canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Mea Culpa II: Free Speech, Editorial Practice & Poets Fighting

by Michael Bryson

Poetry is news that stays news. Ė Ezra Pound

For the second time in three months, TDR is the source of controversy over sharp remarks one poet has made about another. In April 2004, in the interview Nathaniel G. Moore conducted with Michael Holmes, Holmesí referred to Carmine Starnino as an "ass clown." Stephen Brockwell, in a letter to TDR, called this comment a "neanderthalism," and Alex Boyd wondered if TDRís choice to print Holmesís remarks wasnít making "the poetry world and community appear to be small, bitter, and useless?" Boyd put the question directly: "Should TDR be printing this stuff?" Shaun Smith also wrote to TDR, accusing the magazine of "shoddy editorial standards" for "allowing Michael Holmes to call Carmine Starnino an Ďassclowní on your site."

Now, Shane Neilsonís comments about rob mclennan have drawn criticism. (In his "bio-interview," Neilson cited mclennan as a "pernicious" influence in response to the question: "What do you like and dislike about contemporary Canadian poetry? Name names.") Karl H. Siegler, President & Publisher of Talon Books, publisher of books by mclennan, wrote to TDR, saying Neilsonís "personal slag" of mclennan was "completely unnecessary AND, much more importantly, completely unprofessional." As TDR editor, I have also received a private email from someone else asking me to put pressure on Neilson to revise his "bio-interview."

Ack! For the past couple of days, I have been asking myself: "Should TDR be printing this stuff?" "Is TDR helping to make the poetry world and community appear small, bitter, and useless?" "Does TDR demonstrate a complete lack of professionalism and shoddy editorial standards?" "Should poets be allowed to speak about one another using sharp and pointy words?"

The last question is the easiest one for me to answer: "yes." Poets should be allowed to speak about each other in any way they choose. What comes quickly to mind is Voltaireís oft-quoted remark that he may disagree with what X has to say, but he will fight to the death to defend Xís right to say it. Defending free speech is never more important than defending speech that one personally would never use, whether it be for reasons of decorum, personal belief, commercial gain, the need to protect friendships, or whatever.

In March 2004, for example, Book Ninja Peter Darbyshire anticipated one of the hot issues of the federal election campaign when he wrote a stinging criticism of Ottawaís attempt to limit freedom of expression in Bill C-12 (the Liberalís attempt to remove "artistic merit" from Canadaís child pornography laws). Clearly, defending speech that is "unhurtful" is no kind of defence of free speech. Meaningful fights over limiting or increasing the power of the censor are only ever fought over contentious subject matter.

But itís not about censorship, itís about editorial standards. All editors make choices about whatís in and whatís out. Allowing the publication of personal attacks is evidence of shoddy editorial standards, poor decision-making by the editors. This line of argument is one I have a harder time rebutting. It cuts to the heart of what TDR is trying to do. Since it began in September 1999, TDR has implemented a broad editorial mandate. That mandate is to publish the best fiction and poetry received through an open call to submissions. On the letterís page, TDR states its other mandate: "One of the goals of The Danforth Review is to encourage conversation about books in Canada. In our first few years, we received surprisingly few letters for publication. However, things have picked up recently."

Clearly, "conversation about books" is different from personal attacks on individual writers. Yes, it may seem so; and in practice one could use this distinction as a guide. However, TDR has interpreted "conversation about books" broadly, perhaps erroneously, since this broad interpretation has brought TDR both praise and controversy. It is arguable that controversy has turned people away from the website, though that is more difficult to measure (the number of hits on the website continues to grow year over year). Certainly, controversy has led to criticism and complaint.

It is also clear, however, that controversy has drawn attention to the website. Let me be specific, "things have picked up recently;" pointed words encourage response in a way that more polite words do not. It would be dishonest of me not to admit that TDR has, at times, veered in the direction of tabloid journalism. Tabloid journalism thrives on conflict, and TDRís broad interpretation of "conversation about books" has meant that the website has been home to some pointed personal exchanges between writers. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that TDR has sought out controversy.

