Anne Champion, “Sluts, Liars, and Irrational, Overly Emotional, Angry, Needy Poets: Women’s Relationship to Poetry and Craft”
Reluctant Mistress is a book centered around toxic relationships and the various emotional reactions that a contemporary young woman faces—from the struggles of understanding her relationship to the domestic sphere given the post-feminist revolution that allows her the freedom to work, to the various emotions faced from sexual liberation. At a recent reading, a man turned to me after I finished my poems and said, “Nothing like getting some good old revenge! Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” I laughed politely, but I was stunned by the comment. My poetry was never about revenge. In fact, some of the scenarios in my poems are not even true to my life: I imagined them. It never crossed my mind to use my art as a way to exploit or hurt another person.
Then, at another reading that I did alongside a male poet, whose poetry was darker than my own, I found myself fielding questions about “If I considered writing a catharsis or a therapy” and “Did I feel better now” while the male poet was asked about his research process and his decisions on form. I ached to talk about my own struggles with craft, the tenuous battles I’ve had navigating the lines and the images, my use of mythology, or how I establish music in my poetry.
And at this same reading, I found myself cornered by two very well meaning and kind women, who wanted to hug me and tell me I would be okay. They told me I should seek therapy, and they told me about their divorces and how much better I would be once I let men go entirely. I politely told them that I was happily single, and I found myself assuring them that I was ok, even as I tried to suggest that only some of my poems are written from true experiences, and many of the ones that may start out true change in revision for the sake of the poem. If the truth does not serve the craft, then I let the truth go. But I got the feeling they didn’t believe me.
Then, two weeks ago, I did a reading at NYU in which someone asked me and three other women poets “Did you ever write before you had a man to be mad at? What can you write about if you don’t have heartbreak?” I felt defeated, at my wit’s end. Of course, I’ve been writing before I even kissed a boy, my second collection is all about grief, abuse and loss, and the project on my horizon—a book based on my experience in the Middle East—is political and humanitarian. My art isn’t limited to and it doesn’t revolve around heartbreak. And I love men—I don’t write out of a place of anger. In fact, I find it best to write, as Wordsworth suggested, with my emotions recollected in tranquility.
Most reviewers have called my poems “Female love poems” or “Feminist poems,” and I wonder why they need to be qualified as female? Shakespeare’s sonnets are not referred to as “Male love poetry”: they are simply love poems. Why can’t my poems be equally valid perspectives of love? In qualifying them as female, I often get the notion that they should not be taken too seriously—that they may be overly sentimental or coming from someone with a fragile and delicate sensibility. I wonder, did people chastise and urge John Donne to go to therapy for writing a poem about manipulating a woman to sleep with him in his famous poem “The Flea?” Were people frightened by Robert Browning’s personal life in his dramatic monologue “The Last Duchess,” in which the speaker alludes to having murdered his first wife? I know, in my education, I’ve always been introduced to these poems through their techniques: the sonnet, the meter, the irony, the use of extended metaphor. The writer’s emotional state and subject matter were never questioned. No one even assumed, for one minute, that these men weren’t capable of imagining the scenarios they wrote about for the purpose of exploring a subject matter. It was a given.
As much as I’d like to believe that we live in a world in which women are equal to men, the reactions to my book have showed me that this is not true. We still live in a world in which male writers are honored for their brilliance in craft, and women writers have worthy works of literature marketed by publishers as chick lit and reduced to a sort of purging confessional. I often feel as if people consider women’s work as little more than emotional vomit on the page.
This is not to say I have not been honored, humbled and thrilled with readers’ reactions to my poetry—I have. I am grateful and awed by the generosity of my poetry community beyond belief, and most the people who I find toting these misogynistic types of questions are not at all ill meaning: they are simply mired so heavily in a culture that has looked down upon women’s work for centuries that they don’t realize that some of the ways in which women’s work is treated is belittling. I spent so much of my life studying and struggling to understand form, craft, line breaks, music—I was hungry to know everything I could about the tradition of poetry in order to apply it to my work. But lately, people only want to ask about my emotions, and often in a way that considers them invalid—as coming from a place of anger and irrationality.
Perhaps we have the confessionalist movement to blame for this, in some part. I am, unashamedly, a daughter of this movement. Sylvia Plath, a poet whose most famous collection was written in fervent passion and grief a month before her suicide, is my favorite writer: when I first read the famous lines in “Daddy,” her haunting, deranged nursery rhyme of a poem: “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” I felt liberated. Here was a woman anthologized who was talking about real pain, pain I recognized, and she made it into beautiful art. She taught me that I could and should write about anything I wanted, even if it wasn’t pretty: Plath showed me that a woman doesn’t have to be pleasant to be powerful.
