An Interview with Meredith Quartermain

1. 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.”)

This topic matters a great deal to me. I had the feeling several years ago that literary women were consistently cast aside in the competitive world of public readings, writers’ conferences, publisher’s lists, etc., but no systematic data. I noticed that the best spots at readings usually went to men and that more men were invited to read. I noticed that men often didn’t bother to attend readings by women, and they often wouldn’t take a workshop from a woman. I noticed that the topics of literary conferences were usually based around work by men, that the leadership roles in these events usually went to men, that more men got to read publicly, and that some publishers in my town published mainly men and almost no women. With my participation in the male-dominated KSW Collective around 2001, I began to see how theoretically egalitarian collectives could actually be very far from that when it came to gender balance and opportunity to have a say or have the support of the group in carrying out a project. I suspect that mixed-gender collectives often run on the pyramidal, patriarchal model of one “powerhead” at the top who determines what the group will focus on and whom others will follow.

I read Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination and realized again how all of us (women and men) are conditioned from birth to downgrade women and anything associated with the feminine. All of us are trained to see men and to not see women. I caught myself doing it. And I came back to what Nicole Brossard keeps gently reminding us, that it is still a radical act to love women, to regard them, to give them the public credibility they deserve. This is the radical act we need to perform again and again.

My small way of addressing this was to start, with Pauline Butling and others, a monthly discussion group of women who are writing. We meet in a café over drinks and dinner, discuss whatever’s on our minds, network re publication opportunities, grants, readings, conferences, etc.

2. Do you write reviews? If yes, where? And why?

I do write reviews. I would happily write more reviews if I were invited to do so and paid for what I write. I’ve written voluntarily for little or no pay for Jacket magazine, West Coast Line, and the Capilano Review. I also write for Canadian Literature, which not only pays nothing, it keeps copyright of my work.

3. Have you seen the American VIDA count? If not, it can be read here. What do you think of the count? I’m searching for and creating comprehensive numbers for major Canadian publications. Also, Natalie Zed wrote a blog on gender representation in the National Post and it can be read here. 

I was profoundly saddened by the VIDA count. I wish the numbers were not so bad. The sense of hope that we had in the 1970s that we would overcome this kind of situation seems so absent today, especially with the political climate we are in, where things like Status of Women Canada are simply axed because as far as most men are concerned gender balance and structural inequality are not an issue. Men don’t feel inclined to examine their gender, to examine how their institutionalized behaviour perpetuates the silencing and inequity of so many. Men often would rather not hear about the world as seen from the point of view of women. They want the “norm” (i.e., the masculine POV). Women are required to adopt the same dominating behaviour in order to succeed in patriarchal culture.

4. 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?

To the extent that editors do not consciously address this issue in shaping their publications, there is considerable bias. And this is for the reasons I point out in # 3.

5. 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.?

I’m all for this, and this is exactly why I started the monthly café meetings for women writers in my community. I am very heartened by Natalie Zed’s blog entry and I suspect my local group will be following up on this. I think part of the fixing starts with our own habits—consciously shifting our focus away from the men who get canonized in all those biased publications.

6. 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.

I haven’t counted the gender representation on all the various panels, but my sense is and was at the time that they were pretty balanced in terms of gender. Unfortunately, I had the experience of not being invited to the conference despite fitting the publication profile exactly and despite winning a prize for a book of poetry on Vancouver. This is a situation that often happens to women, I suspect. My writing group companions came to the rescue, and as a result of their encouragement, I asked to be included and was. It was a perfect example of how beneficial that kind of networking group can be. The only time I was consciously aware of gender bias at the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference was in the closing session, which was led by two male writers. This is an example of a prominent leadership role being assigned in an imbalanced way.

Meredith Quartermain is known across Canada as a writer of urban spaces and an innovator of poetic and narrative form. Vancouver Walking won a BC Book Award  for Poetry; Nightmarker was a finalist for the Vancouver Book Award; and Recipes from the Red Planet wasa finalist for a BC Book Award for fiction. Her work has appeared in The Walrus, Canadian Literature,CV2, Matrix, Prism and other Canadian and U.S. magazines, and was recently included in Best Canadian Poetry. She is cofounder of Nomados Literary Publishers, which has published more than 35 books of contemporary writing.

Published on May 28, 2012

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