May 5, 2009

by Megan Kaminski

Megan Kaminski is the author of the chapbook Across Soft Ruins (Scantily Clad Press, 2009). Her poetry has been published in Coconut, Denver Quarterly, Phoebe, 6x6, Third Coast, WOMB and many other fine journals. She lives in Lawrence, KS, where she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Kansas.

When I entered graduate school, I didn’t think of myself as a feminist poet. I was a feminist, of course, and a poet, or at least someone who occasionally wrote poetry, but the two didn’t have much to do with each other. Like a lot of women/students my age, I was wary of anything that bore a resemblance to “identity politics”—we were past those sorts of totalizing narratives. Furthermore, while it was cool to be a feminist, it certainly was not cool to carry on about gender inequity. I didn’t even believe, and still don’t, in the idea of two genders. We read literary theory in our undergraduate classes—the academy had to be a place where sexism, racism, classism, etc, didn’t happen. We had read those articles in classes taught by professors. We all knew what was up.

And that’s part of the reason why it is so hard to write this kind of an essay. Gender inequality is something we don’t like to talk about, a conversation that we don’t want to have. Partially, it’s because we should be beyond it. There are people in our own departments busy writing about the ways that gender is constructed. We talk about it our classes. We’ve included more women in anthologies. And we’d like to think that the discussion is over and done with, or at least that it is based on historical source materials. But the fact is that women professors earn 81% of what male professors earn [1]. Moreover, many of us work as contingent workers in the academy. So when we speak about these things—when we even have time to speak about them after teaching twice as many courses per semester at about 25% of the pay, after tending for our children, and after we try to squeeze out a few minutes to write at all—it tends to be received as sour grapes, old and outmoded thinking. As a result, we find ourselves stuck in a cycle of exclusion and oppression, and without witnesses willing to speak.

When I entered graduate school, I thought of myself as someone who wrote poetry. I didn’t want to be “ghettoized,” or at least that is how I thought of it, into the world of women’s poetry. It was easy to hear the condescension in the tone of certain professors and graduate students when they spoke about “women’s writing,” “chick lit,” or even “women’s studies.” I just wanted to be a poet. I wanted to have my work received in the way anyone else’s would be, regardless of gender. But my experiences in academia have always been shaped by my gender, despite my desire to escape it. In some ways it was probably more pronounced because of the fact that I was the only woman poet in my graduate student class. I know now that this is unusual, but at the time I didn’t think anything of it. At the fall reception a young female lit professor expressed surprise and sympathy when she heard—“Oh, that’s tough. It’s a hard position to be in.” But I didn’t get it at the time.

It wasn’t like it was anything more than a strange mix of offers and acceptance decisions that created that situation, and I want to be clear that I am not writing an essay about the horrors about being the only woman in my class. I am still friends with many of my former classmates and professors, and I value those friendships dearly. But however it arose, the situation I was in made my experiences regarding gender more pronounced. At first it just started out as a kind of careless exclusion—my classmates would get together for drinks and talk about poetry and no one thought to invite me. It started to creep into our classes—inside jokes, discussions about books that people were reading together, and I was just a little left out. I thought maybe I was just unpopular. I had just moved back from Paris and I felt a little awkward. But the distinction wasn’t merely social; I was the same age, had the same basic background, liked the same poets, and had gone to the same highly competitive colleges as the rest of my cohort. There were other issues at play.

When an established poet paid attention to my work, or invited me out to a group lunch after a reading, there were insinuations that I was sleeping with him…no matter how old he was, or the context for our friendship. When my favorite poet and mentor, the poet who was the reason for me wanting to attend the program, accepted me as his thesis student and turned down a couple of my fellow classmates, one disgruntled student said to my face, and to anyone who would listen, “He’s only working with you because he thinks you’re hot.” My appearance, my gender, could always function as a way to discount my work. And I saw it, and now see it, all around me, too. How many young female poets have their work described as “sexy,” as compared to work by men? And while you could think of “sexy” as simply descriptive, and as a favorable review, it can work to chip away at authority. I have a friend who was on a search committee a couple years back for a tenure-track faculty position. Of the four female finalists for the position, three had letters of recommendation containing physical descriptions: the committee knew the size, shape, and gait of these candidates, which were described from a distinctly male point of view. Not a single letter of recommendation from the dozen or so male applicants had any mention of the candidate’s physique. The male candidates existed only as scholars, while the female candidates had bodies that were (unbeknownst to the candidate) on display as well.

I wanted to be thought of as a poet, not a woman poet. But it has become clear to me that my status as a woman affects my poetry and my career. And it doesn’t just stop with the way my work is perceived. Some of those insinuations made it hard, if not impossible, for me to have the same relationships with mentors that my male counterparts have had. If I had a drink with a male faculty member, something my fellow students did frequently, it was something to gossip about. My mentoring relationships were restricted to formal meetings in office hours. When I completed grad school, and moved to a new city, I was excited to find a group of poets to work with. But after I rebuffed the advances of an unwanted and married suitor in the group, I stopped getting invited by other group members to hang out and talk about poetry. It just wouldn’t have been “comfortable,” never mind the fact that he showed up uninvited to my small studio and practically chased me around the apartment until I made him leave by threatening to call my boyfriend. No one thought about how “comfortable” that evening made me.

