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“The most terrifying thing is to resist at all”: A Roundtable Discussion with Poets in Women Writing Resistance


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October is Violence Against Women x month. This October we bring together six poets from and the editor of the anthology Women Writing Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) to discuss resistance and fear in poetry, teaching resistance in the classroom, and the inspiration to write. Women Write Resistance views poetry as a transformative art. By deploying techniques to challenge narratives about violence against women and making alternatives to that violence visible, poetry of resistance distinguishes itself by a persuasive rhetoric that asks readers to act. Shevaun Brannigan, Mary Stone, Sara Henning, Jill Khoury, Meg Day, Larissa Schamilo, and Laura Madeline Wiseman explore poetry of resistance in this roundtable discussion. These poets will be featured at the Indiana Writers’ Consortium 2014 Annual Conference in October.

 

How do you write resistance?  Were you ever scared to resist in your poetry?

Shevaun Brannigan: I have been retroactively scared to resist in my poetry. If there is a poem I have to write, I write it. But there is an in-between space from writing to publication. I have a poem about one of my parents that is about abuse, and its publication is forthcoming—I regret sending it out, because it will hurt someone who I love deeply. Sometimes I feel I am exploiting my own past for subject matter at the expense of others—I think this comes from the distinction of writing about resolved trauma because it will be entertaining, versus writing from an open wound out of need. I seem to have given myself a pardon for the latter, but not the former.

Another issue is other people’s stories. My poem “Don’t,” in Women Write Resistance is not my story, it is based on the story of a woman who told me this in a recovery group setting, and has since passed away. I know I needed to write the poem, because her story haunted me and if I did not engage in some sort of compartmentalization about it, I would not have been able to get her story out of my head. But did I need to publish it? It is a story that needs to be told, but is not mine to tell. I have a great amount of discomfort surrounding this poem, but can tell from reviews and videos that it speaks to people just as her original story spoke to me. I think it is right that I feel uncomfortable, though—from some angles, I see myself as a white woman who appropriated a black woman’s story for her own creative gain.

Mary Stone: The most terrifying thing is to resist at all, as well as through poetry. There is nothing more scary than writing the opposite of what you are “supposed” to say or believe or to put down stories no one wants to hear or to be controversial. Just writing “sexy” poems is a form of resistance. Not writing for others is a form of resistance. It’s scary because I don’t ever want to be told that my voice doesn’t matter or to feel like that story gets lost in the shuffle of other, more “interesting” stories. I decided a long time ago, though, that making others feel uncomfortable is not my problem – that’s their problem, and in fact, it’s part of poetry’s job to make people question what they think they know about the world. Let the poem cause discomfort, let it hurt, let it anger. It’s really only through challenge that we learn about ourselves, anyway.

Sara Henning: Every good little girl is scared to resist until she realizes what is holding her in place isn’t her lover, or her father, or her disapproving mother, her cruel brother, her drunk boyfriend in the back of the car, even the rapist holding a knife to her throat. Rather, it is her fear of possibility, and the change that possibility might demand of her. To scream, even if it means death. To say no, even if it means being disowned. To run, even if it means the door she runs out of will be locked forever after her. To put on her clothes, if it means knowing she will never see the lover left in her wake again. Every time we say no, I want something better, a little piece of who we once were dies. If these little girls remain held down, it is because they believe society when it says sit, lie there, don’t speak.

So yes, I was scared to resist in my poetry, until I realized that not resisting wasn’t an option anymore. I started to write from that little girl’s position, the one that grew up, got some sense, and didn’t look back. Now, I write resistance because I refuse to believe that as a society, we are not capable of better.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: I believe the critical introduction of Women Write Resistance is resistance. It offers a tool to view poetry as action and encourages readers to act. In my own creative work, I am interested in stories of women who resist gender violence. My book Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience is a contemporary retelling of the Bluebeard myth in the voices of Bluebeard’s living and dead wives. Bluebeard is usually framed as a story of blood and gore, but I focus on the love each of his wives felt, the first blush of romance and young marriage, the complicated turns of mature desire and the past we bring into our present affections, and the trauma and scars violence in the home slashes into the our lives. The middle section of the book works as a chorus in the voices of all Bluebeard’s previous wives and the ways they nightmarishly witness what they cannot stop. Though the bluebeard myth may appear to be about obedience and the sanctions imposed when one fails to follow them, I believe another more interesting interpretation of the bluebeard myth is to read it as a celebration of the disobedience of wives, for each new Mrs. Bluebeard does unlock the door. Yes, most wives are murdered. In some variations the final Mrs. Bluebeard is saved by her brothers. In the robberbride groom version, her own fortitude and wit allows her to save herself. In others, she is aided by a woman who works in service to bluebeard. My reading suggests that when women are disobedient to patriarchy they triumph. The last wife resists by outsmarting keys, locked doors, and death by hooks. She lives.

Jill Khoury: Many of the poems that I write are inherently resistant because they force the audience to engage with subject matter that pushes back against preconceived notions. A lot of my speakers are blind women, or women with mental illness. Even in intellectual circles, there are these tropes of blindness as ignorance (“the blind leading the blind,” “blind faith”) and of the mentally ill female as a helpless, childlike figure. I resist these tropes by writing experiences from an authentic perspective. My characters are women who live their lives in spite of these tropes. They negotiate their world with these tropes as obstacles. When my audience experiences these poems, they encounter characters who overwrite the tropes. I was and still am somewhat apprehensive when a “resistant” poem enters the larger world. The action of resisting is by definition going to be uncomfortable for both the writer and the audience.

Larissa Schamilo: I don’t really resist, truth be told – I have always stated my truth in poetry without being reactive in any way, and have always been quite bold about it. I view sexist and oppressive men as being reactive to me.

Meg Day: There have absolutely been moments when I have felt really afraid of what I’d written—and perhaps even more terrified when I realized those poems would be published and available for anyone to read or misinterpret—but for the most part I think it had everything to do with speaking my own truth in ways that validated my humanity, instead of in ways that upheld all of the misleading stereotypes about American poetics. I don’t think the power structures currently or historically in place want to hear about how women and gender non-conforming people experience violence, and I don’t think they want to hear that people of color are murdered by police states and the prison industrial complex and economic inequality and post-racial mindsets, and really, I don’t think anybody in power wants poetry to be about anything but having the leisure to think about leisurely, solitary things. I don’t have anything against nature poems or the pastoral elegy or sonnets to a beloved (I write them, too!), and I’m actually really excited about the possibility of merging these inherited forms with more contemporary and global concerns. I’m just saying that there’s a reason poets are imprisoned and murdered and censored and disappeared in other countries but not, for the most part, in this one. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always feel the fear I should when writing poems, but I do think that asking yourself what’s at stake is a pretty good starting place.

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Speak about your pedagogical experiences when teaching texts that explore gender violence and resistance. In your answer, discuss texts that foster such explorations of poetry as action and writing as resistance. (If you’re not a teacher, speak about your experiences as a student in such situations.)

MD: About a year ago, I taught Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead” in an intermediate poetry workshop at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I like to teach this poem on the page first, without much of an introduction, and to watch the responses grow in complexity as I show, first, Smith’s performance of the poem on Def Poetry Jam (which both confirms and reveals the body of the poet to be perceived as an African-American woman), and then the tribute performance of this same poem by Taylor Mali, a white man, at the ’98 National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX. While we did, obviously, talk about the implications of race and the power of positionality, it was the first time anyone wanted to talk more about gender than anything else. How is this poem easier or harder to listen to because it’s Smith (and not an African-American man) who performs it? Easier or harder for whom? What is our understanding of hegemonic masculinity as it relates to race and violence? Which poems are possible for which people? And, perhaps most invigorating, a long conversation about what poems are off-limits (and whether a poem can be off-limits!) for us, a mostly white and masculine class, to write?

LMW: One text I’ve taught is Anne Sexton’s Transformations, a collection that retells fairy tales, is one introductory poetry students seem to be able to approach because the content is familiar. Students can begin together on the level of story as they approach questions on delivery, crafty, allusions, and form. From there, students can move into interpretation such as asking why Sexton might portray Sleeping Beauty’s father in a given light to consider, “Is this poem about incest?” Likewise, in my introduction to literature class, students read tellings and retellings, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acers. One tool I bring into the classroom to help students grapple with the issues of gender violence and its representation in literature is the Power and Control Wheel. It illustrates the ways in which an abuser maintains control before resorting to physical and sexual abuse. I ask students to find examples (e.g. emotional abuse, using children, making her think she’s crazy) in a text such as One Thousand Acers. It’s always a powerful class room activity and discussion because students are often shocked as they compile the examples abusers use to maintain power. In several instances after I’ve used such a teaching tool, students have written papers that further explore gender violence in literature, in their own experiences, and in culture, using the tools we’ve studied and others. Such student work is action because admitting gender violence exists is an act of resistance in a culture that cloaks such experiences in shame, victim blames, and/or sensationalizes violent acts in the media. Student written work becomes resistance because they too witness and break silences.

