Diversity in Voices


In a very powerful piece in the Guardian, Bidisha writes about how she’s tired of being the token woman in the British arts scene, and about how women are consistently underrepresented in reviews, on panels, and in other venues. Her numbers speak for themselves: “I felt it [nausea] when I saw this week’s edition of the London Review of Books. Twelve chaps and four lucky ladies have written in it. The previous edition had 11 men and three women. A fortnight before that there were 16 men and four women. But on 11 March there were 25 eunuchs and a perfectly rendered wooden Pinocchio puppet. Only joking, it was 15 men and four women.”

I was directed to this piece as part of a larger conversation that was spawned by the reaction to Blake Butler’s announcement for issue two of “We Are Champion”, which is an all-male issue. When criticized, Butler responded pretty dismissively, which spawned an epic comment thread, complete with some clueless people not getting an obviously satirical comment about how the commenter hopes her sons are able to overcome all the obstacles put in their way when it comes time for them to attempt to become great poets. Amy King’s is beautiful in its brutality.

Butler asked “When you are reading or editing an issue of a magazine, do you perform a contributor penis and vagina count, to verify a decent mix? Do you perform a race count? Do you verify the range of the letters in the last names?” I have my doubts as to whether Blake wanted a serious answer to this question, but I’m going to provide one anyway, since it just came up.

When I put together the poems for our National Poetry Month project, I solicited work directly, and I aimed for diversity not only in gender, but also in ethnicity, age, stage of career, sexual orientation and poetic aesthetic. Focusing for the moment on gender, I finished with 16 men and 15 women (by adding an extra day to April). I actually asked more women than men, but a number of people I asked either didn’t respond or told me they didn’t have any currently unpublished work they were ready to let go of. I also looked for contributions from poets of color and from the LGBT community specifically, and while I’m happy with the poems I received, I wish I’d gotten an even wider mix of voices, because I’m a strong believer in the importance of giving space to voices that are often pushed to the margins.

This discussion also got me wondering, though, about the reviews I’ve edited and published in my stint here at The Rumpus. I was worried that the diversity I sought in our National Poetry Month project was lacking in our reviews because, to be frank, I hadn’t tracked it. I send my reviewers the books they want to review, and I edit them as they come in. So I looked at our numbers since last September, and here’s what I found. Of the 24 reviews of poetry collections we’ve run, 16 were of collections by women, 8 by men. 15 reviews were written by women, 9 by men–some of those are by regular reviewers, so that’s total reviews, not individual reviewers. But it’s not just women reviewing women and men reviewing men–Sean Singer reviewed Kara Candito’s book, Barbara Berman reviewed Sherod Santos, and I reviewed Stacey Lynn Brown, just to name a few.

This isn’t to pat myself on the back as some great feminist editor. I didn’t plan this mix, even though my personal feeling is that women are doing the most vital and energetic work in poetry at present. If that’s the case, then it would make sense that collections by women would be reviewed at a higher rate than those by men–at least, if the reviewers are doing the weeding, rather than having the books assigned from on high. That’s my theory anyway, and it might explain why we have a much more woman-heavy mix than, say, the London Review of Books.

When I went looking for poems from a diverse group of poets, I found it easily, and I didn’t just look at gender. I looked for poets at various stages of their careers, for poets of different ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, as well as from different poetic aesthetics, because I wanted to illustrate the variety that exists in contemporary poetry. That was my manifesto for this project.

But even when I didn’t try, I still found diversity in the reviews I ran, and that’s what I think Butler missed when people raised their eyebrows about the work he defended in WAC. It’s so easy to find good work from women that it’s hard to imagine a situation where one would wind up with none in a particular issue, unless there’s a reason women don’t feel welcome in that space. A colleague of mine last week gave me a copy of A New Folder. Americans: Poems and Drawings from 1959 which featured writing and art from 46 people, 18 of whom were women. In 1959. Shouldn’t a contemporary publication be aiming for at least what some journals in 1959 were accomplishing?

I know what the response will be, based on some of the comments left at HTMLGIANT and elsewhere–it’s the work that matters, not the writer. But that presumes some Platonic ideal of story or poem which can be reached and objectively judged outside of any other merits, and that’s nonsense. It’s a luxury of gender and race and any other privileged class to pretend those things don’t matter. If you’re editing a magazine and you’ve wound up with voices that all look and sound the same, you’re showing the world your limitations as a reader.

This conversation has been eye-opening for me, though, and it’s convinced me to keep better track of who we’re reviewing. And I plan to extend this to include collections by poets of color and members of the LGBT community. I’d also like to invite members of those communities who’d like to review or champion such collections to contact me at poetry-at-therumpus-dot-net.

Update: In an earlier version of this piece, I mistakenly claimed that Butler had chosen the pieces in WAC. I apologize for the error.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →