Kara Candito

I’m a Rabbit and this is My Owl: On Beauty and the Female Poet’s Body

May 30, 2012 | 6 Comments | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Now that beauty-gate has blown over, I’d like to ask some uncomfortable questions about the role beauty may or may not play in shaping contemporary female poets’ experiences within writing communities. First, a brief recap: the beauty-gate scandal, as it was coined by poet C Dale Young, began when, as part of a Ploughshares interview, poet Eduardo Corral addressed his experiences of outsidership in queer poetry circles in New York City and attributed this outsidership to, among other things, the fact that he doesn’t conform to the standard of physical beauty that seems prevalent in the city’s queer poetry community. In the ensuing meme, Alex Dimitrov, whose name Corral never mentioned, was implicated as being a gatekeeper of one of the groups to which Corral may or may not have been alluding. Five days ago (an eternity in internet time), Dimitrov published a brave and honest response to the controversy on his blog, and this seems to have put the matter to rest.

Justifiably, there was palpable concern and anger in many of the responses to beauty-gate. The idea of a writing community in which one’s physical appearance may be as or more important as one’s actual work seems antithetical to everything poetry stands for. The rhetoric that was hurled in both directions (mostly against, but also for the notion of the poet as aesthete) led me to consider the absence of rhetoric about the role physical appearance may play in shaping the experiences of female poets within literary circles where many of the gatekeepers are heterosexual men.

First, to be perfectly clear, I believe there is absolutely no correlation between any poet’s physical appearance and the beauty of her/his poetry. In fact, it feels to me like a copout when I use the word beautiful to talk about poetry, because so often beautiful might easily be replaced with another more specific adjective–sublimeviolentterrifyingdefamiliarizing, or even humiliating. But that’s another conversation. Secondly, what we call beautiful in poetry and in the world is always a subjective value judgement. There are also certain dominant cultural standards of physical beauty that influence (consciously or unconsciously) how many of us determine which bodies are and are not beautiful. And it’s just a fact that women’s bodies are entrenched in a long history of beauty-objectification. Enter the straight white male gaze.  In this sense, asking a female poet, or any female, if she’s ever felt judged or othered based on a normative standard of beauty is as simple as asking, did you go to middle school? (Disclaimer: middle school was terrible. Everyone suffered. If you are a woman you know why I bring up middle school. If you are a man, you know why I bring up middle school). Naturally, one would expect more integrity and less superficiality from a community of adult poets. However, one has only to be an observer at a large writing conference to witness the ways in which beauty and power converge in disturbing ways. So, while the vast majority of us agree that physical appearance should have no bearing upon one’s acceptance within a community of writers, it can and perhaps sometimes does.  I think Corral’s courageous insights about feeling like an outsider in his interactions with a particular writing community were generally well-received–by which I mean validated, supported, or met with empathy–because the community at hand is geographically and, to an extent, demographically specific. It is easier to recognize and perhaps contend with the possibility that a certain community in a certain place is superficial or exclusive.

Unsurprisingly, female poets’ experiences of otherness or acceptance based on their looks are often more diffused and therefore difficult to address with a sense of legitimacy. To say, I realized at this conference or event that the established male writers or editors seemed most interested in talking to women under twenty-five who looked like ______, is to invite a lot of scrutiny. There is a tremendous amount of baggage that accompanies the beauty question for women. If we claim we feel professionally or socially excluded because we fail to meet a standard of beauty, we are more at risk of being labeled as bitter or untalented. Conversely, if we invest our time and energy into cultivating our physical appearance, we are more at risk of having our potential success dismissed as a product of our looks. In fact, physical appearance–caring or not caring; giving the impression that one cares or does not care–and the role it may or may not play in one’s acceptance within writing communities seems to me a minefield for the contemporary female poet.

