Kate Gale, Red Hen, and What Poetry and Community Mean to Me

Last week, I got the email that every emerging poet wishes for. It said a press wanted to publish my manuscript. Sure my name was misspelled, and there was a typo that said, “after reviewing your work, [we] are interesting in publishing your manuscript,” and besides being “interesting” in my work, the only information it had was a request for a promotional plan, but still! My first reactions moved from shock, to confusion, to excitement, and back to confusion in a matter of 60 seconds.

I immediately shot the email off to two writer friends with the question, “Is this Real?” They wrote back assuring me it was and instructed me to start celebrating. I was at an artist residency at the time in North Shore Chicago, 2000 miles from family and friends and all the artists at the residency had already gone to sleep. I was left alone to ponder, Am I really going to get published?

I’ve been working on this manuscript since 2009, but it didn’t take shape until after I volunteered as a direct humanitarian desert aid worker in the “Tucson Sector” of the U.S.-Mexico border in August 2011. All summer, volunteers camp and hike in this militarized, low-grade warzone in order to patrol migrant trails, replenish water and food supplies, and act as witness to Border Patrol abuses to help end death and suffering in the desert. I decided to volunteer because, as a daughter of Mexican immigrants, an Angeleno, and a poet, I hoped that by climbing desert peaks, watching the helicopters circle, feeling my skin burn under a blazing sun, I might be able to turn the abstract “wall” into something tangible and personal for those back in California and beyond.

In August 2012, I submitted the manuscript to my first batch of contests. Every time it was rejected, I took it back into my arms and, after some necessary wallowing, started the revision process again. Four summers in a row I have faithfully repeated this ritual. About a year ago, I hired an editor to look at it and did a manuscript swap with two other L.A. poets I admire. I thought, this time, this is it! I resubmitted the MS to another batch of contests and to a couple L.A. presses and hoped for the best. So when six years and $880 later I finally got the email, I forced to myself to believe it, even though deep down I knew I shouldn’t.

11951794_10153038863321127_6388872296109139041_nThe following evening after getting the email, I went out and bought champagne, put on a nice dress and platforms, put feathers in my hair, and announced to the other artists, writers, and musicians at the residency, “Hey everyone! Someone wants to publish my book!” We popped the bottles and people began to ask me questions. What’s the title? What’s the press? Is this your first book? I felt on top of the world, and I thought, maybe it will happen.

As the days went on in that week I started telling more people, and little by little it started to feel real. When I got back to L.A. on Friday night, I broke the news to my family who were all gathered at my parents’ house waiting to see me after 25 days away. The next day, I saw a friend from high school and told her. For five days, getting a little more courage each day, I told some new faction of my wide and loving support system.

And then Monday afternoon Kate Gale published “AWP is US” on the Huffington Post blog, and the first thing I thought was, I knew it. I’m not allowed to have nice things.

The initial email from Red Hen Press didn’t feel right, and then Kate Gale’s words reminded me of what I’ve always known, too many gatekeepers in this industry don’t think much of me or others in the margins like me. I’m a young(ish) female poet of color at the beginnings of my career, and I’m not important. I have no power.

When I dreamed of the day a press would say they wanted my book, I imagined an editor sitting across a desk from me. The desk is strewn with manuscripts. The editor says, “We are so excited for your book! We have big plans for it!” And then the editor excitedly shares said plans. What I did not imagine was a poorly written email from an assistant that basically said, we are interst[ed] in your book, but before we move forward, tell us what you’re going to do for it.

At first, I jumped on the opportunity. I emailed friends in the know and asked for samples of promotional plans. One friend with a book with Red Hen said, “For now, your main goal is rework your poems to get it to the level of publication.” And I thought, yeah, that makes sense. I should be editing. But who’s my editor? What’s my publication date? And what about a contract? When does that whole thing happen? I submitted these questions to Red Hen, but didn’t get a response. When I called, the assistant told me I would have to wait for Kate Gale to return from out of town (why couldn’t he say that in an email?). A couple of days later, a second email from an associate had more details and a warmer tone, but when I read Kate’s words the message I took was she chose me, so I should take what she gives me and just be happy.

And I guess this is all easy to say now. I feel like I have a lot of bravado now. Now that I’ve decided I am willing to turn down their offer (whatever it is), but for three days, I was a shaky, silent mess reading every article, post, comment, blog response and tweet thinking, maybe this will go away.

