Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Musings on Women, Experimental Poetry, and Science

UW is a male dominated campus, I wonder why… oh, let's see, UW is in the top for Engineering, Math, and CS, given that most girls doesn't want to give the effort and sacrifice needed to go through the Engineering or Math program at UW, you are going to bitch and cry that the university is male dominated? Really? So if you want a female dominated campus, try "Bryn Mawr College".

I keep getting two calls for submissions sent to me, the first from dANDelion’s upcoming performance/MACHINE issue, the second from The Incongruous Quarterly’s upcoming Science issue. This highlights two things for me. One, I’ve got nice writer friends who keep me in the loop, and two, it’s assumed by many that if you’re into experimental poetry, you are surely geared up to write about computers, math, and science. This assumption interests me, and I am becoming increasingly curious about the gender implications of the increasing popularity of computer, math, and science as subject matter in experimental writing (before exploring this topic it might be good to note that both these magazines are edited by women at the moment, and only one of the guest editors for TIQ’s special issue is male). There are two reasons I think the seemingly neutral subject matter actually carries a lot of gender baggage. The first reason has to do with the place of women in computer sciences, engineering, sciences, and math, and the second reason has to do with women’s alienation from their bodies.

At 25, I am old enough to be of a generation that was told, or at least encouraged to think, that men and boys are better at math and science than women and girls are. This kind of thinking was promoted by teachers and students alike, and continues to have a lot of purchase in lay conversations about the topic. Of course studies demonstrate that this is not actually true, but still, that’s the climate I have always lived in, one where science and math are male spheres. Women continue to be under represented in these areas of study in universities and to earn less when working in related industries. A woman friend and gamer recently posted this link on facebook, which is a good example of the abuse, sexism, and misogyny women face when trying to participate in a wide variety of non-academic, non-professional online communities surrounding computers, gaming, and programming, etc. Despite the talent and passion that many women have for science, math, engineering, and programming, they are still excluded or berated in academia, the workforce, and online. I’m not really going to unpack this, or even begin to speculate about the social forces that contribute to this climate. It sucks, and since I am not a woman working in any of these areas I have no idea what it’s like nor any suggestions about what women working in these areas need.

I am, however, an experimental poet. As someone who has never been all that good at math or science, I resent being told, and yes I have been explicitly told, that as a writer, I must be interested in these things. The subtext of this is that if you aren’t interested in these things other people will not be interested in you and your work. I especially resent this, however, because I don’t think we all started from the same place. Allowing for individual exceptions, of course, boys were told they’re good at math, girls were told they aren’t, and now I’m being told I can’t be a good poet unless I start writing about stoichiometry. Combine all these silly stereotypes together and you’ve got men being predisposed to be better poets.

Of course the calls for submissions don’t suggest this at all, and I don’t suggest that they do. If they had a special issue on quilting or oyster harvesting or mountain climbing it wouldn’t mean that these are the most ideal topics for poetry and that any other subject is inferior. But as math, science, and computer science are increasingly valued in the avant-garde, other things are pushed aside. I don’t think it’s inconsequential that traditionally and currently male-dominated areas of study are being promoted as the most innovative and interesting subject matter for poetry. And of course, there could be/probably are many women interested in writing experimental poetry about math and science. But I do think it’s a noteworthy tension. Would a poetics of knitting stand to have the same success? Can we imagine male poets telling each other that they really must be interested in textiles, nursing, or social work, or some other woman-dominated sphere or activity, to be good poets? I have an extremely difficult time imagining that conversation.

