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Advanced Women Poets: Books You May Only Be Hearing about Now

Posted: 12/17/2013 1:15 pm

As the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2013, I had a unique opportunity to examine where we are as a culture in terms of verse. As the series editor, David Lehman, and I searched through literary magazines for an entire year, our list of contributors organically grew. When all was said and done, we'd included 38 women, exactly half of the poets represented. This is the largest number of female poets ever included in a Best American volume. Women poets have the unique privilege of challenging sexism and heteronormative assumptions or celebrating all that is female--its authentic essence as well as its artifice. In 1968, Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "What if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would break open." I believe the world has indeed cracked open, more than a little, these past 45 years, and I am pleased to introduce you to some women who, to cite Rukeyser again, "breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry."

Readers often find poets via word-of mouth. There are no big marketing campaigns to force poets on readers, no trade paperbacks after a poem is made into a movie. Poets are rarely bestsellers. You may have read Muriel Rukeyser who called poetry "the outcast art." You may have read Sharon Olds, Alicia Ostriker, Ruth Stone, Kim Addonizio, or Dorianne Laux, for their taboo-shattering wisdom. You may have read Tracy K. Smith or Amy Gerstler for their otherworldly take on pop culture and social issues. You may have read Rita Dove or Natasha Tretheway, who both explore the United States' complicated past when it comes to African Americans. You may have read the terse and brilliant lyrics of Sappho, Emily Dickinson, or Jean Valentine. You may have read Barbara Hamby, Molly Peacock, or Marilyn Hacker who infuse female spirit in fixed literary forms. You may have read Nikki Giovanni, Sandra Cisneros, Adrienne Rich, or Nellie Wong whose performable politics are transformative. You may have read Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, Daisy Fried, Sharon Dolin, or Beth Ann Fennelly who write about sexuality and motherhood with harrowing clarity. These voices were probably covered in Introduction to Women Poets. But don't worry if you haven't taken that class--there is room in this Advanced Women Poets seminar, no prerequisite required.

Required Reading

1. Stephanie Strickland is a poet whose work ranges from the personal to the virtual. She has been publishing books steadily since 1986 and is a pioneer of e-poetry, with projects such as her collaboration with Nick Montfort, Sea and Spar Between, which uses the lexicon of Emily Dickinson's poems and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Earlier this year, at the Library of Congress, Stuart Moulthrop called Sea and Spar Between, "possibly the greatest example of electronic literature yet attempted." A fearless poet of great intellect, Strickland's work springs from history, science, mathematics, and myth. A good place to start is with The Red Virgin: A Poem Of Simone Weil, a book in which she pastiches her observations with the writings of Weil. For her most recent book, Dragon Logic, check out her website.

2. Maureen Seaton's work runs the formal gamut from traditional sonnets to the use of collage. The surfaces of her poems are exceedingly inventive, and her subject matter--sexuality, violence, motherhood--is courageous in tone, sacred and blasphemous, often both at once. Marilyn Hacker writes, "Maureen Seaton's register is enormous; her verbal daring and wayfaring breathtaking." Earlier this year she published Fibonacci Batman: New and Selected Poems (1991-2011), providing a great sampler of her previous seven solo books. Seaton is also a enthusiastic proponent of collaboration and has created poetry books with Neil de la Flor, Sam Ace, Kristine Snodgrass, and (full disclosure) me.

3. Ai No one writes like Ai. Absolutely no one. While some poets invite imitation, Ai invites awe. Her fierce dramatic monologues are singular in their ability to take on the voices of humanity in trouble. While there are devastating poems about abuse, Ai writes perhaps the most devastating of all, from the voice of the perpetrator, in her early poem "Child Beater." Anne Sexton called Ai "All woman--all human," but Alicia Ostriker didn't think such romanticism served Ai and countered, "She is more like a bad dream of Woody Allen's....or the vagina-dentata itself starting to talk... She, however, lives the hard life below our myths." Ai passed away in 2010, and Norton published The Collected Poems of Ai earlier this year.

4. Paisley Rekdal is a Renaissance woman. In addition to her books of poetry, she is also the author of a book of essays as well as a "hybrid-genre photo-text memoir" and the creator of "Mapping Salt Lake City," a virtual gathering of scholars, writers, and artists. In The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, Rekdal's poems explore individual failures as they tumble and refract brilliantly just as bits of colorful glass do. The outside is in and the vulnerable is strong, as demonstrated by the touching line about her Chinese grandmother's mastectomy scars being "armor on display."

