ETA: 10/11/15 – A previous version of this article stated that Revolution John was defunct. This is, in fact, not the case. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.
ETA: 10/13/15 – A previous version of this article contained a link to an article on The Daily Beast explaining the Vanessa Place controversy. This link has been replaced with a citation more germane to the authors’ intent, and phrasing has been altered to clarify meaning.
In this piece, two former staff members of the magazine Revolution John, Savannah Sipple and Stacia Fleegal talk about their reasons for deciding to distance and remove themselves from the lit mag, following several controversies including the publication of Jay Sizemore’s poem “Scowl.” Since Sipple, particularly, offers an insightful and thorough analysis of the poem itself, it should be noted that this article may be triggering for victims of abuse.
Sipple: I’m crazy for trying/ and I’m crazy for crying
I wanted to diversify the magazine. Revolution John is a small, online publication that focuses on the mountain south, a region that is important to me, as it is my home. I’d had a passing acquaintance with the editor; I knew he believed in good writing and was trying to promote worthy writers with his magazine. And because I know the region as home, I know how diverse it actually is (despite its national reputation). My concern was that Revolution John didn’t publish enough poetry, or women, or writers of color, or LGBTQ writers to properly represent the region. The editor-in-chief encouraged me to share the platform with whomever I wanted, and in the end I was able to include more women, and I published an interview with a transgender author. So I’ll begin by saying I’m proud of what we did together, me and RJ, even though the relationship is definitely over.
However, fast forward five months to August 25, 2015; RJ publishes a poem titled “Scowl,” by Jay Sizemore. The poem itself formally mimics “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, and the poet maintains that the poem speaks out against censorship and “highlight[s] the hypocrisy of call-out culture.” I maintain that the poem represents the exact reason we need a call-out culture.
Sizemore’s poem begins, “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by narcissism, believing their own hype, / that they could rewrite history on a social media feed.” Yes. Social media offers people a platform they’ve not had before: a place to voice their opinion to followers. And this can be powerful. As Vanessa Place reminds us, we can often be hasty in our attempts at social commentary, particularly when we’re speaking to experiences that are not our own. The poem isn’t wrong here. But too many other lines in “Scowl” send up red flags. I appreciate any poem that endeavors to complicate our public discourse, but the tone in “Scowl” is more than angry; the poem is predatory. Its violence is directed toward women—and not just toward women, but toward the feminine in all of us.
Consider stanza one, which includes the lines, “who understood that feminists don’t swallow come [sic], they peel back the layers of skin / from the hard cock, like dissecting a flexed muscle…” This is the first moment in the poem the speaker identifies who he is really speaking about and pinpoints the problem the speaker has with his subject: he feels emasculated by empowered women. From this point forward, the poem narrows its attack, conflating “feminist” with “women,” who he accuses of “ingesting false gods” that include feminist works like the Vagina Monologues. The poem’s not so literary and obvious implication is that only men are gods, and women are universal threats to their divinity.
The section includes a list of trigger warnings, written, I suppose, to shock:
TRIGGER WARNING: another woman turning herself into a come [sic] dumpster,
a slave to the lustful male gaze, breast implants and rouge,
TRIGGER WARNING: another cis-gendered white man thinking about fucking you,
TRIGGER WARNING: the leaves are turning bright red in the fields, burning
like an empire at the end of its reign, burning like menstruation.
The vague phrase “like an empire at the end of its reign” is at first interesting because it could refer to multiple things: call-out culture, the politically correct climate we find ourselves in, or the fight for equality. However, it could equally refer to the meninist movement, or the fight led mostly by straight, white men who are threatened by empowered women. Although the list seems to want to be so brazen as to disarm political correctness, it fails as it only further reveals the speaker’s two-dimensional hate-speech tendencies. For example, the line “another woman turning herself into a come [sic] dumpster,” is ridiculous. It implies women rape themselves, which is even more ridiculous than politicians like Todd Akin declaring, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” The poem further references instances of rape and other occasions when women tried to speak out against sexual assault. In the lines “who made themselves invisible and made every man a rapist in a bathroom stall,” and “who wore a mattress around their neck for performance art,” we find a speaker who believes without question that rape is caused by women who want it, who beg for it.
