Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the fact that more men are being published than women. Because my sense is that there’s also a lack of women writing about poetry, I wanted to explore this topic in more detail with a number of women critics I admire. The following is the lively roundtable I moderated over the last few months between Sina Queyras, Elisa Gabbert, Shanna Compton, Juliana Spahr, Vanessa Place and Danielle Pafunda.
Sandra Simonds: For years, much was made of the male-dominated blog comment fields. I’m thinking particularly of Ron Silliman’s blog. It seems like currently group-run blogs are very popular—HTML Giant, Montevidayo and the Rumpus immediately come to mind. The comment fields still seem to be the “front lines” of poetry engagement. Are they still as male-dominated in these forums as they were during the “Silliman-era”? If so, can you hypothesize as to why?
Elisa Gabbert: It really depends on the blog, who runs it and the kind of environment they create. I’ve seen plenty of blogs/websites that create a “safe” atmosphere for women, mostly by being quite obviously by, for, and about women – see The Hairpin or Jezebel. Her Kind, the new VIDA blog, seems to be an attempt to create a similar space for women writers specifically.
The problem here, such as there is one, is that comment fields turn into a middle-school dance, with the girls huddled in one corner and the boys on the other. The “boys” don’t want to read and comment on the “girl” blogs because they’re either not interested or know they’re not supposed to be; the “girls” don’t want to comment on the “boy” blogs because the “boys” do their best to scare them away. The comments on HTML Giant, for example, are still dominated by young men, though the regular crew seems less aggressively aggressive than they used to be. Even on my blog (I’m the only author, I’m a professed feminist, and I am very welcoming to women who comment), I probably get two or three comments from men to every comment I get from a woman.
I’m ambivalent about this reluctance of women to speak. On the one hand, I understand that they don’t want to get caught up in online arguments (it’s easy to fall into a hole and let it ruin your day) or risk being attacked, which is a very real risk. (Identify as a feminist online and you will be called stupid, whiny, boring, irrational, a bitch, a cunt, a dyke, a man-hater; you will be accused of being on PMS and needing to get laid; you may even be outright threatened with assault, rape, or murder.) On the other, if nobody speaks, then people remain ignorant. Speaking up to asshole idiots in comment fields is tough work and often pretty thankless, but I’m so grateful when I see someone else doing that work – it sets an example, it reminds us that everyone and everything doesn’t suck. I’m not always up for it, but when I am, I try to be that person who points out the logical fallacies and (conscious or unconscious) bias in dumb sexist arguments, knowing that someone out there will be silently thanking me.
There’s also, of course, the fact that women on average work more hours than men for less pay, so, a lot of them probably just don’t have time for the Internet, or can’t justify spending their Internet time in such a manner.
Sina Queyras: I don’t find comment streams at all interesting. I never did. If anything they get one’s blood boiling, but what’s the point of that? To unearth the most robust voice to hand over reviewing power? Don’t laugh, this happens.
I understand that it’s the comment streams that are supposed to democratize blogs, but I don’t buy that. A corresponding post seems a better response. Something more reasoned, with distance. Comment streams are too up close. We can link as much as comment. And yes, I could say yes, that it seems a very male gesture, but I don’t want to assign the notion of excitable discourse to one gender. I want the discussion--I just don’t find the comment stream a productive place for that to happen.
Vanessa Place: I don’t read those blogs.
Sandra Simonds: Can you tell us what you do read?
Vanessa Place: Lemon Hound. Harriet. Ubu. Twitter. Facebook. Books. Kindle. Milk cartons, menus. Despair in the eyes of others.
