(Cover art by Laura Grover)
The germ of this book lies in essays that appeared online at That Lit Site, The Washington Independent Review of Books, and New Black Man, curated by Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African American studies at Duke University. Professor Neal has never failed to make me feel welcome as a contributor. I feel gratitude also to Dustin Pickering, Publisher of Transcendent Zero Press who accepted the following work for publication before it was completed.
For Ann, always
“And she laughed secretly, saying: After I am grown old, and my lord is an old man, shall I give myself to pleasure?”
Genesis 18: 12
Not long ago, noted literary scholar Harold Bloom read the passage above and realized it could not have been written by a man. Bloom, sensitive as a tuning fork, recognized the writer’s wry mockery of the eternal male belief in his prowess. In November, 1991, Bloom published The Book Of J, called his finest book by the New York Times, and in which he identifies one of the key authors of the Hebrew Bible, “J” ( for her reference to her Creator as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” ) as a woman. We cannot know J or her times but we can marvel at the special place of women to the Hebrew sages who wrote in the Talmud that ” God counts the tears of women.”
It is the argument of this short work that feminist poets have not merely exploded the traditional male, all- white Western Canon but are creating a golden age of new verse that is being ignored, sometimes willfully, but more fully because Americans no longer read contemporary poetry. We are literally lost without it, because the ancient Greeks recognized that poets serve as our historians, and secular prophets.
There are many reasons for poetry’s collapse: children are required in the classroom to read poets who do not speak in their voice, or to their times. This is tragic because there are serious, working poets in virtually every community or nearby who would gladly visit and beckon them to poetry’s recesses.
The corporate power supporting wealth inequality decimates legions. Only Farrar, Straus And Giroux among major publishing houses remains interested in poets. And the large- scale publishing firms that produce popular fiction and nonfiction are themselves part of media conglomerates the media that advertise their authors, and against which small presses can’t compete. The fastest way to have a query ignored by a literary agent is to write in the subject line ” My book of poetry.”
Finally, academic poets are a separate class who continue a tradition of believing the general reader will not understand their work ( “Yeats”, T.S. Eliot remarked in an interview with the Paris Review, “that Gaelic writer). After E.E. Cummings’ death, his wife, Marion wrote a friend, ” Academics hated my husband because he only wrote short poems, but above all, because he was popular.”
But poets , working as cashiers or waitresses, or juggling multiple jobs as they pursue a Master’s degree, still write, even knowing that the indifference of the public overspreads them like winter cover, and, unlike J, whose radical gift was harnessed to a narrative, gaze up and long to be pleasured by the cosmos:
“Stargazing” by Ariana Nadia Nash
The stars are all the skin
I’ll never touch. They are
the bright points of years
I have not lived, the names
I do not know. They speak
to worlds inside myself
I will not learn. They shock —
this spread of stars, these motes
of fireballs, this milky
conflagration. In their depth
and beauty, they are
the most intricate map
of the unknown, the most
wild moan of silence.
When a recent CNN poll noted that only 7% of Americans had read a poem in the last year, a new introduction , using all the language of polish on my shelf, is where I look for remedy. I do not want feminist poets whose gifts are dominating contemporary letters, to be spirits, flickering near us unseen:
Vastness of dusk-after a day.
what is a person? Too late
to ask this now. The court has ruled
a corporation is a person.
Persons used to be called souls.
On the avenue, a lucky person
stands in a convenience store
scratching powder from his ticket —
silver flecks fall from his thumbs
to galaxies below.
Poetry begins, and I’m writing from personal experience, in the unconscious and those who are chosen randomly to write it begin their craft in childhood. ” ‘Dragoon’ ‘”, Dylan Thomas said to his sister as small boy, “isn’t that a wonderful word?” Sylvia Plath was published at eight. Susan Sontag self published her poems at nine (“I got through my childhood in a delirium of literary exaltations.”). At fourteen, Edna St Vincent Millay wrote: “in the hush of the dying day, / The mossy walls and ivy towers of the land of Romance lay. / The breath of dying lilies haunted the twilight air / And the sob of a dreaming violin filled the silence everywhere.”
