On Gender and Poetry

The topic has been brewing for a while and is a result of two things that more or less happened at the same time.

One is that a good friend of mine Sara Norja posted about her award eligible poems, linking to an interesting post by Amal El-Mohtar who discussed the cultural and social stigma attached to the outrageous concept of female poets/authors publicising and marketing their work. From there I followed links to Seanan McGuire’s post on her experiences of reactions from (male) audience and peers for such activities.

Around the same time I attended a local poetry reading that I’ve been going to for a while and always enjoy immensely. Without going into details of the discussion/events, I received a ‘joking’ comment from someone in the course of general banter that really put my back up and made me think about the topic of the post. “Ah,” this person said, grinning, “but you’re only a woman.”

For me, that was the end of funny banter. And it was clearly obvious from my face as well as the rest of the table seemed to take a collective breath. But that’s alright, it was only a joke. Right? The other person in question, clearly noticing my less than amused reaction, followed up with: “Oh I’m sorry, I thought since you’re a poet you must have a sense of humour.” Because, you know, haha women are a butt of jokes and if you don’t laugh then you’re a stuck up cow.

I replied with “I have a sense of humour but no tolerance for bigots”. A conversation then followed where I tried to explain how the fun goes out of ‘jokes’ like that when one hears them over and over again, and once they are accepted the connotations become a part of social and cultural norms and affect behaviour and attitudes. The person in question expressed surprise that women would still encounter such attitudes and language ‘for real’. “Ask any woman,” I said, and the other women in the table started nodding. It’s not as overt of course, but it’s undeniably there. Just open a TV or a magazine or… Write some poetry?

VIDA has been reviewing female participation in the literary arts in the US for a while now and the latest count shows positive progress (see also further analysis in Huffington Post on the topic) which is of course encouraging. A few years ago Fiona Moore discussed the notable gender gap in The Guardian poetry reviews, followed by a look at the big five UK poetry publishers in terms of their gender representativeness. I won’t repeat the findings here but I’d encourage you to check comments on both posts for some interesting insights from publishers, agents, authors etc.

But this is not just an issue of quantity but also of content as the excellent post in Litro Magazine by Angela France highlights. The article discusses the way women’s poetry, particularly when using first pronouns or on themes such as love, family, children (you know ‘women’s issues’), tends to be dismissed as ‘confessional’, ‘autobiographical’, ‘domestic’ or simply ‘female’ (can we all say ‘othering’ now? I believe so.). Because, as I’m sure you know, male poets never write about personal experiences or loved ones… Oh wait.

As the article points out, the universal ‘I’ is male and when a woman writes about any issue from personal experience it becomes very easily a ‘woman’s issue’ and thus implicitly not of universal interest or regard. ‘Ask any woman,’ I said above. Indeed, ‘ask any woman poet’. Angela France did:

“…experiences ranged from tutors refusing to critique work that was too ‘female’ or ‘domestic’ to an editor of a well-known journal stating they didn’t publish ‘confessional’ work. While it is difficult to convey the negativity of the experiences without breaching confidentiality, some of the language used by the critics was repeated in several women’s stories: ‘domestic’ and ‘of no interest’ was the most common, ‘coy’ appeared a few times, while any assertiveness or hint of anger in the poems was described as ‘shrill’. One woman’s work was described as ‘fluffy’ in a review…”

Personally, I remember two experiences, both during poetry workshops a few years back. One was an explicit comment on the use of first person perspective along the lines of ‘we used to write proper poetry about important things’. On another occasion I read a poem that was quite ambiguous in its theme and received some complimentary comments. However, as the discussion developed, the group chair asked what the poem was about to me and when I explained that I had written it as a commentary on gender disparity, he did a swift 180. I can’t remember the exact comments but they were hostile and boiled down to ‘poems about issues are a bit dire’. When I challenged it, pointing out that we’d have several poems about a wide variety of issues from racism to environment to the disappearance of Lancashire countryside (and boy was this a popular issue among the white 50-something males in the group) over the weeks, he got quite defensive saying it wasn’t the same.

Quite. Because we weren’t the same. Because I was different. And while I stepped into the shoes of middle-aged Lancashire men mourning the loss of a way of life on a regular basis, he could not do the same leap for me, not even for one poem.

This is why I find nothing funny about ‘only a woman’ comments and ‘jokes’ and why I also will continue to express my lack of amusement out loud (another thing women are not supposed to do). Because there is nothing only about being a woman.

And there definitely is nothing only about women’s writing.