It’s an interesting political moment for women and girls as we enter the countdown to the election.  Outrage around the shooting of 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai is still going strong and I want to be hopeful the outpouring of reaction will serve as an impetus for change. The story of the imprisonment of the band Pussy Riot is still unfolding and just a week ago was the International Day of the Girl.  It was deeply heartening to see how widely this was celebrated although each rallying cry highlighted the gross injustices and discrepancies girls still suffer.

Awhile ago I had the chance to interview Sara Marcus whose book Girls to the Front chronicles the Riot Grrrl movement.  It was a different sort of revolution, but one whose effects are still rippling forward.  Here is my review and conversation with her.

Sara Marcus’s history of the Riot Grrrl movement, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, was published in 2010 by Harper Perennial. Since then, the book has been widely praised, and Marcus’s nerve in taking on the famously controversial 1990s punk-feminist movement has been noted as well.  A Los Angeles Times critic prefaced an admiring review by stating, “I wouldn’t go near that hot mess of brilliant idealism and tragic dysfunctions with a 10-foot publishing contract.” As reviewers note, Marcus does go into this cauldron – with meticulous research, engaging narrative retellings of what it was like to participate directly in the Riot Grrrl movement, and reflections on her own experience of stepping into the fire as a teenager and realizing she had found her people.

Her portrayal of the tumult, excitement, breakdowns, and revolutionary zeal that rollercoastered through the movement in the early to mid-90s also includes, as she writes in the epilogue, “the unfortunate parts of the Riot Grrrl story — the parts I didn’t expect to find, the parts I would have preferred never to write.”  But, she concludes, “I had to tell the truth as I saw it.”  The result is that Marcus wraps her head (and arms) around the complicated, messy, yet passion-filled highs and lows of a span of years that left a lasting mark on the history of feminism.  Girls to the Front offers an admirably complex, nuanced view of a movement both from inside a writer’s lived experience of it, and from outside, through a researcher’s honest view.

As more writing comes forward about the Riot Grrrl years, it’s exciting to think back on a movement that is both recent and still revealing its legacy.  New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections now houses a Riot Grrrl Collection, and Kathleen Hanna has endorsed Girls to the Front on her blog, writing that since she was on tour through much of the movement, she learned a lot from reading the book. At the book’s New York release party, Hanna also gave a first-person tribute back to Marcus, (which can be viewed on YouTube), in which she mentions the way Marcus captured the split responses to the movement. In an eloquent review published last fall in Bookforum, Hanna’s Le Tigre bandmate Johanna Fateman offered her own acknowledgment that Marcus addressed the thornier sides of Riot Grrrl’s legacy: “Any stab at defining Riot Grrrl still feels dangerous,” Fateman wrote. Riot Grrrl’s distrust of mainstream media’s representation of the movement, along with the splinters that unsmoothed its potent rage for change, make writing about any of it a tricky feat.  In a phone interview Marcus addressed some of these challenges, discussing her process and Riot Grrrl’s legacy.

Here is my conversation with her:

EL: What was the most radical thing about this movement?  What do you think is its legacy?

SM: One of the most radical things was that it was really fully youth-led, and not created along the model of services or programs designed by adults.  It was not without its shortcomings and drawbacks, but we were crafting a movement that exactly conformed to our needs, our passions, and our strengths.

The legacy [it left] is partly a recognition of the need for communication and critique as activist activities.  New feminists place blogging at the foundation of their activism and move outward from there, creating communities with each other.

EL: How is this different from creating zines?

SM: There are ways it’s better and ways in which it’s worse. The loss of the handmade thing and that intimacy is different.

Blogging is not a detriment to political organization, but when it comes to personal relationships, it pales in comparison with zines — it’s not as intense.  Within the Riot Grrrl movement there was an utter entwinement of politics with really intimate community building.  There’s this aspect that you see running through Riot Grrrl literature, of people needing to take care of each other, and these things can’t be disentwined: political action, self-actualization, and taking care of each other.

EL: In your introduction, you mention the parts you wish you hadn’t had to write. What were these difficulties?

SM: Not everybody had the blissful experience with Riot Grrrl that I had. The mainstream media attention really wrecked it for some people, even as it drew new people in, and so some new people felt judged—“What, I’m not cool enough for you?” This dynamic played into some people’s preexisting insecurities about fitting in, even as for other people the movement absolutely allayed these anxieties and was tremendously healing and empowering and led to lifelong friendships. Later on, some girls used radical politics as a pretext to treat each other pretty terribly. Radical one-ups(wo)manship is not unique to Riot Grrrl; any time you have people assiduously staking their identities on elaborating a political philosophy, there are going to be competitions about having the correct line, or about occupying the optimum subject position from which to claim authority on an issue. Even the nastiest behavior here, though, came out of a truly sincere desire to move feminist thinking forward, to incorporate thinking about multiple differences (race, class, ability, sexuality, and so forth, in addition to gender)—which as any student of feminist history and theory knows is no easy job. We were very young women with little to no training in political organizing, some of whom were recovering from significant childhood trauma, all of us just making everything up as we went along: It’s no wonder that we didn’t get everything right. I still think it’s to everybody’s great credit that we tried so hard to change our lives and change the world and build communities that would support us in these endeavors.

EL:  How do you see the Riot Grrrl movement tying in to issues that were raised around girls in the 1990s, such as the prevalence of the Reviving Ophelia “girls in crisis” story?  Did Riot Grrrl serve to counter this or to work with it?

SM: What was going on in the mid-’90s [when Reviving Ophelia was published] was the result of a renewed attention to adolescent girls’ lives, an attention that had already borne fruit in terms of media hunger about Riot Grrrl. But we were living these things — they were our lives. We were putting things into our zines about it, but it wasn’t as if the books and articles were waking us up to this crisis.

EL: Why do you think Riot Grrrl arose when it did?

SM: Riot Grrrl emerged in tandem with—and, I suggest in the book, rather as a cultural vanguard to—a renewed passion for feminism in the US that was coming about in response to some serious attacks on women, attacks that are looking pretty familiar right about now. When Riot Grrrl was getting started, Susan Faludi was just finishing up work on Backlash; that book was published in October 1991, two months after the first Riot Grrrl meeting, and it became a massive best seller. The Anita Hill hearings took place that same month, sparking a new wave of feminist rage. By the following spring the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Planned Parenthood v. Casey and the feminist movement as a whole was bracing for the end of Roe v. Wade. Although of course Roe was spared, restrictions on reproductive freedom for girls under 18 were widespread. Then in the summer of 1992, you had three conventions: the Democratic National Convention, nominating Bill Clinton and gearing everybody up for the so-called Year of the Woman in Congress; the Republican National Convention, declaring a culture war and labeling Bill and Hillary’s politics “radical feminism”; and the first Riot Grrrl convention. It was an intense time.

And in the midst of all of this, you had the aggravating fact that girls of my generation were growing up with the promises of the women’s liberation movement—promises that we could do anything we wanted, be anything we dreamed of—while sexist stereotypes and double standards, objectification of women in the media, and rigid gender roles were all still as powerful as ever.

