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A Conversation with Jennifer Fitzgerald on VIDA, Writing, and Feminism

Sarah Marcus: Those of us who work at VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts know you to be our magical, fearless Count Director. How did you first get involved with VIDA? Why do you think VIDA is necessary in today's publishing landscape?

Jennifer Fitzgerald: You are very kind to say that, but I assure you I would not appear so magically fearless if it weren’t for the dedicated team of coordinators and counters who help me pull off the astronomical feat each and every year. I first got involved with VIDA and the VIDA Count in 2009 when I helped co-founder and my former professor, Cate Marvin, research gender allocations and tally up totals for the inaugural VIDA Count. By the next year I was working on the VIDA Count in its entirety. For the years following, I ran the whole shebang. Somehow, my poet brain is really comfortable with numbers, statistics, spreadsheets, and systems. I created the entire system by which the VIDA Count is conducted using a simple logic tree and equations.

It is necessary for women to feel more comfortable around numbers. Do you know it is an actual bargaining tactic to over complicate a group of numbers for the sole purpose of confusing and throwing off women in the room? We can’t let that continue. Take a breath and simplify!

It is an unfortunate truth that VIDA is necessary in the literary community of today but not unfortunate in the way you would think. Some see VIDAs as “rabble-rousers” when that is really not the case. The VIDA Count was not started to incite a revolt against mainstream publishing but really to begin a conversation about what we want to see from our literary community. We do not set quotas but ask journals if they are comfortable with their gender disparity. We do not demand a 50/50 representation of the gender binary, but instead wonder what “gender balance” looks like and if it is something we care to work towards. The only way to start this conversation was to offer up hard data. Anecdotes can be refuted, but pie charts don’t have opinions.

A wonderful outcome of tabulating this data is the receptiveness of editors and publishers. If space is given for gentle discourse, much less resistance will be present. The VIDA Count doesn’t accuse, it functions as a catalyst for productive conversation. Often, we are not aware of our own biases, myself included! So, the only unfortunate aspect of the necessity for VIDA is that the numbers were not as apparent to men as they were to women.

SM: I know that VIDA contributor and poet Danielle Pafunda wrote an excellent article, "Why the Submissions Numbers Don't Count," about why submissions numbers are ultimately irrelevant, but what is your response to editors who say things like, "not as many women submit their work to our journal," or others who have criticized a methodology that doesn't include information on how many submissions are made to each magazine by men and women respectively?

JF: This assertion is a Red Herring. Editors have far more control over the content of their journals than it seems they are letting on. One might be amazed to know just how little of a given issue comes from submissions (like 5%!). If editors were slaves to the slush pile, journals would all reflect trends, current events, and a lesser quality writing (law of averages people, the truth is out of my hands). Editors (for the majority of journals we count and otherwise) solicit content, plain and simple.

Editors, create the world you want to see! Men and women do not function in the same way! Women are socialized to be less aggressive and to be thoughtful in their actions. As Tin House Editor, Rob Spillman says, “men will write a pitch on a napkin and hand it to me.” Women are more likely to comb over and perfect a piece before sending it out. Also, women are less likely to resubmit right away once rejected. If it is important for your journals to reflect the diversity of voice present in our literary community, then reach out and put some elbow grease into a collection of art you can be proud of.

SM: You are the co-host of the New Books in Poetry Podcast as part of the New Books Network! Can you please tell us about this project and how you hope it might impact the community?

JF: I reject the notion that to diversify is to lessen; that’s just laziness. When John Ebersole contacted me about working with him on the New Books in Poetry Podcast, he was candid about the fact that he had done a “VIDA Count” and was not happy with the results. On top of his own efforts to represent a wider range of voice, he wanted to bring on another host that would share his views and work towards a more equitable gender balance while also playing attention to intersectionality.

I seek to represent the breadth and depth of our community. Excellent writing exists in every corner of the nation and is penned by authors who identify throughout the spectrums of gender, orientation, and race/ethnicity. It has been almost too easy to line up interviews with talented poets who have crafted new and innovative collections. After arranging my first group of interviews, I thought, look how many people I’ve invited into the New Books in Poetry family and look how many groups will now feel welcome, involved, and invested.

With this awareness, I am also willing to relinquish some control over where the conversations move. I am not afraid to give an author space to discuss race/ethnicity, class, gender, etc. I will engage them on any level and appreciate their willingness to be candid with me about their craft, process, and content. If I get uncomfortable, then good! It means I am confronting something that is unfamiliar and I will grow from the experience.

I did make one promise to myself though, I will never ask a mother about her children, partner, or family unless she brings it up; this is a default question for interviewers of women and I won’t take part in it. We are often relegated to our content because there is a belief that any poet who is not a white, straight, Christian male, must somehow be addressing identity. I am calling bullshit on that. SM: Your writing is very much concerned with the concept of community and connection. Your poems that consider movement and loss and disaster (I am thinking specifically of your Hurricane Sandy Poems) also seem to encompass the idea of inclusivity. This is a subject that is extremely important to us at GGP! Can you talk a bit about what being an inclusive feminist means to you?

JF: I wonder about “Inclusive Feminist.” It appears to deviate from the root, “feminist” when the very act of not being inclusive is, in itself, a deviation. I find it difficult to consider any person a feminist if they do not seek to protect the rights of all women-identified folks. This will mean adjusting our views, tactics, and concerns according to the experiences of women from different class backgrounds, races and ethnicities, gender spectrum identities, etc. It took me a little while to understand that our blanket of feminism just wasn’t covering everyone and never would unless we shifted it.

Because much of my identity was wrapped up in being a woman, it didn’t dawn on me that other women could have experiences that differed so greatly from mine. Once I began to dissect how my working class background and current reality created a chasm between myself and women of different classes (or class deniers), I was able to project that even further. Asking a woman who plucked recently slaughtered chickens on an assembly line for 9 hour shifts to join the same group as a woman who had a nanny and a housekeeper for one child was completely absurd— just like believing that a woman of color would benefit in the same way a white women would from a single action.

Although we are just bringing this to the forefront now, it is never too late! The beautiful thing about life is the opportunities for growth. I know it feels like feminism should have done its job already, but it is. We are learning from one another, inhabiting the space that Keats taught us about with Negative Capability, and understanding that our lives are but a succession of moments that bring us ever closer to purpose— whatever that may be.

SM: What question do you wish you were asked?

JF: Why is there still so much backlash against feminism and equal rights for women?

Do you notice how violent, strange, and disturbing the reactions to feminist content have been recently? Here is the interesting thing… when feminism first emerged as a force for change, it was ignored and much in the way that VIDA was initially ignored by the top tier journals it counts. When a group is comfortable in their position of power, they will not recognize dissenters, it is a luxury afforded to them. When a group in power finds themselves in shaky footing with the possibility of losing said power, they will react.

I don’t take joy in trolls, but I do see it as lashing out or even death throes. In the same way one will allow a child space to have a tantrum when they are being denied access or permission, we have to give these people space. Engaging, just as with the toddler, only makes it worse. The best we can do is sit nearby and say, I know this is hard for you, all change is, but you will come out the other end of it, I promise.

Women, revel in the lashing out. Take joy in the pushback, because it shows that we are shifting this system of oppression.


Jen Fitzgerald is a poet and a native New Yorker who received her MFA in Poetry at Lesley University. She is the Count Director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. With John Ebersole, she is the host of the New Books in Poetry Podcast as part of the New Books Network. Her work has been featured on PBS Newshour and Harriet: The Poetry Foundation Blog and in Tin House, Luna Luna, and AAWW: Open City.

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