Women, Innovation, and “Improbable Evidence”
Remember the slogan that worked wonders for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign? “It’s the economy, stupid.” Substitute women for economy and you’ve got the new world of American poetry. This is far and away the most important transformation, and it’s one that will continue to erode old protocols and refashion institutions in unforeseeable ways. (The only thing that’s predictable, I think, is that the changes will be for the better.) A familiar air of elitist masculine privilege has long dominated institutions like the Academy of American Poets. The old boys network will, in time, subside to mortality; but even before then it faces certain demographic ravages, foremost of which is that publications by women are achieving statistical parity with those by men.1 The big prizes remain in disequilibrium (it’s as if the candidates are all on a Rolodex established by 1975, which industry officials consult to make sure that
1. Consider the Iowa Poetry Prize, which publishes two or three books a year. Both 1999 titles were by women, two out of three for 1998. Many of the previous years were split, one each. A more significant pattern can be seen in the National Poetry Series that, until 1994, consistently published at a ratio of three men to two women. From 1994 to 1999, however, seventeen of the twenty-five titles have been by women (three of those years included only one man each year).