BC: You feel this situation doesn’t just reflect a boys’ club attitude, but that it also reflects a sense of aesthetic safety?
SC: I feel that the two tendencies are very much intertwined and mutually reinforcing, and that the nature of the UK poetry landscape reflects this. In the UK, the poetry publications that people consult will tend to be the more established ones: Poetry London, Poetry Review, etcetera, rather than a DIY publication like tender. This is of course true of any literary culture. But when I look over to America, it seems that publications that have started like ours have gotten a lot of clout very quickly, with readers, writers and critics in the US perhaps more willing to look at issues of quality, what ‘quality’ means, to reorientate their thinking and try new ways of reading.
BC: I wonder if that reflects a more atomised poetry landscape in a larger country like the US – larger both in population and geography. While it’s on a much, much smaller scale, the Australian literary community is also geographically spread-out in that way. There is a sense of more disparate scenes in which people are looking for peripheral opportunities, and even identifying their poetics with the peripheries. There are the separate larger capital cities of the eastern coast, plus well-established writing communities in smaller cities like Hobart and Perth, and then individuals and more changeable communities in regional centres.
SC: Right. Though it does feel that this sort of thing is coming about more and more. In some ways, when I think about moving to America, this is something that also scares me a bit – it seems potentially much more difficult to gain a readership, given that there’s so much choice.
BC: I guess the flip-side of working in America would be a quality of opportunity, in which one’s voice is encouraged to speak up and represent itself. From a different perspective, what about the established writers like Myles, Kunhardt, Lavinia Greenlaw and so on who have featured in the pages of tender – what do you think is its appeal to those who aren’t necessarily looking for first inroads to publication?
SC: I think those who have been willing to give us work perceive the journal in the same way that I do – as a hopeful project aiming towards equality of representation, rather than one that subscribes to a notion of gender essentialism. Our more established contributors have come up through the same challenges that young female writers face – not only in publishing, but things like the way one is treated at readings, in conversation with other (male) writers – and these are not experiences you quickly forget. You are, I suspect, unable to forget them, because they continue to happen with such regularity. And so I think this partly informs a sense of generosity towards tender. Of course we’ve come under fire at points – ironically or not, the people who have voiced concerns with the journal have, primarily, been men. The comments were mainly variations on the theme of, ‘isn’t all writing valuable?’
BC: It’s curious that somebody would perceive the exclusion of the male writer as a devaluation of him. We can’t deny that your journal’s brief is exclusive of a certain quantity of the writing population, but nowhere does it suggest a qualitative judgement upon that section.
SC: Exactly. The question of gender essentialism – whether we believe in a vaguely second-wave feminist notion of an essential female identity – seems to me just another way of deflecting attention from our primary agenda of addressing the current, and very tangible, gender inequity in literature and the arts. The luxury of disregarding gender is a male one – a condition of privilege. It’s easy to disregard initiatives like ours, and pioneering ones like VIDA and the Gallery Tally on the basis of your belief in gender as a social construct, when the reality is that subscription to gender roles and stereotyping is alive and kicking. For women, as well as for trans writers, sexism is a reality and a barrier, and while progressive views on gender are, in the long-term, absolutely crucial to combatting inequality, overlooking this issue altogether does nothing to improve our present situation. To me, this stance is akin to downplaying the problems writers of colour face because you yourself claim ‘not to see race’ (whatever that means!).
BC: Earlier, you mentioned a kind of writing by women that you know exists, although it doesn’t get published enough. Gender essentialism aside, is it impossible to imagine that tender might end up showcasing not just work by females, but revealing unexpected, gendered aesthetics? And where does the aesthetic taste of its editors fit in to your choices?
SC: When we’re putting the issues together, we do see patterns in theme and modes of expression, but they are always shifting. So it’s hard to tell whether the patterns pertain to women’s writing or to our editorial mentality, from issue to issue, which I suppose would also be reflected if we were producing a journal publishing men too. I do feel that what has emerged from the journal is a shared experience among women growing up in sexist societies. Of course those experiences are going to influence your writing, whether or not they are its theme. This question is a really cognitively dissonant one for me. I feel very wary of ascribing any universal stylistic values to women’s writing, not least because it seems like something else that could potentially be used against it.
We have never had themes for our issues, but you could say that the theme of the journal – across every issue – is that of female expression. There’s that amazing quote from Muriel Rukeyser: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.’ Looking back on the work we’ve had in the journal, I think Rachael and I have gravitated towards work by women that subverts expectations of the feminine in a variety of ways – linguistically, thematically. This doesn’t for a moment mean that we’ve steered away from work that deals with women’s bodies and details of the female experience. Rather, we’ve tended to want to represent work that I might describe as quite brutal. Work that shows women as fearless satirists, politicians, rigorous intellectuals and brilliant comics, with a perspective that is, in my view, all the more valuable for its present novelty in the public realm, albeit no less universal than a man’s.