Literary Magazines in Online Spaces: A Call for Reevaluating Accessibility
Literary magazines continue to thrive in the digital age, and they serve as an increasingly important platform for conversations about the need for diverse art, as well as the advancement of writers and artists from marginalized groups—those who tend to be eschewed by mainstream publishers. While one of the benefits of having an online presence for literary magazines is the opportunity to be discovered by a wider audience, it is not a panacea for accessibility—especially for the disabled, as well as those of low socioeconomic status who may not have access to the Internet. If one ventures to look at how online literary magazines promote themselves, however, the words “accessible” and “diverse” are forefront. And, the disabled community, for whom the word “accessible” holds particular significance, continues to be denied access to literary magazines. Here, I argue that literary magazines should not simply claim to be accessible because they are online; rather, these magazines must evaluate their online presence in terms of accessibility as it is understood in disability studies.
The disabling that occurs within the literary magazine scene has become a more prominent topic of discussion among the literary community today. A recent conversation that caught the attention of AWP (the Association of Writers & Writing Programs) was a 2015 interview between Kaveh Akbar, founder and editor of DIVEDAPPER, and the deaf-blind American poet John Lee Clark. In the interview, Clark, who edited the 2009 anthology Deaf American Poetry and earns his living as a Braille instructor, addresses a few issues of accessibility related to his own experience as a disabled poet. First, Clark explains how difficult it is for disabled individuals to access contemporary reading material, which is exactly what literary magazines serve to offer readers. He acknowledges that he has a personal interest in 18th century British poetry, but, as he admits, “I can’t be sure if that’s my true favorite, because…I am almost entirely locked out of contemporary American poetry” (“Interview”). Clark contends that the disabled community has to go to great lengths to find accessible reading material, and he, personally, has often gone to the writers themselves to ask for text files of their manuscripts (“Interview”). In addition to the difficult task of accessing contemporary reading material, Clark also addresses some of the politics concerning publication: disabled artists seem to oscillate between being published as a token minority or being ignored altogether because they are not the “right” kind of minority. Concerning the former trend, Clark confesses that too many hearing-people profess a love for ASL poetry simply because it is ASL and not because they actually understand what is being communicated (“Interview”). As a result, these ASL poets are not being valued for their poetic ability at all.
Moreover, pertaining to the latter trend in which the disabled community is not valued as a minority is especially problematic in light of recent actions being taken to diversify the literary scene. Jim Ferris, a disabled poet and scholar, who took part in a 2014 Poetry Magazine panel titled “Disability and Poetry: An Exchange,” asserts, “…despite passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act almost twenty-five years ago, disabled people are not broadly recognized as a real minority group in the ways that we’ve come to recognize racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities” (“Disability and Poetry”). Jennifer Bartlett, another panel participant and disabled poet, agrees, observing, “As Jim stated, disabled people are not regarded as a minority. So, when anthologists, editors, and teachers work to include race, gender, and sexual differences, disability is left out” (“Disability and Poetry”). Nonetheless, Bartlett remains optimistic that “things are changing,” and this leads to the question of what can be done to address the concerns that these important contributors to the literary community have voiced (“Disability and Poetry”). Returning to Akbar’s interview with Clark, Clark suggests that editors of online literary magazines or publications, like Akbar’s DIVEDAPPER, should, “let go of the piracy paranoia”; “embrace open access publishing” (especially in .doc or .txt format, not just PDF); and, “archive contents online.” Clark also comments, “I’d love to see more online journals having mailing lists for sending out content. In the Braille world, e-mail reigns supreme. Going online is a hassle, one made worse if you have a lot of links to wade through before you finally hit the first sentence or line of the main content” (“Interview”).
