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The Widening Gender Gap in Contemporary American Poetry

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A study of gender demographics in American poetry yields startling results

Since 2010, the organization Women in the Literary Arts (VIDA) has been conducting groundbreaking, game-changing data research exposing the systemic bias against women authors in American literature. VIDA has been particularly effective at uncovering such bias at the most august publications in the United States and England, those publications of such renown and visibility that they appeal to a general as well as a specialized readership. The publications considered by VIDA's annual assessment--an analysis of how often individual media outlets are interviewing, reviewing, and publishing male and female writers--are in many instances known primarily for interviewing, reviewing, and publishing high-profile fiction and nonfiction authors, making consideration of how VIDA's research plays out in the context of a lower-visibility literary genre, poetry, a useful exercise.

A hard-data analysis of when and where women poets are reviewed and published--particularly in the markets most commonly read by working poets, whether or not these markets enjoy a general readership--reveals two surprising and inspiring success stories. First, that VIDA's efforts to expose systemic bias have produced identifiable results in the American poetry community, whether or not these same gains are yet evident in the fiction and nonfiction communities. Second, that these efforts are an integral part of what appears to be a larger and longer-term trend in American verse: the emergence of a generation of women poets whose visibility, authority, and regard within the national poetry community, judging from the available hard data, notably outstrips that of their male counterparts. Indeed, after many decades of patriarchal hegemony, the new gender gap in American poetry is both significant and widening.



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I made the discoveries referenced above by accident rather than design. While researching how involvement in graduate creative writing programs generatively or degeneratively influences the poetics of individual American poets in "Gen-M"--that generation of American literary artists who've grown up in the thick of the Program Era--I decided to look, too, at how a dramatic expansion in the number of graduate creative writing programs in the 1990s influenced discrete demographics within the poetry community. I've long been interested, for instance, in how the Program Era decentralized cultural capital in American poetry, permitting vibrant communities of poets to arise in small towns and cities across America--a dramatic shift from the pre-Program Era 1950s, when literary capital was largely confined to the nation's East and West coasts.

Of course, poets are notoriously difficult to track--particularly during those periods in which they work outside the ambit of the nation's literary institutions: undergraduate English programs, graduate creative writing programs, small and large literary magazines, small and large publishers, national conferences, grant-giving non-profit organizations, and so on. It's for this reason that, since 2006, I've been the coordinator of the MFA Research Project (MRP), a massive archive that seeks to aggregate hard data about creative writing in higher ed--not just university programs, but also the poets and writers who attend them. Over the course of the past seven years, thousands of individual data-points have been compiled by the Project, many of which shed light on how systemized literary functions (like the poetry submissions process or hiring processes in the Academy) as well as graduate creative writing programs intersect with gender inequities in American poetry.

The question of how literary institutions and gender intersect is a particularly intriguing one, not merely because interest in this issue is already high, but because credible hard data is difficult to aggregate. It's for this reason that, in considering that subsection of MRP data that directly addresses gender imbalances in American literature, VIDA's research has been absolutely invaluable. While VIDA's data research casts a much broader net than the research I'm presenting here, because it focuses on three literary genres rather than just one--and considers primarily media outlets with a general readership--the organization's idea of tracking women poets over time and charting their successes is a novel and historically important one.



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Indicia of poets' relative privilege or advantage always reveal themselves idiosyncratically, depending upon the special circumstances of each author. What appears evident, however, is this: In the field of poetry, there is a trendline evident at the nine points at which a working poet might reasonably expect to engage or be engaged by America's literary institutions. This trendline suggests that, at each of these data-rich and readily cognizable points, women poets are dominating or moving rapidly toward dominance of their male peers to a degree that's without precedent. Undoubtedly, VIDA's effort to expose systemic gender bias in American literature is to be credited for the dramatic response to such charges that we've seen in American poetry over the last three years; just as striking, however, are the indications that this sea change has been slowly unfolding in the national poetry community for at least a decade. This suggests that the creative writing "boom" of the 1990s might also be partially responsible for the striking hard data we're seeing now.

