Poetry Readings and The VIDA Count

58º ~ thick white cloud cover after last night’s rain, storms a possibility though only the tiniest of tiny breezes for now

Last weekend, we had the Arkansas Literary Festival here in Little Rock, and it was fantastic.  This was the 10th year for the festival, and I’m thrilled that so many folks continue to attend.  There are always a few events, panels, or workshops on Thursday and Friday, but things really kick off with the author party on Friday night, at which I had a great time circulating with Martha Silano and Hope Coulter. 

Saturday, I managed to attend two readings. The first featured Christi Shannon Kline and Steve Kistulentz.  I was stunned to realize that Steve and I know tons of the same people and have published in several of the same journals, and yet, I’d neither read his two books nor befriended him on Facebook yet.  Both Christi and Steve did a wonderful job reading; however, sadly, they were at the first time slot and the audience was sparse.  I’m sad for the folks of central Arkansas who missed this one.

I had intended to move on to hear C.D. Wright, whom I’ve heard read several times before, but then fate intervened and Steve and I ended up having a cup of coffee.  The weather had warmed just enough that we were able to sit outside and people watch as we exchanged poetry stories and talked teaching.  I felt a bit like AWP had descended on Little Rock, as these are the kinds of chance encounters I long for and look forward to as AWP approaches each year.  Needless to say, I’ve added Steve’s work to my towering stack, just begging for the end of the semester!  (I have a hard time mustering the focus that a poetry collection requires during these last few weeks.)

You might spy, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss there toward the top as well.  Having learned many a lesson about pacing myself at AWP, I went home and took a rest mid afternoon before returning for Wiman’s session.  I had the great fortune to be introduced to him prior to the reading and was charmed by his authenticity.  Having known his name as the big cheese at Poetry for the last decade, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I confess, I was also a bit hesitant about his latest book, having been on the receiving end of one too many overly-evangelical people who have found their way back to Christianity after a health scare.  In the end, all of my reservations were silly. The reading was fantastic as Wiman wove passages from My Bright Abyss, a memoir of his journey back to faith, and poems from Every Riven Thing.  In the end, I bought both books, which should tell you how completely Wiman won me over.

Still, I left that reading with the VIDA count ringing in my ears.  This is not an indictment of Wiman but of the larger institutionalized gender bias at play in the world of literature.  To explain: Inevitably at these readings, when there is a Q & A, the question of influences and admiration for other writers comes up.  As Wiman rattled off a list of poets, I watched someone in the row with me scribble down all the names, and all the names were male, and all the names were white. 

Again, I do not mean to throw a judgment down on Wiman.  His prose and his poetry thrilled me, infused as they were with a joy for language and a stunning craft.  If these are his influences, these are his influences.  Instead, I was saddened by the lack of women and people of color.  Instead, I was reminded again of how fortunate I was to have the undergraduate instructors I had at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University who were intent on breaking the canon wide open.  Yes, we studied Hopkins, Yeats, and Keats, Pound and Eliot, Heaney and Lowell; however, I was also exposed to Joy Harjo, Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton (these first three live and in person on campus), Quincey Troupe, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, let alone Plath and Sexton and all hail Emily Dickinson!

The one resounding fact that remains with me is that when a poet has the good fortune to read in front of a captive audience made up of energetic readers of poetry and people aspiring to become poets, there is a power in the names we list.  There are people out there writing down the names, and who knows, some of them may even go and check out the poetry of those we name.  Isn’t this how institutionalized perceptions change, by the names we name, the books and lit mags we recommend, the ever-expanding web of writers we nurture?

*I spy a personal “project” for AWP 2014…keeping a list of the names discussed during readings and panel discussions.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn


Shawnte Orion

That's a good point. So much of everything I love came from the recommendations from artists I already love, whether in music, film, writing…

Sandy Longhorn

Yep, me too!

So glad to see you keeping the VIDA count alive and in discussion, Sandy. And a very important "I spy" for everyone! Thanks for this.

Sandy Longhorn

Carol, thanks for stopping by. I don't think the conversation will be leaving me anytime soon.

Wonderful to hear about your activities + very thought provoking. I hope you pursue your 2014 project!

Sandy Longhorn

Thanks, Kathleen!

John Vanderslice

I think you are really on to something. Whenever I assigned readings in a cw class, I'm always thinking about balancing out the genders, just for the reasons you say. And so that a lot of great stuff gets taught!

Sandy Longhorn

Exactly, John! Thanks for stopping by.


I wonder if there is some difference between poets who influence someone's writing and poets they read. Sometimes it is difficult to trace influences, especially by the poet herself.

Quintilian B. Nasty

I like that personal project you're thinking about. I wonder if you can work with others to do the same "data/influence collection," pool your data, and present about it? That information would be a helpful comparison to the VIDA count.

Sandy Longhorn

Choice, yes, sometimes it is hard to trace influences, so I suppose this only works if tracking stated influences.

Q. great idea!!!