Friday, April 25, 2008

 

 

Of the 16 other books from Poetry Society of America entrants that I feel all deserve awards, hoopla, and great notice, three are books that I’ve already reviewed here on the blog: Jean Valentine’s Little Boat, Jennifer Moxley’s The Line & Laynie Browne’s Daily Sonnets. It has now been five months, nine months & a year respectively since I first read & reviewed each of these volumes, and one of the substantial pleasures of judging the William Carlos Williams Award lies in seeing just how very well each stands up. It gives me great confidence that when (not if) I return to these books ten, maybe even twenty years from now, they will continue to shine just as brightly.

I’m not going to re-review these work here – you can click on the links above & go back to my original notes as well as get to further links through which each can be ordered. And you should – these are books that deserve to be in everybody’s library. But I want to note here one of the telling facets of this contest for me. Of the nineteen books that totally convinced me they deserve such kudos as these, 13 are by women. Just stacking the books from the next layer, the male pile is almost identical to the stack of books by women (I note however that more guys have “fat” books than gals). The implication is obvious: we have arrived at a moment when women have reached at least parity when it comes to the production of poetry – and at the highest levels it may be much more than just parity. Yet if I go back to the hoopla that surrounded the “numbers trouble” (PDF) debate several months back, I recall that Juliana Spahr & Stephanie Young had tracked reviews in this here blog o’ mine and noted that I too skewed male, noticeably so, when it came to reviewing books of poetry. Yet even I’m willing to concede that of the 19 best books of last year, at least 13 are by female authors, a ratio of better than two to one. What gives?

I think there are a couple of things going on here. The most significant I think is my age: 61. I first came into the world of writing when the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, was at its height at defining the New American canon – and that book had just four female contributors among its 44 poets. Also hot news there in the mid-1960s was the Totem / Corinth mini-anthology, Four Young Lady Poets, edited by the notable feminist LeRoi Jones. The young ladies included Carol Bergé, Rochelle Owens, Barbara Moraff & Diane Wakoski. Today, that title – and all the attitudes it projects – sounds as dated as an episode of the Twilight Zone.

My generation really came of age as poets in the early 1970s, and while women were starting to write in great numbers in that decade, what Judy Grahn has called the “strategic decision” of separatism on the part of many women poets actually reduced the number who were participating in scenes that included the likes of me. If nothing else, this had the short-term impact of reinforcing the maleness of some scenes. When, in 1981 & ’82, I put together In the American Tree as an anthology of what had become known as language poetry, I had the opportunity to decide whether to stick to the historical record of who published what & where, or of puffing the book up in the name of a better political balance. As I’ve noted here before, there were just three poets who fit the objective qualifications for the anthology who were not included. Two were male – Curtis Faville & David Gitin – both of whom had at that point stopped publishing. But the omission of Abigail Child was, in retrospect, a flat out blunder on my part. Still, In the American Tree was 75 percent male & Abby’s inclusion would not have radically revised those numbers.

If you factor in the number of women on the scene who were obviously post-avant, but who consciously distanced themselves from langpo – the writers who would make up the core of (HOW)ever, for example – you can see that the overall balance in the 1970s was clearly changing, but it was still a far cry from what we have today.

To the degree that I am a creature of my generation, focusing on my own age cohort and those immediately older, say up to the age of my parents, the numbers you see here on the blog are, I think, pretty predictable. When I focus on writers who are older than I, the numbers will be a little worse, and on my own generation, a little better, tho still a far cry from parity. But to the degree that I focus on what is going on in poetry right now, recognizing that the real changes in contemporary writing are now being done by a group of writers all quite a bit younger than I, then I think it’s apparent that these figures have to change.

This isn’t easy. Of the poets of my parents’ generation, the one who really took an interest in younger writers, reading them, promoting them, actively engaging their concerns, was Robert Creeley. Of the poets from the intervening generation, between my parents & my own, the poets who have done this have been Jerry Rothenberg & the Waldrops. That’s not exactly a long list. Most poets as they age tend to stay fixed right where they focused when they first matured as writers & readers. And as the writers in whom they are interested die or go silent, most poets as readers find their world contracting, rather than shifting down to the next generation(s).

I have an active interest in trying to get to that next generation (or three) of younger poets – I want to see how the story of poetry itself continues to evolve, even as I have an increasingly complicated relationship to the question of “now.” So here’s to the idea that, over time, the percentages here of male to female will have to change, just to reflect the real world.

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