-selling authors profiting from systematic oppression. They’re supposed to be the anti-academy. They’re supposed to be on our side.
That the people whose names appear in “We’re Fucked” are real, that their identities were used without their consent, underscores a larger problem. Because broets do this all the time—we’ve just been conditioned not to notice. It happens every time a white cis-man writes about wives, mothers, and daughters, but fails to imagine women in other contexts. Every time he labors over the description of a woman’s thighs and breasts, but neglects to offer us any further details about her. It happens when he writes poems that position women as vessels for his cum or his love or his children, when women are as animated as meat in a butcher’s window. It happens when white cis-men write ‘subversive’ pieces about sex-workers, when they kid themselves that they have anything further to add to a conversation that once again places them and their gratification center stage. It’s been an unpleasant element of poetic expression for time immemorial, the idea that women can inspire, but should never be allowed to create. The message is the same, again and again and again: women are bodies. Women are props.
If there’s still doubt in your mind regarding Smith and bd’s intent—with either the Fuck List, or the recently rescinded book—one need only turn to Smith’s own foreword:
“[the Fuck List] got me laid right away,” he says “had I known that being editor at HTMLGIANT would be such a pussy magnate, I would have [done it] years ago.”