Wednesday, November 12, 2003


A question posted more or less anonymously – signed only “AT”* – to my blog in response to my piece on Bruce Andrews the other day asked pointedly:


Does it bother you to be publishing in a journal that looks like it was edited in the 50s still? That seems to act as if women do not write anything? What do you support when you send your work out?


It’s a fair enough question even if not posed in a very fair way. The November issue of PLR, the journal I focused on in both my piece on Andrews & the later Keston Sutherland contribution, lists 21 contributors, only two of whom appear to be women: Nicole Tomlinson & HOW² editor & publisher Kate Fagan.** Numbers like that do harken back to the 1950s & very early ‘60s, when Totem/Corinth could issue a volume entitled Four Young Lady Poets, edited by LeRoi Jones, noted feminist. Among the men listed in the included in the November PLR are Andrews (tho the excerpt given on the website is from the piece that ran in October), Bob Perelman, John Kinsella, Drew Milne (an associate editor) & Anselm Hollo. Contributors’ lists from the first three issues don’t demonstrate much more in the way balance, frankly.


I hadn’t looked at PLR before responding to Louis Armand’s request for a critical contribution. My piece had been languishing ever since Leslie Davis & her anthology on the 20th century disappeared into the night – a too common experience in the small press literary world, alas.  So I responded by sending that. Worse yet, at least I suppose from “AT”’s perspective, I didn’t immediately scan the issue with an eye toward gender. I suspect that the ratios for racial balance are similarly appalling, but I don’t know how I might check that.


Conceding that there are not enough women in PLR, however, is not the same necessarily as suggesting that its editors are old-fashioned chauvinists, although that seems implicit in AT’s comment. It is quite apparent, at this moment in history, that the problem of women’s participation in English-language poetry per se is largely a thing of the past. At least half of the interesting younger writers right now are women – women appear to be active in virtually every literary tendency. However, I’m not sure that the same can be said for critical writing. Even when we take in all the women who have written important critical & theoretical work – Jan Clausen, Judy Grahn, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Dodie Bellamy, Juliana Spahr, Jena Osman, Susan Stewart, Sianne Ngai, Tina Darragh, Leslie Scalapino, et al – their representation in critical forums is to this day nowhere nearly equivalent to their role in poetry itself. There is a gap that has not yet been bridged.


Three quick data points to underscore what I mean:


·         If one looks at the 38 contributors to the 19 events that were the Philly Talks series, men outnumbered women 27 to 11.


·         If one looks at the critical discourse of the Poetry & Empire retreat, one of whose conveners was Susan Stewart, the list of original invitees was 21 men & 13 women; in practice, the first evening saw 17 men & 13 women present, the Saturday session shifted to 19 men & 13 women, & the Sunday concluding one – the one most impinged upon by people having to deal with their “real” lives – was especially lopsided at 15 men & 6 women.


·         If I simply scan the blogroll to the left of the screen here, I find 132 blogs by men, 57 by women, & 15 where I can’t tell the gender of the blogger or which are multi-person (& at least potentially multi-gender) blogs.


There are, of course, an almost infinite number of reasons why this might be so – every curator of every talk series (& virtually every male editor of a critical journal) with whom I’ve discussed this topic over the years has complained of great difficulty in getting full participation by women. The exceptions to this general tendency – (How)ever/How² and Chain – demonstrate that it need not be thus imbalanced, but the fact that in 2003 – twenty years after the first issue of (HOW)ever – these journals continue to function as exceptions demonstrates a deeper & more intractable problem.


Of my three examples above, the blogroll strikes me as the most fair index of the current state of affairs. First, because it doesn’t require an editorial gatekeeper to start a weblog – I try to include anybody who has a blog related to poetry or poetics in English. Second, it’s not Philadelphia specific. Third, the nature of the blog form is such that almost anything is possible. As some of my peers have taken pains to demonstrate, there is no critical threshold one need meet in order to obtain a free Blogger account & type on, so long as you are willing to make a fool of yourself in public. Lord knows I’ve read my own share of “Only someone called Ron Silliman could get away with Ron Silliman's Blog” type comments from people who think I’m too earnest or serious or pompous.*** You’d at least think they’d get the name of the blog right.


