Thursday, August 19, 2010


Since historically, literature has been domineered by the patriarchy, what advice would you give to teachers to broaden horizons?

I hate to say, “Be more inclusive,” without giving a roadmap, but that’s the catch.  How does anyone go about being more inclusive without the flip-side of that coin feeling reductive (i.e. “Am I including enough queer/Native American, etc writers?”  But if your contents, and the subject matter and styles they cover, feel lopsided or homogenous, they likely are.  And that’s not to say that writers can’t write beyond or outside of their seeming outward identities, but let’s not cling too closely to the idea that we should only hire sighted and hearing actors to play deaf and blind roles simply because they can.  In fact, let’s see how the blind and deaf inhabit those roles and inform them and act beyond them as well. 

So the effort to read more widely, with concerted effort, begins.  My recipe for doing so:  read beyond your comfort zone, read that which you think won’t interest you, read internationally, beyond your genre even, and note what you discover for those classes.  Just as every student won’t be thrilled with every book you suggest, neither do you need to have equal passion for every book.  But you are responsible as a teacher to teach beyond your own palate/palette and offer a spectrum of work that reflects a range of experiences, subject matter, styles, etc.  You will never be able to include “everything” and “every voice,” but you can try.  

I’ve quoted Ashbery elsewhere in similar regard, "And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do."

Is it a matter of using more contemporary examples? Finding new angles on or reinvigorating a push toward established members of the canon (Dickinson or Plath for example)? Unearthing overlooked members (admittedly this is the more difficult example) of historically relevant movements/epochs? Others? 

I’m a fan of the contemporary, but that’s my limitation.  I should likely spend more time mining the past and not just that limited past represented by the literary canon, because that’s where we get into trouble.  There are many literary recovery projects taking place these days as well as attempts to see the “tokens” such as Dickinson and Plath as dynamic writers instead of their stereotyped representations (i.e. Plath as suicide and Dickinson as lonely spinster).  These efforts are attempts to remedy the deficits the canon has instilled in our sense of literary history.

But to answer your question wholly and using your language, we should likely engage in both directions:  reinvigorate what we know of past works of literature (i.e. take marginalized work and treat it more rigorously) and read less popular contemporary work more earnestly. Of course, doing so entails seeking that work, which is, as noted in my last reply, no easy feat.  

Does it feel like an uphill battle as so much of literary history has skewed toward males that even if you wanted to introduce elements to widen the purview of the canon, it'd still have to be within the context of "well this is what's been established"? Can we just cannon the canon (this part is only semi-serious)?

I’d like to cannon the canon into a moth-eaten shroud:  bullet holes that we can peek through to find what’s been hidden behind that canonical cloak of “importance,” all dog-eared and swiss-cheesed, to make a very bad mixed metaphor.

Seriously, the canon is what it is because lots of women’s writing simply didn’t get published; women’s words and concerns were relegated to the “lesser” formats like diaries, letters, and journals.  This writing realm was indicative of women’s affairs in general:  that of the domestic, which was devalued in contrast with the “larger” world of men’s affairs such as business, wars, exploration, imperialistic ventures, philosophy and science, etc.  

Like it or not, this divisive history, and its resounding effects, has not been erased simply because women have entered the work force and attained some rights in the fight for equality over the last half century.  The effects of living this dichotomous existence carry on in ways we have yet to identify.  The canon reproduces much of that lopsided history, even as we work to identify what has been excluded and how to redress that exclusion.  Asking what the canon has left out and effectively rendered invisible is similar to asking what would be different now if we had all lived on equal footing or in a more symbiotic cooperative manner.  

But I think you’re asking how can we begin, right now, amending the canon, so to speak, assuming that following a canon is the correct model for teaching.  I suppose one practical way is to simply begin asking who has been omitted from a survey of American Literature (for example), a time-consuming venture especially if you’re teaching one class at a time.  The task of redress is almost too daunting to approach.   My possibly-superficial feeling is that we need to ask what values and subjects have been ignored—to look at the “unearthing” route, as you put it.  Again, very difficult questions to approach, in part, because how can we identify what’s missing if it was never brought to light or is represented via “token” inclusion (i.e. mentioned through minimal representational work but not taken up in any depth)?  

A good place to begin is in the “marginal.”  I mean, we all know that much of the subject matter consistently taught relates to the aforementioned masculine realm that thrills at the sound of imperialist heroism, at the footsteps of adventure or conquering the unknown, but what about those territories we’ve been conditioned to think of as uninteresting or unimportant?  Is raising a human not of *the* utmost import?  Don’t the effects of nurturing and educating people ripple throughout society?  How did we come to value stories of conquering over stories of nurturing?  Why have we thrilled to a history that births stories of how cowboys robbed and destroyed native peoples?  Many scholars, for some time now, have invested years and painstaking research into the aforementioned recovery projects for some of these “marginal” and neglected views.  And why not? 

