Wet Asphalt Presents: WaLS

There was a great post yesterday on Wet Asphalt by J.F. Quackenbush, a former Rattle contributor, about the latest pox on literature, which he calls Writer as Lifestyle Syndrome (WaLS).  Symptoms include valuing the artist over the art, referring to all publishers as “markets,” and seeing publication as the only means of legitimization.

Wet Asphalt has always been one of my favorite literary blogs, even though they tend to talk more about SF than poetry, because of the curmudgeonly way they present cold hard truths, both entertainingly and honestly, and yesterday’s post is no exception.  WaLS has been spreading across the writing community for decades, and can be seen most acutely anywhere academics congregate — MFA programs and AWP conferences — maybe it’s all those shaking hands.

I’ve written about it before, without knowing the proper diagnosis, and first encountered its most virulent strain a few years ago, at a small conference put on by PEN West.  There were scantly attended panels and readings throughout the day, featuring some great poets no one seemed to care about.  Later that afternoon I was on a panel about how to get your poetry published, and suddenly it was standing-room-only — people were piling up on the floor, hanging from the heating ducts, and leaning in through the open windows — all in search of the secret to being published.  I have no idea where they came from, but I was surrounded.  I kept saying things like, if you want to be published, write good poems, you know, read a lot, and learn what poetry can do…  Then they’d raise their hands and ask another question about how to format their cover letter.  Should they staple their poems together or use a paperclip?

It’s everywhere you go.  People care more about publishing than they care about poetry.  Every editor says the same thing — just look at the numbers.  10,000 annual submitters, to a magazine with a press run of less than 5,000.   Obviously they aren’t all reading us. It’s particularly apparent when we receive fiction submissions — you’re telling me you can’t even bother to read the subtitle?

Quackenbush can only speculate about where the disease came from, suggesting that “it originated from wonkish industry watcher types interbreeding with the sorts of poseurs and dilettante’s that are to be found in and around the fringes of all creative endeavors.”  While this is probably true, I think we can get a little more specific.  One of the main symptoms is the use of the word “market,” which can easily be traced back to the Writer’s Market, the annual resource book for writers that’s been publishing continuously since 1921.  As Quackenbush points out, calling magazines a “market” doesn’t even make sense — while the magazines might be “buyers” of your writing, they’re not places where writing is bought and sold — but the Writer’s Market is.  As a collection of consumers, a kind of literary yellow pages, it’s named appropriately.  So it’s likely that the word “market” mutated for the WaLS-afflicted from this source.

What’s more, having a book like the Writer’s Market, as it was originally intended, makes sense.  The book listed paying markets for freelance writers trying to make a living — if you write an article on new trends in seafood recipes, it’s nice to be able to find a magazine that might want to buy it.  The problem is, Writer’s Market saw there was a niche for this kind of thing, and split it into nine different books, including Poet’s Market.  But poetry isn’t a career, it’s a fine art — no one’s ever been able to make a living selling poems.  If you became the staff poet of The New Yorker, and they published nothing but your two poems in every issue, you’d still qualify for food stamps (your annual salary would be about $15,000, I think).

So there’s this reward-based infrastructures set up, with no reward to give.  People think, I want to be a writer, and this is what writers do, they go to the library and write down addresses from the Writer’s Market, and they send in their submissions and wait for a response.  Stripped of its original reward, the publication itself becomes the reward, and the WaLS-afflicted poets are able to continue the ritual.

This is what it really is: Fetishism.  In every sense of the word.  A whole subset of writers today have fetishized publication — they’ve ascribed value to an object where no such value inherently exists.  As with a sexual fetish, they receive gratification from the artificial object as a replacement for the gratification that normally comes directly from the sex.   By pursuing publication, they become writers by proxy.  That’s why it doesn’t matter how obscure a publication credit is — it doesn’t matter if no one ever reads the magazine, as long as you can list it on your resume.  Think about it.  If what really mattered for a poet was just the audience, there would be no need for Poet’s Market at all — no one would care about publishing in magazines they’ve never heard of, because the unheard-of magazines have no relevant audience.  Poets would only send poems to magazines they like to read, in hopes of providing enjoyment to others with similar tastes.

Once you see WaLS for what it is, not so much a disease as a fetish, it becomes harder to get so worked up about it.  A sexual fetish is only considered a disorder when it causes psychological or physical discomfort for the person afflicted.  People all over the world simply embrace their fetishes, and moreover, find happiness and fulfillment in their lives because of them.  Do I really care if some guy happens to have a shoe fetish, and a whole closet full of hooker boots, if it makes him happy?  No, not at all.  And besides, aren’t I just a shoe saleman, in the end?  Don’t I do more business because of him?

Of course the writing would be better if they payed as much attention to crafting poems as they did cover letters, but at least they’re writing.

Lost Among the Pillars of Grass: The Three Poetries

Turning yesterday’s post on its head less than 24 hours later, I’ve been reading John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath, and am forced to admit, once again, that there isn’t just one poetry.  There are whole swaths of people who get things out of poetry that I don’t care all that much about. And that’s a wonderful thing — I’m firmly opposed to the balkanization of poetry.

Here’s the second poem in the book, “They Dream Only of America”:

They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
“This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.”

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily–
The lake a lilac cube.

He holds a key in his right hand.
“Please,” he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.
That was before

We could drive hundreds of miles
At night through dandelions.
When his headache grew worse we
Stopped at a wire filling station.

Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.

“I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.

And I am lost without you.”

You need a decoder ring and a lot of time to figure it out, or maybe just a love for this kind of thing, but I’m pretty sure the poem is a homoerotic lyric, a love poem wrought with the pain of having to keep your love in the closet.  (Ashbery fans, correct me if I’m wrong.)  It took me about a half an hour and a couple dozen reads to come to this conclusion.

Lines like the second, “To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass,” are undeniably brilliant.  Here the most obvious allusion is to Walt Whitman, himself a homosexual poet, but the leaves of grass becoming instead “pillars” at once reveals the first phallic image among many in the poem, and also references Lot’s Wife turning into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom (which, of course, is where the word sodomize comes from).  Being “lost among the thirteen million” expresses the desire to be both hidden and open about one’s sexuality — to be hidden in plain sight — and I also wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that thirteen million is an estimate on the number of gay men in America in 1957, when the poem was written.

All this in one line.

Once you find that key, the rest of the fractured narrative starts to make sense — all the seminal fluids and phallic objects (the honey, the key, the cigar, and so on), the dark barn and the bedroom, dandelions and the lilac cube*, the “Please.”  (“Now he only cared about the signs…” — are all the signs, now, Freudian?)

But “They Dream Only of America” is more than just an occluded love poem. “There is nothing to do/ For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” After oppression, even freedom is a horror. And there it returns to Lot’s Wife — she turned to salt only when she looked back. Ashbery wrote the poem when he was thirty, living in Paris, the city to which he’d fled from the sexual restrictions of America — so Ashbery himself is looking back, turning to salt as he does.  But there’s more to it, even, than that — there’s a hint of Stockholm Syndrome, there’s the thrill of the secret, of impossible love losing its luster in fact, and so on.

This is complicated stuff — and I think there are also references to the French Revolution as well, which I haven’t even mentioned (The Tennis Court Oath itself is the moment where the French people “came out of the closet” to form the National Assembly). Or smaller things that I’m less sure of — is “ash tray” a reference (even visually) to “Ashbery”?

The point is, though, that I don’t care about this stuff.  Or, rather, my enjoyment of this poetry is entirely other than the enjoyment I get from what I consider to be great poems, the poems that work like spells.  The pleasure in Ashbery is the pleasure of a Rubik’s Cube — the text is a puzzle to be solved, which happens to be constructed in the music of language.  It’s more than just a Rubik’s Cube, because even when you come to an interpretation of the poem, there’s an indescribable mystery to it, that pang of unexplained epiphany.  Even the riddle’s answer is more than you can wrap your head around.  This is art.  You can’t argue that it isn’t poetry — but it’s not my poetry.

All this to say — yesterday’s definition was too narrow and personal.  There are really three kinds of poetry, and I can contort their categories enough to call them the Three E’s:

  1. Exclamatory — The artful and didactic expression of preconceived sentiment. This is greeting card and occasional poetry.  The kind your aunt who never reads likes you to send her.  What George Orwell referred to last week as “good bad poetry,” and what Elizabeth Alexander read last month. This is actually by far the most popular, though we wish we could show the masses what they’re missing.
  2. Experiential — The poetry-as-spell I described yesterday. The poem is an incantation, a rhythmic shaping of the breath that uses the body as a medium and so recreates an emotional or mental experience for the reader.  This is my kind of poetry, and I believe the most popular among so-called “poetry users.”
  3. Exegeses — (A hard word to say, even harder to turn into an adjective…exegeian?) The poetry of analysis, poetry-as-puzzle.  This is the poetry of the academics, emphasizing condension, allusion, subversion, lexography, and etymology, among many other tools.  The least popular, but the most critically acclaimed.

A cynic would say that exegesis poetry is only popular, even in academia, because it justifies the position of the professor (or critic) as a conduit to the God of Poetic Truth.  When the dean comes around, you can show how much work you’ve been doing, because the students books are filled with marginalia, all the allusions they wouldn’t have noticed without you.

I’m not so cynical, though.  Breaking down “They Dream Only of America” was fun tonight.  Just not kind of fun I prefer to receive from my poetry.  I want an experience, not a challenge — unless I’m really in the mood for it.

But I think poetry is done a disservice by having only one name for itself.  In high school you’re taught to analyze poems, to look for all the hidden meanings and allusions in your CliffsNotes so you can write an essay about them, as if all poems are about the exegesis.  So you miss the joy of just experiencing the kind of poems that don’t need to be broken down.  On the other end of the spectrum, “Hallmark verse” gets called poetry, too, and so we have to feel embarrassed as poets that “Roses are red” is considered the same art form.  It’s not — these three categories of poetry are entirely different — they operate on different parts of the mind, and they have entirely different goals.  The only thing that unifies them is the superficiality of how they look on the page.

Earlier I said I don’t support the balkanization of poetry, but maybe that’s not true.  I think if we started looking at them as separate entities, it  might be easier to appreciate each one for what it is and is trying to do.

______

* It’s worth noting that Ashbery was born in Rochester, NY, and grew up in the small town of Sodus, about an hour’s drive to the east.  I was born in the same place, and my first memories are of Sodus, where I lived from ages 2 through 5.  The two flowers mentioned in this poem are of especial interest to locals.  The annual spring celebration in Rochester is called the Lilac Festival, and the University of Rochester was built on a field of dandelions — the yellow weed, I’ve heard, becoming the school mascot for nearly a century, until students started taking exception to the “dandy” image on their chests, and changed the nickname to the much more manly Yellowjacket.  Could Ashbery have been referencing this urban legend?  I have no idea.

What Is Poetry: A Golden Nugget Post

Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.

Don’t ask me why it’s taken a poetry editor five years to realize how much fun it can be to listen to podcasted poetry — those are deeper mysteries — but I’ve spent a lot of time this week listening to past episodes of the nicely produced Pacifica Radio program Poet’s Cafe.  M.C. Bruce and Lois P. Jones have interviewed scores of interesting poets on the show, from all levels of fame, and a variety of backgrounds.  The most common question is this: “What is your definition of poetry?”

I’ve listened to about a dozen episodes so far, and when this question is asked, the poets invariably stammer and ponder, backtrack, and then hedge whatever answer they finally come up with against the inevitable subjectivity of artistic experience.  Listen for yourself.  This fact has only reinforced what I’ve already come to believe, having edited dozens of literary interviews: Most poets, even the most talented, those more brilliant than I can ever aspire to be, have little idea what they’re actually doing, or how they do it. Poets talk about poetry like the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant: “It’s long and slender like a snake!” “No, it’s thick and sturdy like the base of a tree!” Even though they’re all talking about the same thing.

And it drives me nuts. Because, though I may just be young and naive and sophomoric, the answer is excruciatingly obvious to me.  It’s self-evident and indisputable:

Poetry is magic.