Juliana Spahr: I almost never read comment streams voluntarily. And I don’t do a lot of regular reading on those particular blogs. That said, I am somewhat interested in trying to figure out what sort of work the comment stream does or might do or what it is likely to do. I keep trying to understand the move from the newsletter (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Poetry Flash, Poetry Project Newsletter sort of stuff) to the discussion list (poetics list and others) to the blog with open comment stream (Silliman pulling away from poetics list to start his own blog and many of the poetics list commenters following him over there) to the blog with the regulated comment stream to the blog with the no comment stream to the development of these group web portals that seem to exist for the comment streams mainly. Or the move from the newsletter listing with a public invite to the reading group or the reading to the email list invite to the semi-public/private facebook invite. I don’t think it is a linear progression but it is a series of engagements around questions of access. I realize this is a question about gender and I haven’t answered it. But it would take some work for me to answer and to begin to answer it I would feel I would have to do some counting to understand how gender shows up or not in the comment streams. And yet this work might be impossible because it is often difficult to determine gender from comment stream names/identity claims.
Shanna Compton: OK, Sandra: I think the interactivity of blog comment streams and Facebook and Twitter could be considered the front line in the sense that it provides speed and dailiness, but I don’t know that it provides as much depth of engagement as it used to. It’s hard to determine, though, whether my fading interest in engaging in those fields is mostly the result of the unpleasantness of the “hard work” Elisa was describing, or because I simply have too many other poetry-related things to do these days, like editing books, and writing my own. There’s something to be said for not having an audience (comment stream) constantly piping up when one is trying to do the rest of our “hard work.” And though interesting conversations do tend to get going in an open field (like the blogs and Facebook), one also needs time and space that’s more protected. I suppose it’s like what Elisa was saying about justifying the time. It’s about balance. I think Vanessa may be getting at that too with her refusal. If we’re always out there, who’s in here? Anyway, most of what’s in the comment streams isn’t even about poetry. The dynamics on display are not limited to poetry. I guess we all just get tired.
Sina Queyras: SC, is there an audience outside of social media? That’s the question. Do we feel we need to keep up with Facebook and Twitter because if we don’t we don’t exist as writers?
Shanna Compton: Certainly there’s an audience for the readings we give and the work we publish, but social media makes it a lot easier to feel/hear the response of our own audience, and I’m gonna admit that’s important to me. And it also gives us more access to other writers we want to interact with, to participate as their audience. I may be on the fringe with this one--I’m socially isolated in a very small town more than an hour from anywhere with a poetry scene (between Philadelphia and New York) and have been for the last five and a half years. That’s a position I chose, obviously (and I do get more work done and am less distracted), but without the internet it would be very difficult for me to feel connected to what is happening, and that’s important to me to. I go months without speaking in person or laying eyes on another poet (and often a few days without speaking to anyone except my husband too, very hermitlike) and my access to libraries and bookstores with the work I want is also limited. At the same time, after my move I let my blog languish nearly to death, so that now when I write on it hardly anyone is looking--and I’m finding that public-but-not-really sort of space useful too. I guess I could just delete it or close it when things feel too claustrophobic, but I try to resist the deletion impulse as best I can. I don’t want to erase myself. This all constitutes attempts at space-claiming (in which to work, in public) and wall-building (to keep the whole damn public from overwhelming) at the same time.
Danielle Pafunda: There’s an interesting convo going on about “ladyblogging.” Check Molly Fischer at n+1 and Kate Zambreno’s response at her Frances Farmer is My Sister. I think comments streams can be dynamic, productive spaces, but rarely are. Before Facebook, the comments stream was a place to meet other poets, to share resources and ask questions, but that was so often overwritten by pissing contests and troll antics. I’ve admired from the get-go the efforts of others (Elisa!) to graciously, formidably point out logical fallacy, to refuse baiting by trolls, and to kick open an otherwise constricted conversation. I’ve tried to do the same myself, and have been called names, lazily critiqued, or dismissed because, of course, some folks want to hang around hurling insults at each other. It’s not always worth the effort. Ruins my day, makes my heart race, dispirits me. Plus, I’m busy. Now, I have Facebook for the more casual interactions and info-trawling. If I have something particularly pressing and complicated to contribute, I write my own blog post. It’s what we used to say when some crank commenter would get up in our grills: if you feel so strongly, do your own research, develop your own opinion, and write your own post (or essay or edit your own anthology, etc.). I do follow the comments streams on my own posts. At Montevidayo, things are fairly gracious and friendly. I know a lot of the commenters, and I’ve also got the contributors’ authority to say “I don’t participate in conversations like this,” when someone goes all ad-hominem or literacy-resistant on me. I can block an irrelevant and hostile comment. I will also say this for blogs: they’re fast. I don’t have time to produce gobs of carefully constructed critical essays, but I can pin up my burgeoning ideas and responses to other thinkers in public. I don’t want to be closed out of the discussion because I’m too busy or too sick. In that way, perhaps blogs themselves democratize the field. I think it took us awhile to understand that a free-for-all in the comments stream would just reproduce all the common, mind-numbing, gross out disparities. It’s not the invitation to respond that makes the blog a potential site of destabilization, but the fact that anyone can host. When a commenter responds to my post, s/h/ze is in my house. Readers can rely on me to be fair, but also to establish boundaries, guidelines for discourse.
Sandra Simonds: Does anyone want to add anything about what they think about the intersection of social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) and poetry?
Vanessa Place: Happily self-congratulatory by proxy. Everyone looks good in the mirror.
Elisa Gabbert: I’m not on Facebook. (I never tire of saying that.) I do think there are some interesting writers and thinkers on Twitter. It’s not really a good format for “discussions” per se though there is room for some call and response. But I find Twitter to be the perfect format for aphorisms, tiny essays, theories, flashes of insight. See Sina and Anne for good examples.
Shanna Compton: And I don’t do Twitter. I like Facebook because it’s been better than email for announcing things for the press, and I enjoy the kind of trends in poetry news I can pick up there via the feed. There’s also room for different kinds of engagement (longer wordcounts, visual elements), as well as links out. So I use it as sort of an aggregator that often leads me back out to the blogs, commentary or articles elsewhere. Twitter does the same thing I guess, but I really don’t have time for both, so I chose the platform I found more flexible for my various purposes. (I am suspicious of unidentifiable URLs leading who knows where. I dislike the gnomic brevity; I feel tricked. And I prefer graphics in my mix, even if they are sometimes pics of a poet’s child or lunch. There’s something too about “following” vs. “friends.” Oh look at all my biases!)
Elisa Gabbert: Shanna, that’s exactly why I prefer Twitter to Facebook -- I can follow Sina whether or not she knows or cares who I am!
Sandra Simonds: Sina doesn’t follow me, but I follow her :)
Shanna Compton: You can actually do that sort of thing on Facebook now too, by subscribing to people instead of friending them. Folks you don’t know can subscribe to your posts, and only see the ones you mark “public.” (I liked Google Plus too, and would use it more if more poets went over there.)
Danielle Pafunda: I also like the tacit, surely wonky contract of friends better than following. I like the Facebook platform, and I love how much information I get from my feed (including everyone’s Twitter posts!). Headlines, book announcements, another dimension of the writers I love, funny dinosaurs paired with e.e. cummings lines! Though you can still find a ‘roided-out pissing contest in the comments threads, the space-time continuum of Facebook doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of troll who likes to dig his heels in. It’s more a field of exchange, less a field of hyperbolic dominance. It allows for a slight disruption of our normative modes of discourse.
Sina Queyras: Ha, well, I will follow you both immediately on Twitter, and thanks EG, I agree, I love a good aphorism. But also the range of Twitter: as William Gibson says, Twitter is the street. My Twitter feed is diverse, and it reflects my interests and thinking way more than Facebook could. Facebook is the mall. A very small mall. A corporate space. Very disconcerting to be in a mall filled with poets. All posting about poems, next books, and I’m thinking, wait, we’re in a mall, and it’s a Poetry Mall so there is no one outside of poetry looking at your posts...which may of course be a good thing for some, though not for me.
