Writer in Residence

The void gazes back: online safety for poets

By Leah Horlick

Welcome back, emerging poets and friends! It’s time to talk about that place where we spend approximately 39 hours a day. This first official post of Careful Inventory is about online safety because the Internet is our lone gathering place during COVID, and perhaps these skills might be immediately useful to you. And because sadly, you are going to have pretty much the same online problems regarding poetry that you can anticipate in your personal life, but with an eventual increase in scale and frequency. I’ll focus mostly on general social media safety here rather than email, which I’ll talk about more in a later column because I think of it as a different beast. To keep this practical, direct, and digestible, I have stayed away from sensible online advice you can find elsewhere (use a password manager, don’t share logins, etc.) and have divided this into two broad sections: communicating and posting.
These strategies are informed by years of working with very young women in crisis, writing publicly about trauma as a mixed-race lesbian with some incredible mentors of my own, and teaching thousands of emerging poets in high schools. If some of this information seems very basic to you, please remember that I am trying to reach a broad range of readers who may be new to promoting their work online or using any kind of social media at all. If some of this seems very paranoid to you, I am relieved that you have never had to consider these strategies until now! And if you know most of this already from lived experience, be gentle with yourself and take a break. As with all my suggestions in this series, take what seems useful to you and tuck the rest away for later. 

One more thing before we dive in: you are not going to get all this “right” on the first try. It is not your fault. In an ideal world, we would spend more time telling people not to creep on emerging artists through the Internet, instead of passing on strategies to cope. I am not trying to scare you. I want you to be prepared and not feel abandoned because no one told you. I also don't want you to push yourself. Please do not judge yourself based on what you have and haven’t done in the past. Be gentle. Pace yourself. Let’s get started. 

On communicating:
You must have somewhere on the Internet where people can find out more about your poetry, and an email address where they can contact you. Otherwise it will be very challenging for people to offer you opportunities and for you to promote yourself. But listen. Anything else is bonus.

You do not have to have a public presence on every social media platform at this stage of your career, or at any stage. If you feel pressured to be Very Publicly Accessible Online, it is worth taking a step back and thinking about why. Focus on getting inspired by the online presences of people you respect, that seem like a manageable amount of work for your life, and are sensitive to the things that might be risks for you personally: you’re a woman of colour, you’re more likely to get harassed by people asking for inappropriate photos, you are a parent of extremely vulnerable children, you have another career in a very sensitive profession, you have a disability or injury that means using a particular platform is going to hurt you. I know it probably feels like you might miss out on a lot, and in some ways you will. But it is not worth hurting yourself over. Instead of pressuring yourself, try to make promoting your work online manageable for you, and stick to what you like. As an example: I mostly love Instagram, it is where my friends’ faces are, and I mostly have fun using it. I hate Twitter; it is a hellscape of antisemitism and the algorithm makes me see rage-and-despair stars. So, my Instagram is fun and active and my Twitter account is a fairly basic little bulletin board of retweets and announcements. I am allowed three minutes a day on Twitter, because that is how much I can emotionally handle, because I need to work other jobs that I can’t endanger with my Twitter rage-despair, and because my phone shuts the app off for me with a timer on the parental controls setting. I like it that way. Your digital space is yours, and your safety comes first. As long as people can find an email address for you and some updates about your work every now and then, you are fine.

Putting your safety first also means listening to a refrain I’ll come back to over and over throughout this series: where there is smoke, there is fire. I am strong believer that your intuition and gut instincts are still pretty reliable when they’re filtered through a screen. If something feels wrong on the internet—a message that sounds like spam, or like someone is probably trying to sleep with you rather than actually book you for that event—your gut is right. Where there's smoke, there’s fire. Mark messages as unread or ignore them if you need to. Timely replies are (ideally) for email. Take breaks. Don’t feel badly about taking the time you need to figure out how you feel before responding, if you respond at all. 
But Leah, how do I know what’s smoke? I get it. This is very hard. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between your intuition and anxiety, especially when communicating through text with people you don’t know. Here is a very short, non-exhaustive list of red flags to get you started:
- messages or comments that are consistently about your appearance rather than your writing

- messages or comments about the quality of your work that are patronizing, sexist, racist, or ableist, or otherwise (“you’re so articulate,” “you’re so strong,” anything that sounds like “you’re pretty good for this kind of a person or poet”)
- any comment or message that uses the word "muse" or implies that you are one (this is a personal bias but it has never let me down) 

- messages or comments that try to place you in opposition to other poets (“you are better than [other poet],” or anything that sounds like “you’re not like the other girls”)
- long stretches of messages without a clear end goal of buying your book, finding more of your work elsewhere, or booking you for a reading

- promises or requests to book you or pay you that never seem to materialize

- messages from coworkers, supervisors, professors, or teachers, who should really only be communicating with you by emailwhile they are in a position of power over you, and always by email if you are under 18.