I don’t mean magic as some grand self-important metaphor, or that poetry will make the table float up off the floor and wow the crowds. I mean poetry is real, honest to god, actual-because-it-works magic.

Last month I started playing a real video game for the first time in about a decade.  I wanted something to become engrossed in, something to play when I’m tired and want to escape from the world. So I looked for a game that had the biggest world to lose yourself in, and Google told me that game was Morrowind. It’s basically Dungeons & Dragons on the computer, with swords and shields and health points and all that– including magic.  If you’re not a wizard and adept at magic, you cast your spells by reading a scroll.  Each scroll has a silly little phrase, like “Woe be upon you”, and presumably your character says the phrase aloud to produce the desired effect.

That’s what a spell is: a string of words you recite to produce some desired effect. And that’s what poetry is: a string of words you recite to produce some desired effect.

Unlike in Morrowind, there are no poems for walking on water or shooting lightning out of our fingertips — but you could easily say that there are poems for healing.  There are poems for laughter, poems for joy, poems for sadness, poems for epiphany, poems for transformation.

Another word for a spell is a mantra, which comes from the Sanskrit “man” (to think) and “-tra” (tool) — literally translated, then, a mantra is a tool for transforming the mind. Mantras have been a key component to meditation in the Vedic tradition for thousands of years, and are taken as seriously as any religion, distilled in the now infamous Om. Buddhism has the Great Compassion Mantra, and the Heart Sutra. Hinduism has mantras for Vishnu and Shanti. Mantra japa are recited in cycles of 108, counted on beaded necklaces called malas, which do more than just remind one of Catholic prayer beads — they’re one in the same.

No matter what tradition they’re working form, people use the sounds and rhythms of language as a nexus of meditation, in an effort to alter their own mental states. That’s all poetry is — a spell, a prayer, a mantra, transcribed by one and recited by another.

Once you see poetry in this way, other aspects of the artform start to make a lot of sense:

  1. Every sound is important.  If you say Abracablahblah instead of Abracadabra, the Count doesn’t turn from a vampire into a cute little bat.  The spell just fails. That’s why a certain word in a poem can feel “off.”  And the rhythm matters, too — that’s why a poet can spend the entire day deciding to delete a comma only to add it back again. If you’re conjuring up the Devil, you don’t want to mispronounce his name.
  2. Every time you cast a spell, it loses some of its effect. Cliches are old spells. They’re little poems that used to work, but we’ve used them so often the papyrus is crumbling and the magic’s worn off.
  3. Conversely, fresh language is a new spell, and new spells are the most powerful.
  4. Performance poets are master magicians, who can use weaker spells to great effect.
  5. Page poets craft brilliant spells that only work when you cast them yourself.
  6. Attention matters.  One of the main tenants of any school of magic is the idea that the focused will is central to execution. If your mind starts to wander, or you lose your suspension of disbelief, the spell fails. You have to have faith in the magic for the magic to work.

Most importantly, the poem-as-spell definition explains the fundamental connection between meditation and composition. It explains my favorite quote, by Elizabeth Bishop: “What we receive from great art is the same thing that’s necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” It explains why so many poets like to write in the woods, why they all have little tricks to get in the right mindset, why it helps to read other poems first to prime the pump of language in their heads.

If what a poet is doing is crafting a mantra — a tool for altering one’s mental state — it’s necessary to be experiencing that desired state at the moment of creation.  A poet’s job is to conjure a magical space, and then record it as a string of language, so that others may follow them there.

It’s as simple as that, and we should be able to say it as sincerely as a Vedic priest: All poetry is magic.

The Gender Question, Part 2

This is a follow-up to Monday’s post.

In January of 2006, the Poetry Foundation released it’s Poetry in America survey (PDF).  The study found that 62% of “poetry users” (those who read or wrote poetry in the last five years) were women, only 38% were men. If those numbers remain accurate, then the question immediately rises: If more women write poetry than men, why do more men submit to Rattle than women? It would be easy to jump to conclusions, using either conventional gender stereotypes — perhaps saying that women are less career-driven than men, and so less likely to publish, or that female writers still feel oppressed, and are less willing to risk exposing themselves to the submission process. But the cause might just as easily be attributed to Rattle‘s own demographics.  I’m very curious to know whether more men than women submit to other journals.