Sandra Simonds: I guess like Elisa, I find the blog comment streams interesting because they tell us something about the outflux of gender dynamics / forces in the poetry world and it’s interesting to think about where these voices are coming from (MFA programs? Magazines?) VIDA has brought to the attention of many the disparity in the numbers of women who are being published versus men. Let’s say, in a magical world, that tomorrow the numbers change and that everything is equal in terms of who’s being published. All magazines now publish 50% women, 50% men. Have we solved the problem?
Juliana Spahr: No.
Elisa Gabbert: Yeah, no. Because those numbers are just a symptom (“subjective evidence of a disease”). In general it’s easier to treat symptoms than cure an underlying disease.
Shanna Compton: Ha ha, let’s try that and see.
Danielle Pafunda: Word, y’all.
Vanessa Place: But we love our symptoms--why would we ever cure them?
Sandra Simonds: So that we can make room for more?
Vanessa Place: That’s a matter of rearranging the furniture.
Sina Queyras: The problem hasn’t even been understood let alone solved. I did an interview for CWILA, a Canadian version of VIDA, and it, or I, was a little burly, mostly because I don’t even think we’re asking the right questions yet, and I am unconvinced that these organizations are the answer. I don’t know what the answer is though I’m certain it won’t be any one thing, so moving forward I will support them.
Sandra Simonds: I was recently asked to do a talk on poetry and politics and I wasn’t surprised that I was the only woman on the panel. In fact, any time I’ve taken part in a discussion or conference on poetry and politics (a subject I enjoy thinking about), I’m one of the only women involved. Is there something particularly “male” about the intersection of these two subjects? If you have had the experience of being the only woman on a panel, do you ever feel that you were asked because you are a woman?
Vanessa Place: Yes. I am very grateful for this, as for all opportunities to be a signifer.
Elisa Gabbert: I am never asked to be on panels, unless this one counts.
Juliana Spahr: When asked, I suspect I am often asked because I am a woman so it is fortunate that I am ok with being a woman. I have also in my life received significant affirmative action benefits for being a woman (i.e. undergraduate scholarships).
I am trying to think if I have been asked to speak on a poetry and politics panel and I feel I must have at some point but I can’t remember when. That said, my general feeling, again somewhat unquantified, is that at the level of the panel at the smallish conference or the poem in the small somewhat ephemeral journal or the first book prize, women do okay and are often “over” represented numerically. I recently counted the listings in the Poets and Writers “Recent Winners” column for 2010 and 2011 and realized from this that women are getting a bigger slice of some sorts of pies. In terms of overall prizes women got 974 compared to 827 going to men and 1 going to a person who was identified as trans. But at the more “excellent” or “established” levels, a large number of women drop out. So with anthologies and big prizes over $25,000 and book reviews in mainstream publications and stuff like that, women tend to be under represented.
Danielle Pafunda: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to participate in something where I’m the only woman. What up dudes? Don’t I make a nice enough token?
Sina Queyras: I have no idea why I’m asked to do anything, but I do get very miffed when I am asked to read, and really am there to do feminist lifting. I don’t mind my work doing that, but I do mind being asked to then give a talk, or have to represent feminist issues. My work, I think, should do the talking.
Vanessa Place: What do you consider your work?
Sina Queyras: Good question, Ms. Place. My poetry? My prose? My critical work? My curatorial work? My grumpiness is about having to represent something, or speak for a movement. I can’t. Shouldn’t. Sometimes I just want to read my poems and have a laugh and say hello.
Sandra Simonds: This is a silly question! What do you think of James Franco? Particularly, I’m thinking of this “A Dude’s Take on Girls” which can be found here. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-franco/girls-hbo-lena-dunham_b_1556078.html
Vanessa Place: I never think of James Franco.
Shanna Compton: I haven’t seen Girls. I don’t watch a lot of teevee. I do watch movies though. Sometimes they have James Franco in them. I’m glad he was not in my MFA program, I guess. It would have been pretty distracting.
