Filed under: Interview, Poetry, Post by: Sarah M, Post by: Sheila M, Reviews
Sheila: Why is feminism important to you? What does it mean to you?
Sarah: Feminism is responsibility. I believe that I am responsible for being an effective advocate. Like Steinem, I think that a “feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” Being a feminist means subverting an accepted culture of silence. As such, feminism is vital to creating civic-minded, educated humans and consumers. I spend a great deal of time thinking about ways to win hearts and minds. I lesson plan and write and start conversations and show my face in my community. I support other feminists— I think we have a duty to be role models for young women and men. I am painfully aware of my words and actions and how they impact those around me. I am overwhelmed by the cultural backlash to feminism that surrounds us on a daily basis: reality television, violent and degrading (always present) pornography, the Republican’s war on reproductive freedom, etc. It is important for me to remember that I am (we are) the example. People are always watching us. We are educators and guides, and being a feminist means having integrity. It means being in healthy relationships. It means modeling how to be with a respectful partner. Having self worth and refusing to wallow in self-pity. It means not looking in that bathroom mirror, hallway mirror, car window, etc. and saying, “I look disgusting,” because I never know who’s watching me. A student? A child? A friend? It means not judging someone’s clothing or lack thereof. Today, I am accountable for giving what I never had.
Being a feminist in today’s academic culture means publishing my students, teaching equality in the classroom, and talking about gender identity and sexual violence even when it’s uncomfortable—even when no one wants me to have the conversation. During college I was a sexual assault/rape crisis counselor and victim advocate for Butler County, Ohio. Being a feminist means positively impacting our communities. Gloria Steinem has always been my hero because she represents fearlessness. She revolutionized the presentation of our emotional lives. She represented the uninhibited. She was apt to unwomanly assertion, passion, and individualism. Through her example and the example of so many others, (Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter, Eve Ensler, Betty Friedan, Susan Brownmiller) I learned that being brave and strong doesn’t mean that you don’t have a difficult time or make mistakes, but that you walk through them with dignity and grace. I learned to embrace femininity. I think that forgiveness (true forgiveness conquers the dutiful martyr) is principally feminine.
Today, I feel this communal attitude that we are only allowed to publicly call ourselves feminists within certain limits. We are not supposed to be aggressive or appear angry. We should know how to communicate and operate and advocate for change within the realm of our context—within what the current patriarchal hierarchy has deemed acceptable—what they feel comfortable with. This model feels submissive and repressed and ironic to me. Sexual and angry—we are threatening; we are dangerous. I think that our discipline is self enforced and kept in check by society’s incessant scrutiny.
I do not pretend to speak for or represent an entire movement or even a small part of a movement. I’m not sure that I would even feel comfortable aligning myself with a particular wave of feminism. Although, I do have a soft spot for second wave hardliners… I am a feminist operating within a tradition of trailblazers. I am also a feminist who loves and appreciates chivalry (I have received unfortunate, collective gasps for this statement). I hate that some people would like to kick me out of the club for this. Yes, please open my car door and do kind things. I do not expect this, but I certainly cherish it. I respect it. It’s not because I don’t know how to open my own door. It’s not because I need a man (or anyone else) to help me. I value the concept because it’s caring, because it epitomizes the idea that we should be of maximum service to our fellows. It was a beautiful day in my life when I realized that I was finally becoming the kind of man that I was told I should marry (Steinem’s description of self-actualization).
A: In the 7th grade, Mr. Simeone told our class that patience plus perseverance equals survival. This is a math equation that makes sense to me. I hope BACKCOUNTRY inspires us to be ferocious. I am arguing that the act of entering someone or something (a landscape) physically and emotionally is a type of violence. It’s violence even when it’s beautiful. This is a violence because some boundary, some border, has been irreversible crossed. A barrier is broken. I think love is a type of violence. People describe themselves as love-sick (so the body experiences a violence). Perhaps these instances should be called small violences. Everything about our human nature is voyeuristic, intense, and wild. When you enter someone, you must also at some point leave them. (This is a violence.)
