I’ve been mulling over this exchange in the latest Poetry the past couple of days, and it’s very much related to the last post. I think the term “women’s poetry” was used historically as a way to offset and devalue that contained within. “Women’s writing” in general has been seen this way --Hawthornes’ damned mob and all that. Terminology used as a way to marginalize women from what was considered “serious” writing and the once overwhelmingly male critics, scholars, and canon-makers.
I’d like to think this is not the case anymore—that all things are in fact on equal footing. That’s what we’d all like to believe. I, in fact, want desperately to believe it. So then let’s say “women’s poetry” is not something lesser than “poetry” in general. Not necessarily a subset, but perhaps, like poems written by doctors, or cowboys, or blue collar workers, merely a lens of experience (albeit a broader one), which filters the universal, the poetry with the big P. The great universal.
Is it then defeating to claim the label “women’s poetry”—to celebrate and revel in what just might make our poems different in some way than that written by men, be it subject matter, tone, stance, or the way we use language itself? Is “holocaust-poetry” or “African-American poetry” loaded with the same negative connotations in the broader field of poetry, or are we simply worried that by embracing the term, we risk regressing back to that same marginalization. Why are we so worried that someone is going to take us less seriously for calling what we write “women’s poetry” especially if, best case scenario, 50% of the literary world and its readership is composed of women? Why would that be seen as lesser or separate or marginalized?
But then I realize we do not live in that ideal world I just constructed. Yes, half of the literary world is women, but a majority of those who have the power, the editors, the critics, etc… tend to be men. And some of them, though certainly not all, but the less evolved of them DO think “women’s poetry” denotes something lesser, something other. And there are women poets themselves who possibly agree with them which makes for an even sadder state of affairs. (I think of a classmate who once expressed a distaste for "chick poetry"...grr...) So what do we do then? When the very terminology that could be used to form cohesiveness and community (anthologies, journals, etc) becomes derogatory in the wrong hands?
And this doesn’t even begin to touch on readership. The question of poetry written FOR women. Les’s say you DO write predominantly for an audience of women? Why would that be considered inferior to writing for a more gender-neutral audience? Lets say a male poet set out to write a very male-centered book, lets say about bow-hunting or his oedipal complex (though this does not necessarily mean women wouldn’t be drawn to the books also). Would we say it’s less of a book because it’s going to attract a heavier male readership (I assume). Why do we think because things are written for women that they are somehow less important, when we buy an even greater portion of the books, compose a larger percent of the audience, and are increasingly tipping the scales in writing programs. I don’t think writing for a certain audience can’t, in itself, have a universal appeal. Just because a poet writes for an audience of women doesn’t mean there won’t be something to be found there for men. And vice versa. And perhaps all great canonical works in poetry somehow straddle both sexes in their appeal. But that fact shouldn’t make women touchy about writing for a female audience. Or beg the question that if they ARE, that their work won’t resonate with men or have a universal appeal. Why are men so often considered the integral half in the equation? What about the male-centric books that hardly appeal to women?
I DO think experience is gendered, and this will vary from person to person. And I don't think that's a bad thing. My own work has a very distinctly feminine or "girly" feel to it and that in itself is part of my greater project. And that forms which writers I'm drawn to as well. It's when we start imposing value-judgements on things that it becomes bad. That poems about motherhood or dress-shopping are less important than grand heroic quests or bow-hunting.