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Concern re: removal of a 2017 Rhysling Award nomination
Ys
ajodasso
ETA, 1/25/17: Yes, what you read in the final sentence of this entry, and more explicitly in the comments, is correct.  I'm running for SFPA Treasurer.  I'd been planning on making a bid at getting involved since spring of last year.  My M.F.A. program and teaching fellowship kept me busy till June 2016, but now that I've relocated and settled into my new employment, I can act on said plans.

ETA, 1/18/17: With regard to the below, Tlotlo's poem was reinstated as a nomination today.  Many thanks to all of you who signal-boosted this, offered thoughtful commentaries, and helped to shift the outcome.  I'm exhausted and have been in and out of clinic, hospital, and pharmacy waiting-rooms all evening.  I've had a severe cough for almost four weeks; it seems I was misdiagnosed at first.  Hopefully I'm on the correct medications now!  Anyway, sorry for the belated info; other people's posts got updated before mine.


I had fiercely hoped that this post of around a year and a half ago would be my first and last such concerning what I (and many, many others) observe to be dodgy award-nomination practices on the part of the SFPA.  Despite apparent declines in both the organization's membership and reputation, I've maintained my membership because the ability to nominate and support my community in recognition of their outstanding work is important to me.

Since nominations are currently open until February 15th for this year's Rhysling Awards, I did what I usually do: nominate one short poem and one long poem, both of which happened to be poems that I and one of my co-editors had published in Strange Horizons during the course of 2016.  In addition to meeting the line-count requirements, both poems were published in the correct year, in a magazine of speculative literature.  There are rules against nominating your own work, but there are no rules against nominating work you've had a hand in publishing.  And it's a good thing there aren't, because reading submissions guarantees you're at the front lines of reading the most exciting new work your community has to offer.

Both of my nominations were posted to the SFPA website's public list of poems nominated so far in 2017 within a couple days of receipt; this is a crucial piece of information.  Please keep it in mind.  In all the years I've been Rhysling-nominated, which is every year since 2011 with the exception of 2012, this is the speed with which nominations tend to be added to the list.  That is to say: pretty fast.  I know this because I've always kept a close eye on that webpage every time I've made my own nominations.  They've always appeared within several hours to several days, at least from what I've seen in the past 6 years.

While I was at Arisia this past weekend dashing from panel to panel, I received an upsetting message from the current Rhysling Anthology Chair.  My nomination for the Short Poem category, Layla Al-Bedawi's "Propagation," had been accepted, but my Long Poem nomination, Tlotlo Tsamaase's "I Will Be Your Grave," had been rejected.  I was being asked to find a different long poem to nominate because Tlotlo's piece was apparently not speculative enough.  First of all, I'd never heard of nominations being rejected; second of all, the nomination had already been made public on the website.  Poets had already been engaged in excitedly congratulating each other on their nominations for more than a week.  I was instantly outraged on Tlotlo's behalf, as I can't think of any universe in which publicly announcing a nomination and then deciding to revoke it after the fact isn't bad form.  I spent a number of hours on email urging the Chair to reconsider this decision in light of the fact that it would be deeply, deeply hurtful to the poet after they'd already seen their nomination, but Tlotlo's piece was removed before the day was over.

I had been careful to take a screencap of the nominations page when the first email landed, to prove it was still there and listed publicly, I likewise took a second screencap once I'd heard of its removal.  That was also the point at which I tweeted both the screencaps and what had happened, because I was floored that both parties I'd heard from thus far in the email chain (David Kopaska-Merkel and F.J. Bergmann) could not see that the unfairness of the move demands an immediate reversal.  As you can imagine, this has been circulated a great deal, and almost no-one I've seen pass it along (at this point, I've lost count of how many times the thread has been quoted and passed along with the reblogger's commentary; please keep in mind that this style of reblog does not show up in the tally at the base-link) has been in favor of the apparent "mistake" that the Rhysling team claims to have made (i.e. that the poem got posted before the Chair could properly vet it).

Mistake or not, this action is problematic for more reasons than I can reasonably delineate in one blog post.  At worst, it's exclusionary and, yes, even racist to claim that a poem by a writer of color, published in a speculative magazine, is not speculative enough by white/Western standards to be worthy of nomination.  At best, it really is just a mistake, but even at that juncture, it had been publicly posted before being revoked.  It's flat-out bad form to essentially tell someone, hey, congrats, you've earned this honor, and then say, oh, oops, sorry, our bad, it just didn't conform to standards, we've got to pull it.  No matter which way you consider it (and, frankly, I consider it in both), Tlotlo's owed an apology.