The following is a guest post by Alicia Padovich, GMU MFA poetry candidate and StS poetry reader.
I first encountered Moira Egan’s name in the tiny office of my undergraduate poetry professor, where he asked me if I had been reading her. I had written a small iambic pentameter poem about getting picked up in a bar. Moira had already capitalized on this in her Bar Napkin Sonnets.
Next, I was to read for her in Rome (unbeknownst to myself) and get invited out to dinner with her husband and herself, along with the professors of my creative writing study abroad program. Over awe, red wine, and pesto-coated gnocchi she showed me writing poetry was the way to feeling fulfilled, and encouraged me to try my hand in a MFA program.
Two years later, as a So to Speak reader, I get the honor of interviewing this poet whose winged glasses and wild, yet tender, spirit is enough to make you feel like high-fiving her and hugging her at the same time; especially, after taking into account her poems whose themes often center around general love and loss, art and epicurean delights, but most importantly around the perspective of intelligent, witty, and intriguing feminist.
Why is feminism important to you? What does it mean to you?
To me, feminism is the default mode. How can any thinking person not consider him/herself a feminist? Equal rights for everyone: seems painfully obvious to me.
Along the way, though, I’ve had some real lightning-bolt moments of epiphany. In my otherwise enlightened middle school, the guidance counselor told me, in the 7th grade, how pleased she was that my standardized test scores hadn’t fallen. “Girls often start to have lower scores at this age,” she informed. This scared the hell out of me. “Why, what happens in 7th grade that would make girls stupid?” I asked, worried about some hormonal change that might affect intellectual development, or something I hadn’t read about in the health-class brochures. “Girls often become interested in boys at this age,” she explained, matter-of-factly.
“I’m interested in boys,” I told her, “but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get stupid.”
* * *
Saturday Night Fever. Even I, who had had a huge and visceral crush on John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter, was utterly and viscerally appalled by the way his character (and the film in general) treated women. Seventeen year-old me was so upset that I walked out of the theatre.
* * *
“Centerfold.” J. Geils Band. “My blood runs cold / my memory has just been sold. / My angel is the centerfold.” This sent me into undergraduate tailspins of anger on behalf of “[his]” “Angel.” Does he care why she has ended up commodified, as an object of pornographic desire? No, he’s only pissed off that his angelic Angel is no longer his own, private fantasy. He feels he’s lost ownership. It was a catchy song, a big hit, but I hated it for its disrespect for the woman’s autonomy.
* * *
And I read The Bell Jar when everyone else was reading Catcher in the Rye.
These early cultural experiences made me all too aware that there was still a battle raging. I went to a Catholic all-girls’ high school, and then I chose – and it was my first and only choice, as a matter of fact – to go to Bryn Mawr College, one of the Seven Sisters. I am fairly certain that this was the most profound life-changing context I ever experienced. There are many women who thrive in co-educational undergrad institutions, and I’m all for it, but I’m glad I spent those years in a profoundly female-friendly and very challenging environment.
And most recently, I saw that the first class of undergraduate women at Johns Hopkins University was having a reunion. I was reminded of the gender studies class I taught when I was a graduate student there. One of the students – a woman – was complaining about something or another, I don’t even remember, saying, “You know how they are, those feminists.” I had to stop the class. “Those feminists, huh? When do you suppose this fine institution in which you are studying first allowed women in as undergraduates?” I asked the class. “Oh, the twenties, the thirties, something like that,” they speculated. 1970. Nineteen-seventy. “Oh, those feminists.”
Who are your inspirations, either feminist or not?
Plath, and damn that oven. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Elizabeth Bishop. Old weird Yeats: when he can’t figure out how to be a man in the cage of his aging body, he speaks in the voice of Crazy Jane, a wonderful, bawdy crone figure. Lady Mary Wroth. My father. Shakespeare. Marianne Moore (who also went to Bryn Mawr, but long before I did).
