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Hey ladies in the place, I’m callin’ out to ya.

By Kathleen Rooney

Whenever I get to teach Reading & Writing Poetry, in addition to the eponymous reading and writing, I like to talk about publishing, and how a manuscript of poems makes its way into the world in finished book form. One of the many types of press we discuss are the mission-driven ones, including such feminist publishers as Dancing Girl and Switchback.

Because I prefer a Socratic approach over info-dump lecturing, I like to ask why there might be a perceived need for feminist poetry presses. Last fall, one of my students — a talented writer and a huge Bukowski fan — responded, “Because some women just really hate men.”

Uh, no. Thanks for playing, and thanks for the joke (I think it was a joke?) but that’s not correct. It is a teachable moment, though — a chance to ask “Okay, so what does feminism really mean?” The F-word, unfortunately, has been so deliberately maligned and misused that many of my students each quarter, men and women alike, have a skewed and inaccurate view of what it really means. To resort to a simple dictionary definition, all feminism is is a doctrine that advocates equal rights for women. Or as bell hooks puts it: “A movement to end sexist oppression.”

Mission-driven presses seem a valid and necessary way to advance this movement and to progress toward the worthwhile goal of gender equality in literary publishing, a goal which VIDA’s recent report on “The Count” inarguably indicates has not yet been met.

When I have this conversation with my students — with anyone really — questions arise along the lines of whether or not having a book out on a self-declared feminist press signals to some readers that perhaps your poems are “pretty good,” but only “for a girl,” and whether or not publishing as a self-identified member of any particular group, especially an under-represented one, does some kind of damage to the readers’ reception of — or creates some kind of bias regarding — the manuscript itself? I’ve asked myself questions like these countless times before, and here this month already Barbara Jane Reyes and Bhanu Kapil and Rigoberto González have posted thought-provokingly about writing, reading, reviewing and participating as a member of a particular community.

Kwame Dawes discusses, too, the question of “the desire not to be known as some kind of hyphenated writer” in relation to “race in writing among people of color.” His contemplation of those issues got me asking those questions about feminism and “women’s writing” all over again. As he mentions, even if you do not publish with presses or journals whose mission it is to promote writers from a particular community, some observers will still imply that “if the poet were not black, they might never have gotten into the anthology, the course syllabi, the university position, the festival list, the reading series, etc.”

Not to try to pose an equivalency between race and gender, but this analysis in turn made me think of Elisa Gabbert’s recent post, “Boys’ Club  Manifesto,” wherein she discusses similarly how “I’ve had men, not just any men but my friends, tell me to my face that it’s easier for me to get published because I’m a woman and because I’m attractive. People will publish me in their magazines because they need token women, and people will ask me to read in their series so they can have a cute girl in the lineup. This idea that it’s easier for women to succeed in male-dominated industries is pervasive and illogical.”

So what do you think, Harriet bloggers and readers: are mission-driven presses that focus on producing and distributing work by members of under-represented groups necessary and desirable? Why or why not? Do you read a book from one of these presses differently than you would any other collection?

While I’m at it — because I do believe mission-driven presses are necessary and desirable — I’m going to take a page from the Amber Tamblyn playbook and promote a contest that I consider valuable and important: The Gatewood Prize from Switchback Books! [Full disclosure: both Switchback and Dancing Girl Press have published my poetry (and my poetry co-written with Gabbert). Even if they hadn’t, I’d still admire and advocate them here and elsewhere, because I’m a feminist like that.]

You can get all the details here, but highlights include the reading period (from April 1 through June 1, 2011) and this year’s judge (Harryette Mullen).  Good luck, ladies.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 by Kathleen Rooney.