Women Write Resistance

Interview

by Sally Deskins and Laura Madeline Wiseman

SD: Your preface and critical introduction to Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) explains the societal importance of the book and resistance poetry, but can you talk about why you put this anthology together here?

LMW: We need spaces in culture for people to resist.

I began working on the anthology seven years ago. During this journey I have explored in my creative writing, my academic research and scholarship, my teaching and my volunteer work the ways in which people resist for change. There are other anthologies where writers resist gender violence or other forms of cultural violence. In fact, there’s an anthology that’s in the works by a pair of editors on gender violence globally that just accepted two of my poems. Anthologies like Women Write Resistance should be published every year, year after year, country after country, place after place, because the space to resist is so necessary for change, for breaking silences, for offering hope.

SD: I really appreciated the use of “sassing” language throughout Women Write Resistance. Can you tell me more about how that came about in poetry and its significance here? What might be an example of “sassing”?

LMW: To sass, the poets in Women Write Resistance defy the language itself. Poets take up the power to name and talk about the violence in and on their own terms. To sass, Women Write Resistance poets subvert the language. They employ literary tactics to name their experiences within personal terms. Sometimes they use a diction and syntax that is impolite, blunt, passionate and sarcastic. Their language is of natural speech and dialect that makes full use of street talk and slang. By doing so, their voices resist the illusion of objectivity. They refuse to take on a disembodied voice. They desist from a poetic rhetoric that might confine, limit, structure and render their words ineffective. Rather, these poets describe the effects of the violence and the threat of violence on their own bodies and lives, the lives of those close to them and the life of their social and political world. Such acts decenter language and decenter individual words by calling attention to the discursive quality of language as both responsible for violence and the means for resistance.

SD: Do you have a favorite resistance writer in poetry history?

LMW: I adore so many…Audre Lorde, Walt Whitman, H.D., Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg….

SD: Do you have a favorite poem in Women Write Resistance?

LMW: All the poems, all the 108 poets, are my favorite. There are a number of WWR readings available on Youtube. Some poets read their own work and some read their favorites.

SD: I did catch the YouTube readings from the collection. Was that something you set up?

LMW: I’m glad you found them! I like listening to poets read poems aloud. When I started Ph.D. school, one of the things I remember doing when I was researching a particular poet was going to poets.org and finding the audio clips there. I loved that. Later, when I started teaching poetry, I enjoyed assigning readings and interviews of poets on YouTube, Vimeo, or elsewhere. There’s something fascinating about watching and listening to a poet talk about and read their poem — the way a poet inhabits the space of the stage, how they present it, and how the voice and words connect. We’re lucky with today’s social media culture because we have such sites and so, I thought, why not? Let’s record videos of WWR readings. Ideally or ultimately, I’d love to have every poem in the anthology performed and available. I’m not sure if that will actually happen, but it’s fun idea to play towards as I organize events. At such WWR events, I invite poets to read their favorite poems in the anthology. It’s always fascinating to me to see what they select and how those poets read — what they preface, how the poems move through them, what they bring to the poem by their voice. Sometimes I’ve been fortunate enough to have a poet read her poem and then on another event, another poet happens to read that same poem. So I have Marge Saiser reading her WWR poem one night and then at another event, Lucy Adkins reads Marge Saiser. There’s a WWR book trailer, too, and one of the poets, Angele Ellis, made her own poem video. It’s an added bonus, for me, to be able to do this.

SD: What have the most rewarding and challenging aspects been in editing Women Write Resistance?

LMW: The most challenging was the process, from start to finish. Seven years ago, I’d read poets who’d written about gender violence — Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux — I’d studied feminist theory — I have an undergraduate and master’s degree in women’s studies — and I’d volunteered in women’s crisis centers, but I didn’t know how to put an anthology together or what the steps might be. It was the process of reading deeply in American poetry, researching theory on trauma, poetics and gender violence, and studying the genre of anthologies that was challenging and yet, that was also the most rewarding. I was amazed and astounded at the poems I found in my research. I felt motivated and inspired by the critical theory I read. I was energized by the process of submissions, book production and editing. I would even say that even into the zero hour, when WWR had been finalized for press and I was waiting for the copies to be shipped, had that double edge of reward and challenge. Did I lose sleep? You bet. Did I thrill while opening the first box from the press in February? Absolutely. Emotionally, it was a rollercoaster, but worth it. And now that it’s out, I’ve really enjoyed promoting the anthology, hosting readings and meeting new friends across the United States. I think the message behind the anthology is clear: when we write to resist injustices we can change culture for the better. It’s a challenge, but a rewarding one.

