This week, poet Joseph Massey joins High Noon with Inez Stepman. Massey has written movingly about his experience being canceled at the height of the Me Too era in Quillette and The American Mind, and has now started a publishing company to publish his newest book of poems, Rosary Made of Air. Massey’s poetry has a beautiful sense of place, austerity, and stillness. His poems have become a little breath of loveliness for many on Twitter, including Megyn Kelly.

Massey and Stepman discuss the inhumanity of cancel culture, the insularity of the current artistic elite, and who really holds power in modern American society.

High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.


TRANSCRIPT

Inez Stepman:

Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. Joseph Massey is my guest this week. He’s the author of this amazing book … Rosary Made of Air, which was published by The Exile Press in 2022, and I believe that is his own press shop now. And he can talk about that. But he is also the author of many other books, chapbooks, broadsides, and folios. His work as a poet has appeared in many journals and magazines, including The Nation, A Public Space, American Poet, The Journal of the Academy of American Poets, Verse, GeoHumanities, Talisman, and in anthologies about, for example, William Carlos Williams. His poems have been translated into lots of different languages: French, Dutch, Bengali — which is an interesting story — Finnish, Czech, and Portuguese. Many, many people have read his poetry and his work.

So you are that rare beast. You are a working poet. And despite a lot of people trying to make that not so, you have managed to make a living as a working poet. How did you get into poetry, Joseph? So many people follow you on Twitter. I think you went on Megyn Kelly last week. I really agree with what she said. Your Twitter feed is such a breath of fresh air in Twitter because, every so often, out of all the hot takes and the fighting on Twitter, you’ll get this poem that is … and I think one of the words that comes up often to describe your poetry is the sense of stillness. It really does stop me, and I know a lot of other people, when we’re scrolling Twitter and kind of in our doom scroll mode, and we read one of your poems. So how did you first get interested in poetry? How did you know that this is really what you wanted to do or needed to do?

Joseph Massey:

It started with a Jim Morrison biography, as I told Megyn, when I was 12 years old. I don’t know why I bought it. I used all my allowance money to buy this six, seven-dollar paperback from a paperback carousel in a pharmacy, somewhere like Rite Aid or something. And I think it was the title of the book that attracted me: No One Here Gets Out Alive, which, as a 12-year-old, resonated with me because I had a terrible home life. Something about the urgency of it was intriguing. I quickly found that I had a lot in common with the young Jim Morrison because he was a delinquent, basically. But he was intelligent, and everybody knew he was. He just hated school as much as I did.

I hated it because there was no education going on there for me. They didn’t know what to do with me. At that time, I was told to not even go into class anymore. This was like the sixth grade, I think. I had failed the third grade. They said, “Stop going to class. Just go straight to the auditorium, and just sit there all day long.” It was like a permanent in-school suspension. So I just had all the time to read, which I liked doing. Reading that book introduced me to the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, which was really transformative for me because Rimbaud wrote most of his work before he was…. Well, he stopped writing poetry when he was in his early twenties. He wrote some his best work when he was still post-adolescent, really, a teenager.

It was such a contrast to the language that I was surrounded by at that age because I was very working-class family. Lots of drug, alcohol abuse. Language was something used to hurt other people or to express hurt in ways that were far from poetic or novel at all. It was just a lot of vulgarity, really. It hurt to hear it. But to be introduced to poetry, it was so radical. It still is for me because it’s a way of using language that is beyond hurting anyone or manipulating anyone into anything. That’s what kept me hooked.

Then I started writing it myself almost immediately — or attempting to. I knew something was working when, that summer, I was staying at my grandmother’s house. I usually did. I was walking home, and I saw smoke billowing out of the backyard. And my grandmother was burning my notebook that I had been writing poems in. She was very upset because she said it was blasphemous and blah, blah, blah, which it wasn’t. But it was some kind of strange confirmation that what I was writing was effective. I think that also helped to continue to keep me hooked.