I believe the unconscious – which we know from dreams does not record time – stores a culture’s collective memory of its art. This explains the impetus and inexplicable confidence every poet feels as they write. There’s more: when a poem is finished, its writer – and this is a common experience – often feels they are not its creator. The poet reads a superior artwork but feels no part of it, though he/she may have wept through its setting down, so deep were the feelings stirred.
Without doubt, women felt this impulse and longed to “wrestle with the polis” (a critic’s compliment of Brenda Hillman’s work) throughout the worst of times. “Whenever you read anonymous at the end of a poem”, said Virginia Woolf, “it is woma
poets have not only overcome the suppression of traditional Western literature, they are adding new discoveries to its foundation stones. In the 1970’s, “Songs Of The Troubadours” appeared in print, translated from Provencal by Anthony Bonner. The work of the jongleurs had first come to the notice of Ezra Pound, the champion of all that is worthwhile in literature. Pound was astonished by the modernity of the poems which would not be equaled until the appearance of Yeats. And there scholarship might have ended were it not for Matilda Bruckner’s seminal ” Songs Of The Women Troubadours”, published in 2000 ( Garland Library Of Medieval Literature), followed in 2013 by Meg Bogin’s ” The Women Troubadours ” ( Norton Paperback ).
But for the male lot : critics, academic advisors and peers who wish to smother feminism as it’s expressed in poetry, the way is closed:
We Never Remember The Last Argument | Sarah Bartlet
The smell of your mom’s dress is closed.
A magnolia’s heavy unlatched tongue is closed.
The bitter scratch at the back of your throat is closed.
Your childhood’s rebuttal is closed.
The road holding up an arc of trees and their strange covenant is closed.
Disappearing on schedule is closed.
A field of rabbits spreading their fur around is closed.
I am easing myself daily closer to the ground is closed.
I am easy on paycheck night is closed.
Lying next to you in a box of bourbon-soaked cherries is closed.
I am almost the same taste and timbre as the empty field is closed.
Our eyes staying closed in proximity is closed.
Telling me this child isn’t my child is closed.
Telling him he belongs where belonging means absence is closed.
When you try to identify the poison it is closed.
The ravine raising its mouth up to the sky and swallowing the last horse is closed.
A review of the maximum leverage available here is closed.
My hands asking to release this fistful of air is closed.
Try and make another decision without me and you’ll see what I mean is closed.
Reporting back on a dream’s dialogue with awakening is closed.
I want to get on an airplane for the last time is closed.
I want to never come back here except to you is closed.
Crows dropping chestnuts and letting us crack them is closed.
Fists of flowers punching through the dirt no matter what the air says is closed.
You plus I plus you plus I plus you plus you plus constant fucking is closed.
Like a tail in the door being able to take it all back is closed.
The olden days where ships hefted the seas apart like god is closed.
Access to regret too pristine to share leaving its knife out is closed.
An element of surprise is closed.
Ask yourself where your blood is and say it’s right here is closed.
Your grandmother’s curtains refusing to move for a casual breeze is closed.
My great-grandmother swallowing her death down is closed.
Taking the land for ourselves is closed.
Erasing an entire year of a bed nailed to the floor is closed.
Making you the bed is closed.
Making you an object of forgiveness or sparkling teeth is closed.
Making this unremarkable is closed.
Narrative that reflects absolute truth is closed.
Believing in truth as fact under trees at night after a fire takes the stars away is closed.
The scissors we use to make snowflakes stay sharp is closed.
Another year of windows softening our gaze is closed.
Holding my breath under water to panic the heart is closed.
Tell me one last time please is closed.
Our mouths together dredging words thick as oil is closed.
The hatch over the mouse in your chest is closed.
Being small in the arms of myself is closed.
Holding on to a rock with a child holding on to me in a running tide is closed.
Looking for mistakes like feet look for glass is closed.
Body as fist as ship as celestial navigation is closed.
Brick by brick this hole in the side of our house is closed.
Won’t you wait somewhere just out of sight while I do this is closed.
Which of us was left holding the bag is closed.
Believing it’s possible to run the clock out is closed
Please oh please oh please oh please oh god is closed.
So far, I’ve painted a bleak portrait of feminist contemporary poetry and its lack of place in the life of the American reading public. I have a particular gripe with public libraries that have given themselves up to the tidal wave of detritus ( shelves of eight copies of the same unread book ) that floods them from major publishers, and which neither seek out or give space to the amazing poetry being offered by small presses. Nor do libraries subscribe to many of the literary journals that are the lifeblood of American poetry.
