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Editing pieces that deal with difficult topics

As editors and readers for Polyphony Lit, we know our primary duty is to help our own rising generation of literary artists feel supported and heard. We know how we’re supposed to accomplish it, too: leaving thoughtful, supportive feedback on their writing and giving them a platform to publish their work.

But what if a young writer needs to feel heard in a different way? What if their submission is not just a shout into the literary abyss, but a cry for help?

Over the last couple years, the number of “concerning” pieces falling across the collective Polyphony docket have skyrocketed enough to warrant a reexamination of how to handle those situations. Fellow editors and I have come across more and more pieces that make us worried for the author, and though it’s never reassuring to encounter a piece like that, I can’t say it surprises me.

The bottom line: Generation Z is disturbed. We have good reason to be. We’ve got guns in the schools, racists in the government, a crumbling economy, a second cold war on the horizon, and to top it all off, the Nazis are back.

It follows that our writing is dark and deep and full of topics that boomers may feel are “too grown-up” for our teenage minds. But I disagree. Infusing our traumas into our art is a healthy and beautiful way for us to collectively process the world we’ve been handed, and I don’t believe in censorship merely because the words aren’t comforting.

This being said, there’s a line between freedom of speech and irresponsibility.

I first came head-to-head with this issue in 2016 when I opened a poem on my docket to find a rhyming tale of rape so graphic it made me a little queasy. I read through the first and second readers’ commentary, and this feeling of discomfort came over me at the idea of coldly and distantly critiquing grammar and poetic flow on what could have been a transcription of the author’s own trauma. I deliberated for hours about it, weighing the pros and cons of speaking up about the piece, asking myself if I was just being overly sensitive. But in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to act on the piece.

So, as one does, I brought the issue to Billy. He agreed the piece was concerning, and we decided to send a probing email out to the submitter’s contact to check on her safety.

It turned out not to be a personal story (tangentially, remember to never assume author = speaker), and we sent it on through the pipeline. But as that year progressed, more and more concerning pieces started showing up on the docket, and more and more editors flocked to Billy wondering what to do. After a few more probing emails, we discussed the need for new protocol.

Two years later, we still haven’t developed that protocol. Concerning pieces continue to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but I follow a list of casual conventions. If the piece alludes to or centers around any of the following...

- rape or sexual assault

- abuse by a parent, guardian, or other figure

- severe bullying/victim of hate

- self-harm or suicide/extreme depression

- substance abuse

...then I consider it a concerning piece. All that means is that I take a deeper look at it, and I start to ask myself whether it warrants red-flagging it and sending it along to Billy. Whether it warrants calling for a probing email.

In the end, I make my decisions based on two things: the level of believability of the piece and the likelihood of immediate danger. When I say believability, I don’t mean plausibility. But, for example, you can tell sometimes when reading a sub-par piece about abuse that the author has no proximity to or experience with the subject. There is no concrete way to decide how “real” a story is, but if there are discrepancies in the narrative, if it feels overly cliché or tropey, or if it reads as emotionally flat, I often suspect that the author is writing from afar. In terms of the second criterion, the one I lean most heavily on, I ask myself one question: if I was to assume that in this case, the speaker or narrator really is the author, would this person be in immediate danger?

If I answer yes to that question, the red flag is a no-brainer. I send it to Billy and call for an email to the submitter’s contact. If I’m unsure, I get a second or third opinion. And if the answer is no, I edit per usual and send it along through the pipeline.

This is in no way a comprehensive catch-all for the diverse concerning situations a reader/editor inevitably encounters at Polyphony. But it’s a place to start. Above all, I’ll just say this: use your best judgment. Use your best compassion. Think to yourself, if my best friend had written this, would I be scared? And if the answer is yes, you know what to do.

Now, some notes on what to do if you don’t end up deeming it worthy of a serious red flag. Obviously, compassion is key here, too. Nobody wants to create a poem about how depressed they are just to be told how poorly they write. It’s like, you’re depressed and feel like you can’t please anyone? Ha, surprise, you can’t please us either! In all seriousness, though, the difficulty lies in straddling the line between sensitivity and, as Billy put it the first time I talked to him, “blowing smoke up people’s asses.”

