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Numbers Trouble

By A.E. Stallings

I know very little about the status of women in innovative poetry (though I’d agree with Stevens that “all poetry is experimental poetry” I recognize that some poetry is more conscious of and focused on innovation than others), aside from, say, the vaguely condescending introduction to Marianne Moore by T.S. Eliot, or the crushing neglect and sad facts of Lorine Niedecker’s life. (Zukofsky does not come out smelling like roses.)
Regarding the more general bean-counting chart and graph, I can say that it is fascinating and suggestive, BUT that these numbers are absolutely meaningless as statistics WITHOUT the related numbers of what percentage of submissions are from women.


Or indeed without knowing what the selection process in each venue entails. The NYRB is exonerated if it in fact received no submissions from women (unlikely); but more egregious if these numbers were largely the result of solicitation rather than over-the-transom submissions (true for many higher-end journals). And because it publishes fewer poems, the statistics are going to be easy to skew. The numbers given for the Chicago Review are tantalizing to extrapolate from, and my hunch is that they are probably roughly representative. If only 35% of the submissions were from women, but 37% of the acceptances are women, women are outperforming the men. But the bigger question is, we know women are studying poetry in large numbers, we know they are writing, we know they are seeking MFAs: Why aren’t we submitting? Or why aren’t we submitting to the big leagues?
In other words, this looks to me not so much an issue of sexism at magazines–whose goal after all should be to publish the best poems they receive, regardless–as an issue of self-censorship and/or complacency by women, on the one hand, and on the other, the older problem of women and ambition, women and career, women and a room of their own, women and time of their own; that is, marriage and child-raising. This is something women writers are still contending with, and maybe always will be. One can say that having a child enriches the possibilities of one’s writing, but I can name any number of childless writers whose work seems endlessly rich. I worry that it is no coincidence that almost all of my favorite writers (men and women) were childless and/or gay.
I think there is a much greater anxiety about the cost of child-rearing to creative output among women—the childbearing years and years of peak creativity have a lot of overlap–and I think it has to do with the fact that women still tend to be the primary care-givers, and the poetry world frankly isn’t cut out to deal with that. I talk to male poets with small children in roughly my same age-group and publication-level (one or two books), and suddenly realize we are not so much living in parallel universes as different worlds. The wife is the one at home all day with the endearing but energy-sucking little one, while the male poet, admittedly underslept (he helps out as much as he can), still has an office to go to and hours sacrosanct for his work. This may also be because he is often the main breadwinner, and his career is something at stake for both of them. I know that I am being unfair; I expect a chorus of male poets to tell me so, and I myself know several stellar exceptions; but I would say on anecdotal evidence that this is still largely the case. After all, someone needs to be the primary caregiver, but this still seems to be de fact the woman. In dark moments I have my doubts about how compatible motherhood (read, primary care-giver) really is with being an artist—the one is all compromise, the other, for greatness, admits of none. I don’t think we should kid ourselves about that. This pulls at women more than men, on the whole. As a friend puts it, “No one else can have my child, or write my poems.” Do men agonize about this?
What would women poet/mothers need to better realize their potential? Grant money should be given as readily for babysitting or child care as it is for sabbatical travel or research projects—it should be as respectable to ask the Guggenheim for babysitting money as it is to ask for money for leave from a high-powered poetry teaching job. It would help if there were residencies and retreats that recognized that women might have to come with their children. Perhaps some of these things exist already, but not enough, and not with high enough profiles. And no, women shouldn’t expect this to just get handed to us; we need to work on this for ourselves.
In an e-mail, Ange mentions that perhaps men congregate in some way to the “extremes” of poetry—either end of the bell curve. It’s an intriguing notion; although, actually, I’m not even sure we have a bell curve in the US anymore, since current US poetry seems all about the extremes with very little attention to the middle, the Main Stream, as Don Paterson discusses it in New British Poetry.
What is also strange about the US poetry scene to me is the association of political bents with poetic ones—thus innovative poetry would be on the left end of the bell curve and formal poetry on the right. This impression, however misplaced (is Ezra Pound left? Is W.H. Auden right?), has affected expectations of gender equality in BOTH poetry camps. New formal poetry in the US has been accused of conservatism in politics and aesthetics (see this Ira Sadoff article from 1990). Paradoxically, this may result in more “gender equality” in the numbers game, since there has both been a concerted and conscious effort by women to fight for their place at the table, and even an effort by the “establishment” (if you can have an establishment in a movement that is already marginal), sensitive to charges that it is all about dead white men, or white men who will one day be dead, to be and to appear to be inclusive.
I had not realized that the anthology of women writing in form, A Formal Feeling Comes, edited by Annie Finch, pre-dates the seminal Rebel Angels, 25 Poets of the New Formalism, edited by Jarman and Mason. Finch’s anthology, by bringing formal women poets to the fore, arguably makes possible the fact that Rebel Angels represents 11 women poets out of a total of 25, a pretty respectable ratio, though credit should also be given the editors of Rebel Angels for making a conscious effort to include women. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am not included in either anthology.)
I asked Annie about the rationale behind A Formal Feeling Comes, and the effects. This is her response (she has given me permission to quote):
Re your question, yes, there was definitely such an imbalance. When A Formal Feeling Comes came out in 1993, there were hardly any women represented in the formal poetry world. At the Hendrix Formal Poetry Conference, the precursor to the first West Chester conference (I think it was in 1990) the faculty was, as I recall, 10 men and 2 women, and the main faculty photo left out the 2 women because the faculty was modelling the host’s collection of vintage ties. The first couple of years of the West Chester conference, most panels were routinely all male. Molly Peacock and I complained, and the standard answer was “but there AREN”T any other women formalist poets. If there were, we’d include them!” I was frantically editing A Formal Feeling Comes and I kept saying, “wait till my anthology comes out and you’ll see that yes, there are women formalist poets.”
When it did come out, things began to improve. The reaction to AFFC was intense from two sides: from women poets in the “outside world,” genuine surprise that formal poetry could be fun (reviewers would write things like, “I used to think I hated stuffy formal poetry, but I had a glass of wine and started to read these diverse, down to earth women and I loved it!”), and from the male formal poetry world, a very quick (perhaps slightly embarrassed?) absorption of these women formalists they hadn’t thought existed. The first edition of Expansive Poetry included no women; the revised edition includes a number of women by reprinting their pieces from A Formal Feeling Comes. Otherwise there would still be no women in it. I doubt that Rebel Angels would have anything like a 50.50 ratio if it hadn’t been for the work done by A Formal Feeling Comes.

