Friday, January 31, 2003

It’s an old joke among writers that the two ways work can get into a publication – submission & solicitation – entail terms whose sexual connotations are (a) unmistakable & (b) not necessarily representative of free play & mutuality. The problem with the joke is that it isn’t funny. The power imbalance between publisher & the would-be-published remains absolute & more or less unbridgeable: alternatives over the years have certainly been tried – Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling simply asked contributors to send in a specified number of pages, 8 ½ by 11, which were then merely collated – yet the only one that has ever had any serious impact on literary culture has been self-publication (viz. Whitman), & then only very rarely.


These are the thoughts that ran through my mind as I read a comment by the Australian poet Alison Croggon on the British Poets listserv on Tuesday:


Examining the New Penguin Book of English Verse, a compendious tome edited by Paul Keegan, it seems to me that women are rarer than modernists in late 20C English poetry.


I might amend Croggon’s plahn ever so slightly to postmodernists (or, more accurately, post-avant), but a glance at the table of contents for the work covering that past 30 years or so does seem mostly to be Eavan Boland & the Boys, save for one appearance by Denise Riley – albeit there are some Gaelic names there whose work (& gender) I do not recognize. So while Bunting pops up more than once in the table of contents, names such as Raworth or Prynne or Oliver or Pickard or Harwood sully not its pages for a period whose theme song I imagine must sound rather Wizard-of-Oddish: Muldoon & Heaney & Gunn, Oh My, Muldoon & Heaney & Gunn. Fiona Templeton? Not hardly. Geraldine Monk? Nope. Veronica Forrest-Thompson? Wendy Mulford? Grace Nichols? Hmmmm….


Croggon’s point is on target but hardly limited to anthologies. Her observation got me scrolling back among my emails to a note I’d gotten awhile ago from Annie Finch. She had written to the editors of a certain U.S. post-avant publication to congratulate them on a recent issue, and also to ask them why only twenty percent of their contributors happened to be women. Annie was, in her own words,


really surprised to hear them say that submissions from women are low in journals committed to the innovative aesthetic, especially considering the (unusually high) significance of many well-known women poets to innovative poetics.


This is not encouraging, coming from a journal three of whose four editors happen to be women. In the words of one of its editors,


We've discussed the predicament with a couple other editors of innovative work, and they commiserate with the lack of diversity and low volume of women among submitters.


We decided in this issue to stick with our aesthetic vision regardless of the gender of the poets, but put out an extra effort to reach out in the next issue.


This is where my impatience with the aesthetic passivity of younger post-avant writers &, in this case, editors just starts to boil over. In 2003, with literally hundreds of interesting & accomplished post-avant poets of all stripes actively publishing & reading, why would any journal – & I do mean any – rely on submissions to shape what it will publish?? It’s one thing to accept interesting work that does show up when & as it does, but quite another to depend on it to create your own editorial statement. A journal that hasn’t gone out & actively solicited a good portion – 75 percent or more – of what appears in its pages can hardly speak of having an “aesthetic vision” beyond opening the mail.


A•Bacus, edited by a male, has managed to have seven of its last 15 issues written by women authors, suggesting that the approach of going out to find the writers proves to be more inclusive than waiting for the writers to find you. It also enables A•Bacus to create a public presence that articulates its aesthetics vision coherently to a readership in a way that is far harder if one is depending erratically on the unpredictable.


Yesterday, Dan Featherston commented on his concern about the “balkanization” of post-avant poetics. From my perspective, that could/would occur only if & when different tendencies refuse to seriously consider one another – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they also need to publish one another, although there will always be interesting possibilities to pick up on writers who demonstrate cross-tendency characteristics. I frankly don’t see balkanization as a danger today nearly so much as I do atomization, hundreds of small press rags publishing good, even great writing will become indistinguishable if they don’t set – and fulfill – readers’ expectations through some mode of aesthetic consistency. That’s why, with all its design flaws, the crumpled issue* of House Organ that turns up in my mailbox is so often a breath of fresh air. It has a point of view.


 Annie Finch asked me if the circumstances of this little magazine jibed “with my experience” & if I had any thoughts on why this might be. It has, of course, been over two decades since I edited Tottels &, two years before I printed the first issue I was soliciting the work for it, so I ended up using very few submissions – most notably some from David Gitin – but my memory does in fact “jibe” with that report. Few if any women sent work unsolicited for possible publication even though my first single-author issue back in 1971 was devoted to the work of Rae Armantrout. At one level, I suspect that women – perhaps especially at this moment in history – may just be more sensitive to the implications of the power relationships of editing & publication, and may find them more obnoxious, than do men. That has to do with one’s experience of power & the other experiences to which one might relate it. But even more so, the experience I see that “jibes” with what Annie finds is that far too many journals, by ducking the hard aesthetic questions (i.e., who are you & what are you about?), end up creating the very problems of representation that they then bemoan.


It doesn’t need to be the case.





* There appears to be a lead poem by Clayton Eshleman in the current number, but I can’t tell you anything about it, because a good portion of the body of the text did not survive the adventures of the U.S. Postal Service.