5. Jan Beatty's first book Mad River was chosen by Dorriane Laux as the winner of the 1994 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. These poems harness a fury that is particular as it is familiar. Beatty's subject matter--unharmonious family life, identity, violence--grabs her readers, and her startling imagery and dignified line holds them tight. Beatty has said, "If I was trying to write shocking poems, they'd be a lot more shocking than this. I'm trying to write about the body and blood and sexuality...That's the norm. Ask anyone; she'll have a story." She is the managing editor of MadBooks, a small press that publishes a series of books and chapbooks by women writers.

6. Allison Joseph's poetry is accessible in the best sense of the word. A gifted storyteller, her most recent work is written in strict sonnets and villanelles while retaining a clear and layered narrative. Her poems deal head on with race and pop culture, perhaps most evidently in Soul Train. Much more than a book of nostalgia--though it is that, too--Soul Train presents a critique and celebration of the complexities of womanhood and the cultural scripts so often given. Joseph works tirelessly for other poets, co-editing The Crab Orchard Review and directing the Young Writers Workshop, an annual summer creative writing workshop for high school writers that she founded. Her service seems to fuel her work rather than detract her from it.

7. Nin Andrews' The Book of Orgasms is a poetry cult classic, if poets can indeed inspire "cults." This book of hilarious prose poems has had three editions--the first by Asylum Press in 1994; the next by CSU press in 2000; and the third (so far) by Blood Axe Books, one of Britain's leading poetry publishers, in 2003. Nin Andrews writes in the fabulist tradition, of fleeting euphoria and what is often just outside our reach. David Wojahn writes of Andrews, "To find her predecessors one has to look to Europe, to the sly and sometimes erotic zaniness of Luis Bunuel." Andrews indeed cites the French surrealist poet Henri Michaux as one of her influences and edited a book of Michaux translations.

8. Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary uses wordplay (acrostic, anagram, parody, mondegreens) and Oulipo techniques to recast fairy tales as well as quotidian language. Behold what she does with Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130." In her poem "Dim Lady," she transforms his first line "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun--" to "My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon." And later, "I grant I never saw a goddess go" becomes "I don't know any Marilyn Monroes." George Yancy notes that Mullen is "a word warrior. She preaches, poeticizes, and raps us, indeed, envelops us, into a tropological maze. She invites us to enjoy the logic of discursive possibilities, emotional entanglements, and the force of language."

9. Stacey Waite is the author of three chapbooks, with her full-length book, Butch Geography, an auspicious debut indeed. Waite's book, which explores assumptions about gender, offers a suite of hilarious and heartbreaking poems all beginning with "'On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man..." Here are just two examples: "...by a Waiter While Having Breakfast with My Mother, " and "...by Security Personnel at Newark International Airport." Jordan Farmer writes, "The sort of troublemakers I value...are the sort that don't want to dissent for the enjoyment of rebellion, but who are genuinely concerned with social change. Stacey Waite is that sort of writer and troublemaker." I agree.

10. Julie Marie Wade is another newcomer to the poetry scene. The author of two books of creative nonfiction, her first poetry book Postage Due begins with a reproduction of an actual postcard addressed to a girl the speaker met in fifth grade--"I wish I had kissed you again/and harder." At the bottom is a box, found on many postcards, that warns "Do not write below this line." The rest of the epistolary poems in this volume dig deep and fill in all the spaces of the postcard, notepaper, and heart. Sarah Sarai praises Wade and her use of "the ampersand's sly female squiggle" as "an expression and amplification of a girl's twisting reach for something great, or at least more fantastical than is normative."

Also Recommended

11. When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women (edited by Andrea Hollander Budy) Published in 2008, this 400 page anthology is a great way to acquaint yourself with contemporary poets. Contributors include Robin Becker, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Claudia Emerson, Lynn Emanuel, Mary Oliver, Jane Mead, Mary Ruefle, Kay Ryan, and Pattiann Rogers. According to Foreword Reviews, this anthology "is a reminder of the breadth of American poetry."

12. No More Masks: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets (edited by Florence Howe) Elizabeth Bishop famously declined being in this anthology as she didn't want to be in a "segregated" collection when it was published in 1973. Though Bishop is absent, No More Masks is indeed a treasure trove of important work by poets including Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Lorine Niedecker, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, and Louise Glück. An expanded edition was published in 1993.

 
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