What I Meant to Say

Wendy Babiak's Visions and Revisions

Women, Self-Promotion, Community, and the Real Work

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I’m sitting in my cheery breakfast nook, typing on my Neo, listening to soothing music (songs dedicated to Kuan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, we got from a link on Annie Finch’s Facebook page), recovering my center after spending the past couple of days occupied with social networking. This is my second foray into Facebook. The first was aborted due to a policy of my husband’s employer. He’s now self-employed (and learning all about self-promotion himself, and I’m free to be myself as publicly as I choose. And with a book the release of which is immanent, it’s really part of the job description. But it’s something I don’t do without qualms. Part of it IS a safety issue. As the daughter of a criminologist and the wife of a psychiatrist, I’m probably hyper-aware of how sick people can be (so to any relatives or close friends who are wanting pictures of the kids, just ask, and I’ll send you links to private albums).

But it’s not just that. There’s something particularly icky about the feeling self-promotion gives me, a self-centeredness that feels ugly and pretty counter to my personal poetics, which are all about seeing into the perspective of the Other (whether that’s someone of an alien faith or another species), a great world-nurturing, an embrace of the unity of things. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s not just religion’s admonishments that make me feel that way, but also a gender-specific societal conditioning. There was a conversation recently at Harriet about the disparity in the numbers of women being published, and it came down to us submitting in lesser numbers (though the fact that some cultural gatekeepers may exhibit a bias against “women’s writing” or women’s perspectives is evident, given incidents like the recent Publisher’s Weekly book-list fiasco). Considering that the number of women writing is huge (going by enrollment in creative writing programs), the fact that so few attempt publication points to something that needs to be examined (this gender imbalance between production and exhibition is pervasive in all the arts, as illuminated in the recent movie Who Does She Think She Is?). As I confessed at Harriet, I’ve been very lax about it myself, only sending out small numbers of submissions very rarely (all considered, I have an impressive batting average). The book manuscript being published was entered, in earlier versions, in two or three contests only, and then to one press at which, not being widely published, I really had no hope with. Plain View Press attracted my attention with this bit of verbiage: “Despite evidence that relentless violence has taken root worldwide, there is hope and there are artists to show the human face of it.” I sent a query, then a sample, and then the whole thing. It turns out that Susan Bright, my editor, started the press as a feminist one decades ago, branching out to wider social-justice issues later. It’s a testament to the big-tent attitude of contemporary feminism, btw, that she would choose to publish a book of poems written by a housewife.

But back to why women lag behind in self-promotion. Is it a feeling, instilled at an early age, that we can’t possibly be good enough? Or simply that it’s not “nice,” not “ladylike,” to push ourselves on others? Men don’t seem to have much trouble with the idea. Like with most societal phenomena, I’m sure there’s a confluence of contributing factors; it’s helpful to worry about only the ones we can control. So I’m working on my cognitive framework. Taking a page from Eckhart Tolle, I’m examining my thoughts on the matter and trying to see how I can think about self-promotion differently in order to feel more comfortable with it. I know I do NOT want to experience it as any sort of competition. I’ve heard that Sylvia Plath devoted a fair bit of mental space to ranking herself in relation to other women writing poetry; I can’t help but wonder if that contributed to her psychopathology (or was it symptomatic of it?). I know I refuse to see poetry as a zero-sum game. I prefer a cooperative model (as I do with all economies) in which a rising tide raises all boats. For that reason I’m hugely grateful to women like Amy King, who let me, a complete unknown, send her my manuscript, and Joanne Merriam, who so generously introduced me the other day to her followers at Twitterworld, and, for that matter, to Annie Finch, for accepting my friend request and for being a role model for other women poets, a shining example of a woman who has succeeded hugely in the Po-Biz without sacrificing her humanity or femininity (see this post in which she proudly claims the title Poetess). These are talented women who have managed to overcome whatever societal conditioning may have impeded them in the beginning in order to get their writing out there. I’m pleased as punch they see fit to give a hand to someone like me, for whom it’s been a temptation to take the Emily-Dickinson route, leaving my poems bundled in ribbon for my survivors to deal with (my daughter assures me she would), which would be much more pleasant. The world is a mess, though. When Brian was in school at Georgetown (for those who don’t know, it’s a Jesuit school), I read a book from the library, very Catholic (my inherited faith from which it’s well-nigh impossible to fully extract oneself), about the responsibility of the artist. This was when I was about to embark on my senior year of college as a writing major, and I was giving serious thought to what I should do with my art. Later, my study of Buddhism convinced me that my desire to ease the suffering of the world was a valid one.

Like most practices, this is going to be a balancing act, and I must find the sweet spot between not doing enough to promote my work, and becoming so involved in that aspect of it that I neglect the work itself. Because this book is just the beginning. Stay tuned.

Author: Wendy Babiak

Poet, permaculturalist, lay Carmelite. Pretty sure the world needs more love and less politics.

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