Susan Bernofsky described recently the “disheartening” numbers, when it comes to the percentage of female authors in translation. Across twenty-five presses evaluated by Women in Translation, only twenty-five percent of books in English translation were by women, and some of Bernofsky’s favorite presses (some of mine, too), like New Directions and Archipelago, were among the worst perpetrators, publishing sixteen percent and thirteen percent female authors, respectively.
Good poetry is good poetry because of who wrote it. If you want to get fancy about it, it’s an index of the culturally defined experiences of the author and the ways that author has taken agency within them, has interacted with his or her own received cultural and historical condition. Poetry isn’t good simply because it has kickass slant rhyme or wicked trippy imagery but because it employs those techniques mimetically to engage heritages and traditions that constitute the wisdom—and oppressions—of most acute concern at a given historical moment.
“I think for me I don’t approach the page with some necessary truth that I’m aware of as I enter a poem. Often my poems start with a story or a fragment that I want to communicate or display for people and embedded in those things is a truth that reveals later.”
Last week, I saw a film about the life of Julius Rosenwald, an early twentieth-century businessman and philanthropist who financed a series of rural black schools, built and run with the oversight of the Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald otherwise had a life such as that from which the myth of the American dream is made. He started as a merchant on the streets of Chicago, worked his way up in the “rag trade” and eventually became chief of Sears and Roebuck. In the meantime, he made large matching donations to black YMCAs and attracted the attention of Booker T. Washington. Washington took him on a tour of Tuskegee, and soon the two formed a partnership, building what would be called the Rosenwald Schools, funded by Rosenwald and each school’s immediate community, staffed by Tuskegee-trained teachers, and erected by the black communities they served.
“I think not enough people are writing about the Civil Rights Movement—those who lived through it are passing on, and many of them did not document their stories. But one person’s involvement in a period is just as important as an overarching history—I think there needs to be more of that. It encourages individuals to be courageous and work to correct what’s wrong in their countries, their lives. I think curious students and history buffs will read it, but above all, I hope it will empower African-Americans and women.”