Danielle Pafunda: Ha! Shanna, if Franco had been in our MFA class, we’d surely have derailed his acting career! I love television. Maybe Franco should watch more. I’ve seen enough of Girls to say that whatever one thinks of its cultural relevance, race politics, performance of privilege, etc: this critique isn’t nuanced enough. Though I would definitely ask James Franco to be in my Steel Magnolias reprise.
Sina Queyras: James Franco has proven himself to be less than an interesting thinker. He may want to consider getting a real job.
Sandra Simonds: Who are the contemporary female poets you feel are writing the most interesting poetry?
Elisa Gabbert: Will I ruin this question for everyone else by saying I find long lists of poet-names tiresome? I’ll just name one person: Kirsten Kaschock is probably my favorite poet right now. I find almost everything she writes stunning and thought-provoking.
Shanna Compton: I publish some of my favorite ones, naturally! But I have a list of others to tire Elisa. I’ll keep it short and top-of-head: Susana Gardner, Jennifer Tamayo, Nada Gordon, Cathy Park Hong.
Vanessa Place: Present company is of course excepted. Otherwise, Kim Rosenfield, Divya Victor, Trisha Low, Mette Moestrup, Ryoko Sekiguchi, Cia Rinne. I was recently introduced to the conceptual work of Swantje Lichtenstein, and it is enticing.
Sina Queyras: I am in an extremely frustrated phase with poetry...what do I want out of it? I am feverishly tearing through stacks of books and not finding whatever that is, so I go back to what has stuck with me: Lisa Robertson, Juliana Spahr, Anne Carson, Alice Notley, Erin Moure, because the thinking is so well formed with these poets. Because I believe the thoughts. There is writing that knocks me out: Vanessa Place, many of the women in the Conceptual Writing anthology, but there is something I am longing for that I’m not finding either, and I guess I want to acknowledge that. It’s a longing for the world, the body, the emotive, the quotidian, intellect, play...and an expansive canvas, but also a sense of place, and an accurate representation of the moment. The complexity and terror of our moment. I may be identifying for myself a frustration of nostalgia.
Sandra Simonds: If you are a mother, what is the relationship between your being a mother and being a poet? Did becoming a mother change what types of poems you read or write?
Shanna Compton: I am not a mother, but many of my friends now are and even that has changed the types of poems I read and write.
Vanessa Place: None and no.
Danielle Pafunda: Like any intense subject position, mama gives me a new line of flight in the poem, a lens through which to operate, a distortion-construction through which to project language, a set of emotional cocktails unnameable and simultaneously eradicating and productive of (the illusion of) self. It gives me some specific material on which to draw. It doesn’t radically alter my relationship to poetry (either as poet or reader), though it does alter my daily schedule and my priorities. Girl, mother, and chronically ill, the three markers that often inform my speakers, are mutually constituitive in surprising ways.
Juliana Spahr: Being a mother has had a significant impact on the amount of reading I can do.
Sina Queyras: I echo Juliana Spahr on the amount of reading, or a certain kind of reading. Less time in general. And exhaustion. I may in fact have temporarily lost my mind and any relationship with my body. People assure me mind and body will return. Men and women alike. I am not so certain.
Sandra Simonds: Did you read this? http://karacandito.com/im-a-rabbit-and-this-is-my-owl-on-beauty-and-the-female-poets-body/
The woman who wrote it, Kara Candito, went to my PhD program at Florida State University. I think that it’s interesting that she talks about the highly stylized, beautiful female poet and her potential success within writing communities. I wondered if you had any thoughts about our culture which is so highly visual and sexualized and the intersection of this with the poetry world?
