Gender shrapnel, from one foxhole

“The first time you’re hit by it, you have no idea what it is, what it came from, or why…If you ever try to confront the events, you feel half crazy and afraid…People start to tell you to calm down, to pick your battles more carefully, and to be grateful for what you’ve got…As you obey and shut yourself up, you start to notice more of what is happening to other women around you. The shrapnel itself and the silence surrounding it start to seem more and more absurd. You start coming up with nine-block cartoons and lyrics for a sexual harassment musical. You wonder who’s crazier now…” (4)

I just finished a new book, Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplaceby colleague and friend Ellen Mayock. It’s useful and even funny, as in the passage above, but painful to read, too. It’s hard to face being valued less in a demanding workplace because of your gender. I’m more comfortable acknowledging good luck than discrimination. My identity has brought me many advantages, but what what I’m thinking about today is how I’ve hated being a girl for as long as I can remember.

I hate the cultural implications–that my appearance matters so much to strangers and to me. But the ways that culture and biology intersect are no fun, either. I’ve spent so much time feeling physically afraid. Weak. And menstruation, pregnancy, lactation–oh my god. Having two healthy children prospering in the world is part of my luck, and it’s healthy for an intellectual to be reminded she is, in fact, a mammal, connected to natural cycles in the very tissues of her body. Yet I would gladly have shared the costs of gestation with my husband and I can’t wait for menopause. If you identify as a woman and love it, that’s great, truly. But womanhood as I’ve known it is, at best, a royal pain.

Is this a bad attitude to admit? Does it make me a lousy role model, or render hypocritical the solidarity I feel with women writers? I don’t know. Certainly it’s a kind of frustration no one should have to feel. But it’s the truth, for this one person.

I’m not the only professor who throws herself into work to get away from the limits of embodiment just to find work directing her back to that very body. Gender Shrapnel offers smart analysis of harmful ways an academic workplace can keep reminding a striver, “nope, you’re a woman, before all.” The chapters on “silence” and “tempered radicalism” are particularly powerful, as well as the idea that women who speak up become “radioactive,” tainting anyone they try to help. And Mayock is great on insidious factors that can reinforce gender power structures: when and where a meeting is set, for instance. A few other passages I dogeared:

131: “Administrators who appreciate strength, even divergent, possibly competing types of strength, in their employees also exhibit real strength, for they are modeling the type of intellectual debate that their organizational mission statements are promoting.”

171: On making place for critique of an organization, within the organization: “Ponder the possibility that all workers have the good of the organization in mind.” (I do, even in my angriest moments.)

175: “Leaders who can express ‘humility and modesty’ are de factomen. Why is this? Because it is a given that they are excellent and, therefore, they are provided the luxury of presenting themselves as humble or modest. Women leaders and/or aspiring women leaders do not have this luxury, and I believe that the same is true for people of Color.”

197: “The leading study on maternal wall stereotypes found that, compared to women with identical resumes but with no children, mothers were: 79% less likely to be hired, 100% less likely to be promoted, offered $11,000 less in salary for the same position, held to higher performance and punctuality standards.”

I dread taking this female body back to full-time teaching as my sabbatical ends. I love teaching, and other parts of my job can be great, too–helping students and colleagues thrive, advancing the arts on campus. But a boss who bullied and undermined me for years is still parked in my building, proof to me, forever, that my employers don’t consider my professional well-being important. I don’t feel safe, even cushioned as I am by so many privileges–tenure for starters. Whiteness. None of us is ever safe, I know, but I wish we could show more respect for each others’ fears and impose consequences on aggressors.

On shrapnel and poetry: I know of two recent cases in which talented women poets were pushed out of academic leadership positions for reasons that had a lot to do with gender. And women writers suffer flak from more distant battles, too–VIDA has done a lot to highlight how much gender shrapnel is flying around in the publishing world. Small data points have big consequences.

But harassment, mobbing, and other destructive behaviors rooted in gender bias affect literature more deeply than that. Sometimes people are so demoralized they can’t or don’t write in the first place. Sometimes, more positively, suffering redirects writing into new channels.

Writing remains a primary way for me to probe inequity and imagine a better order. Here, in disembodied language, I feel as strong, as pretty as any of you. So among Mayock’s many lists in this book, I particularly relished “Stages of Confronting Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation in the Academic Workplace” (50-2). The whole thing is priceless, beginning with #1, “What the hell was that?” But I note how much time I spend at #15, “Anger, frustration at the injustice,” in which the harassed person, coming to voice in ways others may find inappropriate, “consider[s] writing cartoons or musicals.” For me, speculative feminist novellas in terza rima, and I ain’t done yet.

Bless activists who make change in the courts, the streets, the boardrooms. For me, it’s mostly the classroom, the student conference, the printed page, the blog. Also, the voting booth. Small spaces. The consequences remain to be seen.

Lastly, because performing gender is a drag, here’s some joy:

On judging and being judged

A couple of days ago I finished judging the annual poetry awards for the Science Fiction Poetry Association–a very otherworldly reading assignment! The following reflections on the experience appear in slightly more compressed form in the new issue of Star*Line and are reprinted here with permission. Thanks to the SFPA folks for inviting me to serve and to all the poets who participated. Spending time with their work gave me an interesting view on a literary universe I’m still learning about, and as you’ll see below, it also inspired some thinking about poetic judgment generally.

