by W.D. Ehrhart
I have been writing poetry ever since I was 15 years old. My first published work appeared in 1971 when I was 22 years old. Since then, I’ve published over 400 poems. Along the way, I’ve probably received as many as 4,000 rejection slips, and it’s probably safe to say that every rejection notice I have ever received has come from an editor who didn’t think the poems I’d sent were very good.
Recently, however, I have run into a rejection unlike any other I’ve ever received in 59 years. I recently submitted this poem to an online publication that purports to be left progressive:
The Day I Discovered Racism
We were driving an English Vauxhall
we’d bought in Santa Rosa, New Mexico,
for $67 and the trade-in for our ancient
Chevy that had blown an engine
the night before and now sat useless
along the Interstate west of town.
The Vauxhall didn’t have a speedometer
or any other gauges, only empty holes
in the dashboard where gauges
should have been, no gas pedal, just
a metal pin through the floor, no
gas cap, no oil cap, no windshield
wipers, and no headlights until we
found the switchbox beneath the back
seat and hooked it up with masking tape;
the heat kept melting the tape, so we
had to retape it every hour or so.
But we’d gotten as far as Louisiana,
early morning, a two-lane road through
cane fields and cypress trees and bayous
when we got a flat. And of course, no
spare tire. So we’re sitting there
by the side of the road scratching
our heads and wondering what to do
next when a car pulls up and two
Black men get out and ask us if
we need any help. And we’re starting
to explain when a pick-up truck
comes to a screeching halt and two
white men get out and start pushing
and threatening the two Black men
and chasing them off with a warning
to leave the white boys alone.
Then, as nice as can be, they offer
to drive us to the nearest town
to get our tire fixed, and they treat us
to breakfast while we wait for the tire,
then drive us back to our car and put
the tire back on before wishing the four
of us a safe trip home to Pennsylvania.
Here’s the editor’s reply: “Thanks for sending the poem, Bill. Although I like the poem, I can’t publish it because when I’ve published poems about racist incidents written by white people, I’ve received over-the-top hate-mail, not from racists, as you’d expect, but from leftists and progressives who view such poems as naive, self-congratulatory, or condescending.”
Naïve? I was 16 years old, it was 1965, I’d never witnessed this sort of racism before in my life. It was a seminal experience, life-changing. But congratulatory? Let alone condescending? Did this editor pay any attention at all to the title of the poem? Anybody besides a white racist who could be offended by this poem is looking for an excuse to be offended.
I then tried another online publication that has used poems of mine as recently as a month ago without hesitation or second opinions. And I got this response from the website manager: “To me it seems perfect, but I should also run it by our poetry editors first since both editors, in addition to being fine poets, are also people of color and one is in fact African American.”
So, he doesn’t reject the poem outright like the first editor did. But he needs to make sure I pass some kind of politically correct litmus test with his colleagues of color before he’ll accept the poem. He, too, doesn’t want to offend anyone and wants to be reassured that my poem is not going to get him into hot water like that adjunct professor at Hamline University (https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/hamline-university-professor-fired-showing-184107453.html).
Nearly thirty years ago, I published a poem called “Mostly Nothing Happens” in the journal War, Literature & the Arts (v.6, #2, 1994; you can read it at https://wdehrhart.com/poem-mostly-nothing.html). It’s about the first Black friend I ever had. I wonder if any editor would be brave enough to publish that poem today.
Over twenty-five years ago, I published a poem called “The Origins of Passion” in the journal Big Hammer (#3, April 1997) about dressing up in my mother’s undergarments when I was a young boy (you’ll have to find that one in my Collected Poems; I don’t have it electronically). I wonder if any editor would be brave enough to publish that poem today.
As I said I’ve received thousands of rejections over the course of my writing life, but never for fear that what I’ve written might offend anyone other than those who deserve to be offended. I’ve been a dedicated Left Progressive pretty much ever since I got out of the Vietnam War and the U.S. Marine Corps. I’ve often been accused by the political right, and even the political center, of being “unpatriotic” or even of “hating America.”
But only recently have I found myself accused of being politically incorrect by people who purport to hold the same political beliefs that I do. No wonder people like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham find it so easy to make progressives look foolish. Too many people on the left are foolish. Too many so-called “progressives” are just looking for reasons to be outraged, to feel persecuted and put upon.
If I don’t use the correct pronoun—he? she? it? they?—for whoever I happen to be talking to at any given moment, I am intolerantly refusing to recognize the full spectrum of gender possibilities. If I say something that accidentally hurts someone’s—anyone’s—feelings, I am inexcusably and unforgivably insensitive.
And now, apparently, half a century after the fact, when I explain that we used to go out on patrols from our battalion command post in Vietnam, I’m no longer allowed to say that we went to the “field,” even though that’s exactly what we did. I guess I’m supposed to say that we went for a walk in the countryside. Or we strolled around the neighborhood. Or hiked through rice fields and mangrove swamps and abandoned banana plantations with no roads and few trails that weren’t mined or booby-trapped.
A lot of people have a lot of reasons to be angry and resentful of the treatment they and their ancestors have received from this country over its long and often sordid history. But we on the progressive left need to be able to discuss important topics and serious issues without having to tiptoe gingerly around the sensibilities of every last person involved in the discussion for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. That kind of censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, is simply not productive.
W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Company, Inc.