Juliana Spahr: I didn’t read it until you asked me to. And I sort of wish I hadn’t just because I find the discussion about the pains of being beautiful by the beautiful personally painful and have a tendency to want to dismiss them by going first world problems. That said, no bad feelings towards Kara Candito. Or even Alex Dimitrov. Both are beautiful. It works. And I will read both of them seriously despite (as Dimitrov requests) and because. (But this where I resort to a representational politics. I would prefer to get my discussion about the unsexy minds of older female poets’ bodies and beauty elsewhere. And if I am allowed it, I hope that Candito is wrong, that there are some, can I hope for many?, out there who find older female poets’ minds sexy.) It might be true that “female writers are more likely to be judged based on their appearance” but it also might be true that they are more likely to talk about it and use it. I sometimes play a game with a friend where we ask--when looking at female poets representations of themselves on covers of books, on blogs, on facebook, in poems--“caught or not.” And Dimitrov’s continual posting of his uber handsome mug on his blog seems notable because he is a man doing something that women poets do way more frequently than he does (one more example of how it is a man’s world?). In other words, as Candito notes, looks matter some. I wish more women attempted to walk away from this rather than attempt to counter it by indulging it. Because we, or many of us, could all easily agree to not represent ourselves--thinking of some of Vanessa Place’s photos and work here--rather than give in to it.
Sandra Simonds: This is one of the reasons I got off of Facebook. I was so sick of seeing myself Honestly, it made me want to barf. But what would this mean to “walk away from it”? What would that look like? What would it look like to not represent oneself?
Vanessa Place: Like this.
Juliana Spahr: Ugh. This is going to dissolve into me saying even dumber and more unsupportive things about women in about two seconds. I think all that I’m saying is something along the lines of yes looks matter (to men and women) and yes everyone knows this and yet the close up of the pretty and youthful face on the cover of the first poetry book is something that women tend to do way more than men (unless the series does it, as in Green Integer; and credit to Green Integer for putting a lot of faces of older people on their covers). I get that we, women, probably feel more forced to engage these questions than men because of various sexisms. We are probably more aware of how our body comes with the poems than men are. And I also get that we tend to get slammed more for this when we do it (as in the term “hair poets”). But also we have the agency to not contribute to this series of conventions and yet we often willfully indulge in them. But I am probably also talking about 8-10 books of poetry when there are literally thousands a year and all of this is probably nonsensical.
Sina Queyras: I think an awareness of this question in one’s work might be enough for me.
Elisa Gabbert: I had not seen it either, though I did hear about some of the discussions that inspired it. I was actually thinking about this topic (beauty and success, beauty and exposure) this morning, after seeing a post on Kate Zambreno’s blog about the Jezebel 25 (which some readers felt was slanted toward the youngest, whitest, prettiest feminists rather than the most inspiring or important).
This line of Kara’s resonated with me:
In short, female poets might feel damned (by ourselves and each other) if we do care, and damned (othered or excluded by some of the male gatekeepers of diffused writing communities) if we don’t care.
Not just in terms of beauty but in general. As women (and I’m sure it’s similar for any underprivileged/oppressed group) we’re constantly encountering these double-edged swords and having to choose between two shitty situations.
I highly recommend this post from The Pervocracy (“Why I didn’t just call the cops”) which explores the many reasons that women may not report rape or sexual assault. It’s a good framework for thinking about shitty choices in general. Even choosing whether or not to identify publicly as a feminist is a shitty choice (but an easy one for me, once I understood what feminism really was).
Also: I think the Internet has made everyone’s looks more important. Most writers have some form of Internet presence that involves pictures of their face/body, and once you know what someone looks like it’s next to impossible not to let that affect your opinion of them and their work in some way.