JK: When I taught first-year comp an adjunct, my classroom consisted of mostly upper-middle-class white students who seemed to have a pretty sheltered perspective. Although there are a few who came to me and said, “this text changed my thinking,” most of the students were reluctant to admit to having their opinions changed or even broadened by the texts. Being continually disappointed by my students’ reactions caused me to gradually teach fewer resistant texts. I feel like the first-year writing classroom is an environment in need of social change. However, some people are fueled by constant opposition. I am not one of them. When I was at this job, most of what I got was opposition. I literally did not have time to get my fulfillment in other places. It was rare to make it out for a reading. Taking a workshop did not fit into my schedule. So I burned out.

As a student, though, I remember one transformative event. It occurred on a college campus, but not in the classroom. I had just come out as a sexual assault survivor, and this support group I was involved in was doing readings in a public setting, the most public setting, on campus, all day, of poems written about resisting gender violence and / or processing the violence of sexual assault. I chose to read “Diving into the Wreck.” I felt such energy flow through me. Afterward I just broke down and cried. Something had shifted in me. I think it was the first time I realized the power of creative writing as action, as resistance.

LS: As a writer about sexual violence, rape, prostitution, incest, I have found that readers resist the level of pain that I depict, call it battering, excessive, and transgressive. Yet it only begins to describe the level of horrors perpetrated  against women in the world. We have a holocaust on our hands in that regard.

SH: In my fantasies, for once I get a tenure track assistant professorship, my very first graduate class will be a class exploring Contemporary Women’s Poetry of Trauma. I will teach texts that explore race, sexual identity, and class; texts that explore the traumatized body, including rape, sexual abuse and notions of the violated body; texts that explore the dysfunctional family unit, substance abuse and its effects on relationships and the female psyche; texts that explore body dysmorphia, and the cycle of embodied hatred; texts that explore shame, guilt and emotion in the literary of trauma, as well as contemporary elegy. I hope to see Simone de Beauvoir, Cathy Carruth, and Julia Kristeva, among others, providing foundation for explorations of Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forchẻ, Lyn Hejinian, Ai, Anne Carson, Judy Jordan, Wang Ping, Thylias Moss, Claudia Rankine, June Jordan, Lynda Hull, Kimiko Hahn, Patricia Smith, and Mary Jo Bang.               

SB: I have not been a student for so long that it is difficult to speak about texts I read, when in that role, that explored gender violence and resistance. I am not sure I was exposed to an entire book that discussed such a subject until I was included in the Women Write Resistance anthology. I would love to blame this on a patriarchal curriculum, which somewhat was the case in my undergrad, but at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where I did my master’s degree, the reading list was largely self-directed with some guidance from the teachers. I confess I did not seek out such texts. I did just finish The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, and while not a poetry collection, it is a book I would easily call poetic and addresses the rape of a Native American woman from the perspective of her son. I’m following that read with Beloved, by Toni Morrison, which shockingly I had never read. It is important to me to read women of color now, as I believe in the power of literature to help a reader embody someone else’s life. I have spent much of my time reading about the white male experience because that is expected and exalted, and I want to read something that is a little more eye-opening to the rest of the world’s population.

How are you trying to get better as a writer?

LMW: I try to get better as a writer by reading voraciously and by writing daily. I am currently reading some lovely poetry collections released from Dancing Girl Press, Sundress Publications, and Lavender Ink. I read all genres. Over the summer, while traveling I read Rainbow Rowell’s delightfully sweet Eleanor and Park. Other books I’ve recently enjoyed are Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Reading inspires me to write. Teaching also inspires me to write. When I teach, I write with my students. My chapbook Spindrift (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) and my book American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014) were both largely generated by the in-class writing prompts I gave my students. In my creative writing classes, my students write 1-2 seven minute poems daily. We also write during 2-3 field trips to local museums. I write with them because I believe that as a teacher and a poet, it is important to write and share such low-stakes writing in the writing community a classroom generates. I want students to know that I value the intellectual and creative rigor such activities demand, that I am not above prompts and such prompts are never busywork, that such in-class work, though rough at first, has the potential to be polished, revised, and sometimes, ultimately published.

