Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Is poetry a feminist issue? Part 3: "men's poetry"

Following on from my occasional series of posts about poetry and feminism (see my blog posts "Is poetry a feminist issue?" and "Part 2: "women's poetry"") I’ve decided to turn the discussion on its head and examine a rather provocative question that one of my regular correspondents posted on Facebook recently. My correspondent wanted to know:

“If one was to set up a poetry anthology that only men could be in:
a) as a woman, or a man, would you be ok with that?
b) what would you suggest as a theme?”

This was always going to be a controversial topic in the week that saw the President's Club scandal hit the headlines. Sure enough, the responses made interesting reading. A small number of female poets made clear their disbelief that anybody would even ask the question. After all, there were 250 years of male-only poetry anthologies, as one contributor pointed out – why on earth would we need another one? Several said they couldn’t think of anything in such an anthology that could possibly interest them. One went so far as to say something to the effect of “for goodness’ sake, I’ve had it up to here with bloody men.” And there was one male contributor who hit back aggressively at any response with a hint of feminism to it; his thesis, such as it was, seemed to be that feminism was so loud and influential that men are now an oppressed minority, and how dare anybody think differently...

I must be honest. I spend a lot of time apologising for my gender. And I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling ashamed to be male. It happens most weeks, in my day job, when I meet female victims of domestic abuse. It happened much closer to home, once, when a male guest at a party I was hosting committed a sexual assault on a female friend. It tends to happen most weekends when I have to fight my way through lairy crowds of stag-party-goers on the streets of York, or almost any city in the UK. I had another one of those moments when I read the unhelpful comments of that male contributor. But my heart sank even lower to see the kind of vitriol with which this small cross-section of the female readership greeted the suggestion. Now I wasn’t just apologising for the crassness of contemporary masculinity; I was atoning for centuries of patriarchy too.

Thankfully (for my sanity, if nothing else) the majority of contributors (of all genders) took a more progressive view. Many considered male gender identity in a wider social context. Male poets, it was suggested, have something important to offer by way of a reappraisal of what it means to be male, and an alternative to offer to the kind of ‘toxic masculinity’ that dominates the headlines in the era of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. Other contributors referred to specific issues such as male suicide and experiences of abuse; several felt that, now that the #metoo campaign has given increased visibility to the particular sufferings of female abuse victims, it is important to create a space where the experiences of male abuse victims can also be acknowledged. Others mentioned the experiences of gay men and non-gender-binary individuals, which are not well understood in cis-hetero-male society. Could a male-orientated poetry anthology make a contribution towards greater understanding and acceptance?

Personally, I think it probably could. But the discussion didn’t end there.

Because, as another contributor pointed out, who would read it? Probably a fair number of male poets. Some female poets too – though, as was clear from the discussion, there appear to be plenty who wouldn’t. With all anthologies, it’s something of a challenge to sell the book to people outside the immediate circle of the poets who contributed to it. My sceptical contributor suggested that a book with such an emphasis on the sensitive, emotional aspects of maleness was unlikely to appeal to the broad mass of the male populace. And if it was only read by the sort of male poets who already get these kinds of issues, then it won’t have achieved anything at all.

At least one contributor suggested that a more populist approach was necessary. An anthology that’s not afraid to immerse itself in the clich├ęd territories of stereotypical maleness – football, cars, the army, for example. Football poetry, after all, is one of a small number of areas where the world of the poet often does cross into the mainstream. But that kind of anthology wouldn’t appeal to me; and I suspect it would quickly lose the support of most of those female poets who could see the value in the original idea of “men’s poetry” (and quite a few of my fellow males). If anybody is brave (or foolish) enough to take a punt on a “men’s poetry” anthology, I want it to be one that confounds the stereotypes, instead of reinforcing them.

There is, I feel, an alternative. And that would be an anthology with a purpose. An anthology celebrating maleness in all its diversity – from the cult of men’s football to the female impersonator, from the parade-ground sergeant-major to the veteran with PTSD. An anthology that isn’t afraid to question the biological and societal implications of being male, or of being uncertain about maleness. An anthology specifically to raise money for an expressly male cause – such as research into testicular cancer, or (my favoured option) support targeted towards men and boys experiencing mental health difficulties. If the anthology is raising money for a good cause, it already has a natural marketing tool that takes it outside the narrow enclaves of the poetry-writing community. If what is in the anthology can offer some support and solidarity to other men at a point of crisis, then it really would be worth it.

The poet who posed the original question happened to be male, and a director of a small press poetry publisher. He made it clear that his press wasn’t interested in a “male-only” anthology, even for the worthiest of reasons; after all, even in a book themed around male issues, there’s no good reason to exclude the voice of the wives, lovers, sisters, mothers, or the voices of women who were assigned the male gender at birth. Making it “men-only” would be a gimmick, and it could be a gimmick too far. Nevertheless, I was surprised (and, in the end, delighted) by the sheer creative energy his question seemed to generate. I’d like to think that there is a poetry publisher out there somewhere who will have the nerve to pick up this idea, or something derived from this idea, and put it to work for the good of (literal, as well as literary) mankind.

And I hope that if they do, our amazing community of female poets will be prepared not to write off the project as another exercise in male ego-massage, and get behind it the way the vast majority of male poets I know have supported (and continue to support) our female contemporaries’ ongoing campaign for the respect they deserve.