EL: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Riot Grrrl during the process of researching and writing this book?

SM: The most surprising thing to me was, as I mentioned, how young we all were.  When you’re 17 and tapped into this revolutionary movement psyching people up so that you can change the world, you don’t feel young, but we were. It’s amazing how much we did with so little. We just gathered up whatever we could within reach and we made something beautiful of it. It had its flaws and shortcomings, but it also had its accomplishments.

EL: What do you think was responsible for the end of the Riot Grrrl movement?

SM: People just grew up. It was pegged to a certain point in development and the creation of the self.  We took what we had gotten and we moved forward.


National Poetry Month, or April, as it’s also known, prompted me to immerse myself in the newest work of renowned poet and feminist figure, Eavan Boland.  Cast over my reading was the shadow of the recent and sad news of Adrienne Rich’s passing. Rich’s work was an inspiration to so many within the field of poetry and beyond.  I was cheered to see her obituary prominently displayed on the front page of the New York Times. The wonderful series up at the VIDA site, “21 Love Poems to Adrienne Rich” riffs on her series of the same title and shows how deeply her influence was, how keenly her loss will be felt.

Years ago, when I was an MFA student in New York City, I had the chance to hear Eavan Boland read with Adrienne Rich.  I remember well the reverence in Boland’s introductory comments as she said that she would remember the honor of being paired with Rich, foremother to so many feminist poets, for the rest of her life.  I sat in the audience, amazed by her awe, as I thought of Boland as no less a radical figure, and realized how clearly each was offering a baton to the next generation to pick up and carry on.

Boland, who holds several prestigious titles as a professor at Stanford University, has single-handedly changed the conversation about women’s position within the canon of Irish poetry (and outside of it) through her dedicated work over the past thirty years. Her latest contribution, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, picks up where her first nonfiction book, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time leaves off.  In Journey, Boland traces the genesis of her identity as a poet while growing up in and outside of Ireland, always aware of the heavy weight of canonical history which has relegated women to a far corner of the conversation and how its press informed her education and first attempts at writing. Her intelligence is diamond-sharp, her arguments are both original and complex, and her prose reflects her true sensibility as a lyrical writer.  Her characteristic gift for taut, clear statements, rendered with rhetorical force, is evident throughout the book as she makes her case for how women poets need to reapproach history and reappropriate tradition.

The title’s inclusion of the word “maps” is both metaphorical and literal — Boland explores the known territory of literary history she has been taught (and is still taught) to create a palimpsest which includes a feminist viewpoint that can permanently broaden what subjects enter into a poem, nevermind which writers enter the canon.

Divided into three parts, the first, “Journeys,” traces Boland’s personal path into her career.  She writes movingly of the masters — all men — offered to her throughout her education in England, America, and her home country of Ireland, and how she recognized there wasn’t room within these poems for a female presence who wasn’t decorative or objectified, and the effect this had on her emerging poems.

Gradually, as she outlines in the book’s next section, “Maps,” she finds a matrilineal legacy that connects with the subject matters central within her own life and that she no longer wants to deny.  This section leads with her tribute to Adrienne Rich, followed by Elizabeth Bishop, then Charlotte Mew, and then Sylvia Plath.  She also explores the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  Most interestingly, Boland offers a chapter on the Irish poet Paula Meehan, and Boland’s attempt to translate an anonymous “dream-vision lyric” written in Latin, Foebus Abierat, presumably written by a woman, which has haunted her for years. Boland also signals her commitment to recovery of women’s voices within “Translating the Underworld,” a chapter that describes her intensely moving project translating the work of post-war female German poets, anthologized in her volume After Every War: Twentieth Century Woman Poets.

The book ends with the section “Destinations” which consists of just one chapter, “Letter to a Young Woman Poet” — a riff on the Rilke title of similar name, but is an address to the aspiring female writer. In this chapter Boland proposes that the young woman poet learn to change the past —”Not by intellectualizing it.  But by eroticizing it.” By this Boland means that women should claim a past that has traditionally excluded them.  Boland states:

After all, stored in that past is a template of poetic identity which still affects us as women.  When we are young poets it has the power to make us feel subtly less official, less welcome in the tradition than our male contemporaries.  If we are not careful, it is that template we will aspire to, alter ourselves for, warp our self-esteem as poets to fit.

Of the past she writes, “It is, after all, the place where authorship of the poem eluded us.  Where poetry itself was defined by and in our absence.  There has been a debate since I was a young poet, about whether women poets should engage with that past at all.” She recognizes this challenge, but continues, “We need to go to that past: not to learn from it, but to change it.  If we do not change that past, it will change us. And I, for one, do not want to become a grateful daughter in a darkened house.”

Her edict to rewrite, remap, and remake is constant throughout the book, as seen in variants of her exhortation:

Can a single writer challenge a collective past?  My answer is simple.  Not only can, but should.  Poetry should be scrubbed, abraded, cleared, and re-stated with the old wash stones of argument and resistance.  It should happen every generation.  Every half-generation.  In every working poet’s life and practice.”

Challenging tradition and refusing inequality underpins all of her work, as A Journey offers examples, models, and urgency to not believe this work has yet been fulfilled.

Correspondingly, Boland’s other touchstone throughout the book is how to admit more into the sphere of the poetry world — specifically themes, images, and ideas that allow women to write more fully about their lives.  Boland vividly describes living in a suburb, with two young children in a young marriage, and recognizing rituals within her life that were ordinarily excluded from celebrated poems.  She writes of inheriting the mantle of poetic tradition, yet:

The difference was that as a young woman I did so in circumstances which were relatively new … in a house with small children. With a washing machine in the background.  With a child’s antibiotic on a shelf with a spoon beside it.

After long struggle, Boland came to realize, “… the fact is the words of poets and canon-makers — but more canon-makers than poets — had determined the status of my machines and my medicine bottles. … They had made the authority of the poet conditional upon a view of reality, which then became a prescription about subject matter.  They had debated and subtracted and reduced that relation of the ordinary to the poem so that it was harder than I thought proper to record the life I lived in the poems I wrote.”  Boland writes, movingly, of wanting there to be an ownership within the poem so that “whatever I lived as a woman I could write as a poet,” to hold within her writing “a way to have the child’s medicine and … darkening room in the suburb” sanctioned within the canonical poetry world.

Through this fusion, Boland finds a way to join her voice as a woman and as a poet; through her activism and commitment she has fostered change within the academy and rewritten a relationship to history.  In her insistence, she holds the door open wide for other women to pass through.

Boland closes the book by thanking the women poets in the generation before her whose strength bolstered her when she started out.  She writes, “But I believe words such as canon and tradition and inheritance will change even more.  And with all that, women poets, from generation to generation, will be able to befriend one another.  And that, in the end, is the best reason for writing this letter.”