To continue analyzing the “craft” of the poem, I’ll point out the poem is a storehouse for cliché examples of “love.” Lines like “a Dear John letter torn to pieces and meticulously recrafted with Scotch tape and tears,” are paired with references to those time-honored classics 50 Shades of Grey (“Christian Grey with a bloody tampon between his teeth, /who dismantled the patriarchy with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch”), and Twilight (“who requested the vampires to sparkle, for lead female characters to only crave attention from / cruel, callous men, a sexual tension building to a broken bed”). Even if the reader were willing to set aside the open survivor-blaming in these lines, it’s just bad writing. The women evoked in this language are vapid, petty, and not to be believed.
Pair this with multiple references to the hyper-hetero-masculine: “the ballerina dancing on the head / of Charles Bukowski’s prick”; “who got a teacher fired for reading a Ginsberg poem to the class, for daring to allow / a poet’s words to occupy his mouth longer than the taste of his lover’s come [sic]”; “Charles Manson died of a broken heart.” Poor Charlie.
The section that creeps me out the most is the third:
I’m with you, Sarah,
in your bedroom when your daddy knocks on the door.
I’m with you, Sarah,
when you wake up naked on the floor.
I’m with you, Sarah,
when you wash your hands for the hundredth time a day,
when lotion burns in the cracks of your skin,
I’m with you, Sarah,
when you cry yourself to sleep,
when you smother your screams into the cotton pillowcase,
Shared out of context, this language sounds like a stand of solidarity. It is not. In the context of the speaker, the repetition of the line “I’m with you,” builds terror in a survivor of abuse, as survivors often struggle to shake the fear of being abused again, and this speaker has made plain his dominance issues. Finally, the end of the poem only exacerbates this terror because the speaker acknowledges the dominance native to this form of ‘caring’:
I’m with you, Sarah,
and I know you are strong enough to make it on your own,
but I’ll put my arm around your shoulders
if you’re ever tired of feeling alone.
In “Scowl,” Sizemore has built a world run by two rules: 1. women’s reactions are invalid and 2. men’s reactions are valid. This brutal over-simplification, and its need for defense could be why criticism of the poem was so vehemently rejected by both the author and the editor-in-chief at Revolution John. Critics of the poem, a large portion of whom identify as female, were told they “have no idea what [they’re] talking about,” and “[they are] losing [their] mind.” I need not remind my reader our violent history of calling anything female “hysterical” or “crazy,” which these words tap into for its sap. To be feminine is to be out of one’s mind. That’s what this poem, and tragically the editor-in-chief Revolution John, said to its readers, both male or female, masculine and feminine.
At the moment of publication, I doubted myself. I discussed the issue with a couple of my writing mentors. I decided, despite all the discussion on social media and on Revolution John itself, to wait and see how the editor-in-chief would respond. I came home the next evening to a social media explosion. The Revolution John Twitter account had started responding to critics, and people had started asking for the other women involved in the magazine—me—to respond. And rightfully so. I don’t believe in censorship. Art is meant to evoke a reaction, to connect with viewers and readers on an emotional and personal level. Art can successfully criticize, of course, but language moves into hate speech and enacts predatory behaviors when it is used to target a particular group of people. I have to recognize, as an editor, that the choice to publish such language is a choice to support its hate.
The poem continued to be criticized, but the Revolution John Twitter account had started responding to some of the critics. Statements like “Revolution John stands by Scowl” didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me were comments like, “You are nothing but a bitch,” “you’re scared. Lick your twat feel better,” and “if you honestly think this poem stinks, you have no understanding of poetry. Be gone. Learn. Get better.”
Be gone. Erase yourself. Revolution John was telling critics that it doesn’t matter what’s problematic with the poem—the problem was, again, with the female. Indeed. RJ did stand beside “Scowl.”
Such hateful responses aren’t new to women. Let’s remember Donald Trump, leading candidate to occupy the United States Oval Office, has openly attacked multiple women on Twitter (at least women who disagree with him). Gamergate, a controversy in the video game culture that targets feminists, has taken hate to the extreme of threatening rape, violence, and death to the women who speak out against sexism. Mitch McConnell was so threatened by the possibility of Ashley Judd, a strong and vocal Kentuckian, challenging him for his U.S. Senate seat, he prepared to pummel her from all sides, including attacking her mental health. Because if nothing else works, call a woman “emotionally unbalanced”; that will certainly prove you to be credible and trustworthy. While these situations aren’t new to women, it is disappointing and infuriating when a magazine you’ve supported, one that says it speaks for your home culture, decides to take a clear and violent stance against women. You do not speak for me or my people, Revolution John.
