Rachel Custer, Anders Carlson-Wee, and Social Justice Poetry

Rachel Custer sat in Lutheran Hospital of Fort Wayne Indiana as chemotherapy dripped into her daughter’s arm. It was October 2016, the week of her daughter’s sixth birthday, and the little girl had just been hospitalized with a neutropenic fever. Suddenly, Custer’s phone lit up with a flurry of emails and Facebook alerts. But they were not messages of support. They were attacks—because her poem, “How I Am Like Donald Trump” had gone live on the online poetry magazine Rattle. “Comment after comment calling me racist and a white nationalist. Claims my daughter’s cancer was fake. It was like they hadn’t even read the poem,” Custer says now in an interview.

Two years later, Custer is still dealing with backlash from the poem. “It’s kind of like dressing yourself in raw meat and jumping into piranha-infested waters,” she says of writing poems in our current political climate. Recently, she published the poem “To the Woman in a Plague Mask Outside the Living Room Window” in the Journal Mag, a literary magazine run by the Ohio State University’s Department of English. The poem was not online long before members of the online poetry community went to the magazine’s editors and complained about them publishing Custer.

The Journal decided to quietly remove the poem from their website and archive. Initially, when Custer inquired about what had happened she was informed that the Journal had been “notified about online comments regarding POC and the LGBTQ community that do not align with our mission and stance on inclusivity. We thought it best to remove the material while we investigate these comments.” Custer, who is a lesbian and member of the community herself, requested more information about their decision since the poem itself did not contain any “harmful” language. There followed a back and forth between Custer and the editors of the Journal: Custer tried to understand the allegations being made against her; the Journal said they were investigating the allegations. The correspondence dragged on over weeks.

As frustration mounted, Custer involved the dean of OSU’s arts and humanities. Because OSU receives federal funding, Custer submitted a FOIA request for the full email exchange that had gone on between the editors and the people making accusations about her.

The emails revealed what appears to be character assassination with personal motivation. The women making the accusations, Hannah Cohen and Emily Kristin Morse (who goes by E. Kristin Anderson on twitter), compiled a dossier of evidence against Custer with a selection of cherry-picked tweets. (Cohen declined to comment for this story.) The supposedly offensive tweets are clearly aggressive in tone, but for the most part are basic conservative perspectives on issues such as gender identity, the class divide, and bias in publishing, along with some obvious jokes (“Can we start doing airborne Constitution drops over California?” one tweet reads.) The problem, in Custer’s opinion, is that “mainstream conservative views, and even liberal views in some cases, are being classified as extremist.”

What was most striking about the email exchange, however, is that Custer’s accusers didn’t even attempt to argue that the poem itself inflicted any “harm.” And that they had been after her for a while. Anderson wrote: “While she has accused me in the past of trying to get her ‘unpublished,’ this is actually the first time I’ve reached out to a magazine or publisher to inform them about her behavior. . . . I’m tired of seeing institutional support for someone who participates in the oppression of marginalized voices on a daily basis.” It is Custer’s online personality they have long taken issue with. Custer came into contact with them initially through an AWP mentorship program and a Facebook group for marginalized writers. What began as a supportive network, the group “Binders Full of Women,” gradually became a toxic environment as moderators, like Cohen and Anderson, turned on members with dissenting opinions. Custer explained in a blog post her side of events and how she turned to social media for an outlet as her daughter’s condition worsened. The editors of Journal even acknowledge the blog post in their correspondence with Cohen and Anderson, saying that the post “seems to be an apology for negative online behavior.”

Ultimately, the dean stepped in and forced the Journal editors to re-publish Custer’s poem on the magazine’s website and archives. But even then, the emails are revealing: The magazine’s editors continued to correspond with Custer’s accusers, with managing editor Kelsey Hagarman telling them “We know that this decision will disappoint readers, but I assure you that this was an administrative and legal decision, not an editorial one. The Journal team removed her work from our online issue weeks ago. Unfortunately, Custer quickly contacted the dean, who contacted OSU legal about her contract with us, and they has been investigating the case since then. This was their decision, not ours.”

Like everything else in the culture, poetry world is becoming a place where the implicit focus is on social justice. Sometimes the focus is explicit—the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Conference has numerous panels dedicated to “social justice.” But if Custer’s case, the recent scandal surrounding the Nation and their treatment of Anders Carlson-Wee, and others (on both sides of the political spectrum) are any indication, the revolutionaries in the poetry community are now seeking to instate a precedence of hyper-vigilant policing.

Custer wants to change that, because she believes in intellectual diversity. “I would love to see a diversity of perspective,” she says. “What we see is a diversity of skin color or race or diversity of sexual preference, diversity of gender identification. It has absolutely nothing to do with the work whatsoever. That’s the bigger issue I have with poetry in general: everybody keeps talking about promoting diversity, but there’s absolutely no diversity of ideologies.”

Timothy Green, editor of Rattle, to his credit, stands by publishing the original poem that turned Custer into poetry’s public enemy number one: “After publishing maybe 10 poems already that year that were critical of Trump, I made a comment online lamenting that we’d never received any poems in his defense.” Custer’s poem was then part of a Rattle series called “Poets Respond” seeking to publish poems that respond to the news in real time. “Mostly, I think the poem added to a broader narrative about Rachel Custer herself, who, as one of the few openly conservative poets in America, ends up sparring fairly often with the rest of the poetry community. And also the broader narrative about Rattle, which has long been seen by some as ‘problematic’ for our unflinching support of free speech and open access,” Green explains over email.

“I think it’s important that poetry ventures into the political if it’s going to be culturally relevant, but poets are so overwhelmingly left-leaning as a group that it’s hard not to have it became a siloed echo-chamber,” Green says. “Being able to see the world vividly from a new perspective is why we love poetry—but poems that actually accomplish that are rare. It was a poem that managed to punch a hole in the political silo and let us see some new light in.”

Which is where Rachel Custer comes in. But it’s hard to punch holes in political silos when you have people such as Cohen and Anderson, doing organized hitjobs against diverse voices–and even harder when you have editors such as Hagarman eagerly participating in the epistemic closure.

And harder still when the culture of the public square is so debased that criticism often devolves into the vilest sorts of hatred.

Because whatever you think of Rachel Custer, the poet, she’s also still a human being. “Disagreement is not abuse,” she says. But, when people started attacking her daughter, she drew the line: “That’s just not okay, why are you bringing my daughter into this? It’s easy to get caught up and stop seeing the other person as a person.”

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