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Breath & Shadow's Policies on Publishing Material with Violent or Sexual Content or "Adult" Language by Sharon Wachsler, former Editor

Questions of "where to draw the lines" are tricky for all publications. In the case of Breath & Shadow, we had some particularly difficult choices, due to the nature of some of our readers' disabilities. After a great deal of thought and discussion, I've come to conclusions on most of these issues. If you'd like to read about our process, and how I arrived at my decisions, please read on. One time the issues of violence, sex, language, and especially sexual violence, came up was when Denise Noe sent us her poem, "This Poem is for Darius Barney." Darius Barney, a cross–dressing prostitute, became national news in 1991, when a celebrity assaulted him. The poem is excerpted below, with Noe's permission.

"This Poem Is for Darius Barney"

This poem is for Darius Barney
Nose dripping red
Tongue tasting blood
Hands and knees on the street
A man in a skirt
Cops look at him
On his hands and knees
They see that he's hurt
This cocksucker for cash
The man in a skirt
"I don't look like a woman," he says.
So there's no mistake
This poem is for Darius Barney
A Navajo
An Indian
A Native American
A man who
Works in a skirt
This poem is for Darius Barney
Who has seen a gun
Felt a knife
Been raped by two men
Who knew they were not raping
A woman
This poem is for Darius Barney
A faggot, a fairy,
A gay man always gay
Always a man
Always a Navajo
This poem is for Darius Barney
Who is always a man
And sometimes
Only sometimes
Wears a skirt

At the time we were considering "Darius Barney," we were also considering a poem called "Contentment" by Robin Mayhall. "Contentment" (which we published) is about two people lying on the beach. Here is some of the conversation between Abby Astor, one of our poetry editors, and me.

"ABBY: ["Darius Barney"] contains some very interesting (and disturbing!) imagery. But I'm not sure it's appropriate for Breath & Shadow. It's very sordid and not "disability–related sordid." As you know, I'm gay, so it's certainly not that I don't think we should deal with homosexuality. As a matter of fact, that first poem you asked me to read ("Contentment") made me picture myself lying on a beach with a female lover even though I do not know if the couple in the poem was hetero or homosexual. Even if all Breath & Shadow material does not deal directly with disability experience, it should at least deal with universally human experience (as "Contentment" does).

SHARON: This is a toughie. Because I'm queer and have contacts in the queer writing world, I think Breath & Shadow has published a disproportionate number of poems with gay content — because that's what's come our way. So, I try to be aware of that and keep a balance. On the other hand, I don't want to shy away from something that's good simply based on that issue. I mean, we've received some fiction submissions that I rejected because they were erotica (basically explicit sex) and I felt that wasn't appropriate. And I've rejected a few pieces because I felt they were offensive (ableist). So, I do draw lines. However, I think part of the oppression of people with disabilities is fear/repulsion of the body/body difference/unpleasant aspects of the body, so including explicit (or harsh or intense or — in your opinion, sordid) content might be part of that "shadow of an image" of the not–overt–disability aesthetic, but may be part of a disability aesthetic. It is something I am aware of frequently when I read stories or poems that have sex or violence in them. Can you say more what you mean about universally human experience? What makes "Contentment" universal and "Darius Barney" not?

ABBY: You make an interesting point about explicit sex having to do with fear/repulsion of the body/body difference/unpleasant aspects of the body and therefore being part of "a" disability aesthetic. I've been mulling over this all day and I'm still not sure where I stand. I know that in the gay community there is much prejudice against transgender individuals; many gays and lesbians do not want the progress they've worked so hard to achieve to be "weighed down" by transgender persons. I totally disagree with this. I strongly believe that we (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people) need to stick together. I'm still not sure if explicit sex, without reference to a disability, belongs in a journal of disability literature. I am further confused by the fact that sex and disability are intrinsically connected for me (I have PTSD!). "Contentment" is universal in that all of us (I hope!), in whatever shadow we give off, have experienced this feeling. Most of us (I also hope) do not relate to the experiences of Darius Barney."

What is the purpose of Breath & Shadow? Is our primary goal to fight the oppression of people with disabilities at any cost, or is it to provide a forum for writers with disabilities or a combination of the two? I think that if we devote too much space to explicit sex without reference to an overt disability, we might be cutting off our nose to spite our face. I don't want to throw anyone overboard but I also do not want to scare off potential readers and submitters.

That was the first time somebody else raised this issue with me, although I'd had to make some judgment calls on related issues by myself, previously. Later, another editor who came to one of our readings had these comments:

"Some of the material at the reading was pretty graphic, with 'adult' language and disturbing content. When movies come on TV like that, there is a warning about these things. I feel that's a good policy for public events, too, and also for any future CDs. I know I would have appreciated knowing I was going to be exposed to the content in advance (so would my friend who attended). She has a son [with a disability] and was interested in the possibility of involving him and others at [his school] with Breath & Shadow. Maybe Breath & Shadow isn't appropriate for teenagers. She was concerned about their being exposed to similar content as at the reading. I understand we don't want to censor writers in any way, but the audience has a right to have the information to choose whether they want to attend or listen to such material."

This is a knotty problem. The material on the CD that was probably at issue is a monologue by an incest survivor about her abuse. Since the writer of that piece is also a survivor of PTSD and depression caused by abuse, the issue becomes even more entangled. In trying to represent a full range of disabilities, how can we silence the experiences that led to some of those disabilities? Yet, if we are trying to make our publication accessible to people with all types of disabilities, how can we ignore those who feel they cannot read descriptions of sex or violence?

I have considered the suggestion of a warning; I have two concerns. One is practical: How would I decide which pieces "deserved" warnings and what wording would I use? Would I have a standard format, or would I try to synopsize the piece? And if I did the latter, how would I do it without ruining it for the readers? Secondly, what one person finds "over the top," another might find mild. I would hate to scare readers away from a piece that they might love.

I've talked these issues over a great deal with my friends. One, who is extremely sensitive to violent or sexual content, told me that if she starts reading something that she finds disturbing, she stops reading it. Another said that her parents took her to Broadway productions of Hamlet and other classics when she was a teenager. "There were no warnings for those shows, believe me, and I was pretty disturbed by seeing that bloody head roll across the stage." Another pointed out the ubiquitous nature of violence, sex, and related content in the culture.

These arguments had a lot of sway for me. But they were not what finally decided me. There were a few factors. One was the conviction that Breath & Shadow, as a literary journal, isn't likely to attract a lot of kids to the site, but is likely to attract people who read literary journals. Literary journals often have sex and swear words and violence in them, just like life. However, I think the fact that this issue came up, and the way it came up, is very important; I think it shows that Breath & Shadow also attracts a lot of readers who do not usually read literary journals. It attracts people with disabilities who want to see their lives on the page — period. And, as one friend suggested, because it is so rare to have something run by people with disabilities, explicitly for people with disabilities as part of the reading public, readers probably feel a strong sense of ownership when it comes to Breath & Shadow. Nothing could make me happier. That's why we are so glad to have a grassroots sponsor and why we try to run things in a grassroots way — where all contributions (of time, energy, money, work, writing, etc.) are honored.

Still, the main reason I've decided not to use warnings on the site or to restrict our content to below an "R" rating is that I believe to do so would seriously undermine our mission. If we use "Darius Barney" as an example, we see that it contains many of the themes that I believe are common in disability culture:

  • "bodiness"

  • oppression

  • anger

  • violence

  • poverty

  • identification with other oppressed groups

I started Breath & Shadow to be a force in a movement of creative liberation. I don't want to impose on other writers some of the same restrictions that felt so stifling to me. I've decided to err on the side of liberalism.

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