Shanna Compton: I have nothing against looking, or beauty itself. Both Juliana and Elisa have touched on the conventional, the expectations, and I see the truth in the damned-if-you-do -if-you-don’t-bit in the quote Elisa pulls above. Still, I’m not immune. On a side note, I loved that Nada Gordon put herself on the cover of Scented Rushes, though she strikes a somewhat coy pose with her face partially hidden. She’s framed, literally in a large ornate frame (in a cemetery?!), but also by her own arms and her lovely long curls. It’s a striking image, perfect for the book, and I thought a rather bold move, considering. Kate Durbin works this territory pretty hard too, obviously. I think poets are as subject to physical beauty as anyone, but also things like fashion and style--and in those cases maybe even more so, because fashion/personal style is a creativity, a performance, an expression. For instance, I remember the first time I met Sina, admiring her suit, her bob, and her lipstick. One night at a reading, she admired my shoes, which had little flowers on them. Sandra and I have done this sort of admiring of each other’s style too. Oh, I’m off track now. Back to the more general question of appearance and it being a sort of cheat or currency or somehow handicapping, well yes, that can all bite both ways and is a touchy subject, but poets have no corner on it. I guess it’s lucky appearance less of an issue for poets than it is for movie stars or even other kinds of writers who move in more commercial spheres. (I don’t know what some poets I read look like. Think of romance writers or other novelists whose entire back book jacket is sometimes a large photograph.) And absolutely women poets are caught in it more than men, and poets of color even moreso? I hope I can say I am also capable of limiting my enjoyment of someone’s beauty to its appropriate sphere...but I guess sometimes I’m not. I’m seduced as easily as anyone. At the same time, the most beautiful/admirable/seductive things are in the minds of poets and in how those things get expressed. I don’t know, this is difficult to talk about, isn’t it? I think what we would like is not to have to deal in superficialities. We are wishing it really could be only about the poems. Sure, that would be great.
Elisa Gabbert: Shanna, I’d argue it’s never “only about the poems” even if you leave aside the question of physical beauty. There is still fashion, the “cool,” affecting what we think we like.
Shanna Compton: Elisa, we’re agreeing about that. Wishing don’t make it so.
Danielle Pafunda: I hear what Juliana says about the privilege of such a problem and our complicity, which is why a lot of us benefit from examining it. I’m a product of white bourgeois notions of gender, and to that end, I find Kara’s post a good point of inquiry. As feminist-grotesque as I might be in the poem, as much as I might seek to horrify the male gaze, in my material life I costume (subtly) and perform (subtly) in the pretty matrix. Susan Bordo says this thing (I paraphrase) about how critiquing the culture doesn’t free us from its standards. Critiquing it doesn’t keep us from enjoying its problematic elements.
Vanessa Place: Because way deep down, I am nothing.
Sandra: So what happens as we age, as beauty fades, as we become less “cool”? I guess this question assumes that one is initially beautiful and cool and then it goes downhill from there.
Danielle Pafunda: In a vain and predictable fashion, I keep saying to my partner: I’m going to be like Kim Gordon, right? I want to age with rockstar cool more than Hollywood beauty. But it’s a crap equation, anyhow. The beauty ideal is unattainable, and the closer one is to it, the easier one forgets this (this is perhaps some kind of casino effect--the house always wins). I hope I don’t stay such a dumbass. Cool can and should be unhinged from beauty. Cool can relate intimately to ugly, unexpected, destabilizing, etc. When I think about the music, literature, film, fashion, etc. I consider “cool,” it’s often that which works in opposition to conventional notions of beauty. Beauty in its stabilized, reified, most commodified forms isn’t cool. In fact, I’m saying beauty can and should be unhinged from Beauty. Will the patriarchy want to fuck me when I’m older? Does it even want to fuck me now? Does that make me beautiful? As I age, I’ll feel the loss of something I never really had, though something I had more privilege to assume than some bodies (less than others). I’ll feel the loss of something that was only digging me deeper into a system that hurts me/us/itself. I’ll still buy dresses that are manufactured in blood. I’ll retain a complicated, ethically questionable relationship to beauty and its sway. None of that sounds very cool.
Elisa Gabbert: Mark Wallace once said to me that one is never established, as a writer; one is always starting over with every book. Perhaps as we get less beautiful and cool -- assuming we do the work required to start over and over -- our audience gets better, more refined, because people aren’t going to keep reading you just for the hipster afterglow. This is an optimistic answer. Also, some people clearly get cooler as they get older.
