I wasn’t part of this past weekend’s mad AWP melee but I was thinking about how the influx of an estimated 10,000 attendees filled with literary ambition creates its own kind of adrenaline and angst-filled elixir. It led me to dig out a piece I wrote for an online magazine last spring, yet unfortunately, they never ran. I corresponded with several major female poets to ask what their experience of gender bias in the literary world has been. Plus ca change, I want to say, but the irony is that for women publishing, so very little has.
Just before this year’s AWP conference began, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts released this year’s “The Count” which starkly portrayed the woefully small pieces of the literary pie served up by women writers in major literary sources. I wish I could say much was different from last year’s report, but it’s not the case. One thing that is rising, however, is awareness of the gross discrepancies about who is published in the literary world. Here is the article I wrote last year, with excerpts from several prominent writers I was thrilled to correspond with:
Although T.S. Eliot called April “the cruelest month,” the first signs of spring bring the annual celebration of National Poetry Month. This year, however, interest began to blossom early with the February release of “The Count” by the literary organization VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts.
Founded by poet Cate Marvin in 2009 during a moment she describes as an homage to Tillie Olsen’s iconic story “I Stand Here Ironing,” Marvin, while folding her infant daughter’s clothes, began to contemplate why her panel on contemporary American women poets had been rejected for the competitive national Associated Writing Program conference. An email “seemed to blast right out of my head,” she writes, and within months her cri de coeur about lack of gender parity in the literary world had picked up a fierce momentum. A year later, VIDA is thriving, with plans for a conference focusing on women’s writing, and moreover, a community that has the desire to shake up an imbalance that has been tolerated for too long.
The Count 2010 revealed stark pie charts that indict the top literary journals and highly regarded magazines for their abysmal inclusion of women — whether as contributors or authors reviewed or book reviewers. Immediately, both outrage and “it’s about time” comments appeared as some editors went on the defensive about the results. One humbled male reviewer called the study “in many ways a blunt instrument” with the suggestion that breakdown of its statistics would further illuminate the nuances of bias that surface in, as he writes, “the staggering differences between male and female representation.” Meghan O’Rourke on Slate lauds the study but adds, “a task VIDA might usefully take on is a breakdown, by gender, of the genres reviewed and represented.” Shock, debate and denial quickly raged in many literary sources with a mix of defensiveness and admirable get-to-the-bottom-of-this persistence. But, as O’Rourke tackles, the fundamental question behind the thin pie slices served up for women is, Why?
The answer, of course, is complex. The oft-cited information that women enroll in MFA programs at an equal, if not higher, rate than men is clear, as is the fact that more women buy books in the United States, and are likely to be readers. But breaking into the journals and magazines that can “make” a writer’s career by laying a direct pipeline to a high-profile agent or a publishing contract, or can compound the cultural capital of a positive review into a prestigious grant or even tenure-track job interview, seems to be about something else — the tactics of how one gains ground in the po’biz world or becomes part of the g/literati.
As talk swirled around the indisputable net effects of the VIDA stats, attention began to focus on the subtler issues surrounding how ambition and promotion are gendered. Blogosphere debate raged around topics such as how networks of male influence hold impact; the subtle, but real, assumptions behind who deserves a job; how fame is won; as well as the intangible but real sense that putting oneself forward as a writer requires a certain kind of brash ego more often cultivated by men. And while most editors responded with culpable awareness, some offered that the flip solution of tokenism doesn’t solve the root problem.
The topics raised afresh by VIDA, unfortunately, are hardly new. Just four years ago, an essay entitled “Numbers Trouble” co-written by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young in The Chicago Review targeted gender representation in the experimental poetry world. The two women counted bylines by women within anthologies, journals, major awards and blogs, confirming a rather dismal ratio. The blog site of the venerable Poetry Foundation responded swiftly, in part, trying to parse the social conditions surrounding women and time, caring for children, encouragement of ambition, cultivation of career, and its much-vaunted Poetry Magazine had even commissioned an essay years before (in 2003) trying to root out why women are represented in such unequal numbers. As Spahr and Young write in “Numbers Trouble”: “We are also suspicious of relying too heavily on the idea that fixing the numbers means we have fixed something. We could have 50 percent women in everything and we still have a poetry that does nothing, that is anti-feminist.”
Spahr and Young also counted women’s bylines at a variety of small, independent presses and hardly found parity there, although “University presses are a little more skewed to gender equity.” But even Wesleyan University Press, which they point out is known for publishing mainly women, “has 90 books by men and seventy by women (44 percent); a better number, but far from ‘mainly.'”
I corresponded with four poets of different generations who published with Wesleyan, and they each came back to the idea that it’s not a question of quality that keeps them from being published–it’s systemic bias.
As long as there is inequality between the sexes in regard to political and economic power, women will not be taken as seriously as men. … Did you really think that 50,000 years of inequality (historically speaking–I’m going back to the caves) was going to be rectified in a decade or two?
The concept that these present-day issues are rooted in centuries-old inequality is also echoed by multi-genre writer Joy Harjo:
There is everpresent sexism that has never ended. … The inequity began when God was pronounced male.
Notley, who travels closer to the experimental margins of the poetry world rather than within its mainstream, also pointed out that not every poet is concerned with publishing in the more visible and status-loaded publications VIDA highlighted in its survey:
My part of the poetry world is too outrageous for these publications anyway: It’s utterly free and inventive with form, is often queer or bizarrely sexed or even unsexed and anti-sexed.
