An Interview with Helen Guri

Does the topic of gender representation in the Canadian Literary Press matter to you? (Feel free to be candid if it does not. I’m asking because I don’t assume that everyone cares. An American male poet of some stature just emailed me to say that I’m “flogging a dead horse.”)

As a Canadian female poet of slightly hunchbacked stature, I feel I can say that this topic matters very much. Several people have pointed out that numbers in pie charts do not tell the whole story of gender representation in the CanLit press, but they do tell a story. Blunt and limited as it may be, the numbers story is the one that tells people whether they are allowed to be writers or not, and whether, as writers, they merit public discussion or not.

When the numbers look like those in the VIDA counts typically do, or like the numbers in the brand new CWILA count do, I do not like to think about them. Thinking about them too much can be silencing, and causes me to spend more time than I would like contemplating the limitations imposed on me and other women writers because of what’s between our legs. That these limitations exist in Canada in 2012 is so absurd as to be barely processable as a thought.

But at the same time, it is a relief to have a set of pie charts to explain what have up until now been vague, persistent feelings of doubt and unfairness. It’s like a diagnosis.

I see that something has to be done about these numbers, and that doing something requires thinking about the numbers. I hope that the cure isn’t worse than the disease; i.e., that working to fix the numbers and thinking about the numbers does not cause me or any other woman writer to become so distracted from or demoralized about the main work, writing, as to lose focus or clam up entirely. It would be best if we could go about solving the numbers problem in a careful, balanced, collaborative way that doesn’t overexpose any one person to information and tasks that I feel are potentially radioactive.

To elaborate: if it were my job to stare down, for any great length of time, pie charts that largely excluded my gender, I think that I would start to feel less powerful and capable as a poet, in the same way that girls who are told, before a math test, that girls perform worse on math tests than boys, often do perform worse than boys on the math test. (Incidentally, the study I am thinking of showed the opposite result when girls and boys were told the opposite.) So I understand, very clearly, the impulse to resist believing in these numbers. Part of me wants to make an alternate set of aspirational pie charts with perfect 50–50 splits and stick these on my mirror like one of those cheesy psychological affirmations.

So far, people pointing out that numbers do not tell the whole story have done so mainly to suggest that things are more fair than they appear; i.e., that what women lack in quantity of reviews in the national press is somehow compensated by quality of reviews, or by quantity or quality of other kinds of publications or media.

This may be the case, but I have vague, persistent feelings to the contrary. I think the qualitative aspects of reviewing and publicity treat male and female writers quite differently. I have no pie charts to demonstrate it, but I feel (and I believe I am in good company) that male writers are more likely to be characterized as “great,” “essential,” “voices of their generation,” etc., while women writers, when they are lucky enough to be celebrated, are much more likely to be “national treasures” and other ornament-like things. Don’t get me wrong—I, along with, I assume, many male writers—would do back-flips of joy if someone called me a national treasure, or even a national ornament, but I still feel that there is a difference in the language, and that this difference affects how we perceive and receive books by women and men.

Do you write reviews? If not, why not?

Alas, I do not currently write reviews, for the following reasons:

1) I cling (anachronistically?) to a notion that critics are best when they are not practising writers. Some of the qualities that make a good critic are compatible with being a good writer (e.g., reading widely, considering others’ work in depth). But many of the specific requirements of criticism are entirely separate from the requirements of creative work. Critics need to have a sense of the literary landscape as a whole, in the present and over time. This takes a lot of survey-style reading and thinking, and a lot of conceptualizing entire careers.

But writing is often best served by a more idiosyncratic, even myopic interest in others’ work. In my experience, the kind of reading that generates good writing doesn’t have to be broad or survey-style, and it doesn’t have to consider other writers as fully formed entities, or as parts of literary movements. It just has to be obsessive, and combine interests in unusual ways (e.g. Yeats and tampon packaging, SPCA pamphlets and Emily Dickinson, David Altmejd’s materials lists). This kind of reading makes for eccentric criticism, at best.

2) I already have one unpaid hobby (poetry). I am not rich and so can’t reliably support another. If I felt I could make reviewing pay a sustainable wage, I am certainly not so principled about Reason 1 that I wouldn’t consider it. God knows I have considered many other kinds of paying work that go against my principles.

3) Last year, I unexpectedly found myself with almost a month of free time. I thought I would try my hand at reviewing. I was motivated, mainly, by what I perceived to be a lack of reviews of poetry by women, and a lack of poetry reviews in general. So I contacted three literary journals and asked for an assignment. One did not get back to me. The other two took several months to respond, by which time I was busy up to my eyeballs. Likely the editors were also very busy. One of the two magazines wanted a sample review before I could be assigned something. This is a perfectly reasonable request, but one that, under the circumstances, I was not able to meet. I haven’t given up, and will probably try again if I find I have spare time. It is hard to co-ordinate, though, when everyone is working in fits and starts, on borrowed time.

4) Up until now, there haven’t been any residencies for people like me who might like to spend some time being critics. Read about the CWILA Critic in Residence

Have you seen the American VIDA count?

Yes, I’ve seen it every year for the last few. I believe it was Sina Queyras’ blog, Lemonhound, that first made me aware of it, or maybe I read about it in the news (Slate Magazine?). The count depresses me, but I love that it happens. It lends weight, momentum, and credibility to the argument that women in literature deserve greater support and recognition than they currently receive.

Do you think that our critical discussions about literature in national media and literary journals, mags and blogs show a gender bias? What’s your experience of this?

