Welcome back to Editor’s Corner, a VIDAWeb feature in which editors and publishers explore complex issues regarding sex, gender, race and sexuality as they relate to their presses and projects. In this week’s installment, Carey Salerno of Alice James Books discusses the underrepresentation of women in…well, everything; she also speaks about the “unwieldy” publishing climate, AJB’s annual competitions and what comes next.
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On her press, role and publishing philosophy:
Alice James Books is a nonprofit, cooperative poetry press that was established by seven poets in 1973. We publish six books a year by both established and emerging poets and choose books mainly through our annual competitions: the Beatrice Hawley Award, Kinereth Gensler Award, Kundiman Poetry Prize, and our translation series. The press is also affiliated with the University of Maine at Farmington where we work very closely with the school’s incredible BFA in creative writing program.
The founders’ mission for AJB was to establish a press that “gave women a chance” for publication during a time when many women poets’ work was rejected because they were not “writing like a man.” Today, the press has evolved its vision some, but we still aim to publish the work by writers who may not ordinarily be given a voice in the literary community. The greatest example of this evolution is our partnership with Kundiman, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Asian American poetry. Together, we offer The Kundiman Poetry Prize, which is, to my knowledge, the only poetry book publication award in existence solely for Asian American poets. Our press, however, is still very much concerned with the publication of women poets.
On the current publishing climate:
In a word: unwieldy.
Events like the AWP conference prove this. Granted, not all of the 10,000+ attendees are poets, but each year I trudge through the massive book fair only to be convinced of our field’s indomitable nature. It’s tremendous to see the amount of work that’s going on in the poetry community right now and the multitudinous ways in which the work is ultimately being accomplished. There is a lot of cross-genre pollination going on as well, which is very fascinating. I’m completely enamored with the hybridized efforts of presses like Q Ave, for instance. They produce some very stunning work. The plethora of available publishers is also terrific for poets, because it means there are more and more opportunities for them to publish—and varied ones at that; however, it also means there is just so much more poetry out there for us to wade through. We must accept that we can never read it all, mustn’t we?
I’m constantly asked if I’ve read this poet or that, and I’d say that more and more my answer is “No, but I would like to.” My sense is that if I’m struggling for clarity and pacing in the field, then this feeling must be replicated in others within our community. It’s a double-edged sword. More presses means more opportunity, but also less. For instance, it’s difficult to get your books noticed in a tsunami of books. It’s too chaotic, too wild. It’s much more difficult to focus (Isn’t it anyway?). At its best, this means more voices are being discovered and brought to surface. On the opposite end of things, we’re struggling to keep our heads above water. And, of course, at the same time, we know that funding opportunities for these operations have become increasingly scarce, as they have for all of the arts in our country. We’re all riding the danger wave here, or so it sometimes seems.
In terms of representing women’s voices, since AJB does not read submissions blindly, we usually do know the gender of the poets submitting work. We do try to keep a balance at the press, race, sexuality, and gender. These elements can factor into our decision if we’re torn between a few different manuscripts, though, for us, it’s always the quality of the work that comes first.
Plainly, women are underrepresented in publishing…underrepresented in nearly everything, actually. We continue to be encouraged to leave gender at the door. We discuss women poets many times by using their first names instead of last. We find women “subjects” tedious or boring. The environment certainly isn’t as nourishing as it could be. Things are changing, yes, but change happens very slowly. The many factions of feminism contending today prove how challenging it is to clearly define how we may best work to accomplish our goals in literature or to agree on what the goals are. If we are too feminine, then we are too much women: too objectified, too emotional, too motherly. If we are not, we are callous and unfeeling, cold and calculating. Or, too much like men. What we need is to redefine this place for women, and for that consciously-designed space to originate from women. Yet, we are used to reading what we’re used to reading; our literary landscape undoubtedly has been reborn several times over, yes, but it was instigated as a masculine enterprise and therein lies the limitation. I won’t use the word tradition. Our habits and feelings about writing cannot help but be influenced by the history of literature, and it takes conscious effort to evolve the conversations we’re having, to change the language, our customs, to rise from our comfort zones. It’s a challenge among other challenges in poetry and other genres. What we need are more women in roles of mentor, publisher, editor, and for these women to be women supporting women.
On VIDA’s Count:
Frankly, I wasn’t too shocked to see a definitive report released that confirms the numbers are unbalanced, but I am certainly encouraged to see an organization taking interest in the state of our community and advocating for change. It’s difficult to know precisely what to do with the information once you have it. Ideally, there would be equal representation for all genders, sexualities, and races in the arts, but of course, nothing is very much utopic in the world.
On A+ Lit People:
Persea Books (Gabriel Fried), New Directions, American Poet to name just what comes right to mind.