But Tuesday night something changed. I was driving through Koreatown to meet some friends for dinner. Maybe it was the older gentleman I watched slowly shuffle through the crosswalk with his cane at MacArthur Park. Maybe it was all the different languages streaming by my door as I drove down Wilshire. Or maybe it was all this playing in contrast to the 25 days I had just spent in an affluent suburb in North Shore Chicago—the most homogenous place I had ever experienced.

Everyday of my residency, I would take long walks through town panning the sidewalks for other people of color. Often, I noticed drivers revving their engines as they impatiently waited for me to cross through an intersection. On one afternoon, I was crossing the street into the town center when a man in a shiny SUV started making a right turn into the crosswalk I was occupying. When I threw up my hands and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” he yelled back, “I have the right of way.” I pointed at the ground, “This is a crosswalk.” His answer was to honk at me until I moved out of his way so he could zoom by. As I walked on, it hit me that I may have been in danger, and looking back now, I wonder how much more dangerous the encounter would have been, if I spoke with an accent. My point is somehow all this compounded as the sun set over the traffic of Wilshire Boulevard, and suddenly everything was clear. Publishing with Red Hen isn’t something I can do at this point even if it is a press I’ve admired for years with writers I love and respect like Eloise Klein Healy, Doug Kearny, Veronica Reyes, and Terry Wolverton. Publishing with Red Hen isn’t something I can do at this point, if I am to have any credibility in my own community.

And then I screamed and punched the steering wheel.

My best friend left me a card at my front gate to cheer me up. She wrote, “You’ve always been strong,” implying that I will be strong this time too, but you know something about us strong people, we get tired of always having to fight. And sometimes, sometimes, we want to believe that we can have what we’ve worked our asses off for, but then there’s always a Kate Gale around ready to remind us we are only getting the scraps.

I find it ironic that Kate’s piece beautifully illustrated what those in the underrepresented communities of the lit world are fighting for. She has since apologized (a second time) for her words, and Red Hen writers—people I respect and who’ve been hurt by this—have begun to write responses, but I still want to make something clear.

You want to know why we want on AWP panels and essentially more visibility and credibility, Kate (and David Fenza)? As writers, we want the power over our own narratives because without that our histories, struggles and peoples are in danger of being reduced to despicable, two-dimensional jokes, and we are not jokes! A friend pointed out on a Facebook thread, “She’s not the only one. She never was.” And so many of us know this has been going on for too long, and we’re all tired.

A coworker, a woman I trust and admire, advised me to pray on my decision. I don’t pray, but I promised her I would keep my eyes and ears open for divine intervention.

Then I went to the Wednesday Anasi Workshop at The World Stage. At the start of the night, when no one volunteered to workshop, the host, J. Malaika James, took out her newly published poetry collection to read a couple of poems. She shared that others at the World Stage started thinking about how they weren’t getting published, so they decided to create their own press.

Later the feature, Margaret Elysia Garcia, shared she chose the press for her book, Sad Girls & Other Stories, because SolsticeLit Books was the first press not to say her characters were unrealistic. “My characters,” she said to the room, “were Latinas in college.”

As it often goes in my life, divine intervention came by form of community and poetry. I realized that I don’t have to be anyone’s token or take anyone’s scraps because if it doesn’t feel right, it’s because it isn’t right.

I don’t know when I’ll publish this collection, but it feels good to know that I am not alone. Other writers are struggling to be heard, to be valued, and many are bravely seeking and creating alternative options. Red Hen is the biggest independent publisher in L.A., but it isn’t representative of all L.A. There are many spaces, publishers, and editors taking community seriously in this city like Blk Grrrl Book Fair, Kaya Press, Leimert Park Village Book Fair, Mujeres de Maiz, Tia Chucha Press, World Stage Press, and Writ Large Press.

I’ve been thinking lately, What happens after I publish a book of poetry? It isn’t going to make me any money. Maybe it will get me some prestige, but for what? I’m not even sure I want to teach at the college level full time. “AWP is US” reminded me why I write poetry in the first place. Because privileged, white America isn’t going to tell my story, or the stories of those around me. Because writing poetry is my way of claiming space in a world that wants to push me out of the way. Because writing poetry gives me the power to create and build the world I want to see. I build this world with words, and I’m not giving those up to Kate Gale. I can’t! They are the only power I have.

The last thing my best friend wrote in her card was, “I’ll always support you, publisher or not.” I know I am privileged to have a wide and beautiful community behind me, and I couldn’t write any of this without them, and it’s because of them that I do.