An e-mail to Dave Mason also confirmed that Rebel Angels’ inclusiveness was conscious:
We made a deliberate effort to represent women and minorities (including several gay poets) in the book. We wanted to combat the charge that formal poets were politically conservative.
But women still seem to feel somewhat marginalized among the formalists, and tend to band together. There is, for instance, the list-serve Formalista, started by Robin Kemp, and also the on-line journal Mezzo Cammin, for women’s formal poetry, edited by Kim Bridgford. It is interesting to me that on a formal-friendly forum, Eratosphere at Able Muse, announcements for women-only form projects, such as an anthology of funny formal poetry by women, have sometimes been greeted by as much anger as encouragement. I myself have mixed feelings about appearing in women-only formal ventures—indeed, about appearing in formal-only ventures (I have certainly never felt excluded from them in any way–quite the opposite)—since I’d like to see more mixing, more of a true Main Stream; but I am surprised at the aggressive antipathy towards such projects.
(It is interesting that women are active participants on list-servs, but not as involved in criticism or blogging, perhaps because these activities are perceived as more antagonistic, whereas list-servs provide something of a community? On the other hand, list-servs have their own problems–group pressures of consensus and assumptions–and it is difficult to openly discuss or review the work of a poet who is, also, a member of the list serv, or who has friends who are.)
I suppose one of the reasons for that feeling of marginality is not so much representation on faculty or publications, as respect for women writers of the past in these venues. There have been panels at West Chester (the conference on Form and Narrative) on neglected women formalists (keep in mind though that most dead women writers would have been, as would most dead poets, by definition, “formalists), but relatively few panels on a single woman writer (I don’t have statistics to hand). The keynote speakers have also tended to be male—only about a quarter have been women. But I think the conference (disclosure: I have taught there many years) is sensitive to these questions and does strive to improve ratios when the issue is brought forward.
Consider a form-friendly (though by no means form exclusive) on-line journal such as Contemporary Poetry Review (CPR). A year or two back, I noticed some recent issue had been entirely written by men (no longer the case, I should add.) I backchanneled the editor about this. The editor was surprised, pointed out other issues with women reviewers, and then said, well, we mostly get queried by men, we’d love to include more women, would you write something for us? And there I was stumped. I was e-mailing with a baby on my knee, occasionally (and unsuccessfully) trying to eke out a poem during his naps. There were books I wanted to review (or read for that matter), but that would have obliterated any of my own writing at the time. Indeed, it was all I could do to finish up a decade-old translation project, years behind deadline, that had almost slowed to absolute zero after the birth of my son. I had to say no—I didn’t have time.
And round and round we go.

