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By the Numbers

By Christian Bök

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….

Comments (7)

  • On November 8, 2007 at 9:39 pm Ange wrote:

    It’s hardly a “weird claim” when the percentage of women in mainstream magazines exceeds the number in a-g magazines. And Alicia finds that women are harder to find at the other extreme, that of “New Formalists,” which is also, you must admit, a form of Conceptual Poetry. We theorize that men congregate at the extremes of a poetic bell curve. If empirical data show that women aren’t quite as interested in these extremes, does it mean something? Not to disparage or dismiss in any way women like Dionne Brand, Nicole Brossard, Erin Mouré, and Lisa Robertson.
    I wrote in a comment thread that I’m very curious indeed as to why lyric, in particular, gets such a beating from the avant-garde, or why lyric has to be continually ousted then slowly reincorporated. I suspect that’s the secret mechanism by which a-g calls itself into existence, and to face this mechanism head on would actually destroy it.
    Maybe I’m essentializing lyric (“the feminine”) but certainly that’s been part of its history (e.g. “The White Goddess”) Such a history cannot be chucked so easily. My post concerns itself with gossip, the gossip of little communities. So allow me the liberty to repeat some gossip I heard around the Poetry Project years ago: that Lisa Robertson is too lyrical, too accessible, as if this a) accounted for her success and b) therefore made her just a little less hardcore than some less-successful Kootenay colleagues. It seems like ressentiment to me, but also symptomatic of entrenched attitudes toward the lyric.
    In any event, it is enlightening to hear of your support of a-g women. I don’t think that Spahr’s intermittent posts at Swoonrocket come close to the dedicated bloggery of the men I linked to, and Queyras’s delightful site does not seem to inspire the same comment-box sparring that theirs do. Why not? That is beyond my area of expertise.
    All best,

  • On November 9, 2007 at 6:52 am Steve wrote:

    One can support individual women writers while preferring, or gravitating towards, kinds of writing, and goals for writing, which seem to avoid qualities considered feminine. I think that’s what Ange thinks Christian, and many other “a-g” poets and critics, may have been doing. (Whether it is per se wrong to do so, or whether it’s simply a consequence of tastes we cannot consciously change, wd be another question.)
    Conversely, one can support individual male writers while preferring, or gravitating towards, kinds of writing (e.g. the varieties of lyric) and goals for writing, which seem to avoid qualities considered masculine (e.g. the programmatic, the violent, the consciously self-explanatory). I wonder if I have been doing that in my own practice. (If so, I have no plans to stop.)

  • On November 9, 2007 at 7:43 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Actually, the major injustice in the world of literature today is that too many right-handed people dominate the scene, both intellectually and monetarily. Handedness cuts across gender like a knife (held in the right hand, obviously) – and obscures the achievements of many terrific, and terrifically-neglected, left-handed poets. You’ll notice right (I should say, left) away the affinity between right-handers and technique. Most engineers are right-handed, and the brain ectoplasm seeps across into the writing : we find that “experimentalists” on the one hand, and “metrical-obsessives’, on the other (hand), are almost always right-handed. In fact a recent study (“I was a Teenage Poet-Profiler”, by Genderonatato Genera) has raitifed, beyond the shadow of a digit, that handedness controls the creative process in the same way that hands control the steering wheel on most standard automobiles. I could elaborate, but I feel my time is short (a common psychological syndrome among left-handers).

  • On November 9, 2007 at 9:52 am Jennifer wrote:

    Dear Christian and Ange —
    Thank you both for continuing with this very important topic. Nerves and emotions run so high around these issues, it’s a gift, your perseverance.
    These are such important issues — I started looking at publishing numbers a few years ago — I’m a journalist and a poet — and started fishing around in the archives of the Paris Review to see who they were interviewing, as their interviews are so brilliant. The numbers there reflect those found in the CR article in recent years — the percentages drop further back, and minority numbers are dismal. Research and statistics are always flawed, but can we really argue these days that these are facts we are talking about?
    The problem with the focus on the categorization, it seems to me, is that it is, historically, based on publishing too — so the conversation becomes slanted from the get go (or faulty research, perhaps) – If the Dada movement specifically challenged the church and the patriarchy, but Artemesia Genteleshi was taking on the personal issues of rape, why is one so much more prevalent in our learning of art history? Because of publishing.
    Of course issues of family and what we give up in our careers are not solely a woman’s issue, as the eloquent and generous Major Jackson pointed out right here last spring.
    As full disclosure, I am a single mother of two — I give up many things by that, I suppose — a few notably — the ability to travel for a job, and the dream of a long-term fellowship. But all of those decisions are life ones, and I am nervous about conversations that pit the one against the other.
    After noticing the numbers in the Paris Review, I set out to start a series of interviews discussing these matters, both with women and men —
    Claudia Rankine said this on the matter, far more beautifully than I could…
    “I just read this great book by C.D. Wright, Cooling Time. On one of the pages she talk about poetry and pregnancy – and she says, in my quick way of summarizing, you get what you give – or, you lose some and you gain some, so that there is no going back. And you think it is a struggle of one against the other, but it isn’t at all. You realize that the language in which we think about it is inadequate and wrong. Unfortunately we enter into it feeling like it is a struggle of one against the other. But really it’s a struggle, but it’s never one against the other. Sometimes you feel like you are getting, and sometimes you feel like you are giving, and it is just the dynamic of your life from now on. And it is not a life you would give up under any circumstances. You wouldn’t give up your children, and you wouldn’t give up your work.”
    All best,

  • On November 9, 2007 at 2:59 pm cause wrote:

    Let me make sure I am understanding this. Someone writes a completely obvious paper and says some completely obvious things about gender like women tend to be represented at about 30% and the majority of people posting here thinks the best way to respond is to say one of these things: 1. it is the fault of women and/or the fault of their reproductivity tendencies and/or their lack of interest in writing or 2. the statistics of “flawed” (although no one has said how they are flawed or offered other numbers) . Is that a fair summation? Why is this obvious observation so upsetting? The paper doesn’t even seem to blame anyone. It just observes.

  • On November 9, 2007 at 3:17 pm A. Dolitzky wrote:

    Some of my best friends are women.

  • On November 12, 2007 at 2:25 pm Ange wrote:

    “As full disclosure, I am a single mother of two — I give up many things by that, I suppose — a few notably — the ability to travel for a job, and the dream of a long-term fellowship. But all of those decisions are life ones, and I am nervous about conversations that pit the one against the other.”
    Jennifer, your comment reminds me — there is something wrong with a system of rewards in which residencies at places like Yaddo, McDowell, Provincetown etc. are seen as career-builders. People like you or I cannot or do not want to leave our families, and thus do not apply for those fellowships. It’s not that I object to the existence of those places, but that they become a little cherry on a resume.
    That, on top of the fact that so many teaching jobs are adjunct, year-to-year, and turn poets into itinerants — certainly much about “the poetry career” conspires against not only family life, but any kind of connection — to anything but career!
    So I do believe that some life decisions are incompatible with poetry career/employment conditions at their worst. But I do not believe that the work itself is incompatible with life decisions — you can only be who you are and write out of that, right? I wish you the best — being a single mom of two, and keeping the life of the mind alive — be fierce!

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, November 8th, 2007 by Christian Bök.