A year or so ago, I found myself in a bar talking about numbers. I’d gone out for a beer after a poetry reading, and struck up a conversation with another poet about diversity and segregation in New York City’s poetry culture. Nobody likes quotas, but I pointed out that it could be helpful for an editor or reading series curator to keep an eye on their numbers, to take that kind of systematic approach to their work. At least then they wouldn’t end up with the all white roster or table of contents that I see all too often. My fellow poet, a white man, and an editor for a small press, made a face. “I’d much rather the diversity happen in a more organic way,” he argued. “People can sense when it’s not genuine.”
I went home that night and thought about that comment. I kept coming back to it for weeks afterward. Then, on a hunch, I looked up the authors of the poet’s press. They were all white. This is what happens when you wait for change to happen organically.
Change may not come naturally, but, to my mind, more important than ease or authenticity, in this case, is visibility. Even if the gesture toward a more inclusive literary space is born more of obligation than genuine impulse, it’s a start. A marginalized voice has worked its way into the view of the dominant culture for a moment, and hopefully that moment repeats itself and multiplies again and again. Until there’s room for every kind of person in that spotlight. Until there’s nothing unusual about that.
Empire Reading Series, an offshoot of Phantom Books, curates with an eye toward the numbers: so far, each of their events has featured a balance of genders and at least two poets of color out of the four readers. The readings are held monthly, September through May, at the Art Café + Bar in Brooklyn, and according to Phantom’s website, the series and the space itself are driven to “promote and support free expression and diversity of all people by fostering opportunities for people to have a voice.” You sense that spirit in their events: rather than just doing the math and leaving it at that, their readings are thoughtfully put together to showcase a variety of voices — varied in race, gender, sexuality, style and subject. As a member of the Executive Committee for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, I’ve been party to a lot of conversations about numbers lately. When publications come up short after the annual VIDA Count, they often stand behind their largely male, largely white contributor list, making the popular argument that their homogeneous pages are the result not of bias, but of a rigorous editorial process that sees neither gender nor race, only merit. In response to the Time Literary Supplement’s traditionally abysmal gender imbalance, editor Peter Stothard states a version of this case: “Unlike many other publications, the TLS is an open shop, we use thousands of reviewers and seek out new critics all the time and we don’t count them for gender, or indeed for anything else, apart from their good writing and powers of critical argument. We certainly don’t look to fill any quotas.”
As I said, nobody likes quotas. But the obvious distaste coiled within the word here unsettles me. In that distaste, I see the idea that any consideration of gender balance or racial diversity is demeaning. As if to curate with an eye toward inclusivity would result in a lesser product, something sullied, something diluted and dumbed down. What this argument fails to account for is the fact that our very idea of which work qualifies as good and worthy is influenced by our culture’s notion of who is worthy, and who is worth listening to.
After Rattle Magazine made a similar argument in response to a critique from Joey de Jesus about the lack of people of color among their contributors, the editors of Apogee posted an essay on their blog examining the wisdom of blind submissions, and the illusion that this process leads to an unbiased selection process based purely on literary merit. They questioned the lofty notion that there exists some objective quality called literary excellence: “Artistic and literary aesthetics are not an algorithm, and ‘literary excellence’ is not an infallible mathematics. In fact, this standard is based on a preponderance of white, cis-male, heteronormative writing that has been and still is central to the literary mainstream.”
Apogee itself is a publication that is continually working to question our accepted notions of literary excellence and make a space for traditionally marginalized voices. “Our mission combines literary aesthetic with political activism,” they state on their website, “We believe that by elevating underrepresented literary voices we can effect real change: change in readers’ attitudes, change in writers’ positions in literature, and broader change in society.”
Apogee isn’t alone in its efforts. The Offing is a new online literary magazine from the Los Angeles Review of Books whose mission is to actively seek out and support the work of those whose voices are often marginalized. When Ron Charles of The Washington Post asked The Offing to justify their existence in a world brimming with literary journals, the editors made it clear that there was a need for the work they’d set out to do. “Ultimately, we wouldn’t be doing this if we thought ‘the best that is being thought and written’ was all making its way to publication,” they said. “The Offing’s reason for being is, at least in part, to move beyond liberality, beyond tolerance, even beyond ‘welcome,’ to seek out and amplify the voices of these writers and artists, to put them at the center, to put them in charge. We are working, alongside many others, toward a more profound transformation of, and a true diversity in, the literary world — and the world beyond.”
In Empire, Apogee, and The Offing, I see spaces that are a platform for a multiplicity of voices. Spaces for conversation. Spaces to challenge our established ideas of what is good, what is worthy, what is important. And spaces like these are essential. We’d all like to believe that we have no biases, that we approach each person, each poet, each writer, without pre-existing prejudices. But even the mindful among us have our blind spots. We can’t always get it right, but we can try. It’s a challenge, certainly, but it’s encouraging to see entities like these accepting that challenge and working toward getting it right, in a sort of asymptotic effort that must be ongoing. I think that it is, in part, about numbers. But of course it’s about more than that. Numbers are a start. We can’t ignore them. When the numbers are poor, we must ask why, and as we work toward an answer, we also work to create a new tradition, a new normal, and a new standard for literary excellence.
Camille Rankine’s first book of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, is forthcoming in the fall from Copper Canyon Press. She is the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship, and a recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Atlas Review, American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Octopus Magazine, Paper Darts, Phantom Books, A Public Space, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is Assistant Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Manhattanville College and lives in New York City.