The extent to which I am a sexist consumer of contemporary poetry is, for me, the strongest argument that critical biases exist and are pervasive. I do not have any good reason to favour the work of male poets over the work of female poets. I am female, young (as in, born well after the sexual revolution), I identify as feminist, and I am myself a poet. You might think that if I had reading biases, they would favour work by women.

But I know the opposite to be true. When I go into a bookstore, the titles that catch my eye are most commonly by men. Mostly white ones. Mostly straight (or sufficiently quiet about their sexual identities to “read” as straight). I have not had the time or the bravery to do a careful audit of my bookshelf, but I suspect that my numbers are solidly mediocre, if not deplorable, in terms of reflecting the actual diversity of talented people writing today. When I recommend books to others, these books are often by men. When I receive piles of books on loan from friends, my impulse is to read the ones by men first and most carefully.

When I catch myself making piles of books by men, I try to even things out. And when I catch myself picking the men out of the pile first, I try to reverse that impulse. Putting women in the pile and paying attention to them has resulted in my discovering some of my favourite books and writers. (I cannot begin to tell you how embarrassed I am to have had to write that sentence.)

Paying attention to women writers (and to writers who differ in other ways from the white male standard) is too often conscious work. A whole machinery of mentioning and pointing (reviews, Facebook and blog recommendations, jacket copy, marketing effort, faced-out books on store shelves, better-publicized and often better-attended reading tours, etc., etc.) favours work by men. I believe I am drawn to work by men usually because I have heard about it so many times, and because I come to it with a fairly good idea of what kind of work it is, and whether I will like it. (Even if I do not think that I will like it, I often have the impression that it is required reading—for what course, I am not precisely sure.) And I believe I am drawn to work by men because I am ambitious, in the heinous careerist sense. I want to be a writer that other people read and recommend and point to, and so I study the work of writers that they read and recommend and point to. These are, by and large, men.

By contrast, I often come to work by women cold, or with an isolated recommendation. And if I do not think that I will like it, I generally have no reason to make myself read it. That I am part of perpetuating a huge unfairness against people like me is perverse, and a sure sign that the machinery needs a tune-up, if not a complete overhaul.

What are your thoughts on fixing the numbers we know of (i.e. VIDA and Zed) by forming stronger critical communities among women that support women’s books, careers, etc.?

The awareness and conversation that has been fostered, already, by the brand new CWILA website and listserv inspires awe in me. Women writers can evidently do a lot for each other (particularly when Gillian Jerome is cracking the whip). We can, for example, encourage one another to speak up in public forums, and provide moral support and/or a voice of reason when matters in the public forums get hairy. We can compensate, to a degree, for the broader literary community’s failure to fully include us. For example, we can attend to, critique, seek out, share, and otherwise support each other’s work (and we ought to, particularly when the work in question is original, masterful, or otherwise promising).

We can use our firsthand experience of gender-based exclusion as a starting point to better understand and respond to other types of exclusion (for example, racial, cultural, or sexuality-based) that occur in the literary community. And we can remember that, while we are responding to a problem that has its roots in the gender essentialism of our society, we shouldn’t, ourselves, be gender essentialists. People who, in one way or another, do not fall neatly on one side of the rigid gender binary are people we should welcome, listen to, learn from, and, in plenty of cases, be.

All that said, to really fix the numbers, and the attitudes behind the numbers, we need the attention, support, and participation of men. How do we make more (contemporary) work by women required reading for men, in the same way that I feel that the work of so many of my male contemporaries is required reading for me? I defer, on this question, to women who were grown-ups in the ’70s, and to men of all ages.

Please excuse this last question if you were not at the V125PC. If you were: what are your thoughts on the active participation of women in critical discussions at the Vancouver Poetry Conference? Did you perceive a gender balance in terms of discussion, participation and representation? Any thoughts at all about your experience of this conference in terms of representation would be very, very welcome.

The main identity issue the conference raised, for me, was not gender but the colour of people’s skin. The impossibly brave woman who stood up during the Sheryda Warrener/Adam Dickinson/Michael Lista panel to ask, essentially, “why are you all white?” before reciting one of her own poems has stuck in my head ever since. Her question gets re-played broken-record/Greek chorus-style most times I walk into a reading, bookstore, or publishing party. (Unless the reading happens, for example, at A Different Booklist, a Toronto institution for which I am grateful.) I know that she deserves a better answer than the ones she got (though I didn’t, at the time, have one for her).

I did think about gender during and in the lead-up to the David Seymour/Matt Rader/George Murray/Ken Babstock panel, which I privately referred to as “The Manel.” Why were these man-poets, all of whose work I admired, not being shown in conversation with the equally admirable women poets who are, in real life, conversing with them?

But I think the more interesting question about that panel is for the conference attendees rather than the organizers. More than once, I heard the Manel referred to as the “headliner.” I spent the duration of the Manel trying not to think of it as the headliner. This was difficult, even though there was another panel happening simultaneously, only one room away, with sound equipment that caused its proceedings to literally interrupt the Manel, featuring three wildly accomplished female poets: Sonnet L’Abbé, Meredith Quartermain, and Oana Avasilichioaei, as well as Garry Thomas Morse and Jay MillAr. Why weren’t people calling them the headliner? Why were so many of us, myself included, fuming silently at the Manel when we could have been attending the panel we wanted to see?

Helen Guri‘s first book, Match, was published by Coach House in 2011, and was shortlisted for the Trillium award for poetry. In addition to writing, Helen works as a freelance editor and occasional writing instructor.

Published on June 2, 2012

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