I’m still figuring out what a feminist poetics looks like for me , and how it would work, but its importance is clear [2]. When women are systematically excluded and oppressed because of their gender, it becomes necessary to write as a woman—to think of oneself as belonging to the political category of women. Maybe it’s a kind of “strategic essentialism.” I’m not exactly sure. What I am sure of is that I am not the only one who has had these kinds of experiences. I’m a twenty-nine year old poet, a woman, and a feminist, and I no longer try to keep them separate.

1. American Association of University Professors Study, 2006. This statistic is also cited in Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s important essay “Number Trouble” (Spahr, Juliana and Stephanie Young. “Numbers Trouble.” Chicago Review 53:2/3 (Autumn 2007)).

2. I certainly have some great models, poets that first started to shape my ideas about what poetry, a particularly feminist poetry, could do: Etel Adnan, Bernadette Mayer, Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Alice Notley, Adrienne Rich, Leslie Scalapino, Juliana Spahr, among others.


AB said...

This is the argument I have with the male professors I know whose version of "mentoring" gifted young women is sleeping with them: it excludes so many other possibilities for mentoring, not just because they themselves are creeps, but because it makes all other male professors subject to the suspicion of creepiness and thus restrictive of their time with female students.

I just get nowhere with it. These guys might consider themselves "feminists" in the academic sense but on the actual material, educational well-being of women do not seem much to care or cultivate carefully preserved blind spots, somehow convincing themselves that also to sleep with these young women is to "help them out."

Thank you for writing this, Megan.

Judy Roitman said...

Thank you Megan. As an old lady I keep hoping things have changed surely by now they must have changed but sadly they have not...

archivist said...

this is wonderful. apologies for my be so untech savvy that i don't know how to leave comments.

i like how you left this open at the end, which invites further discussion.

a couple of clarifying questions.

are you moving towards separating the institutional from the literary? like "feminist poetics" is a writing project, while the oppression that you describe is "institutional" or linked to the social or political. is that a fair characterization? or are you thinking of "how do i address this via a writing practice"?

it seems like both are implied.

but that identifying more strongly with the category of woman (in a public or within institutional context) is what you are grappling with? with that need?

thanks for your thoughts... and for opening this discussion into a territory beyond Numbers.

brian whitener

shanna said...

hi megan. wow, do i recognize myself here. (not in the graduate class makeup or experience---we were mostly women and my experience was pretty great overall.) thanks for posting this!

my thesis advisor was male. despite the fact that i never met with him outside of school or school-related functions and am married, a few people both inside and outside that community made insinuations about our relationship which left me drop-jawed. i've heard the same thing implied about other female students, about whom i know it to be false. nevermind that our class was almost all women (11/13), but the professors during our thesis semester mostly male (3/4). (anne's point about the times it does happen is also SUCH A GOOD ONE.)

and i have had a very similar journey from "a feminist and poet, but not a feminist poet" to well, whatever it is i am now. i think i felt protective, or defensive, or yeah, a desire not to be pigeonholed or ghettoized. but i got labeled anyways. so then i wrote a book all about girls on purpose. ;)

this forum is just rocking so far.

Megan said...

Wow—thank you for all of the comments.

Brian, to answer your questions:

are you moving towards separating the institutional from the literary? like "feminist poetics" is a writing project, while the oppression that you describe is "institutional" or inked to the social or political. is that a fair characterization? or are you thinking of "how do i address this via a writing practice"?I do think that the essay may imply that both of these options are possible ways to approach the idea of a feminist poetics. However, I am not sure if the separation of the institutional from the literary can be achieved, or is even desirable. I that the idea of a poetics that separates itself from the world (and its various institutions)—and specifically the economic realities of our lives, which for me as a lecturer is directly tied to university institutions—is a good one. I don’t even think it’s possible. Getting rid of all institutions might be a start.

but that identifying more strongly with the category of woman (in a public or within institutional context) is what you are grappling with? with that need? Mainly, I wanted to share particularly “female” experiences I had as a young poet, and talk about how they changed the way I look at my own writing and how I identify as a writer. I think because of the way I am sometimes systematically excluded and oppressed because I am put in the category of woman, means that I must identify myself as a woman in order to address those inequities. I might say the same thing about issues of race or class. I don’t know if this the perfect approach, but it seems to me that the idea of a “strategic essentialism” (borrowed from Spivak) is a good start.

The essay is intentionally open-ended in that it does not provide a rendering of how one could do that in writing. This is something I am still figuring out in my own work.

Laura Carter said...

Anne's right---the disparity between "theoretical" feminism and actual practice is often most evident in the academy. I went to a rather conservative program where there was no such thing as "women's writing"---no Notley, no Guest, etc. Gender wasn't really brought up. Thankfully, one finds one's way. Thanks for writing this. Best wishes to all.

et said...

This reminds me of Alice Notley's poem about being a poetry student at Iowa, I think it's called "As Good As Rocks' -- from Mysteries of Small Houses.

Thanks for your bravery and wit.

gina said...

This is a really wonderful piece--thanks for sharing! I had somehow managed to repress the memories of the "boys club" mentality of my own grad school experience, but they are all coming back now.

Megan said...

Thanks for pointing me to the Notley poem, Elizabeth! I hadn't read it before. Here's a link to it in case anyone else is not familiar with it:

K. Lorraine Graham said...

When I was doing my MA, a professor in the department started a rumor that I was getting married to my thesis adviser--I still find it horrifying and funny. The department found it difficult to really understand a process of mentoring between a then unmarried male professor and a younger female student, so, somehow, logically, we had to be on the path to marriage.

becca said...

Cf. Derek Walcott, apparently?