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books 'I won the Pulitzer: why am I invisible?'

These may be banner days for African American poetry and poets. For example, this year the Pulitzer Prize for poetry went to Digest, by black poet Gregory Pardlo, of Brooklyn. Yet the book trade remains overwhelmingly white. Pardlo is one of a growing number of poets and writers of color who are now challenging racial inequality in publishing, as Angela Chen reports. Along with Chen's article are links to reviews of Pardlo's prize-winning volume.

“One of the things I run into surprisingly often is people saying to me, ‘I’ve never heard of you before,’” says poet Gregory Pardlo. “Yet I’ve been publishing in ‘mainstream’ journals and my book won that prize, so what is it that is making me invisible? It’s not the work and it’s not the publishing credits.”

“That prize” Pardlo references is the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, which he won for his book Digest. Pardlo, a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York, was honored Monday night at a “diversity in publishing” panel jointly sponsored by Cuny and Pen American. He was joined by fellow poets Saeed Jones, Cate Marvin, and Willie Perdomo for the event, which came on the heels of a report claiming that the publishing industry is 89% white – hence the suggestion that the mysterious thing keeping these writers invisible is the fact that none are white men.

Looking from the outside, says Pardlo, it seems “really cool that the Pulitzer prize this year went to this black dude”, and he’s keenly aware of what that means. “The fame thing is an opportunity to bring together communities like this,” he says. “It’s an opportunity of responsibility and so I take it as a new job and not the kind of celebrity that I think is often ascribed to it.”

But recognition, no matter how prestigious, for one black writer is not enough. “There are many revolutions that have to happen at once for a substantive change,” says Jones, a BuzzFeed culture editor who read from his essay Self-Portrait of the Artist as an Ungrateful Black Writer. He argues that the industry not only has enduring problems with racism, sexism and powerful gatekeepers that “don’t have their act together”, but the proliferation of unpaid internships shuts people out and means that “we are depending on rich people to examine the human experience for us”.

According to Jones, the diversity report helps explain why so many blind spots are still present in the publishing world, to the extent that people outside the (white, male) norm end up doubting their own experiences. “Whenever I’ve had one of these moments and spoken to a woman about misogyny or a queer person about homophobia, they say ‘I thought I was kind of crazy, I thought I was whiny,’” he says. “It’s cruel to do racism and sexism but even worse to, you know, let someone sit with that silence – isn’t that the antithesis of our art?”

So what kinds of revolutions does Jones think we need? Fellowships for diverse writers, for one, and also efforts like those of Perdomo, who has been forcibly carving out platforms for new voices. “My tradition in publishing is a black tradition, by which I mean a pan-Africanist, Caribbean, East Harlemite tradition,” says Perdomo, whose latest book of poetry was a finalist for last year’s National Book Critics Circle award. To find a place for himself, and others like him, he co-founded the publishing house Cypher Books, which has released poetry by Rachel McKibbens and Suheir Hammad.

Social media, too, is another avenue for new voices, as seen in the story of Vida: Women in Literary Arts, a non-profit organisation that tracks gender equality in publishing. Marvin, the co-founder, says Vida began after she became furious that her proposal on women’s writing for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs was rejected. She “became very angry and very suspicious” after years of being seen solely as a “woman writer”, facing condescension when she finally had a baby, telling men that women weren’t being published and hearing that they didn’t agree and finally thinking: “That’s odd, maybe they only read Louise Glück.”

So, “totally sleep-deprived” and few glasses of wine in, she wrote and posted a letter that contained “everything she would never have said otherwise”. That letter went viral.

“What is hopeful about new media is that I got a million responses and someone who I didn’t know very well, Erin Belieu, went and took my letter and spent all night sending it to hundreds of people she knew and we started to build and talk about counting,” she says.

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This kind of work is the contribution that artists can make to build diversity, beyond the writing itself, Marvin adds: “When we started Vida, I didn’t want to work on a national non-profit, I wanted to be writing poems. But I recognize that it was an opportunity to create something.”

Angela Chen is a journalist specialising in mental health, asexuality, bioethics, and economics. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pacific Standard, Guernica Magazine, the Rumpus, and other publications.

Gregory Pardlo
Four Way Books
ISBN-13: 978-1-935536-50-5

Review in the Tupelo Quarterly

Review in Jerry Magazine