Signing Off For 2007

Tomorrow we leave for England right after the School Winter Concert, and given the state of computers in my relations’ houses (One, currently not connected to the Internet, in my parents’ house; none in Barnsley) it seems unlikely much blogging will occur.

So there are a couple of updates due. Wordgathering is up, with my Breast Cancer sonnet. I also received notice yesterday that Steven Schroeder’s new venture Anti will publish one of my more avant garde pieces “Scare Quotes Reformation Scare Quotes.” I imagine the translation issue of The Chimaera will be online pretty soon, featuring my Dante essay and two translations from the French. Oh, and the inaugural issue of 14×14 is also online. I’m not in it, of course, but there are some high quality sonnets to be read there and I am proud to have had a hand in their selection. I’ve also agreed to continue on the judging panel for the next issue.

I taught a poetry class to Lorna’s third grade homeroom this morning, and I think that worked okay. I kept their attention for two periods anyhow. (Lorna told me three of the kids said ‘good things’ to her about it afterward, but she could only remember one of them–“Your Mom is nice.” Oh well…)

And now pretty soon I have to pick Becky up from the gym so we can go and watch Lorna in the Christmas play “Jingle Bells Jury,” where she ended up playing one of the spectators. Happy Christmas Everyone! See you in 2008!

On Audience

It is instructive to consider the eclectic mix of readers who may occasionally peruse this blog. Many are, I assume, poets, and typically formal poets who have come to these pages as contributors, prospective contributors or readers of the Barefoot Muse. (This is a smart move, particularly for those preparing submissions, as I quite often have an informative little rant going about some aspect of the editing process.)

Others, no doubt out of curiosity, probably click on the link from my good friend R’s blog, where she often references me personally and then links to my blog to provide context for anyone who has the time and energy to go looking for it.

However, a small but important group of my readers are personal friends and family, and it is for these people, largely, that I post entries about my children and my health–a very different set of topics from those I aim at poets. It’s interesting to contemplate what, if anything, the poetry crowd makes of these posts. Obviously I don’t share anything of an overly private nature, but does it feel a bit like eavesdropping, I wonder, for those in search of insight into my poetic preferences to come across my daughter’s latest gymnastics scores?

I’m happy with who I am. It’s possible that my devotion to my children hampers my attainment of my literary goals at the present time, but when I look at my beautiful daughters I see two perfect poems which do not need the endorsement of prizes and publication for me to know they are 100% worth my time and effort. I hope that perspective is a useful one for anyone who visits this blog, for whatever reason.

So, with that in mind, here’s some Becky & Lorna stuff. [Read more...]

What Essentialism Means to Me…

Today, as displacement activity for writing Christmas Cards, I found myself absorbed reading a discussion about essentialism and gender equality in poetry publications. This can be followed on the Harriet blog at the Poetry Foundation (posts by Stephen Burt, A.E. Stallings, Emily Warn and Ange Mlinko), with reference to articles by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, and Jennifer Ashton, which appear in the current Chicago Review.

To summarize the original stimulus for debate, Ashton wrote an essay (not, unfortunately available online) called “Our Bodies, Our Poems” which attacked the mindset of essentialism, or the belief that biological differences can be held accountable for all the secondary differences  that can be seen between, in this context, the poetry of different genders. Essentialism, Ashton believes, is responsible for isolating women into gender specific communities such as women only anthologies, when the most valid criterion for distinguishing communities is purely on the basis of the type of art being produced. As part of her argument she suggested that the need for such anthologies has been greatly reduced because of the great strides made by women in poetry publishing, thanks to the “corrective agenda” of the feminist presses from the seventies onward.

Spahr and Young refute these great strides with convincing statistics from the current poetry scene. Ashton then refutes in turn the relevance of their argument (she accuses the anthologies of being essentialist because they irretrievably link the gender of the poets with the forms of the poems, rather than because of any anti-discriminatory motivation.) Finally everyone else jumps in, brandishing sheaves of statistics and barrages of personal anecdotes, all with, I suspect, their own personal agendas.

All of which is way more semantically complex than I like to get on this blog, and can be reduced to some much simpler questions:

1. Are women still discriminated against today by poetry publications on the basis of gender, or is there another reason why the % of women appearing in poetry journals and anthologies etc. is still noticeably less than 50%?
2. Are ‘women-only’ projects a good idea, or do they reinforce essentialism by implying that women’s poetry is by nature distinct from male poetry, and should be celebrated separately?