*If you are looking for a way to help promote change, please check out this petition calling for AWP to make some immediate changes.


About xochitljulisa

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications 2016). A former Steinbeck Fellow, Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grantee, she’s received residencies from Hedgebrook, Ragdale, National Parks Arts Foundation and Poetry Foundation. Her work is published in Acentos Review, CALYX, crazyhorse, and American Poetry Review among others. A dramatization of her poem "Our Lady of the Water Gallons," directed by Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. She is a member Miresa Collective and director of Women Who Submit.
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34 Responses to Kate Gale, Red Hen, and What Poetry and Community Mean to Me

  1. You said it all, woman. In the end, it comes down to control over how our stories are told.

  2. Claudia says:

    Wow mujer, this is a heavy decision you made. As a fellow poet/writer with similar aspirations I feel you. I don’t know what I would do if I were in your shoes but I do commend you for having the courage to follow your gut.

  3. Xochitl, I’m so sorry this is the outcome, but I completely understand your decision. I support your work and your vision and will help in any way I can.

  4. robertpeake123 says:

    Based on your courage, integrity, and this piece of writing here, I am looking forward to reading your first collection when it comes out.

  5. soyluv says:

    A fellow poet of colour saying thank-you for saying this. It helps me too. You will find the perfect home for your book, I am sure–typing & sending those vibes out there into the universe!

  6. You are brave as hell, and I have full faith that you are going to find your book a home.

  7. starrynight3 says:

    Beautiful. You and your words will go far. They already have. xo

  8. liz says:

    Xochi, Kate Gale could take a few lessons from you, including in grace, wisdom, and writing. Thank you for this. I believe you’ll get a better publisher that will treat you well. Abrazos

  9. Anita S. says:

    You made the right choice! Your words are inspiring, I want to do more to have our voices heard. I felt so frustrated and pissed off when I read “AWP is Us.” And I went through some of the same thoughts as you and agree that we NEED to create our own spaces and take the power of those who don’t support minority voices in literature. Thank you, for your decision.

  10. We met awhile ago when I read in the Hitched series at Beyond Baroque. My heart goes out to you. So many times something looks great and then whammo! You are to be admired for making this difficult choice. I, too, was horrified by Kate Gale’s AWP is Us article. In the end we are what actions we take, and you have shown conviction and courage. Even Gale’s second apology was not an apology– The essay was horrible, but the two follow ups were even worse, since they showed her true nature. It is often not the issues or problems but HOW we handle them to make things whole again.

  11. donnahilbert says:

    You write beautifully. I look forward to buying your first book.

  12. Conney says:

    Xochitl, your words and sentiment reached me, touched me deeply. Thank you forthe courage and grace exemplified in your post. I have felt this way about Los Angeles poetry scene/publishing for such a long time. I said f-it a long time ago and went about creating my own voice and narrative for my work. I felt so little from the responses to my work from several presses and venues around Los Angeles. I tried to ask for entrance over and over again, praying i would be accepted. I never was and I’m still not. I wanted to write for and serve my community and that’s what i do. There is no “US” that I’m craving to be a part of except this amazing community that has embraced me from tbe beginning. Thank you for saying so eloquently what so many are feeling and desperately trying yo express in response to Kate Gale and AWP’s indifference to the concerns to our collective communities that are so underrepresented. Be encouraged that your manuscript and the work you continue to do will reach those of us who truly care about what you have to say. Blessings

  13. Iris De Anda says:

    Xochitl, you are magic Mujer. Thank you for sharing your reality, which is our reality. There is something better coming for you and your manuscript. The universe takes note of the truth and you my friend are a lighthouse in this ocean of hurt. Adelante!

  14. Robert Fox says:

    Your reasoning is sound and comments sincere. Nicely said.

  15. Xochitl-Julisa, this is a great piece and all I can say is don’t give up. Tia Chucha Press would like to see your manuscript in the future. The last time we had many good manuscripts and since we only publish two books a year, we had to return many great ones including yours. In your case, I made comments (which I don’t do) to help (I hope it did). I know the fight is always on. I’m been in this for close to 40 years and 35 years as a writer, 22 years as a publisher. Keep fighting. Stay strong. And again never give up. I love your voice and your spirit. I’m always available if you want to talk more about what can be done. With respect, Luis J. Rodriguez.