Comments (28)

  • On November 3, 2007 at 12:23 pm Kevin Walzer wrote:

    My press, WordTech Communications, is re-issuing A Formal Feeling Comes in December thorugh our Textos Books imprint. For more information, see http://www.textos-books.com.

  • On November 3, 2007 at 1:24 pm CJ Sage wrote:

    This sort of argument
    “In other words, this looks to me not so much an issue of sexism at magazines–whose goal after all should be to publish the best poems they receive, regardless–as an issue of self-censorship and/or complacency by women, on the one hand, and on the other, the older problem of women and ambition, women and career, women and a room of their own, women and time of their own; that is, marriage and child-raising.”
    is all too familiar. It arises every time the claim of sexism in publishing arises. Can we please move into the new century and stop implying that sexism against women is somehow, however subtly or inadvertantly, the fault of women?
    It is time that those who take the time to discuss this issue examine it more carefully, completely, seriously, rather than just repeating the same old retorts over and over.

  • On November 3, 2007 at 3:51 pm mairead byrne wrote:

    Too true, it’s certainly not an issue of sexism in magazines or any of the traditional and conventional structures of the poetry world, the goal of which, you so rightly point out, has always been to publish the best work submitted, and so are immune from sexism, as all conventional and traditional structures and discriminating and evaluative practices must necessarily be. No, it is obviously the women’s fault, as you say. I mean their rotten self-censorship, their complacency, as you say, and all their attendant difficulties in relation to ambition, career, financial independence, time, marriage, and child-rearing: all that complex set of historical conditions which have produced their nest of complacency. Yes that has to be it. If the women would only shake off some of the complacency caused by this endlessly complex and challenging set of conditions they might aspire to the dispassionate objectivity of poetry magazines, etc, those sexism-free structures which women, in their confounded complacency, would do so well to emulate.
    And while many of my own favorite poets were childless and/or gay, there is always Po-Chu-i, and Shakespeare, and Anne Bradstreet, and Coleridge and Joyce and Rukeyser and Plath and all those rich attempters of life’s mess in the company of poetry. And thank god for that–because without poets who are parents there might not be a poetic subject of parenthood, which I find necessary and heartening — to feel Po-Chu-i’s delight and disappointment in Golden Bells, that’s something.
    Primarily though: poetry is infinitely flexible and is game to being re-made by all comers, in my view. If you want to. If you have the courage to. If you’re happy to go it alone. Or go it in whatever company assembles to keep you company.
    Personally, I have no doubt about the compatibility of poetry and motherhood; I began to publish poetry almost the minute my own body was published in public clinics and maternity wards. Poetry, motherhood and marriage may not be so compatible. Not because husbands are sexist, of course. Or that any of the structures, including marriage, are in any way sexist, of course. No, probably because women are too complacent and self-censoring. That’s definitely it.
    Well I think I’ll stop before I too am as predictable and unilluminating as the writers here.
    Mairead
    “In other words, this looks to me not so much an issue of sexism at magazines–whose goal after all should be to publish the best poems they receive, regardless–as an issue of self-censorship and/or complacency by women, on the one hand, and on the other, the older problem of women and ambition, women and career, women and a room of their own, women and time of their own; that is, marriage and child-raising. This is something women writers are still contending with, and maybe always will be. One can say that having a child enriches the possibilities of one’s writing, but I can name any number of childless writers whose work seems endlessly rich. I worry that it is no coincidence that almost all of my favorite writers (men and women) were childless and/or gay.”

