Is Poetry Magazine Racist? 16

Poetry Magazine

One thing that I respect about Poetry magazine is that they include digital archives of all of their back issues on their website. Recently, as I was looking through said archives, I began to notice a disturbing trend that became increasingly apparent the further back I perused: the vast majority of poets that the magazine has published are white. Upon discovering this trend, I had to ask myself the obvious question, “Is Poetry magazine racially biased?” It’s common knowledge that Poetry solicits around 95% of the poets they publish, so I knew random chance could not be a factor. I decided to look closely at the past 50 issues in order to accurately break down the magazine’s cultural scope. What I found was dismaying. The two charts I’ve included illustrate just how racially narrow Poetry magazine is.

Poetry Magazine

I can’t say that this sample is necessarily representative of Poetry’s entire history, but their archives go back to 1912—I can’t imagine it gets more diverse the further back one looks. What is to be done with this troubling information? I find myself only laden with more questions. Is Poetry magazine racist? Is this racial bias prevalent throughout all of the big magazines? Throughout all of publishing? Does it extend beyond poets to other literary realms? Or is Poetry simply an anomaly?

The data I’ve compiled comes from the November 2008-April 2013 issues. I’ve done many hours of research and have utilized every resource at my fingertips to compile this data; however, I make no claims as to its infallibility. I urge whoever reads this to do their own research and come to their own conclusions about the hard data that is available.

16 thoughts on “Is Poetry Magazine Racist?

  1. Reply Eileen myles Apr 3,2013 8:28 pm

    Of course it’s true. When the Vida counts came out we only regretted race and sexuality weren’t considered too. I’m sure it’s an upstanding straight majority and real white; true.

  2. Reply Anonymous Apr 5,2013 7:43 pm

    So what is the end game here? Are you hoping the magazine changes its procedures or are you hoping to shine a light on the publishing world at large? What change do you hope to see and how do you think they should accomplish this?

    • Reply Ted Hash-Berryman Apr 5,2013 9:24 pm

      Good questions. I am trying to call attention to this absurd disparity and get people to start questioning why it’s happening. The poetry community purports to be accepting and free from the biases which poison the larger culture; these statistics prove otherwise, at least in the mainstream.

      Ultimately, I want the Poetry Foundation/Poetry magazine to acknowledge their bias against non-white and female poets. Because of their stature, they have the opportunity to make a positive change which will reverberate throughout poetry publishing, which I can only assume is equally rife with this sort of discrimination. If they simply ignore the issue at hand rather than try to remedy it, they are essentially admitting their approval of the racial/gender biases displayed in the magazine’s choices.

  3. Reply Anonymous Apr 17,2013 9:02 pm

    Surely, though, these statistics are not enough reason to think they are racially biased. We have to also ask what the demographics of poets are. Isn’t it simply possible that American poets are far more likely to be white than non-white?

    • Reply Ted Hash-Berryman Apr 17,2013 11:30 pm

      Sure, it is possible. Whether or not “far more likely” is equivalent to over 90% is another question. It’s true that being aware of the demographics of poets in general would help us to fully understand this data; however, it is also true that Poetry magazine solicits the vast majority of their contributing poets, and that a fair portion of the poets in my sample were not American. I believe these numbers warrant a further discussion on a trend which seems to me to be indicative of a racial bias.

  4. Reply anonymous Apr 22,2013 11:34 pm

    I am a white male poet. Reading these stats made me curious about my personal library. I discovered that about 90% of the books on my shelves are by white writers, & only about 10% are by non-white writers. It also appears that about 75% of my books are by male writers. The odd thing is that I don’t in any way consider myself either racist or sexist. What does this mean about myself and about expectations of equality (& quality) we might or might not have?

    I’ve never met Christian Wiman or Don Share, but I’ve read some of their work. From what I’ve read, I can’t imagine they are, as editors, consciously or purposefully racist or sexist. I was also not aware (until now) that Poetry solicits most of their contributing poets. I wonder about that too.

  5. Reply Conor Apr 24,2013 4:38 am

    This is not at all surprising. As previous comments point out we need to know the demographics of poets publishing today to make any comment about racial bias in editorial selection. The fact that the fraction of non-white poets published in Poetry is so small is more likely to be a reflection of the broader and more disturbing fact that non-whites are still underrepresented in literature and academia in the US. This goes far beyond the policy of one magazine.

  6. Reply Larry Bierman Apr 26,2013 1:42 am

    And what is the racial breakdown of the subscriber base? And whose fault would it be if the subscriber base is biased (racially or economically) in anyway? Do you propose that all the readers are racist? The fact is Poetry only publishes a very small faction of a percent of those who write poetry. I read the magazine for what it is, not how closely it follows a politically correct line.

