Isobel O’Hare tactfully corrects sexual assault statements of Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, and more in their series of erasure poems
(TAOS, NEW MEXICO) — The ensuing conversation and controversy surrounding Hollywood’s elite recently is anything but shocking. Women, queer people, trans people, and people of color are not strangers to sexual assault and violence committed by people perceived to possess more “power” or “authority.” Still, this behavior has been perpetuated to sickening extremes throughout the history of the human race.
However, something sort of marvelous is happening: these dirty old men are being held accountable for their actions, because the victims of these assaults are owning their stories and honing their courage to step forward and say, “We’re not going to fucking take this anymore.” Because they’re being held accountable, men like Louis C.K., George Takei, Harvey Weinstein, Jeremy Piven, and Kevin Spacey have been preparing quick (albeit defensive) statements that encompass an entire spectrum of mansplained explanations. Takei, a long-time proponent of always believing the victims of sexual violence, has outright denied allegations (a la Bill Cosby). C.K. has at the very least had the nerve to own up to his actions and apologize. Spacey has blamed his actions on (and I’m paraphrasing here) being drunk and gay. As for that classless crotch-itch that is Harvey Weinstein? Well, he’s pretty much still just a gross old man who thinks his behavior is okay because he began his career in the 60’s and apparently thinks Mad Men is some sort of biopic or WikiHow video.
But the real beauty of these statements is not what the assailants themselves have said to their fans and followers. No, no. The real magic is what one queer writer/poet located in Taos, New Mexico has done with those aforementioned statements.
Their name is Isobel O’Hare (pronouns they/them/their), and they are making waves not just in the literary world as a writer, but also on a level where their poetry is being seen and shared by numerous media outlets and celebrity advocates such as Rose McGowan. In their series of erasure poems, “All This Can Be Yours,” O’Hare has taken the responsive statements of numerous sexual predators who have spent their careers in the spotlight and created erasure poems out of them.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with erasure (or black-out) poetry, it’s a form of found poetry that allows the writer to take a previously written text, black-out the words they do not need, and leave only the words that make-up a poem.
After seeing writer O’Hare share their poems on Facebook, they agreed to talk to About Magazine about the queer perspective of sexual assault:
About Magazine: Sexual assault—especially so in the community of queer people, people of color, and women—is nothing new. Could you tell me a little bit about your initial reactions to these brave individuals coming out and standing up for themselves against such high-profile celebrities?
Isobel O’Hare: I think it is the ultimate bravery. Naming one’s abuse is a painful, exhausting process, especially in the face of a system that would prefer we stay silent and maintain decorum, and especially in a society where victims are constantly blamed for what happens to us. So often I have seen survivors point to a problem and then get blamed for that problem, or be responded to with deflection and distraction. So many of these men’s victims have been living in fear and intimidation, and so much of their art has been prevented, silenced, blotted out from the world due to this intimidation. My friend, the poet Dena Rash Guzman, wrote recently on Facebook, “I’m so tired of being the bad guy in this,” and I think most survivors can relate. And this isn’t just an issue in Hollywood. It exists in the literary community and probably in every artistic (and spiritual and political and and and…) community you can imagine. And I have never encountered a single person who approached the issue of a callout without giving it serious consideration, not least of all because of the damage and shame they would suffer themselves. Nobody does this for fame or money or any kind of reward. They do this to exorcise themselves and their communities of demons. And when those demons have all the money, power, support, and expensive lawyers at their disposal, you can imagine how terrifying that is.
I don’t think I have ever met a person who hasn’t been traumatized in some way, and I don’t think we as a species are quite ready to confront that yet, that we are all damaged in some way, all hurting. So instead we point at other people and label them the damaged ones, and they become scapegoats, when in reality those people are just the most open about their damage. We should be thanking them for showing us who we are.
It’s clear that the responses from the celebrities has sparked a certain rage in you (and I do mean that in the best way). Where did the inspiration come from to use their statements to create such moving erasure poetry?
My rage fueled these erasures. I have a lot of rage, and I have a lot of conversations with fellow artists about the uses of rage. It’s a poorly understood emotion. My original goal with these erasures was to make myself feel better about having to read this shit every single day, and I hoped that by sharing them on social media my friends could share in my catharsis. As I worked on them, the purpose of what I was doing became clearer to me: I was revealing the truth (as I see it) behind their PR statements, and I was reversing what they had done to their victims by erasing their voices, their creative work, and in some cases their careers. I had no idea that the erasures would blow up in the way that they have. It’s a tiny bit scary, but I’m so pleased to hear from so many people I’ve never met that the poems have contributed to their own healing in some way. That’s more than I ever could have hoped for.