It is deeply pleasurable, nevermind galvinizing, to feel the weight of Boland’s strong intelligence and deep conviction. Her contributions have been invaluable. In the early summer of 2011 I again had the chance to hear Boland read, and again, her insistence on feminist activism within the literary world and insistence on a new legacy for women writers radiated just as strongly as when I heard her years ago.  She concluded by reading her beautiful poem, “Anna Liffey” which ends with the speaker’s simple phrase “I was a voice.”  The reverberations of this phrase for Boland’s poetry and her feminist commitment will be far-reaching for generations to come, and have made an essential and inspiring difference.

I wasn’t part of this past weekend’s mad AWP melee but I was thinking about how the influx of an estimated 10,000 attendees filled with literary ambition creates its own kind of adrenaline and angst-filled elixir.  It led me to dig out a piece I wrote for an online magazine last spring, yet unfortunately, they never ran.  I corresponded with several major female poets to ask what their experience of gender bias in the literary world has been.  Plus ca change, I want to say, but the irony is that for women publishing, so very little has.

Just before this year’s AWP conference began, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts released this year’s “The Count” which starkly portrayed the woefully small pieces of the literary pie served up by women writers in major literary sources.  I wish I could say much was different from last year’s report, but it’s not the case.  One thing that is rising, however, is awareness of the gross discrepancies about who is published in the literary world. Here is the article I wrote last year, with excerpts from several prominent writers I was thrilled to correspond with:vidauser

Although T.S. Eliot called April “the cruelest month,” the first signs of spring bring the annual celebration of National Poetry Month.  This year, however, interest began to blossom early with the February release of “The Count” by the literary organization VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts.

Founded by poet Cate Marvin in 2009 during a moment she describes as an homage to Tillie Olsen’s iconic story “I Stand Here Ironing,” Marvin, while folding her infant daughter’s clothes, began to contemplate why her panel on contemporary American women poets had been rejected for the competitive national Associated Writing Program conference. An email “seemed to blast right out of my head,” she writes, and within months her cri de coeur about lack of gender parity in the literary world had picked up a fierce momentum.  A year later, VIDA is thriving, with plans for a conference focusing on women’s writing, and moreover, a community that has the desire to shake up an imbalance that has been tolerated for too long.

The Count 2010 revealed stark pie charts that indict the top literary journals and highly regarded magazines for their abysmal inclusion of women — whether as contributors or authors reviewed or book reviewers.  Immediately, both outrage and “it’s about time” comments appeared as some editors went on the defensive about the results.  One humbled male reviewer called the study “in many ways a blunt instrument” with the suggestion that breakdown of its statistics would further illuminate the nuances of bias that surface in, as he writes, “the staggering differences between male and female representation.”  Meghan O’Rourke on Slate lauds the study but adds, “a task VIDA might usefully take on is a breakdown, by gender, of the genres reviewed and represented.”  Shock, debate and denial quickly raged in many literary sources with a mix of defensiveness and admirable get-to-the-bottom-of-this persistence. But, as O’Rourke tackles, the fundamental question behind the thin pie slices served up for women is, Why?

The answer, of course, is complex.  The oft-cited information that women enroll in MFA programs at an equal, if not higher, rate than men is clear, as is the fact that more women buy books in the United States, and are likely to be readers.  But breaking into the journals and magazines that can “make” a writer’s career by laying a direct pipeline to a high-profile agent or a publishing contract, or can compound the cultural capital of a positive review into a prestigious grant or even tenure-track job interview, seems to be about something else — the tactics of how one gains ground in the po’biz world or becomes part of the g/literati.

As talk swirled around the indisputable net effects of the VIDA stats, attention began to focus on the subtler issues surrounding how ambition and promotion are gendered. Blogosphere debate raged around topics such as how networks of male influence hold impact; the subtle, but real, assumptions behind who deserves a job; how fame is won; as well as the intangible but real sense that putting oneself forward as a writer requires a certain kind of brash ego more often cultivated by men.  And while most editors responded with culpable awareness, some offered that the flip solution of tokenism doesn’t solve the root problem.

The topics raised afresh by VIDA, unfortunately, are hardly new.  Just four years ago, an essay entitled “Numbers Trouble” co-written by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young in The Chicago Review targeted gender representation in the experimental poetry world. The two women counted bylines by women within anthologies, journals, major awards and blogs, confirming a rather dismal ratio.  The blog site of the venerable Poetry Foundation responded swiftly, in part, trying to parse the social conditions surrounding women and time, caring for children, encouragement of ambition, cultivation of career, and its much-vaunted Poetry Magazine had even commissioned an essay years before (in 2003) trying to root out why women are represented in such unequal numbers.  As Spahr and Young write in “Numbers Trouble”: “We are also suspicious of relying too heavily on the idea that fixing the numbers means we have fixed something. We could have 50 percent women in everything and we still have a poetry that does nothing, that is anti-feminist.”

Spahr and Young also counted women’s bylines at a variety of small, independent presses and hardly found parity there, although “University presses are a little more skewed to gender equity.” But even Wesleyan University Press, which they point out is known for publishing mainly women, “has 90 books by men and seventy by women (44 percent); a better number, but far from ‘mainly.'”


I corresponded with four poets of different generations who published with Wesleyan, and they each came back to the idea that it’s not a question of quality that keeps them from being published–it’s systemic bias.

Here’s poet Alice Notley:

As long as there is inequality between the sexes in regard to political and economic power, women will not be taken as seriously as men. … Did you really think that 50,000 years of inequality (historically speaking–I’m going back to the caves) was going to be rectified in a decade or two?

The concept that these present-day issues are rooted in centuries-old inequality is also echoed by multi-genre writer Joy Harjo:

There is everpresent sexism that has never ended. … The inequity began when God was pronounced male.

Notley, who travels closer to the experimental margins of the poetry world rather than within its mainstream, also pointed out that not every poet is concerned with publishing in the more visible and status-loaded publications VIDA highlighted in its survey:

My part of the poetry world is too outrageous for these publications anyway: It’s utterly free and inventive with form, is often queer or bizarrely sexed or even unsexed and anti-sexed.

Notley, who doesn’t teach, believes that those who invest in the prestige of the po’biz world are more invested in status and poetic reputation rather than, in her view, poetry itself.

Poet Elizabeth Willis, the Shapiro-Silverberg Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Wesleyan, however, sees the effect of gender inequity within the teaching world as well–where many poets make their living. She writes:

Think of women writers working in the academy who are consciously or unconsciously evaluated according to the perceived importance or prestige of the venues that publish them. The effect is lower salaries, lower rates of tenure, less time off.  If, at the same time, male colleagues are more likely to appear in more prestigious venues and receive more prestigious grants, the result is an even higher workload for female peers–and an expectation that women will take care of less prestigious tasks: more note-taking, less decision-making.

Yet, she points out,

I think inequities remain unseen and are largely not ‘accepted’ as legitimate. Occasionally I’ve heard from male poets that there are actually far more opportunities for women because there are presses, magazines, and listservs that are devoted exclusively to women’s work and women’s issues. … If it’s true that there are more opportunities for women, it also seems true those opportunities not really taken seriously by the literary community at large–that they don’t have the same kind of cultural capital.

Rachel Zucker, author of several books with Wesleyan, (as well as other presses), offers another angle:

My poetry world seems to be full, overbrimming with women. I think that my perspective on this is somewhat skewed because, in a way, I’ve made my own community. My co-editor Arielle Greenberg and I read hundreds of first and second books by women in preparation for editing our anthology Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections and got to know the poetry of two generations of women really well. I went back and read Rich, Ostriker, Du Plessis–for a while I was so steeped in women’s poetry and writing about poetry I forgot about the men all together. Now, it’s true, very true, that these communities I’m talking about grew up out of a sense of inequality or as a direct result of oppression, sexism and misogyny.

Zucker, like the others, reiterates that the literary community feels the effects of still being within a “deeply patriarchal culture” and she writes, “I think the discrepancies in poetry are just part of the descrepancies in the larger culture.”

All four poets advocated working towards changing the culture at large — not just the tally sheet. Notley comments, “I would like to see women approach politics much more analytically … where power structures mirrored in the poetry world are in process.” All four had at least one story of being told they were receiving attention “just because” they were female, and unconscious gender bias that seemed to fly out of male colleagues’ mouths before they realized what they were saying.  Importantly, each also reported having at least one male editor or reviewer who publicly championed her work.

All were aware of the more nuanced aspects of systemic gender inequity, but how to solve this wasn’t always clear.  Willis notes that men often have an easier time with self-promotion.  She adds:

If I’m looking at it systemically rather than personally I would say that since administrators and editors are at this point in history, still more likely to be male, other men are more likely to be invited to have a drink with them, or join them on the basketball court. It informalizes the power dynamic, makes it more permeable–also makes it harder to see.  So it becomes a feeling women get about not being included in the ‘real’ conversation even when they’re included in the formal or official conversation. And it’s not just a ‘feeling.’


Zucker notes, “I know so many women whose first books came out around the same time that they have their first kid and they couldn’t do readings (or very few).” She adds, “Also, I think women send out work less than men do.”  Harjo comments on the politics beyond gender, but around race, as well: “After the efforts of feminism in the seventies I saw a trend toward inclusion. Though often, as with indigenous writers, we were were/are ghettoized and there were/are quotas.  I see this all of the worlds in which I labor: poetry, music and theater. What I have noticed in the last few years, that any pretense of inclusion has fallen away.”

What is an ambitious female poet to do?  All four returned to a baseline of putting out the best work you can, writing poems because there is deep love for the craft. Notley offers a counternarrative:

The main thing is to love poetry and, of course, to have talent to begin with.  I mean talent, which is not the same thing as a desire for a career.  Then, publish yourself; publish your friends; get published by your friends.  This is what the guys being complained about do (it is the essence of the New York Review of Books).  If you do it in underground format, so what?  But, most of all, Care About Poetry!

Willis also advocates forging a new path.  She writes:

Own your authority even when it’s not recognized. You gain more, ultimately, by insisting on your own rules of engagement. It IS possible to start your own magazine; it IS possible to compose a great life-work without the approbation of establishment venues. Value the editors and poets who support your work, and invest in situations where the work and attention are sustaining and reciprocal. Document everything you do. Support your friends, and when you encounter writers whose work speaks to you, help promote each other. It’s much easier on the body and makes it more likely that you’ll be writing the work you want to write — not writing for a marketplace that’s looking the other way … I’d like to see a stronger commitment to a progressive politics of representation, a recognition that justice is process, and an acknowledgment that we haven’t yet arrived.

Zucker insists on shifting the po’biz world’s parameters.  She writes:

Make your own community. Be clear about what your priorities are. Think not only about what you want to get from the poetry world but what you want to give. I’d like to see poetry to be a community building force, a political force, a reservoir of humanity. Is that too grand? Some MFA programs encourage pubic service (NYU is quite good at this). I think all of them should. And I think students should think about why they write not just where they want to get published.

Harjo offers her own prescription for herself to others, “I write the best possible poetry, music, plays — in a kind of dance between wildness and utmost discipline. I keep going — as my people did on the Trail of Tears” and reiterates, “It’s important we stand up to speak, as two of my most beloved teachers, Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich remind us. It’s important that we celebrate each other.”


It’s been a long while since a book kept me up at night — both because I compulsively had to finish reading it, and also because it invaded my dreams. Home/Birth, recently published by 1913 Press did both.

Co-written by two poets I much admire, Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg, the book’s subtitle, A Poemic offers a first cue to the passion and conviction the authors infuse into this original, collage-like work. Interweaving their personal narratives about their home (and initial hospital) birth experiences, they also include the voices of home birth providers (midwives, doulas, supporters), as well as layer in statistics about the safety of home birth and the dangers of the hospital experience — both physical and emotional.  Quoting largely from Jennifer Block’s book Pushed, there is no attempt to portray a spectrum of opinions about birthing.  Their position is focused, their zeal is clear — staying at home is the best option for a woman to have an experience that is empowering to her, causes her to trust in her body, and to holistically bring her child into the world.

For Zucker, a trained doula, and Greenberg, (soon to leave her tenure-track job for a move to Maine and a possible transition to birth education work) clearly, this is a topic around which they feel a deep sense of mission, both in terms of changing the received notions about the safety of home birth, as well as doing political advocacy to overturn restrictions which have limited the scope of midwifery and “normalized” medical intervention.  Greenberg is explicit about how her first home birth (in Illinois) was actually illegal and the limitations this placed upon her care, as well as the demands caused by her sudden second home birth — fleeing the state to temporarily move to Maine so she could be attended legally by a midwife practice.

The medicalization of what is a natural process, (once left entirely in the hands of women, both literally and spiritually) has long been a topic of hot debate, as Block outlines here. Recent movements have (controversially) named “birth rape” as a phenomenon some women experience after acts of obstetric violence have been inflicted upon their bodies during childbirth.  Suffering PTSD after birth has also more recently been acknowledged as an aftereffect of a traumatic birth experience. Then there’s the recent news about how Disney has been barging into the delivery room, another way in which birth has been co-opted for corporate gain.

It’s impossible to not be moved by the testimonies offered in the book — women robbed of a sense of their body’s power, nevermind a profound moment with a new child.  Yet, I am certain many will approach this book with deeply entrenched resistance and even feel enraged by the staunchness of the authors’ position.  A refrain the two insert throughout the text is “What if something goes wrong?” no doubt a line each has been asked continuously.  I found myself wanting to hear this more directly answered, rather than just offered as a rhetorical question.  The stories relayed about home birth don’t all end happily, and the book concludes on a deeply poignant note that offers through example an answer to this question — yes, things can go wrong, but “holding the space” for a woman to meet her child within a sense of connected power is still worthwhile.