Inez Stepman:

You wrote to other poets during that time. You’ve written about how you wrote to them, and some of them wrote back to you. I mean, did that give you the encouragement that you needed? You really weren’t getting it at home. But I read some of the letters that you put back. They took you seriously, as not adolescent. They gave you notes on your poems. I just remember, even in far nicer circumstances than what you grew up, I had a wonderful family. But there is that burning need to be taken seriously at that age. You know what I mean? That adults would actually engage with you as a close to an adult yourself. Did that give you the thought that you might be able to keep doing this as you aged, as you became an adult yourself?

Joseph Massey:

Yeah, I guess I was 15. At that time, I was spending most of my time in the Dover Delaware Public Library. I wouldn’t even go to school. I would just sit in the library and read. But I found a reference book called…. I think it was just called Contemporary Poets or something. It had bibliographies for all these poets and biographies. At the ends of the entries, it would often list their address. Some had agents. Some had PO boxes. But Allen Ginsburg was in there, whose work I really loved at the time, and still do. And I just wrote to him. I sent him poems. I think they were just handwritten. I didn’t have a computer or anything. He wrote back.

When he wrote back, that really was confirmation for me that I was doing something worthwhile, that I wasn’t just goofing around, which, I think, up to that point, I just subconsciously thought I was maybe just goofing around with poetry. It was like a hobby. It was a hobby. But at that point, I knew it wasn’t a hobby. It was a calling. Ginsburg commented specifically on the poems I had sent him, said what he liked about them, said that they were better than the poems he wrote at 15. He told me to read William Carlos Williams, and that was another stage of this transformation, or self-education, really. I went on to write to…. I mean, that was my MFA program. It was also my way out of Dover, my way out of this world where nobody read poetry. Nobody gave a crap about what I was doing. Yeah. I have Allen Ginsburg to thank for that. Then I went on to correspond with other poets that became really consistent mentors to me.

Inez Stepman:

It’s funny that you used poetry…. Or I guess funny is the wrong word. But you used poetry as an escape, in many ways, from the world in which you grew up. I’m no poet critic or poetry critic or anything, but there’s so much of New England in…. At least to me, when I read your poetry, there’s this austere use of language that, for me, it’s very evocative of New England, actually. I don’t know if you feel that way about it, but as somebody who comes from the outside, grew up in the West, and New York is definitely the furthest north I’ve lived, and only visited New England a few times, but it almost reminds me that the … because New England has that light, that austere winter light that persists long past where the rest of the continental 48 have that kind of winter light. I feel like you interact with that light a lot in your poetry, and then now in your photography.

Joseph Massey:

Yeah. It suits me. New England suits me. The weather suits me. Having four very distinct seasons really suits me because, prior to living here, I lived on the coast of Humboldt County, California, for 12 years, and they don’t really have seasons. It’s like half the year, it rains, and then the other half, it doesn’t rain as often. It’s foggy, and it’s cold all the time. And I love that. A lot of people didn’t. That suited me for a time. But you do develop a vitamin D deficiency, and mold is a horrible thing there. My books would just get destroyed because the humidity was so high. I lived right next to the ocean. But I think I was primed not only to live here, but to write about this place because writing about place was always a preoccupation for me. Even in those poems I sent to Allen Ginsburg at 15, I’ve always been interested in writing about the world that’s immediately around me.

My real mentor in poetry, Cid Corman, grew up in Massachusetts. He wrote a very austere kind of poetry. He’s known for writing short poems. In that sense, he’s similar to another New Englander, Emily Dickinson. So I already had New England in my poetic DNA before I moved here. But then some of my other favorite poets are totally New Englanders, like Robert Creeley, who also wrote a very kind of austere…. If you read his poetry, you would know maybe right away that he’s a New Englander. But I would never say I’m a New Englander. I still feel like I’m just visiting, and I’ve always felt like I’m just visiting wherever I’ve lived. I don’t feel like I belong in any one particular place. What’s great about poetry is that it does, in a way, and in a serious way, connects me to where I live, to where I am, because I am writing about what’s immediately local and what’s immediately present. So it’s certainly a way to…. It keeps me from being too aloof.