  • On November 4, 2007 at 1:13 am Danielle wrote:

    “whose goal after all should be to publish the best poems they receive, regardless”
    This is, I think, a fair view of an editor’s mission, but I’d argue it’s only one possible manifestation. One which leaves us with that troublesome “best poems.” Why does an editor value certain qualities in a poem? Mairead’s given that a look above ;) …Overdetermined, sketchy territory, to be sure. Editors don’t have to play the passive receptors, or remain at the mercy of the imbalanced submissions pile. We’re able to trawl for work, solicit from all quadrants. Which I think editors are quite willing to do if the submissions run short on aesthetically pleasing fare. To some of us, it’s crucial that we develop projects that suit the overwhelmed, underfunded, and underrepresented. If the women writers are harder to find, busier, perhaps one could ask a greater number of them to submit, could create flexible deadlines, pitch the idea issues in advance, etc. Easier online, admittedly, but I think the print journals are clever enough to manage it.
    That said, when one’s studying, teaching, writing, parenting, and otherwise occupied, it isn’t easy to keep the editorial home fires aflame. Jeff and I have yet to create an issue of La Petite Zine that we think tends as well as we’d like to all the sorry lacunae. I do appreciate help from the brainstormers and submitters, and would especially appreciate that child-friendly future you envision, Alice! (And yes, the men who are primary caretakers, or co-caretakers, should definitely shout out. Should join us in the lobby!)
    Danielle

  • On November 4, 2007 at 9:20 am Danielle wrote:

    Ooh! Sorry, I meant “Alicia”–middle-of-the-night posting!
    Danielle

  • On November 4, 2007 at 11:30 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    I hadn’t taken into consideration that these blogs on Numbers Trouble would be posted without the access to the articles to which we were asked to respond, which I think would put my remarks more in context. I absolutely agree that the statistics are disturbing, but I also stand by the fact that we can’t know what they really mean unless we know what percentage of submissions are from men or women, or what percentage of poems accepted are sent over-the-transom versus solicitation.
    There is a very casual mention at the end of one article that “A third, though less comprehensive, proxy complicates this picture: from April to July of this year, Chicago Review received 136 unsolicted submissions from men and seventy-four from women (35% women).” I found that truly shocking. Women made up 65% of those enrolled at the Iowa Writers Workshop, for instance, in 2005. Why aren’t women submitting? That’s the question that perplexes me. And perhaps it is a huge leap to extrapolate from that Chicago statistic. C.J. Sage in your editor’s hat could perhaps enlighten here–do you have a notion what percentage of unsolicted manuscripts are from men and women respectively?
    And why aren’t women more involved in criticism and reviewing? I wouldn’t be involved in blogging if I hadn’t been asked to do it. Why are men taking more of the initiative in these crucial areas? (At least, that is my impression.) I guess I mean to say I consider myself complacent (not to mention hypocritical) when I complain about a lack of women poetry reviewers, but then in the same breath turn down a request to review!
    My aim is certainly not to blame sexism on women, but to consider the possibility that the numbers game as reflected by this survey isn’t necessarily sexism on the part of the magazines. It may well be, of course (it pretty much has to be with NYRB), but if a magazine is only getting 35% of its submissions from women, one would hardly expect women to make up 50% of its poetry pages. How can we discuss the numbers and jump to conclusions about the editors if we don’t know what they (the numbers) really mean? If the editors of the journals in the survey happened to be mostly women, would we be less apt to jump to those conclusions? Opening a random copy of your own excellent National Poetry Review, for instance, (issue Spring/Summer 2005), I see (going on gender impressions of names, which isn’t always correct) nine male poets and four female poets. On a chart like the one under discussion, an argument could be made that the magazine is sexist–but that would surely be absurd.
    That there is sexism in the poetry world I do not doubt at all. It remains one of the most male-dominated provinces of writing. And to be honest, I don’t think it has hurt me one bit that I submit and publish under androgynous initials!
    What I was trying to say–although perhaps not very articulately–is that the chart should be a wake-up call to women poets. Whatever the cause (sexism and/or reticince), the numbers should be fifty fifty, and yes, I think we (women) need to work on that–submitting our poems, encouraging each other to submit, and participating in other parts of the poetry world, such as founding magazines, editing, reviewing, blogging, etc.

  • On November 4, 2007 at 12:03 pm Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    PS I should add that by “complacency” I mean the assumption that women don’t need to fight for things anymore–that gender inequality is a thing of the past.

