Sunday, June 25, 2017

A leg-up for male poets?

A deliberately all male poetry line up in Glasgow? Making a marketing point of being men-only! Hah! We had them aplenty back in the last century. I had thought we’d consigned them to the dustbin of history, the neanderthal swamp…

Ironic that it’s on at the same time as Bard in the Botanics in Glasgow is producing their ‘These Headstrong Women’ season.

And when we see politics programmes in Scotland being met with public outcry each time they feature all-male discussion panels.

And as evidence abounds that women’s voices are not being heard equally with men’s in public forums.

Meanwhile the Scottish poetry world, it seems, can’t quite give up the auld ways that led to Sandy Moffat’s painting the Poets’ Pub.

Now, there are the finest of poets in this painting. But take a gander at how the women are represented. Peripheries, my dear. No centre stage for you. Woman, know thy place! 

 And where else would Scottish poetry crawl back to for its all male line-up - as if by a miserable quirk of regressive genetics - but the home city of the knuckle-draggin wee hard man hissel?

“Glasgow: a city strangely devoid of women poets?” is a question I posed once before in a blog about an anthology of Glasgow poetry:

I’ve just been browsing through a book I’ve had for a while, Noise and Smoky Breath, An Illustrated Anthology of Glasgow Poems 1900 – 1983, published in May 1983 by Third Eye Centre and Glasgow Libraries Publications Board. It’s a beautiful book, but 30 years on from its publication I’m stunned to see how few female poets are featured.

There are 81 poems altogether. Of these 9 are written by women. Four of those by the then emerging poet, Liz Lochhead.

In total, to represent 83 years, 4 female poets; Jean Milton, Catherine Czerkawska, Margaret Hamilton and Liz Lochhead.

In total 43 male poets.

So just to be clear – over 83 years we have

72 poems by men      9 poems by women

43 male poets            4 female poets.

I didn’t study one Scottish woman poet at school. And now I know why. 

If women were not being published in anthologies, if their work was not being included in the canon, how could I, or anyone else, study them? This is how those women who did write, who did get published against the odds, often as not had their voices subsequently erased.

And what's more, when we talk as artists and writers about standing on the shoulders of giants, young women writers were expected to stand on the shoulders, not of the women who preceded them, but of the men. 

Why should that matter, you might ask. Why can't a woman emulate a man. Well, when it comes to poetry we are talking about voice and life experience. And a woman’s voice and life experience can be very different from a man’s. We understand this when it comes to race, class and culture. It holds true for the sex divide too. 

When Sharon Olds, who in 2013 became the first American woman to win the TS Eliot prize for poetry first submitted her work to a magazine in the early 70s, she was rejected. 

"They told me: 'This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are ... male subjects...' "

Alice Munro, now a Nobel prize-winner suffered similar put-downs. You will know, of course, about the opposition Sylvia Plath’s poetry encountered. Anne Sexton, another great American poet of the twentieth century had to endure sexist negativity for poems such as Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator and In Celebration of my Uterus. (Okay, Bukowski may have managed the former, but the latter would have been a bit of a push. He might have done better with Olds' Ode to a Douchebag. But I digress...)

A few years after Noise and Smoky Breath and many other anthologies failed to find those elusive Glasgow women poets to include in their pages, women writers in Scotland took matters into their own hands. And this is exactly why ALL-WOMEN anthologies started up. And by extension, all-women line-ups at events to promote them. 

Not as vanity projects. 

Not as a wheeze. 

But as political necessity! 

In Edinburgh in the 1980s the women’s collective Hens in the Hay started producing pamphlets as the small publisher Stramullion. In 1989 they brought out the full-length and ground-breaking Fresh Oceans anthology, bringing together poems by 60 living Scottish women poets established and new. This was one of the first places I was published, and it was the first collection of its kind in Scotland. 

