How Not To

A few weeks ago The Nation published “How-To,” a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee about how passers-by treat beggars and the homeless in the street (“If you’re crippled don’t flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice”). Last week the poetry editors apologized profusely for having sullied the Nation’s pages with “disparaging and ableist language”:

We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem “How-To.” We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem….When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way….We are grateful for the insightful critiques we have heard, but we know that the onus of change is on us, and we take that responsibility seriously. In the end, this decision means that we need to step back and look at not only our editing process, but at ourselves as editors.

Carlson-Wee is sorry too:

I don’t have the mind of a poet, so I have to take some guesses here. I suppose the ableist language is the word “crippled”—or perhaps the suggestion that people on the street might occasionally fake being a little bit disabled. The reference to “blackface” must be the black dialect used by the homeless narrator, which is problematic because:

This guy is whiter than me! I hope he’s learned his lesson. He says of the black dialect being interpreted as blackface that he “did not foresee this reading of the poem.” How the hell did he not foresee that in this hypersensitive age of cultural appropriation and racial siloing? Then again, neither of the poetry editors foresaw it either. Nor, apparently, did anyone else who saw this poem before it was published. And all of them solid lefties at The Nation! That’s surprising, isn’t it?

Luckily, Twitter saw it loud and clear. All hail Twitter, our new supreme arbiter of poetic insight and interpretive use of narrative language. I wonder if National Review has this problem when they publish poems about supply-side tax cuts?