It is most difficult to critique Home/Birth as a poem. Collaborative writing doesn’t have a strong tradition within the U.S. and there were moments I wished for more clarity and shape around the narrative(s).  Attention to the line is found most strongly in the interstices between chapters — where the two take phrases previously included and collage them into more precise lines, as in this excerpt:

Never thought this would —

dreamed of —

be my story.

Every child. Changes. You

feel sane, like a witch with her silky moonlight or goddess.

Feel grateful like a feminist, like an activist, like a friend and

the truth is when you saw what you could do —

women watching over —

it changed everything and was safer and feminist

all the drawers and doors and windows

at once and the low noise we make

opening, opening.

I almost longed for Zucker and Greenberg to write a nonfiction book about their experiences rather than knitting the threads of so many others voices together.  Their use of the word “witch” is intriguing, but unclear — is this a straightforward reclamation or modern reconstitution of the word?  Likewise, this is clearly a political topic for both, one that affects a range of women’s health issues, yet I wished their desire to tie this to the feminist movement had been more explicit.  They intersperse T-shirt and bumper sticker slogans about home birth throughout to show both the popular embrace of this movement and counter attitudes to its resistance.  While the phrases are clever and sound lighthearted, (“Childbirth is a natural procedure, not a medical event” “Yes, I gave birth at home.  Now ask your silly questions” and “Peace on earth begins with birth”) they reveal the flame this movement ignites (the countervailing, “Home deliveries are for pizza”).  They serve as poetic tropes of sorts, but I would have liked more rendering of these messages in the poets’ own voices.

Greenberg and Zucker offer a unique pastiche, a chorus of female voices, sometimes speaking simultaneously, sometimes in fugue, as they layer facts, scraps, nuances, and feelings about this topic.  The result is profoundly affecting, and their invention of word “poemic” is the right refraction of polemic, serving as an invented form that allows them to bring their poetic talents to bear about this deeply felt topic.  The book’s opening epigraph by Muriel Rukeyser, “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget,” can also serve as its parting invocation as both authors advocate for remembering what has always been known.

Girl w/Pen friends — it’s been too long!  In keeping with today’s theme so wonderfully explored by Debbie Siegel, here’s my review of my shero Peggy Orenstein’s latest.  This review originally appeared on the Ms. Magazine blog and is re-posted with permission.  For more of Orenstein’s thoughts read my interview with her on SheWrites.

If you’ve been within 50 feet of a 4-year-old girl in the past decade, you can’t have escaped the fact that princess is a booming industry. From T-shirts emblazoned with “princess” to the fad for “makeover” parties to “princess potty seats”, there is no shortage of products with a tiara theme offered to girls. In her excellent new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein writes as a journalist, a mother of an elementary school-age girl and a former girl herself to investigate the explosion of pink “girlie-girl culture.”

Common wisdom would have it that the demand for pink is simply hardwired into girls. Orenstein evaluates this by consulting with neuroscientist and Pink Brain, Blue Brain author Lise Eliot, a proponent of neuroplasticity–the idea that “[inborn traits], gender-based or otherwise, are shaped by our experience.” Eliot’s research shows that, in fact, when kids are tiny, “[they] do not know from pink and blue.” She argues that children don’t begin to label behavior or toys as meant for girls or for boys until between ages 2 and 3, as kids come to understand there are gender differences. It’s also the exact time when they’re handed toys that are gender-specific. In other words, Orenstein writes, “nurture becomes nature.” Boys are blued; girls are pinked.

So if not nature, what’s the force behind all the pinking? The easy answer is money. As one example, the ever-more-present Disney Princesses line grossed $4 billion dollars in 2009. The “father” of that line, Andy Mooney, tells Orenstein, “I wish I could sit here and take credit for having some grand scheme to develop this, but all we did was envision a little girl’s room and think about how she could live out the princess fantasy.” A sales rep at the annual Toy Fair has a more direct answer when Orenstein asks if all this pink is necessary: “Only if you want to make money.”

But even if cash-hungry marketers are pushing pink to rake in profits, there’s another piece to the puzzle: parents who buy the toys for their kids. Orenstein has a deep empathy for the competing pressures they face. She herself doesn’t want to restrict her daughter from choosing her own mode of self-expression–even if that’s a poufy princess dress–but worries that all the marketing itself constricts her daughter’s choices. Instead of the entire rainbow, girls only get to see the pink slice.

Orenstein’s sympathy extends to parents participating in the most extreme “girl-ification”–the pageant parents portrayed on the TV show Toddlers and Tiaras. Visiting a pageant held deep in the hill country of Texas, Orenstein leaves the tiara-fest more ambivalent. She’s not ready to dismiss the parents’ oft-repeated credo that pageants boost their girls’ self-esteem and that it’s okay to tell your daughter that she’s special. She also sees how much much participating in pageants can mean to a family. But it’s clear from her observations that Toddlers and Tiaras is doing its share of harm.

Orenstein mentions how exposés of the show have featured “psychologists who (with good reason) link self-objectification and sexualization to [a] host of ills previously mentioned—eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, impaired academic performance,” often rebutted by the pageant moms, who then defend their actions. And within the book’s first pages Orenstein references the well-respected American Psychological Association’s Report of The Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls which offered hard evidence that an overemphasis on beauty and sexiness made girls vulnerable to problematic behaviors linked to self-objectification.

So how can parents balance these pressures in order to stem the tide of pink? Orenstein leaves the question open, which might frustrate some readers. She muses as she researches, reflects as she consults, and ends the book optimistic but uncertain about how root-level change can be achieved. On her website she’s just launched a “resources” section which offers suggestions of books for kids and parents, recommended shows and films, even a clothing line. Lisa Belkin of “Motherlode” in The New York Times has also responded with a solid list of suggested reading in her column “The Princess Wears Plaid.” Additionally, the Ms. blog offers a list of contemporary retellings of fairy tales and myths from a feminist perspective. All ask readers to chime in with further contributions.

Orenstein has a final, crucial piece of advice: Just say NO to the overpinking. That might seem pat to a frustrated parent–saying no reaches beyond appeasing a demanding child to refusing cultural edicts that seem to whisper and shout from every side. Awareness is your best line of defense, Orenstein insisted in dialogue with Lori Gottlieb at a recent L.A. talk, as she repeated, “You just say NO.”

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For those who care about the po’ biz, as the “business” side of the poetry world is sometimes called, the details of who gets published, how, when, and why, often seem to be of utmost significance. Although this might be a small subset, it’s heartening to see how many others are tracking and fighting for better gender parity within publishing now. And for those who like to dig into gender theory, especially the exploration of what Helene Cixous coined “l’ecriture feminine,” it’s gratifying to know these debates are still active. Finding a book that addresses all of these issues serves not only as an exemplar of hybridity but also as a daring act of new publishing practice.

