Haymarket Books has come under scrutiny in the last week over a recently announced anthology that critics say badly misjudges the wants and needs of the disability community.
The project, titled Against Ableism: An Anthology, was conceived early last year, and scheduled to be edited by poets Shira Erlichman, Ilya Kaminsky, and Morgan Parker. A call for submissions was announced on April 7 in a since-deleted tweet by Erlichman. On April 8, an open letter was released by four main signatories: CUNY doctoral candidate and published poet Jesse Rice-Evans, and three others who chose to remain anonymous because of their status as multiply-marginalized poets and anticipating the risk of what Rice-Evans described as “blowback.” The letter has since been signed by 339 people.
The letter, which names both Haymarket Books and the poetry community at-large, takes issue with the perceived level of involvement the editors have with disability justice—a framework established by disabled queer women of color activists, including Patty Berne, that stresses examining issues of disability and ableism through an intersectional lens, deliberately expanding upon and challenging the whiteness of the disability rights movement and its lack of intersectional analysis and action. The letter also takes umbrage over exclusionary practices that already exist within the poetry community, the wording of a call for submissions that does not focus on identity-first language (i.e., “disabled person” versus “person with a disability”), and that the initial call did not include accessibility features like alt-text.
The open letter also calls for Haymarket to disclose how the editors were selected, asks whether any of the editors are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, questioned a lack of non-cis editors, and asked whether “the editors and press have the community and political savvy to engage the vast umbrella of Disability?”
On Twitter, further critiques were advanced, largely by Black people working within the disability justice movement, including over the lack of pay for contributors. "Anyone who has worked in disability arts knows that we work hard to pay each other, very often under the table so as not to compromise people’s benefits. That this opportunity was unpaid says that there was no one in the room from disability arts spaces," poet Cyrée Jarelle Johnson said. His Twitter thread summed up the main issues that activists and artists have with the project.
The group, in a collectively crafted follow-up to Publishers Weekly, said that the issue with the editors involved wasn’t that they didn’t have a relationship to disability, but that the word ableism—discrimination based on ability or perceived ability—in the title sets a certain bar within the disability poetry community. “...we expected for an ‘anti-ableist’ anthology to be coordinated by folks who have been doing anti-ableist organizing in literary spaces.” The letter included a long list of suggested poets and editors, and also pointed to what Rice-Evans called, in a follow up email, the erasure of disabled people in literary spaces that was most visible through a lack of access features on the original call.
“Access is not optional for many disabled writers,” Rice-Evans told PW. “We see evidence of this is in the number of redacted signatories [of the open letter]—people who have been fighting for access in literary spaces that force us to perform in hyper-abled professionalized spaces that are inaccessible for so, so many of us. And the erasure is so profound that even disabled writers do not build community with one another because we’re pitted against each other to be the chosen, 'acceptable' token sick person.”
By April 10, both Erlichman and Parker had gone public with apologies. Rice-Evans, whose response to Publishers Weekly was collectively created with the signatories of the letter, said that Kaminsky has resigned from the project and reached out directly to the group to thank them and offer a donation toward future writer stipends for the anthology. Parker’s letter, which Rice-Evans called “beautiful,” expressly offered up her resignation if it is determined by the community that she should not be involved in the project, while also highlighting her initial insecurity about taking on the project and her own relationship to disability through her mental health, a realm of disability that is already intensely stigmatized.
“When I was invited to help put together an anthology of disabled poets and artists, the first thing I thought was: Twitter,” Parker wrote. “No way Twitter would let that fly. Who do I think I am? What right do I have to claim 'disability' when everyone knows mental illness isn’t really a disability, right?”
She added: “I come to you vulnerably, without ego, in service and respect. If it is not my place to help edit this project, I will resign immediately. If my involvement is in any way a barrier to inclusion or a distraction from the book’s mission, if my presence is a violence or disturbance, I will step down graciously and enthusiastically.”
Haymarket published a response thread on April 9 to those who submitted the open letter. In it, they announced a “pausing” on submissions and a period of time to “reimagine” what the anthology will look like, and expressed their thanks to those who brought the issue to their attention. The tweets have been combined below for clarity.
“On Wednesday, we announced a call for submissions for Against Ableism: An Anthology. In the time since, we have received thoughtful and necessary criticisms of the project. Today we are pausing the submissions window to reimagine the project. We are committed to including more voices from disability justice organizers in the project, and to paying disabled artists and creators for their work. We’re pausing the submission window while doing the necessary work to make this book its best. We are sorry for the harm we caused, and thankful for those who have called us in.”
Following up with PW, Haymarket confirmed its commitment to the editorial team behind the book, calling them “disabled writers who are exceptional in their craft,” adding: “We are confident that with the help of the wider community they can bring together a body of work that will offer a worthy forum for disabled writers and artists.”
Still, Haymarket continued, it will “support the editors in taking their time to regroup and frame what this project looks like. They are conscientiously making room for gracious corrections from trusted organizers, writers and activists, and those conversations have already started. The result will be an inclusive and accessible call produced in collaboration with those organizers and activists.”
In addition, Haymarket confirmed that it will pay contributors to the anthology.
Rice-Evans said that the group is currently writing a set of follow-up demands for Haymarket, but that their response hasn’t been instant in part due to their relationship with disability and disability culture.
“Disability justice works slowly by design,” Rice-Evans said. “We have had to ensure that we’re taking breaks to rest, get offline, eat, take meds, hydrate, do our paid work, go to therapy and support groups. So while we’re excited to move forward and have an open dialogue with Haymarket and the editors, we are also intentionally taking our time.”
The group behind the open letter also said: “We are grateful that so much response has focused on our two big asks: better access protocols—centering access as a central feature of planning and developing the anthology—and finding a way to financially support disabled writers.”
This article has been updated with further information.