The trouble with Genius

In 2013, I won The Stranger’s Genius Award in literature, which came as a wondrous gift that linked me to the place I lived and wrote in for fourteen years (by then.) Part of the responsibility of winning a Genius Award is to vote in future Genius competitions. This year’s nominees include local poetry publisher Wave Books. I want to explain why I will probably not vote for them.

It all started few years ago. A new poetry publishing house editor came to town. Mr. Joshua Beckman arrived in Seattle as part of the announcement of the creation of Wave Books. Most Seattle poets rejoiced and started imagining their long-awaited books published by the city’s new publishing house.

Over the years Mr. Beckman and I would develop a friendship. I found (and still find) him not to be only a terrific poet, but also someone who inhabits and believes in poetry with all his being — a trait that I find admirable and beautiful.

Wave Books is a publisher from Seattle, but they aren’t a Seattle publisher.

By 2012, and with only one book under my belt, Wave Books approached me to translate a book of Egyptian poets for them. The working relationship with the editor (Mr. Beckman himself) became really uncomfortable in ways I didn’t fully understand at the time. Mr. Beckman made me feel as if they were doing me a favor by publishing this book they invited me to do for them. Feelings are subjective, but this one is based on at least two factual incidents and hindsight analysis.

First, the editor, Mr. Beckman, after agreeing on getting five to seven poems per poet, asked me to translate more than that for each poet so he could have a chance to choose between the poems — a request that felt disrespectful of my labor and my time. The second incident happened when one of the support staff of Wave was talking to me over beer at the Elysian about how when Wave gave a book contract to a poet they run for it and are grateful. It was clear: if you are not well known, and Wave agrees to work with you, then they are doing you a favor, and you need to act accordingly.

This project collapsed after months of work. The book, The Tahrir of Poems, found a more suitable editor in Amber Nelson from Alice Blue Review, who actually treated the Egyptian poets with the love and respect they deserved. They were poets from her generation, after all, so publishing the book was an act of communion between the same generation of poets across two languages and countries.

The experience left a bad taste in my mouth for a while, but over my poetry career I would work with editors like Matvei Yankelevich, Daniel Owen, Aaron McCullough, Karla Kelsey, Susan Schultz, Amber Nelson, Lindsey Boldt, Stephen Motika, Kazim Ali, Pam Brown, and Chris Dusterhoff, who, instead of making me feel like they were giving me something, inverted the dynamics and surrounded me with beautiful generosity, while shaping my poems and translations and giving me more insights into them. For them I am very grateful. These editors actually gave me something.

During the period I was working with Wave on the book that later became The Tahrir of Poems, Mr. Charles Wright, the owner of Wave Books, had a poetry party in his house to celebrate Wave’s release of Timothy Donnelley’s book The Cloud Corporation. There was valet parking and actual people serving you drinks — it was so lovely and felt genuinely generous. Except for probably two other poets of color, everybody there was white, which was something I am pretty used to by now and didn’t feel much about as long as we were scattered in the house. But when the reading started, two things happened: first all the poets came to the living room, and I just felt so alienated; it was clear that Wave’s community of poets were fundamentally white, and my heart started sinking. I am okay in all the other facets of my life being a minority — say, in the corporate world — but not in poetry. Poetry is the space I get empowerment from.

The second thing that happened this evening was that Mr. Wright, to signal the beginning of the reading, sat on the very special chair in the living room facing the poet, with the attendee poets scattered around and sitting and standing in a circle all around. I didn’t need a Foucauldian analysis of power to know that this was the moment where Mr. Wright claimed his court and we were accessories in the room. Again, this was jarring, as being a poet never meant to me that I would be an accessory in some man’s fantasy or illusions about himself as an old-style benefactor of the arts.

Taking my cue from the predominantly white reading, I started digging into Wave Books’ publishing record. (The Tahrir of Poems project was over then and I tried to understand what was going on.) There were very few poets of color published by Wave then (this was 2013, I think). I talked to Mr. Beckman about how I wanted to send Wave a letter about how they are very bad in their record of publishing poets of color, to which Mr. Beckman told me that it will be better to send them a list of poets of color that they should publish. This is a trope that typically makes folks of color feel even more frustrated — to ask them to do your own labor for you.

I decided then to take this private dialogue between Mr. Beckman and myself to a wider public debate, and wrote a very straightforward, polite Facebook post about being disappointed at Wave Books’ record – then – of publishing mostly white poets. This is when Mr. Matthew Zapruder, one of Wave Books’ editors, and a Facebook friend, decided to participate in the debate by unfriending me.

This was utterly difficult and confusing. Later, when my friend Noel Black introduced to me the concept of “white fragility,” I was able to better understand some of the behaviors I am describing here. Mr. Beckman also got very mad at me, which made me sad as he is someone I still had a reasonable level of appreciation for.

My post’s argument was simple: you have been in business for many years, you haven’t published many poets of color by then (less than 10% at that point.) Why? It seems that my post spurred some dialog in Wave and they started more actively publishing poets of color. A friend of mine told me later, “you gave them a gift.”

There was progress going on here.

This year, Wave published Hardly War, a magnificent book by Don Mee Choi, a Seattle-based poet of color. This is a book that is stirring debate and being read widely, and an example of what opening the door for minority poets can do.

Sans a lost friendship, so far this is an okay story with mostly a happy ending.

But here, and with the Genius Award nomination, I have another problem with Wave Books and representation. Except for Don Mee Choi’s marvelous book, Wave hasn’t published other Seattle poets since they came to town almost ten years ago.

Wave Books is a publisher from Seattle, but they aren’t a Seattle publisher. Here is what I mean by that: they don’t participate in all the different poetry communities in Seattle, from the slam to the many different reading series in town. They don’t publish the first books from local poets. They don’t allocate at least half their publishing budget to Seattle just to be worthy of being here, and to counter the domination of New York and San Francisco in the poetry publishing world Wave Books editors could learn a lot from studying the publishing record and patterns of Tinfish press, a Hawaii-based publishing house run on a shoestring budget by Susan Schultz. Tinfish press is very inclusive and diverse poetry publishing house while remaining true to its geographic region.

Wave Books have done a marvelous job course-correcting on their lack of publishing poets of color, which deserves recognition. I hope they can do the same regarding publishing local Seattle poets. Only then I would believe that they are truly a Seattle institute that is worthy of being a Seattle Genius.