Inez Stepman:

Yeah. You take as your subjects often just, you’re right, just the observation of either the natural world around you or the actual human sort of built environment. You write about the Family Dollar. You write about the things that are immediately around you, and you find beauty in things that other people, I don’t think…. They just go by, or they don’t think about. You famously, on Twitter, you like to look at walls. You like to look at the shadow on brick or the shadow in puddles. You have a real gift for finding beauty in the ordinary and the rooted and the place in which you actually just find yourself. Maybe exactly because you’re a little bit…. You don’t quite feel like you fit anywhere, you have amazing powers of observation wherever you are.

Joseph Massey:

Yeah. Well, I’m obligated to mention Family Dollar in all of my books because I’m the poet laureate of Family Dollar. They require it. No, they don’t. But yeah, everything is always new. Since the pandemic, I haven’t really left a 10-block radius. I visited my family once in June of 2020, but since then, I really have not left a 10-block radius. So my world is very encapsulated. Yet, whenever I walk to the coffee shop, which I do almost every day, everything looks new. It’s a real blessing, I feel, that I am able to see the world that way and that I don’t take the most quotidian detail for granted. It all interests me. Trash interests me. Not to be American Beauty about it. I actually will intentionally avoid floating — what is it in American Beauty? — it’s a floating paper plate or something. Yeah, I ignore that kind of thing, but it’s just because I’m a contrarian. But walking through a museum, sometimes it feels like walking through a museum, it’s just a simulacrum of what can be found in the everyday world.

Inez Stepman:

Let’s turn to, since you have this Exile Press, which is yours, right?

Joseph Massey:

Yeah.

Inez Stepman:

You essentially have started a press company. The reason that you have done that is because the traditional press companies and the entire poetry world, the MFA-type programs and presses that publish contemporary poets, that world was closed to you. You were canceled during the Me Too era. You wrote a very long piece at Quillette just describing how that felt, defending yourself from some of the charges, admitting to others. I’m sure this is in common with a lot of people, but that’s when I first became aware of you, because that piece was widely circulated when you wrote it. This was at the height of the Me Too era.

My response to that piece was not only being indignant on your behalf, that you had never been given an opportunity to defend yourself in this way before they took your livelihood and your ability to publish from you, but also that it seemed to me to be a real injustice that you would have to publish something like that. It felt very much like — and maybe this analogy is going too far. I don’t know. It felt very much like we had required you to emotionally strip in public, that because, during the Me Too era, we had dispensed with the notions of due process and fair play that traditionally accompanied any kind of accusation of misconduct, that essentially, we forced you into the position of having to publicly … because you had been publicly accused and had no recourse other than to defend yourself publicly….

There was something about that doesn’t sit right with me, that we should force somebody to … because that’s what you do in that piece, right? You bare your soul, your abusive past, your childhood, everything, your struggles with your mental health. You cop to behaving badly, but then not to some of the things that you were accused of. I mean, it seemed to me just…. That’s one of the things that struck me with the Kavanaugh hearings as well, that he was forced to talk about how he was a virgin until a certain age. He was forced to talk about what boofing meant, his jokes about…. And some of that was funny, but a lot of what you wrote is not funny. It’s the sort of things that a person might share with a very close friend or with a lover. You were forced to share it with the world.

Joseph Massey:

Yeah. I didn’t want to write that essay. It was extremely painful to write it. I felt I had to be…. There’s this word transparency that gets used. I had tried to be transparent when the initial attacks were starting, posting apologies on Facebook. The feeling is that, well, if I’m completely transparent, they’ll stop. They’ll know that I haven’t done these things. But it just made the attacks worse. So I thought I had to be completely and totally … like you said, strip in public, and just let everything hang out so that there’d be nothing more for them to say that couldn’t be contextualized or already explained in the essay. It achieved that goal because, ever since I wrote the essay, there were no more articles written about me.

The main attacker, the person who orchestrated the entire thing, I mean, methodically orchestrated it, very, very meticulously planned the whole thing, she just left the internet. There was nothing more they can say. People still continue to pop up and attempt to torment me, especially since the Megyn Kelly appearance. Just a couple days ago, somebody started attacking me again and dredging things up that are completely untrue, that if they had read my essay, maybe they wouldn’t have tweeted the things that they tweeted. But they probably would have anyway because I think it gets to a point where the truth doesn’t matter.