Feminaissance: A Book of Tiny Revolts, edited by Christine Wertheim, just out from Les Figues Press, serves all these purposes. For one, it acts as a journal from the conference of similar name (Feminaissance: A Colloquium on Women, Writing, Experiments, and Feminism) held in 2007 at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. For another, it offers not only innovative writing from intriguing poets, but each offers commentary about what it means to be a woman writing now. Some essays grapple with Cixous’s idea of l’ecriture feminine and what it means to “write as a woman”; some offer a meta-level response through the work itself.

“Another anthology of women’s writing!” is how Wertheim wryly starts out her dedication, followed by the inevitable rhetorical question, “Don’t we live in a post-gendered, post-subjective age where isolating the work of specifically defined groups is outmoded?” Her answer comes in the book’s subtitle, taken from contributor Dodie Bellamy’s piece that “grand revolutions are passé” but, as Bellamy writes, “tiny revolts” are still necessary. Wertheim offers that this book is meant to serve as a “display of the many different avant-garde experimental, innovative and conceptual modes that women themselves conceive.” Issues explored include “whether there can be specifically ‘feminine’ forms of text; the economic position of women as writers in the academy and marketplace; mothers, real, symbolic, and imaginary; questions of aesthetics and representation in relation to women’s work” and more.

While all of these questions are vital, and the work of Les Figues is both exciting and crucial, the volume itself requires either a natural ADD-like ability to accrete meaning from scattered forms, or earnest retraining in how to read a text, an admirable challenge, but one that most readers are not likely to bother with. I applaud the subjects addressed in this volume, and the quality of deep thought that most (but not all) offer in their responses, but the material book’s construction, an act of innovative publishing, made it difficult to absorb the texts.

Each page in Feminaissance is divided into three sections, with the author identified in a tiny vertical byline in the page’s margins. Until I caught on to this, I kept trying to read down the page, puzzled by the glitches in sequence.  As the publishers and editor write in the forward this allows for “multiple reading strands on each page” and “uses the space of the page as a visual arena for a public conversation.” By allowing, as they write, for “multi-vocality” they enable different styles of reading, both discursive and narrative as well as, they write, and “a more poetic meditation.” I admire this, but also found it detracted from the power of the authors.

The contribution most compelling to me is one that rippled before the book came out, stirring new controversy into a sadly evergreen debate. The essay “Numbers Trouble” co-written by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young was published, post-conference, in the Chicago Review. Their essay was a response to a previous article (Jennifer Ashton’s “Our Bodies, Our Poems” published in American Literary History) which contended, (in brief summary), that gender parity is no longer an issue within publishing, writing programs, etc., and that commitment to a “notion of difference” is essentializing and regressive. Spahr and Young confront Ashton’s notions of parity by literally counting pages and the result is dismaying. Things are, in fact, worse than they thought in terms of female representation in literary journals. (Much of this debate, including Ashton’s rebuttal, is collected at this site by scrolling down to “Gender.”)

When they published their essay the poetry world bristled at claims of sexism. I find their research admirable and their outrage constrained, given their findings. The essay authored just by Spahr (“Gender Trouble” a nod to Judith Butler’s book) is also a lucidly sobering recounting of gender performance and politics inside the creative writing program Spahr attended from 1989-1995, with its concomitant issues of power around gender representation within academe, (“the heroic male literary tradition”) mentorship and publishing, and then, full circle, who gets hired to start the cycle over again. Spahr and Young’s essay canvasses the whole of the book, in a two-line couplet-like form that looks like a running headline. Intrigued, I paged onward almost as if gleaning a story from a flip book, but couldn’t take in their whole meaning until I printed the essay whole.

The mix of poems included is admirable, although some are less successful than others. I found Wanda Coleman’s poem “Rape” (which I heard her read at the LACE book party) to be baffling to comprehend in tone. The essay by poet Tracie Morris (“Embracing Form: Pedagogical Sketches of Black Women Students Influenced by Hip Hop”) was especially interesting for its intersectional address of race and gender, as well as interplay of music and poem, with reference to contemporary performing artists and her breakdown into “craft specifics.”  Some of the more innovative styles, such as work by publisher Vanessa Place, and certainly, editor Christine Wertheim’s visual poems, are an acquired taste, undoubtedly most appreciated by those fully engaged in avant-garde aesthetics. I had the pleasure of hearing Wertheim “read” one of her poems at the book’s debut and her vocalizations were astounding, but without this rendering, the poem’s dimensionality on the page loses a reverberation of meaning.

“Where are the Whitmans? The Steins?” asks Lidia Yuknavitch in an epigraph. This is a book ripe for a graduate school classroom and I wished I had a cohort of poets and academics to hash through it with, particularly to discuss the issues raised around gender identity, essentialism, and how l’ecriture feminine can be understood currently, nevermind is bounded by race, class, and other markers. It is successful in drawing attention to critical issues, both theoretical, aesthetic, and practical, about women’s writing. What it is not is easy to absorb, something I don’t think its editor or contributors will mind in the least.

This phrase, coined by Sharon Cameron for the title of her book about Emily Dickinson’s fascicles (the sewn bundles of folded poems found after her death) references Dickinson’s refusal to abide by the conventional poetic prosody of her time, and through her creation of the fascicles, her rejection of set sequencing of her work.

A little over a century later, New Yorker Rachel Lehmann-Haupt chronicles how contemporary women are eschewing linear expectations for family-building and creating innovative combinations of choice. The stakes couldn’t be more different, but this phrase (choosing not choosing) — about Dickinson’s deliberate resistance to restriction into categories — strangely fits as Lehmann-Haupt navigates the channels, islands, and walking-off-the-edge-of-known-territory-into-new-frontiers changes with reproductive options.

In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment, and Motherhood recounts Lehmann-Haupt’s reach toward motherhood.  She details her relationships, some pulsing with hope they will lead to a walk down the aisle, some clearly just had for fun, but all viewed through the lens of wanting a child and cognizant of her likely decline in ability and aching increase in awareness of these limits.  She interweaves personal narrative with factual research and first-hand interviews as she educates herself about freezing her eggs, freezing embryos, single motherhood, donor eggs, donor sperm, and the attendant issues each topic brings – ethical, scientific, financial – and how this clashes with the still-longed-for- “dream.” She explores the consequences of creating an “insta-family” as women (and some men interviewed) grapple with dating and mating under the pressures of time.

Her voice is engaging, although some of the boyfriends grow tiresome. Lehmann-Haupt thinks so too, hence the succession as she also winnows down to what she most wants.  I found the book most rewarding when she’s not recounting the quirks of her dates or her busy, jetsetting life, but rather working hard to compress the vagaries of all the reproductive options now available.  I wished she would linger longer on the knottier topics that these choices generate.

There is “Luc” who thoughtfully donates sperm and is thrilled to meet the woman who will receive it, yet who becomes far less enchanted when he learns she plans to offer up extra frozen embryos for “adoption” to other families he won’t have the chance to know.  Or the doctor who suggests that while reproductive technology can extend the fertility shelf life for many women (at great price), why not work to undermine the system that tells women they should focus on their careers and delay childbearing in sync with their male counterparts?  Or the 46-year-old woman who has twins through donor sperm and donor egg but admits she could have been just as happy never having kids.  I hoped Lehmann-Haupt would dig deeper into these contradictions, but the book skates back to her dating life and internal wrestling with risk, reality, and wistfulness.  When the scientific facts square off with ethics and are then pressed through the powerful feelings her interviewees express, Lehmann-Haupt’s acuity is at its best.

