Poetry Contest Winner Anne Marie Rooney: On Reading Women Writers
For the past year I’ve been reading nothing but women writers. Well, almost nothing—a couple of weeks ago I found a book of Dennis Cooper essays at a small and wonderful bookstore across the street from Zabar’s, and those have been keeping me very happy. And I read a certain bibliophile’s-wet-dream-of-a-bestseller within days. But these digressions aside, it’s been women, and it’s been a world.
This is staunchly intentional. Call it a syllabus of my own devising. For I’ve realized that though I’ve been in school for most of my life, and a lover of books for just as long, all talk of literature and learning has, still, left me wanting for a viable example: how to live life as a writer? As a woman writer? As a feminist writer? As a queer writer? As Adrienne Rich reminds us, our lens, our qualifiers, our “address” in this world only get more particular from here. How to point home?
A teacher once told me to find my literary family. “Who are your kin?” she asked. Pause. I answered Mary Ruefle, who has long been one of my favorite poets. But even so, this quick name didn’t feel quite right. In the basement of the library, later, looking, I found a book: Angry Women. Clearly it was coming home with me. An interview in, I realized I had to own it. And how many paths it’s since set me on.
At present: I have a shelf next to my bed. Actually, it is more like a window sill. (It is a window sill.) I keep on it books that are today inspiring me, inciting me, occupying me in some way. Books I want to read, and books I want to want to read, and am hoping their proximity to my head as I’m sleeping will somehow seep the impoetus in.
About these books I think slightly obsessive things. About their content, yes, of course, but also, less obviously, about their order, my arrangement thereof. I wonder what Eileen Myles and Lidia Yuknavitch have to say, spines spooning each other, how Erika Lopez and Kate Zambreno riff and spit and get tangled in each other’s sentences at night.
These wonderings and wanderings excite me. What returns me to my (productive) anger is: why, for all my education, haven’t I read these writers earlier? Because I’ve needed them. As a woman, a teacher, a feminist, a poet. In their pages I feel so much closer to home, to first love. There are countless others, on the sill shelf, still in the library, and therein lies the excitement, again, that bright countlessness.
I want to say something about sadness. We have all felt it. Some of us have felt it moreso. The world is terrifying until you realize that there are people, like you, who have come before you, who you are heir to. It is a little less terrifying once you start to find them. When it comes to depression, “a little less” matters. For my part, I know now that I need to seek these writers out, to speak gratitude, to speak up. I also know that it can be horribly essentializing to assume an affinity born solely from gender. But I am interested in reading the rifts. I have always defined feminism as large, rich, full of contradiction. I believe, whole-heart, in this messiness.
My poems “Why the heart slows” and “What the heart recovers” speak to grief. The women writers I’m reading—most of them living, all of them vital—speak to it, too, just as they speak against and out of it. They move me, amaze me, make me start in my sleep. Start. Tell me yours.