ARE WOMEN UNDERREPRESENTED IN THE SMALL PRESS
A DUELING ESSAY
By: CHARLES P. RIES and ELLARAINE LOCKIE
I became curious about women in the poetry small press when I noticed there were almost no female poets among the Beats of the 50’s and 60’s. I then found equally few female poets in a review I’d written poetry anthology which focused on poets in the 70’s. So I wondered, “How far have we really come?” When an e-mail query I sent to sixty poets, publishes and editors got me almost forty pages of replies, I thought I was on to something, but wanted see what a first rate female poet made of it all. Ellaraine Lockie was nice enough to jump into the gender equity hot tub with me and we agreed to disagree. Here is what we had to say about the current status of female poets in the small press. ~ Charles P. Ries
Are Women Underrepresented in the Small Press?
By: Charles P. Ries
Word Count: 1, 372
I had recently completed reading a poetry anthology entitled, Baby Beat Generation & The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance when I noticed how few women contributors were represented. I didn’t understand why this would be the case, so I asked Kaye MacDonough whose work was featured about the status of women in the poetry small press, North Beach and the 70’s:
“I think the North Beach lifestyle itself was hard on women. You had to be able to live poor and like it — handle yourself in a bar, walk alone on the street at any hour, and rely on no one. You had to take care that you weren’t an alcohol or drug casualty — and that you could keep up with all those poets and what they read, and they read plenty. You had to be able to read your poetry to rooms full of mostly men who were not shy about giving you feedback. The womanizing was a definite minus. Where I came from, women did not go about unescorted at night, let alone into a bar, so North Beach wasn’t exactly a place to settle down and start a family– I’m not sure I knew what in the heck I was after – alcohol certainly played a role. I think I wanted to live like a man – a man who was a poet.”
Maybe MacDonough’s experience was just North Beach and the 70’s, but when I looked at the popular Beat poets of the 50’s and 60’s almost none are women. I wondered if things had changed? I believe some sectors of our poetry world are still dominated by a male ethos. Yet I also believe women, write, read, and buy more poetry. I see a growing number of female editors; particularly in the booming electronic magazines sector, but it seems to me that men are more aggressive about submitting work and getting work published than women. I also believe that women are better represented in the academic MFA side of poetry, but still, I had this feeling there are fewer female voices in the poetry small press than male voices. So I invited poets, publishers and editors to send me their thoughts about what I felt was a race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic free zone called the poetry small press. As you might imagine, the replies were varied. Some agreed, and some didn’t agree with my assumption. Here are a few observations that I pulled from over forty pages of responses:
Our first few issues featured more female than male poets. The reason for this is that we solicited female poets heavily. In recent issues, we haven’t solicited as much and the result is that we’ve gotten more male poets over the transom. What does this mean? Women aren’t sending us poetry unless we ask for it. So why don’t women send us poetry? If I use the model of myself (a male) and my fiancée (a female) then I notice that I will send work any and everywhere, and she is much more selective. I also tend to write more than she does, though her work is often stronger and more polished. Many women writers I know are very selective about where they send their work. The idea of social roles has been brought up; that women are still often relegated to the home and many women have children and so can’t send work out/must be more selective. But the thing I find much more disturbing is the lack of minority submissions. CL Bledsoe ~ Ghoti Magazine.
We all have trouble getting published regularly (who doesn’t I guess), but most do get published from time to time if they send their poems out! And there I think is the issue. Many of the women I know who write poetry either don’t send their poems out, or don’t send them out as regularly (let alone relentlessly) as most of the male poets I know. Laurie Rosenblatt, M.D ~ Poet.
So many women got their foot in the door with the vigorous feminist press movement of the late 70s/early 80s. Some of those journals are still in existence. On the other hand, the beat poet movement was largely male. What tradition is more influential to today’s independent literary journals? The question is complex/nuanced and far reaching into the history of women in literature and society. Liz Bradfield ~ Broadsided
Several years ago, as part of my master’s thesis, I interviewed four women poets: Stellasue Lee, Denise Duhamel, Naomi Shihab Nye and Shara McCallum. Stellasue Lee spoke about this very issue. This interview was published in Margie, The American Review of Poetry, issue two and can be found online at Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.under the link: Chautauquas. Lee told me that as poetry editor of RATTLE, she would publish more women writers, but fewer women writers submitted. When I asked Lee recently if this were still true, she said that the overwhelming number of submissions to Rattle came from male writers. I do think that some women are happy to just write and not play the whole publishing game. I’ve never encountered malicious bias. If it’s out there, I may be naive to it. Karla Huston ~ Poet.
I don’t believe that women are better poets, but I do believe that women poets need to get off their collective asses and start submitting work in greater numbers. The ratio of women to men submitting work to poetic diversity is 1 to 3. I also don’t believe that women improve their craft with age just because they are women. What I do believe is something my mother Michelle Lecrivain (a painter and quilt artist) once told me: “Women have been creating art in their everyday life since the beginning of time. It’s as natural to our sex as breathing, but we’re not taught to look at our creation as art. We’re only taught to look at our creations as ‘labours’.” Marie Lecrivain ~ Poeticdiversity.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that women are less represented in poetry small press if they don’t want to be. After all, the genders are different; and getting published may not matter as much to women as it does to men. But the number and variety of replies to my query – forty of the sixty poets, editors and publishers I contacted responded – suggests equal opportunity is on people’s minds.