SD: What’s the impact of collaboration on your work?

LMW: Though Women Write Resistance isn’t collaborative in the sense that it’s an anthology with an editor, contributors, a book designer, a publisher, etc., it is collaborative in other ways. When I was looking for cover art for my chapbook She Who Loves Her Father (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), I was looking for something very specific — a contemporary recasting of Cleopatra to fit with the chapbook’s retelling — and a friend I’d met at a residency suggested the artist Elayne Safir. I contacted Elayne and she had a beautiful piece that became the cover of the chapbook. Fast-forward to this project, when WWR was finished and I was thinking about the cover — colors, design, layout — and knowing something about the aesthetic of the press, the cover designer, and the look of their books, I asked Elayne if she’d like to do the cover. I was delighted she said yes. In May there was a WWR reading in NYC at the KGB Bar with a raffle. All proceeds from the raffle were donated to V-Day, an organization that seeks to end violence against women, and the winner received a framed print of the cover art. Margo Taft Stever, editor of Slapering Hol Press, won the raffle and donated the art to The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.

The poetry world feels collaborative to me. Since WWR’s publication, so much of what I’ve done as the editor has been collaborative — setting up readings, proposing panels, creating a social media presence, finalizing features and mini-interviews in journals, etc. I haven’t done any of this alone. More and more I see the poetry world as poets, publishers, editors and poetry enthusiasts working together to bring more poetry into the world — collaboratively, collectively, traditionally and otherwise. I see that as a good thing.

In my own poetry, I’ve worked collaboratively with a painter, a photographer and a printmaker on three different broadside projects that brought poetry and art together in interesting ways. I’m currently at work on a book collaboration with an artist that combines body prints, poetry and illustrations in a full-length work. All of these feed my creativity and take my work in new directions — something any good collaboration can do.

SD: What is next for you with your personal resistance writing?

LMW: My dissertation focused on the lecturer, suffragist and poet, Matilda Fletcher, a topic I explore partially in a two series of poems — the letterpress book Unclose the Door (Gold Quoin Press, 2012) and the chapbook Men and Their Whims (Writing Knights Press, 2013) — and collected fully in my forthcoming book The Heart of a Man (Anaphora Literary Press). Unclose the Door considers the ways Matilda spoke to legislatures about changing the laws like giving women the right to vote. She also toured the country speaking on education, civil service and gender issues. She urged people to form an “Army of Women” to resist the charges brought upon a woman who had murdered her husband’s mistress. The murderess was sentenced to be hanged. She was pregnant. Matilda also spoke out against The Women’s Hotel in New York that promised to be open to working women, but didn’t live up to its promise. She knew this first hand, having obtained certificates on her good character to be admitted to stay only to be denied upon arrival. She toured the country speaking to state legislatures on school reform. Her bill on industrial education was passed in Iowa and other states. To do so much work in a short life — she only lived to be sixty-six — is resistance to me.

Towards the end of her life and the topic of Men and Their Whims, Matilda resisted the courts in Illinois. Matilda’s brother, Geo, was charged with murder in 1905 and sentenced to life in the state prison in Joliet. Matilda writes that Geo was jumped at a saloon. Somehow one of the men involved was stabbed. The injury hit the man’s femoral artery and he bled to death. For five years, Matilda challenged the Illinois court’s ruling. Beyond her insistence of his innocence, her contention with his sentencing concerned the court’s failure to accommodate her brother’s disability. Geo was deaf due to his service in the Civil War, a combined result of cannon fire and measles. Throughout the trial, no one provided Geo with a written account of the proceedings, nor did anyone speak directly into his ear-tube, a device through which he could hear imperfectly. In short, Matilda argued that his trial wasn’t legal because Geo neither heard nor understood the charges. All attempts failed. A little over a year after the publication of The Trial and Imprisonment of Geo. W. Felts, she died. My forthcoming book The Heart of a Man tells the full story of Matilda and the men in her life.

