My Nom de Peen: The Surprising Effects of a Male Pseudonym

pen 15I’ve written poems off and on, mostly off, over the course of more than two decades, and I’ve published them in Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, and maybe ten other respectable literary magazines. I work at a corporation, not in academia, and I don’t pretend to know much about how these journals operate.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a bunch of poems about industry, the Midwest, and the exploitation of labor and natural resources. After a few rounds of submissions, I didn’t get a bite. Knowing my subject matter was not stereotypically feminine, I decided to submit under a male pseudonym.

It wouldn’t be the first time I used a pen name. When I got my first contract for a romance novel, I did a quick Google search of my given name before signing. As plain and ordinary as it is, I share it with a beloved vintage porn star. Not wanting to draft off of someone else’s success, I made up a new name on the spot, inspired by my love for a Vampire Weekend song. In an oblique and ineffectual attempt to promote my books, I blogged a lot as Bryn Donovan, and now it’s my default for online writing.

To choose an alias for poetry, I turned to a baby name book that included the most common stereotypes about each name. I chose a male name that many people associated with creativity and paired it with an ordinary surname.

In my next two submission rounds, I got three poems accepted. “Wow,” a friend joked. “That penis makes you very talented.”

Statistically, it meant nothing. These were different journals. I’m only one person, and everyone’s luck ebbs and flows. If the name did make a difference, it might have been because it made me sound younger and cooler.

A couple of writers I knew disapproved, believing I was selling women short as a whole. I understand the sentiment, but I am such a minor player in the tiny realm of poetry publishing that I can’t imagine it matters.

Using a male pseudonym changed how I communicated. My cover letters for poetry submissions had never been chatty, but now they became ever so subtly less warm, more guy-like. When an editor asked for a change, I simply pointed out that the poem was written in iambic heptameter, and the proposed edit would throw off the meter. The poem was published without changes.

The most powerful effect of my nom de peen, though, was that it changed how I viewed my own writing.

I should explain a little first. My mother, a nursery school teacher who got married at the age of nineteen, raised me to be a feminist. From the time I was little, she would lecture me: “Don’t you ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything.”

I’m a seasoned creative professional now, accustomed to putting forward her own ideas. Unlike lots of people I know, particularly women, I don’t suffer from so-called impostor syndrome or consciously doubt my own talent.

Basically, I am the last person in the world I would expect to internalize sexism. And yet.

When I first printed out my poems under the new name and read them over, I experienced them in a whole new way. The lines felt more important, more universal. They had Things to Say about America. Yes, I thought. This guy knows what he’s talking about.

How did this happen? What part of me had managed to hold onto the idea that my vagina made my writing more trivial? I imagine that living in a world where men are usually the leaders in government, the preachers in church, the authors on the class syllabus, the CEOs of the companies, the voiceovers of the movie previews and the heroes of the movies, and so on, had made me subconsciously equate maleness with gravitas.

I might stick to the guy name for all of my poems. Even a modest uptick in acceptances means a lot to me. And while I may write about more “feminine” subjects in the future, I suspect a male poet gets extra credit for sensitivity and empathy, while people take these qualities for granted in a woman.

But the pride my alias gives me about my own writing is the real reason I don’t want to let it go. And with that I’m left dealing with the fact that for so long I thought I was free from sexism, but all along it was dwelling on a deeper level than I could have imagined.

 

Bryn Donovan is a professional greeting card writer, a poet, and the author of two romance novels and three children’s books. She lives with her husband and two neurotic dogs in Kansas City.

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