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.


*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.

Parables of the Kingdom

I spent this afternoon at the laundromat, reading Chris Anderson’s manuscript The Next Thing Always Belongs, which is coming out from Fairweather Books sometime later this year. Two of his poems have appeared in Rattle:  “Living the Chemical Life” was an honorable mention for the 2007 Rattle Poetry Prize, and “Reality Homes” is in this winter’s issue.

Anderson is also a Catholic deacon, and the book is broadly religious — though not conventionally so. I don’t know him well enough to be making generalizations, but he seems more honest about his faith than most, more driven to questioning rather than merely accepting the world we’ve been given.

As an atheist — too confident in my own sense of things to even call myself agnostic — it seems like this wouldn’t be my kind of book.  But it really is.  Anderson writes about the religious questions I’ve always been interested in: the paradoxes and impossibilities, the great mysteries of life.  It’s put me in an introspective mood, and made me think again that maybe we really are supposed to be religious creatures, even though religions themselves aren’t actually “true.”  And maybe that’s what draws us to poetry — it’s a place where we can explore these intangible truths without turning them into dogmas.  Poems can be true and not true at the same time — the lie doesn’t detract from the reality of the object.

Anyway, as displayed in “Living the Chemical Life,” Anderson is a master at swift transition and juxtaposition — he calls them “leaping” poems, and that’s a fitting description.  The result is a book that’s full of resonance and mystery.  Here’s an image I keep coming back to, from “Seven More Parables of the Kingdom” (first published in The Cresset):

The Kingdom of Heaven is like the room in your dream
and outside is a lake so blue and cold you know
something big is about to happen. Then you wake up
and have your coffee and don’t think about the dream again.

I probably should have saved this post for when the book actually comes out, but I know myself, and I know I’d probably forget.  So keep an eye out for it, probably in the fall, and I’ll try to post a reminder.  It’s a good one.

The Found Poetry Project

highlightedbox1Megan and I started a new online journal a few weeks ago.  Though it has no relation to or affiliation with Rattle, they’re both based on the same principal — that poetry is not just for hipsters and pretentious old men in tweed jackets.  Where Rattle argues that anyone can enjoy poetry, that poetry is for everyone, the Found Poetry Project argues that anyone can write poetry, and that poetry is everywhere.

Found poetry isn’t a new genre — it started at least 90 years ago, with Tristan Tzara and other Dadaists ripping up newspapers and turning the text into poems, and continues today, as with interesting books like Travis MacDonald’s The O Mission Repo, which uses an “erasure” technique (think Ruth Bavetta’s VisPo, minus the art), to carve the weighty 9/11 Commission Report into ingestible poetry. But it’s almost always been the domain of experimental poets and LANGUAGE Schoolers, and all the credit has tended to go to the “finders”, who are the real geniuses, after all, applying their literary theories onto otherwise unpoetic texts.

To my knowledge, no one has ever used found poetry the right way — as an inclusive, collaborative, populist tool for exploring the spontaneous beauty of language and thought.

The idea for the Found Poetry Project came three years ago.  The Iraq War had been in full swing long enough that I was already getting tired of reading submissions to Rattle about it.  Most of those submissions had their “hearts and minds” in the right place, for lack of a better phrase, and were written from a powerful core of emotion — but they often felt too forced, too obvious and predictable and repetitive. One morning I was reading a friend’s blog, and a short paragraph leapt out at me — That should be a poem, I thought.  So I asked her if we could make it a poem, and we did.

For about a week, I was enthralled with plans for a Found Poetry Project, which would be an anthology of found poems that treated the original authors with the same level of respect as any other writers of poetry.  Not only would it acknowledge the accidental aspect of creativity, but it would teach people to pay more attention to the beauty of everyday language.  Psychologists call the act of becoming more conscious of something “attending” — we have to be attending our language, people!