  • On November 4, 2007 at 12:53 pm CJ Sage wrote:

    Dear Alicia,
    Have you checked any of our other issues? In the current issue of The National Poetry Review, which now is on bookstore shelves, we have 10 women and 5 men. In the previous issue, we have 8 women and 7 men. In fact I am fairly sure that most issues we have put out — apparently with the exception of the one you mention–have contained more women than men. And, by the way, that is not on purpose. I do not make my selections based on gender; in fact, I tend to select poems that are neither ‘guy poems’ nor ‘girl’ poems, disliking both extremes.
    I will check my records and get back to you on the question of how many of each gender submit to TNPR. I have a feeling that the records will show women submitting at least as often as men. (Perhaps that is because TNPR has a reputation for being gender-UNbiased?) Back to you on that as soon as I can dig up some records.
    You mention the androgynous name. This reminds me of the days when I submitted under a man’s name and got many more acceptances . . .
    Regards,
    CJ

  • On November 4, 2007 at 1:20 pm CJ Sage wrote:

    PS: It’s quite possible for a magazine to have a woman editor and still be sexist. There are plenty of female misogynists.

  • On November 4, 2007 at 5:03 pm Reb Livingston wrote:

    Perhaps fewer women are submitting to certain magazines due to these publications’ long standing history of exclusion? One doesn’t need statistics to notice the appalling lack of women poets in certain publications. A quick flip through of a few issues makes the point loud and clear.
    Also, since when is the job of an editor solely “Keeper of the Slush Pile”? Are we to believe these magazines never solicit work? Are we to believe there’s no such thing as editorial intent and vision?
    I’ve said this before on my own blog, but I’ll repeat it here. The magazine I edit, No Tell Motel (www.notellmotel.org), received 45% submissions from women in 2004 — and every year since 50% or slightly more. Women poets are indeed sending their work out — perhaps NTM receives more because of our history of publishing women.
    As a “busy mom” I make time for my poetry and publishing/promoting the work of other poets. I don’t make time trying to crack publications that give me the distinct impression they don’t want any.

  • On November 4, 2007 at 8:57 pm CJ Sage wrote:

    Dear Alicia,
    Of TNPR’s most recent 230 submitters (that’s all the records I have close at hand), 130 were women. Being that this is such a small sampling, some might argue that this ratio represents only anecdotal evidence, and I suppose they’d be right. Nevertheless, it confirms my sense of things here — and I do trust my sense of things — that we have at least as many women submitting as we have men submitting.
    I hope this is of some help.
    Regards,
    CJ

  • On November 4, 2007 at 9:06 pm CJ Sage wrote:

    Regarding Reb’s comments (quoted after mine, below): There are definitely some magazines to which I submit less often because it seems to me that their editors favor men. I wonder what would happen if I did the opposite — submit more to those instead of less. Perhaps things would change, but unless those editors also take conscious action against what might be deemed unconscious sexism, I suspect change would be limited.
    “Perhaps fewer women are submitting to certain magazines due to these publications’ long standing history of exclusion? One doesn’t need statistics to notice the appalling lack of women poets in certain publications. A quick flip through of a few issues makes the point loud and clear.”

  • On November 4, 2007 at 10:20 pm Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks for these thoughts… C.J., the issue was just the one to hand–to make a point about the slipperiness of statistics–I can well believe those stats were not representative.
    Yes, women editors can be sexist. Though I guess I am less likely to believe that they are deliberately excluding women poets. The New Yorker’s editor has been a woman, and it doesn’t look to have helped women much. But then, back to the point made by Reb, I have not bothered to submit there for years and years–not because it was my impression that they did not publish women, but it was my impression they hardly published anything that came unsolicited over the transom. I guess I wonder–if I were an ambitious male poet, would that have daunted me? Why rule myself out by not submitting? That is surely a kind of self-censorship.
    By the way, on the topic of women in formalism, I am delighted to see that Kevin is reissuing AFFC.

  • On November 5, 2007 at 11:47 am Reb Livingston wrote:

    How is not submitting to magazines with established histories of exclusion a form of “self-censorship”? I’m not keeping quiet, I’m not refraining from sending my work out to other publications or publishing it myself. My work is getting out there loud and clear. I’m being selective with my resources and time.
    There are thousands and thousands of women writing and publishing poetry “seriously,” “capably,” and “ambitiously.” If a magazine is finding it so difficult to find and publish these poems, one might wonder why/how that could be — and why it’s been perpetuated for so long.
    I spent the morning proofing the contributor notes in a galley of the upcoming The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel – Second Floor, an anthology with no shortage of women, and no shortage of mothers currently raising young children.