Beginning with the first question, I am fortunate in that I have at my disposal all the statistics for the submissions I received during the last reading period of the Barefoot Muse. I had deliberately not analysed these statistics until this point, partly because I did so at the end of a previous reading period, and it got me into some trouble. Besides, the issue is already live, and I chose the poems with no reference to any perceived gender imbalance.

However, armed with this genuine reason, I did some quick math on my data. The results will make you shudder. Out of the 872 poems I received, 62 women submitted 217 of the poems (that’s 24% of the total) while 142 men submitted 577 poems (66% of the total). (Quick witted mathematicians will note that 78 poems came from the 15 persons whose names and correspondence gave no clear hint as to gender.)

I’d also like to point out that 10 of my male submitters sent me at least two submissions during the reading period, while only one of my female submitters did so, regardless of encouragement. Yes, the Barefoot Muse is an e-zine, and a formal poetry specific one at that. However, I fear that the situation I see still reflects that of higher tier print journals.

Note: the published results of this activity actually show women in a much better light: 36% of the poems in the final journal issue are by women, and only 64% by men.

Here’s another factor though. I personally solicited two of the poems by men, and none of the poems by women. (For these purposes I’m not counting the Featured Poet, Annie Finch, who I totally solicited!) Why does this matter? Well, to misquote Hannibal Lector “What do we solicit? We solicit what we see.” So, if men outnumber women approximately two to one in literary journals, it follows that they have twice as great a likelihood of having poems solicited. When you consider that in the higher tier of print journals as many as 98% of the poems could be solicitations rather than from the slush pile (a percentage I’d be very interested in seeing openly quoted alongside the acceptance ratios in guides such as Poets’ Market) then it all starts to look like the sort of vicious circle which maintains the status quo. Of course, now I am aware of this bias, I could make the conscious decision to solicit more poems by women, but if I did that, I would be open to accusations of unfair positive discrimination, and indeed, of a form of essentialism, because to alter one’s behavior to accommodate a gender difference is to admit that one exists.

Which brings us nicely to the second question. Now, I was trained as a scientist, and so I have to conclude from the evidence of my submissions statistics that gender differences exist, although these are not necessarily visible in the substance or form of the actual work produced by men and women. Looking again at my current issue, for example, the two love sonnets are both by men, whereas the women are responsible for one piece of political satire and several current affairs pieces.

The differences materialize in the submissions process: typically men submit more, and are more likely to follow up a rejection with a repeat submission. I think it is highly likely that this behavior arises not from innate biological differences, however, but perhaps from the signals that women have received from society all their lives (nurture not nature, in other words,) and this is probably similar for other minority groupings, although I’m trying to stick to gender issues here. Is it essentialism to acknowledge differences that arise through nurture? Another possibility is one raised elegantly by A.E. Stallings—given our other roles as primary child caregivers, our time and energy is constrained. Is it essentialism to recognize that women are not only the biological nurturers of children, but still primarily the sociological ones?

I’d say it doesn’t matter. Rather like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, what the data shows is that women haven’t yet reached the luxury of being able to worry about whether their women only projects subvert their artistic equality with men. It’s premature, when what we really need to be concerned about is still, sadly, how to increase the exposure of women poets so we are as visible as men. If women only projects help with that, I’m all for them.

As for the Barefoot Muse, I will continue to record the statistics and shake my head over them, but poems will always be published on the basis of merit, not gender. Believe me though, I intend to be bullish with my own submissions. We always begin by changing ourselves.

The Barefoot Muse Issue #6 Is Now Online!

This is a landmark issue in several ways. Firstly it means I have now been doing this for three years–a year longer than the MFA. When I compare this issue with the first one I feel a real sense of accomplishment. In the first issue I was forced to publish my own poems (which I don’t believe editors should do) because of insufficient high quality submissions. These days I have the luxury of accepting less than 3% of the poems I receive, and it shows in the caliber of the work. Furthermore, these days I am able to solicit poems from highly regarded formal poets such as Annie Finch and XJ Kennedy, both of whom have commented favorably on the appearance and standard of the journal. In fact XJ Kennedy called us “One of the more valuable webzines.”

Would you believe I already have 17 submissions for the next issue? If you are one of them, however, don’t hold your breath waiting for a response. I probably won’t look at them until after the January residency.

Future plans include a print anthology, and I’m still looking into running a poetry contest sometime next year.

Thanks to all my contributors, both in this issue and in the previous five. It is always an honor to be able to publish your work.