I’d like to begin with a personal, and socio-historical, fact: I am a sexist. By this I mean simply that as an American male raised in a patriarchal society, bombarded daily by media that continue to represent gender through a misogynistic lens, educated in an system that does little to challenge this, and having undoubtedly benefited from the privileges that come from being a male in a patriarchal system, I can only ever work towards undoing this, unlearning this, fighting this. I begin with this not as any mea culpa, or excuse for bad behavior, but because one of the things I’ve noticed in all of the online chatter and backlash in response to Spahr & Young’s CR essay is how many people take it so personally, are seemingly so worried of being labeled a sexist (or any kind of –ist) that instead of looking at the broader social contexts that undergird these issues, lash out in bizarre (if symptomatic) ways. Instead of dealing with the facts and arguments presented in these essays, respondents have questioned the authors’ motives, blamed women writers (one editor even outed female poets by name, for having ‘refused’ to submit to his magazine), resorted to name calling, written long self-absorbed apologias about how hard it is to get women to send them work (uh, maybe it’s not them, but your aesthetics?), or just washed their hands of the whole thing by throwing out words like “bean-counting” and “essentialism.” I do think that part of this reaction comes out of the generational backlash (mostly from middle-class whites, mind you) against so-called (and often misunderstood) identity politics, especially the more vulgarized versions afoot on American campuses in the 90s, but the general conflation of a structural analysis with a personal one still seems misguided. It is as if I were to say, “well, I’ve never done anything overtly sexist, so this has nothing to do with me,” when the issue at hand is much deeper than that.
As far as the essays at hand go, it seems to me fairly clear to summarize (if you’ll excuse the over-simplification of the arguments for purposes of this forum).
1. Ashton’s original argument is that all women-only anthologies must be essentialist, and that since we’re all equally represented now, such essentialism is no longer needed.
2. SY & JS’s response is that a) it’s not clear that all women-only anthologies are essentialist, and b) it’s not the case that there is equal representation, in either publications or the workplace.
This to me seems pretty unassailable — if not terribly revealing — stuff. It’s still not clear to me what buttons SY & JS pushed on people, but what reactions! It’s as if they lanced a boil, and tapped into one of the taboos of the so-called experimental writing scenes: don’t talk about class, don’t talk about gender, and don’t talk about race. If you do that, you will be branded a PC bureaucrat or an essentialist.
In Ashton’s reply to SY & JS in CR, she now claims that numbers were never the point: the problem is the category of “women’s innovative poetry” itself — that to speak of a post-structuralist and anti-essentialist formal practice as anything other than gender-neutral is essentialist. But this is historically suspect, for there simply is no neutral definition of “innovative” to begin with – the categories of avant-garde, modernist, experimental, innovative, etc., all the ways in which certain poetics get privileged in certain fields, are always up for grabs, and must always be historically contextualized. To raise the question of how class, race, gender, sexuality, etc., might challenge or refract conventional notions of the innovative is not to make essentialist claims, that there is a “female” innovation or a “black” innovation, but rather to interrogate the category of the innovative itself – to suggest new formal approaches to poetics that are informed by different socio-historical positionalities and contingencies. To privilege a purely formalist definition of innovation, as Ashton does, is to police & restrict the terms by which certain formal moves are privileged (and by whom? by what measures?). To be unable to imagine how, say, a collection of experimental writing by ten different women could be produced precisely in order to demonstrate there is no essential relation between gender and form (i.e., as an anti-essentialist argument), is not only a sign of the limits of such formalism but a failure of imagination.
As far as small-press publishing goes, I don’t personally get over-excited about counting numbers in smaller independent journals and publications. I can understand, and support, the importance of zines and mags focused on representing smaller local scenes, communities, and coteries, and I have also seen the results of mainstream liberal multiculturalisms that do a good job at pluralism without ever questioning the mainstream aesthetics or politics. However, if one does not eventually aspire to transcend the local, or the coterie, or to engage in a broader discussion with the diverse cultural politics of an increasingly globalized field, I tend to lose interest pretty quick. If your mag or journal or zine continues to publish the same people, the same poetics, the same same, I find the lack of risk, the lack of self-questioning, the lack of debate, boring. Mono-cultures lead nowhere. Don’t try to publish more women, or more X, just because you think you’re “supposed to,” or because certain women make a stink about it. You should be interested enough in the world, with all its manifold strangeness and contradictions, oddities and possibilities, that your editorial/curatorial vision would organically support such an ecology of poly-verses.