  • On November 5, 2007 at 5:37 pm Robin Kemp wrote:

    Indeed, as Alicia points out, the stats as they are presented are meaningless. What never fails to astound me is the overt hostility that some people (both men AND women) are so quick to display when a poetry project for women dares to raise its fetal head. The FORMALISTA listserv is one of those, as is the as-yet-untitled anthology of funny formal poems by women that Theresa Welford and I are working on.
    I joke sometimes that, given the words “funny,” “formal,” and “female,” any two used together will get you in trouble–but that using all three at once will incite normally decent people to riot.
    The arguments against such projects seem to follow two very gender-specific lines. Some women invited to participate respond with, “I don’t want anyone to publish my poetry because I’m a woman; I want to be published because I’m a good poet.” Some men, heckling from the sidelines, insist that excluding men is a form of sexism. In either case, such critics seem more interested in snuffing out the project in its tracks, as if its success would rip the wings off Pegasus. These reactions seem to spring from a sense of being threatened personally. (How difficult would it be to say “No, thank you” or “Good luck with your project” instead?)
    I can only shake my head and refer all concerned to Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing (U of Texas P).
    Poetry’s mansion has many houses.

  • On November 5, 2007 at 10:05 pm J. P. Dancing Bear wrote:

    I’ve heard professor after professor tell me that there are more women than men entering into poetry programs and attempting to publish poetry today. I think it would be unfair to expect the ratios to equal out to 50% men and women +or- a statistical error, but I would expect to see a larger ratio of women (something like 60:40) being published. The fact that most of these magazines have stayed somewhere in an average between 20 and 40 percent women is actually a larger problem because it would assume that the ratio of women career poets to men has remained a constant for the past 35 years and that is not true. To me the problem is much worse when you take this fact into consideration.

  • On November 5, 2007 at 11:59 pm Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    I agree with J.P. Dancing Bear the situation is probably even worse than it appears on these charts–if you have women making up 60% of MFA programs, but numbers of women poets in the big league magazines hovering at around 40%, something is wrong.
    I do suspect women are publishing at 50% or above in some of the smaller and less high-profile magazines and in on-line journals. Their voices are getting out there–women are publishing, I agree. But are they getting heard? Does it matter whether they are ALSO publishing in the New Yorker, in the NYRB, in Poetry? Well, yes, I think it does, doesn’t it? These journals are the ones that people outside the poetry world get their poetry news from–that elusive general reader, man or woman. But that touches on a different topic–the marginality of poetry in general-interest publications.
    Indeed, one of the disturbing things of looking at this chart is that at a glance, the higher-profile the magazine (circulation, general interst), the lower the stats for women poets in their pages. What do people make of that?
    It might also be worth asking the TriQuarterly people–and Fence and Southern Review–what they are doing right.
    Yes, Robin–form, funny, female. Three F words!
    Maybe we should look to a nifty journal like Anon, which reads all submissions blind!

  • On November 6, 2007 at 11:26 am Reb Livingston wrote:

    “Does it matter whether they are ALSO publishing in the New Yorker, in the NYRB, in Poetry? Well, yes, I think it does, doesn’t it? These journals are the ones that people outside the poetry world get their poetry news from–that elusive general reader, man or woman. But that touches on a different topic–the marginality of poetry in general-interest publications.”
    I disagree, these magazines have had a long time and plenty of motivation to clean up their houses. For whatever reasons, they have not. They should be humiliated how far behind they curve they are, but instead they find a hundred reasons not to be, a hundred reasons how they apparently have little control over what appears on their pages — if they even bother to address the issue at all. So I will not be turning to them to help me “be heard.” It’s not hopeless. I have other options.
    I don’t believe these are the publications that are going to ultimately make any difference in the long run. The exclusion is more than a numbers game, this exclusion makes them laughably out-of-touch, obsolete and passe. I understand these magazines have large distribution, but that’s about all they have going — and honestly, how long is that going to last with the drastic changes in media and bottom-line publishing?
    As an individual who runs an online poetry magazine with a daily readership bigger than most mid-sized print magazines, I’m not too worried about the stranglehold of dinosaurs. The bar is so low, it’s not difficult to show them up.