Such demographic tendencies are self-perpetuating.  For example, Rattle seems to have developed a reputation for being a free verse journal, and mostly narrative. Why, I’m not so sure, but it turns into a feedback loop — people think we don’t like formal poems, so they don’t send us formal poems, so we don’t get to publish formal poems, so it seems we must really not like formal poems, since we never publish them.  On the contrary, I love form.  The first major review of my book criticized me for being too formal (PDF), and at least a quarter of the poems in the book have some kind of rhyme or meter. At this point, the easiest way to get into Rattle is probably to send us a formal poem, and yet the reputation remains.

Could we have developed a reputation for being a male-oriented journal somehow? I’ve never heard that, unlike the formal poetry problem, which comes up fairly often, so I doubt it — but you never know.

I’m not the first editor, even of Rattle, to think about this issue. In Volume 2 of Margie, Stellasue Lee (our previous editor) was interviewed by Karla Huston about women in poetry. Denise Duhamel, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Shara McCallum were part of the roundtable as well. Long before the interview, Lee had told Huston that she would publish more women writers, but fewer women writers submitted. When Huston asked  if this were still true, Lee said that the overwhelming number of submissions to Rattle came from male writers. When asked why, she said:

Women think poetry is supposed to be hearts and flowers. They don’t seem to read as much; they just like to write, and we have been the peace makers for so long that hearts and flowers seem to be the most accessible part of ourselves. I was the keynote speaker and ran a workshop for Perie Longo [poetry therapist and marriage, family and child therapist] in Santa Barbara this summer. I took participants through an exercise that resulted in a twenty-minute writing period to see what they came up with. It was not a random exercise, but I told them exactly what to do to get started. Out of about thirty in the class of which most were women, some fifteen have not submitted their work [to Rattle], even though I have called them personally; Perie has called them personally, twice. I was at a workshop a couple of Sundays ago for the National Association of Healing Poetry, and one of the women from Perie’s workshop was there, and I asked why she hadn’t submitted. She told me she didn’t think her work was good enough–that she was just “fooling around” with her writing. I’m afraid I lost it. I told her that she had no right to pass judgment on her work; she wasn’t the editor, I was!

When Huston asked Lee what she meant by women writing “hearts and flowers,” she replied:

I mean not writing the truth, but rather soft-soaping it, taking the cutting edge out of it. I knew an Episcopal priest who gave this sermon over and over again: “It’s wrong to commit adultery, but sometimes we find ourselves in difficult situations.” In other words, it’s wrong, but then maybe it’s OK. This is called a double message. It can’t be one way and another as well. There are a lot of grays in the world. Why isn’t the work of women as powerful as that of men? Men seem to have far different values about what is their black and white.

I’m very hesitant to say anything about the “hearts and flowers” comment — there are bad poets who are women, and bad poets who are men; where the women do tend to write about flowers, the men write about blood and sex (some of the sex scary and disgusting, to be honest). I don’t agree for a second that the work of women isn’t as powerful as that of men. Two of the most powerful poems we’ve published recently, in my opinion, were written by women: “Sloan-Kettering” and “Conspiracy“, and several of my favorite poets are women (some of my best friends are women?).  That just doesn’t match with my experience.

I did sit through one of Perie’s workshops a few years ago, and indeed, I was one of two men in a room full of 30 or 40 women, most of them old enough to remember a different America.  Stellasue has lead this workshop dozens of times — maybe the paticular demographic of this retreat is what’s informing her opinion?

The other part of her answer, though, I find very interesting — if it is the case that more men submit than women, in general, then this very well might be the culprit. Are women more prone to telling themselves they’re just “fooling around”?  Do men, being the entitled gender throughout centuries of a patriarchal society feel more entitled to publication?  I have no idea whether or not this is true, and no way, really, to find out.  But it does makes sense: men, who have had the only voice for so long, being more apt to feel that they deserve to be heard.  I’m sure there are books written on the subject.