Even if past Rhysling Chairs have habitually rejected nominations, I'm going to hope that none of them posted the nominations to the website before vetting and subsequently accepting or rejecting them.  Oddly, nowhere in the Rhysling Nomination Guidelines does it mention that your nominations might be bounced back at you if the Chair doesn't approve of them, and I have yet to hear from anyone else that they've ever been told they needed to re-nominate on similar grounds.  I, for one, do not plan to re-nominate a Long Poem.  I have already submitted one; even if it's not reinstated, Tlotlo's poem remains my choice.

The discussion surrounding the situation with Tlotlo's poem continues on Twitter.  Amidst the surge of heartening support in favor of the nomination being reinstated, there have unfortunately been some insensitive statements:





It's better to be nominated and pulled than to get no nomination at all? Wow, that's cold.

We're just trying to understand what people consider SpecPo? Er, we're TELLING you.

For an organization with this many years and this many mistakes behind it, I'd say the majority of current officers have really failed to learn the lessons being too, too patiently spelled out for them by those of us with the energy to do so.  And that number of us is rapidly dwindling, and not listening to reports of real pain (whether intentional or not) caused to members of the speculative poetry community is no way to ensure long-term survival.

(In spite of everything, I do hope to get involved with the SFPA in the near future.  If I didn't take be the change / trouble / [applicable noun] you wish to see in the world seriously before, 2017 is hopefully the year in which I'll push it to the limit.)

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I continue to be floored by the whole "not spec enough" thing. It's safe to say that if a poem appears in a spec journal (as this one did), it qualifies as spec enough to be nominated for a Rhysling--even if some people have a much narrower definition of what spec is supposed to mean. One or two SFPA members should not be the arbiters of what qualifies a work as speculative.

Just added a new Twitter screencap gem from (probably) F.J.; it's from the SFPA official Twitter account this time, so hard to tell, but the tone of it sounds like someone directly involved in wanting to keep Tlotlo's poem out of the anthology. Given Bryan had initially said he would likely overturn this, I'm beginning to suspect he's been overruled in that sentiment. I'm incredibly shocked that David would insist on maintaining the outcome of an error as adversely affecting as this one, so I'm beginning to assume that, given most of these offensive responses have come from F.J.'s direction, she's acting as almost the chair-behind-the-chair. It's disturbing to me that there appear to be no checks and balances in place for when things like this occur, not even for the SFPA president...

"Some things just aren't"?! That is some spectacular overstepping (and yes, I assumed it was F.J.). I wish I were surprised.

What really gets me is that I wanted to believe, for a long time, her constant insistence (when things like these happen) that it's all just errors and miscommunication - but now that I've seen a couple of blatantly cruel and exclusionary statements made IN PUBLIC (see Twitter screencaps above), it's hard to believe that there's not a truly toxic attitude in play here. I'm the person who'll give somebody the benefit of the doubt (like I did in the instance of the Elgins, i.e. that link in my first sentence of the post) even when they don't deserve it. More than a dozen stories from other people later, I'm beginning to think that if everybody's calling a spade a spade, it's just a spade. The SFPA is populated by a handful of people who really are as exclusionary as they appear to be, and they'll go to any lengths to insist that they aren't. And they don't even seem to understand that a thing can still be racist even if they don't intend it to be. Like we haven't covered that enough?

I left the SFPA after "The Green Reich" was published in Star*Line. It's worth remembering that F.J. defended that publishing decision. Apparently that execrable poem was spec enough for her, and that really says it all.

It does say a lot; I remember when that happened. And there's also the WisCon incident. What I don't understand his how these offensive behaviors have not been grounds for expulsion. I'm just glad she's stepped down from the post of Star*Line editor.

I am Diane Severson, membership and communications chair of the SFPA, who tweets from @sfpoetry . It was not FJ Bergmann who made those blunders on Twitter, but me. I feel sick about this whole situation. I find it very difficult to respond to accusations such as had been made within the context of a tweet. And I failed spectacularly to express myself adequately and made things only worse. I should not have posted from @sfpoetry, but from my own account.

