In the “poetry world” a small controversy is brewing. I was quite disturbed when I found out about it. For now, I want to “report” the facts.
Fence is a well-known and relatively successful literary journal, which was founded by poet Rebecca Wolff in 1998 to showcase the poetry and fiction of “fence-sitters”—writers who don’t fit easily into any particular camp. In the first issue she writes in her Editor’s Note:
The work we showcase in this, our brand-new entry into what some would say is a glutted field, is work which we feel is under-represented…these are voices which in themselves are deeply idiosyncratic, even eccentric, and which when grouped together and side-by-side serve to redeem a much-maligned demographic from semantic iniquity: to say that these writers are fence-sitters is to say that each of them occupies a distinguished grey area in the literary field. They are writers who challenge their readers by means of density and complexity, but who exclude no one from that readership in the name of an academic purity, or a pre-ordained set of obscurities. These are writers who adhere to the particular sound of their own voices in collision with the sounds of the world. Most of all, and most importantly, they provide pleasure.
Fence has come to be known as a hip and cutting edge literary journal much admired by most young poets and especially those drawn to avant-garde or experimental poetry. It is very difficult for a literary journal to sustain itself and Fence has done well. Although, like most journals, Fence depends on grants and donations Wolff was concerned because she noticed a drop in sales and subscriptions. She, therefore, decided to do an “experiment in marketing a literary journal,” as she puts in a recent interview with The Boston Globe. The experiment was to feature a woman from a pornography site on the cover of the Summer 2005 issue. She writes that sales were very low for the last issue (which featured a charcoal landscape drawing by artist Jimbo Blachly) and so they needed to come up with a plan.
The image Wolff chose for the summer cover comes from a pornography website called Suicide Girls, which posts self-submitted pornographic photographs by women punk rockers. The images are considered pornographic because they seem to be intended to stimulate sexual arousal. Wolff chose a provocative photograph of a young woman basically naked from the waist up with several pierced earrings in her face. Wolff begins the Editor’s Note for the issue: “I don’t consider myself post-feminist; I’m still just feminist.” But she goes on to explain how she thought of the idea for the cover—she came up with it when she was nursing her eight-month old daughter. She noticed the clarity of her daughter’s desire when hungry; she noticed it was her own body the baby so clearly wanted. “Why not, I thought, give the people what they can also be understood to want. It is a more than slightly ironic comment on my own initial promise to make Fence ‘visually appealing and desirable as a consumer product.’”
The sales of the summer 2005 issue of Fence skyrocketed. The issue sold more copies than it ever had before. The content of the issue is all poetry and fiction of the highest caliber—a mixing of mostly very talented emerging writers with some of the most renowned writers of our day. The people who bought the issue knew that there were no more photos inside, but the cover was enough to transform sales.
It is unclear if this choice was simply an experiment in marketing because Wolff and others have defended or rationalized the decision on other grounds. In her Boston Globe interview, Wolff says,
Like the Suicide Girls, our contributors are self-selecting themselves to enter into a realm—literature—that people have a lot of preconceived notions about, but they’re doing it in a way that’s personally right for them. What Fence looks for in a writer is the same thing the Suicide Girls look for in a member of their own community—somebody who’s answering strictly to themselves.
The editor now tells us that the image was not just a marketing ploy but that the choice actually reflects the ideology of the magazine. It is both an “ironic comment” on her “initial promise to make Fence ‘visually appealing’” as well as a reflection of a group of writers who answer “strictly to themselves.”
I subscribe to a list serve for and about women poets called “Wom-Po,” and there was some discussion there about the Fence cover. The poet, noted feminist, and regular columnist for The Nation, Katha Pollitt wrote: "I don't see what's ironic or clever about the cover, let alone feminist. It just seems cheesy and tacky to me. Ironic would be a MAN posing naked. "
Pollitt also responded to Wolff’s argument that since the Suicide Girls are volunteers then they are “answering strictly to themselves.” Pollitt argues that
It doesn't matter that the suicide girls are volunteers, there are always people who will do anything and let anything be done to them. In fact, though, there's been some kind of labor dispute on the site, the women are claiming that the MAN who runs it is a sexist creep and harrasser. Well, duh! . . . It is sad and pathetic that these young women think posing for internet porn is what they have to offer the world. I don't see anything feminist about it.
The poet Daisy Fried responded to Pollitt with her concern that judgemental statements such as “it’s sad and pathetic” for women to pose this way coming from noted feminists may drive girls away from feminism. Fried writes,
I worry that this kind of thing is also part of feminism's problem: that it says—particularly to young women—that "your way of being can't be considered feminist." Can't we make the tent bigger than that? I wonder if that kind of thing is what makes some young women say they're not feminist, when in fact, they fully believe in equality of opportunity and all the basics of feminism.
Not only does Fried not want to criticize the cover of Fence because doing so may scare away young women from being feminists, but she seems to believe that the Suicide Girls are quite normal and not particularly destructive: "Really, this kind of exhibitionism is standard young woman behavior, neither particularly shocking nor particularly new, nor particularly destructive, not feminist or anti-feminist, liberated or unliberated or even particularly transgressive."
Pollitt responds to Daisy's fear of judging the Suicide Girls: "Hi Daisy, of course, people will do what they want. But feminism has to be more than do what you want and if someone doesn't like it, or even wants to question it, accuse them of being narrow minded and old and trying to squelch your individuality."
For Fried, a real connection may exist between the pornographic website and the literary journal: "There's a way in which this Suicide Girls stuff is a little bit like Fence, the magazine, not particularly new but perceiving themselves as new."
Fried suggests that the writers published by Fence are actually not so radical just as the behavior of the Suicide Girls is not so different or radical: "That's not a comment on the quality of the poems in Fence, many of which are quite good. But they're hardly breaking ground or breaking many rules. Same for the Fence cover's self-selected exhibitionism. Young women have always liked to test their sexual power, and one way they do it is by showing more skin than their moms and dads or 'respectable' society approves of."
Pollitt offers another interpreation of why the Suicide Girls may post these photos: “The suicide girls should just say: 'I want attention and I can't get it with my clothes on: The male gaze rules, and I am fortunate enough to have the kind of body men want to look at. Yay!' Pollitt seems to suggest here that when a woman makes herself an object in this way she is not liberating or self-selecting or answering to herself but rather giving in to male dominance and power. Pollitt points out that “Somehow, women now take their clothes off at the drop of a hat but men are still fully dressed. How is that liberatory?”
In another on-line forum for poetry (www.foetry.com) about the Fence cover, librarian and foetry.com founder, Alan Cordle, jokes, "I might go topless for a redo of the Foetry site. I'm confident it would draw in a record number of visitors and answer the question once and for all: is Alan Cordle fat?" This comment is funny, but I couldn't help but think that it's only funny because it comes from a man. Maybe Pollitt's observation is correct: using a naked MAN (as opposed to the usual "fully dressed" one) to market a literary journal that hopes to be "visually appealing" would be the "ironic comment"--using a woman is probably neither ironic nor "liberatory," even if she has face piercings and calls herself a Suicide Girl (which only serve to highlight the innate brutality of the image).
Pollitt also wants to make it clear that the existence of the Suicide Girls shows, for her, that feminism has not taken us to where we want to be: “The Suicide Girls site shows how far feminism HASN'T come. It's like in Russia where people were shocked when some staggering percentage of teenage girls said they wanted to be prostitutes. That didn't show us how sexually liberated Russian teens were, it showed us what the job market was and what the values of Russian society were.”
I looked at the first issue of Fence again and read Wolff’s Editor’s Note to that issue. She begins,
Years ago at the Museum of Science in Chicago I saw a permanent exhibit which is indeed on display permanently in my memory, in a way that not many poems or stories or otherwise crafted images have been. Some years before my visit a team of necrologists had sliced a woman's body vertically - you understand, lengthwise - into fifty very thin slabs of herself. The slices ranged in area as her body had ranged (round slices of hip and shoulder; the tallest slice, from head to toe; a long strip of arm) and were preserved in fluid between plates of glass, upright, scattered throughout the museum. So that you might encounter a vision, a version of this woman - who I think was called Lucy - consisting of a centimeter of her innermost parts between shoulder and foot, on the staircase between the second and third floors of the museum. You saw veins, cartilage, bone, organ, fatty layers, dermal layers, and even little hairs standing up on her outside layer. Every once in a while a section was identifiable by virtue of an outstanding feature, such as a nipple or eyelid…Fence is a literary magazine, not a scientific exhibit. But it is a similar demonstration of individuality in cross-section.
Why compare a selection of writers to cut-up slices of a woman’s dead body? Why compare marginalized writers to a pornographic website called "Suicide Girls?" Is there a connection between a literary interest in slice-ups of a female body and a casual attitude towards using pornography on the cover of a literary magazine? Does this point to the inherent violence of pornography?
Has pornography become so normalized that even our best literary editors use it to market their journals? As Pollitt pointed out, the Suicide Girls themselves claim that they are being exploited by the site owners. Is sexual self-objectification a kind of suicide? Perhaps more people will read poetry because of the summer cover choice of Fence; is it worth it? I am not going to try to answer these questions. I am just placing them here among a community of writers and readers who earnestly (not ironically) respect these kinds of questions.