In my opinion, the most important thing to do is make sure these authors feel heard. Make sure they know we appreciate their bravery, appreciate their willingness to put whatever trauma they or their speaker have experienced on electronic paper and leave it to the mercy of hundreds of stressed high schoolers and one quirky, lowercase-loving published author. This appreciation can take the form of a quick note at the beginning or end of your general commentary, or you can infuse it throughout your specific commentary with acknowledgments of how difficult it is to write about X heavy topic.

Alright. I think we’ve pretty much covered part one of the concerning-submission-conundrum. *high-five.* But unfortunately, like most problems, there’s a second, more nuanced, and arguably thornier side to this whole thing.

When we think of concerning pieces, we think of the kind I mentioned above: a piece that makes you concerned for the author’s safety. But what about everyone else’s safety?

This summer, I received a crunch-time poem that I would categorize as a Type II Red Flagger. This second variety is rarer, granted, and can be more difficult to spot. The particular specimen I’m talking about was full of centuries-old racist rhetoric (which was decidedly not present for the purpose of irony or commentary). It also included a sexualization of gun violence, comparing a mass shooting to a mass ejaculation. Despite all this, three crunch-timers before me had commented that it was “beautiful” and “life-changing.”

I looked from the piece to the other editors’ commentary and back again, puzzling over how we seem to have seen entirely different sides of the piece. And then it hit me: all of the above questionable messaging was packaged in a shell of poeticism. There is an idea floating out there that art excuses everything. That as long as the language is intricate and clever, it doesn’t matter how concerning or violent the messaging is, because art is supposed to be provocative.

But just because something is beautiful doesn’t mean it can’t be racist. Just because Plath was a skilled poet doesn’t mean she wasn’t anti-Semitic. And although we don’t have the right to stop people from creating pieces that encourage violence and hatred, I believe it’s our responsibility not to amplify and disseminate those messages, especially not amongst people our age.

So back to the story: my response to this particular Type II was to categorically recommend reject, explaining exactly why the poem was careless and hostile. I didn’t take further measures, simply because I could see the way the poet romanticized violence was just a stab at being deep and provocative. But if it had gone beyond ostentation, if I had thought this writer really had a chance of perpetrating the shooting described in the poem or acting on the ugly prejudice underneath the verse, I would have followed a protocol similar to the Type I procedure.

The difficult thing about this type of concerning piece is that reaching out to Billy about it feels like less of a beneficial social outreach move and more of an accusation. But if someone is writing about how their deep desire to stab their brother or burn down the corner store, I consider it our duty as responsible citizens to make sure no one around them is harmed.

Despite all I’ve said, there’s no easy way to distill these multifaceted, sensitive situations into a simple protocol. Polyphony is, in this way, no different from life: and as we face the strange Bosch-esque world that is art, as we sift through the sublime and the ridiculous and the perturbing, we have to make the same decisions we do everyday.

We have to decide what is worth speaking up about. We have to decide when to act on what we believe and when to respect others’ freedom. It’s difficult but it’s worth it, and in the end, it’s up to you. You shape the world you want to live in. You decide the voices you want to amplify. So, when handed a piece that deals with the hard stuff, toss away everything you know about art and writing and listen to only one thing: your human instinct. Look at it as a window into the mind of a fellow imperfect kid, who’s lost and trying and reaching out. And then decide how you want to answer them.

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Katie Scullion
Dec 14, 2018

Dear Voices,

The adult staff at Polyphony Lit wanted to respond to this important post. We do indeed have a policy about responding to editorial guidelines, but hear you that we should make editors more aware of it.

The post raises several issues: is Generation Z disturbed? I personally think the author makes a good point, but probably debatable about if Gen Z is more disturbed than other generations. For one, Boomers have a lot to answer for if you ask me. And is it we are disturbed or that we have to live in a challenging world? And when is censorship right? This post sure does get the question right: it's complicated but a responsible person will grapple wit…

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