We put our collective foot in it with Tlotlo Tsamaase's poem. I hate that this sort of thing keeps happening to us. We are not evil. An unfortunate few (6 people) are tasked with running the organization. It is the desire of ALL of us to increase inclusivity and diversity within the organization and in our publications. I know that many feel it is not our job to police what is SpecPo. It has never been our intention to do so. With regard to early nominations, we had an unfortunate misunderstanding among those of us determining a nominated poem's eligibility, which is not just whether it is Spec or not, since there are actual mistakes nominators make in regards to eligibility (year of publication, length, nominators membership, etc.). It was always our intention to ask the nominator for an "explanation" in the event the chair thought it didn't seem speculative. It's unclear to me whether that happened, AJ. Barring that we had intended that if only one of the officers thought it was "spec enough" it should be included. In this case, they were split in their impressions and the chair mistakenly thought we'd agreed it should be unanimous.

Please note, I am not an officer and while I am often consulted about policy, as membership chair, my vote in these matters doesn't count and neither does FJ's. Officially.

We have since clarified in no uncertain terms that in future we will err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.

Hi, Diane - I do know who you are; it's been a while since we've had any kind of direct interchange, but I remember you. I'd like to apologize for my less tactful moments in all of this, too, up to and including assuming the identity of who made the tweets. Being at a convention, and severely ill, too, while all of this was taking place, didn't help. I suppose I should explain my motivations for reacting so relentlessly; there's wanting to see Tlotlo receive the honor she deserves first and foremost, but there's also a stacking-up of past incidents, experiences both my own and belonging to others, that just about made this the final straw. My first experience with hurtful behavior from someone in the SFPA happened long before I realized there were a host of others who had similar stories; it was circa 2008-2009, and I'd only been a member for a year or so, maybe two. Star*Line put out a call for subs to a prose-poetry guest edited special issue. Excited, as I'd recently written a prose-poem, I decided to submit. Less than a couple of hours after submitting, I received the single rudest rejection I've ever received from any editor, anywhere: the email contained only one contextualizing sentence, something like "This is not a prose poem, and I suggest that you have a look at this," and then the link to Wikipedia's entry on prose poetry. I have a locked post on this journal documenting the incident, in fact, because at the time I would never have been brave enough to post publicly about such a thing. As far as I could see, even by Wikipedia's (in theory) collaboratively-built standards, what I had written was a prose-poem. Yet the guest editor viewed me as so inept that the only solution was to snippily send me off to educate myself. In the years since that incident, I have seen at least ten or so other friends and colleagues receive treatment equally as shocking, equally as rude, equally as exclusionary. The parties behind these responses and behaviors are almost always the same handful of people, and yes, they're people who have been around/in the SFPA for a very long time.

I'm relieved to hear that a couple of poems have been reinstated, Tlotlo's included. I'm also glad to hear that the decision has been to err on the side of inclusion. What I'm really struggling to say here is that the SFPA has regularly managed to hurt and exclude many, many people, and the parties behind such responses either do not wish to see that the behavior is, nine times out of ten, offensive whether they intend it to be or not. I regret the fact that the equal-and-opposite reaction has been, almost out of necessity, a force and perhaps even offensiveness equal to the root cause. I have seen others try to drive the point home before now, but almost always to no avail. I have my own aspects of marginalized identity, but I still have more privilege than the poet who was most deeply affected by this situation. It has taken me a very long time to figure out how to use my voice, but I'm determined to use it for the benefit of those whose voices are most frequently waved aside. So, I think...what I most want to say at this point is that, although I'm sorry I caused hurt in the process (I consider David good longtime colleague; maybe not someone I have ever gotten to know well enough to call friend, but colleague all the same), I'm not sorry that I took the actions I did in order to see that this situation stayed on-radar.

I understand that organizations that have been around for a very long time become extremely set in their ways, but in no arena is it more vital (than in the arts) to learn adaptability. Writers change; writing changes. Genres tend to expand rather than contract, and Wikipedia definitions cannot tell us everything we need to know about a particular kind of poem. Thanks for listening and responding, Diane.

(I also know that this organization is run by an incredibly small crew. Far before all of this happened, in fact, I'd begun making inquiries to Bryan regarding what the role of Treasurer entails. I've decided to make a go of candidacy, because I'd have walked away completely long ago if I didn't care what becomes of the SFPA.)