My research on the gender gap in American poetry first identified nine points at which many American poets engage with, and/or are engaged by, major literary institutions: First, in undergraduate creative writing programs; second, in graduate creative writing programs; third, in postgraduate fellowship programs aimed at recent graduates of university creative writing programs; fourth, in first and subsequent book prizes awarded by independent, university, and trade publishers; fifth, in print and online book reviews of recently-published poetry collections or anthologies; sixth, on the academic job market at the college and university level; seventh, as to grants awarded to early and mid-career poets for past achievements or ongoing efforts; eighth, as to prizes awarded to individuals for their recently-published poetry collections; and ninth, as to lifetime achievement awards given to those poets who've been prominent in the U.S. literary community for decades.

Others reviewing the list above might argue for additional inclusions, and certainly, no life in poetry would be anything like fulfilling if poets considered these "stages" of artistic development actual markers of their achievements as artists. They're not. Thankfully, institutions cannot and do not delimit either lasting literary merit or the value of living a life by and through poetry. But as these are the primary points at which large rations of hard data about poets and poetry become available--because institutions are by habit and practice consummate record-keepers and archive-producers--they are worth the special notice of those interested in the sociology of poets and poetry. Those poets whose lives rarely intersect with these institutions or these data-rich phenomena are no less interesting than their peers, and in many instances are even more so because their life stories underscore the many acts of courage a life in the literary arts requires; however, tracing the experiences of these trailblazers is a more difficult task, and will have to be the work of another day.

At eight of the nine stages outlined above, women poets presently surpass their male peers as a matter of cognizable hard data. This doesn't mean that systemic gender bias has been extirpated from American poetry; indeed, nothing could be farther from the truth. The reins of many of the genre's most venerable institutions are still held by men, and the scions of the genre--those who cut their teeth on the literary subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s--are still predominantly male. Systemic gender bias continues to plague American poetry, in large ways (for instance, as to the demographics of the editor class at the nation's highest-circulation magazines) and small (for instance, as to the continued dominance of men among the class of foreign poets translated into English, and the continued dominance of men in nearly all posthumous media coverage of literary Greats). Nor can any social scientist or English scholar paint an accurate picture of the lived experience of each woman poet--or male poet--in America. Rare is the woman poet who cannot offer harrowing real-life tales of sexism and misogyny in American verse, and nothing in the data that follows could ever erase or remedy such injustices. In presenting the data below, then, I'm mindful that even temporarily delimiting the writing life as a set of institutional interventions is a dangerous game indeed.

The diagrams below offer a view of the current gender gap in American poetry:



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The data archive containing all of information used for this study can be found at the MFA Research Project).



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As the diagrams above indicate, the success of efforts like VIDA's in the American poetry community has been both profound and widespread. Women poets are overrepresented as compared to male colleagues at every stage but the last two, where we find equal representation of both genders. Presumably, these latter two stages are those at which literary institutions are recognizing primarily elder members of the contemporary American poetry community. As it is widely believed--though not known for certain--that male poets made up a larger percentage of the total American poetry community prior to the beginning of the Program Era in 1966 than they do now, there is reason to suspect that male poets' performance in Stages 8 and 9 is due mainly to this baseline advantage. While there are, of course, many other factors that may be in play at Stages 8 and 9--from employers' odious practice of "mommy-tracking" women against their will to the possibility (one requiring additional study) that men and women voluntarily participate differentially in the literary community at different stages in their lives--this survey makes no claims as to which hypothetical factors are active or inactive in a "late-stage" context. While we have many anecdotes to suggest that sexism plays a role at each of these stages, and particularly as to the last two, we still have no reliable, large-scale longitudinal studies to which we can refer.

In any event, male poets' performance at the latter stages of the writing lifecycle is likely ephemeral for another reason: Poetry's "gender boom" generation of women poets (best observed via the diagrams for Stages 1 and 2) is still years away from the sort of institutional intersections it will experience at the "higher-numbered" stages.

