Have been involved in speaking up about several different things recently, both with others and on my own. I’ve seen changes happen as a result. I didn’t use to have any confidence that using my voice could change things. Now the more I see it can, the more I have confidence in using it. This is part of a wider process and this blog is partly about adding to a chorus of voices this International Women’s Day with ever more hope they will be heard.
Four months ago, I wrote a blog about abusive relationships in the poetry community. I used the Philomela myth to underpin my description of a relationship with a poet who promised to publish me then didn’t, and with whom I entered into relationship that blurred personal and professional boundaries in a damaging way. I called for a code of conduct for the poetry community. I’ve been involved in two ongoing conversations about this via the Poetry Promoters Group on Facebook and the Society of Authors. These are feeding into wider conversations in the publishing industry.
I did not have hope that my blog would lead to any redress for me against the poet I was in a relationship with. I didn’t imagine him apologising, and I didn’t want to be in touch with him.The relationship took place over a decade ago now. I used his first name once in the article, so that people from the scene wouldn’t think it was another poet. What was unexpected, and devastating, was that two female poets got in touch to say they had also had bad experiences with him. (One described “stalking behaviour” and the other, abuses of power, when she was a young poet starting out in the scene and had a relationship with him). Then somebody else got in touch, having been ostracised by the poetry community when she raised concerns because her friend had been in a relationship with him and experienced domestic violence. He had actually been convicted of this. (I confirmed this with her).This was all in the few years after my experiences with him ended. Some people in the poetry community in Scotland where he had moved to were aware, but he always blamed and negated the women and nobody quite joined the dots. I wished I had spoken out earlier.
In my blog I gave a fuller picture of what happened than when I had previously written about being raped by him, but at the time not realising that non-consensual sex was rape. That incident was part of a wider context. I haven’t wanted to explicitly say that that was not the most traumatic thing that happened as part of the relationship, because I haven’t wanted to risk minimising the accounts of people who have experienced rape. It wasn’t though. What I experienced over the time, rather than one big trauma, was a cumulative set of upsets and traumatic events, some of which I felt and some of which I dissociated from. People rarely witnessed the events. Once though I went to a poetry reading where I was going to be meeting him and texted to ask if he was on his way. He replied; “At home. Killing myself”. He didn’t answer the phone and I raced through the venue hyperventilating, found one of his best friends and showed her the text. She got hold of him and he told her it was just a joke. She disapproved of our relationship, and me, but I later found out she had stopped speaking to him for several months because of this incident. It was certainly more consciously upsetting at the time it happened than having my “No” ignored before sex- but I buried both incidents equally deeply and both of them were symptomatic of the wider abuse of power and boundaries which was all the more acute because it crossed into my working life as a poet.
As for the poet, Kevin Cadwallender, he contacted me last week. Four months after the blog. Our first contact in eleven years apart from passing in the street a couple of times during the fringe. By Facebook messenger at half past midnight. His message read:
“Kate, How could you say that about me? We both know it isn’t true. I feel sick to my stomach that you should accuse me of that. It is despicable. I cannot understand why you would do it.”
It seemed an odd response to a wide ranging blog about the various ways our relationship exemplified the blurred boundaries in the poetry world. It becoming something I had “done” rather than said, and just one thing rather than a detailed narrative, I presumed the accusation of rape. I didn’t dissociate, but felt a full on activation of old reactions. Shivering, full body shakes. I thought maybe I could get back to sleep and reply in the morning. It became clear I couldn’t. I reminded myself in my head about Philomela not being silenced. I had words now. The only way to stop the waves was to write back. I tapped the words rapidly in the dark. What had happened since I wrote it, the other women I’d heard from (I didn’t name them). I said I’d be happy to meet him with a witness of his choice to discuss what I’d said, or to publish his point by point rebuttal of my blog. I asked if he had any further comment on what I’d said about him as a poet and a publisher. He said he hadn’t read the blog but had “had a report of it” and would read and reply if I sent him a link. It’s on my website so not hard to find, and I’d certainly have wanted to read something earlier if I thought someone was making up false accusations which were causing other poets to question me. However, I sent him the link. I almost stopped shaking. I went back to sleep. The next day I remembered that inviting a response without a time-limit could mean me hanging on indefinitely waiting for one, so I said there was going to be a sector-wide meeting about how to proceed with harassment and abuse in literature, that I would be naming him in a blog that week and again invited him to write a rebuttal. I asked “Is there really nothing in your relationships with women you feel you should examine and address?”. I haven’t had a reply.
So what could be done, what should be done?
Many things that affected me have been addressed by wider social changes, even in the past decade;
More awareness of issues around sexual consent including “date-rape”.
More awareness of emotional abuse and ongoing trauma within relationships.
Though there is further to go on both these fronts.
I’d want writers to have somewhere they could report issues and know they could be heard and understood. That if they had been treated as somehow not a person by an abuser, they would be treated very much as one by somebody hearing a complaint. This could be someone they talk to with proper training in dealing with abuse/harassment issues and reach via a professional literature organisation.
There still needs to be more awareness around men in publishing abusing their power and how that’s not okay. A scoping out of the extent of the problem- surveys as other industries such as theatre are doing.
Gigs, readings and festivals should sign up to codes of conduct and empower promoters to have “quiet words” if they suspect someone is breaking it. (I’m aware, however, that this could go horribly wrong and be a landmine of personal feuds, grievances and relationship grey areas). Kevin’s relationships were consensual and how could people have known whether they merited more than a raised eyebrow, a “He’s a wrong ‘un” or a sisterly (or brotherly) warning? Again some of this could change with broader changes in social attitudes, including the romantic notion of tragic poets and doomed, destructive love which can just be a different way of saying emotional abuse.
Kevin’s currently a member of the Poets Advisory Group for the Scottish Poetry Library, and I wouldn’t be rushing to have his insights, myself, on issues to do with women and harassment in the poetry industry but I don’t know how far a recent conviction for domestic violence raises flags for anyone employing him to do workshops etc, or is something (presumably mentioned) on a Police disclosure.
As ever, this stuff’s complicated.
As ever, speaking out in this much detail makes me cringe, and fear repercussions. But not speaking out for so long was clearly so damaging, and not just to me. I still hope that these changes in how we think about relationships and emotions can feed into wider structural changes and vice versa. True change needs both.