Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Few Thoughts about Literary Feminism

I was very surprised yesterday to see this link from the Sewanee Review blog pop up on my Facebook wall. When I followed the link, I was even more surprised to see myself described as "poet and critic." Critic! Who knew?

I have to say I'm sort of wondering if the blog is featuring me because the journal is trying to head off some of the Vida count backlash. As most of you probably know, the Vida organization focuses on revealing gender-based publishing inequities, and the numbers in its 2012 count certainly are egregious. Although Sewanee is not featured in that count, the journal does tend to be lumped into the old-boy group, as this Twitter post makes clear. I expect that certain members of the staff feel some anxiety about this label.

You won't be amazed to learn that I, of course, am full of mixed feelings about the situation. To begin with, the editor-in-chief at Sewanee, who has held the post for many, many years and is one of the last of the classic twentieth-century male literary intellectuals, has published every single essay I have ever sent him. Meanwhile, the women who run the Vida website have never published anything I have sent them. Thus, on a purely personal level, I find Sewanee far more welcoming to women writers than Vida is.

It is true, however, that as women writers go, I am frumpishly unfashionable. Rather than writing about the poetics of sexual politics, I write about sitting in a house in the north woods and reading the poetry of John Milton. Vida is not, as far as I can tell, particularly interested in women writers of my ilk. In a way, that attitude parallels the food-and-home attitudes I excoriated here. Everywhere, among my feminist peers, I hear my devotions derided and dismissed. In this atmosphere, it is difficult to continue to think of myself as a "feminist peer."

Nonetheless, I am a feminist peer--one who is honored that the editor-in-chief of the Sewanee Review believes in my voice. At the same time I wish he would publish more women writers. Likewise, I honor the work that Vida is doing to reveal gender inequity. But I also wish that the Vida cohort would begin to recognize that feminism works in mysterious ways. For some of us, struggling to stand in collegial sympathy alongside the poets of the past has been the work of a lifetime. I believe this work has been enormously influential to me as a twenty-first-century woman poet. I also believe that writing about these poets of the past has helped a few other twenty-first-century women writers, readers, and teachers come to terms with their own anxieties, devotions, and curiosities.

A few days ago I posted a blog entry about how fraught it can be to write about poetry of the past: "No matter how much I might it wish it were otherwise, I cannot pretend that Christina Rossetti is as good a poet as John Keats. I cannot pretend that Aphra Behn deserves as much attention as William Shakespeare. As I keep saying to myself, maybe what matters here is that I am a woman and I am writing this book. And I am conversing with these men, and I will not stop."

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