On The “Angry Feminist” Speaker in the Workshop Poem

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Preface: I’m writing here about my own lived experience. I’m also writing to explore poems in general, gender in general, the workshop structure in general, not as implications of my own colleagues. (Just to preemptively address the upset I’m sure is coming.)

So, preface over.

The last two weeks of workshop have gotten me thinking about how gender comes into play in terms of how readers read. These were two of the most frustrating, empty workshops of my life–my workshop this week was blazed through & I left with nothing to cling to, no idea of where to go from there. I understand that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes when it comes to workshop. Sometimes you have bad readers, sometimes workshop has an off week, sometimes you walk out feeling like you got nothing. It happens.

But my bothered-ness is more on an intellectual level than an emotional one. A] there are complex gender issues at play here & B] these are the kinds of poems I’m working on right now–& working toward a chapbook with, ideally–so I’m going to keep “alienating” my readers with them. The poems are aggressive, I know this. They are from the perspective of female speakers who are directly confronting issues of misogyny & patriarchy. My speaker this week was labeled “intense,” “obsessive,” “angry.” I received the comment that (male) readers were “unable to deal with” the phrase “onslaught of shame.” I was told that it was “too heavy” to use & repeat certain “loaded” words.

Here’s the thing–my speaker is intense, obsessive, & angry. Just like I am. I’m writing these poems because I’m sick of misogyny. I am sick of trying to theorize it away & have congenial conversations about it. I’m sick of explaining how misogyny makes me feel, & how certain actions are misogynistic. It’s not my job to teach men how they’re being misogynistic. So yeah, these poems are sometimes “heavy” & “loaded.” They address rape & objectification & abuse & silence. They address shame & desire & depression & everything else that goes into being a woman.

I’m not concerned about pandering to readers who would never buy my book anyway. I’m just intellectually curious about how patriarchal assumptions about what’s “okay” for a female poet/female speaker to say (& moreover, how it’s okay for her to say it) influence what’s considered good poetry. Perhaps this comes down to the workshop structure–something I think most of us can agree is fundamentally flawed. Is it valuable for female poets who write directly about misogyny to hear what male readers think is “too much?” Maybe it’s valuable inasmuch as that’s the direction our work should (ugh, not “should” but what’s the word here?) be pushed?

Based upon workshop, it seems the concern is that my speaker is too indulgent. It makes me think of THIS essay I wrote about Louise Gluck–so many (male) readers/critics are quick to dismiss her because she’s “too much.” Is it indulgent to hone in on a lived experience that’s minimized & silenced by society at large? Is it indulgent to depict it angrily & dramatically? Can’t things like loaded words & repetition & “indulgent” I-statements & implication of the reader accurately depict the experience of being a woman? My speaker gets to come at the reader–either narratively or mimetically–because that’s kind of the point of these poems. I feel attacked & uncomfortable every day. If a reader feels attacked & uncomfortable while he’s reading a feminist poem that challenges his position of privilege… isn’t that a good thing?

I was so frustrated when I left workshop that I asked for readers on Facebook. The interesting thing is that most of the people who replied, willing to give feedback, were women. And their feedback was largely positive–there were line edits & revision suggestions, of course, but on the whole, it was well-received by female readers. The most impactful comment I got was from a female reader who said, “This really resonates with me.” Maybe that’s how I should be judging the success of a series of outright feminist poems.

But isn’t that frustrating? To say that because certain poems confront the patriarchy, they will be limited to a female readership? Do we have to, as readers, relate to a poem in order to appreciate it or gain some kind of insight or experience from it? That’s already been considered HERE & HERE, amongst other places, but I admit that I find myself challenged in terms of relatability. As I packed up my bookshelves a couple of weeks ago, I noticed the fact that I own hardly any poetry books by men. All of my favorite poets are women. If you were to ask me about what poets were doing the most transgressive work, the most innovative work, the most socially relevant & emotionally impactful work, I’d give you a list of names–probably all women.

Does that make me a hypocrite to freely admit that I prefer to read female poets, but then express concern about my work struggling to find a male audience? I’m not concerned what any damn men think about anything I write/say/do/am, but I am concerned that my work will be passed off as not good because it’s “too much,” because I have a speaker–like Gluck’s–who (sometimes violently) refuses to bow down to gendered expectations.

I think this is where the general workshop structure comes into play. So much of the conversation is about I (don’t) like this / This is a (not) good poem / I (don’t) get this / I (don’t) get what’s happening here / etc. But are those conversations even relevant? Especially when workshop readers bring ways of reading to the table that are based upon their respective subjectivities, & those subjectivities are fundamentally at odds with the poem’s/speaker’s goals?

If the poems are aiming to express an explicitly female experience, especially from a perspective that is okay with actively implicating men, & male readers largely resist/dislike the poem, does that mean the poem is a failure or the poem is successful? That’s where I’m struggling. I don’t have any answers, but am definitely curious what others think…

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