JK: Read writers that are new to me. Interact with as many writers as possible. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep sending out. Be open to differing opinions while still maintaining my own voice.

SB: I recently completed a MOOC (Massive Open Enrollment Online Course) through The University of Iowa, and learned a great deal. I’m also taking a local West Philly workshop from poet Leonard Gontarek, and that has been invaluable. In addition to reading more, I also believe I have a lot to learn from teaching. Inspired in part by the Women Write Resistance anthology, I have reached out to a local domestic violence center to lead a workshop there. I will be using the anthology as a fundamental text for the class, and am hoping if it turns into a regular engagement that I will be able to get a grant to purchase a copy of the book for every member who enrolls. I’m also leading poetry workshops influenced by reading Irish American literature for The Free Library of Philadelphia.

LS: I am studying with the brilliant Annie Finch, a hero to me as a writer, mentor, and liberated woman.

SH: I am reading a lot and listening to the news. Besides that, I am trying to stay unplugged.

MS: Reading for fun. Focusing on projects that allow me to speak from many perspectives. Allowing myself not to write every once in a while. Painting. Working out. Being spontaneous. My writing seemed in need of an energy makeover, so I’m trying to write about subject matter that is new to me. Something new in my process – not sharing any work until I let it sit for quite a long time. I used to be excited to share work immediately and get feedback, but something different happens to the writing when you really let it simmer and only revise based on your own new eyes every few weeks.

MD: Lately I’m really invested in being in conversation with other poets and writers. I’m reading a lot and maybe writing a little less, which I’m working on feeling good about. I’m traveling a lot, too: I’m touring with my first full-length collection this year and next on #thelast13tour, which I’m hoping will take me to what Paste Magazine listed earlier this year as the last thirteen feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada. It’s a roadtrip I’ve wanted to take for a while, given that independent bookstores and feminist community spaces were among the first to support me as a young person and a young poet. I feel really fortunate that Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street, September 2014) will make it possible for me to meet the owners and patrons and communities who have kept these shops alive for, in some cases, nearly 80 years. While booking these readings, though, I’ve already come to understand (thanks to some #binder writers of color) the shortsightedness of the original list, which doesn’t seem to embrace a very inclusive or intersectional definition of feminism and has left out several central feminist bookstores that have perhaps played a larger role in feminist and queer communities of color than the original list was designed to include. I’m doing a lot of listening and trying to do a lot of self-educating, and I think that perhaps, as a white kid, the daily work of trying to stand in ongoing allyship to marginalized communities that are not my own is one way we all become better writers.

Shevaun Brannigan is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, as well as The Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House at The University of Maryland. She has had poems appear in such journals as Best New Poets 2012, Lumina, Rhino, Court Green, and Free State Review. She has been an Arts & Letters Poetry Prize finalist, received an honorable mention in So to Speak’s 2012 Poetry Contest, as well as a Pushcart nomination by Rattle.

Meg Day, selected for Best New Poets of 2013, is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize (forthcoming 2014), When All You Have Is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest) and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest). A 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award Winner, she has also received awards and fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities, and the International Queer Arts Festival. Meg is currently a PhD candidate, Steffensen-Cannon Fellow, & Point Foundation Scholar in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah. www.megday.com

Mary Stone is the author of One Last Cigarette and Mythology of Touch, and two chapbooks, Blink Finch and Aching Buttons. Her poetry and prose has appeared in many fine journals, including Mid-American Review, Gargoyle, South Dakota Review, Arts & Letters.

Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013)as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012).  Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review.  Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

Jill Khoury earned her Masters of Fine Arts from The Ohio State University. She teaches writing and literature in high school, university, and enrichment environments. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Bone Bouquet, RHINO, Inter|rupture, and Stone Highway Review. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net award. Her chapbook Borrowed Bodies was released from Pudding House Press. You can find her at jillkhoury.com.

Larissa Shmailo is the editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, poetry editor for MadHat Annual, and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark restaging of the multimedia opera and has been a translator on the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society. Her books of poetry are #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books), In Paran (BlazeVOX [books]), A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press), and Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks); her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (SongCrew).

Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com

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