Monday, October 29, 2007

Numbers, Gender, Inertia

I do not want to grade my online class, but I am. I did not want to tutor for two hours at Smarthinking this morning, but I did. I did not want to clean out the top tray of my desk inbox--the one with actual paper in it, but I did.

Reading, with ambivalence, Simon DeDeo's response to the essay by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, "Numbers Trouble," in the Chicago Review 53:2/3. This essay is a version of a presentation that they gave at Feminaissance back at the end of April. I've not read the essay, but I was there at the talk and took notes. I remember thinking, "I am glad that someone counted, because now we don't have to argue about the numbers." Of course, we have to argue about what they might mean. That's a conversation worth having, but I'm not going to blog about it now, especially since I don't have the article in front of me.

Simon's comments about pussipo are similar to those expressed by some very dear friends who are men.

And I agree, without having any statistics, that men tend to submit their poems more than women, and tend to respond to queries for work more quickly and promptly. I certainly have been guilty of taking my sweet time to respond to enthusiastic editors. Why? It probably does have something to do with feelings I have about being assertive and public, and I'm sure those have something to do with how I was raised, and I'm sure that all has something to do with gender, too.

But I'm getting better! I have now responded to all outstanding requests for work or invitations to submit work with the exception of Absent. Yikes! But I have your deadline on my mind and on my calendar, and I think I know what to send.

This part of Simon's post also interested me:

"It is just as vital to assert that these images are very particular. While the number of male modes (for whites -- compare the treatment of Amiri Baraka to Fredrick Seidel) is broad to the point of freedom, it is, in my experience that women do not have this freedom. "

I've often felt the exact opposite--but, again, I don't have any evidence to back this up. It's a bit of a theoretical cliche for me to assert that as a woman my subjectivity is more, um, shifty than that of a man (woman as riot, etc). I've found that as more or less straight young woman, it's been ridiculously easy to get endless entry-level jobs in a variety of professions. It was relatively easy to shift my academic focus from modern Chinese history to English literature, and it was relatively easy to make a professional shift again out of the DC public policy world to teaching ESL and doing freelance graphic design. My CV is confusing. I have 6 different resumes that I use depending on the project I'm bidding on.

My life as a poet has been similar--I make "post-language" poems, procedural translations, procedural poems, things that kind of resemble new narrative, prose poems that kind of resemble, um, some combination of langpo and new narrative, visual poems, collages, sound poems, sound collages, short stories with narrative in the more traditional sense of the word... Now I'm working on a piece that involves choreography. Yay!

That's all very exciting, but it's a bit disturbing, too. I feel like one reason why I've had so much flexibility is because I'm perceived as so very unthreatening. I'm 29, pretty and nerdy. I am even happy and enthusiastic. I am unavailable! I like to party! I don't think anyone really gives a crap about what I say or do. That's a kind of freedom, I suppose. I'm overstating my point for effect, but some of what I've said must be true.

Potential Employer: "Are you on your husband's health insurance?"

Me: "I am not married."

3 comments:

Simon said...

Juliana and Stephanie set out to disprove the assertion that journals were 50% female. They found them to be 30% female, more or less.

To a certain extent, the "flaw" in their article is that they never assert a meaning for the statistics they compile. Numbers give an illusion of truth; but what does 30% mean? To me it means that women are everywhere, they have the numbers to influence the poetry community, push it around. Get a bunch of poets together after a reading and there will be women well beyond tokenism.

My large point was that I think "women in poetry" has progressed beyond a numbers question and now involves much less clear-cut issues.

Such as, yes, submission rates -- I mean, should women feel it's "politically necessary" to send out more material? Should editors press women harder for material? I think these are deeply personal matters, questions of self-definition, how you want to live.

Getting into a journal is not getting the vote; women felt morally obligated to demand the sufferance, but do not feel similarly about journals, and rightfully so.

The issue is of course complicated by the fact that poets now expect to be employed for their work; that's a larger issue that we face in academia and the workplace all the time, but it has zero relevance for poetry.

In contrast, I think the question of race remains, really, stuck "on the numbers." They are compelling in a way the figures on women are not.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

My sense of how I move through the poetry world as a woman and the statistics don’t jive. Maybe that’s because journals are only one part of the poetry networks of which I’m a part. I grew up as a poet in the DC community, which went through several shifts in the gender dynamic while I was there—including a periods when there weren’t very many women about, or when the women who were a part of the community were not very present at readings and social gatherings. This past time I was in DC, things seemed quite socially balanced in terms of gender, it was cool. LA does a pretty good job in this sense, too—both women and men are involved in publishing, curating reading series, and organizing events, and both women and men come to events and hang out at social gatherings.

In the context of poetry in academia, I think women have an advantage during the hiring process—but that’s a “fact” based on me seeing friends and acquaintances go through that process, not something based on quantitative research. Nothing kills your interview like being a straight, white man! That said, most lit departments are still mostly men, and a lot of amazing, very qualified women aren’t getting jobs.

I don’t feel like gender places me at a disadvantage when publishing. According to Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s statistics, having 30% of your work be from women is enough to make me feel like all is equal and balanced. But 30% isn’t equal and balanced—it doesn’t exactly scream that “women are everywhere,” so where is this feeling coming from? And if the statistic is 30% for women, I’m sure it would be even worse with race and class factored in—as the article suggests. Feminism can and often does include conversations about race and class. However, I don’t want to collapse race, gender, and class into one big category of identity and oppression, nor do I want to ignore gender to focus only on race and class. I think this is a tension that a lot of white, (more or less) middle-class Feminists struggle with.

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