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By the Numbers
Like Stephen Burt, I too have been away at a venue, performing poetry at Yale University over the weekend, and I have arrived as a latecomer to the controversy about the article by Spahr and Young. I am impressed by the nuanced response of A. E. Stalling to this discussion, and I too agree with her that, if women have no way to share the burden of childrearing equitably with their partners, applicants for grants have every reason to demand funding in order to defray the costs of parenting in order to buy time to write. (My own mother, in her youth, likewise wrestled with these same competing demands between childrearing and breadwinning, sacrificing her own creativity in order to raise two teenagers on her own, and I think that, as a result, I have long since decided to remain childless so that I might avoid the risks of such hardship—but obviously other poets might find themselves unwilling to settle for so categorical a decision about their careers, particularly when their partners have conflicting aspirations about the future of the relationship.) I might take exception, however, to the comments of Ange Mlinko, who seems ready to recruit me as an example in support of her weird claim that “the avant-garde is more sexist than the mainstream….”
Certainly, I do not deny that, throughout the history of the avant-garde, the “fathers” of such Modernist movements as Dadaism, Futurism, and Surrealism (among others) have done little to acknowledge the contributions made to these movements by women (and thankfully feminist critiques have since begun to the redress some of these deliberate oversights)—but I wonder by what standard Mlinko gauges the levels of sexism in the avant-garde such that she can compare them quantitatively to the sexism of mainstream literature. As flawed as the statistical scholarship of Spahr and Young might be, they do at least offer some proposed yardstick for measurement (in this case, a percentage of women published in journals receptive to avant-garde work)—a yardstick that affords opportunities for verification and at least some statistical disputation about the quality of the data sets. I might argue, by contrast, that if the avant-garde has historically suffered from all the same chronic sexisms that have plagued the history of literature itself, we must not forget that the avant-garde has also in turn provided a safer haven for many of the ideas of radical females (including, among others, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Unica Zurn, Leonora Carrington, Laure, and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven)—women, whose legacy has so far gone unappreciated in the world of mainstream literature, but who nevertheless continue to inspire experimental writers.
Mlinko has taken me to task because she thinks that my “agenda for innovation” sounds “fairly masculinist,” implying, of course, that I contribute to the sexism of the avant-garde—when in fact I have never used any gendered discourse to describe the agents of any such “agenda,” nor can I understand why Mlinko might imply that my demand for poets to make “innovative” discoveries constitutes a kind of “masculine” endeavour, when in fact most feminists have striven to invent uniquely feminine forms of expression, otherwise unknown to, or ignored by, the history of poetics—and for this reason their project already conforms to many of the revolutionary values of avant-garde newness. Mlinko may not know that I have published numerous, refereed articles on the work of women like Margaret Atwood, Nicole Brossard, Linda Hutcheon, and Karen Mac Cormack (to name but four); moreover, I have published lots of supportive reviews of poetry by the likes of such experimenters as Jenny Boully, Dionne Brand, Lise Downe, Nancy Dembowski, Lisa Robertson, Karen Mac Cormack, and Sina Queyras (among many others). Mlinko may also wish to know that I have a proven record of being a reliable ally on juries for grants and awards to such feminists, and I have taught feminist works in every single one of my classes; nevertheless, Mlinko cites a single line from one of my interviews to conclude that all my literary “friends” are men, when in fact I have significant friendships with lots of avant-garde female writers, including (among others) Caroline Bergvall, Sharon Harris, Sina Queyras, Priscila Uppal, Natalie Walschots, Alana Wilcox, and Suzanne Zelazo, all of whom have had a profound role to play in the shaping of my own aesthetic character.
Mlinko still finds reason to chide me for not citing any women among my list of influences in the indicated interview, when in fact, my syllabus of important “influences” constitutes my own personal pantheon of writers whom I might like to emulate or upstage in the course of producing my latest oeuvre of poetry—in this case, a genetic project that might appeal to the “conceptualism” of my coterie at UbuWeb. If Mlinko is going to suggest that there might, in fact, exist a set of essentialized relationships between styles of writing and the gender of bodies, then I fail to see how I can easily list women whom I might wish to emulate or upstage without encroaching upon stylistic territory that some feminists might staunchly demarcate as uniquely their own. If, for example, the “Ububoys” at UbuWeb seem like a “hair club for men,” many of us there have, nevertheless, expressed a desire to adopt the “conceptualism” of poets like Caroline Bergvall and Mairead Byrne into our own fold; moreover, many of us at UbuWeb continue to lament the fact that, historically, more women have not established uniquely, feminist coteries that might produce their own idiocratic variations on such genres as visual poetry or phonic poetry—and in Canada, at least, we have encouraged these experiments with much enthusiasm whenever they have occurred.
When Mlinko attributes the paucity of women in the avant-garde to the “quirk” of “female reticence,” she may be selling short the merits of many powerful, feminist poets who do not shrink from such innovation (poets like Dionne Brand, Nicole Brossard, Erin Mouré, and Lisa Robertson, to name but a few Canadians, who dominate the prize-lists for poetry in my country). When Mlinko cites blogs by men in order to suggest that women have no stake in defining the “innovative,” she may want to pay more attention to the judgements of such poets as Juliana Spahr at Swoonrocket or even Sina Queyras at Lemon Hound—(a poet who in fact cites this very discussion in her own entry entitled “Sexism in Poetry?” dated Monday, November 5, 2007). Even if we assume that Ron Silliman (and other men who blog) dominate the judging of innovation, I might suggest that all of them, nevertheless, find their opinions subordinated to the far more imperious judgement of someone like Marjorie Perloff, a woman who really has become one of the most powerful arbiters of taste in the history of avant-garde criticism. I am, of course, not suggesting that everything is hunky-dory for women in “innovative traditions,” and I certainly agree that more work needs to be done to improve the recognition of such women, but I might humbly suggest that, despite comment-threads to the contrary, many men, including me, want to see such women prevail….