I think it’s similar to the Brett Kavanaugh thing. People’s emotions, they’re so emotionally invested in this scandal. A lot of the emotional investment seems to be projection. It’s very personal. It’s deeply personally rooted for them. So it doesn’t matter what the truth is because they’re actually talking and responding and reacting to something else, something that happened to them or a friend of theirs or whatever. You become … you, the person being attacked becomes an effigy. You’re no longer really human to them. I noticed that with the Brett Kavanaugh thing. Some very, very intelligent friends who were very much opposed to Me Too, and Me Too excesses, they were opposed to Kavanaugh simply because they were…. How did one of them put it? Because they believed her. I forget her name.

Inez Stepman:

Christine Blasey Ford.

Joseph Massey:

Yeah. They believed her, or they wanted to believe her. They felt for her. So the facts didn’t really matter beyond that point. They were emotionally drawn in. I saw that play out around me, I mean, on an incredible scale because nobody in the…. I was the only poetry world working poet who was Me Too’d. There were some others, but they were also better known as fiction writers and things like that. Or they’re like academic people, and they were called out in academic contexts. But these poetry world people, they know who the predatory people are. They know there are these professors who sleep with students and blah, blah, blah. But they would never, ever be called out because that’s where the money is in poetry. That’s the real power structure in poetry, is academia. Poets are so craven. I think because there’s so few rewards, they would never speak out against so-and-so professor who’s well known for groping students at the bar after workshop. So I became a very convenient effigy for them.

In hindsight, it’s not funny, but it is funny, in a way, that they tried to portray me as this powerful literary figure when I was no one’s professor. I was not an editor. I was not running a reading series. I never had any transactional relationships with other poets, male or female, like ‘I’ll help get you published if you do this for me—.’ Never. Well, for, to me, it’s rather striking, in my case, that there were never any receipts. Where are the receipts of this manipulative behavior? I don’t really go anywhere. I’m kind of a recluse. I always have been. Many of these interactions took place online that I’m being accused of. Well, where are the receipts? There aren’t any, and that’s because they weren’t transactional conversations that I was having, and there was nothing fundamentally wrong with them at all.

It was just, in the fervor of the moment, any interaction I ever had with anybody was revised in that person’s…. I don’t know. I don’t want to speak for other people, but any interaction I ever had with anybody was viewed through this nefarious lens. I think there’s a psychological term for it. It’s called something like a purity spiral or an impurity spiral, something like that, where just everything with the person who’s in the middle and being attacked, everything they’ve ever done is seen as having this impure, terrible intent behind it. I think the term actually goes back to the Puritans and the things that they … those mass mobbings that happened.

Inez Stepman:

Let’s back up for a minute. Why don’t you explain what happened to you professionally? ‘Cause one of the things that really has stood out to me, and I think this is a feature generally, I don’t want to say of everybody on the left, but of this particular sort of [inaudible 00:25:33] the left, the woke left. It’s almost a form. And I think this kind of psychological construction is overused, but it’s almost a form of projection because they speak so much about power dynamics, but they really do ignore the power dynamics.

And that’s what struck me in your essay and then your follow-up at American Mind. It was always very clear. As you said, you never actually held…. You didn’t have a professorship. You did briefly work for University of Pennsylvania, but there are no connections to your job there, in terms of the people who were trying to cancel you or accuse you of things. In fact, it seemed like there was no concrete power that you really held. But they were accusing you of wielding your supposed enormous power in this inappropriate way. But why don’t you go back and just explain how you heard about this, what you were doing before, and then how you reacted to it? And what happened to the career that you had built yourself?

Joseph Massey:

So…. How to condense it? I mean, I lived my twenties in incredible poverty. I don’t know how I survived it. I mean, I do know, in some literal ways, how I survived it. I would steal vegetables from people’s gardens and things like that just to eat. I never imagined that I could make money as a poet. But things started to change in my early thirties when my first book came out. It was reviewed quite a bit, the second book even reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Then I started being written about by influential critics and anthologized, like the William Carlos Williams anthology from University of Iowa. I mean, I remember laughing about it because I left school in the ninth grade. It’s crazy. I’m in a University of Iowa publication. It’s strange. I’m being written about by this Harvard professor who was called a kingmaker in The New York Times for poets.

Things really started taking off in my thirties. That’s when I started cleaning my life up, because I drank a lot in my twenties. It was a rough life. That’s where a lot of the offensive behavior, that’s where most of that happened because I would drink and go online and be completely ridiculous and defend people. Also, I was inappropriate quite often. But that changed. And I had another book come out. It got reviewed in The New York Times. Then University of Pennsylvania invited me to read down there. Then the guy who was the director of this program invited me to be an online teacher for their massive online open course, which was very popular at the time. And I started doing that, and I was very good at it. And they would bring me down once a year and have me do podcasts and webcasts.

I was moving up in that world. But, at the same time, the last two years of that process of realizing I could make money in poetry, working for UPenn, I was involved in an affair that I never should have been involved in. I mean, I take full responsibility for making the choice to be in there. I would never make the case that I was swept into something by a narcissist manipulator, even though she is. But I made the choice to stay involved in that relationship. And when it ended, she went on a campaign of contacting people at UPenn, all my publishers. It was kind of like the groundwork was laid.

I didn’t really even realize it until January 10th. This is the height of Me Too. I was actually talking on Skype with my brother and got a text from someone or a phone call from someone I hadn’t heard from in years. And her first words were, “Are you okay?” And I knew something was going on. She said, “Such-and-such person,” this person I was in the affair with, “put a link up on Facebook to some letter saying…. It says that the poet Joseph Massey is an abuser.” Got off Skype with my brother, got off the phone call. I knew my life was over because I had seen what had been happening to other people, and I had saw what happened to a couple of other people in the poetry world prior to Me Too. But back then they called it callout culture or something. It was a Tumblr-oriented kind of movement. I think they called it callout culture, but it was instantaneous. As soon as any accusation went out, they were done. And those poets, they just disappeared. I’m thinking of two in particular. They just disappeared.

So yeah, I went into total panic mode. Shock. Just my body went cold. Everything that I knew would happen, happened. It was a continuous pile-on. Anybody I had ever had even the slightest uncomfortable interaction with, or even just an ordinary interaction with, found something to say to just contribute to this massive pile-on. And as I’d said before, poetry didn’t have a Me Too figure yet. So people were waiting. The energy was there. It was dammed up. And the dam broke when I was put into the stockade. It was just one absurdity after another. One person, her accusation was that she met me at a poetry reading, and quote, “He looked at me like I was a meal, and it chilled me to the bone.” This is what she said, and she got comments. “Oh, I’m so sorry you had to deal with that.” I’m like, “I barely remember meeting this person. And I didn’t look at her. I didn’t want to eat her.”

It was just like we were saying, this spiral. The target becomes the magnet for everyone’s ire and their backlog of grievances. It’s perfectly acceptable to say anything about that person in the moment of the mobbing. You could say anything. You’re getting it off of your chest psychologically, but you’re also getting love bombed in return, because everyone’s cheering each other on. It’s this very sick euphoria kind of thing that happens. It’s weird. It’s so strange to see it play out online because I think people feel much freer to say whatever they want online. I think it makes it worse. I think it’s even more of a conflagration when it’s online. In my case, it wasn’t just two or three days of this kind of mobbing. It went on for a year, year and a half.

And the professional consequences were immediate. I, within 24 hours, had lost a workshop that I had planned. They invited me to do a workshop. It was with some journal that also does online stuff. They canceled it. The publisher who was going to do my next book, Wesleyan University Press, they immediately signaled to me that they were scared, and they weren’t sure, really, what was going to happen with my book, even though I had signed a contract. I was talking to somebody behind the scenes there, who was letting me know in secret what was happening. They were already talking to, what is it, ombudsman and things like this, to try to get out of the contract within 24 hours. Never asked me about the veracity of the accusations.