Edited at 2017-01-21 05:15 pm (UTC)

That is great news - that you are planning to run for Treasurer! I do like to see people come forward to volunteer their time and talents. I understand that it's not always an option for many underprivileged people and I do my best to stick up for their voices, but I have very little power (no vote on official things, just consultancy) and I am not immune from blundering. The voices of establishment (within the SFPA) are vocal enough. As Treasurer you would have an official vote and could help us catch these things before they happen. Even with 3 out of 5/6 of us doing our best to make sure things like this don't happen, it still happened. :-( Bleargh. I'm glad to hear that you do still care about what happens to the SFPA.

It's so hard to navigate these issues. No one gets the benefit of the doubt that missteps are unintentional and therefore one is always put in a defensive position. Instead of being informed of one's errors and given a chance to rectify things, accusation and yes, intolerance is very often what's led with. Like I said, I'm sick that this keeps happening, but I also have a hard time understanding why people don't talk to us before tearing us a new one. I know what it looks like from the outside, but 50% of this year's executive committee was not even members when the Green-Reich-Affair was happening and 100% of us were not even in a position to influence what happened.

The executive committee is as follows (from the top down): Bryan Thao Worra, president; Sandra Lindow, VP; Shannon Connor Winward, Secretary; Deborah Flores (interim) Treasurer (not voting at present); FJ Bergmann, S*L editor and do-er of all things web-related; Diane Severson Mori, membership & communications chair and Volunteer Wrangler. Only officers have official votes on matters of policy, etc. FJ's an my opinions are often consulted.

On that note, may I point you toward an excellent blog post by our Secretary, Shannon Connor Winward, about all of this? Here's the link: http://www.shannonconnorwinward.com/?p=1374

I appreciate your words of reconciliation, AJ, and I apologize for making things worse. I agree that we must be ever-vigilant and work toward a culture of expansion within our rather narrow focus of speculative poetry. I really do, despite recent appearances.

AJ said, "I'd like to apologize for my less tactful moments in all of this, too, up to and including assuming the identity of who made the tweets."

I'm afraid my mind just isn't letting this go. I accepted your apology, but really I'm not the one to whom the apology should've been made. And I regret letting it slide.

FJ Bergmann was the one maligned by the assumption that she was the one tweeting, not me.

And I'm not sure why so many people are so quick to accuse her of wrong-doing. My professional relationship with her has always been good. I respect her a great deal for what she has done to raised the bar and I've never experienced her as exclusionary or discriminatory. Star*Line is a testament to the fact that she chooses widely and publishes diversely in sub-genre and poet. She DOES publish Fantasy. And award-winning Fantasy at that. She also writes it herself. And has done for a long time.

She can be prickly in print, you can't hear the way she's saying it, but on the other hand, stating facts, always sounds a bit prickly in an email or a brief post. For a while, we Skyped on a weekly basis, when it was basically just the 2 of us keeping the SFPA from falling apart. Now that we have a full complement of active officers and people besides us to chair the awards and contests, we do so less regularly, but it was important for me to get to know just who she was.

I'm appalled at how people talk about her. I have never seen her do anything that merited it. I see so much vitriol flung her way and find it inexplicable. She doesn't know what to do. Indeed, anything she would or has done would be and has been twisted beyond recognition.

I know I'm probably not doing my own reputation a favor here by coming to FJ's defence, but I couldn't live with myself, if I let her be vilified for something that I did.

While I understand that some, like you, have had a good relationship with the individuals from whom many of us have come to expect actions in bad faith (F.J. included), we unfortunately expect actions in bad faith because that's what we continually see from them. I appreciate that you wish to clear your conscience. The fact that I assumed a couple of things you said on the SFPA official Twitter were said by F.J. does not change the fact that F.J. did make statements on Twitter that were hurtful to Tlotlo/and others in Tlotlo's position. I feel that the largest present obstacle are conditions in which a handful of individuals are consistently offensive even if they don't realize they're being offensive, and no matter how many times this is highlighted by the people who are affected, the offensiveness continues and/or recurs. Past a certain point, we're hard-pressed to believe it's accidental anymore. It's regrettable that F.J. has been involved in a disproportionately high number of these instances, but it does keep happening. And I know that the SFPA has said it is hearing these concerns, but repeated instances of problematic behavior, knowing or not, do not go a long way to convincing wronged parties that this is the case.

I've been out of SFPA for a long time. This type of crap, and worse, is why. I have the scars to prove it.

Back in the day when I was going head to head with Bergman on a regular basis, she wasn't sure ANY fantasy poetry was legit. I disagreed strongly.

