Since I am currently out of work, I am working on a few much-delayed issues of Foursquare and I am reminded that although Foursquare is not a unique project in the world of poetry magazines, it is still a sometimes controversial thing to publish a magazine that only accepts work from women. I think this is a fruitful way to run a magazine, but inevitably there are people who say “what if I ran a magazine that only accepted work from men?” and of course those people are men, and usually very ignorant men who put feminism back a hundred years every time they open their mouths (in other words, I don’t think this question is worthy of an answer). Anyway, although Foursquare aims to provide a safe and productive meeting place for creative female minds, I do still have problems getting work out of female poets and artists, who despite their obvious talents and needs to express themselves are still caught up in a society that tells them to erase themselves and their work, or deliver it with a kind of rhetorical curtsy. The most difficult part of the editorial process is getting bios out of people. Many people, regardless of gender, hate writing bios. I will give you a little guide to writing bios in a separate post, but first I want to say something more about female poets writing today.
First of all, most of the great poets writing today are women. I am not entirely sure why this is, but I think it is partly because although there is something to be said for experimentation and poetry as an art of using words for things other than self-expression, the work that resonates with me both says things in a new way and has something new to say. As I have said before, Cage’s “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it and that’s poetry as I need it” is not poetry as I need it. I still need a book that I want to keep on my bedside table. Now, I am not an ordinary person in that the books I want to keep by my bedside table are things like Susan Howe’s Singularities and Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette. I like and appreciate great technical virtuosity like Christian Bok’s Eunoia, but I do not feel the visceral need to return to its passages any more than I feel the need to return to the work of most of the male Language poets (but I feel entirely different about Hejinian, Scalapino) or post-Language poets (again, I feel differently when it’s Spahr). I don’t think this is simply because I’m a woman, because I know men who feel the same way. Perhaps because women were so long subjected to anonymity, a female experience of the world is still novel. Perhaps because women are still oppressed, the way they think and express themselves is still radical. (Note: these are cultural, not essential differences. Many men are also oppressed, especially if we get into issues of race and class, and indeed it seems to be these men whose words strike me as worth reading.) … This is all to say to the self-effacing women: you may not be the best poet who ever lived, but demographically, the odds are in your favor that you have something to say, so please speak up.
Secondly, our cultural atmosphere– even in our supposedly progressive country– still teaches women to shut up, but that is not necessarily what women ought to do, and when one is writing a bio or choosing to send out poems, one should certainly reflect upon whether one’s timidity with regard to these things is due to the quality of the work or one’s own upbringing. Certain parts of society are crueler to women than others, for example, when women are brought up in rural or Southern environments or very wealthy environments, it seems like their roles are more strictly assigned than say, in the urban secular middle-class. Maybe I am making that up; maybe there is no difference. It seems to me there is. And it starts very early, for example, when one is in school and one patiently raises one’s hand to answer a question and boys are hopping out of their chairs like frogs and shouting things, one learns quickly that it is just better to shut up and let boys have their way, because there is no way that one will be heard. Unfortunately, this also teaches boys very bad habits, such as the seeming habit of male poets to ejaculate their poetry into every magazine editor’s mailbox with no sense of its quality or whether their brilliance at 3 a.m. might still be brilliant by the light of day. But now we are no longer girls and boys, but adults, and now we can reflect upon our actions and think things like, “do I really need to spurt my half-baked poetry all over the world or should I wait until I have something really good to publish?” and “am I holding back my poetry because I have been trained to be quiet, or because I am afraid of being loud, or etc.?”
I do not have a conclusion on this, just a link to send you to if you would like to think more about it, which was sent to me by Elisa Gabbert: “Do Women Need Self-Promotion Training?” The answer may or may not be yes. For either cultural or essential reasons, I am not sure which, women’s self-promotion will probably be different from men’s, but I am not sure what it will look like. Step One is just to have confidence in your work and reflect on why you may be shy about sending your poetry out into the world, and do try to send it out so that eager readers like me have something to do.
For those of you who are tired of discussing women in poetry and women writers with regard to editing and publishing, let me warn you that it will be a long time before the conversation is over, because there is still much unsettled. We could also discuss why so many experimental poets are white upper-class people (male or female). There is still a lot to say about the politics of experimental poetry and whether and how it might change the politics of everyday life.
Ref: Perez at Harriet, snarky Hoostown, Mark thinking, My follow-up post, and a bit of historical context. There is a lot of debate here over why/whether women writing today are better than men writing today (it seems that saying such a thing is heresy), but no forays into what I think are the much more interesting questions: why are women so reluctant to self-promote, and what might a non-male (aggressive, insensitive, sperm-like) self-promotion look like?