I do know that in our household, I’m the one more likely to do the dirty work of seeking publication. Megan, I think, finds it hard to care. But we’re just one couple of writers. If I do a mental survey of friends who are writers, it does tend to be the women who should be publishing, but aren’t.  Nicole, Nasha, Georgia, and Cassie immediately come to mind.  And I can’t think of a single male counterpart.  Still, this evidence is far too anecdotal.

Something has to explain why men write less, yet submit more than women.  Your thoughts?

The Gender Question

A few weeks ago someone wrote in, concerned that five of Rattle‘s six Pushcart Nominations this year were men, wondering if that said anything about our editorial tendencies.  In fact, only four of the six were male — Hayden Saunier is very much female, despite sharing a first name with the famous Carruth — but the question is a good one. The editorship of Rattle was gender-balanced (just Alan and Stellasue), until I arrived in 2004 and tipped the scales. Megan replaced Stellasue two years ago, and the balanced remained the same: two-thirds of our opinion is male.  Might that lead to a bias on our part?  And maybe even more interesting is a broader question: who writes more poetry, anyway, men or women?*

Let’s address the former first.  Honestly, gender is something we never think of at our editorial meetings.  It just doesn’t occur to us, and having read hundreds of thousands of poems (literally) over the last few years, there’s not a noticeable aesthetic difference between male and female poets, at least when you’re only looking at individual poems.  The mislabeling of Hayden Saunier above is a perfect example — if the gender of a poet’s name is ambiguous, there’s no way to tell whether it was written by a man or a woman.

Another good example is our first Postman Award winner, Cullen Bailey Burns.  Read “We Just Want it to Be Healthy” and try to guess the poet’s gender. I can’t tell you the answer, though — I got it wrong the first time, and now I can’t remember which was my bad guess and which the truth.

This also comes up fairly often with the Rattle Poetry Prize, where submissions are blinded.  When we get to the great unveiling of winners, looking them up in the database, we sometimes try to guess the poet’s gender, just for fun.  And our margin of error is so high that it really shows you how irrelevant gender is to poetry.

But that’s just anecdotal evidence, the worst kind, though usually the most persuasive.  I’m a numbers guy — it’s one of the things that makes me like baseball — and I’ve got several data sets at my disposal.

First set is the smallest: Pushcart Nominees.  Believe it or not, I don’t have records of our nominations prior to 2005, but here are the last four years:

Year – Male/Female

2008 – 4/2
2007 – 3/3
2006 – 3/3
2005 – 2/4
Tot. – 12/12

It doesn’t get more balanced than that, but the sample size is so small that it doesn’t mean much.

A slightly larger sample are the Rattle Poetry Prize winners.  In three years we’ve selected 33 poems, having no idea who wrote what: 18 were men, 15 were women. Not as good, but 50-50 is still well-within the margin of error.

Next come the interviewees.  There are two confounding factors influencing the data here.  First off, it should be said that our conversations are the only section of Rattle where we pay attention to gender.  There are only two slots for interviews in each issue, and the names go right on the cover — two men or two woman stand out as imbalanced, so we actively try (though not too hard) to have one of each.  Also, the interviewees have to be popular — the whole point is to have conversations with people who our readers are familiar with and interested in — which means they’re established — which means we’re relying on the establishment to establish them.

With those caveats in mind, we’ve published 42 interviews: 27 men and 15 women. Not so good. Only 36% of interviewees have been women, and the sample size is large enough that the trend, at least, is meaningful. We’ve been at the exact same 36%, too, since I’ve been an editor, so I can’t deny a hand in it.  It seems to me that a higher percentage of “prominent” poets are male, due to the slow pace of real institutionalized equality — but we could definitely do more to reverse the trend.

