Poet and Editor | Rhode Island
November 16, 2017
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Out of concern for the writer’s safety, their last name has been abridged.
Many people have this perception that what happens online stays online, when really our online lives cross into our offline lives all the time. As a poet and editor, has online harassment spilled from internet forums into other parts of your life?
As someone who’s been outspoken and online for a while, I’ve been harassed in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. Some of them have taken more impactful forms. It definitely extends beyond what happens online, and it affects my capacity to live and just function.
You recently experienced a pretty intense form of online harassment that intersected with several different parts of your literary life. Walk us through what led up to this incident.
I’m currently being repeatedly sued by a [former colleague]. I first began working with him at a literary journal, where he was one of the founding editors. We had a working relationship. Then allegations of sexual assault began coming out against him—one of them very publicly. The allegations were brought to my attention as the executive director of this journal, and the board asked the accused poet to resign.
The journal’s URL was registered in his name, so he shut it down. Luckily, I anticipated that this might be one of his moves, so we actually kept a backup. It’s 25 issues featuring over 100 writers apiece—a substantial body of work that I didn’t want lost forever. I have been unable to republish the work because of the repeated lawsuits, but we’re working on another way to preserve access to it.
After all of that happened, I wrote a detailed account in order to explain the editorial changes. It was very well cited, and I checked with my lawyers before publishing it. I published the article with VIDA (Women in Literary Arts), who also had a team of lawyers to ensure that nobody was opening themselves up to liability.
What happened after you published the article?
I was feeling very fragile at the time, so I took a few days off the internet right after I published it, which is one of the strategies that I use during online harassment. I have a pretty good community, so if I publish something that I anticipate is going to get me harassed, I go offline for a few days and ask my friends to monitor what’s happening in case there’s something I need to know—like a violent threat that I need to alert the police about.
The day after the article came out, the poet published both my personal phone number and email. One of my friends warned me. So I reported it to Medium, which is the platform he used. They’re pretty responsive. They took it down fast. But it was up for a day.
He essentially tried to dox me, which is alarming when you live in a small city and someone does that aggressively. I talked with my close friends in the poetry community here and just checked in with everybody to let them know what was happening. They agreed that he was no longer welcome in our community, and so, in that way, I felt protected physically in the actual space in which I live.
Has the harassment finally stopped?
Well, now he’s suing me—even after his first attorney agreed that he had no grounds for the suit and dropped it. Basically, as long as he has money to throw at this, he can keep hiring attorneys. And honestly, it’s just a time suck for me. He stalks me and is trying to ruin my reputation. I’m not scared of him, but I’m tired.
How has this episode impacted your writing?
That kind of wearing down, that exhaustion—I’m ready to stop publishing. I’m ready to say, “I’m tired of this fight, and I don’t want to do it anymore.” The part of me that thinks, “Bullies don’t get to win” is, like, “Keep doing this.” But there’s a part of me that thinks, “I have my own writing that I want to be doing; I’m a translator; I’m a book artist.” This is energy that is being taken away from me and the things I really care about. I don’t know when he’ll stop, when he’ll lose interest. It’s totally on his terms. That’s the part that feels really exhausting.
You mentioned earlier that you have a good support community. How important is a person’s community when it comes to online harassment?
I’ve been harassed online a lot because I’m a very outspoken person. I’m a target. And I’m not shy when telling people that they’re wrong. But one of the reasons why I’ve felt empowered to do that is because I have a really strong community of other people that will show up and back me, so it never feels like it’s just me against a troll or bigot. I can, at any moment, go into my Facebook group and say, “I need backup.” Whoever is there and whoever has the space and energy for it will show up. It’s not ganging up on somebody; it’s reiterating a point over and over again in different voices so that you’re not the only person standing up for what’s right.
What’s an example of a time this strategy was successful?
There was this great shutdown of this super transphobic conversation on Facebook that I saw recently. A transphobic person, who trans people had tried to engage with, escalated things by saying, “All trans people are violent and should be killed.” When you reach that point, how do you shut down the conversation? Someone in the conversation was just, like, “Okay, trans cuties: Post selfies.” The thread just got flooded with really cute trans people posting selfies, and that just flooded her out. So having those communities where you can reach out and be, like, “Hey, I’m dealing with this, can you help?” has been really important for me in being the person I want to be in an online space.
Do you have any advice for writers who might be lacking online community?
I wish someone had told me when I was in grad school to physically go to the places that other people like you are in. There are conferences out there that accommodate all different kinds of writers of all different backgrounds. I feel like people don’t get that advice. They feel like they have to go to the much larger conferences, but actually, you’ll be better off at the smaller ones where there are more people like you.
And I would say the same thing [is true] online. There are the groups that are meant to create safer spaces for women and nonbinary writers on Facebook, as well as electronic mailing lists. The moderators of these groups do a lot of work to shut down trolls and not let fake profiles in, because they’re meant to be a closed and safer community.
What role can moderation play in countering online harassment?
I think that moderating spaces is really important. At [my journal], we don’t allow comments on our website, so that takes away one place where trolls tend to show up to harass writers. But I know of a lot of other online journals that allow comments—and in fact expect the author of the piece to show up in the comments and have conversations to keep people engaged. The fact that there’s that expectation [causes journals to] have an obligation to make sure that the author is not being harassed and has a lot of direct and immediate support.
One of the things that’s really frustrating when you report harassment is when platforms say, “We have to review it and decide if it’s an actual violation of our policies.” They use the excuse of free speech, and that feels very harmful to me. That feels very much like it’s putting the responsibility on the people who are being targeted and victimized to demonstrate that there is real harm being done. So I would say, for anyone publishing writers online, if you’re not willing to make a certain kind of commitment to your authors, then you’re failing them. You have to believe them. You owe them a kind of security, as much as you can provide it. I’m very into believing people who tell you they are being harmed.
At your journal, have you ever had to intervene in the online harassment of one of your writers?
Nothing has come up to my level. We don’t have any written policies, but between our blog editor and everyone else involved at the senior editorial level, we all agree that our attitude is: Our writers’ safety is paramount. I feel very strongly that it’s predatory to publish something that is controversial or garners a lot of trolling and then benefit from the attention it brings your publication while not protecting the writer who is actually taking the brunt of that drama.