So, is TDR helping to make the poetry world and community appear to be small, bitter, and useless? The standard journalistic answer to this question is, of course, "We canít report what isnít there. TDR is the messenger, not the message." Furthermore, one might argue that the spiritedness of the recent letters on TDR might point more clearly to the vibrancy of the poetry community (not afraid to air its differences) than to the insular ineffectiveness of the community (too afraid to admit publicly what everyone knows is already there). Personally, I think it is self-evident that the Canadian poetry community is not "small, bitter, useless." I am repeatedly amazed by the amount of activity in the community.

When TDR started, it tried to create links to everything and anything related to the small press scene in Canada. Itís a "small scene," after all; how hard could it be to create a little web portal to all of it? Well, the key word here is "impossible." The community, to use Shane Neilsonís word in a different context, is "multitudinous" and complex beyond definition. TDR is one of a number of windows into this enormous "small" world. It makes no claim to be the best window. In fact, it presents itself as "insignificant," a word that was chosen for a purpose: the magazine does not want to be the centre of attention, the magazine wants to direct attention to the writers, the creators and gatekeepers of this large "small" infinitely complex small press world.

If that is the case, then why does TDR demonstrate a complete lack of professionalism and shoddy editorial standards? Why does TDR publish hurtful personal attacks? This is where I insert my mea culpa. Iím not perfect. TDR is not perfect. TDRís writers are not perfect. I also want to recognize that people have been hurt by the words and opinions that have appeared on TDR, and for that I apologize. Acknowledging that hurt and wondering what, if anything, to do about it, is one of the most difficult aspects of managing even an "insignificant" little publication like TDR. It is one of the reasons why TDR will be reducing significantly the number of book reviews it publishes in the future and will be launching a new, more narrow editorial vision in September 2004 (more focus on creative work, less focus on opinion). TDRís open editorial practice has meant that a number of pointed, hurtful reviews have appeared on the website. A more conscientious editorial practice might have prevented that; however, a more conscientious editorial practice would have emotionally bankrupted the editor. Plain speak: if I had worked harder to apply higher standards to every sentence ever published on TDR, I would have burned out, and there would be no TDR.

Youíre evading the question. No one expects you to burn yourself out. Surely you can make the couple-three decisions a year needed to ensure personal attacks have no place on the TDR website. Well, this is where it all comes together for me. TDR encourages writers to be free to speak their minds. That open-ended protection of expression extends to unpopular opinions and indecorous comments. Open, free dialogue is one of the mandates of TDR, and, I believe, itís one of the things that TDRís readers appreciate about the magazine ("youíre not afraid to let people talk").

It should also be apparent that, as editor, I am not controlling every aspect of the magazine to make it a vehicle for my views (except my view that the magazine should be a collection of views, often contradictory. For example, Neilson criticized mclennanís "legions," but TDR has interviewed and positively reviewed mclennan and, thus, would appear to be among those legions). Many people have said to me that what they appreciate most about TDR is the variety of voices that TDR has managed to gather in one corner of cyberspace. This is the praise I appreciate most; the small press community is diverse; our publications should be diverse, too. Yes, sometimes that freedom and variety of voices has meant that hurtful things have been said. Ultimately, I take responsibility for erring on the side of the writerís right to use his or her own words to express his or her own thoughts.

Finally, I must admit that sometimes I have acted as censor and removed comments from TDR that, after the fact, have seemed "over the line." I have always done it with regret and with a deep uneasiness. Removing comments from the website has meant that certain conflicts with readers have been resolved, but I am left with lingering dis-ease about the words that have been lost. TDR has received letters arguing that Holmesí comments about Starnino and Neilsonís remarks about mclennan fall into that category of words that should have been "dis-allowed." Ultimately, I leave it up to readers to decide. The result may be that TDR and its editor are found wanting. If so, you know where to find me. The buck stops here.

Michael Bryson is TDRís editor and publisher. 






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