Juliana Spahr: Can we stop talking about aging as making beauty go bye bye?
Vanessa Place: And more as an opportunity to cultivate one’s performative style.
Danielle Pafunda: I’m looking forward to watching all your performativities evolve.
Sina Queyras: I keep a photo of Louise Bourgeois on my desk. Above my desk a very withered looking Georgia O’Keefe, Isaac Dinesen, George Eliot...you get the picture.
Shanna Compton: Ha, Sina. This is the first image to flash in my mind when I read Sandra’s question:
Louise Bourgeois with “Fillette” (Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982)
Sandra Simonds: Chris Nealon and I read together a few years ago and we were talking at lunch and he said that he thought how important it is that women write about poetry and his sense that there were far more men writing about poetry than women. Why is it important for women to write about poetry? (If you agree with this assertion).
Elisa Gabbert: Because, as Chris says, there are far more men writing about poetry than women. Let’s not let them dominate the discourse.
Danielle Pafunda: It’s important that writers from a wide range of subjectivities write about poetry, of course, and also about everything. There’s plenty of smart stuff to be said about power and parity, and I’m happy to talk about that, but first I want to say: dynamism. Let’s get some productive friction, some unexpected germination, some variety going in the discourse! Let’s contaminate our long-held givens and see what happens. Isn’t it more exciting this way?
Sina Queyras: Why are there not more collections of essays by women? Why are there not more female reviewers/thinkers? Why are there not more women assigning reviews and taking that breezy, authoritative space that so many men feel absolutely born to occupy? I have spoken so much and so often about this I am nauseous just thinking about it...
I am about to announce a small prize on my blog for the best piece of critical writing by a woman in Canada. I have to work out the terms, but yes, I feel the need to provide a public target for women to write to, a way to showcase women’s thinking. I was hoping to get a bigger fish to fund the prize so that whoever wins can have a flash of spotlight, but I haven’t had time to make that happen. I can make this small thing happen though.
Why it’s important? I don’t feel that one really has a grasp on an art form until one can argue it. I think in some way the “buy-in” to the poetry buffet (such as it is) ought to be an essay, not a collection of poetry. In my classes I don’t let anyone talk about a poem until they can adequately describe it. This causes a good deal of furor on occasion but really, what are we doing in these MFA and MA programs if not asking people to understand and respond to their art form?
Shanna Compton: Women do a lot more editorial work than men--is this true? It used to be the case, but I haven’t kept up. When I worked for a huge industrial publisher, probably 80% of the editors, editorial assistants, publicists, and publicity assistants were women. I don’t know how to run the numbers on that these days, or if the trend holds true in small press and university press publishing, but I’ll guess that it does. But editorial work is often background work. So even though editing and publishing are also critical activities, they aren’t as foregrounded or quantifiable in the same ways as reviews and essays? Working as an editor/publisher (even for a very small press) doesn’t leave a lot of time for additional critical work in the form of reviews or essays, especially if one also teaches or works some other kind of day job, and especially if one has children, and especially especially etcetera. So what Danielle was saying about blog posts being quicker than essays or formal reviews, and so more accessible to us in terms of available time, maybe comes back in here. I guess we’ll all keep doing what we can. I’m not disagreeing with Sina though: I would like to see the Huffington Post run reviews by Elisa Gabbert (even though she has professed a dislike for HuffPo)...but I think their sort of provocative editorial style is not all that attractive to women either, just like the comment-stream sparring. I feel the need to do more (formal/published/not just blog or FB posts) reviewing myself. But I never seem to get the balance right and when something has to give, that’s usually the thing. I’d have to give up reading time and writing time somewhere else.
Elisa Gabbert: I would say that I would I do more poetry reviewing (in a formal way, as opposed to tossing off a blog post when I read something that inspires me) if someone showed up with a check. Money trumps whimsy.
Vanessa Place: And whimsy trumps chance.