Back when I earned my MFA in Poetry at Columbia, the majority of the students were women, and nearly all of our teachers were men. They were a distinguished lot, and most took their teaching seriously. They were also, collectively, typically sexist. Work produced by male poets nearly always merited more serious consideration than that of the women. If the reigning ethos among the poetry faculty wasn’t as notably sexually predatory as that of some of the fiction writers—check out the recent Broadway hit Seminar by Theresa Rebeck for a telling send-up of one notorious novelist among them—the air in the poetry workshops was still thick with gendered tension.
My problem was that unlike many of my fellow poets, I had been schooled, with an undergraduate minor in Women’s Studies and a post-baccalaureate year in Paris studying literary and feminist theory, to sniff out and root out patriarchy when and where I found it. But that’s an easier task when your professors are radical feminist philosophers, and much harder when they’re middle-aged, white, tweed-wearing writers, editors, and publishers upon whom your future career depends.
In my second year in the writing program, I picked up a copy of Toril Moi’s new book Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, and came across a passage that I thought crystallized my and my sister writers’ situation. Moi summarized a feminist scholar’s account of a young Danish poet with a gender-neutral first name whose debut collection was positively reviewed by a critic who assumed the author was a man:
“This glowing review abounds in active verbs and has relatively few adjectives, although the ones that do occur are powerfully positive ones ‘joyous’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘rich’, and so on. A year later the same critic reviewed Cecil Bødker’s second collection of poetry. By now he had discovered that she was a woman, and though he was still warmly enthusiastic about her poetry the vocabulary of praise had undergone an interesting transformation: now Cecil Bødker ‘s poetry is no more than ‘pleasant’, and there are three times as many adjectives, and these have not only changed in nature (‘pretty’, ‘healthy’, ‘down-to-earth’), but also show an alarming propensity for taking on modifiers (‘somewhat’, ‘a certain’,’probably’), none of which appeared in the first review…Her conclusion is that the critic’s attitude unconsciously reveals that…male reviewers just cannot attach the same degree of authority to a voice they know to be female. Even when they do give a good review to a woman they automatically select adjectives and phrases that tend to make women’s poetry charming and sweet (as women should be), as opposed to serious and significant (as men should be).” *
This passage spurred me to action. I was working part-time as an administrative assistant in the Barnard Women’s Studies Program, and stayed after hours to use the IBM Selectric to type up this insightful text. At the bottom I put the sentence: “This is something to think about the next time you are critiquing student poems.” I left the letter unsigned, and made some photocopies. The next morning I surreptitiously placed the notes in the mailboxes of the poetry faculty, with the exception of the only woman teaching that term. I was in her writing workshop, and didn’t think she needed the message that was being conveyed. This was perhaps a tactical error.
It seemed like an innocuous enough gesture, and I was completely unprepared for the outsized response. It was as though someone had planted an incendiary device in the faculty lounge. Word started circulating that the faculty and administration were on the hunt for the perpetrator. They were outraged that anyone might suggest some kind of gender bias was at play in the their classrooms. They were enraged that the woman poet had not received a copy of the indictment. One poet, in front of a crowded seminar in which I was enrolled, denounced as a coward the miscreant who had the temerity to anonymously make such a charge and demanded that she step forward immediately. I wasn’t sure if this was a challenge to a debate or a duel, but I did not take the bait. Soon thereafter a general announcement was made that students would no longer have access to faculty mailboxes; the room would be locked and all correspondence would be vetted before distribution.
The writing program’s administrative assistant, with whom I was on friendly terms, approached me to ask if I was the culprit. “It’s all anyone’s talking about—and you’re the only one we could think of who would be reading this kind of thing,” she explained. I had been raised by Bible-thumping Armenian Evangelicals to believe that lying was a terrible sin, and I could have counted on one hand the times I had knowingly lied thus far in my life. At that moment, however, having the distinct impression that I would have been kicked out of the program for merely expressing an opinion, I believed that lying was justified. So I said, “I don’t disagree with the sentiment expressed, but it wasn’t me.”
Only two other people were in the know, both of them close friends of mine, and they had promised not to talk. The administrative assistant questioned them, and they feigned ignorance. Then one of them was invited to the home of the chair of the writing program, and she faintly hoped it was for a conversation about her poems. Of course, it was for an offsite, private grilling about the incident. She didn’t betray me.
They knew I did it, and I knew they knew I did it, and they knew I knew they knew. But I didn’t admit it, and though my remaining days in the department were lived under the shadow of a lingering suspicion, by the time I received my degree the incident had already become something of a footnote, a communal knowledge in which my guilt—and yes, I did feel guilty about not owning up to my deed—somehow joined their guilt (their furiously punitive response to the letter was evidence enough of their patriarchal ways) as something we had genuinely shared.
Even so, all these years, even decades, later, I feel some trepidation about confessing.
*Toril Moi, Textual/Sexual Politics, Routledge, 1985, p. 34-35.
Confession originally appeared on www.feministwire.com