walter benjamin on hack writer review of radical trans poetics anthology

The image is a quote from the essay "The Artist as Producer" by German Jewish writer Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Radical Scabs, Radical Snitches: A Review of We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics (2020)

-With thanks to Ariana Brown, for writing about the Amazon Literary Partnership

The first question I had when I saw the call for submissions for We Want It All was, "Where are they getting the money for it?"

Much like this collection of radical trans poses and gestures, my question was a coin with two divided faces. Initially I only confronted the one that was most obvious to me as a trans writer who has been a food stamps recipient for years: "How will poor trans writers be able to submit work to this seemingly well-funded press if they won't receive any payment in return?" Because Nightboat Books wasn't planning to pay its contributors. Or, put another way, how are trans writers supposed to exist and create any writing at all if the publications asking for our work refuse to pay?"

I put this first question to the press and its editors in that early stage of the book's publication, and after facing backlash along with other writers who had the same concern (being trans writers who could not afford the time to write and send in a submission without payment; who did not have access to the wealth or employment opportunities required to sustain a recreational writing practice), the press announced it would be paying a small honorarium to its writers. An honorarium that as of this fall, nearly two years on, as press for the book began to appear in such notable literary institutions as Publisher's Weekly and Poets & Writers, had yet to be paid to them.

You might think, maybe there's nothing intentional about these missteps. Their hearts are in the right place. It's not as if the publisher and its editors, with their well-educated, employed writers in tow, operate under a banner that reads TRANS WORKS OVER TRANS LIVES.

See how the introduction to the book calls our attention to the task of revolution. But what is the relationship of this book to the means of production? As Walter Benjamin wrote, "[P]olitical tendency alone is not enough." Because even a book that bills itself "[a]s a collection of writing... against capital and empire" can be swallowed up, neutralized, and set against workers by the institutions that form racial capitalism.

Indeed, publishing is a major arm of racial capitalism. Publishing nourishes and strengthens capital especially where it intersects with the university and corporate finance to produce through the Author and the Book the neoliberal narratives of progress, merit, human worth, and genius which are essential to the opposite (but intimately connected) arms of policing and punishment. If the author (always white, always educated, deserving) has something to say, then the prisoner (always Black or brown, always uneducated, undeserving) has nothing to say.

Those broader dynamics operate in full force in We Want It All.

Back when I originally spoke up about being the kind of poor trans writer who couldn't afford to work for free—a trans woman of color no less, who was again (because these are systematic barriers we face) being shut out of publishing—a poet who did end up being published in the collection reached out to me.

Unprompted, she confessed to what seems to be at the core of the book: careerism, self-advancement, reformism, revolutionary aesthetics wrapped around guilty white/liberal hearts. She wrote, regarding her decision to push ahead with submitting to We Want It All despite knowing that I and other poor writers were being shut out: "i am just about to graduate with an mfa and feel like now is the time for me to push for some institutional legitimation that i can use to lift up other ppl. i have access to the social capital of publishing now, and want to use it in such a way that i can lift other ppl up."

I want to thank this poet for being honest. I didn't know what to say at the time, apart from the obvious: that there wasn't enough common ground for us to work together despite living within minutes of one another and knowing the same queers because we had profoundly different visions for mutual aid and publishing. While I was working for the abolition of publishing and the university so that I and other oppressed people could survive, she needed them to exist so that she could build a career, buy a house, have a nice queer life.

This goes back to my initial question: how can the writers of this book afford to write? It's because despite the editors telling us that "poetry should be an activity by and for everybody," with this book they recreated the hierarchies that determine who among us actually gets a chance to write poetry and publish. Literature professors. Graduate degree holders. People who have already published entire books. That's who made it into We Want It All

There's almost no one in this book that doesn't have a graduate degree or hasn't already had a book published by a press—each is an incredibly rare feat for the most marginalized trans people, and yet many of the contributors of this book have accomplished both. They're professionals, most of them; as in, they produce writing at their day jobs, or publishing in this book will pay off for them just as it will for the MFA grad who wrote to me. This will become another line in their resume, it might help them sell some books, so they don't need the cash payment really. I mean, Aaron El Sabrout, the poet whose work opens the book is a staff attorney at a nonprofit. I'm a sex worker who almost wound up without a place to live three separate times in the past two years. He writes, "Who does gender serve?" Maybe it's served him, if it's gotten him a job and a life. If he's able to write a weary tourist scene in Mexico for this collection where you can just about hear him sigh, "On the beach the wannabe Maya head / and the somewhere-maybe pyramid / are still sand, sloughing into the sea." Whereas I'm a Mexican for whom gender and empire make it impossible to return home—I can't even afford to update my fucking passport.

We are not the same. 

Is it so hard to say that a university professor who gets paid to write non-threatening texts by an institution that has its own police force to protect its property and its deserving people may not be capable of the same forms of revolutionary analysis that arise at the intersections of racialization, sex work, poverty, and disability—most of the poets in the collection are white, by the way, and they struggle mightily to engage with the specter of white supremacy that haunts them at every turn—consider the way Aeon Ginsberg disappears the movements of Black and brown people with a breezy statement like, "The way things are going, the queers are going to be the last haven against the police state..." (???) and flattens queer experiences down so far they tower above (racialized) migrants and refugees to speak for them: "There’s a customs bench on every border making ghosts of our bodies."

Our bodies? We are not the same!

No poet confesses to having rich parents or a cushy job or to benefiting immeasurably from their whiteness in their author bio, but it's obvious that there are class differences between the people who made it into this book and those of us who were excluded. These differences  remain unspoken in this collection just like they do in every other product of institutional publishing.