  7. Reply anonymous Apr 26,2013 4:38 pm

    If I were one of the editors of Poetry and the Foundation instructed me to impose a “balance” according to race/gender/sexuality in choice of contributors, my response would be that of Melville’s scrivener. I would rather not act the role of editor cum bureaucrat.

    If I go to a poetry reading at a bookstore, I find that in the audience non-whites are “underrepresented.” If I go to a poetry slam, I find that whites are “underrepresented.” Am I to be “disturbed” by this? The doors at both events are open to all. But are these events nonetheless expressions of racial bias?

  8. Reply M May 1,2013 7:59 pm

    I hope by shining a light on this, Poetry will take a good hard look at its practices. It’s not “PC” or “bureaucratic” to make sure one is not overlooking great writers and writing through unconscious bias fostered by hundreds of years of active, virulent racism. Ninety percent of one kind of contributor is 90% one way of looking at the world, and that does no one any sort of good. Diversity is strength, growth and learning.

  9. Reply anonymous May 2,2013 6:20 pm

    There is so much that troubles in the last comment — where to begin?
    The very notion of “unconscious bias” is suspect. To say that ninety percent of “one kind of contributor is 90% one way of looking at the world” is careless, to say the least. Accordingly then, all “whites” are of a kind and look at the world in the same way. This would lump millions of Americans, Europeans, and Asians into a kind of “group” based on skin color.

    Poetry has published work by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, as well as by black, white, brown, male, female, gay, lesbian, and straight writers. The list of diversity could go on. The fact is, there is limited space in any publication and every editor will have his or her favorites. Of course it is true that many great writers (of diverse backgrounds) are overlooked. This is an old story. But to accuse Poetry of racial bias as a “practice” is careless.

  10. Reply Surazeus Simon Seamount May 4,2013 2:21 pm

    So Cave Canem is racist because their focus is entirely on African-American poets?

  11. Reply anonymous May 5,2013 4:37 am

    There are some genuinely racially and culturally biased journals out there — like The New Criterion for instance — but Poetry is not one of them. Kudos to poetry for publishing Amiri Baraka’s terrific review of Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry.

  12. Reply Andrew E. M. Baumann May 5,2013 1:07 pm

    Graphics and statistics like the above a little that demonstrations of the truism “Given enough statistics, I can prove anything.” (There is irony in that sentence, in case you missed it.) That singular statistic is meaningless — as are the majority of the statistics on the Vida site. To say more correctly, the statistics are always true in so much as they are well taken samples; but the extreme majority of the conclusions drawn therefrom are grossly fallacious.

    The statistic above does not tell me (1) what is the racial split in submissions?; (2) what approximations of quality can be made of the various racial categories? (that is, if 25% of submissions are from category A, but 98% percent of the submissions are of the quality you find on post-your-poetry blogs, that 25% number is really only .5%); (3) what is the diversity of the submissions? (if 98% of the poetry submitted by racial category A is of a single sub-genre, then publishing according to racial categories will turn the magazine into a sub-genre magazine); (4) what is the readership/interest/notoriety of the magazine within the categories? Etc. Etc.

    Rather than attacking the magazines, people should be looking instead at the samples. If, for example, only 1% of submissions were from social category A (I am moving out of race specifically); yet social category A makes up 25% of the population, is that revealing a problem in literacy within that group? is that revealing a problem in education within that group? is it revealing a problem in book/poetry availability in that group? is it revealing a ‘marketing’ problem that points to the poetry world needing to make greater efforts at making itself known to this group?

    Those are the types of questions that will actually offer any value to the literary world.

    Poetry magazines are supposed to have biases: and those biases should be based on literary qualities. (That is, the nature of the poetry being published.) If there is a problem in the publisation records of the poetry mag world, I would argue — and I believe easily demonstrate — that the problem is more poetry magazines are not biased enough: most (non-geographicaly specific) magazines seem to publish the same, generic forms of poetry. And that despite all the claims of “You need to read our issues to see what we publish.” (I have. They all seem the same to me.)

    The question is not diversity inside the pages of poetry magazines: the question is diversity accross the spectrum of poetry magazines. And if people wanted to help the literary world, they would worry less about who submits to what, and more about “let’s get mags established that publishes the best of sub-genre A, and sub-culture B.”

    Of course, “best” is the operative word there. Not “genre,” or “culture,” or “race.”

  13. Pingback: “So what is the end game here?” | Vocal Context

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