“I don’t like not getting what I want,” says one woman interviewed by Lehmann-Haupt about her decision to become a single mother by choice.  And she realizes she feels the same way too.  While “choice” has become a highly charged word for women, “options” and wanting to keep them open, seems far less loaded.  Lehmann-Haupt ultimately decides to freeze her eggs to keep her reproductive potential likely available for longer into the future, despite knowing the success rates with pregnancy from frozen eggs are still quite variable.  In this thoughtful book, Lehmann-Haupt grapples with what “having it all”– or at least trying to – means when modern technology can make the path to motherhood wider or longer, and realizes glad as she is for this, she also really wants a partner to travel beside her. “But nature, in the end, will decide whether I have children or not; science can go only so far,” she writes towards the book’s end.   Her story starts when Lehmann-Haupt is in her early 30s; she finishes it on the cusp of 40, older, wiser, and leavened with the sobering sagacity more knowledge often brings.

My thoughts have very much been with Girl w/Penner Alison Piepmeier these past few weeks, in part because of what she is going through as she wrote about here, and in part because I’ve so enjoyed reading her latest book, Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism.  Published by NYU Press this past fall, it is a significant contribution, wonderfully well written.  Comprehensive in tracing the history of girls’ involvement with zines, Piepmeier shows the significance of how zines function as an activist, feminist space.  Through her analysis, Piepmeier offers that “considered collectively, zines are sites for the articulation of a vernacular third wave feminist theory.  Grrrl zines offer idiosyncratic, surprising, yet savvy and complex responses to the late twentieth-century incarnations of sexism, racism, and homophobia.”

Her meticulous research is organized into five chapters – each exploring an aspect of zines’ history and use. Piepmeier gives an overview of the legacy of “grrrl zines” and their use by third wavers, then moves into the special joys the materiality of zines offers, particularly in contrast to the virtual world.  She analyzes how zines explore gender expectations, sexuality, motherhood, and intersectional identities through writing and drawing about topics such as body image, naming and calling out injustice, struggles with relationships and sexuality, in addition to creating visions for the future.  Finally, she offers a reading of zines as a “public pedagogy of hope” considering how zines are spaces of activism and agents of change.

Piepmeier is adept at revealing the incredible uniqueness of the zine as an active space for women and girls — a locus to work out identity, talk back to the presumptions of the mainstream media, contest heteronormative representations, and unleash anger, frustration, and an urge for change.  Her reading of zines as material artifacts of a generation’s grappling with cultural and political ideology becomes fascinating as these handmade artifact accrue meaning collectively.

What becomes progressively more mesmerizing is the revelation of how many levels at which the zine can function.  A handmade object, its value is held, in part, from the intimacy of containing the literal impressions of the hand that made it, then sent through the mail (almost old-fashioned now) with personalized attention, to be read individually.  Piepmeier points out the zine’s foremother in the scrapbook, then second wave’s move to the mimeograph machine, as part of a legacy of spaces where women collect images, preserve thoughts, and by taking the reins of independent printing also unleash words that might not otherwise be said, often around sexual abuse or identity, or dialogues that deviate from an omnipresenent cultural script.  Particularly interesting is watching the progression of Bitch magazine from its original zine roots in 1996 to its present-day incarnation with a major distributor as it straddled “zine and magazine status.”

This open space — standing outside “traditional” publishing practices of the magazine aimed at the teen girl, releases in zinesters an empowering sense of being able to say whatever they want, and unmasks worlds of emotion, rhetorics of protest, and concern with the micropolitical that uniquely combine in this format.  As Piepmeier details, the intersection of text and image, and a consequent sense of invention allows zinesters to query a multiplicity of issues through use of “flux, contradiction, and fragmentation” as she writes, using the zine as a space to both experiment and to creatively play.

Also conveyed is the sense of deep satisfaction zine-makers feel with their creations; by constructing their zines so they construct their subjectivities. Piepmeier writes, “I suggest that the physical act of creating a zine locates zine creators in their bodies… and the act of reading does the same thing for the reader, and thus they are brought into an embodied community.”  Her reading of these zines makes visible the palimpsest zinesters are writing over a cultural preset of female identity as zinesters articulate their outlooks, wounds, and joys.  This deeply affecting work collectively yields a deep effect – just like Piepmeier’s important book.

When people solidly in middle age write memoirs most often they have had unusual lives.  Or — better yet — they’re about to flee from ordinariness into a major life change, or they’re writing about the aftershocks from a sudden jolt.  Melanie Gideon, in her memoir The Slippery Year, fits none of these categories. Half Armenian, half-Indian, she is the middle-class daughter of a pediatrician and a psychiatric nurse raised comfortably with three sisters in Rhode Island.  Now married with a 9-year-old child and settled in the Oakland Hills, she’s a mother in the carpool lane, a wife who resents her husband’s snoring, a reluctant member of a women-only dinner group who buckles under the pressure of what gourmet dish to bring.  And she’s floating in the middle of an existential “Is this all there is and how do you know?” fog that she can’t wipe out of her eyes.

Yet when she squints at the bleary outlines intense humor, sardonic wit, and an almost sentimental angst seeps out.  “I did not have cancer.  My parents had not abused me.  I was in a good marriage to a kind man,” writes Gideon in her introduction as an apologia for the sense of quotidian disappointment and dysphoric angst she constantly feels.  The “slip” that serves as a touchstone throughout the book is a sense of meaningfulness sliding out from under her guise as a modern-day mother entrapped with privilege and accomplishment.

This would be sobering, a kind of pre-“Richard Cory” glance to see what’s lurking inside the minivan if Gideon wasn’t so damn funny.  Blessed and cursed by the fact that she’s deeply aware, she first chronicled the burr of her husband’s impulse purchase of a camper in the New York Times’ Modern Love column and in this book she expands.  Quite literally.  She blows up details of her Bay area life to comic effect, and after letting the air out settles into an almost poetic realization of what her life really is.

In a hilarious passage she describes the tortoise-like pace of shoppers having a “lifestyle experience” at her local Trader Joe’s and how this irks her.  While walking fast in San Francisco she is stopped by someone proselytizing the “Slowmandments” as part of a goal to make San Francisco “an official Slow City.”  Gideon’s response is that the thought of San Francisco being any slower than it already was – “was terrifying.” She replies that he has clearly mistaken her for a native Californian but then feels guilty she’s rebuffed his message. At Chez Panisse in Berkeley she looks for secret messages in her menu since she is so bereft she’s not having an orgasmic food experience like everyone else.

