Monday, 25 January 2016

Deranged Poetesses, and Other Tales

What does a 'deranged poetess' look like to you? Would she have an unkempt mass of long, frizzy hair? Ink-stained fingers and pens tucked behind each ear? Long flounced skirts that rustle with every step? A wardrobe of velvet, lace and satin mottled with age? A neck looped around with hundreds of pendants? A black cat at her ankles and an owl circling her head? Bits of crumpled paper spilling from her pockets – leaving a trail of crossed-out lines behind her as she walks? (Actually, scratch the walking. Surely a deranged poetess could only glide...)

I wish. Apparently though, it’s the label you get saddled with if you dare to criticize the way a man wrote about a female poet. Yeah, that’s right. Because you know, all those silly, mad women with their words and voices and ability to exercise an opinion! More than that, women who dare to write poetry themselves, and celebrate others who do so! But, being female and deranged and all, they get that special ‘ess’ added on the end, just to make sure that people wouldn’t confuse them with, you know, one of the serious male poets. (If anyone feels the need to criticize my interpretation by the way, don’t worry! It’s tongue-in-cheek, just like the ‘deranged poetess’ label! God, why is everything taken so seriously?!)

If you want to read more about the whole saga, check this out here. What the story essentially distils down to is Sarah Howe, this year’s brilliant recipient of the TS Eliot Prize for poetry, being criticized in various publications in the wake of her win. The essence of the critique? She must have won it because she was female, because she was Anglo-Chinese, because she was under 35, or because she was (in the Private Eye’s charming phrasing) “presentable.” To be honest, the Private Eye column – which you can read here – is by far the most frustrating. The implicit message is that a woman could never win on merit alone. Surely there must be extenuating factors? Reasons to explain away the hideous anomaly of recognizing the talent of someone other than an old, white man?  

The ‘deranged poetess’ label though comes from the writer of another profile for a broadsheet newspaper – which, in itself, I’m not that interested in talking about. Instead I’m fascinated by how far its echoes reverberated. The phrase appeared in a throwaway tweet defending the profile. Soon after, #derangedpoetess began trending. Some of the tweets were sharp and witty, pointing out what a great name it’d make for a poetry collective. Plenty were angry. Hashtags like this become a flashpoint, a catalyst, something tapping into deep-seated frustration that stretches far and wide. In this case, it’s about the literary world’s continuing problem with women. To be brilliant, young AND female is, apparently, too much. The youth bit in particular. Such excess must be tempered with a heavy focus on appearance, perhaps, or the ins and outs of personal life (see Jonathan Bate’s treatment of Sylvia Plath in his new Ted Hughes biography – skewered by Janet Malcolm here). Personal lives can be fascinating, by the way, but there’s a time and a place and a way of approaching that should compliment that creator’s work, rather than undermining it.

Essentially, in the face of huge numbers of utterly fantastic female academics, poets, essayists, novelists, thinkers, playwrights etc etc etc, there are still a fair number of petulant men who wish to maintain the status quo. That’s what struck me about the Private Eye piece. It sounded like petulance hastily masked with scorn. How dare anyone other than the usual formula be recognized! How dare the normal balances of power be ever-so-slightly tipped!

The few poems of Howe’s that I’ve read so far sound alive, full of revelry in the potential of words, their sound and shape and vivid texture. (FYI, if you’re a certain type of male literary critic, you can dismiss this as “florid”). So much of the time I find contemporary poetry oddly stiff and clinical. This was a delight by comparison.

Before this all kicked off, I had a conversation on the phone with my mum about what a great surprise of a win it was. I first heard about it through listening to Howe talk on an excellent Guardian Books Podcast, also featuring Emmy the Great – both discussing their creative processes, their heritage, and the differences between poetry and lyrics. I’d listened idly whilst cooking dinner, noting the name and relishing what I’d heard, but not necessarily inclined to follow it up. A few days later I saw the hashtag, followed up the story, and wondered whether to laugh or cry. In the end I opted for another phone-call with my mum. Now I’m much more likely to buy Howe's winning collection: 'A Loop of Jade'. Maybe that’s one great thing to take from this.

This whole storm also, aptly, re-stoked my fire for poetry – both reading, and writing. There’s so much to delve into, so much to think about and distil down into the rhythm of a line. I want to carry on crafting and learning and doing more in the way of performance poetry. In the meantime, I like the idea of joining this flock of deranged poetesses – perhaps in a red lace dress, with a grey wool cloak and the wind whipping through my curls. Maybe even with two or three white, wild ponies in the background... That’d definitely be how a deranged poetess presents herself, right?

Everything I'm wearing is vintage - all bought second-hand. Another shoot done over Christmas in a pocket of sunshine. Talking about women and poets, by the way, my friend Izzy has written a poetry collection called (somewhat aptly for today's theme) The Voices of Women - just published - and you should definitely take a look at her blog post all about it here


Closet Fashionista said...

I love the texture of that dress! You look amazing! And the last photo with the horses is perfection!!!
Oyy, why do people feel the need to say or imply that women aren't capable of earning things for themselves not based on looks, ethical background, etc.

Rick Forrestal said...

Striking photo location.
Perfect scenery, and

Anupriya DG said...

I don't know about poetesses...but I just can't look beyond that last picture. It looks like something straight out of a fantasy fiction book or movie! <3 <3 <3

Melanie said...

Frankly I am getting very tired of hearing the opinions of only men in professional settings. Often there is very little if any female representation. So this is a timely post. Excellent photos. Choke on my "ess" I want to scream.