Those are all poets, uh oh. My mother. Tilda Swinton. Caravaggio. Suzanne Valadon. Bach, who makes my viscera thrum. Jean-Claude Ellena, a true poet in a very different genre: he’s a master perfumer who creates fragrances that affect me in all kinds of ways, and that make me want to put them into language.
Filed under: Interview, Post by: Alyse K, Post by: Sheila M, Starring Local Feminists
In celebration of our 2011-2012 editorial circle, I wanted to provide our out-going editors a chance to share thoughts on feminism and personal insights in working with the journal. Here we can share dialogue about what feminism is and means to us personally and politically and create pathways of equality together. I have asked our editors a series a questions and below Alyse Knorr, Poetry and Blog Editor, MFA Poetry answers and celebrates.
Q: Why is feminism important to you? What does it mean to you?
A: Feminism is important to me and to people of any gender because it deals with the most basic questions of fair and equal treatment of all people–something that everyone deserves as a simple human right. When I tell someone that I’m a feminist and they connect that to being ”radical,” I try to point out to them that there is really nothing ”radical” at all about a feminist message. Equality and justice for everyone is a common sense goal, not a radical one. Many people I know or have known who would never call themselves feminists would, based on their values and beliefs, actually fit into my definition of ”feminist” quite easily.
What feminist work offers to me is an outlet for the frustration and anger that I feel when I look at our society and see that equality and justice for everyone is not a goal that has been achieved yet. When I see a problem, I like to be able to work toward getting that problem remedied–even if all I can do is a tiny, tiny fraction of what needs to be done. It still helps some–every little bit does–and my feminist work gives me hope for the future and pride in myself and my fellow feminists in the present.
Q: How has StS helped you learn about feminism? How has your work with StS helped create an expanding definition of feminism?
A: So to Speak has helped me understand that feminism means many different things to many different people, and that this is not only ok, but necessary to create positive dialogues. Inclusive feminism (third-wave feminism in particular) recognizes that people will have different definitions for feminism and its role in society, but that, as long as these differing opinions are respectful and promote justice and equality, they strengthen our cause instead of weakening it. ”Feminism” does not limit itself to one definition, message, or “party line.”
I hope that my work with the blog and with poetry in StS has promoted an expanding definition of feminism by embodying diversity and inclusivity. I sought to include writers of many different backgrounds and from many different walks of life in the poetry of each issue of StS that I worked on, as well as writers who differed aesthetically and in their feminist philosophies. On the blog, I tried to write about all kinds of issues, from monuments and statues to sci-fi female heroes, to demonstrate just how all-encompassing these kinds of feminist dialogues can and should be.
Q: Talk about what initially drew you to StS and what created the desire in you to take on an editor’s role.
A: As soon as I heard that George Mason had a feminist journal, I knew that I wanted to work for it. Similar opportunities hadn’t existed for me at my undergraduate institution, and I didn’t know how much I needed a space like StS until it was in front of me and available. I was excited at the chance to have conversations about feminism with the intelligent, creative people on the staff, and especially excited to promote feminist writing through the ever-important act of publication.
The whole ethos of the journal just seemed positive and genuine. Everyone working there was (and still is) so passionate about what they’re doing–artistically, politically, and more. That’s why, after my first year of reading for the journal, applying for an editorship seemed like a no-brainer. I wanted to get more involved and have a hand in the creative side of production. My work with StS ended up being one of the things I’m most proud of during my three years at Mason.
Q: Talk about an amazing moment you had with StS.
A: One moment that felt really amazing to me was sitting in the audience of our AWP panel in March in Chicago. It was the first time we’d ever had a panel, so that alone was exciting, but then there was the added bonus that the panel was just unbelievably successful. The panelists were fascinating, and started a great discussion among audience members (about 200 of them) about the changing definitions of feminism and how these changes affect the writing and publishing community. The audience members were getting so into the discussion, and I just felt so proud of our staff for all the work we do to bring discussions like these into the world.
During my third and final year with the journal, so much changed so quickly–we had just started the blog and online summer issue, a Twitter account, Fall for the Book and AWP panels, a charity poetry reading, other community events, and more. The AWP panel just seemed like this very present, tangible evidence of all of our recent expansions and efforts. It was such a powerful moment to look around the room that day in Chicago.
Q: Talk about your accomplishments w StS. What have you strived for with
I strove to include more diversity in our poetry contributors–diversity in terms of gender, gender expression, orientation, race, age, ability, aesthetic, and political doctrine. With my work on the blog, I strove to expand the conversations that our journal begins into the online realm, so that more people could freely and easily access us and join in our dialogue. Through the
blog, I also strove to expand the scope of our journal beyond just the creative/artistic and into more directly political territory.
Q: What do you hope for StS in the future? What do you hope for feminism
in the future?
A: I hope that StS continues to maintain all of the new exciting endeavors that began during my time at the journal–the panels, the charity poetry reading, the blog and summer issue, etc. And I hope that the journal continues to become more directly engaged with the local community, as well as more directly politically engaged. Although the production of each issue is obviously our first priority, we do have an important responsibility, I think, to feminism because of our political bent.
I hope that feminism continues to diversify and grow more and more inclusive. I hope especially that the “re-branding” of feminism will mean the end of unfair stereotypes of feminists and feminist beliefs, as well as open the movement up so that more people can become involved. I hope that education and outreach will inform young people enough so that someday, more than just one or two of my 18-year-old freshman composition students will feel comfortable raising their hands when I ask them who considers him or herself a feminist.
Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of a full-length collection of stories, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except They Have Wings, and a chapbook titled Eating Sugar, Telling Lies.
RM: Hi, Kuzhali. First of all, let me ask you a question relating satire and being “experimental” (which V.V.Ganeshananthan asked you about earlier), albeit with an addendum—a lot of your writing, including your blog, of course, is steeped in satire. From what I’ve read of contemporary Indian English fiction, satire, if considered a genre, isn’t doing particularly well. “Welcome to Barium” from Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except They Have Wings resonated with me because it exemplified the themes that permeate your entire project—everyday occurrences, expletives, naming and namelessness, and popular culture (cinema) and its absurdities. Considering the form of the book (short pieces) and your predilection for satire and surrealism, could we call you experimental?
KM: I’m not really sure what ‘experimental’ means but it’s definitely a word that I have used to describe my writing. I think I did this because I did not know what to call my writing and I really wanted to call it something. I had tried using the label ‘Indian’ but was informed that I sounded too pseudo-American to be Indian, pseudo-American apparently being way worse than ordinary American. The ‘Indian’ label also made some people say my English was really good and did I do this all by myself or did I write in my native language and then get someone to translate it for me. So I was like, ok. What can I do about this? So I thought, how about I call my writing ‘South Indian Experimental Fiction’. Because frankly I was very loathe to let that ‘Indian’ thing go and I felt like ‘South Indian’ was exotic and would also explain all the annoyingly foreign Tamil names that appear in some stories. I felt ‘experimental’ would explain everything else in a way that said ‘English is not my Second Language but Thanks for Asking.’ So I did this. And people said I was being pseudo-American and that my English was really good etc. But then also some people would say to me ‘I dig the experimentalness of your South Indian Experimental Fiction’ and I’d be like ‘Big ups to you for being smart and experimental enough to recognize the experimentalness of my South Indian Experimental Fiction.’ And you know, that was just really great. Also, if someone said to me ‘I didn’t really understand your story’ then I could say ‘That’s because it’s experimental, dumbass’ and they’d be like ‘Oh.’ Sometimes I would just look at the whole label ‘South Indian Experimental Writer’, marvel at how pretty it was and wonder why more people didn’t want to be my friend.
