The Sister-Poet Numbers: Count Number Two


Recently, I wrote a blog post about a Black male poetry colleague of mine, Major Jackson, and how I felt as if he erased me from Black poetry history in an interview in Poets and Writers; he mentioned attending the very first retreat of Cave Canem African American Poets in 1996, but only mentioned the two other men (besides himself) to attend that year and to publish poetry books. He did not mention me, the only woman out of the first group of 1996 Cave Canem fellows to have made an ongoing career in poetry. I felt the oversight was, well, sexist.

That blog post–Count Number One in the Black Poetry World– set off a firestorm. Actually, “fire” is not the right first syllable of that word, but as you know I try not to curse on the blog. (In real life is another story.)  After the post, I was attacked for criticizing Major Jackson; criticizing Cave Canem, the most influential Black poetry organization there is out there; and just generally being a Black-male-poet-hating, evil heifer who needed several bouts of therapy, a good drink– and some good something else, too.

Surprise.

I will admit that I have been vocal over the years by what I have viewed as favoritism in the Black poetry world for the Brother-poets. And I’m one of only a few Sisters who will make those charges in public—and in print. I’m not counting whispering as “public.”

I don’t criticize other Sisters for not being vocal, though; it’s understandable when they remain silent, considering the attacks that have been leveled against me recently. Not that I can’t handle them. Let’s be clear about that. But I have had some serious support from some Sister-writers, some White women writers, and actually a few Brothers, too. And, of course, my mama. And that support makes me stronger.

So those Sisters who remain silent out of fear don’t bother me.–No, the ones who bother me are the Sisters who join in on the attacks. And there were several to do that. And the ones who really bother me are those who have ribbed me up to talk about these issues of sexism and then desert me when I need some backup.

Sidebar: I gotta tell you, nothing is more annoying than Black women who encourage my “courageous truth-telling spirit” in my poetry and then, they don’t understand that what happens in real life is, like, the truth.

Okay?

But the talk of sexism against women writers of all complexions in the “mainstream” writing world—not just poetry– has been all over the blogosphere lately.

Slate.com has run several pieces, one just recently by Meghan O’Rourke.

And yesterday, Cate Marvin and Carol Muske-Dukes published another piece.

Last week in Huffington Post, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner talked about the way that reviewers at the most prestigious publications (especially the New York Times Book Review) ignore women writers when it comes to reviews.

Weiner said the following:

‎The [NY]Times tends to pick white guys [to review]. Usually white guys living in  Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs…white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times’ powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.

And there are several women writers associated with the fabulous, sassy women writers’ site vidaweb.org who have joined the discussion, too. The poets Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin are the co-founders, and they are in the midst of compiling a count of how many women of all complexions have won prestigious awards, etcetera. They are still tallying up those numbers.

However, I want to help the conversation by looking at the numbers of African American female poets, too; surely, this is a very specific target group, but it is my specific target group, after all. Now, I’d like to include the numbers for Sister fiction writers as well but I need help with that. So any of my readers who are Sister-fiction writers and who don’t mind being public on this issue–because I’m not gone work with somebody in private–just give me a holler. I will be so grateful.

So, I decided to start with one of the most prestigious fellowships there is, the Fine Arts Work Center of Provincetown, Massachusetts. FAWC gives you an eight-month fellowship which includes a monthly stipend and a rent-free place to stay, including utilities.

Now let’s talk about the numbers. Here goes.

Did you know that in the entire forty-one year history of the Fine Arts Work Center—since they started admitting writers and not just visual artists—there  have only been eight Black poets to have won this prestigious fellowship?

And did you know that not one of those eight Black poets are female?

That’s right, no Black women poet has ever been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.  If you can tell me differently, please leave a comment below.  I went through the entire list, but I may not have recognized a name. There is always a chance that I made a mistake. You can read the list here.

[NOTE: On 9/16/10 A Facebook Friend pointed out that I was wrong that not one Black woman poet has won. Donna K. Rushin–who goes by “Kate Rushin” now– won thirty-three years ago and was in residence 1977-78. And Brenda Marie Osbey won a year-long FAWC fellowship twenty-three years ago and was in residence from 1987-88. Thus, it has been twenty-three years since a Black woman poet has won a year-long fellowship at FAWC. Not quite as bad as “never” but still, that’s pretty bad. ]

Here are the names of all the Black male poets I could locate who have been fellows at FAWC:

1980 Yusef Komunyakaa

1982 Cyrus Cassells

1991 Timothy Seibles

1995 Thomas Sayers Ellis

1999 Ronaldo Wilson

2000 Major Jackson

2004 Tyehimba Jess

2007 John Murillo

[Second update 9/16/10 One of my readers just let me know in the comments that there is a new Black male poet who is currently a 2010-2011 Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. His name is Marcus Wicker.]