Same song from her, different verse.

Someone ask her if she still uses other people's work and a random word generator to compose her own poetry.

(Apologies for giving you the same response as I gave Gwynne above, but my bronchitis has relapsed so badly post-Arisia that I'm home from work and coughing my lungs raw. If this is even a pale shade of what fighting monsters with a bout of plague is like, I don't even want to know.)

Just added a new Twitter screencap gem from (probably) F.J.; it's from the SFPA official Twitter account this time, so hard to tell, but the tone of it sounds like someone directly involved in wanting to keep Tlotlo's poem out of the anthology. Given Bryan had initially said he would likely overturn this, I'm beginning to suspect he's been overruled in that sentiment. I'm incredibly shocked that David would insist on maintaining the outcome of an error as adversely affecting as this one, so I'm beginning to assume that, given most of these offensive responses have come from F.J.'s direction, she's acting as almost the chair-behind-the-chair. It's disturbing to me that there appear to be no checks and balances in place for when things like this occur, not even for the SFPA president...

I appreciate your efforts to diversify speculative literature. I have posted about the SFPA tampering here.

I appreciate that you passed this along; your commentary includes a lot of well-articulated points that I simply wouldn't have had the energy/wherewithal to compose in this state. Thank you.

Go team! ;)

I have been working on ethnic issues pretty much all along. My parents had to rummage through museum gift shops and such for multicultural books when I was growing up, but they managed. By this point, I have decades of experience and a college degree in Rhetoric, which gives me an advantage not everyone has in terms of analyzing a situation like this. And yes, it helps not being in the midst of it personally. I would probably not have been anywhere near this coherent if I was too pissed to see straight.

I have degrees in English and Medieval Studies and Creative Writing; rhetoric is a mercurial thing in my hands at best, especially when I'm worked up about something. The first email on Saturday landed while I was in the audience for a panel in which two of my friends were participating. I had to step out, hide in a corner, and (mostly silently) scream. And then compose myself just marginally enough to start responding, which I only just barely managed; even then, I was so worked up I misread one of the sentences near the end of one of the first messages from David (there was a sentence, after the one citing the poem as "not spec enough," that I read as "I do not think it is a very good poem," but what it actually says is "I do think it is a very good poem"). Illness + con weekend + strong reaction to wrongness = tricky set of circumstances to navigate. I've done my best and will continue to apologize for any awkwardness in the process.

>> I have degrees in English and Medieval Studies and Creative Writing; <<

How exciting!

>>The first email on Saturday landed while I was in the audience for a panel in which two of my friends were participating. I had to step out, hide in a corner, and (mostly silently) scream. <<

Wow, that sucks. At least you got the word out, though, which helped fix the problem.

I've known a lot of people who go the rhetoric route, for some reason. Probably to balance out the people like me!

I love conventions, and being a panelist at Arisia is usually the highlight of my year (Readercon's fun, too, but I had to miss it last year even after I'd committed, and will probably have to miss it this year, too). That said, cons are still stressful. Getting stressful news in the midst of stress is not ideal.

>> I've known a lot of people who go the rhetoric route, for some reason. Probably to balance out the people like me! <<

Where I went, the literary stuff was split between English (mostly reading, some writing) or Rhetoric (mostly writing, some reading). I wasn't as excited by classic literature and I'm more into writing, hence Rhetoric. But I did pick up all the other alt-lit classes I could get into -- Native American Literature, Chicana Literature, etc. I did one on early literature and at least one African American Studies.

>>I love conventions, and being a panelist at Arisia is usually the highlight of my year<<

Yay!

>> (Readercon's fun, too, but I had to miss it last year even after I'd committed, and will probably have to miss it this year, too).<<

Boo.

>> That said, cons are still stressful. Getting stressful news in the midst of stress is not ideal.<<

In my observation, that consistently leads to one's spoon drawer getting knocked on the floor and having 0 spoons until one has washed them all and put them away. Having no spoons with which to do the dishes, of course. :/

Even through 6-7 years of grad school, one class I never had the chance to pick up was an offering in Native American lit. That's changing, however; now that I work for UNM, I've decided to use the tuition remission benefit that all faculty/staff get to take a couple of courses in the NAS department. The first one I'm taking starts tomorrow. I'm incredibly excited about it!

I got lucky with some of the classes I managed to catch, although the college cheated me out of others I was owed. Hardly a surprise. I hope that you have fun with yours!

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