Please don’t be hard on yourself when you don't know how you feel about something online. People are going to be creepy and inappropriate, and it’s sometimes just plain impossible to tell what is going on. I bet you’ve set really strong, clear boundaries with blatant harassment or hatred on the Internet in the past without a second thought, or helped your friends or children or grandparents through it! It’s these iffy, grey-seeming areas that are the hardest, no matter what career stage you’re at. It is not your fault. This is a muscle and you will get better at it, but none of us will ever get it right all the time.

When in doubt, re-route as much professional communication as possible to your email, and ask people you trust for help. I like a one-two approach: asking someone who isn’t in the writing community, and sometime who is, just to cover my bases. A good, neutral line you can try with people you trust in the writing community is “I am having a lot of back-and-forth with [so-and-so]. I wanted to ask if you have any experience working with them. The communication feels [like this] right now. Is there anything I might be missing or should be aware of?”

You are not a GPS. You don’t have to answer questions about where to get started as a poet or point people to resources in your direct messages or comments. There are lots of other resources you can refer people to. You don’t have to edit or read anyone's work for free, or “just take a quick look at something.” You can do this for your friends for free if you feel comfortable, but for anyone else, you should consider charging for editing and consulting work. Refer them to your website and your email to set this up. Requests to “pick your brain” should always come with an offer of coffee, lunch, or money, and those are offers you do not have to accept. This will feel mean and cruel and probably make you nauseous at first if you are not used to expecting to earn money for your skills, or saying no, and or setting boundaries, but you are not doing anything wrong here. You’re actually helping us all out by setting standards for what kind of communication is acceptable and what is paid work.

The block, mute, unfriend, unfollow, and delete buttons were invented for a reason. Use them. You can pick and choose what forms of online communication you will respond to. People who are genuinely supportive of your work will adjust in order to reach you appropriately. You will see many writers (and people from all professions, for that matter!) say “No DMs” and “No Facebook messages” in their bios; it’s common and totally acceptable. You get to choose how you will and won’t engage. Keep this manageable for yourself.

And watch out for the woodwork effect. (This is a working title. I will describe it and you can let me know if you have something catchier in mind.) The woodwork effect is what I call it when you have a positive career development (book launch! new poem in print! your first-ever public reading!) and in addition to every kind message you receive, you also get one or two messages completely out of nowhere from unsavory people you haven’t spoken to in years. In my experience, this happens like clockwork, and has only increased exponentially with usage of the Internet. I hate to break it to you, but the person who ghosted you eight years ago isn’t actually stoked about your new book. The “friend” who treated you so badly fifteen years ago doesn’t just want to talk. Might the timing just be a coincidence? Maybe. But more likely, these people have lurked whatever they can find about you online, and are counting on you having an overabundance of goodwill due to your positive life development.  You don’t have to stick around to find out if they changed, or what they want now—and now is not an appropriate time. You’re busy with your good news.

Why am I telling you about the Woodwork Effect? Because I find this much easier to deal with now that I can anticipate it. The first couple times this happened, it robbed me of a lot of peace and celebration. Now I can tell myself “Oh! Here goes the woodwork effect. Right on time.” Then I say “Not right now, Ghost of Weird Thing Past,” and deal with it after I’ve thoroughly enjoyed whatever is going on in my life and taken some time to exercise my judgement. Did this just happen to me after my book launch about three weeks ago? You betcha. Do you have a name for this in your own life? How do you manage it? Let me know.

On posting:

Anyone can screencap anything. Protect your future self and find a way to watermark or include your name and social media handle in every piece of creative work you put on the Internet. Keep a few good friends in your corner who will tag you in things where you should be tagged. Say something when you see someone’s work, or art of any kind, being used without attribution.

