Archive Editor's Note

Risk: Editor’s Discussion, July 2022

 Dear Reader,

I want to share with you an excerpt from an email conversation I had with a Poem of the Day subscriber named María Ángeles, who has agreed to have our conversation represented in this note to bring the topic to you. As the audience for Poem of the Day, your feedback and investment in this newsletter is essential. Thank you for continuing to read and respond.

María Ángeles emailed me in response to an explicit language “content warning”on the Poem of the Day newsletter in June. Having read the poem and the June Editor’s Discussion with care and openness, María Ángeles was concerned that content warnings may be inappropriate for the special mode of language that poetry takes, a mode that engages in what she aptly terms “risk.”

Content warnings are a sticky subject for some and a necessity for others. I first learned about these sorts of warnings in 2017 for a pedagogical study on trigger warnings in the classroom, not long after the subject was publicly debated at my alma mater the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago declares itself a staunch supporter of intellectual freedom, which is related but not equal to ideas of “free speech,” as Teresa Bejan’s 2017 essay hearkening back to Ancient Greek definitions of free speech beautifully illustrates. Content freedoms and content warnings are often pitted against one another because of the elisions among these concepts, but they need not be equated. Here is part of my emailed response to our reader:

…Since you've been reading the Poem of the Day for a while, you know that content warnings are new to the newsletter. We are trying those out for certain poems in response to accessibility needs from readers and our internal desires to make poetry generally more accessible. Part of access, to us, means that readers are able to engage with poetry from wherever they're at, and some people are more able to engage when they are told, briefly, what in a poem might be difficult for them. Content warnings, to me, are invitations to engage, not excuses to disengage, and we try to write them that way (as invitations, which we're always learning and looking to do better).

I agree that poetry can and should be surprising and engaging on its own terms, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be open and compassionate and try to equally open poems up as much as possible to all readers. Readers of the Poem of the Day newsletter are of all sorts and are looking for all sorts of poetry - who knows what will come into the inbox on any given day - and they aren't always expecting a surprise, especially one that could be upsetting or, at worst, triggering. Not all readers are ready for any given poem, but for anyone who wants to try out new and difficult poems, we are writing content warnings as invitations to open the email…

The “trigger” is rooted in trauma studies and psychology; “content warnings” deviate in some instances from this trauma-specific definition and are more broadly applicable while sharing a similar prerogative in labeling content so as to provide access. For those in trauma studies and those impacted by trauma, the content warning is an "access technology," as Petra Kuppers describes it. Which poems to provide content warnings for, as well as how to word them, is a topic of discussion; strong language to some is not strong to others, while other warnings about violence or potentially offensive language are less debatable. For instance, the June Poem of the Day Glitter in My Wounds” by CAConrad contains re-appropriated slurs used as rallying cries for queer folks - out of context, these slurs can be offensive, and each reader has a unique relationship to the words themselves, as with all language. What we think of as “sensitive content” differs from person to person.

I love the word “risk” in this context and I think it is important that we think of poetry as risky business. To let someone into your metaphor so deep as to touch the symbol of your most emotional self is a great risk. The reader of a poem takes great risk in allowing wild emotions and thoughts into themselves; who knows the physical and intellectual reactions one might have to a given poem - a “gift,” as María Ángeles calls it, in the inbox, perhaps? Readers of poetry, I believe, thrive on risk of different kinds. Some want the risk of emotion, others want a new thought or revelation, others want the risk of illusion and escape. There are thousands of ways poetry encourages us to risk language.

A related relatively new concept we might consider is the “brave space,” a term assuming engagement enabled by access can and should be “brave” or courageous, perhaps as opposed to avoidant. “Brave space” is an evolution of “safe space,” and for this context I prefer bravery. I challenge myself and you, reader, to think about our concepts of bravery in relation to reading and to poetry. What does it mean to be a brave reader or writer? What is a brave poem? María Ángeles rightly connects the “depressing” description and heavy content of some poems to the issue of the content warning; she wrote that perhaps the same logic about not censoring content can be applied in both instances. I do not disagree. However, if content warnings can enable brave engagement and more equal and open access to important content- access to brave poetry- then I am happy to provide and develop a practice of content warnings for Poem of the Day. The poem is a living spark, and rather than defusing the poem, perhaps content warnings, for many, become a conduit for the reading of the poem.

Power to the Reader and to Poetry,

Robert Eric Shoemaker, PhD

Digital Archive Editor

Originally Published: June 30th, 2022

Dr. Robert Eric Shoemaker is the Digital Archive Editor at the Poetry Foundation. Eric is an interdisciplinary poet, artist, and scholar. He holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from the University of Louisville and an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He...