In the mid-70’s an act of congress called Title Nine required schools to invest as much in girls athletics as they did boys athletics. Not surprisingly the numbers of girls participating in athletics has grown to numbers never imagined in the 70’s. Equally interesting to me is that enrollment of women in universities is rising steadily and has now outpaced men. Maybe when we give a generation of women the same access and the same belief in themselves as we have traditionally given our men, they will not hesitate to compete, even in the poetry small press – if they choose to.
I am not sure we have arrived at a time when we can just write well and forget about gender (or race for that matter), when it comes to equal representation. The Beats hardly had women in their ranks. The poets of the 70’s didn’t do much better. Today we can look around and say we’ve made progress, there are more female poets getting published, but have we arrived? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that in 2006 the doors to well written poetry are as open to female poets as they are to their male counterparts.
So what do we do about it? To those of you who think we have arrived and good writing has prevailed over sexism – nothing. To those of us who feel there is still a ways to go, doors to open, and opportunities to give; we must take an active role to make sure the poetry of talented men and women is brought before the widest audience possible. Talent alone is not enough to create equal opportunity. We must all participate in leveling the playing field.
NOTE: I would be happy to send the over forty pages of responses to my query about women in the small press as an e-mail attachment to anyone requesting it.
Are Women Underrepresented in the Small Press?
By: Ellaraine Lockie
Word count: About 1620
When Charles Ries queried why there are so few women represented in the small press, I didn’t have a clue what he meant because that has been neither my personal experience nor my observation. But then, I don’t generally think in terms of gender, and maybe I just hadn’t noticed. The sociologist in me was curious, so I did a statistical analysis of the last issues of publications that ran my work. Here are the results. (Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a list of the publications, if interested):
In 20 hard-copy publications, 374 women were represented and 334 men. There were 13 men editors and 7 women editors.
In 15 online publications, 113 women were represented and 109 men. There were 13 men editors and 10 women editors.
Of course, this is by no means a definitive study, as it reflects empirically only one poet’s work and style of submitting. Yet the publications are very diverse, and plenty of responses to Charles’ query support my findings. Liz Bradfield from Broadsided says she has received a fairly even distribution of submissions from men and women. Since her retirement, Rhina Espaillat reports a “nice even balance between men and women” among writers she encounters.
Lee Vowell, Editor of Underground Window, says it never seemed to him there was a large minority of females in poetrydom. He’s published over 150 poets, and roughly 45% of them are female. To counterbalance that, John Amen, at Pedestal Magazine, gets probably 60% submissions from females.
Ken Gurney, Editor for Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry, reports that submissions there split about 50/50 between men and women and that his acceptance rate is about the same. At March Street Press, Editor Robert Bixby says that he, too, gets a nice mixture of men and women. Jennifer VanBuren, Editor of Mannequin Envy, says they get more submissions from men but publish about 50/50.
When Pris Campbell counted the poets in Mipo’s last issue, she found more than half of them to be female. During the nine years as Poetry Editor for Poetic Voices, Ursula Gibson found no lack of submissions from either males or females. Ray Foreman, Publisher of Clark Street Review, has the same opinion about the small press in general. Louis McKee at One Trick Pony, indicates that 60% of his blind submissions are from men, but yet he tries to publish balanced issues.
Charles Coe says, “Maybe certain publications–either because of editorial focus or name or whatever–just aren’t appealing to women contributors. But I just don’t see that as an industry-wide issue. Charles take the issue one step further and informs us that, “The Council of Literary Presses and Magazines is a service organization for independent publishers funded in part by the New York Council for Arts. If you go to their home page (http:www.clmp.org), click on the “Member Directory” and poke around at random, you’ll see women editors and contributors all over the place.”
A few editors indicate they do go out of their way to publish women’s work, giving their gender more exposure in the small press. Editors CL Bledsoe, Jillian Meyer and Donna Epler at Ghoti Magazine say they “solicit the hell out of female poets” because they have learned that if they don’t, female submissions drop.
Louis McKee at One Trick Pony indicates that 60% of his blind submissions are from men, but yet he tries to publish balanced issues. Gordon Purkis, Mastodon Dentist Editor, says twice he’s had to seek female submissions or the issues would have been completely male dominated.
Karla Huston submitted an excerpt from an interview in Margie, The American Review of Poetry, where she interviewed Stellasue Lee, Editor of RATTLE. In the interview, Stellasue tells of a writing workshop she conducted with a few years ago with 39 women, after which she invited them to submit to RATTLE. She even called each of them on the phone after the workshop with the invitation. Fifteen did not submit their work. Of course, who knows if men would have reacted statistically different? Also, this interview took place several years ago and may not result in the same consequences today.
Editor Jonathan Penton says if he didn’t actively pursue submissions from female authors, fewer and fewer would show. He goes on to say, “To prevent UnlikelyStories.org from becoming a complete boy’s club, I try to publish a certain percentage of women in every issue.”