All My Guilty Ones

I confess to being invested in a certain degree of self-stylization (beauty-mongering?).  I’m an Anthropologie sale-rack addict. I’m on the Mod Cloth newsletter. I cannot afford to be fancier than this, but I would, if given the budget. Admittedly, I feel better when I present a stylized face to the world. As a person whose vocation involves thinking too much about too many things, this affinity has long been a source of conflict. Does it demonstrate my acquiescence to a repressive cultural mentality that associates a woman’s worth with her physical appearance? Or, as I’d like to, but can’t fully believe, is it a series of acts rooted in personal agency, which prove that any body is a just a surface performance? How does any woman determine the line between seeking to cultivate beauty as a form of self-stylization with agency and seeking to cultivate beauty as a form of conformity to the cultural and social pressures that exert themselves over women’s bodies? In short, female poets might feel damned (by ourselves and each other) if we do care, and damned (othered or excluded by some of the male gatekeepers of diffused writing communities) if we don’t care.

Like many people, I disagree with the supposition that the beauty of one’s poetry relates to one’s quest for physical beauty.  I want to put aside that aspect of  Jameson Fitzpatrick’s argument in “Anne Sexton, Aesthetics & the Economy of Beauty” (a mayor player in beauty-gate) for a moment, and admit that I was struck by the extent to which the piece associated self-stylization with personal agency. This notion might be, as he stated, born of youthful folly, or even the fancy phantasmagoria of the New York City literary scene. Yet, regardless of their age, I don’t think many female poets would be vocal about such a belief, perhaps because they couldn’t fully convince themselves of its truth. Can women and even non-white men truly believe that the body is just a surface performance? I’m a Judith Butler fan, and yet I can’t help but recall Henry Louis Gates’ remark about her theory of performativity: it’s not going to help a black man hail a cab in New York City (Or, for that matter, help him enter his own house in Cambridge, MA without getting arrested).  It seems some queer white male poets can freely choose to self-stylize, to turn their bodies into a malleable surfaces to be desired or sought after by other subjects. Conversely, the female poet who self-stylizes is already conforming to, as John Berger says, being looked at by a male in a subject-position she will always be outside of. Therefore, a female poet who says yes, I try to be beautiful is simultaneously expected (in the this final image is just so expected sense), guilty (of conformity to a patriarchical cultural that conflates a woman’s worth with her appearance ), and suspect (Does she need to be pretty in order to succeed? Do her poems kind of suck? Does she make up for that by trying to be hot?). This same disparaging commentary can be and is, I am sure, leveled against male poets. Yet, the onus is more pronounced for female poets, perhaps due to a long history of literary otherness (see the Norton Anthology) during which male writers were the gatekeepers of literary communities (mainstream, avant-garde, you name it).  Poets are, if nothing else, vigilant when it comes to clichés.

The Awful Rowing Towards Posterity

Combing through the beauty-gate discourse, I was struck, if unsurprised, by how much beauty, as it was defined or desribed, seemed to hinge upon youth and novelty. Enter late capitalism. Yet, there are palpable differences in the way male and female poets of a certain age are perceived. For the most part, male poets who have enjoyed success are perceived as more attractive and desirable as they age. On the other hand, female poets who have enjoyed success become invisible as they age. For the male poet, knowledge, experience, talent and the power that come along with it make him more “beautiful.” For the female poet, being physically attractive makes her “beautiful.” Knowledge, experience, talent, and the power that come along with it, not so much. As they age, male poets and men in general seem to transcend their bodies without becoming desexualized or invisible. I’ve heard so much about the sexy minds of some older male poets, and how this explains the fact that so many younger female and/or male poets sleep with them. Show me the older female poet equivalent. No, I don’t think this would make everything ok.  Furthermore, I’m not making a moral argument. I have no opinions about who should be desired by whom, or what we should or shouldn’t think is beautiful. Nor do I think that anyone should be judged for caring or not caring about being physically beautiful. I do think that there should be less superficiality in the writing world, and in the world in general. I also think female writers should be less afraid of having these conversations, should they seem relevant. As Steve Fellner remarked of Corral’s decision not to name names in the Ploughshares interview, politeness and the desire to avoid offense say a lot about power structures. I realize I have not mentioned names.

Finally, I am not suggesting that there is a giant conspiracy in the writing world to only publish and promote the work of people who adhere to dominant cultural beauty standards. Nor do I think that all or even many straight male gatekeepers of literary communities accept or do not accept female writers based on their looks. I do, however, believe that female writers are more likely to be judged based on their appearance, and that they are less likely to talk about it.

Finally (for real), remember that Pantene commercial from the 80s? Don’t hate me for being beautiful. For female poets, it’s hate me because I probably already hate myself for trying or not trying to be beautiful. 

In all seriousness, I like myself. I like being a poet who is a woman. I like other poets who are women and men. Oftentimes, I think poems are beautiful when they terrify or disturb me. I think poets should, if possible, try to foster supportive, inclusive communities based on their love of poetry. It’s complicated.

6 Comments to 'I’m a Rabbit and this is My Owl: On Beauty and the Female Poet’s Body'

  • This articulates many of the concerns I felt as beautygate was playing out — the more I read various blog posts and rebuttals, the more I felt that the described pressures regarding physical appearance were par for the course in a woman poet’s career experience. That’s not to make light of or negate anything Corral wrote — his experience deserves its own conversation, and while beautygate took a personal turn in many ways (it seemed some participants wanted to claim Corral was either crying wolf or didn’t understand how the world worked), at least it was a start to talking about the links between physical attractiveness and success in poetry (and of course in other fields). That linkage is one that is particularly thorny for women as well, and I appreciate that your blog post brings our attention to that constant pressure and measure for women in our field.

  • Eva F says:

    Kara, I really like the way you describe the double bind women face. Beauty will get you access but also get you dismissed as not “serious.” Lack of beauty will cause you to lose some access but also potentially make you more “serious.”

    I think sometimes in poetry we like to believe we’re working in a world of pure ideas and that we’re not subject to societal pressures. But of course we are subject to them.

  • Valerie says:

    I think that it is significant that the “beautygate” conversation happened around queer male communities, and the different role(s) that beauty plays in those communities. I also think that the ways in which physical appearance come into play for queer women (especially those of us queer women who, like myself, don’t fit any standard of beauty, being fat, disabled, etc etc) in both queer and hetero communities needs to be discussed, because I perceive it to be very different than what you describe here.I “self-stylize” too, and I identify as a queer femme, which is a type of “feminine” presentation that isn’t mentioned here, but no one has ever accused me of beauty. It is my experience that “pretty” people–men and women–definitely do get more opportunities than people who don’t conform to the pretty standard. I think sexuality plays into that a lot as well.

  • karacandito says:

    Hi Valerie, 
    Thanks for your comments, which raise some important issues. When i wrote this I was thinking of literary communities for which heterosexual men are the gatekeepers. As such, the dominant cultural standard of beauty would resemble “ pretty” (often unrealistically so) actresses on TV and in the movies. Self-stylization is tricky because it’s difficult to assign agency. Am I tailoring myself because I want to look a certain way or because I’m unconsciously seeking a particular ideal? Each of the communities we inhabit seem to possess unique notions of what beauty looks like. I’d be interested in an exploration of the various ideals of beauty in queer female literary communities. Finally, Lucas de Lima’s recent Montevidayo post puts the potentially normative notions of beauty into dialogue with otherness, excess and identity politics. His ideas might speak to yours (http://www.montevidayo.com/?p=2765). Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  • B.A. says:

    Interesting but why not make a moral argument. Access is a moral issue– You rush to say–I am not making a moral argument–curious because both beauty and desire to me have a moral drive. I write sometimes and publish as a gay male–young of course, (that stuff gets published faster than poems I write that are clearly the product of a woman who bears children and is the product a religion and culture that are seen as–those people dressed in black that can’t speak English). I am, not male, not gay, not middle class –nor am I the product of an American education, travels in Europe, writing colonies or vetted by a rich family. From where I sit what Corral said is much more important and more true than any spin the Dimitrov can put on it as a defense. Beauty and desire–pretty much means, what to wear on the way to trying to be famous. The gate keeps are still primarily men–and queer men have not shown themselves to be anymore willing to give women access. Lauding Anne Sexton is all well and good but she is dead. Gates is right. I agree I do not think it is a conspiracy. That would be interesting and have a motive. It is a lack of an affinity to understanding poetry on the page–simple put: they don’t know what they are doing and pander to their egos and lack of knowing what is even on a page.

  • Is this a joke? Hmm… What does sexual “prowess” have anything to do with poetry? You’re essay is replete with inordinate stereotypes about the hegemony of white “heterosexual” males within the poetry community. You’ve revealed yourself as a very ill informed person when identifying and decrying what you perceive as your community’s biased “patriarchal” social strata.