  • On November 6, 2007 at 12:20 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Lesbian poet here. You think women have problems?
    Here’s a book I found interesting, in case you haven’t seen it:
    Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition
    http://www.amazon.com/Where-We-Stand-Literary-Tradition/dp/0393312097
    “In other words, this looks to me not so much an issue of sexism at magazines–whose goal after all should be to publish the best poems they receive, regardless-”
    You seem open-minded and fair in your reading of poems, Alicia, but I haven’t had that experience with most editors. I’ve had the best reception from lesbian editors, and thank goodness there are lesbian editors at more mainstream journals these days. I’m always shocked and amazed when a non-lesbian editor accepts my poems.
    Also, I read somewhere that Eileen Myles is writing about the woes of being a female poet.

  • On November 7, 2007 at 8:31 pm Robin Kemp wrote:

    Oh! Alicia! ANON is a great idea!… After the blind submissions process, do the editors match up each poem to its maker in print, or do readers have to guess which contributor wrote which poem? Now THAT would be a fun little exercise! (“Correct answers will appear in the back of our next issue!”)
    Mary, I’m a lesbian poet, but my poems are not necessarily lesbian, as they have neither nether parts nor travel in like pairs.
    Setting aside the question of what makes a poem a lesbian poem, or a woman’s poem, or a man’s poem, or a gay man’s poem, or a(n) _____ poem, which theorists have beaten to death by now, I don’t worry too much about writing poetry exclusively for this or that group. I write poems, publish them occasionally, know that some have special appeal to (a) particular audience(s), hope that all kinds of people like them as poems, know that some people won’t like them for various reasons (sound or petty). C’est la vie.
    If I happen to write a sonnet, or a poem with political subject matter, or a completely ear-driven, rhythmic free verse poem, or whatever other kind of poem, I just hope that it works as a poem eventually and that it will find its own audience/home. I can’t worry about other people’s preconceptions (“You’re a formalist!” “You’re a political poet!” “You’re an academic poet!” “You’re a Southern poet!” “You’re a lesbian poet!”, etc. etc. etc., blah blah blah–I’ve heard them all, and more). All I worry about is the latest poem I’m writing. The big picture will take care of itself.
    There are so many small presses and so many self-publishing companies out there that, truly, anyone can publish or be published. Whether one thinks this is in the great Whitmanic tradition or is the onslaught of the unwashed hordes, anyone really can get published, in varying degrees of non-vanity-press legitimacy.
    In a way, this takes off the pressure to be prolific, to be in the in-crowd du jour, to make the circuit. Opportunities present themselves. If one is cut out, one can always start one’s own imprint, “school,” cult, clique, LLC, etc.
    Back to the numbers: is the fundamental point that 1) women are for whatever reason unfairly excluded from certain prestigious mags, or 2) that proportional representation is more important than the quality of any given work? Can we really make either of these claims based on the partial stats here? I don’t think so. Aren’t these claims also based on more fundamental ideologies (e.g., social equality versus individual achievement)?
    Even if the stats were complete, we still have to sort out the difficult business of whose aesthetic, whose politics, whose non-gender (e.g., Po-Biz) biases, etc. to negotiate.
    Another variable that might make some difference is how many poems the poets sent to how many magazines. One rejection for one submission means less statistically than, say, ten rejections from eleven mags. In the end, we only care about the mag that says YES.

  • On November 8, 2007 at 12:10 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    “Mary, I’m a lesbian poet, but my poems are not necessarily lesbian, as they have neither nether parts nor travel in like pairs.”
    Yes, Robin, I know it’s heresy to self-identify. I’m sorry the theorists have beaten to death the question of what makes a poem one kind or another, but I’m not as interested in what they say, as I am interested in my own reading of poems, my own aesthetics. If I really like a poem, I often want to know more about where the poem came from, i.e., who wrote it. You can call it the big picture if you want. I like the big picture. I want to be part of the big picture, too.
    As for what I worry about – absolutely, I only worry about the poem while I’m working on the poem. I’m not consciously writing to or for anyone in particular. But I’m sure somewhere, way in the back of my mind, my readers are mingling, having a party, eagerly waiting to read my next thing. Anyhow, blah de blah blah… Let’s say you read a love poem, and you don’t know anything about the author, name or anything. You feel all of sudden like you really love this poem, it’s the kind of love poem you’ve always wanted to write. It turns out the poem was written by a lesbian. Surprise! When this happens to me, I take note, and file it away in my statistical analysis memory bank.
    I was thinking about Mary Oliver. Now there’s a lesbian poet who, from what I’ve read of her poems, seems to have completely sidestepped the pronoun issue. A very popular poet, beloved by all sorts of people. And no pronouns (from what I’ve read). Ok! That’s fine for her. I’m just not the kind of poet who is willing to forget about pronouns. Statistically speaking (and I hope I’m not going too far off the topic), I get the feeling (not too scientific, sorry) that this places my poems at odds with non-queer editors, who can’t relate to and have no aesthetic pleasure from reading my free with pronouns poems.

