Responding to “Numbers Trouble” by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young
as published in the CHICAGO REVIEW (53:2/3)
When I’ve tried to sum up the premise of “Numbers Trouble” for friends who have not read the article, I usually say that Spahr and Young begin by considering whether gender parity in poetry publishing has been achieved. They wonder if “women’s only” poetry anthologies are, as Jennifer Ashton suggests, unnecessary. Then I say that Spahr and Young focus their investigation on what they call the “experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing community.” Next I say that they found the representation of women in poetry anthologies to be closer to 30% women than 50%. I say that Spahr and Young try to show how, a number of years ago, under the influence of “feminist-interventions,” editors began to include more women in their anthologies and that the numbers improved and then plateaued. I mention that--throughout the article--Spahr and Young question the value of the numbers, that Spahr and Young point out that gender parity alone does nothing to indicate the climate of gender relations in any particular community. But their counting does lead them to conclude that gender parity in poetry publishing has not been achieved, and that this is curious since there is a widespread perception that it has. Lastly, I note that Spahr and Young end by expressing their anxiety that a discussion that relies too heavily on numbers is bound to be hindered by “first-world myopia.” And so they invite people to join the conversation.
I am glad Spahr and Young wrote this article. Almost everyone I know who is familiar with the article is glad that it exists, even if they are troubled by some of its parameters. Like K. Lorraine Graham, “I am glad someone counted.” Of course numbers alone do not tell a complete story, and thus it is important that Spahr and Young also consider a whole spectrum of misogyny in the world of poetry, including things like e-stalking, underhanded sexism, and homophobia in letters of reference. I believe that Spahr and Young intend to say: “hey--our poetry community is in trouble.” And as a social experiment, I think the essay has been incredibly successful in its revelation that many people are resistant and pedantic and hostile in response to an article which talks about gender and poetry.
But there are two places where I get stuck in the essay. The first sticking point is Spahr and Young’s decision to focus on the “experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing community.” It troubles me that Spahr and Young’s attempt “to construct a history of the experimental/post-modern/avant-garde/innovative scene” reifies this scene as a historical movement and closes off that community’s present and future. It suggests that the people in this movement already know that they are in it. It suggests one movement, as opposed to multiple movements. It suggests a movement that is not only historically (heroically?) male, but also very white.
As a feminist, I am compelled to decline the labels "experimental" and "avant garde." I have been at times attracted to these labels--not just because of a desire to connect with artists I admire, but also because of vanity, because it feels good. I feel increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed about this. The more I think through the hurt that comes from being excluded from (or being accepted into) communities founded upon hierarchy, taste distinctions, and the possession of cultural capital, the less I want to have anything to do with them. (It bears emphasizing that one can disaffiliate from these terms without any slackening attention to experimentation in language.)
The second sticking point is Spahr and Young’s anxiety about “first-world myopia” and their conclusion that “we are deeply complicit in a larger system of fucked-up-ness that makes us in no way oppressed or marginal.” This suggests that one can’t be marginal or oppressed while simultaneously being complicit in systems of domination. It also suggests (as Barbara Jane Reyes astutely and eloquently points out in one of a series of posts on her [former] blog) that third world conditions do not exist in many parts of the United States. They do.
I wish that this is where my difficulty relating to this article ends, but it does not. To be honest, I have been most troubled by the negative responses to the article. But before I talk about that, I do want to note the number of very thoughtful, critical, and constructive responses to Spahr and Young’s intervention (including Joshua Kotin and Robert P. Baird’s “Poetry Magazines & Women Poets,” which appears in the same issue of the Chicago Review as “Numbers Trouble”). I am incredibly grateful to people like Barbara Jane Reyes, Linda Russo, Mairead Byrne, Julia Drescher, Kate Pringle, C.S. Perez, CAConrad, Rigoberto González, and many others who have started different types of conversations. I am also very grateful to Angela Veronica Wong, whose essay "Inbetweeness" appeared in EOAGH shortly after the publication of "Numbers Trouble." That said, I’ve been incredibly disheartened to read many comments where people argued that Spahr and Young's attention to gender representation in poetry publishing was equivalent to essentialism. I saw comments that derided the counting of “dicks and pussies” (language that thoughtlessly risks traumatizing and re-traumatizing readers). I saw comments where men told women to go read Derrida. I read claims by male editors who insisted, repeatedly, that they have done more for gender in poetry than anybody. Interestingly, many of these comments were made by people who did not seem concerned about the numbers themselves. Of all the conceivable responses to Spahr and Young, only a small number predominated: those most hostile to any discussion of gender and inequality. Many reverted to pedantic arguments in an empiricist or positivist vein about statistics. Others asserted that women simply submit their poems in fewer numbers then men. Even a cursory analysis of these discussions reveals that they are seldom really about the numbers. Instead, they are all about people seeking to assert power and control and domination.
As an editor of both a journal and press that are committed to publishing work by writers who "self-identify" as women, I see "woman" as a political category. By choosing to publish work by women, I am not making an argument that there is a metaphysical difference between women and men. I do not think that there are only two sexes (male and female), two genders (women and men), or two ways to write (masculine and feminine). I do not think that there are essential differences between men and women or the writing they produce. But if systemic sexism and racism persist, then it is important to recognize gender and race as political categories (“strategic essentialism”). Which is to say that it remains politically necessary for women to identify as women in order to combat systems from which they are excluded or oppressed as women.
Ultimately, the discussions around this article and the article itself affirm the importance of building new communities that are less sexist, less racist, and less elitist. And ultimately, we don't need the numbers to tell us that. But if, in an ideal world, we would want the numbers to be different--not because of the numbers themselves but because of what the numbers could represent (a community where gender/racial/class equity exists)--these discussions are opportunities to consider the ways in which poetry communities can be more engaged with emancipatory social projects. And I am grateful for that.