The Golden Circlet

All the good things in life

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On Printing Poetry (and Being Supportive)

I’m taking a letterpress chapbook printing class. I’ve wanted to learn printmaking for a long time, for a project I have in mind, and the opportunity came up to learn in this way, so I grabbed it. Everyone in the class is printing a chapbook of poetry, for a practical reason. Setting type into paragraphs isn’t a good beginner letterpress exercise, because one error and you have to redo the entire paragraph. Which, at the rate I set type, might take me 8-12 hours. For one paragraph. So the instructor doesn’t let you set prose. Poetry it is: Make a mistake in typesetting, and you only have to fix one line.

There’s another restriction set by the instructor, too, which is that — given that we are publishing an edition of 20 copies of each chapbook — the poetry set has to be free of problems with copyright. Either you own the copywright, or you have permission, or it’s in the public domain. I’m setting my own poetry, but I’m the only one. The other women in the class — the class is all women, except the instructor, this time — are setting various things.  Some Gerard Manley Hopkins, some Victorian doggerel, some other things I haven’t kept track of. But this was the interesting thing to me: There are eight women in the class. Two are setting their husbands’ poetry, one woman her boyfriend’s poetry, and one woman the poetry of a friend.

Here’s the thing: I’m a feminist. I’m a skillful apprentice writer and poet. I’m a talented behavioral scientist. (Does that sound arrogant to you? Maybe so. I’m also a little bit arrogant.) Not only that, I’m used to being extremely well-supported by the men who care about me. My husband is a stay-at-home parent for our son. He makes nearly all of my meals. He does most of the child care and always has. He does most of the housework. In the most fundamental sense, he supports my career.  In fact, almost all of the men I’ve loved have been feminists, all of the men I’ve ever loved have cared about me and wanted my success in whatever endeavor I put my mind to.  I’m privileged to be able to say I’ve always been very well supported by men.

I’ve been well supported by men (and women) specifically as an artist and scientist. I’ve received lots of encouragement and praise for my writing and scientific work from male teachers and colleagues. I’ve received excellent criticism, extended, time-consuming, focused criticism over multiple drafts  of my writing, from male poets at my online poetry workshop, and detailed reviews of my scientific work from male scholars and editors. All of my mentors, of both genders, have always done their jobs for me and given me tremendous opportunities (although with my sample n = 1 I can say that the female mentors have always been more generous, and occasionally the male mentors have hit on me, which the female mentors never have done). Male editors have published my poetry and my scientific work. Male judges have awarded me prizes. The men who love me have — when I’ve asked — read manuscripts, made copies of grant applications, run things to the post office at midnight to meet a deadline. I’ve had plenty of privileges given to me by my betters and loved ones (of both genders) as an artist and a scientist, and I couldn’t possibly ask for more.

But I really, truly, cannot imagine any man in my life taking it into his head to learn to typeset so that he could set a chapbook of my poetry. If they had that kind of time or energy for art, it would be their own art they would be investing in. (And rightly so!) That kind of support — the kind of support where someone believes in your art or your ideas to such a degree that they take your success on as a personal project of their own — is not support I’ve ever received from anyone, with one exception. When I was a little girl, 9 or 10 years old, my favorite aunt, also a fine poet, submitted my poetry to literary magazines and contests. The accolades she worked for on my behalf were my only publication and prize credits for poetry until I was well into my 30s. It took that long for me to develop that kind of drive for myself.

I’ve  provided this kind of support to a few artists I’ve known and cared about, mostly men, sometimes lovers and sometimes “just” friends, gifted people who captured my imagination and whom I wanted to prod onto a wider stage. Not because anyone asked me or expected me to, but because I loved and admired the artists and/or loved and admired the art. Because I wanted the best for them.  And looking around my letterpress class, half full of women setting their beloveds’ poetry, I know I’m not alone.

Recently I approached a male poet friend about a possible collaboration, and he turned me down in a way that was mysterious to me for a long time. He suggested that I had the talent to do this work for myself, ought to develop the confidence to do it for myself, and therefore didn’t need him as a collaborator. I was mystified because my sense was that confidence had nothing to do with it. (I have my insecurities, but not so much about writing.) I wanted to collaborate because I like to collaborate — I like the energy of two or more people writing and making art together, encouraging each other, challenging each other. I get more done in groups and pairs than I do on my own, because it’s so artistically satisfying to work in collaboration. What did confidence have to do with it?

But then I remembered this brilliant article, that I’ve always assigned students to read when I teach about the psychology of gender. Maccoby’s point is that gender is not mostly learned from parents and families. It’s learned on the playground, from other same-gender kids. What do little boys teach other little boys?

That life is about dominance, about victory, about success, about who wins at King of the Hill. So the men I’ve known have mostly been focused on their own careers, their own ambitions. When they think about others’ careers, it’s mostly to compare and figure out how to get ahead. They might like me, love me, care about me, be in love with me, but they certainly don’t have time to typeset my poetry. No wonder my friend assumed if I wanted to collaborate it must be because I didn’t think my work could stand on its own. Why else make the effort?

But what do little girls teach other little girls on the playground? That life is about love, relationships, braiding hair and telling stories, who likes you, who you can be kind to in return. So I know lots of women that work in groups, or that get personal gratification and enjoyment out of developing and promoting other people’s art. Think of Julia Cameron and her former husband Martin Scorsese. They’re both famous. But he’s “one of the greatest directors of all time.” And she’s “most famous for her book The Artist’s Way,” which was “written to help people with creative artistic recovery.” He makes masterpieces, and she makes masterpiece-makers. 

Scorsese and Cameron weren’t married long, but they were married at a pivotal moment in his career. Would he be “one of the greatest” without her midwifery? Maybe he would. But how many men would be the artists or scientists they are today, without the personal investment of the kind of women who would learn to typeset so they could publish a book of his poetry?