Monday, September 20, 2010

Poetry a la VIDA

Intrigued by the furor over the numerical disparity in reviews of male and female fiction writers in the NYTBR and elsewhere, I decided to revisit a post I made three years ago on a similar topic. For those of you who know little about this, which ball has been picked up and carried both by She Writes and VIDA, I refer you to this link in The Rumpus, which will eventually, if you follow everything diligently, provide a link trail everywhere.

In January 2008, after visiting Poetry Daily, well, um, daily, for a while and noting that the site published far more poetry by men than by women, I did my own count and wrote the following on this blog:


First of all, after visiting Poetry Daily, I started wondering how many women and how many men had been published on the site over the course of the year.  So I counted.  This counting is not exact--I checked bios to see if names of indeterminate gender could be identified, but in some cases they were not identifiable as men or women.  So, to create balance, if a translation was posted, I counted it as by a woman if the original poet was a woman or if the translator was a woman.  Thus, my method is open to some degree of error.  
I found that, in most months, women writers comprised slightly more than 1/3 of the total posts.  A couple of months were near parity, but only during April and July 2007 did Poetry Daily publish more poems by women than by men.  The site content for the year from Jan. 4, 2007 thru Jan. 3, 2008 was 42.1% content by women, and 57.9% content by men.
What does this say?  Not a whole lot, but it does raise a lot of interesting questions.  Why do poems by men catch the eye of the PD editors more?  Is it that poems by men constitute approximately 60% of the journal content that PD reviews?  Is it that more prominent poets are men?  
The other interesting thing is that if you consider the demographic niche that poets occupy, the discrepancies are curious.  I would guess that some 5/6th of poets are college-educated.  Over the last decade, college enrollments have risen from male/female parity to a slight female enrollment edge.  So more women are enrolled than men.  I would also guess that most poets who are college graduates have a BA in English or American literature.  I couldn't guess what the percentage would be, but it would certainly be close to 60%.  If I visited the College Board's website, I might be able to find out what percentage of English majors are women, but I need to get down to work today.  I would guess that about 60% of BAs in English are awarded to women.  So in a demographic skewed significantly toward women, male poets are, on a daily basis, noticed and recognized the most.  


I should note that my figure of 42.1% included some double-counting with translations--if I were to count men the same way, there would be overlap.  If I decided the day's 'poem' was the translation and not the original, then the percentage of women for the year would drop to about 40%.

On 5/31/08, I counted the site's content in terms of gender from 1/1/08 thru 5/31/08 and noted that for that partial year, 48.6% of the content was by women; however, in May of that year, Poetry Daily had published 58% content by women, which was very unusual for them (and I never finished the count for all of 2008 because I am very lazy).  What I found was that, over the year or a better part of a year, Poetry Daily has one or two months when female poets out-number male poets, and three or four near-parity months, but several months in which men out-numbered woman by A LOT.

I can't go back and re-count the numbers for 2008 because Poetry Daily only archives the last 365 days of poems.

But the pattern continues to hold at PD.  I counted the current 365-day archive, from mid-September 2009 through mid-September 2010.  And I used my system of counting the gender of the translator--although this got a little sticky as male-female translator pairs were posted quite a lot by PD this year.  I am not perfect.  Hedging a little on the couples translator phenomena, I probably upped the count a bit in favor of women and came up with the figure of 44.9% content by women over the course of the last 365 day period.

So the good news is that Poetry Daily is near-parity in content by women, which is much, much better than the reviewers at the NYTBR and other venues, in which books of fiction by women are reviewed at a rate of about 25-30% compared to books of fiction by men at about 75%.

What's intriguing or even disturbing, though, is that there is a persistent trend on PD to post more poems by men than women in any given month.  While poems by women account for about 5% more of the yearly total in 2009/10 as compared to 2007, in only two months, February and July 2010, are more poems posted by women than men.  In three months (Dec 09, Jan 10, and May 10), PD posts just ONE more poem by a man than a woman--so three months are close--but, overall, 10 out of 12 months, PD posts more poems by men than women.  And, frankly, in both February and July 2010, men still represent 43 and 44% of content, respectively, while in the two months that women are significantly underrepresented (Nov 09 and April 10), women account for 37 and 33% of the content, respectively.

Does any of this matter?  I think so.  Gender bias is pervasive and often unconscious in American culture--the simple act of counting reveals data elements that are worth thinking about.  These are the facts.  And why are they so?  Is it just happenstance that, month after month on PD, the editors choose to post more poems by men than by women?  And that, in two samples over three years apart, in only two months out of the year in each sample are more poems posted by women than by men?

I don't have any figures on what the gender split is in most journals month to month, or how many books of poetry are published by men and women each year--these are the two sources of poems that PD uses. But having a poem posted on PD is a coup for the writer--and that opportunity is afforded to many more men than women.  PD doesn't have to be 'fair'--little in life is.   But PD is not immune to whatever it is about the male voice that is recognized more than the female voice in letters.  And that's just something to think about.

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