Notley, who doesn’t teach, believes that those who invest in the prestige of the po’biz world are more invested in status and poetic reputation rather than, in her view, poetry itself.
Poet Elizabeth Willis, the Shapiro-Silverberg Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Wesleyan, however, sees the effect of gender inequity within the teaching world as well–where many poets make their living. She writes:
Think of women writers working in the academy who are consciously or unconsciously evaluated according to the perceived importance or prestige of the venues that publish them. The effect is lower salaries, lower rates of tenure, less time off. If, at the same time, male colleagues are more likely to appear in more prestigious venues and receive more prestigious grants, the result is an even higher workload for female peers–and an expectation that women will take care of less prestigious tasks: more note-taking, less decision-making.
Yet, she points out,
I think inequities remain unseen and are largely not ‘accepted’ as legitimate. Occasionally I’ve heard from male poets that there are actually far more opportunities for women because there are presses, magazines, and listservs that are devoted exclusively to women’s work and women’s issues. … If it’s true that there are more opportunities for women, it also seems true those opportunities not really taken seriously by the literary community at large–that they don’t have the same kind of cultural capital.
My poetry world seems to be full, overbrimming with women. I think that my perspective on this is somewhat skewed because, in a way, I’ve made my own community. My co-editor Arielle Greenberg and I read hundreds of first and second books by women in preparation for editing our anthology Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections and got to know the poetry of two generations of women really well. I went back and read Rich, Ostriker, Du Plessis–for a while I was so steeped in women’s poetry and writing about poetry I forgot about the men all together. Now, it’s true, very true, that these communities I’m talking about grew up out of a sense of inequality or as a direct result of oppression, sexism and misogyny.
Zucker, like the others, reiterates that the literary community feels the effects of still being within a “deeply patriarchal culture” and she writes, “I think the discrepancies in poetry are just part of the descrepancies in the larger culture.”
All four poets advocated working towards changing the culture at large — not just the tally sheet. Notley comments, “I would like to see women approach politics much more analytically … where power structures mirrored in the poetry world are in process.” All four had at least one story of being told they were receiving attention “just because” they were female, and unconscious gender bias that seemed to fly out of male colleagues’ mouths before they realized what they were saying. Importantly, each also reported having at least one male editor or reviewer who publicly championed her work.
All were aware of the more nuanced aspects of systemic gender inequity, but how to solve this wasn’t always clear. Willis notes that men often have an easier time with self-promotion. She adds:
If I’m looking at it systemically rather than personally I would say that since administrators and editors are at this point in history, still more likely to be male, other men are more likely to be invited to have a drink with them, or join them on the basketball court. It informalizes the power dynamic, makes it more permeable–also makes it harder to see. So it becomes a feeling women get about not being included in the ‘real’ conversation even when they’re included in the formal or official conversation. And it’s not just a ‘feeling.’
Zucker notes, “I know so many women whose first books came out around the same time that they have their first kid and they couldn’t do readings (or very few).” She adds, “Also, I think women send out work less than men do.” Harjo comments on the politics beyond gender, but around race, as well: “After the efforts of feminism in the seventies I saw a trend toward inclusion. Though often, as with indigenous writers, we were were/are ghettoized and there were/are quotas. I see this all of the worlds in which I labor: poetry, music and theater. What I have noticed in the last few years, that any pretense of inclusion has fallen away.”
What is an ambitious female poet to do? All four returned to a baseline of putting out the best work you can, writing poems because there is deep love for the craft. Notley offers a counternarrative:
The main thing is to love poetry and, of course, to have talent to begin with. I mean talent, which is not the same thing as a desire for a career. Then, publish yourself; publish your friends; get published by your friends. This is what the guys being complained about do (it is the essence of the New York Review of Books). If you do it in underground format, so what? But, most of all, Care About Poetry!
Willis also advocates forging a new path. She writes:
Own your authority even when it’s not recognized. You gain more, ultimately, by insisting on your own rules of engagement. It IS possible to start your own magazine; it IS possible to compose a great life-work without the approbation of establishment venues. Value the editors and poets who support your work, and invest in situations where the work and attention are sustaining and reciprocal. Document everything you do. Support your friends, and when you encounter writers whose work speaks to you, help promote each other. It’s much easier on the body and makes it more likely that you’ll be writing the work you want to write — not writing for a marketplace that’s looking the other way … I’d like to see a stronger commitment to a progressive politics of representation, a recognition that justice is process, and an acknowledgment that we haven’t yet arrived.
Zucker insists on shifting the po’biz world’s parameters. She writes:
Make your own community. Be clear about what your priorities are. Think not only about what you want to get from the poetry world but what you want to give. I’d like to see poetry to be a community building force, a political force, a reservoir of humanity. Is that too grand? Some MFA programs encourage pubic service (NYU is quite good at this). I think all of them should. And I think students should think about why they write not just where they want to get published.
Harjo offers her own prescription for herself to others, “I write the best possible poetry, music, plays — in a kind of dance between wildness and utmost discipline. I keep going — as my people did on the Trail of Tears” and reiterates, “It’s important we stand up to speak, as two of my most beloved teachers, Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich remind us. It’s important that we celebrate each other.”