Polygon’s Original Prints series started up in the late 80s, giving a boost to the fledgling careers of many of Scotland’s now established women writers in both poetry and short story. Suddenly we had the possibility of a generation of Scottish women poets on whose shoulders the next generation might well stand. Yes, women were also getting published elsewhere too, but there were huge imbalances. Men outnumbered women greatly. Positive discrimination was needed. Especially for working class women. We were lucky to have female editors Joy Hendry and Tessa Ransford heading up two of our leading poetry magazines, and also some enlightened male editors. In particular I recall Richard Price at Gairfish who produced the special Calemadonnas edition to showcase emerging women writers and poets.

In the 90s and noughties it was not at all unusual for a poet like myself to go to reading after reading and be either in a minority as a woman, or occasionally the lone woman in an all-male line up. It certainly was the norm for the men to headline. At the launch of one magazine I congratulated the organisers on inviting me as ‘the token woman poet’ when I took the mic. They were not well-pleased. But it was a fair political point. They had not tried hard enough.

But, you might be thinking, that’s all ancient history. Ah... if only! 

In 2014 a gig I’d read at more than once here in Glasgow - one that sees itself as radical - accidentally billed a poetry line-up with 11 men and one woman. It was about the Independence Referendum. An important political topic. Were our female poets' voices to be ignored? Unheard? When I contacted them to object they apologised and tried to fix it, rather late in the day. But how could it even have happened? Because of millennia of subtle and not-so-subtle conditioning.

Seamus Deane, the Irish writer and editor is still wondering how he got it so wrong in the now infamous1991 Field Anthology of Irish Literature. Seamus forgot to put almost all the Irish women writers from history in. He was genuinely shocked when it was brought to his attention. GENUINELY SHOCKED. It was meant to be a definitive work.  Irish women were furious. I mean, he just didn’t realize what he was doing. And why? Because blind misogyny was so ingrained in society. This was a handful of miles from where we live. A man who is my contemporary. A nice man. An educated man. 

In 2000 I was sitting on the Scottish Arts Council Grants to Publishers Committee. An application came in for a Scottish anthology of new writing linked to a particular theme – with almost no women included. Three male editors. All intelligent men who’d see themselves as enlightened. I refused to give my backing for funding until they went and actively sought out more women writers. Which they did. Because there were women writers linked to the theme there. They had failed to identify them. And simply hadn’t noticed. Neither had anyone else on the committee until I pointed it out.

More recently you can look at the findings of Edinburgh-based poetry reviewer Dave Coates and see that given that women are just over 50% of the population there’s still some way to go in redressing imbalances in the contemporary poetry world.

And in 2016 the Abbey Theatre in Ireland presented a programme for the centenary of the Easter Uprising with 9 out of 10 plays written by men. And the male director's response when that imbalance was questioned? "Them the breaks."

We are never far from sliding right back to significant under-representation of women's voices. And as the response from that male director at the Abbey shows, we are never far from brute misogyny. Anyone who thinks these battles for women are done and dusted is, quite frankly, delusional.

So, my fellow male poets, when asked to take part in an all-male line up, do yourselves a favour, leave the “all-whatever line-ups” to the groups whose voices historically have been unrepresented and under-represented. To those who have been consistently silenced and told their life experience didn't count and their voices were not welcome. When I attended Glasgow University there was an exclusively male Union. Exclusively. It hurt and angered and yes, I would say damaged me as a woman back then. It was a clear signal to me and other women we were not full members of the university. We were second class. To be honest, it was an extension of what had happened all the way through school.

A line-up in Glasgow of all-male poets is NOT just a bit of fun. Could you say that so easily if it was any other group of people who had been consistently sidelined, ignored, treated as second-class and often-as-not silenced for centuries? 

Damned right you couldn’t. It wouldn’t be just a bit of harmless fun. But women? Sure, we can mess about when it comes to women. 

Look again at that Poets' Pub painting. Look at how the women are represented. As Glasgow playwright Ena Lamont Stewart so rightly said, Men Should Weep.

Edited 6th July 2017


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