The second tension with the increased poetic interest in science, math, and computers has to do with historical and contemporary perceptions of women’s bodies and their control over them. In her provocative and important essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Helene Cixous asserts that women should write the body, bringing their physical experience of the world and their lives into their work, since women are always being alienated from their physical experience, and by extension, from themselves. With the Canadian government refusing to include reproductive care as part of its aid in it’s foreign maternal health plan, with many public assertions from lawmakers and enforcers that Canadian women are at fault when they are raped, and with our neighbours to the south debating whether or not to consider miscarriage a crime, I hardly think this is a dead issue. Advertising continues to hack up photos of women’s bodies, anatomizing them for ads for products for men, or smoothing, shrinking, and altering them to sell everything from washing detergent to botox to women. Women all over the world continue to struggle to gain legal autonomy over their own bodies and sexuality, a fight trivialized by news media and ignored by advertising. I think Cixous’ assertions are therefore still incredibly relevant. Women still don’t really get to own their bodies, and we should be able to use our writing to explore this struggle if that’s what we want to write about. The increased popularity of a poetics of alienation in the internet age rubs up against this problem. Being alienated from your body is not particularly new for women. A poetics of math, science, and computers can risk a level of abstraction and alienation from the physical world that rejects women’s continued struggle to appropriate their bodies. I say risks, of course, not that it necessarily does, and can imagine women writers manipulating these topics to suit their needs and to address these issues. I haven’t read anything like that yet, but if someone hasn’t already written it, I'm sure someone will.

There’s no reason that anyone, no matter what their gender identity is, shouldn’t write poetry about math, science, or computers if that’s what they want to write about. However, the recent controversy about the gender inequity in the world of publishing and reviewing makes it clear that we are not all equal players in this game. So if male writers and reviewers think a certain kind of writing is the best, it looks like that’s what’s going to fly. And if a certain genre of writing has a certain amount of built in tensions for women, those problems are only going to be exacerbated in the publishing world.

So, what is the connection between women, science, math, and computers as subject matter, and the poetic avant-garde? What do women who write about these topics think? What do men who write about these topics think? Do male writers and reviewers invested in these topics give credence to writers exploring different topics, especially if those topics have been chosen because of gender politics? Like I said, all this does not HAVE to be a problem. But because of the role of women in math, science, and computer science outside of writing and because of the continued male dominance of the publishing industry, it COULD be a problem.

Is there something to be made of all this, and where do we go from here? I look forward to reading the upcoming issues of dANDelion and The Incongruous Quarterly, and seeing what all the contributors do with the topic.

5 comments:

emma said...

This is totally fascinating and awesome and thank you for writing it. Am going to think about it lots.

Also, and I'm not sure yet what this means or if it'll change by the time the call's closed, but it's interesting: usually we get more men submitting work to us than women, but so far for this issue there are definitely more submissions from the ladies. Which surprised me, actually. And which I like. We'll see if that ends up holding.

Claire Lacey said...

As someone really interested in tech, this point of view hadn't occurred to me at all. So thanks, Helen, for giving me something to think about. Is there something here about a field that sees an increasing number of women achieving a high level of success reaching over to a field that is still very segregated in an attempt to maintain a male-dominated space? I don't know - there are some really interesting women working on science/tech poetry. But I saw this article today, and it seems relevant to what you're talking about: http://persephonemagazine.com/2011/03/women-in-academia-sub-discipline-assumptions/


I am working on a piece that relates to that second tension you mention. It won't be ready for this round of calls though. I expect as more people who grew up negotiating their gender identity & body image & cyberspace all at once start publishing we'll see a lot more on this subject.

Jon Stone said...

Great post. I have one query or point to raise though. You say:

"At 25, I am old enough to be of a generation that was told, or at least encouraged to think, that men and boys are better at math and science than women and girls are."

I'm 28 and I recall the constant reports as I was growing up was that girls were better at *all* subjects, except, I think, technology or some minor area like that. The stereotype was that boys were either lazier or generally stupider.

Which does make it all the more surprising when you emerge into adulthood and find most of the careers that follow on from sciencey subjects are dominated by men. Hey ho.

Jon Stone said...

Oh! Of course, it could be a Britain/Canada divide thing. Duh.

carrie hunter said...

Would be interested in a list of women experimental poets writing about science, I can think of only one in my area that I know of, kathryn pringle, who has a book right new biology. Who else?