Izzy DM said...

Okay, I returned now that the kids are abed-- I hope you saw i mentioned on Insta that I read this once and was delighted by the writing here albeit appalled by the story--and I was able to follow almost all the hyperlinks this time. (I didn't want to read the actual text of that (is it?) Private Eye column; it would just annoy me too much. Enjoyed all the others.) First, I HATE writers who trade on gossip about the famous departed. I couldn't read the NYT for two weeks after reading their hackjob obit of Peter O'Toole, an actor I loved very much but didn't realize died two years ago. On the other hand, most biographers do take this knowing tone that maddens me. I tend to only read bios when I have to for research for that reason. Second, I'm confused by any criticism of Howe's win. Sarah Howe seems like a normal, as in a very likely candidate with her Cambridge and Harvard background; she's written for Paris Review and Poetry International and on and on. I agree with you that the uproar is likely more to do with her being pretty and young than unworthy in any other way. It's as if you're allowed to be one or the other. I mean, I don't feel exactly pretty at the moment with all this extra baby weight on me, mind you, but, whether I'm pretty or not, I still plan to fit into my pretty clothes again, and I don't see how my love of pretty things detracts from my intelligence or seriousness. If I was obsessed with status items, you might have a case then, but color and texture and costume feel like a different animal. Yet, I feel a cowardly instinct in my current incarnation as a writer, to hide my passion for anything but tasteful books lest I be judged as harshly as Sarah Howe was. Well, and my babies :). I can't hide that.

In my own life, I've sort of experienced what Sarah's going through. My husband has one group of friends who are extremely, extremely successful. All Harvard men and live in New York-- bankers, lawyers, a couple writers. They all liked me fine when I was working as a model and actress (and secretly writing). I stopped acting and began focusing on writing, and, after I announced my chapbook coming out, a couple defriended me. It was so strange, because they're supportive of their friend's wives endeavors-- all blonde, quiet women in fashion, but I think I make them uncomfortable. These are men who gathered at a beach house for a weekend away and actually sent their wives and girlfriends to bed early, so they could have "man" time. The other wives went off to bed like good, little girls. I tried to ignore the hints and stick it out. I wanted to drink brandy and sit by the fire, too, but it was awful and not a lot of fun to fend off withering stares. My husband was so apologetic by the way. His college friends, who are more middle class and normal folks, are nothing like that. Those mean Harvard guys (as I call them) are just a weird group he fell in with in New York after he went to law school with some of them, but I tell that story, because I think those kind of guys are typical of a certain kind of powerful man and represent the greatest everyday challenge for women. The most competitive spots are still zealously guarded by those kind of macho guys married to meek maidens, and anyone acting "unwomanly" is attacked. It's like girls can be beautiful and fashionable but not also have opinions kind of thing. Those guys don't even have friendships with opinionated girls; it's like those girls don't even exist in their world; they choose not to see them; they defriend them. I feel like I infiltrated some secret society. Possibly more troublingly, it disturbs me how many liberal men I know have concocted bullshit reasons for not liking Hillary Clinton, when really, I think, she just makes them uncomfortable.

Anyway, my rant/ one-sided conversation with your wonderful blog is done. I have to literally go to bed now, but figuratively, I will never go off to bed like a good, little girl again :).


I just read about the whole saga, via your links. The tweets and articles alone are something else. Can't say that I am too surprised to hear about the thoughts of narrow-minded men regarding women in poetry. Glad that through it all this re-ignited your love for poetry. I'm interested in hearing more of your creations in the realm of poetry, namely performance poetry.
These are rather dreamy storybook images, particularly the last one.

Ivana Split said...

I'm more likely to buy her book yes, at least there is something good that came out of it. I do have a confression to make. When I see a female name, I'm more likely to buy that book...because I know that even in today's world it is far more difficult for a women to get published than a man. It is a fact, a sad fact, but neverless a fact that needs to be taken into consideration so that we can think about it and act accordingly. In recent history, there were examples of women who started writing under a man's name and only switched to their true one once their books started selling well (we shouldn't judge them for it!)...and we don't need to go to the past, sister Bronte or whoever....We only need to take Harry Potter as an example. In this century we live in, it is still unacceptable for a woman to be a writter or a poet. How tragic!!!! Perhaps it is only fair that there are such idiotic newspaper articles and colums...they make it harder for us to ignore the issue. Clearly, there are people who don't see women as being capable of writing, perhaps there are as many of them as there were in the Victorian times ( I really hope not but people are so slow to change). I thank you for sharing this with us. I totally agree with you about literary criticism digging into an author's personal life even when there is no connection to their works..Sometimes (OFTEN) literary critics do that only to prove their point and they take things out of context.

You look utterly beautiful in that red dress...and this article is so empowering to women. It is nice to see women sticking together. We need to do that more often.

Lola Byatt said...

I'm gonna look at the silver lining of all this too, I briefly heard some of this on twitter but didn't follow it through so I am happy that you have written this wonderful post about it. It's so hard not to let this sort of stuff take up so much of my brain because it worries me and saddens me so much at times. Silver lining of this situation is I'm going to look up Howe's work, I may even have an attempt at poetry (the last time I wrote a poem I was 11 and most of it rhymed so that should be interesting) and will subscribe to the podcast you mentioned (what else do you listen to? bet you have the most exciting subscriptions!) and will buy The Bell Jar as it has been on my to read list for ages. xx

Alyssa G said...

In love with these photos and your outfit!
xx Alyssa

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