Just a few weeks after the controversy broke (has it died down?), I've now got something to say about the controversy over poetry-in-general, self-consciously experimental poetry in particular, and the gender of particular poets, as articulated by Jennifer Ashton's controversial book review last year, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's even more controversial, statistics-driven response in the current Chicago Review, the CR editors' additional stat-tracking, and Ashton's brief reply. (More blogospheric discussion has followed since, and not only on this site.)
The first thing to say is that Ashton and Spahr/Young are partly talking past one another, since Ashton is first concerned to attack essentialism (the idea that a kind of poetry bears some intrinsic, logically necessary relation to the gender of its author) and Spahr and Young are first concerned to attack the persistence of sexism (it's still harder, they imply, for women to get their experimental poetry noticed than for men who might write the same sort of poem, whatever "the same sort" would here mean). But Ashton repeatedly implies (without quite saying) that we should stop paying attention to the gender of living poets for any reason—that the people most concerned to pay such attention now are all guilty of implicit essentialism—and Spahr and Young are understandably taken aback by that implication: that's why there's an argument at all.
The rest of what I have to say here has less to do with big concepts (such as essentialism) than with numbers and competing ways to explain them. Spahr and Young's statistics, like many statistics outside the poetry world which show the persistence of distressing inequalities, admit a number of explanations more complicated than (but consistent with) "institutions are still quite sexist." I like Spahr as a thinker a great deal, and have recommended her critical writings repeatedly, but this seems to be one of the first times she's dealt with quantitative data at any length, and some of the mistakes she and Young seem to make are the sort of thing that makes stats people cough and clear their throats…
Spahr and Young note that "anthologies published before 1985 include 16% women, while those published after 1985 include 29%. A fairly modest increase." When and for whom is an increase of nearly 100% "fairly modest"? (Alicia had more on periodical statistics here.)
A bigger problem: Because living poets belong to several generations and began their careers at various points in the history of the art form and in the history of feminism, sexism decades ago will continue to have effects on publishing now. Spahr and Young's data may contain what demographers call cohort effects, which they don't seem to acknowledge.
Let's assume that sustained and noxious sexism drives at least some women who encounter it to stop writing or to stop trying to publish their work. If people over 70 faced tons of sexism when they were young, leading many women to stop writing or to stop trying to get published, people now between 50 and 70 faced less sexism (but still a lot), people now between 30 and 50 faced plenty of sexism (but less than their elders), and people now under 30 face almost none (which I don't believe, though I do believe they face less of it than older writers did at the beginning of their careers), then a random sample of writers of all ages who were trying to get their work published would contain more men than women, but a random sample of writers under 30 who were trying to get their work published would contain (given a large enough sample size) almost exactly as many women as men.
And that means that we would expect any press which had been in existence for a while, which had a list stretching back before the 1990s, which was committed to keep publishing older authors, and which did not go out of its way to publish more women than a random sample would contain, to publish more men than women, even if the conditions that face young or new writers now contained no sexism at all. That doesn't mean there's no sexism now (I think there is), but it does mean that due to cohort effects—due to the effects now of sexism then-- Spahr and Young's numbers may not show what Spahr and Young think they do.
A similar cohort effect may apply to Spahr and Young's critique of prizes: they note (using Steve Evans' data) that women and men between 1998-2004 won nearly equal numbers of poetry prizes, but that the men got more dough. It could be that the better-endowed institutions, which give bigger prizes, are sexist, and the less-endowed institutions, which give smaller prizes, are going out of their way to counter the sexism of the others. Or it could be that the bigger prizes tend to go to older writers, writers farther along in their careers, and writers who got their starts at a time when things were harder for new women writers than things are today.
And finally (for today): Outside a fairly narrow slice of the self-identified avant-garde (where, as Spahr and Young and Ange have all suggested, there may be a bias towards programmatic ambition, in turn identified with men), the biggest source of sexist effects among poetry institutions may not be sexism as such.
I follow, occasionally, the studies economists and other academics make of gender and the labor force (studies which the review's editors note). These studies can show not just labor-force participation (what % of doctors are women, what % of women between 21 and 65 are full-time employed) but also such things as attitudes in the workplace. And these studies often show that what academia and other cultural sectors should worry about most is not discrimination against all women, but discrimination against moms.
People who study glass ceilings in academia and in some other professions with high barriers to entry at least sometimes find that the most recalcitrant such effects come not from obviously sexist attitudes (though you can still find those around) but from professional ladders that make it hard or impossible to take time off, raise toddlers, and then get back on, and that make it almost as hard (or prohibitively expensive) to raise toddlers without taking time off.
One recent study showed that young workers trust childless women in the workplace more than they trust childless men, but that when the women are mothers the terms are reversed. I suspect that a study of literary careers which followed only men and women of the same cohort (same approximate age) from the last 20-odd years would find that mothers suffered, relative to fathers, far more than childless women suffered relative to men.
That's a serious problem about continuing sexism in the US and elsewhere, one that affects the production of literature—it's a problem that the institutions which set out to employ poets (and fiction writers and critics) can try to fix, but not one a book press can do much about (other than to treat its employees well).
I'll have more to say tomorrow about a few other questions the article raised.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...