My recent blog post on this subject highlighted clear evidence of audience misconceptions, critical disdain and stereotypical assumptions on the part of publishers and critics about what women ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be writing about. It seems inarguable that all this has created a climate which has disproportionately disadvantaged good female writers from making headway in the poetry world.
Nonetheless, the flyer that dropped through my letterbox earlier this year advertising the “Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry” left me with a distinct feeling of unease.
I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be positive action to create a level playing field for female poets. As a union rep, and latterly as a law student, discrimination – and combating it – is a subject I care about passionately. But does the preponderance of this phrase – “women’s poetry” – do anything at all to level the playing field?
My fear is that it could be having the opposite effect. Instead of creating one shared art – “poetry” – to which men and women have an equal claim, it could end up ghettoising the female poetic voice. Festivals of Women’s Poetry – or journals, or anthologies – surely run the risk of propagating the notion that the women can be sidelined into a safe little niche where they won’t bother the male-dominated establishment. And sidelining can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as you put the label “women’s poetry” on a festival – or a journal, or an anthology – there’s more than a hint of subtext that whatever is contained within is not of interest to male readers and writers of poetry. Or worse – that even if the men are interested, they simply aren’t welcome.
This is not equality. It does nothing to further the case that women and men should be equal partners in the art we love.
It’s quite insidious. Even our local York Literature Festival this year held an event called “Three Women Poets” featuring readings from award winning poets Emily Berry, Helen Mort and Rebecca Goss. But as one female attendee remarked to me afterwards, it was depressing that it was deemed necessary to bill them as “women poets”. Surely, these are just three really good poets, and their gender is immaterial?
This isn’t a new question. Twenty years ago, when Bloodaxe published their celebrated anthology Sixty Women Poets, one female poet (Sheenagh Pugh) refused to be included on the grounds that “she refuses to have her poetry published in women’s anthologies.” Editor Linda France, writing in the Spring 2013 issue of Poetry Review, gleefully recalls that the sheer diversity of writing in that anthology was a more than adequate answer to anybody ascribing a “spurious sense of unity” to poetry written by women. The anthology was a signal to the establishment that “women poets, as well as being different from men poets, were different from each other” – a statement that may seem obvious with hindsight, but one that by all accounts needed to be made.
So is there any benefit to having the label? It goes without saying that many still believe it to be necessary. MsLexia magazine, for one, has been proudly promoting women-only writing (and writing opportunities) for years as a means of redressing “the male bias in publishing”. I have to admit that when I began getting published, I was suspicious that this “male bias” might be a historic artefact – after all, the number of rejection slips I’ve received did nothing to suggest there was any bias in favour of me! – but the evidence that it is still a real problem seems incontrovertible, at the higher echelons at least.
That there seems to be a continuing appetite for “women’s poetry” seems incontrovertible, too. Throughout this year I’ve seen countless calls for submissions to women-only anthologies: some celebrating the strong female characters of myth and history, others celebrating female-only attributes (such as motherhood). There wouldn’t be this many anthologies if people didn’t want to read what was in them.
And I suspect that it’s not just women who are reading them. I can think of plenty of male arts lovers, in York and around the country, who are only too happy to stand up for the rights and the dignity of women, and who care passionately that there are arts outlets which positively celebrate all that the critics seem so sniffy about. It’s not as if female poets are short of strong role models, either. The poetry headlines this year have been dominated by women. Just think of Jess Green taking on Michael Gove, Hollie McNish’s public fight in support of breastfeeding mothers, Kate Tempest’s nomination for the Mercury Music Prize, or the ubiquity of “52” poetry ambassador Jo Bell.
If I have a message for the critics, then, it’s that the tide is turning. Ghettoising female-centric poetry and attaching a label to it – such as “women’s poetry” – may be easy and convenient, but I see no evidence that female poets are content with being ghettoised. The fact is that my female colleagues are giving us men a run for their money. And the art of poetry can only be enriched as a result.