It’s famously hard to judge tone in email, but sometimes… well, sometimes you can just sort of feel it. And Ron Silliman’s tone, in his short, taunting note to Dispatches (see below), has that unmistakable high-pitched sound of the grade-school playground: You’re going to get it when the teacher finds out, you bad Dispatches boys!
Dear Ron, spare us. We hardly require your Po-cop squawks. (Though of course, if you have the guts to send us a proper letter, by all means do. Unlike the old Poetics List, or your erstwhile go-to blog, we don’t censor or erase here at Dispatches. So as long as it’s not libelous, you can be sure it will be published.)
But note to others: Dispatches doesn’t need a watchdog group like VIDA to tell us what our numbers are or should be. We are earnest in our desire to reflect poetic diversity–of ethnicity, gender, and languages–and we’ve been doing our utmost since the start to create that diverse space at Dispatches. We have some distance to go. And we will no doubt yet have a way to go by the time this project closes shop, in March of 2018 (see Office Dispatch #2, on our front page). Meaningful diversity is not a target with a definite end—certainly not one to be counted or plotted on a graph.
Since March of this year, when we began this project, we have solicited work from many women poets, critics, and translators, some who have chosen to not respond at all, and a greater number who have responded saying they will or may send Dispatches something in the future (most common reason given: “Nothing on hand”). If all the women we have solicited had sent us work and we had published it, Dispatches would likely be, to date, 50-50 in its gender headcount.
We know that some women writers (particularly in a poetic climate like ours, where show-trial-like tactics of public shaming and blacklisting have become established) are hesitant to send to a journal like Dispatches, which is openly interested in recovering and featuring lost or repressed histories from the Olson tradition and the New American Poetry era: These formations were unquestionably sexist (and sometimes racist, too), and that is something we are cognizant about and we intend to face it squarely and critically. Sharon Thesen, an Olson scholar who is a Dispatches Contributing Editor, has written here, brilliantly, about her own experience of sexism and misogyny in the Olson camp. Marina Blitshteyn and Ruth Lepson have published here in that vein, as well. We’re not perfect, by any means, but we have our aging shoulders to the wheel, and we request of any and all who can: Come help us push.
Our current September release has twenty-one entries in the Table of Contents that are authored by, co-authored, translated by, or about women. That’s hardly enough. But please see the work that is there. To constantly harp about the lack of women is to discount the work of those who have contributed. In this case, that includes the portfolio of three major poets of Uruguay, perhaps the one nation of the world where women poets clearly dominate the modern and contemporary tradition, in both numbers and quality (the feature is taken from a recent book edited by one of the Dispatches editors). Miriam Nichols, a scholar of the Olson tradition and Robin Blaser’s biographer, has a stunning article on contemporary American Indigenous art.
The article by Brooks Johnson on the Rojava revolution is another example: It is about what is certainly the most spectacular collective development in recent feminist history, in fact– the dawn of a new matriarchal revolutionary society, which may or may not succeed, but which is unfolding and surviving with fierce tenacity, symbolized by female elite battalions who are in the vanguard of beating back multiple forces from various sides who want to destroy them. Everyone reading this should read the article and then go get the book it reports on. (How is it this phenomenon is so little known in the West and there is not a massive upsurge of solidarity here with the heroic, female-directed revolution in the Rojava cantons? Where are the North American poets on this? For in Rojava, as in other areas of Kurdistan, poetry is the stuff of life.)
But sometimes, you see, it doesn’t matter if editors go out and conscientiously ask (quite a few times more than once of certain people!) for work from women poets and critics and translators. Then, when the mag issues come out, the numbers get counted and judgments are made about the ideology or prejudices of the editors. People get lambasted, accused of sexism, machismo, misogyny, same old, etc. True, stated intentions aren’t and shouldn’t justify cases of imbalance. But we do have to ask, and we aren’t the first to do so: If the work isn’t sent, if there is no response to the most respectful and eager query, then what can editors do, especially boys like us? Is the intended message that editors should give up and stop asking? Or is it that we need to change and do something different in that asking? What are male editors supposed to do?
We want to create dialogue. We have announced that Dispatches is a site committed to opening free-flowing discussion on difficult and controversial issues, not least issues of race and gender in the poetic sphere. We are open to the spectrum: from satirical, biting critique, to suggestions on how we can do better. We welcome both. We will engage everyone in a spirit of lively exchange. We like give and take. And we can take whatever riposte people want to give.
So in the meantime, here we are. Having a good time, for now, doing what we are doing, as imperfectly as we may be doing it. Even when we have to put up with somewhat ill-tempered old LangPo gatekeepers, who still like to throw their weight around, thinking, we suppose, they can give us the willies. The only willies we get from Ron Silliman, though, are when we look at the old Mao-style full-face photo that seems to be his favorite pre-Selfie Author Function Image. Lookin’ mean. And angry. Would you please take that down, Ron, once and for all!? It is the big-head, head-on Macho Glare, man. The one of recuperated avant-garde nightmares.