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When the Gerald Dawe-edited Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets was published earlier this year, it drew a strong reaction from many who pointed out the collection of essays failed to properly take account of women’s contribution to the Irish poetic canon. It inspired a new movement, Fired! Which seeks to redress this imbalance by asking people in the Irish poetry world to aim for gender parity when organising events, readings, editing anthologies or producing any other poetry-based event or publication.
Recently, a new report was published that looked closer at gender inequality in Irish poetry publishing. The report was published by MEAS (measuring equality in the arts sector) and a play on the Irish word meas for placing value or esteem on something. The report was compiled and published by Kenneth Keating, who is also editor of the Smithereens Press, and Ailbhe McDaid, a post-doctoral research fellow at UCC’s School of English.
In the introduction to their report Keating and McDaid write that: “We believe that by providing concrete statistical data to decision-makers in the arts sector, change can be effected. The efforts of MEAS complement the work of recent feminist movements in Irish arts including Waking the Feminists, Fired!, and FairPlé.”
What emerges from the report may not entirely shock those who keep a close eye on Ireland’s publishing or poetry worlds. But seeing gender inequality represented so starkly in statistical terms brings home the fact that the anger at the gender inequality on display in many anthologies and at many events, is not mere posturing but reflects deep-seated structural obstructions to getting more women’s voices heard in the literary arts, and in poetry.
The Gallery Press, Ireland’s most famous poetry publisher, and recipient of substantial Arts Council funding, saw just 13% of its books published by women in 2017. Salmon Poetry likewise, although having a chief editor who is a woman, had 37% of its books in 2017 published by women. This is much closer to parity but there a few things to note. Most Irish poetry presses only publish a handful of books annually and it may be the case that in some years some presses will publish more or less men or women depending on the manuscripts available to them, or the poets already on their lists.
Smaller presses like Doire and Arlen House were substantially stronger in their publication of women than some of the bigger presses. Although again it ought to be noted that Arlen House specifically exists to publish women writers.
There is a lively scene in Ireland these days of small literary magazines, most of which publish some poetry. According to the MEAS report:
“In 2017 male poets accounted for 53.8% of all publications in literary magazines in Ireland, female poets accounted for 45.7%, and non-binary poets accounted for 0.5%. This results in a bias of approximately 8% of in favour of male poets over female poets.”
Some magazines fare better at representing women than others – specifically The Stinging Fly and Banshee, a magazine which publishes 75% women and which has an explicit editorial mission to publish more women writers.
Of around 120 books of poetry published on the island of Ireland in 2017, 57 were authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited by women – representing 45% of the total. Although women poets are finding more and more space in Ireland’s poetry magazines and presses – and more and more women are acting as editors of magazines and presses too, there is still some way to go to ensuring that gender balance is not achieved but maintained consistently in the world of Irish poetry.
One thing which the report does not account for of course is the state of gender equality among Irish poets published outside of Ireland – those Irish poets who are part of the lists of poetry publishers like Bloodaxe Books or Carcanet based in the UK. The Irish and UK poetry scenes are in some cases as tightly linked as the two countries are in other ways. Since much of Irish poetry is anglophone, many Irish poets find homes for their work in UK magazines and presses as well as in Ireland.
Perhaps future reports from MEAS can take some account of these things? In the meantime, however, the emergence of this report is a significant development because it lays out in stark terms, and arms those who need it, with the facts to back up what we’ve long known – that in poetry, as in much else, women’s voices in Ireland have often been silenced or forgotten about.
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