Souring on Community

In 2004 I somehow tripped over a leaf, fractured my elbow, badly sprained my ankle and hit my head during a walk inspired by a Dr. Phil episode encouraging viewers to “get moving”. I wasn’t paying attention where I was walking because I was distracted by a woman pushing a baby on a swing. At that time I was also trying to conceive. That gives you a brief snapshot of where I was back then.

After that I was sofa-bound for a couple weeks and that’s when I discovered poetry blogs and several newly launched online magazines. It was fascinating and exciting. Soon I began blogging and a few months after that launched my own online magazine. All of a sudden I knew poets from all over instead of just the ones I went to school with. Over the years, I learned of the work of hundreds of writers, living and dead, who I had never heard of before. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying a whole new world opened up giving a much broader view than what I gleaned from my MFA.

So many writers, who I initially never met in person, became a part of my life. We’d read one another’s blogs and kept up with each others’ lives. When I gave birth to my son, I received 3 baby gifts from poets I hadn’t yet met and over 50 well wishes. We promoted one another’s work and projects. Shared poems and manuscripts with one another for critique. In a number of cases, we met one another at readings and conferences. Some long lasting friendships were made. My magazine published hundreds of poets. Eventually I started a poetry press and published 15 books. For two years I co-hosted a monthly reading series. I had a great deal invested in what I considered my writing community.

When another blogger (or bloggers, I’m now remembering more than one) went on a sporadic, but devoted, two year blogging crusade against me and other poets who appeared in Best American Poetry anthologies, there were those who cheered the crusaders and there were those who showed support for the targets. In the big scheme of things, these incidents were nuisances, the crusaders were pests. Eventually everyone was able to move on. Most communities have assholes. It’s the cost of stepping outside your home (or going online) each day. It was a cost I was willing to pay.

Being part of several writing communities changed my life profoundly. I’m not sure where I’d be without them. Certainly not here writing for Queen Mobs. So why am I souring on it?

After being a community cheerleader for years, I began feel differently around 2011. I was feeling exhausted, overtaxed and unappreciated. Maybe I had let myself become a doormat for the community or maybe the distinction between community and individuals blurred for me. Maybe individual assholes do not equal community. But they are part of the community and to be in the community is to be in the midst of assholes. Assholes who take advantage. Assholes who insinuate and spread rumors. Assholes who want to shit in your kitchen and burn your house down. Petty assholes. Vindictive assholes. Obsessed assholes. Unstable assholes. Mean assholes.

It was a cost I was no longer sure I was willing to pay.

I began to recognize that, like politics, communities were often directed by an influential few, those with a disproportionate amount of “cultural capital” and those who are part of small, vocal, and dedicated groups who shape things by sheer persistence and pressure, sometimes to the point of bullying and harassment. Sometimes something really wonderful or long overdue can come from such equations and sometimes something can begin with good intentions and rapidly devolve and other times from start to finish it’s just a pure shitshow.

One example that sticks in my mind is when a writer for a popular online literary site, with no experience or knowledge of poetry publishing, accused a poetry publisher of being a vanity press. The piece was unfair and uninformed, yet it had the power to create collateral damage for both the publisher and its authors. Even though this criticism was not directed at me and the specific criticisms where not regarding the way in which I ran my own press, I took it personally, out of a sense of kinship with a fellow publisher who just wanted to publish poetry books despite their not having large readerships.

Frankly, I took it more than just personally. The whole experience summed up how I had been feeling for more than a year.

During the events that followed the article I had a dream. People who I associated with the magazine that published the article arrived at my home unannounced. Even though I wasn’t expecting them and had other things to do, I invited them in. They then destroyed my home and sprayed graffiti all over the walls. I tried to call the police, but wasn’t able to use my phone. After these people left, my (dream) neighbors came into my home and surrounded me. They said, “We’re your community now.”

After that I took a two year hiatus from actively participating in writing communities. I ceased publication of both my magazine and new titles from the press (something I was considering before the article). I stopped writing essays for literary blogs. I rarely updated my personal blog. I declined requests to write blurbs and reviews. I skipped attending two AWPs in a row. Once I did that, the community responded in kind. I received fewer invitations to read and submit my own work. In some cases writers who were once quite interested in having a relationship or connection with me, unfriended me on Facebook and unfollowed on Twitter. In many ways this was a relief. I had often wondered who was only interested in me for what they hoped I could do for them. Now I had a pretty good idea.

During those two years, after a series of missteps, I wrote most of my novel and worked on projects that simply inspired and interested me, like the Bibliomancy Oracle. I moved into a new home and spent more time with my family. The time spent responding to writer correspondences significantly lessened. I kept in regular touch with my writer friends and didn’t hear much from other writers. Overall there was significantly less drama in my life.

Stepping back from the community did wonders for me spiritually, but certainly didn’t help my “career”. I was used to magazines soliciting my work, people writing about my projects and inviting me to read. That was no longer happening.

Last year, as I prepared for the upcoming publication of my novel, I recognized that it would be in the best interest of my book to be more active in the community. But how? I no longer felt like I did 10 years ago and to act like I did would be phony and besides, I no longer had that kind of energy to expend. Also, much of the writing community is in a constant state of flux and I hadn’t kept up with the changes. No one saved me a chair.

I did the only thing I could do, I started over. Older, wiser and more vigilant of my time.

So here I am, back and participating, in lesser ways, with far less cultural capital to offer other writers. Reaping less, but healthier, saner and less bitter about whether or not my efforts are appreciated or understood. Yes, I’m soured on community and when necessary I will take a break “from all that”. But I’ll come keep coming back, in different incarnations, because it’s how I keep my head out of the sand and it’s how I make friends and connections with other writers. That’s something I don’t think I’ll ever sour on.


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