SD: Resistance and witness, in your case is to gender-based inequities and injustices, as shown here in Women Write Resistance and in your two collections Men and Their Whims and Unclose the Door. Are these obligations of the poet? How can your work in these collections be used to disrupt historically entrenched narratives?

LMW: Do poets have obligations? I don’t think they have to have obligations, though I’m sure there are plenty that might like to assign tasks, chores and requirements to them. As a poet, I think I’m obligated to create and that for each poet what we create is depended on our own sense of urgency, inspiration and craft. To me to have the opportunity to disrupt, challenge and call attention to violence against women is important because I believe it can create change. Books, literature and poetry have changed my life and I think it can, or at the very least have the potential, to do so for others. That’s powerful.

In doing my research on Matilda and her brother, Geo, and seeing how Matilda’s work challenged women’s roles in the culture and time she lived was an utterly astounded experience. I didn’t know about Matilda as a child. I didn’t learn of her until I was a graduate student and didn’t research her until I began writing the dissertation. To think that Matilda who couldn’t vote, who was considered property of her husband, who didn’t have much in the terms of rights to keep her own wages or any property of her own, and yet to see her be the breadwinner for her family is amazing. To imagine her riding trains alone with business men, trying to find a place to stay in the cities she traveled to without having a male escort or family, haggling for her pay or quelling a naughty audience attendee, selling her books, publishing her poems, writing for the Des Moines Register (at that time it was called the Iowa State Register), to imagine her doing all of that and knowing she didn’t have any rights, I think she must have had an indomitable spirit, an iron will, a skin that was thick enough to tolerate the slings and arrows of life, and then beyond a career in a time when women didn’t have careers, to lose her only child, to lose her husband and to have her brother imprisoned, but rather than fall, she spoke, she wrote, she published, it’s thrilling to imagine. It’s a story that needs to be told, a story that disrupts the narratives on what women did in the 1800s, what was possible for women then in terms of career, publication and invention, and how a woman could write and earn a living doing so.

SD: In the October/November 2012 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle in her interview Ruth Forman talks about working with June Jordan and how June “felt like poetry should be a part of everybody’s life” (20). Can you talk about your daily life with poetry?

LMW: Thank you for mentioning June Jordan! There were so many poets I would have loved to include in WWR, but because I focused only on living poets, I couldn’t include such important voices who wrote about gender violence like Audre Lorde, June Jordan and many, many others. I do agree with June Jordan about the importance of poetry in everyone’s life, and not just the life of the poet.

As a poet, I am literary surrounded by poetry. It’s funny to think about how much my poetry collection has grown over the years, first just a few volumes, then a shelf, then a bookshelf and now I’ve moved onto a second bookshelf with an entire shelf dedicated to chapbook poets who have not yet (or may never) have a full volume of poetry. If I were honest and scoured my house for more poetry books, I’d probably be on a third book shelf, but poetry gets stacked on desks, lined up on filing cabinets, tucked into folders marked book reviews, nestled on end tables, scattered across the coffee table, in boxes, carried room to room, in the closest, tucked into drawers and even, yes, in the basement. There are poems as broadsides on my walls, poems in the multiplying literary journals, anthologies, text books and more. All this is not even taking into account my own poetry, which lives among these poems.

Where my focus on poetry is, depends on what’s going on in my life. Last spring, I taught two poetry workshops, one of which was an advanced undergraduate workshop that focused on the chapbook. The art of the chapbook filled every space of my home and office. Right after I graduated with the Ph.D. in English, I began a blog that focuses entirely on the chapbook form and began interviewing chapbook poets. Since the blog feature started in February 2012, I’ve given 24 interviews, with more in the works. And over the last seven years of working towards WWR, I’ve been surrounded by poetry as editor.

I do write every day. I do read poetry daily. I do listen to poetry every chance I get.

SD: What kind of reception from audience have you received? Anything memorable or of note?

LMW: The reception has been good! Books have gone home with attendees. We’ve raised money for organizations that seek to end gender violence. I’ve received many personal notes of thanks after events. There have been articles about the readings in the local paper.

Photo of Audre Lorde courtesy K. Kendall.
Photo of Gertrude Stein courtesy Carl Van Vechten.
Photo of Adrienne Rich courtesy K. Kendall.


Journal, Volume 2 Issue 5