The following is a guest post by poet Moira Egan (read assistant poetry editor Alicia K. Padovich’s 2012 interview with Moira):
A long time ago, in a poetic galaxy far, far away, a manuscript of mine was nominated for a chapbook competition. I was a young poet – well, it seems young to me now – I was 32. And although, at that time, I was still casting about to find my voice, many of the poems from this chapbook manuscript actually did end up in my first book, Cleave (published when I was 42).
The time came for the “outside” judge – a well-known poet who had published several books and won quite a few major prizes – to make his final decision. He called the arts organization and told them which one he’d chosen. “But,” he asked, “is there a runner-up or honorable mention prize, because I feel quite strongly about another manuscript as well.”
The arts administrator, with whom I was friendly, and who later told me this tale, said, “Well, in fact we don’t, but we certainly can if you feel strongly about this manuscript. Which one was it?”
The judge said the title of my manuscript. “Oh, wonderful! She will be so pleased to hear this!” said my friendly arts administrator.
“SHE?” asked the famous judge. “That book was written by a woman???”
The person who won first place, and thus publication of the chapbook, was indeed a woman. She was a much more advanced and accomplished poet than I, and I was truly happy for her and her terrific book. But my friends began to giggle when I told them the story. “Aha,” many said, “he thought he was being ‘P.C.’ and choosing the woman over the man! Except, you’re the man!”
So when I stood up to read at the celebratory event, I prefaced my poems with this: “And in case you were wondering, I am not now nor have I ever been – a man.” Those in the audience who were in on the “joke” laughed uproariously; those who were not were, well, quite confused.
But what was it in that manuscript that caused this judge to assume that its author was male? There is one poem that is spoken in the voice of a rather heart-broken man. Another is spoken in the voice of a lesbian. Both are, for all intents and purposes, persona poems, though I didn’t come out and name them as such. There was one retelling the story of Eve; she got so bored with all that perfection that she just had to bust out of that cloying garden. There’s another in the voice of Leda, post-divine assignation, and frankly, she’s missing that swan a little, wishing that her husband King Tyndareus possessed a little more oomph. “Lady Godiva” uses the image of that noblewoman, naked on the horse, to explore various cravings, as well as formative sexual experiences (“rolling in the hay,” quite literally).
In a similar vein, there’s a speaker who longs for someone to tie her up and tie her down; that poem is called “Metaphysical Bondage.” Metaphysical. It’s mostly a metaphor. But in a dissimilar vein, there are several elegies for the speaker’s father, who has died much too young, leaving in his wake both nostalgia and rancor. The voices speaking these poems are by turns tough and tender, sweet and sarcastic, ballsy and deeply blue (by which I mean sad, not pornographic, though this voice is certainly not shy when it comes to sex). Sometimes it’s angry, at other times, accepting. To me (and to many others) it seemed pretty clearly to be a feminine voice that liked to play around (in all senses of the phrase). This is another way of saying that I believe that it’s every poet’s right, in her verse, to be perverse.
While I was formulating these thoughts and questions, I happened upon – on Facebook, of course, source of so much cultural criticism, just at the moment when you need it – a piece by Sophia McDougall on the New Statesman: “I hate Strong Female Characters”. Read the piece in its entirety; it’s well worth it (and it’s written by someone much younger than I, so its cultural allusions are much more hip than I could ever dream of being at this moment).
What she says about Sherlock Holmes resonated with my thoughts about why, in that book, my voice had been mistaken for that of a “male poet”: “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius.”
Now, I’m not saying that my voice was all of those things, but it’s a list of characteristics that would do Keats and his “negative capability” proud. It’s a list that, if not in its particulars, then certainly in its breadth, would suit any well-developed character – real, completely imagined, or “persona” in the sense of walking the fine line between “author” and “projection of author onto page.”
How am I ever going to wrap this back to “feminism,” you might well be wondering. The useful dictionary in my Mac gives me this:
feminism |ˈfeməˌnizəm| noun
ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from French féminisme.
the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.
And I would add to that: personal, poetic, sexual, and imaginative equality to men. Why did that famous poet assume that my book had been written by a man? Those two misleading, gender- or preference-bending poems aside, over the years, many people have said to me that the forceful or even aggressive nature of the voice must have thrown him off. “Women don’t write like that.”
To that I say, quoting another contemporary icon known for defying certain cultural expectations: “Oh yes, they bloody well do.”
Moira Egan’s poetry collections are Hot Flash Sonnets (Passager Books, 2013); Spin (Entasis Press, 2010, for whom she also co-edited Hot Sonnets, 2011); Bar Napkin Sonnets (The Ledge Chapbook Competition, 2009); La Seta della Cravatta/The Silk of the Tie (Edizioni l’Obliquo, 2009); and Cleave (WWPH, 2004). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in the U.S. and abroad, including Best American Poetry 2008 and Lewis Turco’s most recent edition of The Book of Forms. With Damiano Abeni, she has published more than a dozen books in translation in Italian, by authors such as Barth, Bender, Ferlinghetti, Hecht, Strand, Tey, and John Ashbery, whose collection, Un mondo che non può essere migliore: Poesie scelte 1956-2007, won a Special Prize of the Premio Napoli (2009). She has been a Mid Atlantic Arts Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; Writer in Residence at St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, Malta; a Writing Fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Center; and a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. She lives in Rome, and teaches literature and creative writing.