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Gender, (Race), & Poetry (Part 2): Numbers & Unnumbered Trouble
some of you may be familiar with ‘NUMBERS TROUBLE,’ the essay by juliana spahr & stephanie young, published in the chicago review (2007), in response to jennifer ashton’s ill-conceived essay ‘our bodies, our poems.’ (you can read the spahr/young essay, ashton’s clumsy response, and a statistical report complied by joshua kotin & robert baird here). a major strand of the discussion involved gender equity in usamerican anthologies, literary journals, small presses, and prizes/awards.
the publication of ‘numbers trouble’ and the ensuing blog discussion created an important moment for editors and publishers to take a long, ethical look at our publishing practices. i was a new editor/publisher at the time and decided (with bated breath) to do an accounting of the press I co-founded, Achiote Press (tho i took it one step further and counted the ethnic breakdown as well–which remains an ‘unnumbered trouble’ in the discourse). in a blogpost dating back to 2007, i wrote (go below to find out):
after 6 chapbooks (which included 14 writers): 7 women / 7 men. 12 ethnic writers / 2 white writers. and please dont start claiming reverse discrimination because we HAVE published 2 token white writers. plus, some of my best friends in high school were white. truthfully, white people just don’t submit to us! i query so many of them and they just dont submit! i really dont understand it! and i’m not just going to publish substandard white writers to fill a gap for some abstract notion of equality! i publish only the best work! i’m not going to lower my aesthetic standards just to include white writers! white writers need to rise up to my aesthetic! okay i’ll stop…editors say the funniest shit.
wow, i’ve changed so much in the last 3 years since i wrote that
i was happy to see a recent discussion (just a few months ago) about numbers trouble in relation to independent, online publishing (thanks, again, to jessica smith for linking to this). H-ngm-n Journal, edited by Nate Pritts, did his own counting in a post titled “sex ratio”:
#8 :: 54 contributors, 14 female for a total content of 26%
#7 :: 46 contributors, 16 female for a total content of 35%
#6 :: 45 contributors, 17 female for a total content of 38%
[...] And deeper still I took a look at the H_NGM_N submissions still to read through, sitting on my computer. 67 total of which 25 were female for a total of 37%. So I’m left with questions. I too am disheartened but, in a non-scientific scientific way, the magazine is adequately representing what’s submitted to it. How do I raise the number of submissions from females? Is this, in some ways, silly?
there are 52 comments that follow nate’s post–and the thread is truly fascinating–def worth reading thru. i will only highlight a few things then ask some questions.
reb livingston, a truly wise editor/poet/blogger, writes:
One reason you’re not receiving a ton of submissions from women poets is because your magazine has established a track record of publishing a majority of men poets. There’s a lot of places for me to submit to, I’m running my own magazine and press and raising a child. Like most women writers, I’m juggling many things and I have to use my time wisely. One of the ways I do that is by sending my work to places that I perceive as receptive to both my work and me.
QUESTIONS: does the gender inequity of certain journals discourage you from submitting there? does the gender of the editor influence your decision to submit? in terms of contests: if the judge is of the opposite sex, does that discourage you from submitting? with the proliferation of woman-only journals, do women poets find male-edited journals irrelevant?
reb goes on to describe her own difficulty bringing in more writers of color to her online journal NO TELL MOTEL:
Early on with No Tell Motel I noticed that the magazine wasn’t receiving as many submissions by writers of color that I had hoped for. The question was, is it a concern for me that my magazine was lacking work from substantial communities of writers? It was. I didn’t see it as my magazine needing to do other writers favors by reaching out to them, but it seemed to me that my magazine had serious deficiencies as it was. Having so few poets of color was a big loss for NTM. NTM receives very many submissions, so it wasn’t a dearth of good work to choose from, but the potential that the magazine would become very narrow. So while I only solicit work from a handful of poets each year, the majority of those are poets of color. I believe by doing so it has given the signal that NTM is receptive — I now receive more unsolicited work by writers of color than I had been before (although still not nearly as much as I’d like, so I continue to invite poets to send). Nothing would distress me more if NTM came to be considered a “white poet magazine.” It all comes down to what do you want your magazine to be?
thank you, reb, for bringing ethnicity into the discussion. personally, i think reb has found a wonderful way to diversify her journal.
QUESTIONS: if you are an editor/publisher, have you had similar difficulties getting work from certain segments of the writing community? what have you done to change your publishing practices? what has/hasn’t worked?
for writers of color: how do you decide where to submit? do ethnic inequities (or the perception of ‘white poet magazines’) prevent you from submitting to certain places?
danielle pafunda, editor of La Petite Zine, also comments on the dynamics of a white editor trying to ‘attend to the racial imbalance’:
It is a complicated paradoxical position. When one is the editor, or some such agent of authority, and one is working from a more privileged subjectivity than the hoped for contributors, one is always already a bit in the wrong…when I, as White editor, attend to the racial imbalance in my journal, I’m in tricky territory. [...] It is good of me to try to correct that balance, but it is maybe not so good of me to occupy the position of power in the relationship between editor and writer of color. It is good of me to solicit suggestions on how to publish more writers of color, but it is also probably going to insult writers of color, making them somehow responsible for my failure to account for white privilege. These things are simultaneously true. Or so I feel. We open ourselves to unnerving critique in these efforts,which I don’t like, ’cause it frustrates me & hurts my feelings, but too bad me…I want to alter the dynamics of oppression, and sadly that costs more than hanging out in the status quo. And no matter how decently I behave, my Whiteness is always an unfair advantage, and that is a much easier discomfort to bear than to be the writer of color staring down a sea of White journals.
QUESTIONS: what do other white editors and writers of color have to say about this? with the proliferation of ethnic-organized journals, do ethnic writers still even care about getting published in historically white journals? how can we all work together to improve our publishing practices in terms of race & gender equity?
now, we’ve heard from a white male editor and two white female editors–i am also curious to hear from editors of color out there? what has been your experience in terms of creating ethnic/gender equity?
as always, i will share my own thoughts and opinions in the comments. i look forward to continuing our discussion.