I also think we can look to those who have been included but query the focus of how they’re taught.  You mention Plath; isn’t it old hat to simply keep going round and round her poems with the biographical focus of suicide and daddy issues?  Far too often, Plath is victimized as the unhinged genius/woman scorned in that “coldest London winter on record,” while her extremely rigorous, ambitious, Thesaurus-wielding poet-self is underplayed.  To boot, Sexton wasn’t just Plath’s friend; she was a fierce poet who wrote her own poetry.  We need to ask better questions when we approach the few canonized women because they end up getting reduced to so much fleeting biographical notation, and students end up glossing over, never really interrogating or debating their work the way we are encouraged to query and explore Eliot’s or Pound’s or even Lowell’s.  

Elisa said something enlightening to me about feeling welcome in a space. Obviously this is subjective, but as a reader, what about a space (print or on-line) makes you feel welcome? What about as a submitter? The design? Familiarity with names? The aesthetic of the writing? What is off-putting or unwelcoming?

Hmm.  I suppose what makes me feel welcome is discovering work that challenges my aforementioned comfort zone sitting right beside work akin to my own aesthetic and/or subject matter I am familiar with.  Simply put, I’ve been encouraged to be attuned to the female, the domestic, to feelings, to empathize, to nurture, to speak a certain way (not that I’m good at any of these!) and yet, my repertoire is not limited to being attuned to, seeking or liking only the traditional.  I am thrilled by more and seek it. I like echoes of it such as in Virginia Woolf but I’ve also been incredibly moved by Cesar Vajello’s poems written in response to the Spanish war.  That’s a dumbed-down version of a welcome mat, actually.  How else can I put it?  

In my children’s literature course, I talk to my students about the importance to a child of reading work that somehow resounds or even remotely relates to or touches on his or her own experience in a language they can understand (i.e. What happens if a class is exposed to books featuring only white male protagonists though the class population is comprised of two Indian girls, one kid is Muslim, one kid has two mommies, one child is adopted, one child lives in poverty, etc?) so that the child doesn’t end up feeling ostracized or like an anomaly, while also fulfilling the need to read experiences and voices beyond your own scope because that is what fuels the imagination – the pleasure of the familiar and the thrill of the unfamiliar.  Or as my physical therapist suggested the other day, we are always seeking a balance between that which unsettles and that which comforts; neither should dominate.  

Is it enough to have diversity of submitters or should there be a reach for diversity in subject matter as well? 

Another difficult question, since the experiential certainly informs and likely influences every writer’s style and subject matter.  Of course, I don’t believe writers are limited by their experience anymore than I believe all women should be mothers or all lawyers like to imbibe at five o’clock on the dot daily.  However, the chances of offering up twelve male writers in a journal and having six of them write beyond the scope of what I’ve so far referred to as traditionally male interests is highly unlikely.  Naysayers like to get angry at this point because the whole venture of being aware of gender and any other identify factor feels reductive.  And there is some truth to that anger:  how can I quantify experience as being based in identifiable features like gender, race, and class?  I mean, women can write in a masculine mode and men can create believable female characters, so the argument is difficult because ultimately it can be broken down.  Nonetheless, we are all still conditioned to certain roles, interests and behaviors, however aware or not we are of that conditioning.  

In order to encourage greater awareness, it is imperative to locate and include writers who have thus far been marginalized.  Seeing who has been left out is not difficult in the least.  I can’t tell you how many of my students have read F. Scott Fitzgerald but have never heard of the equally amazing writer Zora Neale Hurston.  And the realities they represent in their work are worlds apart.  You tell me when you open the current anthologies of American Literature that the range of writers is great and varied, and I dare you to show me that book.  Open up the New Yorker and do a count of this year alone – how many women’s books are reviewed versus men’s.  You’ll see that count shortly on the VIDA website, not-so-incidentally (http://vidaweb.org/).  Is it because men are writing about women’s experiences, in the voices of women, with the awareness of women better than women?  Not hardly.  Women do read these books, but that doesn’t mean we only want to read about men’s interests and ventures.  We can learn from each other as well, as men can too.  And that is why it is the responsibility of the editor to include a variety of names as well as to look at what those writers are writing (subject, content, voice, style-wise, etc).  