Perhaps the most complicated element in the chart above is Stage 5 ("Full-Length Single-Author Book Reviews"), which, as noted, has been the focus of much media attention over the past three years. This section of the study looks exclusively at American media outlets, and exclusively at those outlets whose primary audience is the American poetry community itself. Likewise, this section emphasizes when and whether male and female poets are reviewed, rather than when and whether they are interviewed or given the opportunity to themselves review or interview their peers. The importance of the media exposure offered by interviews and review columns can't be overstated; that it falls outside the purview of this study is attributable not to any disregard for this importance but rather an interest in assessing gender dynamics from the trenches of American poetry. As most poets neither seek to regularly review the collections of others nor anticipate being regularly interviewed about their work in major media, a more immediate--if not necessarily more intriguing--inquiry is whether a poet's collections are reviewed in the first instance. Additional studies should be conducted to consider the opportunities male and female poets have to be interviewed and to themselves write reviews of others. Likewise, while gender imbalances in the publication of individual poems in literary magazines are worthy of substantial additional study, this study emphasizes book publication as the primary means by which American poets accrue long-term cultural capital in their communities.

Looking at the ten sources of reviews of recently-published poetry books considered by this study reveals both some expected results and also some surprises. Of the ten, seven (Poetry, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, Rain Taxi, Bookslut, Coldfront, and On the Seawall) on average reviewed more women poets than male poets this decade, while one (The New York Times Sunday Book Review) exhibited no inclination toward either gender. Of the remaining two outlets, one, Publishers Weekly, reviewed more women than men in two of the four years surveyed, and the other, The Huffington Post, has not been active for the entirety of the surveyed decade, having been initiated in the late summer of 2011. Even so, The Huffington Post reviewed more women than men in 2013, and over a two-year span has exhibited, like Publishers Weekly, "only" a 54%/46% gender split in favor of male poets. While by no means is this kind of split the moral or ethical equivalent of gender parity in poetry-reviewing (let alone representative of any increased sensitivity to the fine work being done by America's women poets), it nevertheless emphasizes how successful VIDA's efforts have been at pulling American poetry--sometimes kicking and screaming--toward gender parity.



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While it seems clear that VIDA's presence on the contemporary poetry scene has been a major driver of recent trends in book-publishing and book-reviewing--owing in part, perhaps, to the fact that the organization's founders are highly regarded poets themselves--this essay can draw no final conclusions about the chains of causation that have produced the widening gender gap in contemporary American poetry. In addition to the critical role played by VIDA, it may also be that, as women poets begin to ascend to the highest echelons of various American literary institutions, they are exhibiting ever greater conscientiousness about the lives and livelihoods of fellow women poets; or, it may be that the above data indicates a sea change in how male poets engage with the work of women poets.

Likewise, it may or may not be the case that the dramatic advantage women hold in graduate creative writing enrollment is a major driver in women poets' increased representation--indeed dominance--at nearly every stage assessed for this survey. It is difficult to imagine there being no connection at all, however, given that the majority of Gen-M poets now move, at some time or another, through a graduate creative writing program. Still, there is much more work to do to conclusively link the gains of the women poets whose cultural capital was isolated for this survey with attendance at an MFA in creative writing. Many of these women may not have sought or received an MFA, though an initial review of the data suggests that a great many did. Likewise, there is much work still to be done on intersections between the MFA and racial, socioeconomic, and sexual-identity demographics. This survey should be seen as just one step in the Digital Humanities-driven effort to use hard data to paint a more accurate picture of how contemporary poets study, write, and live.

Whatever causal chains are involved in the phenomena detailed here, what is certain is that the gender demographics of undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs, coupled with the unprecedented growth in the number of such programs in America, means that contemporary American poetry is about to experience, and indeed has already begun to experience, the most dramatic gender boom in its history. This fact alone ought change consequentially the way we think about and write about graduate creative writing programs--for if innovation in verse is a testament to poetry's ancient ability to maximize the imaginative faculties of a self-selected few, America's failure, until recently, to harness the full breadth of its human resources has undoubtedly retarded the advance of poetry here. Thanks in part to the increasingly regularized interventions of non-profit literary institutions in the lives of American poets--and specifically to the courageous and historic efforts of VIDA--that's no longer the case.