As I sat in the back row of Tishman Auditorium on the evening of Friday, October 29, 2010, the Academy of American Poets 2010 Awards Ceremony, I couldn’t help but notice a pronounced regression into one of the uglier components of the American literary tradition. The Academy presented its seven annual awards. All seven went to men.
Is this a statistical aberration? The product of separate juries and judges acting independently? Tradition by any other name is still tradition. Something so lopsided demands examination, lest we continue to accept these comfortable “lapses” into the patriarchal tradition that is still very much a part of American poetry. We ought never be presumptuous about what goes on behind closed doors.
Maybe that’s too bold a statement. Last year, five of the seven prizes went to women. And after all, The Academy, headed by Executive Director Tree Swenson, provides strong, female leadership and seems earnest in representing diverse work from poets of different locations, aesthetics, ethnicities and statuses. In the previous fifteen years, The Academy’s prizes went to forty-one men and thirty-nine women.
These numbers may seem reassuring, but keep in mind that they are not representative of an overall balance in individual prizes. For example, between the years of 1995 and 2010, the Wallace Stevens Award – the Academy’s most distinguished prize, which recognizes “proven mastery in the art of poetry” – was awarded to twelve men and only four women. It would seem that traditionally speaking, men are the masters.
While I don’t believe that The Academy of American Poets Awards are representative of the poetry world at large, they certainly are an influential force in recognition of poets’ work. Also, we should not forget that The Academy is certainly not the only organization with such imbalance. In fact, they have done better than most. Ultimately, what is most disturbing to me is not that this year’s prizes were all awarded to men, but that so many find this fact, this chance occurrence, acceptable. Even if it is an anomaly, a deviation from the normal equilibrium and equity, doesn’t it warrant a closer look? Shouldn’t we be surprised and moved to conduct a closer examination of the role of sex and gender in American poetry?
Yet, at the awards ceremony, the role of poetry master was solidified by the troubling fact that five of seven award presenters were female. This meant that, for most of the evening, the audience of eminent poets, young poets, students and the people they love watched women applaud and glorify the genius of the male poets.
Let me immediately dispel the misconception that may arise from my previous statement. Galway Kinnell is quite deserving of the Wallace Stevens Award. Much of his work is masterful. But I refuse to pretend that in the last fifteen years, there have been only four women whose long careers merited this achievement.
The fact is I’m growing impatient with the majority’s willingness to ignore these statistical “anomalies.” Let’s take another example: The Academy’s Raiziss / de Palchi Translation Award. Since 1995, eleven men and only two women have received the prize. There was, during that time, one case in which the award went to male/female co-translators. When the numbers are equally representative of each sex, they are touted, and it would seem that we are all supposed to feel warm and satisfied with the state of American poetry.
The poetry world should no longer tolerate such numb acceptance when it comes to inequality in ethnicity or sexuality. I don’t claim to know how many women versus men make up the readership of American poetry, and I’m reluctant to say that women are too complacent or too fearful to rattle the cage. I don’t think that’s true; I know it’s not true. I also know that tradition is inherited; it’s in our blood, embedded in our culture. Then how do we break the cycle of indoctrination? Do we redefine our values? Should there be more prizes for women specifically, or would that be playing into the patriarchal tradition, a sign of agreement that the girls can’t compete with the boys?
On a personal note, I’ve had poems published in feminist journals of poetry that only publish women. In fact, women’s publications accept my work more often than other publications, and so it seems that I write “women’s” poetry, even though I don’t know what women’s poetry is in comparison to “regular” poetry. There are prizes and presses dedicated to highlighting the work of women writers, which are crucial to our art and our community; their existence should not preclude us from participating in and contributing to more diverse forums.
Other explanations of these imbalances suggest that perhaps the work of female poets cannot compete with the work produced by male poets. I won’t be addressing this justification except to say that it is propaganda, a cop-out, an evasion of the real issue. And if my assertion is correct and these “aberrations” stem from the security of a patriarchal tradition that can, and often does, entirely extinguish recognition of female poets, then when will that tradition die? More precisely, when will we kill it?