At risk of pissing even more people off, I’ll note that there is a direct correlation between reading about “other” experiences that extend beyond one’s own conditioned interests, reading to branch the proverbial female/male divide.  Cited in a recent article on my blog, David Rothman suggests, “Perhaps the United States wouldn’t end up in wars so often if its policymakers showed a little more empathy with others and used diplomacy instead. Guess what can help build empathy. Yep: the F word [fiction].”  More on that correlation here - http://amyking.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/your-own-revolution-poetry-publishing-the-internet/

Although language is primarily a product of hetero-normative patriarchal powers, what "moves" or steps could we and future writers take that could rebalance that power? What sort of onus do you think writers need to take in regards to language creation? 

I think I’ve already touched on notions of remedy above and am likely exhausting your readers at this point.  On the heels of that article I just linked to, I’d say that writers can also be editors in this internet age.  If you see a lack, get to work and start up an online journal, organize a reading series, publish some inexpensive POD books and get that work out into the world!  You can either use language to reflect the world around you, or you can use that language to change how people see and think about the world.  Getting those words out into the world is part of the effort.  It’s not always as fun as writing, but such work needs to be done by someone.  That someone could be you and you and you.  

As far as language creation, word- & syntax-tweaking is concerned, a lot of poets, “experimental” and otherwise, do this already – see books like Feminaissance and Infinite Difference for such women poets – and there’s no reason why every stripe of poet couldn’t mess around with their own conceptions of how a poem or a sentence should look and sound like and what meaning(s) it points to; at the very least they’ll have some fun.  I think we all need to challenge ourselves to break out of the molds every writer inevitably sets up for him- or herself.  You can likely sense which aspect of your writing might be a bit myopic or where the rut has set in; rather than repeating what you know, change it up.  Make yourself uncomfortable or, rather, stretch your comfort margins.  We writers are intuitive creatures, so the recipe for how will of course be up to the individual.

Mike Young brought up salient points about words like "cop" causing us to automatically think of men over women and yet women are still a minority in the police force (averaging around 10% to 20% of the workforce around the country even though they're actually cheaper to retain as women are less likely to have "excessive force payouts" applied to them than men) so, do you think this stigma will lessen as the numbers (hopefully) rise? Or could a lingual shift (from "stewardess" to "flight attendant") help alleviate some of that bias? Does the word bias exist because of the real life bias? Or does it perpetuate it? 

Both.   As I noted in my last response, language can simply reflect and perpetuate or it can change perception.  Obviously, we’re not speaking English the way we were a hundred years ago.  Not even twenty years ago.  Context affects how a word is received as well as the word itself.  If “bias” begins to feel impotent, then it is begging for a wordsmith to change it out for something more powerful or reflective of the changing reality (i.e. not all flight attendants are female now).  

When are we going to be able to drop the “stay-at-home” part of father to signify fathers who have part-time jobs or share much of the child-rearing responsibilities?  Because the jump in men who are participating more at home with such tasks is dramatically increasing for the better.  How long will we have to qualify these men as special instead of simply as fathers?  The notion of a father who has never changed a diaper used to be bragging territory, but now it has become a flag of embarrassment.  Not all mothers are stay-at-home anymore now than all fathers are not-at-home unless otherwise stated.  So I suppose what I’m getting at is I may not refer to such a father as stay-at-home anymore because I want to resist perpetuating the notion that this is a special condition for fatherhood; in fact it is going to likely become as typical as mothers who stay at home.  In the 1950s, when a father watched his children, this was often referred to as “babysitting” – though the children were his too.  Language does and will change.

What do the terms "feminine" and "masculine" writing mean to you? Is there such a thing or is it a broad strokes appellation like "realism"? For you does it fall to subject matter or more a tonal quality? 

I’m going to go with both.  I think I’ve noted above, in a very generic way since women also have out-of-the-house adventures, some of the more “masculine” subjects that men write about.  Again, I’ll offer the caveat that not all men are taken with such subject matter nor are they all prone to writing in a masculine mode, which is a whole other can of worms I can’t get into defining here.  There are books on it.  If you want an example of popularized books that represent male subject matter, another post from my blog dissects (click and scroll down) -- http://amyking.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/why-weren’t-any-women-invited-to-publishers-weekly’s-weenie-roast/ 

Why do you think there are more submitters who are men, when, it seems that a majority of people who are coming out of MFA programs are either a majority or equal number of women? 

I think men, again generally speaking, have been taught to be less-abashed and bolder about getting their words into the world.  They’re pro-active in ways women have been taught to be modest about.  I also wonder if women aren’t simply more mired with busy work at home than men.  

Amy King is the author of Slaves to Do These Things, I'm the Man Who Loves You, and Antidotes for an Alibi, all from BlazeVOX [books], The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Chapbook award), and forthcoming, I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press). She teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College and, with Ana Bozicevic, curates the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry. Her blog can be found at amyking.wordpress.com


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