But when I introduce Plath to my college literature courses, there’s always a student who says “Isn’t she the one who put her head in an oven?” while the rest of the class reacts in disgust and horror. Yes, I say, yes, tragically, she did put her head in an oven. But that doesn’t take away from her craft—it doesn’t negate the fact that she has some of the most stunning and difficult uses of meter and sound in her poems, or that she’s a master of stark, visceral images, or that her metaphors will haunt you for life. Plath is, without question, a trailblazer of American contemporary poetry and a master of craft. I read widely, and I still find few people with as tightly controlled lines as her.
But, because she was a sick woman, battling dark demons, many readers write her off immediately: she is just another crazy woman to them, ranting about crazy things. If woman have one lasting legacy to do battle with, it’s the assumption that we’re irrational. But, being called irrational has traditionally been a way to silence women from behavior that made people, primarily men, uncomfortable. It was a way to stifle their normal and legitimate reactions to the world around them. It was a way to make what they did illegitimate. Which is perhaps a part of why Plath and other women poets are so easily dismissed as writers who are masters of craft.
Furthermore, women’s poetry is battling a legacy of shame. The second most asked question about my poetry is if I am embarrassed to write about such personal subject matter. The term “confessional” implies shame. It implies that we have something we need to apologize for; it implies that we need to be forgiven.
I’ve always been a little perplexed and taken aback by the question of if it’s hard to write about such subject matter or if I’m embarrassed. I’ve never been the slightest bit embarrassed. I don’t see why I should be ashamed. My experience is not unique; it’s not something that warrants being hidden. The female readers of my work and my women friends assure me that much of my sentiment is universal: why should honesty be something that’s shameful? I’ve always thought undiluted honesty should be a noble goal.
But I think the underlying guiding principle behind the question of shame lies behind the fact that Reluctant Mistress focuses on sex and a woman’s sexual appetite. Despite the sexual liberation movement, and despite our popular culture clearly identifying women as sexual beings in the same manner as men, we still live in a puritanical culture, mired by slut shaming. A look at the last election and a legacy of victim blaming in rape culture shows what people’s deepest thoughts regarding women and sex are. Women are expected to be silent about sex, even if they are equal to men in their desire for it. And the concept of the 21st century woman with a sexual appetite has provoked only fear and distrust: calling out women as ‘asking for’ rape, lying about rapists, or being irresponsible and shameful with the way they treat their body. (Think: Miley Cyrus.) A proper woman, in society’s eyes, will keep her private life private, not parade it around for all to witness.
According to Chris Krauss, author of the provocatively titled book I Love Dick, “a woman writing about her personal life is always a form of revolution.” I feel like I fully understand this quote now.
But what about craft? Aside from the fact that, according to VIDA’s statistics, women are still heavily underrepresented in the publishing world, something fundamental needs to change about they way female writers are perceived and received by their audience. There needs to be a recognition that 1. Women have imaginations, and not everything they write is true. 2. Women are intelligent, and they understand the tradition of poetry and utilize it in their work. 3. Even though a woman may write freely about her emotions, her work is more than a simple purging of them. 4. Women should not be shamed for their subject matter, especially if it is decidedly female. A woman’s perspective is not a lesser perspective—it’s simply the other side of the same coin, a coin that has been focused on a male’s silhouette for centuries. Once this happens, perhaps women will be equally represented in poetry.
A friend of mine who struggled with this topic said that her only way out is to create her own forms—she believes in subverting the forms and traditions passed down to her by men because they have not been welcoming to women. Perhaps this is one consideration for the future of women’s poetry, and I’m certainly interested and fascinated by this. As for myself, I have worked hard with the forms passed down to me, I’ve been inspired by traditional love lyrics and the music, rhythms and cadences passed down by my poetry ancestors, both male and female. Much of that has been purposely woven into my work in the forms of love lyrics, villanelles, sonnets, couplets, tercets, and music. These forms have nursed me and raised me into who I am today. I’d like to think there is a welcoming and comforting place for me in their history.
I kicked the covers off us again,
thrashing during dreams
in which you appear
with a helix of other women coiled
around you. Sometimes I know
them, sometimes they are faceless.
Last night I shredded
your face until I finally made you cry
and I kept your flesh under my nails—
only if I hurt you can I forgive.
In the morning, I refute offerings
of kisses and love making,
seclude myself in the kitchen,
clang dishes, over stir
the cream and sugar, let metal
and porcelain jingle my secret language.
One night I castrated you.
Sexless, you became my pet. I coddled
you, but I was still your master,
and we grew old together after.
Months ago, I pecked the eyes out
of another mistress and dragged
you back to a brittle home of twigs.
These women, these amorphous
apparitions that rise
from the steam of my coffee, twist
their nebulous naked bodies
into a noose around my neck
while you ask me back to bed.
It’s chilly, you say, and you need
a body to warm you.
(Appears in Reluctant Mistress from Gold Wake Press)
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013) and a staff writer for Luna Luna Magazine.Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, The Pinch, Pank Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, Cider Press Review, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a recipient of the Barbara Deming Memorial grant, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee. She currently teaches writing and literature in Boston, MA.