UPenn dumped me a week later. They never asked me anything. In fact, the director said in his letter, “I will not talk to you about any of the allegations.” He almost made it sound in his letter like there had been allegations within UPenn, which I know is completely untrue. But it was just his legalese go to hell letter, basically. You’re not welcome here anymore. It was only a couple months prior to that, this guy invited me to read at a fundraiser for them in New York City. And he just lavished me with praise before he introduced me. I’m a gift to the Kelly Writers House. And then two months later, I’m garbage and was treated like garbage. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I don’t think so, with the woman who I was in the affair with, who planned all this out, she now has my position at UPenn.

Inez Stepman:

It’s interesting. I have worked in the past with some attorneys who have represented primarily college kids who are accused by somebody and then have to go through the university process. I won’t use names here, but one of them told me that, actually, in the vast majority of the cases that she deals with, there is some intermediary precipitating event before the accusations are made, i.e., either need a reason for academic failure, or there’s a breakup, or somebody starts dating somebody else. That’s not to say that those events aren’t related. One can make the case that, for example, academic failure is the result of trauma or whatever else. But that’s merely to say that these stories, and I think that’s, despite having this kind of revulsion for how you had to strip down in response to this, I do think it’s valuable because exactly some of those situations, those situations are….

Nobody is fully innocent in most of these situations, right? There is some combination of personal issues, mental health issues, interactions between people who are bad for each other, some level of manipulation between both parties. This is actually, I think, in some sense, very common among relationships between people. Yet we have this system that puts it all into a category based on a framework of human nature that seems to me to be too simplistic, too flat, and then, once you have the incentives in place to do that, then people engage in all kinds of self-destructive behavior for themselves, and then destructive behavior towards others. They use that system, right? Like the system becomes part of the game between two people that can’t be fully understood by the system itself. But nevertheless, that system metes out consequences on that basis.

I don’t know how much you agree with what I just said, but it reminds me very much of…. Once you create something that you can use as a trump card against other people, people use it for personal reasons. It isn’t some kind of abstract system. People use the tools that are put in front of them to try to advance themselves and hurt other people that they don’t like. It almost seems like that’s what’s going on, that this entire Me Too structure was used in a very personal way. It wasn’t just, ‘okay, here are the things that Joseph Massey was accused of. Here are the things he admits to. Here are the things he denies. We’re going to have a behind-closed-doors adjudication. Did he cross the line? Did he not cross the line? What things are true? What things are false?’ It was almost like it didn’t matter. None of those things mattered because the system fully got, essentially, in between people who have their own impulses, their own reasons, and then this very abstract system just comes between them and says, “Everything you say is now backed by a very systematic and bureaucratic force.”

Joseph Massey:

Or just the force of a hashtag, because it was #believewomen. That was the thing. I noticed in the poetry world, it was a surefire virtue signal, especially for men, to believe everything and anything that was being said about whomever was being targeted, because that was the appropriate thing to do. So any ridiculous thing that was said about me had to be believed. And it could not be contradicted, or you would be an apologist for an abuser. The few apologies that I tried to make was twisted into all the language they use, like, oh, I’m gaslighting. I’m in denial. Things like this. It’s like there’s literally nothing you can say to deny, or not to deny, but even if you had actual hard proof that these things didn’t happen, which I had actual proof of it. I had all this correspondence with this particular individual, and the receipts just didn’t matter because what mattered was what was being said by the woman. They had to be completely believed.

In the academic world, I mean, I don’t come from there. My only real experience within it was in UPenn. But I observed these things play out in my case, but also in other … in, people I’ve ended up becoming friends with, hearing details about what happened with them, people who were in academia, that even the most ridiculous allegations had to be taken completely seriously, and to the point where people had lost their jobs. Yeah. It’s shockingly illogical and completely based on just emotion. You can’t function that way. A society can’t function that way. You can’t function based on the emotionality of the mob.

Now, getting back to what you were saying, though, yeah, of course, Me Too was…. It so quickly became weaponized. In the beginning, I remember watching it happen. I remember these collective trauma-bonding sessions that were happening online when it first started, when people were hashtagging Me Too and talking about harassment that they’ve experienced and things like that. There seemed to be something organically wholesome about it. But I knew, as I saw it happening, this is going to go sideways quick. And it did. It became the ultimate weapon to take out any man who you even just personally dislike.

