Why am I afraid to be a female poet?

sneak peek

In April, this book is coming out and I could not be more excited. Ryan W. Bradley has been a dream to work with; he has enabled me to think about visual representation and what the work means with an image.

Here’s what I learned about book design: I’m anxious about gender.

A few potential choices we shared shouted, “woman poet.” Echoed even.

I can’t help but wonder why I resisted that style or affiliation since, let’s deal, I am a woman poet: Why am I afraid to be a female poet?

Here’s an answer that I think makes sense: we’re always a bit afraid of being what we are. I think about a caterpillar and how it has to digest itself, practically melt before it becomes a butterfly. It’s death inducing to become what we are going to become. Does that sound too new age? Or maybe it’s too dismissive of free will? It is scary to do what feels natural.

Back to the problem at hand. Something about a book cover that pegged me, pinned me down as a female poet, felt limiting.

This needs to be addressed: there are still limits, still a sense of limitation.

VIDA has kept track of how male writers are disproportionately represented – and reviewed – in major publications like The New York Times. The limitations, restrictions, and feeling of being underneath isn’t new or particular to me. But shouldn’t I be resisting? Shouldn’t I want to shout out some kind of feminine chant on my book cover to buck the numbers? The ethics of my resistance make me stutter, pause, grow silent.

It doesn’t matter if the limitations are real or perceived, so I’d rather avoid that conversation for now, the fact of the sensation remains. I worried. People would anticipate a certain “type” of language, process, content, etc. I imagined the books relegated to Sweet Valley High status. I imagined people only thinking about the femininity of the work. Only reading, even, for the work of being a woman. And, yes, that those affiliations would somehow soften or lessen the work.

Who doesn’t want to be associated with Sappho’s fragments? With Laura Riding Jackson’s inquiry and questions? With Dickinson’s em dash? With Niedecker’s short lines?

Why did I seek out a neutrality? Is neutrality a kind of cover, a disguise?

More questions than answers. Why does Sappho’s sexuality get addressed more than the craft? Why did Jackson repudiate any associations with feminism? Why is Dickinson characterized as a demure, quiet woman in a white dress? And why did Niedecker’s For Paul get put on a publishing back burner because of Zukofsky’s ambivalence?

Why, in the list of favorite female poets that I listed, did I focus on things that are “soft” or “abstract” and not firm? The unfinished fragment. The question. The punctuation of lingering. The brevity. Does it matter that these are culturally valued as softer than sentence, answer, period, length?

What I’m saying is, there’s a history of associations and I felt the reality of that history (emphasis on the his) when I thought about a cover design. I can’t shake the feeling, the ethics that came along with it.



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