Jonathan is also one of the few responding male editors who claimed to have a preference for the “masculine aesthetic.” Joseph Farley at Cynic Press, who has published two books by women and ten by men, says that maybe he too has an unconscious bias toward “male qualities” in writing. Louis McKee is another who identifies more with perceived male writers’ themes and points of view, although he believes that, “. . . the good poems cannot be denied, and the good, persistent poets will find an audience.”
But is this perceived gender subject preference the norm among male editors? I doubt it, based again on my personal experience and observations. Of my four published collections, two address women’s menopausal years, and I found no reluctance in men editors to publish the individual poems in these collections or to write enthusiastic and positive reviews of them. Karla Huston reports that she also feels her work has never suffered gender bias.
However, I believe the style of writing between men and women might affect the quality of their poems and result in a different gender statistic. I know many excellent women poets who pull away from using words like fuck or asshole when those words are appropriate to the poems they’re writing. It’s as though they don’t realize those words are not a personal reflection on them but rather an accurate depiction of something or someone they are depicting. Respondent Anita Wynn hit on this when she wrote, “. . . people seem to forget that a poet doesn’t always use his/her own voice, and that the speaker is not necessarily representing the writer.”
Even the opinion that women’s subject matter drastically differs from that of men’s is open for debate, until it is scientifically studied. But several poet and editor respondents feel that there exist definite gender content differences. In addition to the men mentioned above, Ken Gurney notices it. He says, “The majority of rants and experimental poetry I receive as submissions are from men. The majority of healing, life affirming poetry I receive is from women.”
There are also some women who express their affirmative opinions that gender content differences exist. Ursula Gibson thinks that women’s poetry deals more with their life circumstances and their relationships and men’s more with protest, anger or politics.
Laura Stamps feels the reason she gets a much higher rate of acceptance from magazines that are edited by women is simply because she writes about what interests them. She says, “Men tend to write about. . . their current depression, bars, heavy drinking, their girlfriends/wives or the one that just dumped them” and that they are more likely than women to curse and less likely to write about feminine topics like nature. Laura also thinks that most of the women poets who get published a lot in the small press do so because they write “like men.” However, Ania Wynn says her “masculine style” has been a constant criticism.
On the other hand, Gordon Purkis prefers women’s writing. He thinks it’s superior in many ways and says that the highest percentage of “junk” coming to Mastodon Dentist is from men who don’t know when to quit.
True, there are some responders who either just accept Charles’ assumption that women are underrepresented in the small press or who enthusiastically agree with it, making this topic one of complexity and one ripe for a full-fledged study. (Too bad I left sociology for poetry.) One conclusion that I strongly draw from these responses, however, is that the number of published women in the small press has increased dramatically in the past few years.
Rosemary Cappello from Philadelphia Poets best summarizes this with her publishing history. She tells us: “When I first started writing poetry back in the 70s, I received enough acceptances to encourage me, but here are some of the rejections I’ll never forget. “Why don’t you try the women’s section of the newspaper?” “Your poem is quite acceptable, but in it, you mention a famous woman. If you change her name to a [certain famous] man’s, I’ll publish it.” She goes on to say that when she first founded, edited and published Philadelphia Poets in 1980, she received more poetry from men than from women. However, now she receives an equal amount of poetry from women, and in her next issue, women will have the edge.
We women have clearly come a long way in the small press world, and there’s no reason to think the journey is slowing. Mostly what I see indicates that we are at least close to an overall satisfactory 50/50 publication percentage with our men poetry friends.
We’re all in this world of poetry together, and some good advice in these varied query responses came eloquently from Rhina Espaillat, who says, “Certainly there’s a need to watch out for injustices and under-representations in any field, but the sooner we can move away from that to a consideration of artists as artists, undifferentiated by sex, religion, national origin, political ideology or any other such category, the more we can concentrate on doing what we do as well as we possibly can, and judging the resulting work on its own merits.”
Charles Potts sums up perhaps the best and most succinct conclusion to the matter when he says, “Write well and forget your gender.”
Ellaraine Lockie lives in Sunnyvale, California. She writes poetry, nonfiction books, magazine articles/columns and children’s stories. She is a well-published and awarded poet who has received nine nominations for Pushcart Prizes in poetry and has four published chapbooks: Midlife Muse, Poetry Forum; Crossing the Center Line, Sweet Annie Press; Coloring Outside the Lines, The Plowman Press; Finishing Lines, Snark Publishing. Ellaraine also teaches a poetry/writing workshop on the creative process for schools, writing groups and libraries. Her nonfiction books are All Because of a Button: Folklore, Fact and Fiction, St. Johann Press; The Gourmet Paper Maker, Creative Publishing, and The Low Lactose Kitchen Companion and Cookbook forthcoming in 2007. Ellaraine is also a professional papermaker and teaches workshops on the craft. You may find more information about her books and workshops at:
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over one hundred and forty print and electronic publications. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry — the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot (www.wordriot.org) and on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to: http://www.literarti.net/Ries/No Comments »