My fourth book of poetry, Magenta, was recently set to go to press with a small publisher of experimental writing. Shortly after the book was listed for sale on the publisher’s website, I received an email from an editor informing me that my associations with people and entities, including this magazine, he deemed “alt-right” or “fascist-adjacent” had put the press “in a really bad spot.” He asked me to explain myself. I respectfully declined to do so. The next morning, I awoke to an email from another editor, someone I considered a friend, stating that the publisher could no longer publish Magenta.

“I had been contaminated, so my book would contaminate their press.”

What does it mean to collaborate with someone? To write for a particular press or publication? To edit and publish someone else’s work? To refuse to handle someone’s work? It wasn’t my words specifically that bothered the editors, but the words of others I had associated with, spoken to, published alongside. The implication was that I had been contaminated, so my book would contaminate their press, harming their authors and readers.

The editors’ actions made me wonder: Where does the contamination end? How does the chain of infection spread? Are those I associate with now contaminated? And are some people, according to this logic, so contaminated that to speak to them about anything at all is to risk infection? In my correspondence, I told the editors that I believe we can talk to people, even work with people, with whom we disagree. The drive to keep clean—severed of anything with which we disagree—has authoritarian implications.

This drive is antithetical to poetry. Poems are a space of labyrinthine play, filled with risk, as we can’t ever be sure what we will come across in them. Poetry sacrifices words, liberating them from the utility of everyday meaning in order to sanctify them. Because it unhooks words from instrumentalization, verse has much to teach us about relation—specifically, relations as ends in themselves, rather than as means to another end.

I publish with small poetry presses that value experimental work in part because I want relationships based not on networking and sales, but on a shared commitment to the strangeness of verse. But in the areas of the arts least taken up with economic imperatives, a moral economy has taken hold, in which the work itself can feel secondary to its author’s alignment, or lack thereof, with the causes of a given moment.

Within this moral economy, purity is strictly policed. But as the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote in Purity and Danger, “purity is the enemy of change, of ambiguity and compromise.” To base a relationship on poetic hospitableness requires that we treat each other neither as vectors of moral contamination nor as pedestaled monuments for valorization. The spirit of experimentation in these spaces can appear to create a vacuum in which new orders emerge, ad hoc, that threaten to be just as stifling as the ones from which the participants wanted to escape.

To cancel a publication entirely, as occurred with Magenta, is to attempt to purify the world of a source of moral contamination. In the words of the philosopher Benjamin Noys, such actions ultimately “destroy all complicity with what has gone on before.” In his reading of the philosopher and poet Georges Bataille, Noys writes that Bataille’s thought rejected such radical “breaks,” because “to destroy all complicity with what has gone on before would involve purifying ourselves of the past. The break is dominated by a belief in a new, pure state, a new pure human nature.”

The critical theorist Jürgen Habermas accused Bataille of complicity with fascism due to his irrationalism and apparent celebration of violent excess. As Noys notes, such allegations are difficult to counter, for while Bataille’s philosophy “of contagion, communication, and heterogeneity could not have been more resistant to a fascist thematics of purity and purification,” it is also true that “to attempt to remove a thinker or thought from fascism involves a gesture of purification and resistance to contamination by fascism that follows a fascist ‘logic.’” In other words, to attempt to declare a writer or work uncontaminated by “fascism” is to replicate the obsession with purity—the purity of race and culture, the purity of party doctrine—that underlies fascism and related authoritarian ideological systems.

It isn’t hard to imagine a future where everyone working in the arts willingly tattoos QR codes on our foreheads, which can be scanned to reveal those with whom we have associated. This isn’t only a future stripped of the ambiguities and raw materials of poetry, but one intolerant of all that is ungraspable, messy, excessive. It is a future where the puritanical policing of all minutiae masquerades, ironically, as “anti-fascist.” Hints of this future are already around us. But a different future is also possible: one where we read words and each other with nuance and grace, and where poetry persists as a zone beyond agreement or disagreement, beyond yes or no.

Emmalea Russo writes on Substack, and her most recent book of poetry is Confetti.

Get the best of Compact right in your inbox.

Sign up for our free newsletter today.

Great! Check your inbox and click the link.
Sorry, something went wrong. Please try again.