“We really need to do something about publishing.”
— Audre Lorde
Recently on a women poets online discussion group, the young poetry editor of an online magazine wrote that she is dismayed how few submissions she receives from women. Then she posted a general invitation for the group to send in poems. Someone commented, “Why not solicit women poets you admire for work?”
That’s an excellent question, and one that many women editors might consider.
Publishing as many books as I have, I am sometimes solicited for poems, prose, or interviews by magazines—and to my chagrin it’s usually male editors who do the reaching out. This situation has mystified me for years.
As a flagrantly feminist poet, if I’m going to share poems with a magazine I might not have sought out, I’d just as soon support women editors. I’m sure many other women writers tend to feel the same way. So, assuming I’m not the only one who’s noticed this happening, if women editors want more work from women, why don’t they approach us directly?
Is it politeness on the part of women editors, an impulse not to intrude or presume? Or is there a desire not to favor some writers over others—a sense that it is more egalitarian and therefore feminist to solicit everyone equally? If so, does such an approach really benefit feminism? Or is this a generational maneuver, a literary example of the self-destructive “ritual matricide” enacted repeatedly over the centuries by feminists, to use a term from Susan Faludi? Does it reflect the tragedy that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have described so brilliantly as women writers over the centuries repeatedly “distancing themselves from their foremothers’ struggle” (No Man’s Land, pp 199-200)?
The lower number of submissions to literary journals from women compared to men is notorious. I have heard it lamented over the years from editors of magazines large and small, famous and obscure (and have experienced it repeatedly in my own editing projects). Women’s support groups for sending out are helpful. But it’s important also to consider possible root causes for the situation. One possibility is that women don’t have what it takes, are not confident or energetic or aggressive enough to send out their work at the appropriate rate for a professional writer. Another is that the current model, requiring endless heroic efforts of multiple submissions sent out to anonymous online “macho portals” (yes, I just made that phrase up) in competition with many thousands of others, to languish in an abyss with no guarantee of even a response from exhausted and overwhelmed editors, is not an attractive and/or viable way for many women writers to share their cherished words with the world.
When I was a young writer editing a magazine or book, I always reached out personally to women poets I admired. It was a win-win: I got to communicate with them and hopefully publish them, and they got to be part of my project and to know that they mattered to a new generation. This is the kind of mutual service men have done for each other for centuries, as I discussed in my essay “How to Create a Poetic Tradition.”
In today’s insanely fast-paced and complex literary world, maybe for women editors to fold in a layer of personal, direct soliciting, a partial return to the small-scale, one-on-one literary world of the days before photocopiers, would help the situation on several levels. I’m not suggesting replacing the current model entirely with one-on-one; that would be much work and would leave out new voices; but a little might tip the algorithm towards intimacy and uniqueness in a welcome way, the editorial equivalent of Slow Food.
As Audre Lorde (poet, writer, poetry editor of Chrysalis, co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press), is reported to have said to Barbara Smith before the founding of Kitchen Table in 1980, “we really need to do something about publishing.”