I kept going.  I envisioned a School of Unintentional Poetics, or some other fancy-sound name, where we focused on the spontaneity that’s inherent in all art.  It’s all Zen:

You must hold the drawn bowstring like a little child holding a proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not completely true that the things were playing with the child.

Bad poets have too much “willful will” — they’re trying too hard, whereas random bloggers not really meaning to be poetic end up articulating a thought much more effectively.  Poetry is for everyone, is by everyone, is inherent in the construction of our logophilic brains!  It all ties together!

Of course, the illusions of grandeur wear thin when you don’t have the time or the expertise to pull a project like this together.  Even thinner when you start to realize that, while the project is pretty cool, it’s not that revolutionary, and certainly won’t change the world.

Three years later, I know much more about how to make a website, having created two from scratch.  I have plenty of room on my web hosting account, and Meg and I have enough time to spare a couple hours a week on a side project that gets us no reward other than itself.

So here is  To start, we’re going to try to post a new found poem every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  With enough submissions, we’ll go every weekday.  And if the website gets popular enough to justify it, I’m going to add a donations button and try to raise money to turn it into a print anthology.

If this sounds like a fun project, get involved.  Keep an eye out for unintentional poetry, whether it’s in a newspaper article, a blog, a letter to a friend, bathroom graffiti — anywhere you didn’t expect to find it.  There are some rules, but they’re pretty simple — no editing other than lineation, punctuation, or omission.  Titles are optional.  We need a source.  Other than that, we’re open to anything — because poetry is everywhere, after all.  What do you think?

A Conversation with Michael C. Ford

Click below to listen to the interview my MFA class did with Michael C. Ford, a local legend in the L.A. poetry scene.  Most of the hour-long audio clip is a conversation between Ford and Aram Saroyan, who I’ve mentioned here before.  Topics range from The Doors to the recent election of Barack Obama, but focus on the interplay of jazz and poetry.  Special appearances by Kenneth Patchen and the Chamber Jazz Sextet.  I thought you might enjoy.  I’ve permalinked this content at:


A Conversation with Michael C. Ford

Michael C. Ford has been a fixture of the L.A. poetry and jazz scenes going back to the 1960s when he audited film classes at U.C.L.A. and got to know Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, film students there just a few years before they would form The Doors. A fine performer of his own poetry and a sought-after Master of Ceremonies at poetry and music events around town, in 2005 Ford made a memorable theatrical debut in “At the Beach House” in an ensemble that included Orson Bean and Dina Deitrich. I invited him to talk with my Poetry class at USC because I long ago realized that among his other gifts, Ford has an encyclopedic knowledge of the literary, music, movie and theater scenes in Los Angeles going back more than half-a-century. A literary and jazz archivist with his own collections of artifacts and memorabilia, he projects an infectious relish for the cultural goings-on centered in, but by no means limited to Los Angeles, and a cultural historian’s sense of enduring value. His conversation with our class on Wednesday, November 12, 2008, was taped by Kyle MacKinnel and edited for CD transcription by Timothy Green.

–Aram Saroyan


MICHAEL C. FORD was born on the Illinois side of Lake Michigan. His debut spoken word vinyl {on SST} LANGUAGE COMMANDO earned a Grammy nomination in 1986. His book of Selected Poems EMERGENCY EXITS was honored by a 1998 Pulitzer Prize nomination. His last CD FIRE ESCAPES was bankrolled in 1995 by New Alliance: produced at Sonora by Michael Campagna. Click here for more info.

ARAM SAROYAN is an internationally known poet, novelist, biographer, memoirist and playwright. His poetry has been widely anthologized and appears in many textbooks. Among the collections of his poetry are ARAM SAROYAN and PAGES (both Random House). His largest collection, DAY AND NIGHT:BOLINAS POEMS, was published by Black Sparrow Press in 1999, and his latest, COMPLETE MINIMALIST POEMS, won the Poetry Society of America’s 2008 William Carlos Williams Award.