Ladies Represent: Lucy Biederman.
A fair while ago now, Robin and I talked about the VIDA Count. I guess pretty much everyone did. We wanted to ask a bunch of great writers who also happen to be ladies about their publishing experience and basically just open up a space to talk about gender and publishing, or call bullshit on it, or spout conspiracy theories.
This will be ongoing. This has to be ongoing.
Her chapbook The Other World comes out later this month from Dancing Girl Press. You can read something else by her at VIDA’s new blog http://HerKind.org/articles/on-my-mind/after-all-this-time-revisiting-poetry-first-loves or at her own blog http://lucybiederman.blogspot.com/.
There is so much to say about writing, reading, and submitting poetry in this gender-biased environment that, rather than risk foaming at the mouth and thus appearing unlady-like, I will limit my comments to a brief exegesis of an old, widely anthologized poem I despise by a poet I adore.
Here’s how popular Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty” is: when I Googled him, halfway through typing “Justice,” I got a predictive text suggestion for “Men at Forty.” It’s an iconic ’60s poem, taught in undergraduate and graduate poetry courses as a shining example of understated twentieth-century free verse.
Though in general I deeply admire Justice’s formal genius (and his villanelle “In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn,” plays in my head all the time), “Men at Forty” seems to me the height of a specifically male arrogance, indulgence, and unearned lyricism. Setting aside for now the “not be / Coming back to” aspect of his door-closing, I am appalled that at age 40, the speaker has obviously only recently learned to “close softly” the door. When you stop and think about, that’s really nothing to brag about. Not mindlessly slamming a door closed? Yeah. If you’re going to leave a woman forever, you better get that one down.
Maybe “Men at Forty” is so popular because it has given a few generations of male poets the implicit permission to walk away, free of domesticity, free of those “mortgaged houses.” There are no women in “Men at Forty”—only fathers and sons, doors, rooms, houses, crickets, ships. Even “deep in” the house (and the poem), where a wife might be, we find a “mirror,” and in it, the image of the father/son. A whole world in the male I (which brings to my mind Heather McHugh’s gorgeous poem “Blue Streak”: “During the twentieth century … the poets, / who should have spoken for us, were busy / panning landscapes, gunning / their electrics, going / I I I I I.”).
I might be going overboard here. I say this because I feel I have to—because women are supposed to say it when they get worked up calling something mysognistic. But what I really think is, the rest of the world has gone overboard, in praising this poem.
In praising and promoting generations of male poets who have written in the bland and entitled mold of this poem.
In contributing to an environment in which it feels perfectly natural—brilliant, even– http://htmlgiant.com/snippet/listening-to-this-ben-lerner-interview-is-similar-to-attaining-an-mfa-in-poetry/—for a male poet, name-checking Ashbery, Beckett and Creeley, to declare a primary problem in contemporary poetry the inability to make a perfect poem: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2012/02/03/midmorning3/ (15:00-17:30). In a ranging 45-minute interview, Ben Lerner says, “It’s the way the poem or artwork records that struggle that ultimately manages to charge it with meaning and power” [italics my own].
Failure to achieve absolute perfection, and the aesthetics that accompany that failure, isn’t interesting to me as a 30-year-old female writer seeking contemporary literatures that reflect or challenge my personal and intellectual experiences with life and language. But Lerner knows what he is doing, and how to claim power and meaning in the contemporary literary scene. He does so by talking about nice, familiar, age-old topics like failure to achieve perfection that his intended audience might label “difficult” but that are actually quite easy.
For me Lerner’s way of thinking is akin to the speaker softly closing that door in “Men at Forty.” It creates—for himself and for other poets like him— a comfortable white male open to walk out into, leaving behind the voices of non-male, non-white writers, lest they complicate his aesthetic argument or call attention to the trash heap of American history on which he stands as he makes that argument.
And here we all are, the rest of us, still inside that mortgaged house. Underfunded, and underpublished, waiting, I guess, for The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and The London Review of Books to figure out how to be interested in writing by women.
Have some thoughts? Comment and let us know.
Also check out what these ladies had to say: