By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Margaret Browne
In my own work, I often write through and out of distinctly feminist concerns—concerns about female agency and the body, female sexual pleasure and empowerment, the relationship between father and daughter, daughter and mother, what it’s like to be a woman with a mental illness, what it’s like to be a woman who is angry. I write about these topics because they feel important to the personal, political, and communal work I want my poetry to engage with.
The more I’ve pushed into these concerns, the less traditionally lyric my poetry has become. And yet, I’ve had my work called “lyrical” and had the “I” present in some of my poems questioned far more than male counterparts that write in a more traditionally lyrical mode. What interests me is the common experience many women have in which their poetry is criticized as too lyric or lyrical, whether or not they’re writing in the lyric mode, simply because their poetry utilizes an “I,” especially when that “I” seeks to examine and represent the female experience.
This is, of course, nothing new to most women writing poetry. Many women writing into the “I” are called dramatic, emotional, and self-indulgent, while their male counterparts are called thoughtful, reflective, and brave as they write in the same mode. This is both an old story and a current one, or rather, one that’s being told again and again. And that constant repetition is demoralizing, especially when it discourages female poets from writing in their preferred mode and using the type of speaker that most enables them to write what they need to write.
In a panel I attended during this past AWP, which focused on the “I” in poems of anger and how to face critique, poet Cate Marvin (the author of the incredible poem “Dead Girl Gang Bang”) suggested, “Try to evaluate where the person who’s critiquing you is coming from, are they trying to tone-police, do they have the heart of the poem in mind?” In another panel, Carmen Maria Machado pointed out the impact that the cumulative effect of many women not asking for permission for space might have—saying how important it is for us as women to “say how we feel” and “to see our emotional intelligence as an important offering.”
During their discussion, poets Cate Marvin and Vievee Francis highlighted not only lumping in the “I” with emotion, but also the problem of creating a dichotomy between emotion and intellect. They advised to question why you’re not using the “I,” noting that if someone tells you it’s not as intellectually keen to use that “I,” you should question their agenda. They added that usually this criticism of the “I” comes from a male instructor, and if it is from a female instructor, they usually learned it from a man. Additionally, Marvin and Francis asserted that women have not been at the table that long, and therefore, they haven’t been here long enough for people to read that female “I” and know who it is.
This feels exactly right to me. For many women writing, being able to claim space, to write from our experiences, and to utilize the “I” as a way of claiming agency, is still incredibly new. And it offers radical possibilities for us as women to claim space where we can empower ourselves and criticize those structures that seek to quiet us.
During their discussion, Vievee Francis also said, “I think we have to allow ourselves to, even trick ourselves into, being our most authentic selves in our poems.”
I have to agree with Francis. In the work I want to do in offering solidarity, affirmation, and community to other women by sharing my own experiences, I have to be authentic, and many times, that means using the “I,” lyric or not, without permission and without apology.
If you’re interested in reading more about feminism and poetry, the female lyric, and other related topics, below is a list of some of the pieces I’ve been reading/rereading recently. Please also feel free to comment with any other readings you would recommend!
•Melinda Wilson’s “Confessionalism Birthed from Feminism” provides a helpful overview of the confessional movement in poetry and feminism.
•Katie Goh’s “‘I Made Lemonade’: The Female Confessional in the Twenty-First Century” does a great job discussing the current landscapes of confessional poetry as it relates to its history, while grounding this discussion in an analysis of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
•Sarah Parker’s “The Muse Writes Back: Lyric Poetry and Female Poetic Identity”
•The Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry and Feminism” gives history and an overview and has a fantastic list of recommended reading (many of which are on my own reading list).
•The Poetry Foundation’s “A Change of World” gives links to The Poetry Foundation’s podcast “A Change of World,” which discusses women and poetry in six episodes. There is also a phenomenal reading list on this page, including links to other articles from The Poetry Foundation.
•Sandra M. Gilbert’s “‘My Name is Darkness’: The Poetry of Self-Definition“
•Alicia Ostriker’s “The Nerves of a Midwife: Contemporary American Women’s Poetry”
•Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken”