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Sexism in English-Language Poetry

June 13, 2009

The first time I experienced sexism in the poetry world was when I was an undergraduate and submitted a few poem to my college’s student-run journal: they came back with the suggestion that I should really submit them to the newsletter put out by the women’s center. Of which I was on the editorial staff, though I’m certain that the editor who handled my poems didn’t know that. You see, this wasn’t a case of an editor being helpful by suggesting a journal that might be more open to my style: this was about assigning my work, work dealing with women’s experiences, to the women poets’ ghetto, using the same tired thinking that considers books about men to have universal appeal and books about women to have gender-bounded appeal.

This experience was subtle, but far worse has been known to occur outside of a supposedly progressive liberal arts college. Last year, Julie Buffaloe-Yoder described an editor’s response to a poem she had written about the rape of someone close to her:

He took the time to type a six page, single spaced letter in which he ranted about how he would never, ever publish a poem about rape, because he was so tired of hearing women cry and moan about the subject. In his opinion, women who get raped usually “have it coming,” because of the provocative way they dress or act around men. In his words, he was “sick of wenchy women poets who are always bashing men.”

When Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young revealed continuing inequalities in publishing in Numbers Trouble, one of the popular defenses (also popular among editors when a specific journal is revealed to publish significantly more men than women) was that women simply do not submit as much work as men do. Is it any wonder that this is the case when women receive such responses? Another factor is that, while Victorian gender roles tell us that women should have some facility in the arts, the picture of a great artist remains dominantly male; women are encouraged to see their work more as something to share with friends or put on personal blogs than as something for which to try to gain recognition. It isn’t wrong to make that choice, but it is a problem when women are encouraged to see themselves only as casual practitioners with no claim to greatness and when those who do choose to pursue publication anyway face increased barriers.

Annie Finch recently wrote that the situation is even worse in the UK than it is in the US:

My poetry trip to the U.K. this winter was marked, among many wonderful experiences, by something more sobering: a string of stories poured out to me by women poets about gender imbalance and discrimination in prizes and book and journal publishing at the top levels of the British poetry world. While I am a natural idealist and would prefer to spend most of my time sitting under a pine tree writing and reading, sometimes a situation cries out inescapably for action. Starker than similar accounts I’ve heard in the U.S., yet all too familiar, these tales inspired me to address my longstanding frustraion at the stagnation in po-biz. As Eva Salzman points out in the introduction to her cross-Atlantic poetry anthology Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English, it is still true that “the baggage attached to ‘woman poet’—poetess or not—is more like a lead weight.”

Out of this experience, she and Jane Holland have created the Poetic Justice discussion forum. It’s still new, and what effect it will have remains to be seen or, rather, depends on how many of those of us with an interest in writing or reading poetry get involved.

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  1. June 13, 2009 6:44 pm

    One wonders how having a female poet laureate will affect the British mindset.

    • June 14, 2009 5:53 pm

      It’s a good question. I admit to being a bit cynical about whether one woman succeeding will help ease the general climate of sexism. Maybe it depends on what she does as laureate?

  2. Thomas permalink
    June 19, 2009 12:09 pm

    What puzzles me is how many male poets/artists express these attitudes towards women when they themselves are looked down upon by those who brand themselves as “real” men as being feminine and sensitive. There seem to be many examples of those discriminated against in turn discriminating against those in a position of less power. (For example, the waves of immigrants that arrived in NYC, some gay men towards lesbians, some lesbians towards transgendered people).

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