On Being a Woman Poet

Why did I pursue this idea of being a poet? A woman poet? What is a poet? What is a woman? Both of those words (Woman. Poet.) invoke different ideals and meanings – it depends on who you ask, on who asks the question.

I read a tweet recently that said (I am paraphrasing) you can’t gender label yourself ‘woman’ unless you embody the characteristic of always caring for someone else before yourself. The person tweeting was making the point that woman are generally socialised in this way. Is this what characterises a woman?

The answer is an emphatic no. By defining women (or men) in a particular way is to box them in. This leads to generalised simplistic thinking: if you are a women you must love shopping and spa treatments and the colour pink. (I am not arguing that there are not feminine or masculine ways of being – but these are rooted in energies and are NOT gender specific).

Our definition of what it means to be a woman is rooted in a patriarchy that doesn’t believe women’s voices, women’s bodies and women’s issues are topics that are important in serious literature. Look at the backlash that occurred when Sarah Howe won the TS Eliot prize in 2015 and the furore that the publication of a poem titled ‘Breasts’ (Kutti Revathi) created in Tamil in 2010.

There are many woman writers who define themselves by their craft of writing only and have eschewed the label of woman writer. They want to be seen as a writer only. Many women have published as men – George Eliot and the Bronte sisters are examples of this – so that their work will be taken seriously. Many women writers choose to publish under genderless names or use initials only.

Why then do I claim the title of women writer? Or more specifically woman poet? I claim this title because my poetic voice arises out of the roles that I play or have played in life: woman, friend, lover, wife, daughter, aunt, writer, poet, worker, seeker. My poems are about identity and experiences as a woman – because that it how I have been gendered and this is where my experiences come from.

I write about romantic relationships: falling in love, falling out of love, being in love from a woman’s perspective. I write about women’s bodies and their experiences of sex. I write to examine reality and also to create a space for woman’s voices that may not have been heard. My voice is a woman’s voice.

When I read my more risqué poetry to an audience I am called ‘brave’. I am taken aback when people say this – because I don’t know how to write any differently.  I don’t know how to have a different voice. Am I seen as ‘brave’ because women are not expected to be raunchy? or express sexual desire?

I wrote my first poem in my head when I was about nine or ten, skipping down the road. ‘And it was at that age …/ poetry arrived in search of me’ as Neruda says in his poem Poetry. I didn’t take my poetry seriously until I was in my thirties and living in London. Everyday I was confronted with advertisements for the London Poetry School (now called simply The Poetry School). My inner voice said to me ‘if you don’t start taking your poetry seriously now you never will’  (After that first skipping poem I started a journal at 15 and continued to write poetry but never showed it to anyone).

Since then and with strong female encouragement and support I have published two collections, published in various journals and anthologies – the latest called Hallelujah for 50ft Women (Bloodaxe Books) – which is a celebration of women writing about female bodies. Every poem I have published is a result of hard work – working hard at my craft as a poet and working hard at getting my work out there into the world

The question I now ask myself is – how do I continue to write poetry and call myself a poet? A woman poet? I write these words down and they feel strange. I am middle-aged and instead of feeling more settled I feel more distant from my own life and also from the world around me. What is next?

Maureen Murdock in The Heroine’s Journey (1990: Shambhala) believes that women’s current role in the world is ‘to heal the split that tells us that our knowings, wishes, and desires are not as important nor as valid as those of the dominant male culture’.

Jeanette Winterson adds to this when she says ‘why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself? ‘*

The truth is feminism is needed more than ever. We need women’s voices. We need their stories. As Claire Vaye Watkins says ‘Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better’. **


* Why be happy when you could be normal (2011: Jonathan Cape)

** ”On Pandering” http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/41314/on-pandering.html

P.S. Also read Margie Orford’s piece on The Tyranny of Biology Needs to Change