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.