On the heels of our announcement of the Cheryl Strayed/VIDA Scholarship last week, today I’m talking to Erin Belieu, Co-founder of VIDA, the organization who will be choosing the scholarship recipient. VIDA is a literary organization that “seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.” Since 2010, VIDA has been conducting “The Count,” which tracks the rate of publication of women writers compared to that of their male counterparts. I learned about VIDA first through the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat Keynote Speaker Cheryl Strayed, who sits on VIDA’s board of directors.
Erin Belieu is the author of three poetry collections, all from Copper Canyon Press, including Infanta, One Above & One Below and Black Box. Belieu has been a winner of the National Poetry Series, The Rona Jaffe Foundation Award and was a finalist for the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She is also the coeditor of The Extraordinary Tide, an anthology published by Columbia University Press, featuring the work of contemporary American women poets. Belieu has worked extensively in literary publishing and was previously the managing and poetry editor for AGNI magazine as well as the founding editor of Hotel Amerika. She is presently the director of The Creative Writing Program at Florida State University.
Erin Belieu: In 2009, Cate Marvin sent out an email expressing some of her frustrations about what seemed a lack of serious conversation about feminist issues in our contemporary literary culture. In this email she asked if others felt the same and also asked that we send it on to anyone we thought might be interested in the issues she brought up in her message. I was so jazzed about what she’d written that I spent hours that evening forwarding it to a long list of writers I thought should see it. The next morning, Cate’s inbox was practically crashed with the many responses she got from people saying “Hell yeah! Let’s do something about this…” As I had been the instigator, she rang me up the next day and said “Well, looks like you and I need to start an organization to address this.” And that simply, VIDA was founded.
Theo Pauline Nestor: Can you tell us about The Count? How does it work? What impact do you believe The Count is having for women writers?
Erin Belieu: The Count was born of what I proudly think was a pretty simple and elegant idea. We knew from talking to many women writers over the years that many of us both consciously and unconsciously were in the habit of counting the table of contents of the magazines we read, looking to see what our representation was in these places. And we all knew anecdotally the representation was not good. So one of the first things we thought to do with VIDA was to do an actual count–The Count–gathering numbers that would help us to explore this disheartening phenomenon as a community.
We’ve always believed our pie charts were the beginning of a conversation, not an end in themselves, and we’re really pleased that VIDA has been able to raise peoples’ consciousness around this serious imbalance. Some people are irritated that change doesn’t come more quickly–that is, in the 4 years we’ve been doing The Count, the numbers haven’t changed as dramatically as we’d like. And I’ve felt this frustration, too, especially when you hear responses in comment boxes and in print that say ridiculous stuff like “Well, women just don’t write as well as men,” or, “Clearly, the best work is rewarded and these women are just whining.”
That is, to put it plainly, a complete load of garbage. It’s no argument at all. As if the idea of The Best was somehow this objective abstract as opposed to a completely subjective construct that we as a community create. How do we decide that a certain stylistic approach or subject matter is better than another, for instance? How does the expectation of gender play into our assumptions about a piece of writing? And why, given all the gender bias we encounter in the rest of the world, much of it quite statistically verifiable, why would the literary world be different than any other part of the world when it comes to gender discrimination? As if we’re still living in 1949 and that Verbal Icon a small group of dudes invented is still supposedly orbiting around this monolithic, unchanging planet called Art. I’m sure it makes them feel better. It just doesn’t happen to be true.
So it’s a very emotional issue for some naysayers who want to give the fake gloss of objectivity to their subjective reactions to things. It’s easier than making a real argument. But I always remember that change typically take a long time. We at VIDA won’t stop talking about it, we won’t go away and the number of people both–women and men–who are willing to speak to this issue increases every day. I’ve seen it up close over the years–especially well known writers who have been cautious at first, not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them–they’re starting to feel brave enough, the conversation has become normalized enough, that they feel they can go on the record. Time is on our side. In the way that the water is on the side of the shore when a dam is standing between them.
Theo Pauline Nestor: Who are some current writers you think readers should check out?
Erin Belieu: Oh, that’s kind of a wonderfully impossible question. The list would be too long to recount here. But I would strongly encourage people to be pro-active and supportive of seeking out women writers’ work. I would ask them to be conscious of this when they’re spending their money for books and magazines. What do you want to support? I would ask them not to be silent any longer. Write to those magazines and presses you think could be doing a better job of seeking out new voices. Tell them you have this expectation. It’s so easy to do now that practically every place has email contact info on a website. A matter of seconds is all it takes to voice your opinion.
Money talks and change will come more quickly if we let various literary outlets know we’re paying attention and rewarding the places that care about these issues. And, honestly, I think sometimes people are understandably scared to do so–as if you’ll get put on some blackball list if you’re a writer yourself. But when has playing a rigged game ever gotten you the outcome you’re looking for? As Audre Lord said,”Your silence will not protect you.” I understand that feeling, I really have sympathy for it, but it doesn’t get you where you want to go. Victory goes to the bold. And we women have sometimes not been encouraged to discover this as much as our brothers. We need to encourage each other.
Theo Pauline Nestor: What are you currently working on?
Erin Belieu: I just finished a new poetry collection–title still TBA–that will be coming from Copper Canyon Press in 2014. This will be my 4th collection with Copper Canyon and I’m so thrilled to have a brilliantly supportive press that has championed me for years. What a luxury. I’m thinking about a collection of essays that I want to gather up next. And in my usual “too many pots on the stove” way, I’m currently trying to pull together a big literary fundraiser for a therapeutic horse back riding program in which my son participates. It’s an amazing organization in south Georgia called Hands and Hearts for Horses and they work with kids who are impacted with difference and disability of every kind. An amazing organization that does so much good but they could use some help financially. And you know, this kind of work helps keep one’s troubles in perspective. The literary world is just a dot in the fullness of our universe, yes?
Theo Pauline Nestor: Thanks, Erin!
To apply for the scholarship, please read the criterion on the Cheryl Strayed/VIDA Scholarship page and send your application to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat Scholarship” in the subject line by midnight in one PDF document no later than midnight on February 14, 2013. The recipient will be announced by the end of February on the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat webpage.