Academic journal article Chicago Review

Numbers Trouble

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Numbers Trouble

Article excerpt

Jennifer Ashton's recent article "Our Bodies, Our Poems" makes some bold claims about gender and contemporary poetry. Most striking is her claim that the "the recent commitment to women as formal innovators ... is utterly and literally essentialist." Focusing on the poetry anthology, Ashton argues that while corrective anthologies dedicated solely to writing by women made a certain sense in the 1970s, "by the mid-80s efforts to 'redress the imbalance' had apparently succeeded--women seemed to make up more or less half of the poets published, half the editorial staff of literary magazines, half the faculties of creative writing programs, and so forth." She argues that only essentialism justifies the continued existence of anthologies that feature "innovative" writing by women. (1) She also argues that in addition to the women's poetry anthologies of the 1990s and beyond--she talks about Maggie O'Sullivan's Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK, Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, and Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr's American Women Poets of the 21st Century--the work of Kathleen Fraser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Lyn Hejinian is guilty of this same essentialism. (2)

Ashton's article is provocative; our reaction was a combination of annoyance and confusion, with moments of agreement. (Although Ashton avoids talking much about feminism, we ourselves have some questions about how feminism shows up in the experimental poetry scene, especially how it does not show up that much in a lot of the anthologies that focus on work by women.) We started talking about her article by admitting that we had trouble saying anything coherent about gender and writing, especially contemporary writing by women, especially contemporary experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing by women (however one defines those pesky terms). We talked first about representational practices. Then we talked about economics, about publication, about lauding of works with prizes. Every time we started talking about who gets published, who wins prizes, and who gets academic jobs, we ended up lost in a tailspin of contradictions.

And then we began to wonder, did the numbers support Ashton's claims? Is it true that "on the numerical level the problem of under-representation has been corrected"?

But before we get to that, we should probably confess some things. (3) Ashton seems mainly to want to say something about essentialism and we do not. We are fairly sure we define essentialism differently than she does. And to us, essentialism is not as damning as her article assumes it to be. But we are not jumping into that big, endless debate right now. Nor are we going to argue with her about how one might edit an anthology of women's writing for reasons other than correcting an imbalance, although we do want to quickly point out that anthologies can be edited to begin dialogues or to argue for new communities or to document certain moments or for a million other reasons.

Our other confession should be that Ashton wrote one small article. And it would be easy to ignore it. But one reason that it interests us so much is that we feel her dismissal of female community parallels a larger cultural dismissal of feminism that shows up in peculiar and intense ways in contemporary writing communities, often in the name of progressive politics. Instead of Ashton, we could point to the well-meaning but dismissive lefty claim in Ron Silliman's 1988 "Poetry and the Politics of the Subject" that manages to write women out of any history of formal innovation when he argues that the writing of "women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the 'marginal' ... should often appear much more conventional" because they are marginalized and the marginalized need to tell their stories. (4) Or one could refer to how so many of the women's anthologies apologize for their existence. …

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