If it’s on the Internet, it’s published. In this industry, any piece you put on the Internet is considered published writing, which means it is not eligible to appear in literary magazines or other venues that only accept unpublished work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Putting your work online can be really good if you want lots of people to be able to read it without a paywall or a subscription. But if you would like to be paid, and if you need the publication credit on your CV so that you can work up to sending a manuscript to a publisher, you will want to keep those drafts offline. Be strategic.

For sharing good news: I know that sometimes the only visual representations of exciting news for poets are pieces of mail, cheques, or contracts. If you really feel that you must post something like this, please crop out or cover up everything except the absolutely essential information. Don’t blur it or fade it; anything can be reversed in Photoshop. 

Protect yourself, your family, and housemates by making sure no-one can tell your house number or your street address from photos online. You can be creative and vigilant at the same time.

Protect yourself at work, especially if you work somewhere where it would be easy to have someone waltz in and ask if you’re there today. Not everyone needs to know where your job(s) are or what lecture you’re in at what time. Temporary content (like Stories) are better for this than posts, if you really want to talk about this part of your life.
Protect your students, if you are an emerging writer who works in schools or youth! Don’t take or post photos (or screencaps, in the case of online school) of youth, or use any of their names online, without explicit advanced permission from a teacher or staff guardian. Classrooms and youth groups have an active consent process with parents and guardians about this for many, many reasons, none of which are our business as writers. You can seriously endanger a child by putting information about them online, and irreparably harm your relationship with schools and educators. 

Especially for poets writing about trauma, abuse, illness, and oppression: protect your emotions by tuning out anyone who makes you feel pressured to disclose online about any kind of pain or suffering. Please get away from anyone who tells you that if you don’t share your details, struggles, and suffering online, you will somehow be perceived as less legitimate. If you are writing poetry about those experiences, your audiences can read your poetry. You don’t actually have to talk about it online, especially if it will put you at further risk.

Further to the above, support others by not monitoring the themes of their public content. I am not saying “do not be critical of what people post” or “do not hold people accountable." I am saying that if you notice someone is not talking about something on the Internet, leave them alone. Non-exhaustive reasons people might have to be quiet online about particular topics include: active court cases, police surveillance, immigration status, having been stalked, doctor’s orders, they can’t have their work finding out they have a diagnosis, there’s some sort of risk to a minor, the topic will induce a mental health issue, and/or—wait for it—other personal boundaries that are none of our business. That’s fine! Leave it. It is not your job to curate other people's feeds. You are going to want this kind of dignity and privacy afforded to you later. I know it seems like we are seeing more of people’s "real" lives than ever before, but we’re not, and we never, ever have the whole picture. (This is also a helpful reminder for when you feel jealous, too. More on that later.)

Once again: If this seems very basic to you, please remember that I am trying to reach a wide range of emerging poets. If this scares you or seems totally paranoid, remember that some poets are much more at risk for this than others, and none of us can anticipate how social media will change, so it's best to be prepared. I have undoubtely left out some nuance, exposition, and examples here so that this can be a manageable length for a broad audience. We could talk about this for weeks! Take what works for you and leave what doesn’t. And please be so, so gentle on yourself after reading this if people have hurt you online in the past.

Most of all: it’s important to me to start the series here because not only are we Very Online because of the pandemic, but these online strategies will help reinforce our next topic: boundaries for performances and readings, mostly in-person but also online.You’re doing great. I can't wait to learn more about your work, in the ways that feel manageable for you. I’ll see you back here on Saturday; don't forget that tea, and your notebook. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

​Leah Horlick is a writer and poet who grew up as a settler on Treaty Six Cree Territory & the homelands of the Métis in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her long-awaited third collection of poems, "Moldovan Hotel," is available now from Brick Books. Her first book, Riot Lung (Thistledown Press, 2012), was shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award and a Saskatchewan Book Award. Her second collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), was named a 2016 Stonewall Honour Book by the American Library Association. She is also the author of wreckoning, a chapbook produced with Alison Roth Cooley and JackPine Press. She lived on Unceded Coast Salish Territories in Vancouver for nearly ten years, during which time she and her dear friend Estlin McPhee ran REVERB, a queer and anti-oppressive reading series. In 2016, Leah was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. In 2018, her piece "You Are My Hiding Place" was named Arc Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year.  She lives on Treaty Seven Territory & Region 3 of the Métis Nation in Calgary.