Follow Harriet on Twitter
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.