The next morning, Revolution John’s Twitter and the entire magazine had been deleted, including the work I published as a guest editor.
Since that morning, I have had to explain the situation to multiple authors I published—authors who weren’t aware of “Scowl” or the tweets. They had heard about the deletion of Revolution John and wanted to know what was going to happen to their work. Would it be republished? Could they submit their work elsewhere? What advice did I, their editor, have for them? I have tried hard to explain the situation, as well as my own decision, as objectively as I could. I have tried to remain professional. I’ve offered my support of them, whatever they choose to do for the sake of their own work. Honestly, I don’t find much difference between the hate-filled tone of “Scowl,” the erasure of all things feminine in the tweets, and the actual deletion of artists’ work. While I mostly agree that one mistake shouldn’t end years of work from a magazine, I do think the way an editor reacts says a lot about his or her ethics and aesthetics.
Revolution John’s editor didn’t choose to take the time to respond individually, respectfully to his readers’ and writers’ requests. He chose, instead, to silence everyone. This is an ethos that stands in opposition to the best in American publishing.
Fleegal: Erasing myself is better than being erased by someone else
I’m a former columnist for Revolution John, one who asked that her name be deleted from the masthead and her columns be removed from the site when the editor published Jay Sizemore’s “Scowl” in late August.
Savannah Sipple, a former RJ editor and my collaborator on this piece, gives a critical read of Sizemore’s poem and notes the reasons she would have passed on publishing it. Her viewpoint is one we needed to hear. I, however, don’t want to talk about the poem much. I don’t want to talk about the author much. I don’t want to talk about the editor much. I don’t want to throw my two cents in about editorial responsibility. Savannah did that, and soundly. Others have and will continue to do the same. We waited until the fervor of the controversy cooled a bit before weighing in because our interest in publishing a collaborative essay on this topic was about re-centering the issue/conversation around silencing and the silenced, not the silencers.
I want to talk about choosing to be erased or silenced, to recede from a space rather than protest within it.
I will say, it’s not my strong suit. In fact, spouting off about anything and everything is why I was invited to be a regular columnist for Revolution John. The editor said something about different perspectives, assured me I could tackle any topic I saw fit, that he wouldn’t really “edit” me. That he was a fan who valued my voice.
The first piece I shared on RJ was about abuse/rape culture via the literary community and the NFL, two spaces I inhabit—one as a participant and fan, and one as just a fan. I openly expressed my conflicted feelings about being involved in those spaces where gendered violence is rampant, and ultimately concluded that those spaces need the voices and attention of people who care and want to change things. I feel productive conversations are happening there, and I want to be part of them.
Next I shared lighter essays on my love of Pearl Jam and the stigma of super-fandom, a resolution-themed list at New Year’s, and a piece about how to avoid being sexist when talking about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But I also bared my heart about closing Blood Lotus, the online mag I co-founded and ran for nearly a decade. I also got angry about the nasty, victim-blaming backlash to an AAUP article about trigger warnings. I defended the rights of all readers not to avoid, but to have a choice about when and where and how to encounter difficult, disturbing material.
All of these issues, no matter how heavily or lightly I presented them, are near and dear to me. In short, it hurt me deeply to ask that my work be removed, not because I’m a writer scrambling for as many bylines as possible, but because I cared about what I’d written.
Why, then, did I pull them? How can I write an essay about choosing to remain a Steelers/football fan when my team’s quarterback was accused of rape and the NFL grooms and then protects batterers, but pull six published essays from an editor who protects one poet’s “right” to attack trauma survivors and call it freedom of expression?
- There was nothing to be salvaged at RJ. Scrubbing the site clean of protesters—either authors who, like me, asked that their work be removed, or commenters who tore the offending piece to shreds—and re-posting some of the previously published work is not salvaging a publication. The show is over; the cardboard scenery has fallen. We’ve looked at what happens behind the scenes. And you know what? Sheldon Compton insists he didn’t write those tweets, but screen shots of tweets to me (@shapeshifter43) from RJ’s account 1) reference an email* Sheldon DID write and sign his name to, and 2) were sent at roughly the same time as the much more offensive and vulgar tweets to others. How would a rogue friend of Sheldon’s whom he claims took over the RJ Twitter account know about an email from me that he “responded to,” and in which he “made [him]self perfectly clear” that he’s not sorry? Still, this is about writers who were silenced, survivors who were re-traumatized, people who were offended but ignored, everyone who longs for empathy and mutual respect to reign supreme over white male privilege, and Savannah’s and my experiences with this publication. These are the issues and ideals to be salvaged from this mess.