    Your caustic and hypercritical criticism leaves me wondering wether these so-called male gatekeepers factually hinder women’s careers within the poetry community or is it just you’re own sense of unbridled entitlement thats got you ticked off at the world?

    I’m personally familiar with the case of an entire community of “white” male heterosexual males who’d founded and successfully managed a poetry collective. A couple of women started complaining and the “men” ended up ceding the entire control of the existing organization, to appease their bantering and ungrateful female counterparts in what can only be described as a “coup d’etat”. White hetero Men are actually presently being shamed into relinquishing control of the very operations they initially created.

    I’ve been to many readings across the continent and can most certainly tell you that the “white” hetero male is the least respected poet among poets. Derided as antiquated, audiences are regularly steered clear from them by organizers who opt in favour of “diverse” flavours I.E, homosexual, native, female and non white performers. This is the current “trend” that is happening all across North America.

    Immerse yourself in different scenes and you will see that most people who are deemed “beautiful” are often times marginalized and disparaged by envious rivals. You forget that Poets are always in a constant state of rivalry amongst one another. Its probably de rigueur the most cut throat and competitive society on earth.

    The most successful poets are not physically endowed. They are quite the opposite. In the age of democratized poetry, most contemporary audiences, are looking for poets who will mirror their personalities, syntax and inner spiritual dialogue. The poet is no longer a sooth sayer but a sell out hand waving politician. Audiences want complacency shunning full on rebellion. There is also allot of “consensus” among groups of collaborating poets.

    The supposedly “revolutionary” poetry movement is anti intellectualist in it’s pursuit, as it actively censors and moderates the sources of creative outflow from fellow aspiring poets. Instead proving to be an erudite challenge, beauty and intelligence offends a now aggrieved a narcissistic culture. The poet is no longer a well of soulful information. The Poet must become, an outhouse who fertilizes their work out of other people’s shit.

    From Dorothy Parker to Maya Angelou, the innumeral contributions of literature on the part of women is factually recognized and lauded by academics, leaders and readers alike. A scene is just that, a scene. Its not literature. I will concede however that a scene can help a poet propel their career and of how it can also impede or even destroy it.

    This is the age of the cult poet where the poet bears more weight than the work they’ve produced, where even the socialite in the group possesses more social ranking than the poets themselves. I say socialite because they’re not managers nor amateur enthusiasts. They’re nothing more than captivating people looking for power and prestige. The cliquish dynamics of a poetry scene abounds with hierarchal orders that paradoxically stifle creativity.

    Etiquette and fashion is the establishment, the incestuous old guard that wards off the evolution of new parlance and innovative ideas. You’ll see that allot of groups are comprised of the same type of poets whose works mirror one another’s themes, contents and metres.

    This is why “singular” poetry cannot co-exist in a collaborative setting. Poetry must be free of “dogma” and to experience it in it’s totality, it must be created and manifested on the fringes of society, thereby, by the poet “alone”.

    Canonized fads and government sponsored scenes are the reasons why so many genuinely great poets don’t get discovered until a much later time in their lives. Some poets never get to live to see the day when their work is finally recognized. And then looking back we smugly say its because “They were ahead of their times.”

    PS. Maybe you didn’t realize that your egalitarian “thoughts” about WHITE MALE PRIVILEGE has everything to do with a cunning ploy by the elites to rally up the troops in support of Obama.
    It came out of nowhere and it spread like wildfire across the poetry communities continent wide. “Poetry Leaders” like slam masters and academics actively preached it’s gospel and it ultimately succeeded in “dividing” the guilt ridden White vote all the while corralling the now angered non white vote. The “campaign” pit even the White women against their very own White kinsmen.

    It was the first campaign of it’s kind running on an anti white hetero male platform. Times sure have changed… Machiavelli would’ve been proud.

    You don’t realize how hateful you come across. This whole essay is euphemism for ANTI-WHITE MALE. Its irrational, sexist and downright racist. Go ahead and preach the Hollywood revisionist history. Its always the intelligent and extremely educated who come across as the most bloody ignorant. Maybe because… You are the establishment or at least you’re one of it’s vehicles of ad hominem propaganda.

    Thanks for the thought provoking essay. Its the first time I’ve been bothered to wright anything in months.

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