Tuesday, August 17, 2010


So, without rehashing the entire thing, when issue two came out people took issue with the all-maleness of it. As did I. The thing was, I read a blog, reacted idiotically, and then spent some time trying to both apologize and get people to understand that, for me, it was a shitty confluence of timing and event that ended up with the publication of all males in that issue. Still, I stand by the quality of the work in the issue. Conversations popped up across a multitude of blogs. A lot good. Some stoking the fire. I felt like it's a conversation that needs to continue for everyone's sake. This is part one of a two part e-mail interview/slapdash thing I threw together. Part one is from Elisa Gabbert. Part two, to be posted in a couple of days is from Amy King.

Since historically, literature has been domineered by the patriarchy, what advice would you give to teachers to broaden horizons? 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? Does it feel like an uphill battle as so much of literary history has skewed toward males that even if you were wanting 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)?

EG: All of these approaches sound feasible to some degree. I also think it’s crucial, when teaching literature, to bring in the history of literature, to explain the context in which the writing was created and celebrated. When teachers give students a reading list that is 90% men and don’t talk about why it’s so skewed, students just inherit the idea that a male bias is fine and normal. If no one else is questioning it, why should they? So if you’re teaching a class on 19th century British poetry, obviously almost all the surviving examples are going to be by men, but you can talk about why that’s the case. If we’re talking about high school English or a general poetry class, I think contemporary examples are key in any case, but if they’re balanced, they’ll have the added bonus of demonstrating that women are writing and publishing great work. Whether or not they feel comfortable admitting it, I do think a lot of people have this ingrained idea that men write more “great,” “ambitious” books. And it’s partly because books by men are more frequently reviewed, promoted, awarded, recommended, talked about and so on. (Probably also a factor: Men are encouraged to believe that if they’re going to bother writing they need to be “great.”)

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?

EG: Good question. Not surprisingly, I feel much more welcome both as a reader and a submitter when there’s gender parity. It doesn’t have to be exactly 50-50 in every issue, but I think an attempt at balance/diversity over time should be one of the goals of an editor. If an editor doesn’t care about those issues and it shows, it’s not a huge deal, since there are other journals, but I think they have to expect some degree of criticism, and that not everyone will be comfortable reading or submitting.

This is really just one element of an overall sense that the editors care—that they want to present good work in a well-designed issue, that they have some unique editorial vision they want to express. So if the names in a table of contents are too familiar, I get the sense that the editors are just reproducing what other journals are already doing. More of the same isn’t very exciting. (That said, since I’ve been around the block a few times, if I don’t recognize any of the authors, I might be a little suspicious.)

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

EG: I think this is essentially up to the editors. I wouldn’t personally be that excited about a journal that focused on a certain subject (I keep thinking poems about dogs), but I guess there’s a market for that. Probably more common is for editors to focus on a certain style. Take Artifice, which only considers work that somehow acknowledges its own artifice. There’s nothing in that editorial statement that prevents diversity in subject matter or among submitting authors. Still, not everyone is going to be interested in reading it or submitting.

The thing is, people tend to read and like work that is similar to their own. Only reading what you already like can be sort of limiting, in the sense that you can’t really know if you like something until you give it a chance. If you’re at all interested in expanding your horizons by traveling, trying new foods, doing new things, listening to different kinds of music … it seems worthwhile to keep an open mind about writing too. More exposure to work written by people who aren’t just like you helps you learn how to read it.

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? 

EG: I’m not sure about this one. I’m drawn to writing that interrogates received forms and received language. Questioning the status quo is one of the primary ways I engage with the world. I don’t know any formula for getting that done, however.

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), 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? 

EG: I think lingual shifts can make a difference, yes, but in the case of “cop,” which is not inherently gendered, it’s tough. Certain careers are strongly gender biased (as another example most surgeons are still men, I think like 80%). When someone says “surgeon” or “cop,” most people picture a man because most of the time it is a man. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before women feel like those careers are equally open to them. And as Mike pointed out language is part of that. 

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? 

EG: I think work can be described as masculine or feminine if it fits certain stereotypes, but women can write “masculine” work and vice versa. It seems slightly beside the point to the question of whether it matters that women and men are both published. Everyone brings a unique view to the table and gender is just one part of that. 

I’ve heard people make the argument that gender has no effect on one’s writing. I don’t agree, but even if writing by men and writing by women were exactly the same, it still wouldn’t be fair to only publish men. Excusing a bias seems equivalent to admitting they are different (and implying one is worse).

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? 

EG: I get the sense that men are generally more confident that their work is ready for the world and deserves to be published. Again this probably goes back to men being published and celebrated more. I still get more submissions from men than women, but a lot of that can be attributed to the same men submitting over and over again (sometimes not even waiting until I’ve rejected their last sub) or men submitting work that is not at all right for my magazine. Men definitely do this more than women—I guess it’s that overconfidence again, as in, “Why do I need to read the journal first? Anyone would want to publish this.” Once I throw out all those submissions that are totally inappropriate or obviously unpublishable, the gender balance of subs seems pretty even. 

It may also be a question of free time. Many women are working mothers and just don’t have time to send out submissions every week. This isn’t to say no men have busy schedules. I’m just trying to account for the tendencies. If you have less time and/or you feel the market is less receptive to you, you’re likely to be more selective about where you send work.

Lastly, are there questions that you want to ask of the general populace? Things that are genuinely on your mind or that you want to trigger continued conversation?

EG: Here’s one: Why are people so afraid to identify as feminists? According to Merriam-Webster, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” What about that sounds bad? I just read an interview with Martha Stewart—who seems to embrace the ideals of feminism; she is a strong, ambitious woman who has built a media empire celebrating traditionally feminine activities like cooking and decorating—but she claims she isn’t a feminist and even says “Do we really need to waste time saying, ‘I’m a feminist’?” I mean, huh? That sentence took longer to say than “I’m a feminist.” (You can tell, because it includes it, then adds more words.) It’s certainly no more of a waste of time than making your own pie crust. What I wonder is, Does Martha Stewart really believe that? Or does she just not want to alienate her audience, primarily consisting of women? Why do women think “feminist” is a bad word?

Elisa Gabbert is the author of Thanks for Sending the Engine, a chapbook from Kitchen Press, and, with Kathleen Rooney, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, a collaborative collection. She is the poetry editor of Absent and currently works at a software startup in downtown Boston. She blogs at The French Exit.


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