Given the presence of Kate Fagan in the PLR table of contents, I would suspect that the gender balance of that publication has less to do with any agenda on the part of its editors than it does their ability to address the issue. So while one might well say that they need to try harder (or better, or smarter), it’s a far cry from a circumstance of active malice.


Malice is a serious dimension, not to be discounted. Failures of commission are indeed radically unlike those of omission.


I spent part of Sunday listening to malice in its baldest, most stomach-turning form – excerpts from two of Ezra Pound’s fascist radio broadcasts. In one, Pound suggests that the U.S. entry into World War 2 is a the result of underhanded dealings by Felix Frankfurter, then a Supreme Court justice (also a founder of the ACLU, a defender of Sacco & Vanzetti & the man who convinced Woodrow Wilson not to seek the death penalty against Tom Mooney, the organizer framed in the World War I “Preparedness Day” riot in San Francisco). In the second broadcast, Pound actively defends the argument of Mein Kampf. Listening to Pound rail on in unmistakably anti-Semitic terms & talk of how FDR should “commit suicide on the Capitol steps” is blood curdling, to say the least.


I was subjecting myself to this bile at the urging of longtime friend Ben Friedlander who spent part of last Friday in Orono trying to convince me that Ezra Pound was, in his words, “a terrible poet.” I’m not convinced of that, but I don’t think there’s any argument that Pound was a terrible person. There is a difference. The Pisan Cantos, written just a few years after these speeches, is – to my reading – one of the great works of the 20th century.


So this is where AT’s question reaches me – what do I support if I think Pound’s poetry is not fatally curdled by his racist & literally fascist politics? That seems a far clearer picture of the ethical implications of this problematic than PLR’s inability to overcome a social phenomena that shows up almost everywhere in poetry, even now.


At one level, this strikes me as not being too far from the question of the value of any work produced, say, by a psychotic. Is the writing of Hannah Weiner, John Wieners, or Jimmy Schuyler any less because they were psychiatrically disabled? Reading the actual texts of Pound’s speeches, the “saving” diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia than enabled him to escape the firing squad & spend the next 13 years in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital doesn’t seem at all far-fetched. In fact, one of the great problems of schizophrenia is that it is a physical disease whose symptoms are specifically social. Because of who Pound was, his acting out turns out to have been more disgusting & appalling than that of the next generation of poet-psychotics, but is it medically different? What about the paintings of Henry Darger, who at the very least had the imagination of a pedophile even as he conceived of “the girls” as heroines to be saved? Where does one draw the line & how? There were right-wing politicians who wanted to condemn Stanford’s purchase of Allen Ginsberg’s archives because of his role in NAMBLA, a pedophile rights group. There are others every bit as appalled at the invocation of AIDS as a “gift” compliments of Tom Clark in Ed Dorn’s Rolling Stock.


The idea that this is at all simple is nonsense. At the height of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara, the Donald Rumsfeld of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations & later head of the World Bank, was also on the board of the nonprofit that governs Poetry magazine. While that may shed light on the kind of editorial inertia that has frozen that publication in time, it doesn’t make any of its editors or contributors mass murderers.


As an artist & as a citizen – roles that I’m not convinced are that different – I need to see the world for what it is, as well as for the alternative possibilities of what it might be, utopian & dystopian alike. Ultimately, I think that means being able to see what good there is in a terrible person – be it Pound, Céline or Leni Riefenstahl. And it means engaging in projects that I support in part, even when I am critical, helping to make them more of what I would want them to be.






* “AT” sent a second note on the same day that suggests that he or she may have attended the Poetry & Empire retreat at Writers’ House, or at least claims to be privy as to who said what to whom, although nobody with the initials “AT” attended. The second comment was similarly accusatory in a murky way.


** I should note that there are a few contributors whose gender I simply cannot discern.


*** My inclusion of Robert Grenier’s “JOE             JOE” in my list of “most influential” works generated several responses in this vein. 

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