The most telling statistic for Rattle‘s would be poets in our open section.  The sample is large, and there aren’t any outside factors influencing the results. It’s all our decision, which makes me nervous. Here we go:

Issue – Male/Female – %F

#30 – 24/13 – 35%
#29 – 37/21 – 36%
#28 – 34/31 – 48%
#27 – 27/34 – 56%
#26 – 31/22 – 42%
#25 – 21/22 – 51%
#24 – 34/27 – 44%
#23 – 30/23 – 43%
#22 – 33/30 – 48%
Tot. – 271/223 – 45%

I stopped at 9 issues back, because apparently I don’t have a copy of #21 with me. The margin of error, if I remember how to calculate it correctly, is +/-4.1%.  Fairly balanced in the long-run, but trending in a bad direction.  If you graphed this, it would look a lot like the Global Warming hockey stick.  I had no idea.  We’ll have to take a close look at this summer’s issue to see if it happens again. Nothing changed within our editorial staff between our high of 56%, and our low in the most recent issue, so I’m hoping that this is just an anomaly.  I’ll update in April, once the next issue goes to press.

If we ignore the recent effects of CO2, it seems men are still slightly favored on our pages.  This isn’t the result I was hoping for, nor the one predicted by qualitative experience.  If we back up a step and look at the system more broadly, we’re still at the mercy of the submissions we receive.  We don’t solicit work; we can only publish what people send us.  If slightly more men submit than women, it will save me from feeling like I’m biased.

Saving the most complicated analysis for last, I’m going to take a random sample of 200 submissions from two reading periods — one from the poorly performing issue #30, for which we read in spring and summer of 2008, and one from the female-friendly #27, for which we read in the fall/winter of 2006.  Thanks to the unlimited storage of Gmail, I still have every email submission on file, dating back to 2005.  I’m gathering all of this information as I go, so I have no idea what the results will be, but this breakdown should be able to tell us two things — what the ratio of male to female submitters actually is, and how much that influences what we end up publishing.

Issue – Male/Female – %f-submitted – (%f-published)

#30 – 113/87 – 44% – (35%)
#27 – 106/94 – 47% – (56%)
#25 – 109/91 – 46% – (51%)

I wasn’t satisfied with just the two issues, so I threw in issue #25 as a kind of control group.  As you can see, submissions seem to come from men slightly more often, corresponding closely with our overall publication numbers. The percentage of female poets in a specific issue trend with submission ratios for their reading periods, but not strongly enough to rise above the statistical noise.

I don’t feel like brushing up on standard deviations and the like, but even without doing that, I think it’s safe to conclude that our m/f publication ratio could be plotted as a fairly shallow bell curve, with it’s statistical mean tied to the gender ratio of the submissions themselves. Fluctuations between issues may be large, but they’ll always average out to match the submissions we receive.**

In the end, I think we’re not biased when it comes to gender, though there are a few red flags to keep an eye on. These findings raise another question for me, which will have to wait until later this week — if men are submitting more poetry, does that mean they’re writing more, too?

Edited to add: Read Part 2 here.

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*Please note that for the purposes of this study I’m working under the old-fashioned assumption that there are two distinct genders. The reality is that human sexuality is much more fluid, hence the graphic accompanying this post. Unfortunately it’s too difficult not to oversimplify in an exercise like this.

**For all the baseball fans out there, the relationship between the gender ratio of submissions and that of what we publish reminds me a lot of BABIP — Batting Average on Ball in Play.  Sabremetricians only recently realized that no one — not the batters nor the pitchers — seem to have much control over what percentage of balls put in play (any outcome other than strikeouts, home runs, and walks) become hits.  The hitters with the highest Batting Average are simply the ones who tend to either strike out the least or hit a lot of home runs (which go into the stands and are thus uncatchable by the defense).  BABIP remains the same, on average, no matter how much it might fluctuate between seasons.  The average BABIP is around .295, so for example, if someone like Gary Matthews, Jr., hit .313 in 2006 because of a .349 BABIP, you don’t sign him to a big contract expecting him to repeat that next year.  Instead, you wait for the Angels to sign him, and giggle as he regresses to his career mean of .259. In this analogy, our m/f submission ratio of 45%f is the BABIP, and our publication ratio in each issue (our season) can be expected to regress to that mean.  Which is why I’m not so worried about the hockey stick graph, at this point.