Speaking of the devil, let us turn to the second question: where is the press getting the money to publish this book? It's no small thing, after all, producing a print run of a 450 page book, even if you aren't paying your writers. There are editors to be paid. A designer. Maybe a publicist. Someone has to make sure that review copies go out to the right people, that this tome ends up on bookstore shelves... somewhere, during a pandemic. 

It turns out Nightboat Books received thousands of dollars in funding from Amazon through its Literary Partnership in 2020. The exact amount isn't clear (there's no transparency), and the extent of the contributions Nightboat has received from Amazon and other corporate funders isn't known either. Nightboat's website gives thanks to the arts agencies of NYC and NY State, the NEA, some rich writer, and some private equity firm for their financial support, but that's the extent of their disclosures. What we do know is that Nightboat's books receive distribution through Small Press Distribution (SPD), which also receives funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership. And it's safe to assume that We Want It All will be nominated for at least one award from Lambda Literary (it may even win, like Nightboat's collection of Lou Sullivan's diaries did this year), which, you guessed it, has a history of receiving funding from Amazon).

We also know the authors of We Want It All arrived to the collection through the depth of their involvement in the university and by publishing in presses and literary journals. They needed a certain amount of "institutional legitimation" before they could find their way into the book on their way to further legitimation—and first had to form themselves as that, as Trans Writers, in institutions that receive funding from Amazon as well. Red Hen Press. Coffee House Press. Cave Canem. Kundiman. Electric Literature. The Kenyon Review. The Academy of American Poets. Again, Lambda Literary. And so on. 

It's an interesting juxtaposition for We Want it All to be released at the same moment that workers from across Amazon's global labor force are taking risks to demand better working conditions. I'm not only referring to the international strike and protest action on November 27, 2020, which is an intensification of the yearly boycotts and protests that have taken place on "Black Friday" in recent years. There have been protests and calls to boycott Amazon throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, including in June (over the lack of PPE and the risk of illness "essential" warehouse workers faced) and in October (over Amazon's pandemic profiteering at the expense of its overworked and underpaid labor). There was also a call for artists to cut ties with and for consumers to boycott Amazon in 2019 over news of the ways Amazon/AWS supports the Department of Homeland Security's race-based arrests, internment, and deportation operations.

I'm not arguing that We Want It All made its poets into scabs, that it walked them across the picket line, and made them the enemies of working and marginalized people. They were already scabs. Publishing made them into scabs. Radical scabs with the proper political tendency who willingly got swallowed up by a brutal, interconnected system of racial capitalism that includes (as Andrea Abi-Karam helpfully points out with these lines about a cop, "I STILL REMEMBER YR FACE. WHITE AND PINK AND SOFT W GREY HAIR. U COULD BE MY POETRY PROFESSOR) the poetry professor and the police officer as colleagues. The professor (every professor) hands out credentials according to race and class and ability; and the cop hands out trauma and prison terms along the inverse of the  same lines. They work on the same campus. They subscribe to them same genocidal, reformist ideology. To put a ribbon on it, the school where they work is a financial donor of the city's police foundation/union. 

How could they not have known what they were getting into?

There's no way to publish without becoming enmeshed in this system and becoming a scab. Look at the radicals of this book: many of them are scabs several times over, they keep working for presses and journals that take money from Amazon to write their books and make no impact on the lives of the workers breaking their bodies in the warehouses or anywhere else. All the while the movements against capital, against the entirety of the settler colony continue to race past the poets who publish and read one another as part of the world's saddest circle jerk. 

And I know. I'm aware of the cognitive games through which poets of the institutions absolve themselves of the call to divestment and revolutionary action by saying that it's working, actually, that they can get the better of the capitalists in the devil's bargain they've struck. That somehow they will take the money with one hand and make revolution with the other. A feat that has never been accomplished.

What I see happening here. What the collection's own writers have said to me in private and what an analysis of the production of this book shows is that it has nothing to do with a revolutionary practice. It's about getting ahead in the miserable system they can't imagine turning against as combatants. 

We Want It All is only available in print. It costs something like $30 to get a copy in your hands. I humiliated myself by begging the press for a free copy, so I'm attaching the PDF to this post to spare any other poor queers the trouble. I sincerely hope they'll post a copy to their site.

A third question—one final, surprise "Where are they getting the money for it?"—might also be asked of the prospective readers of this book. Who is going to pay for this shit apart from other literary professionals or other overeducated scabs and their friends? A book of radical puppetry might be of use to people working to overthrow the institutions of racial capitalism from below if they could get access to it. I'll concede that it may be possible this could've helped someone if everything had been different. But the way this thing was made, the cost, the disdain towards poor trans readers and writers, the size of the book, the contest for legitimacy within its pages, the overinclusion of white poets who live in a world without people of color, makes it damn near impossible for We Want it All to receive the genuine engagement (the contact with action) that could only take place outside of the walls of their workplace.

Perhaps Aeon Ginsberg leaves us with another mode of inquiry by asking us to consider, "It could take a parasite to destroy a beast. It could take a parasite to become a snitch too." Which suggests a theory of radical snitchery. A guild of radical trans snitches embedded in the institutions. Snitches who though they betray us every day by speaking about us to the the crushing machinery they call publishing or the university or nonprofits (revealing "the map", to borrow Ginsberg's language) might be able to do something the rest of us can't since we've never had the option of inhabiting the institutions like they do. Instead of making books they could sabotage the university, throw their bodies into the gears of the machinery of nonprofits by exposing their dirtiest secrets in a coordinated action, give us entry to their bosses' properties or set a fire the next time they're allowed on campus, in the headquarters, or the functions where they stare face to face with the board of directors (every board of directors).

It could take snitches to make it so every capitalist that "should die the same way Mussolini did – upside-down in the street" does. 

I'll believe it when I see it. 


Download a free PDF copy of We Want It All