  16. Oh, Xochi, I’m in awe that you have handled this sickening ride with such grace. Heartsick, though.

  17. susanrich says:

    Well stated and full of heart. A press in the Northwest that you might find a great fit is Two Sylvias Press run by two women poets. Your book will find the right home…

  18. Kat says:

    Very courageous, Xochi. Your line “…if it doesn’t feel right, it’s because it isn’t right” says it all. So much of who and what we are as artists depends upon our ability to hone into this and in the process of that – our integrity is manifest. Yes, your book will definitely find the right home.

  19. Debralyn says:

    You can write. My friend Toni Ann shared this and she’s amazing so if she said you were someone to be heard I read your piece…. Wow. Don’t worry about getting published. You are great. This is just part of the path you are on. Congratulations

  20. Daisy Hernandez says:

    Thank you for writing what so many of us experience and are feeling!

  21. lgmerriman says:

    Xochitl, how awful! But your writing is beautiful. Also, I had never heard of Margaret Elysia Garcia before your post, but I’ve ordered her book now.

    Have you ever considered self-publishing your book? I have found self publishing to be an excellent outlet for writers who do not write mainstream fiction.

  22. Reblogged this on A journey of craft y casa and commented:
    Been talkin about this story and how we need to support and know where we want our words to be with… Nice Blog! Thank you Xochitl Julisa!

  23. Vachine says:

    I am White, I have used that privilege in my day job qualify as the 2%, I have been slurred as a Jew and Romanian, I got serious about poetry in a mental hospital and write because I have to. I have had tolerant champions for teachers, I took my early craft to Word Stage because when I saw Peter J. Harris read at Beyond Baroque he had to stop reading for his tears to clear and to regain his voice. In that instant I decided I wanted what he had, the capacity to feel my art, to demonstrate pain in language. There is no good reason I was embraced at World Stage, I have no marginalized-group resume, no cred as a downtrodden minority. Nevertheless, my poetry is about being yelled at as weird, about silences in crowds from fear of groups, about rarely being invited to literary parties, and mainly rants about injustice. I have a computer keyboard, and so far in America, the so-called right to express myself. My publisher approached me not the other way around, she also an out-spoken word artist. I am 72 and expect to take gurney retirement from my writing. I salute your bravery. To use a tired cliché from the 60s, Venceremos.

  24. Anon says:

    You made the right decision. I have wished for years that I could have my book back.

    From issues with distribution at release to refusal to let a big agency shop it for second printing rights… (Kate was “happy with how the book was doing”)… to threatening to pull it out of the catalog because I complained about how I was treated… to the annual royalties that they cannot pay unless I work out an installment plan with them …. RHP is one of the biggest regrets of my literary career.

  25. antoniacrane2012 says:

    Xochitl, this blog post is so fantastic, brave, smart and moving. I can’t wait to read your collection when it comes out on the right press.

  26. Julie Feng says:

    Hi Xochitl-Julisa:
    Thank you so much for writing this graceful and courageous piece. My admiration for you is immense. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  27. “AWP is US” reminded me why I write poetry in the first place. Because privileged, white America isn’t going to tell my story, or the stories of those around me. Because writing poetry is my way of claiming space in a world that wants to push me out of the way. Because writing poetry gives me the power to create and build the world I want to see. I build this world with words, and I’m not giving those up to Kate Gale. I can’t! They are the only power I have.

    Thank you for this paragraph. As a poet who’s been trying to find a place in a world of poetry that doesn’t seem anything like my own, it’s something I needed to hear.

  28. You’re right. Red Hen and Kate Gale are wrong. Someone will publish your book, and we will all be better for it.

    Thanks for your bravery,

    Josh Davis

  29. Xavia says:

    In fact, Red Hen was going to tell your story–you just opted out because, like some others, you chose to interpret Gale’s piece very narrowly, reducing her to a stereotype.

    While stereotyping white people is not racist, it is still reductive reasoning, the same sort of reasoning that causes people to find Latinas in college “unrealistic.”

    • It’s not about Red Hen telling my story, it’s about me telling my story, and having the power to choose the correct home for that story. Red Hen isn’t the right home if its founding editor doesn’t understand (and belittles) the needs of the community she claims to help.

  30. Well said, Xochitl! I admire your guts and integrity. Thank you for sharing this important perspective.

  31. juanitofeito says:

    Right on, Xochitl! Although I don’t know you, I am proud of your decision and for sharing it through this post.

  32. Pingback: Claps and Cheers: The Power of No – Women Who Submit

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