You identify as a queer person. In the case of such names as Kevin Spacey and George Takei, do you believe that these men were under the impression that because they could blanket themselves under their queer status that they could get away with sexual violence?
I absolutely do think that Kevin Spacey used his queer status as a tool of deflection in his statement. It is my opinion that predation and homosexuality have nothing inherently to do with one another, so to conflate the two the way he did does incredible harm to a community that already suffers from dangerous stigma and myths. I was very angry when I read those words because I have seen how the myth of gay perversion has affected my friends and members of my communities. Language has the power to move people to action, and action fueled by homophobia can and does lead to violence and death. You didn’t assault people because you are gay, Kevin. You assaulted people because you’re an asshole.
George Takei used his history of activism to deflect from the issue, which is that he harmed someone. And now he claims that the sexual assault allegations were manufactured and propagated by Russian bots, which I find ridiculous and insulting to Scott R. Brunton, the actual human being who claims to have been assaulted by him. My erasure of Takei’s statement seeks to highlight the fact that just because someone is a prominent and outspoken activist doesn’t mean they aren’t also hurting people. The feminist community knows all too well the disguise of the “nice guy” or the “male feminist” who is only in it to get laid. I hoped to draw attention to the fact that, despite George Takei addressing his fanbase as “Friends,” we really don’t know anything about him other than what he and his PR machine want us to know.
How personal is this issue to you? Understandably, it’s personal for so many people around the globe.
This issue is very personal for me. I was first sexually assaulted at the age of 4, and I believe that early experience messed with my sense of personal boundaries to the extent that I became victimized many times over in my adolescence and early adulthood. I know firsthand how abuse like this transforms the shape of one’s life. I used to wonder what I could have been if these things hadn’t happened to me, but I’ve come to the understanding that I am not irreparably damaged and that I have a perspective on trauma that is actually valuable. I’ve managed to find my people in this life, and they are beautiful. And I am continuously learning how to claim and stand in my power, in large part thanks to them. In the immortal words of the butterfly in The Last Unicorn, “You can find the others if you are brave.”
We spoke specifically earlier about how other outlets are covering your poetry as if it’s solely from a “woman’s perspective,” but that they are glossing over (or possibly just don’t have the information to understand) that you identify as a queer person. Do you have anything you’d like to say to that point, or about why this is such an important queer issue, as well as one for women?
I think most outlets don’t realize I’m queer and non-binary, which is partly my fault because my website has a bio that uses the pronouns she/her. I am a queer non-binary femme and I’m fine with either they/them or she/her, but my heart does tend to sing a bit more with the former.
When the #MeToo campaign popped up after allegations against Harvey Weinstein, I saw a lot of people using the hashtag to silence queer and non-binary people, as well as men (whether queer or not) who have also been victims of sexual assault. I found that a disturbing aspect of a campaign that should have been about amplifying the voices of all survivors, not just the female ones. Yes, most predators are men and believe me, I am as filled with rage against men as anyone, but not all of their victims are women. We have seen how many men come out with stories about Kevin Spacey now? I know quite a few men who are sexual assault survivors, and I knew quite a few boys who were when I was growing up, and sometimes the language of popular survivor movements can alienate and erase these men’s experiences. I think it would be wonderful if survivors could prop each other up as much as possible at this moment.
The trans POC community statistically suffers from a greater deal of sexual and physical violence, but this is less discussed even within our own community. What do you think cis-gender/non-POC queer people can do during this movement to shed light onto the trans POC community’s issues in these cases?
I think those of us who are at a lower risk of violence need to amplify the voices of those who are most at risk. We need to share the insights of trans POC without arguing with them. If a trans POC says that something is problematic, racist, and/or transphobic, then their truth needs to be supported. We need to listen to and honor the needs of our trans colleagues, and we need to be prepared to risk our own safety for their sake. We need to support the creative work of queer and trans POC. The world needs that work desperately, and anyone with a platform should be supporting and urging that work on. We need to talk about the trans POC who are killed every day and not let their lives and their work simply disappear.
