The other night I was sitting around a campfire with some good friends, and one of them laughingly identified herself as a triple minority—a gay female poet. To this, a man present responded that actually there were slightly more women than men in the U.S.A. For me this anecdote illustrates both a problem and the prevailing attitude about the problem.
Most of us did not need the Count, published by Vida in February of this year, to confirm what we already knew—that huge disparities exist in the publishing world across the gender divide. To pick one statistic not randomly, but because I read this journal and typically find it intelligent, provocative and broad-minded, in 2010, The New Yorker published 449 men and 163 women.
But let me focus on the small area of publishing in which I find myself. Twice a year, about two-thirds of the way through the reading period, either Quincy or I will broach the dread question of the Ratio. How is it looking for the upcoming issue? The Ratio is not a measure of ethnicity—alas we almost never get submissions from enough poets of ethnic origin for us to even bother trying to control this—nor is it of nationality—we do track this, but typically feel we are doing quite well relative to our competitors. (This issue for example, represents poets from Greece, Australia, the UK, Ireland, and Canada, as well as, of course, the U.S.)
But the Ratio in question is the ratio of female poets to male poets, which, in this issue, is a singularly unimpressive but not atypical 37:63. Slush pile manager Quincy assures me that these numbers are actually better than the raw percentage of incoming submissions. In other words, men may comprise over 70% of the slush pile. As a female editor of a contemporary formal poetry journal I continually feel obliged to ask why.
And I did ask why. Not that long ago I threw an online survey up on a free survey site, which asked questions about male and female submission habits. The denizens of AbleMuse’s online poetry workshop Eratosphere composed most of the respondents. The surprising thing was not perhaps the results, which demonstrated that women tend to make fewer submissions on average and are less likely to re-submit to a journal after repeated rejections. Rather, what shocked me was the degree of antipathy demonstrated by men toward the idea that this was even an issue needing examination. Male poets kept coming back to this: that it should not matter what gender the poet was, that poems should be chosen on merit alone, (We do that at Raintown! Any charge otherwise is a definite case of post hoc ergo propter hoc), and if such egalitarian practices led to disparities then, oh well. To do anything different would constitute positive discrimination and thus lead to the collapse of society and Poetry as we know it.
Raintown contributor Annie Finch published "A Letter to Publishers about the Vida Count" in the online feminist blog, Her Circle Ezine. There she makes some sane and salient points about what is still happening, why, and how to improve the situation. Finch suggests publishers should actively solicit female contributors, who, in addition to a tendency to approach the submissions minefield less aggressively, often have more time pressures than their male counterparts. (A recent UK survey concluded that women still spend on average seventeen hours a week doing housework, regardless of their employment status, compared to six hours for a man.) Finch also says, "Women’s writing is often rejected by (female or male) editors because of an 'overly personal' or 'too emotional' tone; 'sentimental' diction or imagery; or 'trivial' themes," and then asks "have you been publishing only the work of women whose writing is not visibly distinguishable as women’s writing?"
I can relate to this, and see our consideration of such questions as a strength of our editorial team here at The Raintown. I am a fierce advocate for including this kind of writing in our journal—Karen Kelsay’s and Maryann Corbett’s fine poems in this issue are examples, but in the past, The Raintown has also published poems about breast cancer and childbirth, topics you won't typically find in Measure.
The goal should be to create a virtuous circle whereby the appearance of such poems in a journal will provide a female-friendly context that will ultimately attract more female submitters. For my part I look forward to the day when Quincy and I will not need to examine the Ratio, because, as many male poets would apparently already like it to be, it will no longer be relevant. And meanwhile, ladies, you might like to encourage the other members of your household to do a little more housework.
—Anna Evans, Editor