I want to be clear about why I think this information matters. First,  if you go to the FAWC website and you look at the list of names, you will recognize some of the most famous and canonized poets in American poetry. The Fine Arts Work Center provides an entry into the elite, top-tier group of American Poets. Here’s what they say on the website.

Past Fellows have won virtually every major national award in their respective fields, including the Pulitzer, MacArthur, Whiting, Pollock-Krasner, Tiffany, Prix de Rome, Guggenheim, NEA, and National Book Award.

Those writing awards listed above come with a lot of money, money that could buy you time to take off from your job to write your book, while still paying your rent, your bills,  and the weekly charge for your babies’ daycare.

Get the picture? Those that get these type of awards are usually more productive writers than those of us who don’t. Then you can use those awards to barter for a raise if you are teaching in academia–so you finally pay off your student loans with the capitalizing interest. So wanting these awards is not about “classism” or “elitism.” It’s about survival of the productive artist. Believe that.

Second, I don’t have some personal beef that makes me perversely keep bringing this stuff out. I’m concerned about why Black women poets don’t get the same attention as Black male poets and since I’m a Black woman and a poet, sure, this is personal, but it’s not some beef, it’s some politics.

However, I also want to be clear that, just because Black males get the lion’s share of attention, that’s still very little attention overall for Black poets.

That said, though, I don’t think it’s fair to expect us Sisters to keep quiet and wait–and wait and wait– just so the Brothers can go first and get their little bit before us. I don’t think it’s fair, especially when I hear very few of the Brother-poets I know–like, three, out of  hundreds– speaking up for Sisters and against Black male privilege in the poetry world in public and in print.

Again, whispering does not count as public, especially if that’s your “sensitive, conscious” rap when you’re trying to impress a Sister to get yourself some. Sugar, please. That’s a game from a dusty player’s handbook left in the attic of a minor poet of the Black Arts Movement.

Anyway, how many well-known, powerful Black male poets are mentoring Black female poets right now–writing them letters of recommendation for jobs and large-purse fellowships, writing blurbs for the backs of their books, giving them the inside information they need to further their careers along, talking to editors at their prestigious New York presses to get those women published, “walking” those women’s poems over to the best journals, and mentioning their names in interviews in high profile magazines as the “poets to watch”?

How many Black male poets are standing by us Sisters?

Because just about every Sister-poet I know is working with a Brother-poet  and helping to nurture his career in some kind of way, and throwing every bit of influence she has behind him. But that’s what we’ve always done in some capacity in this community for Black men. We’ve always looked out for them. Why should the poetry world be any different?

[Stay tuned for Count Number Three of Black Women Poets. Come on—you know you want to know!]

18 thoughts on “The Sister-Poet Numbers: Count Number Two

  1. thanks so much for writing this. I am really interested in the impact institutions have on promoting/silencing black poets, especially women. Also, to add to that list, Marcus Wicker is a new fellow there, he is a CC brother.

  2. Thank you so much for this post that addresses hurtful but true aspects of race dynamics and gender dynamic in the white, white world that poetry continues to be. I read this for one because my godsis above (thanks nina) posted it on fb. Thank you so much for your words and your acting up Honoree!!!

  3. sorry it took me so long to read yr article. been bogged down w classes. but as always, you speak the truth. btw, in the book ida: a sword of lions, ida b wells faced many brothas head on including frederick douglass and especially w.e.b. dubois who she schooled. and, she was not afraid…

  4. I suppose it could be worse. I perused that list and didn’t find enough Latinos there to play the Black list in a pick-up game. Or a game of Twister, for that matter.

    By that list, I’d also gather there are no Puerto Ricans in Massachusetts…besides my friend in Amherst who taught there. Once.

    Provincetown: ¿No se puede?

    • @ Rich: excellent point. What kind of representation do, say, Native Americans get on that list?…GLBT?…we could go on and on I’m sure.

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