By Susan Rukeyser
I am a writer, editor, and introvert. I care too much about what people think of me. I dread conflict. Until June 2018, I had no plans to become a publisher. But I had to do it.
Like a lot of us, a year and a half into Trump’s presidency, I felt overwhelmed. The air was saturated with images of sobbing children, torn from their mothers and fathers, kept in cages. Stunned parents were paraded for the cameras so we would see them as criminals, less than, other. Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy was a disaster. In the midst of this, first daughter (and White House employee) Ivanka Trump posted a tone-deaf photo of herself with one of her kids wrapped tight in her arms. Comedian Samantha Bee, host of the TBS show “Full Frontal,” called her “a feckless cunt.”
Suddenly, the cruelty at our border was lost among clutched pearls and shrieks of disingenuous outrage: Samantha Bee said a bad word! The WORST word. Cunt is a word so forbidden that otherwise mature adults will refer to it as “the c-word.” Cunt is even worse than pussy, the word Donald Trump used when describing his penchant for sexual assault. He tweeted that Samantha Bee should be fired for her “horrible” language—and I could not take one more day of it. The hypocrisy. The gleeful hate. The false equivalencies. The violent displays of white supremacy and misogyny. It was not that this moment was so much worse than all the others. But it was a moment of ENOUGH. I posted a call for lean, furious, feminist responses. My Inbox became a collective scream.
Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology is a multifaceted response, 55 pieces of poetry and very short prose from 36 contributors. Some of the work appears elsewhere, but most is published here for the first time. Feckless Cunt is about more than one scandal or one “bad” word. (But, really, no word is inherently “bad.” Cunt is twisted into a slur by misogynists, and they retain its power, so long as it makes us cringe or go silent.) Feckless Cunt is about anger and lust and reclaiming our bodies and our stories. It’s about humor and despair and the menacing threats that follow every girl into adulthood.
I became a publisher impulsively, in this moment of rage. My own words failed. But I knew there were writers who still had theirs, who could articulate their fury, indignation, sorrow. That’s how it works, in this resistance marathon: we take turns. We share, and our collective words carry us. I created an imprint, World Split Open Press, a nod to the poem “Käthe Kollwitz” by Muriel Rukeyser, my cousin and longtime inspiration. Her words have always made me brave.
I had no idea how to publish a book. I figured I would learn. I knew I could recognize gorgeous work, poems and prose with heartbreaking, breathtaking impact, together and apart. I knew I could edit. I understood how book reviewers and publishers work together from my years as Reviews Editor for Necessary Fiction. I’d promoted a novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications, 2015), and a flash fiction chapbook, Swap / Meet (Space Cowboy Books, 2018), so I appreciated the challenge of publicizing small and micro-press books without institutional support. I worked in bookstores, even ran my own tiny used bookshop for a while, and I was a book buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor, so I knew the importance of every aspect of a book’s design, from the trim size to the interior font style and size (12 pt? 12.5?). I knew I was a wretched perfectionist and would wrestle with the technology until I had a book I’d be proud to shelve anywhere.
The cover art was of particular concern to me. Less is more when it’s DIY. However much we wish books sold themselves by their content, the cover is what catches a potential reader’s eye. I decided against anything coyly suggesting a vagina. Yes, Feckless Cunt is about literal cunts, but not only. Ultimately, it is about voice. I found a photograph of an old loudspeaker fastened to a concrete wall painted pink. Perfect. The speaker may be humble, but it amplifies these voices. It is aimed at the patriarchy.
There were other tough decisions to make. I knew that one of the easiest, cheapest ways to publish a book was through Amazon’s print-on-demand publishing arm, CreateSpace. But I was well aware that Amazon drew frowns (at best) from many independent bookstores. Some won’t even consider stocking CreateSpace titles, on principle. I completely understand this position, of course, having worked in the book business. Amazon is blamed for irreparable damage to independent booksellers, threatening the livelihoods of those who’d managed to withstand the chain store era when Borders and B&N opportunistically moved into their neighborhoods. Amazon has the upper hand with publishers and makes outrageous demands. We should boycott them. We should only buy local.
But not everyone can afford to boycott Amazon, with their discounts, free shipping, and endless inventory. Not everyone lives near a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Bookstore shelves have limited space, and the odds are slim that this provocative little book with its “bad” title would be stocked. Even book distributors who agree to carry micro-press titles often make them available with highly unfavorable terms. No—if the goal was to amplify these voices and make the book cheaply, readily available to everyone who wanted—needed—to read it, I had to consider accessibility. Amazon gave me a platform and reach that I didn’t have otherwise.
I knew the internet could sell this book, if we could get a little buzz. This seemed like the kind of book that could get a little buzz.
I read and re-read the submissions I received. I accepted pieces on a rolling basis, letting them guide the anthology’s direction. It broke my heart to decline submissions. I turned away some outstanding work simply because it didn’t quite fit with the story unfolding as Feckless Cunt synthesized into a cohesive anthology.
I also turned down some work that missed the point, interpreting my call for submissions as permission to use “bad” words indiscriminately. Some were guilty only of the male gaze, and I was determined that this anthology represent the female perspective—diverse in all ways, but female. I am a writer first, so of course I know how grueling the submissions process can be. You serve up your heart, only to receive a form rejection or worse, silence. I tried to communicate my gratitude for every offer of words, even if they weren’t quite right for Feckless Cunt. To those whose work was accepted, I sent thanks for trusting me with their heart.
Print-on-demand made possible my goal of producing Feckless Cunt as a near-instant, “pop-up” publication. Submissions closed July 4th. The book went on sale two months later. I won’t lie: it was a rough two months. I worked nonstop, and several kind friends questioned my bull-headed determination to get this book out—my first attempt at publishing—SO quickly. Books can easily take a year or more to prepare for publication. Why the rush? But from the start, I worried that the feckless cunt scandal would quickly become old news. Given how the Trump administration hurtles from one chaotic disaster to the next, I felt I was racing the clock. I couldn’t have guessed that, months later, hundreds of migrant children would still be awaiting reunification with their parents. Publicizing this book, I find that “feckless cunt” is not forgotten, nor the family-separation crisis it eclipsed.
Now that the book is out, sometimes I hear myself referred to as “fearless” or “badass” and I blush, imposter syndrome in full bloom. I’ve functioned so far beyond my comfort zone that it must appear that I am comfortable here. But that’s not possible, is it?
I have a few more weeks of traveling for Feckless Cunt events (Los Angeles, Philadelphia, the Hudson Valley, and here at home in Joshua Tree.) Of course, I dream of retreating beneath the covers, bingeing on Netflix and ice cream. But I am 50 years old and dairy does not agree with me. Many of my fellow Americans do not agree with me. The 2016 election made that clear.
I am 50 years old and this is my country. I will not surrender it to those with contempt for my gender or who fetishize nostalgia, dreaming of a return to a time well before my birth, when women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks knew their “place.” My voice may shake, but I will speak. Then I will pass the mic to the women standing beside me.
Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology is available on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2zR4PF9
Susan Rukeyser wrote the novel Not On Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications, 2015), an SPD Fiction Bestseller and a finalist for the 2016 Lascaux Fiction Prize. She announced the birth of her next book, a flash fiction chapbook, Swap / Meet (Space Cowboy Books, 2018), in Read Her Like an Open Book. Susan’s work appears in numerous journals, including River Teeth, Hippocampus Magazine, WhiskeyPaper, Monkeybicycle, and Women Writers, Women’s Books. Last year she moved home to the Mojave, although she grew up in Connecticut. Find her here: www.susanrukeyser.com