Women in Poetry (Again)

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.

CF: H-NGM-N discussion, “Numbers Trouble,” What We Said: GENDER, my previous post on women in vispo, Earl @ Harriet, etc.

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?


About Jessica Smith

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8 Responses to Women in Poetry (Again)

  1. peterwaffles says:

    Youre amazing and ill be reading this post again. Thanks for sharing and have a great afteroon. And rock on sister!

  2. yesisaidyesiwillyes says:

    If you are ready to go with an issue, and it’s delayed because you don’t have a bio from those from whom you’ve have asked for a bio, and maybe asked again and a third time, why not just publish the dang thing with something YOU write about the poet, or with no bio at all?

    Ditto with regard to those who won’t send you work, except there of course you can’t write something, but just use the work of somebody else.

    There could be many reasons a poet doesn’t send something in, or follow through with a bio. Although I hope it’s not the case here, not doing one or the other would be a well-accepted variant of human passive-aggressive behavior: somebody doesn’t actually want you to publish her, or has changed her mind about that, but would rather not say so directly.

    But regardless of why, there comes a time when the ink must hit the paper, with the issue comprised of that which you have in hand. Those who have done what they needed to do — sent in work and a bio — deserve to have their work published.

    Of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make reasonable allowances for people who, as does everybody, must deal with time-challenges and the other crap that pops up in life. But at a certain point . . . .

  3. Oh yes Steve, that’s true. But I am gesturing more broadly (ha, pun) at the habit of female self-effacement, and have rarely been delayed more than a few weeks by a poet or artist who, for whatever reason, is late with a bio.

  4. Martin Earl says:


    I thought after reading this post you might like to look at one of mine, published while I was writing for Harriet last winter. It takes up several of the same issues, and its premise is identical. Here’s the second paragraph:

    “Of course, there are exceptions but for the moment I am intent on generalizing. In the field of poetry, women make better bloggers than do their male counterparts, also better commentators, better critics and, increasingly, better poets. Of the younger generation of poets I am discovering through my involvement with Harriet, the women are clearly superior. Not only is their poetry more ambitious and achieved but their criticism is more daring, their originality of thought deeper and their wit more honed.”

    The post is titled: “A short, highly personal observation completely lacking in examples which I could never have made thirty years ago when I was a you poet still living in New York, because I didn’t know enough to know it was true. But I do now.”

    It generated a lot of commentary, much of it fascinating.

    Take a look if you have time. You’ll find it under my name in the “Previous Writers” list, down the right side of the page at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/

    At any rate, thanks for your compelling post.

    Martin Earl

    looktouch edit: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2009/05/a-short-highly-personal-observation-completely-lacking-in-examples-which-i-could-have-never-have-made-thirty-years-ago-when-i-was-a-young-poet-still-living-in-new-york-because-i-didn%E2%80%99t-know/

  5. Thanks for the link, Martin. I don’t usually read Harriet, but I vaguely know that many discussions about gender and poetry have happened there.

    I like the post… the comments stream makes me sick, but then, comments streams usually do. Not sure why it’s so radical to express opinions on blogs (which are “logs” or journals, not newspapers or dissertations) and why so many commentators feels the need to be so virulent.

  6. Jokerman says:

    “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 and a new way and has something new to say.”


  7. Pingback: The Ungallant Cynic « American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

  8. oklaelliott says:

    Okay…I know I am very late to this blog post discussion. I read it months ago and nearly responded but was worried at the negative backlash of disagreeing that their ought to be all-women journals or writing contests. I have several reasons for this belief.

    1) By making this distinction (or any other demographic one) the primary criterion for selecting work, editors are reinforcing the very divisions that lead to our social problems and the fragmenting of of groups that ought to be in solidarity. In this instance, those who like the arts ought to be solidarity against those who want to cut their funding or shrink their meaning in our culture.

    2) Even if you are right (though your evidence is a bit thin) that women are largely superior writers, I doubt you mean to suggest that no men are worthy of publication. So, why not simply publish along lines of merit? If you are right that women are better, then there will naturally be more. I suspect that you are attracted to women’s writing more, for whatever political or personal reasons, which is why you say this, and the anecdotal evidence of knowing a few guys who agree with you for whatever reason is not very strong evidence that your claim to women’s writerly superiority is true. I mean, couldn’t you find a few guys who say the opposite? Would that then make you wrong? Anecdotal evidence is flimsy and entirely unconvincing, is my point. And it brings me to my next point . . .

    3) You offer no actual data, only generalizations based on the most specious of evidence. If there is in fact a shortage of female voices in contemporary literature (and all the institutions involved therewith), then we need to correct this. Institutionalized inequality is unethical and ought to be stamped out wherever it is found. So . . . in order to convince a discerning mind that there is in fact said inequality in the contemporary lit scene, one would need to analyze a number of recent literary journals, the recent catalogs of publishers, the faculty and grad student rosters at MFA programs, etc. I have done a very brief analysis, thus offering (at least some) data to let us know what might or might not be the case here. Sarabande Books recent titles list has 12 female and 8 male authors; 2 of the 4 most recent Pitt Poetry Books are female authored, 2 male; 3 out of 3 most recent Oberlin College Press books are by females — one of which was a finalist for the Pulitzer; MFA faculty at several well-regarded MFA programs (OSU, Illinois, Indiana, Cornell, and Brown are ones I checked) show an almost perfect 50/50 split with some schools landing more 40/60 and others more 60/40. A similar thing occurs when I review recent issues of Indiana Review, A Public Spance, The Literary Review, and other journals considered noteworthy (often listed on top-50 or top-25 lists). Needless to say, my quick Googling and perusing the journals on my shelf could not stand the epistemic scrutiny we should submit them to, but I think if someone were to do a more scientific study, we would find these same ratios. But someone ought to do the more rigorous study to find out. For now, since this is only actual evidence on the subject in the discussion, I’ll go with it.

    I therefore submit that while in a factory, a fast food job, a law enforcement position, and other parts of society, women certainly are not as well represented, in the literary arts they are more than equally represented. In fact, since all the places that give voice to both genders (if we limit to two, which we are for this discussion) seem to have excellent equality, and yet there are quite a few journals and prizes only for women, I would argue that in the lit biz, women fair much better than men — and all the while able to claim (against any close look at the evidence) that they are being silenced in the biz. In effect, they have a larger voice and the (perceived) ethically superior stance of the resistance fighter being silenced.

    And so . . . while I support your right to publish whatever you want — free speech and all — I feel it is intellectually specious to claim that a) women are better writers and b) that they are being silenced in contemporary literature. I suspect there is plenty of talent to go around, and that our issue in contemporary literature is not that people are being silenced, but rather that so few are listening.

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