Poetry News

Craig Santos Perez on why white editors are so mean

By Harriet Staff

Craig Santos Perez recently returned from the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where he was a speaker on a panel called “The Poet’s Responsibility: Poetic Tradition, Social Values, and Contemporary Culture," and he’s done a stellar job of reporting back about the fest on his Jacket2 blog (there was a Poetry Stage!). Writes Perez, “Los Angeles is a tough city for a poet. Even a cab driver, who admitted he wrote screenplays during the day, almost swerved off the freeway upon hearing that there was a book prize for poetry.” But the LA Times attempted to be psyched about poetry anyway (it could easily have drowned in the Sunday mystery coverage, panels for which included “Mystery: Notes from the Underground,” “Mystery: Order and Law,” “Mystery: The Last Laugh,” and “Mystery: The Unexplained”).

Now we’re in for more delight, as Perez recalls missing his panel (have we said “panel” enough yet? drink!) at last year’s AWP (it was more panelistically called “Poets and Editors on Race and Inclusivity”) and the absence has fortunately allowed him to post the talk he was planning to give. In “Why Are White Editors So Mean?” Perez dives into “Table of Contents Anxiety,” a term originally defined by Rich Villar to indicate a particular situation that comes up for many writers of color. As Villar wrote on his blog:

Table of Contents Anxiety arises when the first reaction to holding a new journal or anthology in your hands, before you even read one line of literature, is to flip open the Table of Contents and quickly scan it for black folks, or Latinos, or Native Americans, or anything, ANYTHING, besides the usual Smorgasboard of the Unsurprising when it comes to editors and their lists. I know I am not alone in this TOC Anxiety. I know some of you in this room suffer in silence.

Perez rightly goes on to question the poetry world’s racial exclusivity, and particularly what editors can do about it (when you don’t publish writers of color, you’ll be met with a vicious cycle: “We don't like being the only person of color at an all white party”). Finally, as he recalls, Perez was surprised by a student in an elementary school workshop, who asked, “Professor Craig, Why are white editors so mean?” (Firstly: Professor Craig! So cute.)

So I reflected: is there something essential about being a white editor that makes them mean? Something inherently mean about whiteness?

Later, I reflected into a mirror: What makes editors of color, like myself, and writers of color in general, such nice people?

Have you ever noticed that even though writers of color are rarely published in mainstream journals, rarely receive major prizes or awards, rarely reviewed in major venues—and moreover all we write about are our difficult and traumatic histories, our oppressed cultures, our forgotten stories—yet we are such jolly people.

But why? It’s all in the anthology.

That’s right, every month a new anthology for writers of color is published: New Latino Writing, African American Nature, Queer Native American, Diasporic Pacific Islander, Asian American Women, South Asian American, Old Latino Writing, Experimental African American, Global Indigenous, Midwest Latinos, New Generations, Next Generations, Emerging Generations, etc, etc, etc.

Every time one of these anthologies is published, a historic publication gets its wings. We gather, celebrate (with lots of food), and embrace. We finally arrive. Or arrive, in a different way. Again and again.

We love the Anthology (to the point of fetish), and the anthology loves us back.

So can you guess what white editors should do to get nice…turn to this page to see if you’re right.

Originally Published: May 13th, 2011