Local author Bryce Milligan was accused of inappropriate conduct by a former high school student. Credit: Courtesy / Wendy Weil Attwell

Following allegations of inappropriate conduct against him, acclaimed San Antonio writer Bryce Milligan will no longer manage Wings Press, the small publishing house he has run since 1995. The author’s wife, Mary Guerrero Milligan, and daughter Brigid Milligan will manage and run the press in his place.

Less than one week after Hailey Laine Johnson came forward with the allegations against Milligan, a poet who was her high school teacher, the artist community is reacting to her claims, ending relationships and working agreements with Milligan. On Tuesday night, the Artist Foundation of San Antonio voted to reallocate a $15,000 grant awarded to Milligan.

Johnson alleges that Milligan acted inappropriately with her when she was his 14-year-old student at the North East School of the Arts. He allegedly had her sit on his lap in the classroom, wrote poetry and songs about her body and virginity, and called her late at night to say he would leave his wife for her.

Milligan denies these claims, and says his relationship with Johnson was “strictly platonic.”

In a letter to Wings Press authors on Tuesday, Mary and Brigid Milligan announced the change of management.

“Since 1995, Wings Press has been a family-owned, independent small publishing house and going forward will be managed by Wings Press co-owners Mary Guerrero Milligan and Brigid Milligan,” they wrote. “Wings Press continues to be dedicated to producing multicultural literature that enlightens the human spirit and enlivens the mind.”

Gemini Ink, an organization that hosts creative writing workshops by published writers, announced it cancelled an event scheduled to be led by Milligan on May 24. San Antonio poet and Texas Institute of Letters President Carmen Tafolla will replace him as the co-moderator for the event. Gemini Ink officials said they are listening to the community and working to “ensure trust going forward.”

On Saturday, the Texas Institute of Letters, a prestigious literary organization of which Milligan has been a member since 2003, announced he had tendered his resignation.

Carmen Tafolla delivers "This River Here" as an interpretive dance is performed by San Antonio Dance Umbrella.
Carmen Tafolla in a recent performance. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Tafolla told the Rivard Report that she contacted Milligan about the allegations to discuss the implications on Saturday. He expressed concern that the scandal would affect the institute’s reputation and resigned “in the interest of the organization.”

The institute’s bylaws and traditions dictate that its membership is given for life, so Tafolla noted Milligan’s resignation is largely symbolic – in reality, his membership status changes from active to inactive.

Tafolla said the allegations against Milligan present a conundrum for the Texas Institute of Letters: membership has always been focused on recognizing achievement and has never addressed what Tafolla called “personal behavior.”

“[Membership] has never been focused on personal behavior, although, as with any honor, ethics is always a part of the respect and esteem which we hold for an individual,” Tafolla said.

As a result, Tafolla appointed an ethics committee to study and make case-by-case decisions when similar situations arise.

“[T]hey could study and consider whether a member’s personal or professional ethics are affecting the mission, activities or impact of the Texas Institute of Letters,” she said. “Our job is not to judge, avenge, vindicate, or prosecute. That is the job of our courts or our legal system.”

Local author and educator Jenny Browne will serve as San Antonio’s third Poet Laureate for a two-year term from 2016-2018. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Jenny Browne, Texas Poet Laureate in 2017. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Other prominent Texas writers have reacted with similar concern. Former Texas Poet Laureate Jenny Browne said she was “deeply troubled and saddened by these allegations.” She emphasized that creative writing classrooms can both present promise and possibliity for students and leave them vulnerable.

“I take my position of influence, and the importance of settings strong and clear boundaries, very seriously,” Browne said. “I believe real damage has been done.”

Browne said she hopes the arts community can rise to the occasion by listening to the experiences of women and having difficult conversations about the “larger systems that enable misuse of power.” 

Wings Press authors have released individual statements about Johnson’s allegations on social media.

One writer, Amalia Ortiz, who wrote Rant. Chant. Chisme. under the Wings Press imprint, posted Tuesday on Facebook that Milligan should step down.

Ortiz referenced something Milligan has said in the past – that he made a blood oath to buy Wings Press in 1994 from founder Joanie Whitebird, who let him have the press for $100 under the condition that he keep it going.

“If he cares about the legacies of all the writers he has published over his career, he should immediately distance himself from our intellectual property,” she wrote. “As long as he is publisher, Wings Press is losing credibility.”

Ortiz said the publishing house on Tuesday canceled her book, The Canción Cannibal Cabaret, which was already sent to catalogs and the distributor.

“My book is now indefinitely delayed while I find a new publisher,” she wrote.

Editors of another book, The Latinx Archive, which had been working with Wings Press, announced Saturday that they would no longer be working with Milligan’s press due to the allegations.

S.T. Shimi, whose work was included in Jump-Start Playworks, an anthology of new plays published by Wings Press, said she was stunned into initial silence after first becoming aware of Johnson’s allegations.

Shimi questioned fellow members of the San Antonio artist community over the way Milligan’s alleged behavior has been characterized as an “open secret.”

“If this was such an open secret, then how many of my peers and erstwhile mentors and colleagues in the ‘SA circles’ knew and shrugged it off?” Shimi said. “Was it hilarious and weird to you, and just what ‘talented men’ get to do? None of your business? Well it’s your business now.”

Some other authors who have been published by Wings Press told the Rivard Report that they are in the process of organizing a response to Milligan, but are still reaching out to more writers before publishing a formal statement.

Others local residents said they are drafting a letter to City Council to ask that the City give no further payments to Milligan as grants or through any other program. The Artist Foundation of San Antonio, which is February awarded Milligan the $15,000 grant, is supported in part by the City’s Department of Arts and Culture.

In a Facebook post, the foundation said it relies on grant winners to uphold its mission, and that it would be reallocating the full $15,000 grant elsewhere. The money already given to Milligan had been returned to the foundation.

“In the case of our most recent literary arts grant winner we do not believe that he can effectively execute the stewardship bestowed on him,” the foundation wrote. “Tuesday evening the Artist Foundation board voted to reallocate the returned funds. Our hope is that with this reallocation of grant money we can move forward and continue to execute our mission.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.