Sunday, January 30, 2011

Poetry, Women and Community

Forgive me if I wander into gender stereotypes in this post. I have had a convergence of experiences that have me thinking about women, poetry and community.

Yesterday I read the New York Times book review of Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. The book is full of thoughtful commentary about the so-called "princess phase" that many tween girls go through. I spend a lot time thinking about children and gender identity and gender roles. Children's toys are very gendered. If you wander into any toy aisle you can clearly tell where the store and the toymakers have placed the girl's toys (the hot pink aisle full of dolls and dresses) and the boy's toys (the dark blue aisle with blocks and guns). I worry about the gendering of play and how that affects us later in life. If I had been encouraged to play with blocks and trucks more, would I have been an engineer? If video games had been more gender-neutral, would I have followed my love of technology into a career?

On Friday I was in a small used bookshop looking in their poetry section. I was reminded of the history of poetry as a "man's world" as I had to really look to find books written by women. I forget this fact sometimes.

This morning I read this article about the "poetic renaissance" currently happening in Britain. Right now, there are three high profile poets that have made strides to get people talking about poetry. It just so happens that all three of these poets are women. They spoke about how the poetry community is still shaped like a grassroots movement with little competition. The article also brought to mind the idea that perhaps the feminine poetic voice was lacking, since Carol Ann Duffy is the UK's first female poet laureate in 340 years.

These convergences got me thinking about feminism. This is a word I use often. I read publications like Bitch and make/shift. I watch movies and television that have strong female characters. I have strong women in my life. My mother used the word feminism often, regardless of the fact that she was a homemaker. That was her choice. She later taught herself to use the computer and reentered the work force in her 40s. My 83 year-old grandmother, recently widowed, got a part time job where uses the computer regularly. I was a Girl Scout through high school. My closest friends are women. A majority of the poets and artists I know are women. I read mostly female poets. I run a feminist literary magazine. I am getting my MFA from Chatham, whose undergrad programs are still women only. Feminism has been normalized for me. So when I read about these gender issues, I have to say I'm more than a little biased toward surprise.

These past two years I have really come to understand the importance of writing and community. I have developed friendships within the local literary community and beyond and it has made all the difference in my writing. The workshop method is based on this principle. Writing should not exist in a vacuum. Ideas should be shared and tested, refined and shaped. Mentors and teachers should foster creativity and growth in their students.

As I have wandered through these thoughts, I can't help but wonder if my experiences with the power of community and poetry have been influenced by my feminism. By that I mean, do I have this community because women tend form supportive, non-competitive communities based on my mutual growth? Is my experience this strange phenomenon that won't hold true outside of my current community? Clearly, men can be good at building communities too and I realize I'm generalizing. But I have heard this from other writers too. A poet that we published in the first issue of Weave said she had resigned herself to competing in the poetic world against the poet stereotype of old men with long white beards writing about the fields and birds. When we solicited her for a submission and then invited her to read, she commented on how wonderful it was to find such a strong community of women. Her experiences have not been my own. I can't know whether her experiences are biased in the other direction. Perhaps there is more of a middle ground.

And perhaps it is what you make it. Maybe whatever community I belong to in the future will be the one I create. Maybe it will include more men. Who knows what San Francisco will bring? Perhaps the LGBT community will influence my literary community in ways I can't predict (since I'll be living about 100 feet from the Castro). Perhaps I will have a larger age-range of poets. Maybe I will find a mentor that is younger than me. Who knows?
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