We also need to acknowledge the contributions POC have made to every single social justice movement we are a part of. For example, the #MeToo campaign was started, sans hashtag, by a black woman ten years ago. Too often we steal from the most marginalized people in our communities and pretend their genius wasn’t what started all of this in the first place. A few years ago, I attended an event in DC where my dear friend Dane Figueroa Edidi sang so powerfully and with such beautiful rage that my body nearly exploded, and I want more people to hear her voice. There is no reason why Edidi isn’t our President, to be honest.
We also need to consider that there are likely many, many very marginalized people who are still being kept silent about their abuse right now. We might never hear their stories, but I am sure they exist.
More about the writing: how long have you been writing, and what are you interests in writing outside of erasure poetry?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. The first and only job I ever expressed wanting to have was that of a writer. Everything else I have ever done has been secondary to that, even though writing has brought me almost no money. My writing has always tended toward the darker aspects of life, and so my poems have often been fueled by my traumatic experiences, sometimes collaged with reworkings of old stories of maligned goddesses and observations made while watching old Forensic Files episodes. In terms of form, I have a chapbook of more traditional poems (by which I simply mean that they are not erasures), called Heartbreak Machinery, coming out from dancing girl press in 2018. I used to think, “I should probably write about something other than abuse and trauma,” but I’ve come to realize that those thoughts come from a place of shame that shouldn’t dictate how I channel my art. I’ll keep writing about these issues as long as I feel moved to, and if I’m moved to for the rest of my life, that’s OK too.
It seems that artists have long been undervalued in this country—especially queer writers. And yet writers like yourself are using art to bring such important topics to light and start a conversation we should have been having for a long time. Was this how you saw your writing career before you began as a professional writer—as a means of encouraging social action?
I didn’t have a plan or a vision for how I wanted my “writing career” to turn out, and I still laugh at the idea that I have a writing career at all. I’m a poet, which means I’m sort of chilling in this moist ditch while all the other, realer writers are driving their fancy cars by me, splashing me with dirty roadwater. At least, that’s the story that has been told about poets forever. And I’m still just starting out. When I was 14, a coworker told me, “Your mouth is going to get you in trouble someday,” and I think back to that all the time. I think she was right, and that that is probably a more accurate prediction of my trajectory as a writer than anything I could have dreamed of for myself or my writing up to this point. And if getting in trouble means challenging rich men who abuse their power, then I’m all for it.
As a queer writer, what would you like to see more of in poetry and literature—especially commercial poetry and literature?
I would love to see more visual poetry. I mean, I obviously love erasure, and I especially love erasure that, like good satire, punches up rather than down. (Erases up?) I co-edit a literary journal with Carleen Tibbetts called Dream Pop, and we have been fortunate enough to receive some truly amazing visual poetry submissions ranging from erasure to collage to weird diagrams to fabric with poems stitched into it. It’s so much fun not only to read these things but to enjoy them as art objects, to think of poems as art objects, and to share those art objects with people who might not have ever thought that poetry could be this way. Additionally, we have received poems from queer and trans writers who are pushing the boundaries of language in relation to trauma and gender, and I’m excited to see where these writers go next. Specifically, I am thinking of poets like Chloe Rose and Linette Reeman. I see myself in the future drowning in a sea of queer poems, and I think that would be a pretty good way to go.
Do you see this conversation changing the landscape for queer people, trans people, people of color, and women? What do you think other writers can do to help paint that new landscape, and what advice would you give them?
At this particular time, I do see the landscape shifting a little, but maybe you’ve just caught me at an optimistic moment. I do think this conversation will change the way a lot of us see people who hold positions of cultural power, and that we will question our devotion to and faith in such people. And I hope that that questioning will lead to a greater openness to the narratives of marginalized people.
I don’t feel like I’m terribly qualified to give other writers advice. All I can say is that the things I have written that hold, in my mind, the greatest power were the things I wrote when I was shaking with rage. I don’t know if that’s how everyone should do it, but maybe some of you out there are afraid of your rage (I once was, too!) and if that’s you, I hereby give you permission to embrace it, use it, follow its lead, and it might take you to a place you never expected full of other people who recognize you because they did the same and now you’re all here together.
To read more from Isobel, you can visit their website at IsobelOHare.com. You can also purchase A Shadow Map: An Anthology of Survivors of Sexual Assault, in which O’Hare contributed, edited by Joanna C. Valente. O’Hare is currently planning a collection of these poems, which they are currently working on.