- Not all freedom of expression is created equal. When I withdrew my six essays from RJ, Compton replied by email* and asked, didn’t he give me leave to say anything I wanted to say? Freedom to say what I want to say is not an editor’s “leave” to give (publishing or not publishing it is). I don’t need someone else’s platform to do that. The editor’s mentality seems to be that I should be grateful to be offered what people like Sizemore just go ahead and take. It’s Sizemore’s god-given RIGHT to re-traumatize sexual and domestic assault survivors with words, but for me to freely express myself on RJ, about that topic or any other my little heart desired? That was a gift, from a man to a woman—one for which I am expected to be grateful, as long as I shut up and don’t criticize that man or his publication. My words, my experience, then, can’t serve my intended purpose for them in that type of space…
- …because it is a space where there is no debate, no diversity, no respectful consideration of consent, no acknowledgment of wrongdoing, no empathy for those wronged, no public attempt at a difficult conversation that so clearly needs to be had. Being called out could be an opportunity for discourse. Or it could be twisted into a defensive, diversionary tactic whereby the offending parties claim to be victims of bullying and censorship, or cite the threatening, retaliatory comments of a few (whose threats I don’t condone) as a justification to dismiss ALL dissent. Those called out will position their having been harassed (for being harassers) as far worse than anything they themselves ever did, soberly pointing to how unfortunate and sad all this fighting is to establish some guise of moral high ground, will re-center their own privilege, will accuse their dissenters of attention-seeking hysteria and idiocy for not “getting it,” will ignore their own hypocrisy in insisting that people should have freedom of expression, except if they disagree with ME. Those of us who know about the dynamics of domestic violence are familiar with all of these blame-projecting tactics. It doesn’t make it any less maddening to be able to see them coming. And it doesn’t make me emotionally or psychologically safe, or a “bigger person,” to stay and try to fix things. Staying would have made me feel complicit, submissive, run over.
- And being complicit to the publication of that hateful “poem” is unacceptable. Like that infamous rule of comedy—and satire falls under comedy, even though no one’s laughing here—you punch up, not down. Satirize the patriarchy, satirize rape culture, satirize abuse culture. But using your privilege to satirize victims and survivors? Co-opting, of all things, Ginsberg’s iconic template of sympathy for the outcasts, the mentally ill, the “victims” of American society? Huh? I don’t know if I’m more baffled or offended, but I damn sure am not complicit.
- In online publishing, all you have is your voice. If you’re writing within a space where you are a minority voice and experience (I was a token female columnist at RJ), all you have is your voice. If you’ve been silenced by abuse, all you have is your voice. If you’ve been targeted for speaking out after having survived abuse, all you have is your voice. It’s all you can giveth, and it’s all you can taketh away.
Because of these points, I decided to throw in the towel on Revolution John. I erased myself. To me, that’s always preferable to being erased by someone else, which is clearly what would have happened had I not pulled my work when I did. Two days later, RJ had been deleted. The whole site. The editor erased ALL his writers. Then, in a strange twist, he resurrected it, and the first piece he re-published was “Scowl.”
I made the right decision. No one gets to erase my words in support of survivors of trauma as a show of support for someone who mocks and attacks survivors of trauma. No one gets to silence me to give voice to hate.
Savannah Sipple is a writer from eastern Kentucky. Her poems have recently been published in Appalachian Heritage, The Pikeville Review, Southern Indiana Review, and Deep South Magazine. Her fiction has been published in the anthology Appalachia Now: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia and in Still: The Journal. She is also a writer and co-creator at Structure and Style.
Stacia M. Fleegal writes from central PA and is the author of two full-length and three chapbook poetry collections. Her poems have appeared in North American Review, Barn Owl Review, Fourth River, UCity Review, decomP‘s Best of 10 Years anthology, Crab Creek Review, Knockout, Best of the Net 2011, and more, and her essays have appeared at Luna Luna Magazine and Delirious Hem. She co-founded Blood Lotus and teaches online writing courses for the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing. She also works for Juniata College’s Baker Institute for Peace & Conflict Studies. She writes, mothers, and tries at singlewritingmom.wordpress.com