Poetry & Gender in New Zealand Publishing

One of the things I do to entertain myself is make spreadsheets.  Some people may find this sad, but frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.  Recently I conducted an unscientific little survey of single-author poetry books published in New Zealand last year, looking at the websites of several New Zealand publishers (AUP, VUP, Steele Roberts, Seraph Press, Earl of Seacliffe Workshop, Cape Catley, Titus Books and OUP).  For each book, I noted whether the poet was male or female and whether he or she was a “new” poet (ie hadn’t had a volume of poetry published before).

 The list of publishers is not comprehensive and no doubt there are other books that ought to be in my spreadsheet.  Also, not all the publishers listed the year of publication on their website, so there may be one or two books on the list that properly belong in another year.  Still, I think I’ve got a reasonable sample.

 And I found the results rather interesting.  Of the 31 books I found, 18 (58%) were by women and 13 by men (42%).  New poets accounted for 11 of the books (35% of the total) – quite encouraging I thought.  And of these 11 new poets, 8 were women (73% of new poets) and 3 were men (27%).

 One of the reasons I embarked on this exercise was because I’d been looking at a recent anthology of Australian women’s poetry (Motherlode – looks great, by the way and thinking about similar British anthologies and wondering where the anthologies of women’s poetry in New Zealand were.  And I thought, maybe we don’t really need a separate anthology because female poets are getting published just as often as male poets here (not that I’m suggesting the Australian anthology was simply an exercise in affirmative action – I understand it was more about collecting poems concerning motherhood from a female perspective). 

 In any case, I thought I’d have a look to see if women were as likely as men to get published in New Zealand.  And it seems we are.  Last year, anyway, women were a little more likely to be published, especially amongst new poets. 

 Would I get the same results if I counted pages or words rather than volumes?  Possibly not.  The books by male poets included a James K Baxter selection and a substantial Vincent O’Sullivan collection, which could have tipped the balance the other way.  

 So what’s going on?  Is it that women are writing more poetry?  I’m not sure about that.  Open mic sessions, poetry slams and other poetry readings seem to draw respectable numbers of blokes on to the stage.  Poetry journals have no shortage of poems by male authors. 

 Is it that women more likely to put those books together and send them out in the first place?  Poetry-writing classes seem to be dominated by women, so maybe men and women are just taking a different approach to the whole enterprise.  (I’m generalising, I know). 

 It would be interesting to repeat the poetry book survey for, say, 1999 and 1989 and see if the gender balance has been shifting over time.  It would also be interesting to do the same thing for poetry published in other countries.  (I might even give that a go sometime). 

 Was 2009 an atypical year?  Will those percentages reverse in 2010?  I really couldn’t guess – but I’d love to know what others think.

6 comments

  1. That *is* interesting. My own impression is that there are more, though perhaps not substantially more, women than men poets active in New Zealand – it would be interesting to know the gender balance of creative writing courses in poetry – I share your impression there – and of the NZ Poetry Society, although knowing those figures wouldn’t necessarily prove anything about the poetry scene as a whole.

    Perhaps there is a project for a keen Master of Library and Information Studies or Gender Studies student to take this research further?

  2. Hi Janis, I meant to comment about this when you first published this, but obviously I didn’t… Your survey is really interesting. Despite the larger numbers of women in poetry, where women have really missed out, I think, is in historic surveys of women’s poetry – and women tended to get pretty shafted in poetry particularly mid-last century. About 10 years ago I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a full historic anthology of New Zealand women’s poetry. There had been a couple of anthologies of women’s poetry (Private Gardens and Yellow Pencils), but both were of living women’s poetry, rather than historical in scope. I started thinking about compiling one, and even did some work on it, but assumed that someone would beat me to it. In the meantime, we’ve had anthologies of spiritual poetry, poetry about children, science-fiction poetry, poetry about animals, but still no women’s poetry anthology. Someone, do it, please, so I don’t have to.

  3. Tim – I looked at the tertiary enrolment stats by course type but there was nothing specifically about creative writing. It looked as though women outnumbered men 2 to 1 in the general area of communications, though.

    Helen- I think a historic anthology of New Zealand women’s poetry is a great idea!

    Thanks to both of you for stopping by.

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