by Robert Stapleton
In April of 2015, after announcing the ten shortlisted poems for that year’s Booth Poetry Prize, we received the following email:
Sent: Saturday, April 11, 2015 6:23 PM
Subject: Re: Booth Poetry Contest
Eight of your ten finalists are women. Is this gender bias or chance?
I tried to keep my cool and wrote the following response: “We read the longlist of fifty poems without names, so none of us had any idea. But considering the deeply troubling reality of male-slanted writers and reviewers in American letters today (do you keep up with the annual VIDA count?), I am perfectly fine with our ratio.” My reply ended the correspondence with frustrated male writer, but it did not end my relationship to his inquiry.
Last spring I taught a course titled “Literary Editing & Publishing” in Butler’s MFA program. As part of the curriculum, I ask the students to register a four-issue subscription to the Journal of the Month’s classroom program. I select ahead of time the titles, and then the program ships out those issues every month. This time we read Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, A Public Space, and Prairie Schooner. I’m not making news by writing that literary magazines, generally speaking, continue to be a space where writers of some privilege meditate on their circumstances while writers of less privilege appear less often—and with different kinds of narratives. This is not true at all for A Public Space, and also not true for many sharp and thoughtful selections from any of the titles above. And frankly, the same can be said for Booth; the struggle to represent more diverse voices and broader experiences relies powerfully on the kinds of submissions we receive. But as a professor responsible for shaping and re-shaping the canon, I was reminded of the homogeneity of literary magazines while discussing the contemporary work in these issues.
When work submitted to Booth passes successfully through reading teams and goes up the ladder to our monthly roundtable, we remove the names for discussion and voting. Sometimes an author’s gender is seemingly apparent from the work and other times a complete mystery. Either way, when there’s twenty of us in a room debating, we don’t give it much truck. We are in dogged pursuit of the best material we can find to publish.
Once accepted, work appears on our website.1 Roughly twice a year, we curate print issues from the material that we’ve published online. And we never develop print issues without keeping a running count of the female/male ratio. In our recent 450-page anniversary issue, Booth X, we included thirty-two female authors and thirty-eight male authors. In Booth 9, the ratio was 12/12. We believe in the VIDA count as a critical cultural barometer of whose voices find airtime, and until VIDA includes us in their pie charts, we will hold ourselves accountable to the notion there is a multiplicity of important and arresting voices in the world. We are committed to being as inclusive as possible.
We received work from around five-hundred poets during the prize gig mentioned above. Our poetry editor that year was Kaveh Akbar. He was an amazingly dedicated editor who sifted through submissions in a thoughtful manner and at an impressive rate. He brought us the fifty longlisted poems, sans author names, and three of us sat down to put some debate to the matter. I’m not proud to say that all three editors at the table were male, but I am proud to say that we have had an abundance of incredible, female editors both before and after that afternoon.2 To the best of my memory, we never gave a second thought to the possible gender identities of the ten shortlisted poems. The final judge was Ellen Bryant Voigt; the Booth staff sat down with her a few weeks later, and she shared much wisdom about all ten poems before selecting Paula Brancato’s “The only time I ever cried at the gym.”
The idea for an issue of Booth dedicated to all women writers arrived while leading discussion of other lit mags in my editing course this past spring. And every time I looked at our list of recent acceptances and began to pull together a possible list of female authors, I’d stumble across so many amazing pieces we’d accepted by men who were, and still are, rightfully waiting to appear in print. And I’d get conflicted for a minute that we were asking these men to wait. But, you know, that concern quickly passed. American history is dominated by the patience of women, and the world of American publishing, a garden of so much culture and progressive thought, should have been leading this charge long ago. Furthermore, if you are a male writer and take umbrage that we would put together this issue, no matter how accomplished your work, I’d ask you to not submit to us in the future. I’m not suggesting we need to share the same politics for you to appear in Booth, but I am suggesting you should understand that our interest in publishing dynamic literature intersects with our interest in publishing the multiplicity of voices in the full breadth of our shared, contemporary experience.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate this issue of Booth to the author of the April 2015 inquiry above, J_____. Without his email, Booth 11: Women Writers would probably not exist. Your legacy is greater than you know.
2. Specifically, twelve of twenty-one Booth editor positions have been held by women since the poetry contest. In the interest of full disclosure, before this email arrived at headquarters, Booth’s female/male editor ratio was 17/16.
[Editor’s Note: Booth 11: Women Writers is available for purchase here.]