  • On November 13, 2007 at 4:40 am Robin Kemp wrote:

    I think you misread my (lesbian) post, Mary. (Add my poetry not being “lesbian enough” to the many criticisms on the list!) I refuse to take the stance of literary victim, though.
    I ask again: how do we reconcile the fundamental dilemma between individual artistic excellence and proportional representation of said excellence? This is a question far broader than any of our memberships, allegiances, or identities. Is it one worth pursuing? And to what extent is this alleged bias quantifiable, as opposed to an editorial judgment call?

  • On November 13, 2007 at 1:18 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Did I misread your post, Robin? There’s so much to think about and say – I was just blogging, which seems to me a little like blabbing – about how I feel and my experience – certainly not in any complete way. Are you saying that I’m saying your poems are not lesbian enough? Is being “free with pronouns” being a literary victim? What is a literary victim? Can one really choose whether or not to be a victim? Who are these literary victims? If I were not free with pronouns, would I save myself from becoming a literary victim? Maybe Charlotte Mew was a literary victim. If she had felt free with pronouns, maybe she wouldn’t have killed herself.
    It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around your questions or imagine anyone without biases, as if there is some unassailable standard of excellence.

  • On November 14, 2007 at 2:18 pm Marilyn Taylor wrote:

    This exchange was just called to my attention by a friend, and I have read it with considerable interest after having served as Chair or Co-chair of the four consecutive seminars on women’s poetry at West Chester (2003-2006).
    My primary reason for posting, however, is not to expound about sexism in poetry, but to mention to Alicia that I’m a little surprised that she makes no reference in her essay to “Strong Measures”– the 1986 formalist anthology edited by Phillip Dacey and David Jauss. It includes 42 women poets– far fewer than half, but I think the number suggests some genuine, if belated, progress in the right direction.
    Interestingly (considering the concerns under discussion here), I continue to find “Strong Measures” a much stronger collection than “Rebel Angels”, which it predates by a decade. I base this conclusion on my own admittedly personal and idiosyncratic assessment of the poetry, which has nothing to do, frankly, with the ratio of male to female poets. From my point of view, “Strong Measures” is truly the seminal formal anthology, gender issues notwithstanding. And I feel that it deserves at least a mention in this exchange.
    Marilyn Taylor

  • On November 16, 2007 at 10:24 am Robin Kemp wrote:

    Something itches me about this discussion. It takes me back to the exchange between Helen Vendler and Susan Gubar/Sandra Gilbert/Camille Paglia in the NYTBR ca. 1990.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 12:55 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Cool! What else, Robin? The madwoman in the attic? Do you have a link to it for the my library-less self? Can you please expound on your itch?

  • On November 17, 2007 at 3:32 am Alicia (A.E.) wrote:

    Thanks Marilyn very much for bringing up Strong Measures, which I do know of, but do not have it in my limited library here–a serious oversight I’m sure, and I promise to track down a copy. (And I’m without access to a research or lending library–just what I own or can have shipped here.) I make no claims to being a historian of formalism! But it did seem to me that there was something to be said from “the other side of the fence” as regards the Chicago Review article on women in innovative poetry. I’m glad you came by to help set the record straight! I’d be very interested in any further thoughts you have on the matter.
    I’ve been eavesdropping here on Robin and Mary too on the interesting issue of gendered pronouns in poetry–I’ve been thinking of it in terms of Cavafy’s early poems, where he is not yet so direct about his homosexuality. Greek, like many other languages, has gender, and so even an adjective for the beloved must be eschewed if gender is to be kept ambiguous. It is interesting to see how Cavafy naviagates this. That might be worth a separate post…

  • On November 18, 2007 at 11:24 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    Alicia – you might find this essay interesting, re ambiguous pronouns: The Suppression of Lesbian and Gay History
    http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/suppress.htm


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, November 3rd, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.