That’s not to discount that there are men who suffered consequences from Me Too who did horrible things, who should have been dealt with a long time ago. That’s for sure. The Harvey Weinsteins and all that. But a majority of the cases that I witnessed … because when I wrote that essay, I heard from so many people who were in my position, men who were falsely accused or they had some things that happened in their past, but they were exaggerated during Me Too by somebody who wanted to exact revenge on them. Yeah. It’s a weapon that has been used to completely destroy people and drive them to suicide. I think what still surprises me about it is that there are so many people willing to use that against someone they don’t even know. And they must know what they’re doing. They must know that they’re driving this person to the brink of their capacity to even want to live anymore. And yet they do it anyway. Maybe I’m naive. I don’t know.

Inez Stepman:

But you did come back, right? So, from this, you have returned as a poet. You’re now publishing through your own press. You have a Substack, and you continued through all of us. You continued to write, right?

Joseph Massey:

Yeah. Writing, it brought me back to when I first started writing as a means of survival. The poetry never left me. It was there as a…. Are you hearing the trucks?

Inez Stepman:

A little bit, but that’s okay.

Joseph Massey:

I live on Main Street. But yeah, it became a way of surviving what was happening to me because the poetry anchors me to the present moment. It anchors me to the world. It anchors me to what I essentially am. I think so many of the people who were coming after me and emailing and harassing through social media, publishers, telling them to drop me, et cetera, that they thought that I would just quit writing poetry or something, or that poetry only meant to me as much as it means to them, which, it’s a career thing. It’s something to do. They need to publish a book every couple years for their CV or something.

Poetry was never about having a career for me. I was never going to stop writing poetry. If anything, their efforts to destroy me propelled the composition of poems. If I could write a poem today, then look, that’s one day that I’m not going to drown in suicidal ideation. I mean, it was that serious. But poetry is and always has been that serious to me. You can’t cancel poetry itself. You can destroy the structure I built around myself to survive through my talent, but you’re not going to destroy this essential activity that’s completely a part of my life, just like anything else that I would do that I have to do, like eat or breathe. I mean, it sounds very romantic. Maybe it is. But to me, it’s very true.

Inez Stepman:

So then you start writing, essentially, independently. Is this your first book since you were canceled? I know you’ve been writing poetry the whole time, but your last book was in 2018?

Joseph Massey:

2019.

Inez Stepman:

So you did right after.

Joseph Massey:

It was published in England by a publisher who — I don’t want to speak for him because I don’t want him to get mobbed, but he was mobbed for publishing that book. I think it’s safe to say he didn’t agree at all with what was happening to me. But yeah, when that book came out, he was mobbed. It was not viewed by anybody, of course, in the poetry world. But it did sell pretty well for a book of poetry by a canceled person. That was the summer of 2019. I was really just starting to come out of the haze of shock at that point, and to really want to get grounded again. I came back to Twitter. I wrote the essay for Quillette and published that book, which consisted mostly of work that had been written since the cancellation. There are a lot of poems in there that are … they were purely written for the sake of survival. I hope that resonates with people who read the book.

This book that I recently self-published, I felt like I had no real choice but to publish it myself because the press who published the book prior, the press in England, they didn’t want to work with me again, and I think because they did not want any pushback because the narrative in the poetry world switched from, ‘well, he’s a predator,’ or a phrase I saw people use was ‘sex pest.’ I’m practically a celibate. It’s insane. But now I’m a fascist. Now I’m a Nazi because I published in Quillette and because I’m open about my politics on Twitter. I think that really scared not only that publisher but other publishers because the literary world, here anyway, is so dominated by the woke left. Nobody will touch me at this point. So I did it myself. It was very easy. It’s very easy to do. Remarkably easy to do. I’m so glad I did it.

