Tuesday, May 13, 2008

where have all the ladies gone?

I've been steered toward the review of Over Summer Water, by Elizabeth McFarland on this month's Contemporary Poetry Review by a complaint on Wom-Po (the Women's Poetry List-Serv founded by Annie Finch, of which I am a member). First, the complaint: it was stated by a couple of Wom-po posters that they found the review "demeaning" that the reviewer referred to the author's "ladylike" clothing in an author photo and harped on the "littleness" of her vocabulary. Another poster felt the review reflected the overall tone of the Contemporary Poetry Review as not "respectful" of women and also "catty" (odd word here for the purpose). I am a staff reviewer for the CPR, so I was not only curious about the actual complaint in relation to the review, but also curious about the perception of CPR as "hierarchical" (this must mean "patriarchical"??) and as not often reviewing books by women (this review is characterized as an "aberration for them."). I discovered CPR on the web in 1999 and championed its inclusion on Web del Sol where I was then (and am now) a poetry editor for Del Sol Review as well as editor of Perihelion. I wrote my first review for CPR in 2004 (on DA Powell's trilogy). The CPR is a remarkably intelligent and lively online journal dedicated solely to poetry criticism and the only such journal I know of (Parnassus is in the same league, but also publishes poetry along with reviews and essays), and certainly, it is the only one of its kind on the web. So, I checked out the archives of CPR for reviews of books by women. There are also essays and interviews, but just quickly checking the archives, it appears that there is a preponderance of books of poetry by men reviewed. (I don't feel like actually counting them all up, maybe somebody else will and let me know.) For that matter, there are more male reviewers. On the other hand, there is a continuous "Call for Critics" banner on the front page and I know they are always looking for more reviewers. Why aren't there more female reviewers on CPR? Do they apply and get rejected? (Hard to imagine that, if the writing is good enough.) And, if there were more female reviewers, would there be more books of poetry by females reviewed? I dunno. Judging by me, no. ;-) But judging by the other female reviewers, maybe. Of course, Kathleen Rooney wrote the review on Elizabeth McFarland's book, and that was seen as a sexist review, so….not sure how that works. Are female reviewers only supposed to review other females, and those, only positively? Not sure. One thing I am sure of is that complaining about the state of things is much less effective than acting to change things. Apply to CPR! Become a reviewer! Write reviews of women's books!

Now about the actual review: I think it's a terrific review and I'm glad I ended up reading it, albeit because of a complaint. I was surprised that Rooney began the piece with a poem that had such "ugly" vocabulary ("greed", "rotted ground", "gluttony", "bloated and deformed") then went on to make the case that McFarland was, in fact, squarely set in the romantic mode of the era as both poet and editor. I had the idea initially that she would argue for a trajectory toward Plath beginning with McFarland. But McFarland's other examples were all in the usual high-romantic, didactic mode of the time. It's a thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of a talented woman unable to free herself from cultural constraints (and yet, some of her lines are more than fashionable as Rooney points out). The reference to her clothing is simply that—-her actual portrait and "costume" a reflection of the "costume" worn by poets of that time. It's instructive, I think, to look back within one's own lifetime, to an anthology of the '70s, for example, to understand what "period style" means. And yes, there is a period style now—-think about it.