Robin Richardson on founding Minola Review
WHEN I WAS thirteen, I attended my first dance party. I went with three of my closest girlfriends, all the same age as I was, all equally excited to be out. My one girlfriend, a tall blonde who always had a man on her arm, brought along her seventeen-year-old boyfriend. His name was Mike. Standing against the wall with one knee up, he’d watched the dancers in front of him with running commentary. He was too cool to dance. We wanted to be cool for Mike, my girlfriends and I, so we stood against the wall with him, our hair done up and our heels on. We watched other girls—the silly girls who didn’t have a seventeen-year-old boy with them—dance unabashedly. I spent about an hour there, doing basically nothing, when Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” came on. Come on! my soul screamed, fuck this being cool shit, let’s dance! I stepped forward into the crowd and started swaying my hips; it felt good. I was ready to really bust a move when Mike’s voice broke in like a Vaudeville hook from the sidelines, Damn girl, he said, half shielding his eyes, no one wants to see that.
I stopped, a shamed pup in the process of domestication, busted in the middle of some outlawed, feral act. It took me over a year to work up the courage to dance in public again.
When I think back on that evening, I tell myself that I could have pushed through my fear, or even left my friends for some more hospitable territory. But why was my life as a young woman so dictated by the oppressive presence of such men? I let myself imagine that evening differently. What if it had been just us girls? What if there was no Mike? What if I could create a space where my girlfriends and I could dance however we want? Where we wouldn’t worry about coming across too sexy or too unsexy, too goofy or unhinged. We would have the freedom simply to move.
Minola Review is my no-boys-allowed dance party. I created Minola—named after the shrew who is arguably broken, or perhaps forced to play at being broken for the sake of survival, at the hands of her father and husband in Taming of the Shrew—as a online magazine for writing by women, femme-identifying, and non-binary writers. In the past few years, the realities of gender disparity in literature, and in North American culture at large, have come to the forefront. Groups like VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, and CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), have worked to calculate and share the numbers regarding men and women in print and review. Both organizations have made one thing clear: men maintain a majority in almost all arenas. There are more male editors and reviewers, and more books by men being published and reviewed.
Though there has been some move towards equity in recent years, the fact remains we navigate our lives in a culture basically curated and dominated by Mikes. When I think about the impact this disparity has had on my life and on my own creative expression I feel nearly devastated. The voices of men I’ve known sound off almost every time I take on a new project. I hear the writer who told me women lacked the scope to make compelling art. I hear him again telling me I have had success in my career because men find me attractive, telling me to be humble and grateful, to always act surprised by success. I hear the writer from the award ceremony asking me what man is responsible for my interest in writing. There are the teachers who told me I had no right to feel stirred with sympathy for Lolita, that if I felt for her I was missing the point, which was to give myself over to Humbert’s point of view—as if I suffered from a lack of insight into men’s perspectives. Almost every film I watched in my twenties was written by men for men. Same goes for books and visual art.
I gave up attempting to write a novel for almost a decade due to the pressing opinion of the men around me that I lacked the capability. I wrote domestic, cryptic, safe poems, always avoiding risks that might open me to ridicule from the men in my field, who mocked elements they saw as feminine: sentimental and self-indulgent. Men, to me, were the superior breed; the gatekeepers and the tastemakers. I wanted to be, in their eyes, a Cool Girl, as defined by a character in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
This is what myself and many women succumb to in attempt to feel relevant and loved. Being a Cool Girl comes at the cost of my own voice, desires, concerns, and needs. But Flynn’s writing is proof of the impactful work that can emerge from a woman who’s been through the Cool Girl grind and survived. It’s out of this that Minola Review is born. Because I am the sole curator and have not sought government funding, the magazine is not compromised by outside mandates. There is no jury to please, no nationalistic diktat, or content requirement. No author photos are provided, as appearances have no place in Minola’s terrain.
The approach is working. Poet Cassidy McFadzean submitted some of her most transparent and self-reflective poems yet. In her poem “Spell for Coming and Going” she explores what it’s like to navigate the male mind, to edit one’s self in order to draw out the desired male attention:
I can summon a conversation if I ask you
just the right questions about yourself.
Not: am I the last to make you come;
but—when’s the last time you came?
T Kira Madden, Editor-in-Chief at the all-female-staffed No Tokens in New York wrote an impeccable piece of non-fiction about the effects of a commercial for cosmetic surgery she’d grown up watching in Florida. The voice of the man in the commercial sticks with her to this day, creeping up at night like a pervasive lullaby:
A man sings: "Naturally you’re lookin’ good, you look just like you dreamed you would! You’re having fun, you’re at your best, and all it took was Just One Look! Florida Center for Cosmetic Surgery: just one look is worth a thousand words!” His girls look so pleased to be beautiful, his.
There is not a poem or piece of prose in the first issue of Minola Review that doesn’t move me. It features solid Canadian up-and-comers like Melanie Janisse-Barlow, whose poems have drawn instant attention on Twitter and Facebook, alongside widely published international authors like Lisa Locascio and Christine Reilly. Shannon Bramer’s moving, and dark domestic reflections have drawn a great deal of attention as well, and I’m honoured to feature her before the release of her forthcoming collection in 2017 with Book Thug.
Please note: it’s not in protest of literary men that I’ve created Minola. Many of my fruitful working relationships are with men, and I wouldn’t give any of them up. The point is that we, as women, require a space to experiment and grow on our own.
About five years ago, in my first year as a Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence College I was asked by a peer if I thought there was a fundamental difference between men’s and women’s writing. The voice that came into my head, vigorous and opinionated, wasn’t mine, but that of an ex, who was also an aspiring writer. I nearly spoke, as I had hundreds of times, from his perspective, but stopped. I’d left him behind, gotten into a notably feminist school in New York, had a contract for my first collection of poems. In short, I was beginning to question the reality he’d created for me; a reality in which an older man was the authority, helping me escape the limitations of my sex. I told my peers I had no opinion yet on the matter. That was the truth. The first step was recognizing the voices in my head were not my own. The next was a lifelong dedication to finding what my voice actually was.
We aren’t here at Minola Review to be Cool Girls. We are here to engage in open dialogue with one another: united, unfiltered, and potent.
ROBIN RICHARDSON is the author of two collections of poetry and Editor-in-Chief at Minola Review. Her work is forthcoming in POETRY and has appeared in Tin House, Arc, The North American Review, and Hazlitt, among others. Richardson’s latest collection, Sit How You Want, is forthcoming with Véhicule Press.