“At forty-four, I feel the current of that river pulling at me,” Gideon writes, “I am one of six and a half billion people currently taking their turn at being alive on this planet” and then she riffs on soccer-parent politics. It’s too flip to call Gideon a postmodern Erma Bombeck – the world is too changed from that era, the jar between generations too rife. But her humor, sense of modern-day ennui, and intense wit settle into a Rothko-like layering where she stares into the lack and creates an atmosphere dark with depth and poignancy. Gideon wades around in the muck of her well-appointed life but messy psyche to create a likeable character grappling sharply with issues of purpose, how to both nurture and let go of her son, know if she’s in love enough, deal with their beloved dog’s remains, weigh risk over safety and feel guilty because she takes this measure.

One critique is that I wish Gideon could show more courage.  Also the author of two children’s books she’s obviously a talented writer who makes no mention of her ambitions.  She is willing to discount her strengths in a way that translates as honest and humble, but also unfairly self-deprecating. Striking is her willingness to indict her own misgivings and chronic worry which makes the moments of happiness, when they float by, the more startling. Her son, Ben, emerges as the book’s mini-Zen philosopher.  In response to hearing his mother explain, “The sky is falling,” he reframes this as “the sky is calling.”  Gideon’s devotion toward her son, and her sense of unbearable grief that he will one day grow up and leave (foreshadowed in a hysterical recollection of his week away at soccer camp) catch up all of the book’s themes in a Gordian Knot of incurable feeling.

“My friends and I search for our lost selves everywhere” she writes, “Where is that plucky girl, that lustful teenager, that optimistic young woman, that tenderhearted young mother?”  “Occasionally, if we are lucky,” she writes, “we catch a glimpse of the woman we are becoming… the one who has been aging gracefully inside of us. She is more than her body.  She is more than her face.” By making the book’s subtitle “a meditation on happily ever after” she outlays its thematic reach – to set thinking against fairy tale, set reality against wistfulness, and the flip of finding her younger self’s aspirations set against the woman she now is.

Powder book trailer

“The future will be gorgeous and reckless, and words, those luminous charms, will set us free again.”  This dazzling quote by Carole Maso serves as the epigraph to Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, and reflects one of the book’s central intentions — the power of using words to cast light on often dark subjects.  The phrase is also a motto of sorts for Kore Press, a literary press in Tucson, AZ deeply committed to publishing and promoting women authors.  At a time when lack of attention to female authors is a justifiably hot topic this book and Kore’s mission is as vital as ever.

The word “powder” evokes a range of nuances — face powder, baby powder, gun powder, the powdery sand of the desert, the rubbled powder left by a blast. As the editors point out, the word “POW” also lurks within.  This moving and deeply original collection is shadowed by the thought that any powder’s fine particles indicate disintegration. The contributors have sifted through the remains of their experiences to find the precious grains within. Powder offers rare insight into the lives of women in the military, acutely highlighting the tensions between speaking and silence, being female in a heavily masculinized realm, the fraught desire to serve one’s country while often marginalized by the very institution to which these women want to be loyal.

Admirably far-ranging in locations, time frames, and wars represented, the book’s rawest power comes from hearing the women’s voices in concert. Unusual within the genre of anthology, instead of a brief bio at the book’s end, each contributor receives a full page with a photo and a paragraph explaining her motivation for joining the military, what she gained or lost, and answers if she would serve again.  In correspondence with her creative work, these mini-autobiographies highlight the contrast between civilian and solider selves, revealing a compellingly reflective aftermath. Some recount horrors experienced, some moments of unexpected tenderness, some furor at the injustice they saw.  Dr. Donna Dean writes of enlisting before Vietnam when the only jobs open to women seemed “killingly boring” and her now unrelenting PTSD.  Some express motivation to use writing for therapeutic purposes and several have impressive MFA degrees.

The writing is viscerally felt, and has been receiving great attention, as contributors describe wartime horrors, both large and small, often what it is like to feel powerful then powerless in quick succession as they reveal the stringencies and rigor of the military, its entrenched sexism and often disdain for woman within its system. The book’s glossary decodes that “WM” stands for Women Marines, but more than one story reveals this is popularly defined as “Whatta Mistake” or “Wasted Money.” The tension between the obedience the military demands and the need to give voice to personal witness is strong.

In the brief chapter “Enemy in the Ranks” Christy L. Clothier gives a harrowing account of attempted rape, along with subsequent trial and the anguishing resistance to prosecution she encounters.  Her piece ends with her poignant recollection of her second day of basic training and how empowering it felt to scream, particularly after surviving domestic abuse as a military wife when she had learned “never to yell.” She writes, “it was the first time I had heard my voice sound strong.”  Her story is followed by the poem “Yes, Sir!” in which Elizabeth Keough McDonald writes about the uncomfortable feeling of being the only woman in a group enduring a sexual joke and consequent abuses of power.

The simplicity of Rachel Vigil’s list poem “Gear Up” details the equipment she carried (divided by body part) and her later inclusion of untranslated lines of Arabic in her poem, “Stay in Your Lane” recounts being asked to translate not only language but the cultural differences between a “poor man’s situation” in Cairo to “well-fed soldiers.” There is the surprise of comic moments as Sharon D. Allen describes a group of Iraqi solders singing with gusto the Beatles’ “Let it Be” with the lyrics “Little Pea…”

K.G. Schneider’s elegant meditation “Falling In” describes the lingua franca of being a new recruit until her voice blends into a “pastiche that served me well across five tours on four continents over eight years, a pleasant mutt accent that trotted after me into civilian life.”  There is the shock of Terry Hurley sitting in her peaceful sunroom pulling out her “Dead Iraqi Album” — purchased in Kuwait for $5.00 and given to her as a gift — which shows bodies “burnt and blown apart” as she negotiates the sharp contrast between how the images made her feel then and now.  She keeps it “a symbol of my survival” she writes, but also as “a reminder of what human beings are capable of” — a heavy portent to the past.  The harrowing poem “35 x 36” by Khadijah Queen mirrors “The Joust” by Judith K. Boyd, both offer searing portraits of the experience of being under attack.  Boyd’s opening image describes a dream in which an Iraqi woman approaches her Humvee with a sick baby outstretched in her arms.

In the book’s introduction editors Lisa Bowden and Shannon Cain make clear their purpose in giving a forum to these women so often unheard no one realizes they are absent. Setting aside their own biases they want to amplify these voices and “insist upon their place in a long and nuanced literature of war and peace.” Journalist Helen Benedict writes in her foreward, “Female soldiers have had trouble being listened to for a long time,” and recounts a veterans’ event in New York City where she spots a lone woman whose refrain is “Nobody believes me.  Nobody listens.”

The book has spawned a one-woman play “Coming in Hot” (explained in the book as code for “dangerous and intense, as under enemy fire”) which played to great acclaim in Tucson this fall.  On its blog contributors continue to write about their experiences, and there are images from the book’s launch on Veteran’s Day at various locales, including the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. A testament to the power of story, of poetry, and of survival, the contributors’ words take what is burned into memory and make their words explode off the page.