Once upon a time I was hugely offended by the term “woman poet.” At the time I was hardly a poet (or plain old “writer of poems”), but I thought I was, which is all that matters. More recently, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s such a big deal after all. One can make a personal choice to be called or not called something, but this idea of being offended, as if some gross injustice were being committed to one’s person, is perhaps absurd. I personally dislike the term poetess, a term many relatives like to call me (more or less lovingly). I dislike it because it feels like a non-word. It’s cutesy. And I have, in the past, retorted in a mean way when someone used the word. Maybe I’m growing out of it now.
The main problem with being called a woman poet is that we don’t go around calling men who write poetry “man poets.” The poet as male is norm. I suppose that’s where the offense comes from.
Annie Finch has a great article up at Harriet, titled ‘Why I Am a Woman Poet’. One very important thing the article implies is that if it is absurd to impose the term “woman poet” on all women who write poetry, it is just as absurd to ban the term and say that no one should be allowed to use it.
The other important thing is this:
I would be ecstatic to see anthologies, forums, and panels devoted to “men’s poetry.” It would signal to me that men had become conscious that maleness is a gender and can influence men’s poetic choices and voices.
One of the most exciting literary-critical thrills I have had recently came from an experience just like that. I was outside reader for a senior thesis at Middlebury College about the use of mythology in women’s poetry. Among the excellent feminist readings of poems by Sexton, Bogan, Plath, and many others, what knocked my socks off most of all was a brilliant “masculinist” reading of Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something” in terms of the male tradition of writing about the Narcissus myth. When this kind of reading is no longer shockingly new, that may be the time I will be ready to stop thinking of myself as a woman poet. When white poetry, male poetry, and heterosexual poetry are understood to be the poetries of specific kinds of people and not of the universal Poet, then all poems will have a good chance of being appreciated for what they are–poems by specific kinds of people. When my privileged status in terms of race (Anglo-Celtic), class (upper middle), and sexuality (hetero) is just as obvious and visible a classification as my gender status, that may be the right time to stop thinking of myself as a woman poet. At that point all of us will, I expect, be more tolerant of poetry built on unfamiliar assumptions; more curious to learn about the variety of poetic traditions in which poems operate, and more literate in the varieties of possible poetic excellence.
I had a vague thought similar to the above some months ago, but it slipped away. Finch says it beautifully. We always complain when we find anthologies filled with poetry by white, heterosexual men, and that’s probably because all of it seems to have happened by chance. Like, “Hey, we didn’t really mean to exclude you (black/brown/woman/gay/etc). We were just looking for the best poetry possible and we can’t help it if they’re all men!” That is annoying. But if you had an anthology that consciously chose to look at, I don’t know, heterosexual writing by men or “what it means to be a man”, to compliment anthologies that focus on LGBT writing or the all-famous “what it means to be a woman”, life would be a lot more interesting. I’m very curious about what men think. Really.
Another interesting opinion re labels came from Joshua Muyiwa. Joshua is one of my favourite Indian poets. A curious choice for me, if you think of what I generally like to read. When I first read Joshua, I was tempted to edit out a lot of lines and read only the best. (I think he knows this.) After watching him read a couple of months ago, I changed my mind. He seems to be responding to a particular tradition of poetry, a performative, communal one. At his reading, he seemed a little nervous, but in a strange way I think that helped. That was probably the most engaging TFA reading I’ve ever attended.
Anyway, during the Q/A session, I asked him if it bothered him to be called a queer poet. He replied (I’m paraphrasing): “Not really. I’m just glad to be called a poet.”