How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott

Veteran poet Penelope Schott’s latest offering,  How I Became an Historian, traces a spiral from innocence into an abusive marriage, and out again into wisdom and forgiveness. Three slug poems serve as markers on this switchback trail. In “Pestering the Slug,” the first poem of the book, she recounts something almost all of us remember: the small child’s delight in harassing bugs. “I briefly understood / the unblameable charm of evil,” she writes.

That evil coalesces but also turns to remorse in “Glory is Reached by Many Routes,” when the speaker spends “a whole morning trying / to press a brown slug through a wire sieve / and all afternoon apologizing to the slug.” That remorse turns to redemption in “Keeper.” Here, the speaker keeps the slug for a week, feeding it

Continue reading “How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott”

Speaking Out About Sexism and Harassment is a Way for Feminist Writers to Find One Another

The Hairpin recently published a piece by Emma Healy about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways men ignore, negate, and harass women in the world of writing and publishing. Stories like the ones she and her colleagues recount make me feel so much less crazy as I contemplate returning to the world of writing and publishing, an industry I ran from years ago when New Media was the big idea. The Web seemed like an easier alternative to the hermetically sealed world of NYC publishing houses and academic presses. I started publishing my work on my own website in 1996 and haven’t looked back since. On a few occasions, it’s even resulted in literary journals soliciting my work — something unheard of in the more traditional literary world.

Like just about any industry on earth, web development (or web design, or web application development, or interactive design, or UI/UX design, or whatever the kids are calling it these days) is also a boys’ club. In the 1990s, I was a member of an organization called Webgrrls that brought women in the field together, but sometime around the turn of the century its founder Aliza Sherman sold it to a man (!) and it faded into obscurity. That heralded the end of the golden days of the web, a world that’s been co-opted by Silicon Valley startup capital and an increasingly crowded and complex Internet (or the Intarwebs, or the Tubes, or the blagosphere, or whatever the kids are calling it these days).  The gender discrimination I’ve faced has been subtle and difficult to name. On the whole, my experience has been less creeptastic dudebro trying to get in my pants and more male coworkers bonding over football and beer and then passing me over for promotions.

I try to keep frustration and bitterness from poisoning my interactions with the literary world, but I remain continually disgusted at how hard it is for women to get published and heard in mainstream society. There are bright spots in today’s landscape, such as the VIDA Count, Feministing, Jezebel, the Hairpin, and Gender Focus. Some small feminist presses still survive (Kore Press in Arizona and Alice James books in New England spring to mind. But I’ve found no central community for feminist writers (or queer feminist writers, for that matter), either in print or online. I long for the days of women’s bookstores and feminist presses — in spite of the fact that my experience with New Words in Cambridge wasn’t stellar. Part of the problem is that writers are a solitary lot. Poets in particular aren’t known to be paragons of mental stability, a necessary prerequesite for lasting friendships.

Now that I have a male partner and very little contact with the queer community, finding queer women’s voices in any form of media is an uphill battle. Sexism is a thing people keep denying exists. Feminists continue to have to expend tremendous time and energy just getting people to believe that there is a problem that needs to be changed. In spite of M’s large circle of lesbian friends (he actually knows more dykes than I do), we constantly butt heads when I point out the ways in which women are marginalized in the movies and TV shows we watch together.

And the world of queer women hasn’t changed so much from the 90s when I first came out. It’s still hidden, offline, held in living rooms instead of public spaces. Biphobia still makes it hard for women like me to feel fully part of “gay and lesbian” culture, and legalization of gay marriage has actually widened the gap between “good queers” (monogamous and married, just like you, America!) and “bad queers” (freaky bisexuals with multiple partners and transfolk who dare to challenge the notion of a binary gender system).

Amazon and Barnes & Noble killed the small bookstores like Reader’s Feast in Hartford, CT and New Words in Cambridge, MA, places that served as a focal point for feminist and queer community. I myself worked at a Barnes & Noble with a tiny “gay and lesbian” section (note the absence of the B and T in GLBT) tucked away in the back of the store at foot level, all of its titles shelved spine-out instead of face-out.

New Words closed in the ’00s, and Toni Amato’s Write Here Write Now is on hiatus while Toni recovers from a lengthy illness. Since then, I haven’t yet found a space (meatspace or cyberspace) that focuses on queer, feminist writers struggling to get published. Since I chose a decent paycheck over the groves of academia, I find it that much more difficult to find writers and artists with the time and energy needed to create community in addition to — you know — actually making art. I’ve hosted salons, an Artist’s Way group, a reading series, and writing workshops. These efforts can be rewarding but they also drain me of the resources (spoons, even) I need to do the thing I love the most, which is to write.

So this is a call to action to all queer feminist writers who might read this blog: please share with me where you’ve found or built community for yourself. If you haven’t found one or are hungry for more, consider joining the group I’ve created on Facebook in an effort to foster such a place in a virtual space. Here is the link to the group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/womenwritersandpoets/

The Poet According to Harper’s

This poet, first arrested by the implied promise of this passage (Buzzfeed headline: “How to become a Great Poet (TM) in three easy steps”), is struck by the subtle gendered irony contained therein.

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous: one gets Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” or Plath’s “Daddy,” or Lowell’s “Sunday Morning” (or Wallace Stevens’s). But without that last ingredient, ambition, nothing great will come.

— “Poetry Slam: Or, the decline of American verse,” by Mark Edmundson, in Harper’s July 2013, p. 64. Full text behind a paywall here: http://harpers.org/archive/2013/07/poetry-slam/

Some relevant pieces of information about the text:

  1. A few years ago, Harper’s was one of the worst offenders on the VIDA list. It’s still not doing so well.
  2. The author uses the feminine pronoun to refer to the hypothetical Great Poet.
  3. Three out of four of the examples of Great Poetry are by male authors.
  4. The author of the article is a man.

Since I’d rather be a Great Poet (TM) than a Women’s Studies professor, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about these facts and whether or not they indicate that Harper’s Magazine has a long way to go before its head will be completely removed from its own posterior.

Then — Poem by Lesley Wheeler

Then

If my son is a lantern spilling light and warmth
throug the rose panes of his skin

if combustion is a chemical reaction involving oxygen
and if its byproducts are heat and carbon dioxide

if we also exhale heat and carbon dioxide
if we are fire, converting the molecules around us

if the flames banked all day leap in me at night
and if I am too tired to rise and write

if I carry the spark in me, conserving it,
but its bright engine keeps changing the fuel of my life

into ashes, ashes–if the first conflagration is over
and the long deep burn is underway

if I feed with my breath, if I burn hotter,
if I smother it, if I keep changing air into spirit

— Lesley Wheeler
from Heathen

Note: Interview with the poet coming soon.

Robyn Art: Here at Last the Body, Window Cracked Open at the Helm

In recognition of National Poetry month (April) and belated recognition of Women’s History Month and Small Press Month (March), I’ll be posting notices for the rest of the month about (and, wherever possible, links to) women poets from small presses.

From Wicked Alice Poetry Journal, Winter 2008, Robyn Art:

And here at long last the body, its window cracked open at the helm
[…]
stay here all you broke-down
visions, supernumerary impulse-buys and over glutted infomercials of love, stay here
betwixt and between Restless Leg Syndrome, TMJ, discretionary income and the oft-extolled pleasures of the drug-free life, O boggy and efflorescent self, self of root cellars and forgotten tinctures, of mud and excrement and loam, but still at long last
the body, the non-body nearly arrived, relentless, full-throttle toward the irreparable
becoming […]

See full text here (second item on page)