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A New Feminist Poetry or a Trudge through Patriarchy

A new poetry anthology from OR Books (all images courtesy of OR Books)

When I picked up Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism, a collection of poems by 49 female-identified poets published by OR Books, I hoped to report that feminist poetry — and the new feminism that it represents — would not be a tragic, polemic trudge through the trash-pile that patriarchy has made of the world and women’s lives. I joked to a friend and fellow writer that I should make “Feminist Poetry Bingo” cards and rate the collection (edited by Village of Crickets co-founding editors Danielle Barnhart and Iris Mahan) by how long it took me to hit a bingo. In other words, I had misgivings about what I suspected to be the major topics covered by the all-start line-up of featured poets.

“Our hope is that readers engage thoughtfully with the work, and attempt to open themselves up to the infinitely varied experiences of women of resistance,” said Mahan, in an email interview, during which I expressed some of my frustrations with the most common tropes of “Feminist” poetry. She added, “One of my favorite things about the anthology format is its tendency to be nonlinear, and as with poetry (and all art), some days a piece hits me hard, and on another day, it doesn’t resonate as deeply. As editors, we welcome those kinds of wavering responses to this anthology. It is a good thing that you could feel turned on or off by any poem at a certain moment because that kind of reading is the truest representation of the varied, complicated, and utterly nonsensical ways we as humans process our experiences.”

It’s not that Women of Resistance isn’t an excellent cross-section of work by and about the intersectional experience of contemporary womanhood; it’s that the intersectional experience of contemporary womanhood is a slog through all the crap that’s been piled on top of us, punctuated by brief, transcendent moments of beauty, joy, validation, and connection. The book’s introduction quotes Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” regarding the distressing and ongoing reality faced by most women in most societies:

Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.

Are there good poems in this collection? Yes. Do they adhere to, reject, experiment, and play with language and form, in addition to carrying the general theme of expressing female-identified concerns? Indeed. Is it fun to read? Not particularly. It is, for the most part, a difficult witnessing process.

Image courtesy of OR Books.

“This anthology does not have a singular purpose,” states a promotional video for the book that variously characterizes it as a love letter, a confession, a manifesto, a wish, and a meditation on grief. If I’m honest, the thing that most piqued my interest in reading the collection was the presence of the word “new” into the title’s subhead (“Poems for a New Feminism”). It’s not that the traumatic root causes of Feminist Poetry Bingo aren’t happening; it’s not that we shouldn’t believe women or centralize their truths and their stories. It’s that feminist poetry is not new — it has been a powerful form of processing, as well as a stereotyped genre, for many a wave — and it is not changing things fast enough.

“If we find anything distressing about the themes or subject matter not being exactly new, it’s that the experience of womanhood/girlhood (biologically, mentally, emotionally, aesthetically) hasn’t really changed,” said Mahan in our interview, continuing:

The needle hasn’t moved all that much since we threw out our egalitarian societal leanings thousands of years ago and got into the agricultural revolution and all the concepts of ownership that went with it. We could talk about Eve; we could talk about property and voting rights; we could talk about forced sterilization; we could talk about Audre Lorde, or the incel movement, or Jeff Sessions’ recent legislation barring victims of domestic and gang violence from attaining political asylum in our country. These old and new stories would all trod familiar territory — namely, the ever-present challenges to and dangers of the experience of womanhood.

If this collection, or any poem, makes someone feel seen, known, less alone, braver, and more inclined to stand up, then it is doing good work in the world. But I do not think the people who see and treat women, femmes, people of color, and non-binary and female-identified individuals, as subhuman are going to change their mind because of a poem. I don’t walk through a darkened, empty parking lot clutching a poem; I splay my keys through the spaces between my fingers like a makeshift weapon and hope to Goddess that’s enough to keep someone from checking off another square on my bingo board.

“Old songs stick around because they need singing, especially when there are fresh wounds,” said Barnhart, building off her co-editor’s point in the same interview. “These poets are alive and with blood pumping, they are writing these poems now. These are neither typical poems, nor are they typical poets (if there even is such a thing). They are fresh and relevant, and while many are deeply specific to the poets’ infinitely intersecting identities, they have the underpinnings of some of our oldest, sweetest, and bitterest truths.”

So perhaps I’m wrong. Poets would not be a part of society if poetry was not crucial, because — and I say this as an occasional poet, myself — on the face of it, poetry is largely useless. Its only power is to act as the lightning rod of emotion, expressing feeling and experience in language unfettered by the rules of other forms. If women continue to struggle through the lived experience of constant subordination to the needs and desires of men, it is irrational for me to blame poetry. With this anthology, the editors hoped to open a conversation about what “women’s resistance” means — or, to use Mahan’s words: “What it looks and feels like to poets who aren’t often asked how they feel about those questions. Our editorial approach was to reach out the poets who would answer those questions with new and different answers, and questions not asked before.” For example, Laura Fargrieve’s “Bamberg, 1628,” a poem based on the true story of an accused witch; the non-gendered political explorations in Elizabeth Clark Wessel’s “1991,” Maureen McLane’s “Meanwhile,” or Achy Obejas’s “The March”; Lauren Clark’s gender-nonconforming take on the rituals of the wedding industrial complex in “Epithalamion” and “Vortex Temporum”; or Mahogany L. Browne’s scathing indictment of race in America in “If 2017 was a poem title.”

“‘New’ meant asking cis-gendered men to explore the female psyche,” said Mahan, “like Jericho Brown’s contemplation of the male gaze in ‘The Legend of Big and Fine’; Tyehimba Jess’s retelling of ‘Hagar in the Wilderness’; and Kaveh Akbar’s tribute to an Iranian woman executed for killing her would-be rapist in ‘Heritage.’”

Perhaps my argument here is not with poetry, or Feminist poetry, or the co-editors of Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism — because truly, what is poetry but a labor of love? — but with the idea of newness, as promised by the title. I found myself struggling to get beyond that broken promise, because I do, as it happens, believe in the transformative power of art, and I hate more than anything to see it used in a moment at which identity politics have market traction, to sell books to people hungry for a new set of options instead of the same old songs. I want to trust these poets and bear witness to them, but I think I wanted even more than that to believe there was another way.

As Rachel McKibbens writes in her contribution, “Shiv”:

O, to be permitted the luxury

of only worrying about one thing at a time.

Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism (2018) is published by OR Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.




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