“What is good poetry today?” by Jefferson Carter

Jefferson Carter was raised in Tucson, and earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Arizona. He taught at Pima Community College for thirty years, the last 18 years as Writing Department Chair. He is the poetry editor for Zócalo, a local Tucson arts magazine.

Poetryland is a land of myths. One potent myth is that children and the uneducated will write original, authentic poems. Another myth is that a malevolent, white, heterosexual publishing patriarchy continues to discriminate against minority poets.

When my friend J.M., a Tucson poet and editor of a local arts journal, dared question this second myth, our town’s community of minority writers—poets of color, women and LGBT folks—sharpened their pitchforks, heated up the tar, shook out the feathers, and readied a rail upon which to ride the infidel out of town. What was J.M.’s sin?

He had posted comments like this on Facebook and online poetry sites:

“I really need to make this clear. I support equal rights for all marginalized communities. I passionately support those who fight for social justice.

I do NOT support those who equate “literary” justice with social justice. If you insist that today women writers, LGBT writers and writers of color are being discriminated against by the evil, white, cishet publishing “patriarchy,” examine recent publications, journal appearances, prizes, grants, and readings. So-called “marginalized” voices are no longer silent. The perpetually offended need to stop whining.

Of course, the gorilla in the living room is poetic quality. If you’re an “under-represented” poet and your poem has just been rejected, maybe it was just a crappy poem?

Among the more temperate responses to J.M.’s statements were these:

“J.M., my prediction is that your publishing opportunities and speaking engagements will quietly but surely begin to dry up and disappear in Tucson and beyond, as your backwards attitudes and sexist condescension become common knowledge and your literary and social irrelevance solidifies. I don’t care about your feelings, good or bad…I care about informing my Tucson people & national poetry community about your attitudes. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to expose you.”

“J.M., Personally, I only know you through your nasty, vituperative comments on Facebook posts bashing women and genderqueer folks in the Tucson community. Due to your own representation, I have found no reason to respect you, and certainly no reason to like you.”

Because J.M. is a white, cisgender, heterosexual male poet, his assertion that “‘marginalized’ voices are no longer silent” has been dismissed as self-serving, that he feels his privileged and entitled status is threatened. Still, as President Trumpf will no doubt realize soon enough, facts are facts, even in Poetryland.

By Jefferson Carter, Tuscon poet and editor