But against this weight, we can balance the lighted open spaces of the internet where important work can be found and where its authors can find a sense of support and community on social media. They are there as one, on Facebook or Twitter or both: Sarah Blake, Susannah Nevison, Erica Jong, Jamila Woods ( recent winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. They are all here, as well as literary journals publishing in English around the globe. Submitting to these journals is only a keyboard away, and American women poets are appearing, online and in print, in Sweden, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia–which has a close-knit feminist community.
In the United States alone, there are (at the last count) over 400 small presses, some long standing (Copper Canyon Press was the first to publish Pablo Neruda in North America) and others as new as bread from the morning oven. And these in turn are branching out, publishing exclusively the voices of women, queer, bisexual and transgender and gender-fluid poets, some making themselves heard for the first time in literary history:
(shed for fears)
My fingers bleed.
I don’t know who i am
I don’t know what to say.
I am different
and have to meet myself
for what feels like
the first time in a long time.
I battle with the boy
The boy within
who can’t seem to see
I am he
as much as i am me.
I can’t sleep for the fear,
my heart murmurs
and strings pull deep
inside of me.
as i rest
I am displaced
lost and weary.
and be free.
He cries silent
heart and mind and body and soul
He makes me whole
He is beside me.
Cloaked and daggered
he weeps tears
for all the years
he has spent
in the dark
He is me
and together we sit
In the darkness we cry.
– Jacqe Matelot
These “prophets of the invisible” ( Wallace Stevens) find solidarity in their talks across the ether with women who are experiencing the same struggle. And they are fed courage and creative nourishment from the works of other poets, posted daily by journals or fans.
This reminds me of an imperative of creating poetry I did not mention earlier, but which is its high- borne standard: a master- poem is beautiful. A poem cannot be malignant and be a poem. It cannot be read and understood by only a few but must affect every reader with the same touch:
Sea Foam Palace
(Bubbling and spuming
as if trying to talk under
water, I address you thus:)
Must I pretend not to love
you (in your present bloom,
your present perfection — soul
encased in fleshly relevance)
so you won’t believe me
just another seabed denizen
vying for your blessed attention?
Some of us (but not you)
are so loosely moored
to our bodies we can
barely walk a straight line,
remaining (most days) only
We stagger and shudder
as buckets of blood or sperm
or chocolate mousse or spittle
or lymph or sludge sluice
continually through us…
I love the way you wear your
face, how you ride this life.
I delight in the sight of you,
your nervous, inquisitive eyes,
though I try to act otherwise.
Being stoned out of thy mind
only amps up thy fearsome
brain wattage. Pardon my
frontal offensive, dear chum.
Forgive my word-churn, my
drift, the ways this text message
has gotten all frothy. How was it
you became holy to me? Should
I resist, furiously? Is this your
true visage, shaken free, flashing
glimpses of what underlies
the world we can see? Do not forget me
murmurs something nibbled
by fish under the sea.
After dark you’re quick-silvery,
wet /slick /glistening. Don’t
make me chase you, dragging
my heavy caresses, a pair of
awkward, serrated claws,
hither and yon. Give me a swig
of whatever you’re drinking,
to put me in tune with the cosmos’s
relentless melt, with the rhythms
of dish-washing, corn-shucking,
hard-fucking, bed-wetting, and
the folding of bones of other loves
into well-dug graves… may we
never become lost to the world.
By Amy Gerstler
“Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You ( white women) fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reason they are dying.” Audre Lorde
In its June , 2014, issue – made available online, The Atlantic published Ta- Nehisi Coates’ “The Case For Reparations.” It electrified Black America and the public at large as had nothing since the 1968 Kerner Report which declared that White and Black America lived lives separate and unequal.
It would not be enough, Coates eloquently argued, to balance the ledger for the descendants of slaves who had created America’s enormous foundation of wealth under the lash for two hundred and fifty years. What had followed “Reconstruction” was a systemic racism that virtually assured that African Americans would remain a permanent underclass, with no recourse to finance or political power. The payment of large scale reparations to Black households would not be only just, but the only measure that would allow African Americans to eliminate inequities in employment, housing , health services and education in a single generation.