Inez Stepman:

When I was reading Rosary Made of Air, this book once again, which you should try to put on the top of the poetry category at Amazon, it struck me that there’s … and I haven’t read your 2019 book, and now I will go back and see how different it is, if at all. But I wouldn’t say that there’s any bitterness in this at all. That’s one emotion that completely doesn’t run through your work or any of the work that you’ve done that I’ve read. That’s a remarkable thing, given that you had built this, not only career, but an entire community. You were getting paid to do the thing that you loved and that you felt you needed to do and felt called to do, and that was all taken away from you, in part because of some behavior that you actually admit to, but mostly behavior that you didn’t do. That was taken away from you on the basis of a lie. I don’t know. I feel like I would be much more bitter. But there is no bitterness. That’s one thing that is not evident, at least to me, in any of your poetry.

Joseph Massey:

Even from that first day, when that link was sent out to the WordPress website that had this letter on it, and which started the whole cancellation thing rolling, I made a tacit agreement with myself that I was not going to become bitter. I’m not going to lash out online. I had to work, and I still work pretty hard every day, to not become bitter. I’ve managed to do that. Well, when the cancellation first started, I was deeply into meditation and things like that. That really saved me. Now I’ve converted to Catholicism, and having a spiritual life, having a spiritual path, that became the infrastructure because the other … as I put it, the infrastructure that made it possible for me to have a career was always bound … I mean, it was never guaranteed to stay there. It’s transient.

Success is transient. Relationships are transient, but my spiritual life is not. My relationship with God is not. That’s what keeps me from being bitter, is constantly turning to … call it whatever … a higher power and praying, just getting on my knees and practicing humility because, if I hadn’t, bitterness will consume anybody. I’ve seen it consume people to the point where it actually seems to kill them. It’s a toxic, poisonous emotion to carry around. I know some people would disagree with me. I have friends who are like, for lack of a better way of putting it, they’re very good at anger. They’re very good at giving it back to people and relishing in it. I don’t have that. I don’t have it in me. Well, I do. I think everybody does, but I would feel really horrible about it. I would rather, if there’s any getting back at anybody, it’s just by doing what I’ve always done anyway, which has nothing to do with them, which is writing. Yeah. The poems have nothing to do with them. I would never give them that part of myself, ever. Yeah.

Inez Stepman:

What advice, to close this out, what advice would you give? It seems like every couple days now, there is somebody who is canceled over something. Me Too fervor seems to have died down a little bit, but similarly to what happened to you, the political fervor is rising. If you’ve ever tweeted something that is a crime thought, then you can lose your job. You can lose your friends, your family even in some cases, as people abandon you, as they did to you. Let’s close this out with the advice that you would give somebody. You say that a lot of people wrote to you, either in the middle of going through this, or they had gone through it. I mean, what advice would you give to somebody who gets that body-chilling … first either reading a tweet or getting a phone call as you did. I mean, what would you say to them in that moment and in the, let’s say, next six months to a year?

Joseph Massey:

Well, when accusations first start flying, I think it’s a very human impulse to want to apologize, but not just apologize, but to explain to people why this isn’t true, or what is true and what isn’t true. And I would tell anybody at this point — because when things went down with me, there wasn’t a lot of precedent. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. There was nobody for me to turn to for advice. But I would advise people do not apologize. Don’t say anything. Be silent. Seek whatever kind of support you need to be safe because it’s very dangerous. Once accusations start flying around, when you start losing things, losing friends, becoming ostracized…. Being ostracized, it’s one of the most painful experiences any human would have to endure. So go see a therapist. If you drink, don’t drink. Go to AA meetings. Go to seek any kind of outside support that you can, and cling to the people who are your true friends. But just don’t apologize, and don’t explain yourself. Give it time.

Inez Stepman:

Joseph Massey, thank you so much for coming on High Noon. You can read Joseph’s work by following him on Twitter. You can also buy and should buy Rosaries Made of Air, which is his latest book of poems. You can subscribe to his Substack, Dispatches from the Basement, where you get his poetry delivered to your inbox, which I really agree with Megyn Kelly here: it really does change your online experience, especially if, like me, you have a tendency to be very online and spend a lot of time discussing political ideas or trading hot takes and things. Really highly recommend that you follow Joseph and purchase his work and continue to fund his work, because you really have brought that moment of stillness and beauty and austerity in so many people’s days. Thank you so much for your work and for continuing to do it. Good luck.

Joseph Massey:

Thanks for having me.

Inez Stepman:

Thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments or questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.