This Labor Was Never for You: Sex and the Small Press

1.
It is no secret that women’s work in the small press is often read by our male colleagues as a performance of desire, a kind of masquerade that appropriates and irreverently reconstitutes the conventions of academic spaces. Through the refraction of the cis male gaze, an invitation to “contribute”—or worse, to “collaborate”—becomes, for many men, an exploration of boundaries, power, and a deeply unsettling culture of literary celebrity.

To illustrate this problem, I would like to share an anecdote that is all too commonplace in the literary community. I showed up to a colleague’s reading in a nice dress, and crossed paths with a poet, with whom I had collaborated professionally. He demanded to know what I was doing there, near that building, at exactly the same time that he was standing there. Though I explained that my colleague was giving a reading, he persisted in his belief that I was there, in a nice dress, for him.

In reality, we as women in the small press, are working. Our language, our curatorial projects, and our insights are our livelihood. Still, it has become commonplace for cis men in the literary community to read our economic sustenance and survival—as we pass through the halls of the colleges where we adjunct, as we respond to submissions, and as we organize features and roundtables—as a grand romantic gesture, as a signification of sexual accessibility, a poorly crafted pickup line written in lemon juice.

More often than not, sex is perceived as being at the very center of our interactions, when in reality, survival is the endgame, the object of every wish and fantasy. Which is to say, this work I am doing, the labor that wrecks the nerves in my seemingly delicate hands, is not, was never, intended for you.

2.
As it happens, the problem always begins in language.  Many critics have articulated, and continue to stand by, a disturbing correlation that has been drawn between the physical body and textual body, in which the poem, essay, or story is seen as an extension or appendage of its author. Within this problematic conceptual framework, when a woman solicits the work, she solicits the physical body of that writer, in all of its slouching, argyle, and undoubtedly awkward postures.

A literature survey of work published in the field of hermeneutics will return innumerable books and articles with titles like “Text as Body, Body as Text,” “The Body as Text:  A Psychological and Cultural Reading,” “The Body as Cultural Text,” and so on. When scholars speak about literature, this mindset is as deeply entrenched as it is disturbing. Variations on this same perspective range from Donald Hall referring to poetic form as “The Sensual Body” to Michael McClure describing poetics as a kind of “meat science.” Cary Nelson adeptly summarizes this discourse in a recent study, noting that “[t]he idea of the poem as body or as direct expression of psychic and physiological ratios characterizes one dominant mode of poetry…forged around the authenticity of expression guaranteed by the signifying body.”

What has this discourse meant for women? I believe that this conceptual framework has had unwanted, and deeply felt, repercussions for not only women’s poetry, but for the communities in which they strive to develop their work, learn, and mentor others.

More often than not, when we as women express intellectual interest, this curiosity is read through the lens of physical desire, and in this way we are de-intellectualized by our male peers within a small press community that claims to have democratized self-expression for all. When a woman says, I love your book, it is all too often translated by male writers as that familiar beacon of hope and wishful thinking:  I love you.

To position any text as a projection of the physical body is reductive, as it limits expression to what is material and tactile, altogether negating what Paul Ricoeur called the “symbolic” dimensions of language. Within Freudian theory, this is where meaning “crystalizes,” gaining denseness and complexity; for Pound, this rhetorical space gives rise to the “emotional and intellectual complex” that the reader then unravels. The symbolic realm is where meaning and possibility multiply, and where poetry actually happens. The danger of framing language as mere physical utterance, rather than a more complex process of signification, is that one forecloses many of the intellectual planes to which language can deliver us.

What’s more, this desire to give the material body primacy over language is as misguided as it is dangerous. It invites a kind of biological essentialism into our academic and professional spaces, a mindset that does not challenge us to examine the ways we speak about gender, sexuality, and the visceral, tangible power dynamics within these settings. As Raewyn Cowell notes, “Curiously, whatever biological mechanism was appealed to, the argument always ended up in the same place: Conventional sex roles, gender divisions of labour, and inequalities of power, were biologically determined and therefore could not be challenged. Feminist activism was coming up against nature and so, ultimately, it was futile.”

The body itself exists as a discursive construction, arguably even more so than it does as a tangible thing. After all, it is language that gives meaning, coherence, and order to our most visceral perceptions. In a recent book on corporeality and social theory, Chris Schilling goes so far as to describe the body as an “absent presence,” noting the importance of language in constituting our relationship to our physical being. L. Jeffries even claims that the “role of the body is being taken by language.”

The tendency to read women’s writing as merely a performance of physical desire becomes, then, a kind of reduction of language itself, an essentialism that diminishes the intellect, reducing the elegant metaphor to innuendo, an aesthetic gesture to suggestion, and metonymy to Nabokovian disembodiment.

3.
The Sexualization of Women’s Labor in the Small Press: A Partial Archive

“Damn.  When you said you loved my work, I thought you meant something better.”

“Your poems are like fruits, Kristina.  They’re just begging to be squeezed.”

“I knew you wanted more than just a copy of my book.”

“I like the way you break your lines.”

“Yours fondly.”

“‘sup.”

4.
In the context of the #MeToo movement, it is crucial to note the relationship between textual violence and bodily violence. As Luce Irigaray notes in This Sex Which Is Not One, the breach of boundaries, and the subsequent violation, almost always begins in language. Indeed, signification often functions as a hypothetical testing ground, a separate space in which tangible boundaries and palpable relationships are forged, manipulated, or torn apart.

This is not to position language as the body, per se, but to underscore the ways language shapes our demeanor in the physical spaces we pass through in both professional and personal settings. If language, and the work we do with language, is framed as sexually charged, then this conceptual framework amplifies the potential, however muted it may be, for violation.

In his recent study, Re-Engendering Translation, Christopher Larkosh notes the tendency to “repeat physical violence through textual violence,” and to perpetuate power imbalances though one’s discursive construction of the other. I would caution anyone against thinking that physical violence is, in the end, subdued to textual violence in Larkosh’s analysis. Rather, there is an active and ongoing reciprocity between language and the visceral power dynamics between people.

Case in point: I spent three years of my young adult life corresponding with an older man, more established in his career than myself. Though he later became physically violent toward me, he first defaced my book and mailed it to me. Language was the first fire, the last light.

There is a deeply entrenched tendency among many cis men to view language through the lens of sexuality, as kind of a prerequisite for establishing power, influence, and gauging where exactly a boundary lies. In recent years, even poetry has been coopted as a kind of metonymy, standing in for what has not yet, and might never, be said between two people.

Which is to say, the free play of meaning that makes poetry beautiful has been stilled, arrested, all but frozen in place.

Image credit: Unsplash/Natalie Grainger.