Nothing about the dangers of being Black in the United States was piecemeal and the murderous impulse to body and spirit of racism was evident in the tens of thousands of Black men, many non- violent offenders, who historically had worn chains and now were locked behind iron bars. In the street, unarmed Black men were being shot or choked by the police.
Over these grounds flared poet Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric”. It illuminated the soul crushing reality of her experience:
from Citizen: “You are in the dark, in the car…”
By Claudia Rankine
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel okay saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, be propelled forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
When the stranger asks, Why do you care? you just stand there staring at him. He has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers. Hey, I am standing right here, you responded, not necessarily expecting him to turn to you.
He is holding the lidded paper cup in one hand and a small paper bag in the other. They are just being kids. Come on, no need to get all KKK on them, you say.
Now there you go, he responds.
The people around you have turned away from their screens. The teenagers are on pause. There I go? you ask, feeling irritation begin to rain down. Yes, and something about hearing yourself repeating this stranger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile.
A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince. He’s okay, but the son of a bitch kept walking. She says she grabbed the stranger’s arm and told him to apologize: I told him to look at the boy and apologize. And yes, you want it to stop, you want the black child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet and be brushed off, not brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.
The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards, she says, like newly found uncles and brothers.
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
In its first four months of publication by Graywolf Press, Citizen sold 40,000 copies, an astonishing number for a small press. The book was a Finalist for the National Book Award, and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. There is nothing comparable to Rankine’s talent, save perhaps for the poetic-artistic genius of Matthea Harvey. The two have in common that both had collections entered for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. But the anonymous panel of judges gave the award to a male poet, from an all- male list of Finalists.
Latina poets, Native American and Asian- American women, and a constellation of others: their body of work has reached the critical mass that will add diversity to anthologies and swell the Western Canon:
regarding the yellowface poet
[ Poem in response to m.d.h., white poet who used a Chinese pseudonym to get published in Best American Poetry. ]
choi jeong min
for my parents, Choi Inyeong & Nam Songeun
in the first grade i asked my mother permission
to go by frances at school. at seven years old
i already knew the exhaustion of hearing my name
butchered by hammerhead tongues. already knew
to let my salty gook name drag behind me
in the sand, safely out of sight. in fourth grade
i wanted to be a writer & worried
about how to escape my surname – choi
is nothing if not korean, if not garlic breath,
if not seaweed & sesame & food stamps
during the lean years – could i go by f.j.c.? could i be
paper thin & raceless? dust jacket & coffee stain,
boneless rumor smoldering behind the curtain
& speaking through an ink-stained puppet?
my father ran through all his possible rechristenings –
ian, issac, ivan – and we laughed at each one,
knowing his accent would always give him away.
you can hear the pride in my mother’s voice
when she answers the phone this is grace, & it is
some kind of strange grace she’s spun herself,
some lightning made of chainmail. grace is not
her pseudonym, though everyone in my family is a poet.
these are the shields for the names we speak in the dark
to remember our darkness. savage death rites
we still practice in the new world. myths we whisper
to each other to keep warm. my korean name
is the star my mother cooks into the jjigae
to follow home when i am lost, which is always
in this gray country, this violent foster home
whose streets are paved with shame, this factory yard
riddled with bullies ready to steal your skin
& sell it back to your mother for profit,
land where they stuff our throats with soil
& accuse us of gluttony when we learn to swallow it.
i confess. i am greedy. i think i deserve to be seen
for what i am: a boundless, burning wick.
a stone house. i confess: if someone has looked
at my crooked spine and called it elmwood,
i’ve accepted. if someone has loved me more
for my gook name, for my saint name,
for my good vocabulary & bad joints,
i’ve welcomed them into this house.
i’ve cooked them each a meal with a star singing
at the bottom of the bowl, a secret ingredient
to follow home when we are lost:
sunflower oil, blood sausage, a name
given by your dead grandfather who eventually
forgot everything he’d touched. i promise:
i’ll never stop stealing back what’s mine.
i promise: i won’t forget again.