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Rejections are always showering down on me like micrometeoroids. Learning to tolerate the hail is a character-building aspect of being a poet. Sometimes disappointment burns; mostly I shrug it off. No poem pleases everyone, and besides, judges are fickle. Writing that seems dull one evening, when a reader is tired and grumpy, might glitter in the morning light. Or a triolet about spiders might land on the desk of a rhyme-hating arachnophobe. That is, there’s contingency involved, even when everyone involved is doing their best to read objectively. A poet has to do good work to win a contest, but you also have to be a little bit lucky.

I’m personally calmer about that luck factor now that I occasionally judge as well as suffer judgment. Most recently, selecting the SFPA contest winners, I wondered about my differences from previous arbiters. I didn’t find myself worrying, for example, about degrees of science fictionality. A haiku might only deploy a brief speculative trope but that was okay by me—whereas another judge might be a stickler.

Instead–and my former students will recognize these terms from workshops–I read, as I always read, for power, control, and complexity. By power I mean the energy some poems emanate, perhaps through emotional intensity, narrative suspense, or startling imagery. Sometimes a less-polished poem conveys more power than an exquisitely crafted one, but you can’t disperse prizes on potential—that’s where control comes in. When judging these entries, I reluctantly put aside some poems with heart when I realized line breaks didn’t make sense or cliché dragged down the description. Complexity takes various forms, but in short, good poems work through at least two problems simultaneously. Maybe it’s a human-alien love story in concert with an unusual take on the sonnet, or a folklore revision using hyper-scientific diction—in any case, there’s a lot going on linguistically, emotionally, intellectually, and/ or structurally.

Last week I received three packets of poems stripped of identifying features and had to process them quickly. Over many pots of tea, I marked intriguing poems with sticky notes, took head-clearing walks, and read them again. Sometimes I realized the ending of an otherwise good poem was just too predictable; sometimes verses that had seemed marginal grew on me. I didn’t recognize any writer by his or her style or obsessions and was surprised to learn later that some quite different poems were by the same person. I also had no idea so many of the winning pieces were authored by women and don’t know how that stacks up to the entry pool, proportionally, but given that most of the publishing world tilts the other way (see VIDA for details), that result seems like a good thing. Several entries barely missed an honorable mention—so if you entered but didn’t get named a winner, ask a smart friend to read your piece with a critical eye, then tune it up and get it back into circulation. And as I said above, all judges have moods and idiosyncrasies, so I may simply have failed to render your brilliance appropriate homage.

Among the Dwarf poems, I admired the surreal situation and resonant ending of “Anomaly,” the imagistic freshness of “Methane Snowfall,” and the way “Crater Conundrum Pizza” riffs both on ad-speak and time paradoxes. Among the Short Form entries, “Metis Emits” delighted me with sound play and feisty sweetness. “Phone Tree” and “Some Who Wander Become Lost” juxtapose the mythic against the mundane, the first with wit, the second darkly. (The Short Form category, by the way, received more entries than the other two put together and so offered the stiffest competition: sf poets, keep that in mind for next year!) The three Long Form winners are very different from one another: “Transference” unfolds a complex sf premise in vivid language; in “Arizona Rest Stop” a lively voice projects a wild tale; and the weird sonnet crown “Comet Elm” is formally impressive.

I congratulate the winners but know others will judge the judge benighted—I rarely agree with other referees’ selections, after all. Fortunately, however, SFPA judges change annually, so next year you can take your chances with a different barbarous, stardust-battered hominid. Engage and allons-y!

Buried bulb juts up a spear

More sleet and snow in the forecast, ugh, even as here in western Virginia, snowdrops and crocus and even a few daffodils show the shivering woods in bright spring clothes. I feel winter-locked too. Things have been germinating underground that I can’t talk about much: some hopes that have busted, some that may be hardier. Maybe I’ll be able to leap up from the leaf-mulch of half-graded papers and show some colors soon, but not quite yet.

In the meantime, at the risk of seeming really pretty goofy, here’s news of an inner turn, something that happened a month or so ago and has made me feel calmer. I’d been thinking a lot about ambition. Writers, probably all strivers for beautiful outcomes, have to construct this funny balance. On the one hand, you have to be humble and open about the work, because that’s all that matters and the work won’t tolerate some poet thinking she’s the one in charge. On the other, you have to cultivate arrogance: confidence enough to follow the words in the first place, and then the more public chutzpah involved in getting your work out there. Inspired by VIDA and other projects drawing attention to the weaker networks of women writers, our collective tendency to sidestep struggle and self-aggrandizement, I’ve been plagued by ridiculously heroic meta-ambition. I HAVE to strive, I told myself. Any woman who has the means HAS to, otherwise too few of us will ever see sunlight.

I wondered if that was self-deceptive (“It’s not for my own sake, really, I’m staking out those prestigious journals for my sisters!”). I also noticed that these double pressures to succeed were making me feel inadequate and jealous–more hurt by the inevitable losses, less thrilled by the wins. And then I had not just the thought but the sudden conviction I tried to describe in the verse below, drafted on a February day when you could feel a bit of warmth, a hint that spring would eventually, in fact, arrive. I have the feeling it’s a fragment of process, not a poem yet or maybe ever, but putting those lines together helped me. And I went to the AWP and that sense of smallness we all have at that conference worried me less. I just kept writing down the names of women who said smart, moving things at the various panels and readings I attended, and now I’m going to order their books.

Weed Experiences Trite Yet Nourishing Epiphany

A breath riffles my trichomes:
we are all connected. Sudden sense
of the buried mycelium from which
all creatures sprout: shoots reach
through the air while we root
together invisibly. Why this
consoles a godless poet, I don’t know;
I could say what’s good for one
herb greens the whole field, though
hunger is never so rational; still
I feel relief in every chloroplast,
a hot June slackening of fear.