While this article focuses primarily on the issue of online accessibility, there are other accessibility concerns facing the disabled literary community in physical spaces as well. For example, another panel participant and disabled poet, Jillian Weise, recalls a time in which she organized an event wherein a public official had trouble getting onto the platform. “I was not thinking about accommodations,” Weise states, “[and] I bet many organizers cite that reason — ‘We were just not thinking about it’ — in similar situations. We should start thinking about it” (“Disability and Poetry”). To repeat Weise, we must start thinking about it. And, examining how online literary magazines can be made more accessible certainly has value for these other conversations about accessible physical spaces as well. Striving to become an accessible world requires a conscious willingness to view accommodation as an ongoing activity that asks for flexibility and ingenuity.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is the need for more attention be given to accepting disabled individuals as valuable contributors to a diverse literary environment—for it is only through acknowledging this reality that we can move past the fear, the binaries, and the silence. The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), which is composed of a great number of small presses and publishers, present on their website a series of five beliefs shared among the literary community. And, three of these beliefs, in particular, are worth noting. The first reads: “We believe that small literary publishers play a vital role in our culture by connecting the greatest diversity of distinctive writers to equally diverse communities of readers” (“What We Believe”). In this simple statement, they are acknowledging the importance of these small presses and publishers to both diverse writers and to diverse readers. The fourth belief reads: “We believe that being a member of our community means participating in an environment of mutual support with both rights and responsibilities” (“What We Believe”). Here, they advocate that as a community they are committed to supporting one another and upholding certain rights and responsibilities—which, although undefined, presumably entails basic human rights such as embracing acceptance and valuing diversity. Finally, the fifth belief states: “We believe in actively engaging those who share our passion for literature—readers, writers, booksellers, librarians, students, educators, funders, business leaders and others—to ensure that small literary publishers, and the work they help shape and make public, will continue to thrive” (“What We Believe”). The wording of this last belief is of particular concern in relation to the other two mentioned. First, CLMP expresses that they value diversity; then, CLMP affirms that they are dedicated to supporting each other’s “rights and responsibilities”; and finally, they advocate for “actively engaging” a wide group of people (“What We Believe”).
And so, if CLMP is committed to valuing, supporting, and engaging with diverse persons, then one might wonder, how it is, in fact, that the writers and readers of the disabled community continue to be excluded or ignored. CLMP provides literary magazines and small publishers with “direct technical assistance,” and, they acknowledge, “[o]ur recently completed strategic planning process, including deep board participation and engagement, focused on innovation and determined foremost that CLMP must improve its digital resources to remain relevant and useful to its constituents” (“What We Believe”). Therefore, CLMP should be the forerunner of such an endeavor to utilize the web in order to make literary magazines more accessible to the disabled community. Even though there are certainly still some print-only magazines, CLMP’s renewed attention to the digital world confirms that most do have an online presence to some extent. And, unfortunately, despite the continued exclusion of the disabled community, “accessibility” persists in being listed as a defining benefit of having an online presence.
Within the scope of this article, I am unable to explore the wide-range of impairments that affect the disabled literary community. However, my attention to John Lee Clark, and his experience as a deaf-blind poet in particular, serves to reveal that while the growing online presence of literary magazines is a potentially valuable movement, the casual use of the term “accessible” deserves rethinking. Accessibility involves a conscious and active inclusion of diverse persons, and, arguably, the serial nature of literary magazines renders them a perfect medium for this to occur due to the magazines’ constant state of innovation. Coupled with the issue of accessibility, it is impossible to overlook the dominance of the buzzword “diverse” among the literary community. However, as the Poetry Magazine panel participants point out, the disabled community is generally perceived as not the “right” kind of diverse. And now, at a time when embracing diversity is a movement that is so forefront in society, the question persists as to why the disabled community is excluded and feared instead of recognized and valued like other marginalized groups. By accepting disability as a lived reality, not as an illness to be cured or as an abnormality to be feared, our literary scene, and ultimately our lives, all lives, will be enriched.
Anelise Farris is a PhD student in English at Idaho State University. Anelise received a B.A. in English with a concentration in Folklore, Mythology, and Literature, a M.A. in English Literature, and a Graduate Certificate in Folklore Studies from George Mason University. Her research interests include folklore and mythology, literature of the fantastic, comic studies, disability studies, and children’s literature.
“Disability and Poetry: An Exchange.” Poetry Magazine, Poetry Foundation, 1 December
2014. Web. 31 March 2016, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/detail/70179.
Interview with John Lee Clark by Kaveh Akbar. DIVEDAPPER. DIVEDAPPER, 24 August
2015. Web. 30 March 2016, www.DIVEDAPPER.com/interview/john-lee-clark.
“What We Believe.” CLMP. CLMP, n.d. Web. 1 April 2016, www.clmp.org/about/what-we-believe.