— Franny Choi
bird’s nest by Jamila Woods
after max sansing
when daddy says my head is a bird’s
nest, he means a momma bird might find it
inviting. my hair: a place to raise her first eggs,
a place her first babes might call out to her, a place
she might fly back to from the wet morning dirt, chewing
a worm in the side of her cheek, so her baby might swallow
it down easy, so her baby might fall asleep with a full stomach
and never dream of falling, so i might rise from sleep
on a Sunday morning, come downstairs dressed
for church with a head full of morning songs,
uncombed hair, hear my daddy chuckle,
search for words, and call it wild
The internet is many things, but its extraordinary, all- encompassing power is on display at any mall where young people walk with their faces glued to I-phones. It is also home to the counter culture of feminist poets who, shunned by traditional publishing, must become marketers of their work, and slip around the corner and ahead of major media outlets who are too monolithic to take notice of individual social media phenomena. “Major” authors don’t appear on podcasts, that reach thousands. Desktop publishing allows a poet to create “ads” from Google images that they can post on their Facebook, Twitter accounts and their own websites to let the public know that a poem has been accepted by a journal, with links, and that a manuscript has been sent out, and then accepted by small press. Every achievement is a victory, and the web is no place to be modest about them.A network on social media, for every poet, should be more than just cliques of other wordsmiths, and literary bodies. It should include all who long for culture, the beautifully expressed and the substantive that bears no resemblance to the tabloid present.
Small presses have no marketing budgets or public relations staff. The poet must take on the role of partner in their dreams with the publisher who accepts them. Copies must be sent out to reviewers, not of major newspapers or magazines that ignore poetry, but to the growing legion of book bloggers/ reviewers on the web. Whatever large or small town the poet lives in deserves the added luster of a poet-in-residence and laureate. Publication of a first book of poetry ( and no pleasure equals the first box of copies of one’s first book delivered to a home address) is only the start of a promotional journey that requires the same energy and imagination that sparks creative artistry. Readings are often welcome at public libraries ( that frequently pay the author) as well as independent bookstores that are thriving.
Poets must beat major publishers who distribute poetry collections fractionally, at their own game. Poets should insist that their manuscripts, however and whenever possible be published, in the same volume, in Spanish and English, not only to address America’s changing demographics, but to have the ability to sell their books to the Latin American market, in whose culture literature is prized. In Spain, Cervantes’ birthday is a national holiday and banners celebrating it hang from lamp posts in Madrid ( Would that we did it here for Emily Dickinson or Mark Twain). China Mobile.com distributes English language books to the millions o English- speaking Chinese who crave to read books from the West, and where English is mandatory in grammar schools.
” Poets”, wrote Shelley, ” are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. ” This is not hyperbole. Jamila Woods, whose poetry was quoted here, and who was profiled in the online Blavity:The Voice Of Black Millennials, is the Associate Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, and a founding member of its Teaching Artist Corps. The revered Nikki Giovanni has acquired so many awards for her activism that they take up a full page on her website.
Poets are notoriously insecure about their craft and many starting poets worry they will not be published: they will, and later poets brood and worry also that their legacy will not be remembered. It’s a baseless fear, as the dynamics of poetry creation prove. Once it is expressed, a poem cannot be lost; and if the Western Canon must be hugely expanded to not become obsolete, it nonetheless contains poets who unknowingly sensed a future more welcoming than in the past. Tennyson’s Ulysses was content to ship off into obscurity, but Virgil’s pen brought another band to a foreign, unknown shore. At first, the men of Aeneas are afraid of the strange landscape but then their leader finds a stone- carved artwork. ” Do not be afraid”, he says, ” these are mortals such as we, and mortal things touch their hearts.”
About the author:
Charles Bane, Jr. is the author of three collections of poetry including the recent ” The Ends Of The Earth: Collected Poems ( Transcendent Zero Press, 2015 ) as well as “I Meet Geronimo And Other Stories” ( Avignon Press, 2015) and ” Three Seasons: Writing Donald Hall ( Collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University). He created and contributes to The Meaning Of Poetry Series for The Gutenberg Project.
About the artist:
Laura Grover believes art is for everyone. She enjoys drawing animals, people, and flowers but her true love is comics. Laura lives in the woods of Maine with her roller derby life partner, just enough cats, and a baby-on-the-way. You can see more of her finished work (or hire Laura) at www.lgroverdesign.com and also follow her misadventures in pregnancy at her comic diary, “Unexpecting” : apregnancycomic.tumblr.com