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?