With regard to my book, I have to say that I don’t know if it is surrealist, satire, or experimental. I feel like if you call it any of these things, you run the risk of making certain surrealist, satirical or experimental people very angry. Also, I’m a little scared to say anything about satire in contemporary Indian English fiction because, who wouldn’t be scared about that, right? But I will say this. I think Indian Writing in English is a very serious thing, possibly because it’s in English but it’s Indian and that’s just a superserious situation. I have also heard that Indians have no sense of humor because a lot of them live in India and that’s just not funny at all. So it could be that also.
Filed under: Art, Fiction, Interview, Nonfiction, Poetry, Post by: Sheila M
I first met Sara Northerner when I began my coursework in the PhD in Humanities program at the University of Louisville in August 2008. Sara was in her fourth year of the program at that time, having already completed coursework and nearing completion of her comprehensive exams. Since we were both graduate teaching fellows, I shared a lively office environment with Sara and a number of our colleagues, and I knew from our interactions that Sara was a serious, self-motivated scholar and a diligent artist. Though I cannot recall seeing any of her artwork during that first year, I can recall hearing her speak about art and watching her interact with students from her Creativity & the Arts and art theory classes. I recognized that she spoke, not only as a teacher committed to the study and appreciation of art, but as a practitioner—a practicing artist.
In May 2009, at the end of my first year as a doctoral student, my first book—a collection of lyric essays called Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures—won the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award. Almost as soon as I received the news, I was encouraged to begin thinking about cover art. As seems to be typical in the publishing industry, Colgate University Press retained the last word for accepting or rejecting a work of art for the cover, but they actively encouraged me to seek out something I found representative of my book. On a hunch, I turned to Sara.
Though we were at this time only casual friends, the experience of working together to select a cover for my book helped to grow and solidify our friendship. Sara asked to read my book in manuscript form to help her get a feel for the kinds of images she might select from her own extensive catalogue. After twenty-five years as an artist, she understandably had a lot to choose from. She also told me, “If I don’t have anything, I know a lot of artists. I will help you find something that will work.”
Sara tells me now that her initial thought, just from hearing me talk about the formally experimental nature of the lyric essay and its reliance on fractured, braided narratives, was that the cover should be something abstract or perhaps something specifically illustrative of the book’s motifs, something like a wishbone itself. That was until she read the book. In reading, she took detailed notes and concluded that the cover needed a much more ethereal image that connected recurring images from the text, images like water and the body. She went through her own catalogue of photographs and selected some that seemed to have a quality that resonated with my prose. One of these was a color photograph of a rock formation in the middle of the sea that Sara had taken off the coast of Portugal in 2000. She thought it was an image I might like but didn’t tell me about her own hunch when we first met to look at images.
During the initial slide show of Sara’s art, I realized I liked everything I saw. I discovered, sitting in that cool coffee shop on a hot Louisville summer afternoon, that I was more than just a fan of Sara’s attitude about art. I was a fan of Sara’s art. When the photograph of the rock formation passed over the screen, I asked her to stop. “What’s that?” I asked. “And why is it so striking to me?”
A light came into Sara’s eyes as she told me about taking the photograph nearly a decade before from a cliff above the misty blue Portugal waters. Everything about the colors, the perspective, and the juxtaposition of water and land spoke to me instantly, viscerally. She smiled and said mysteriously, “I might have the right piece for you.”
What I didn’t know yet was that Sara had transformed this photograph into a compelling work of installation art that she kept in her home. The image was enlarged, printed digitally in several sections on a Japanese woven printmaking paper, then hand-stitched together. Sara’s stitching was visible to the viewer in a way I recognized as similar to my own practice of calling attention to the writing process in the midst of a lyric essay. For my readers also, my own seams are often showing.
And then of course, there were the eyes. For both Sara and me, the pair of eyes that recurred throughout the piece like a visual refrain suggested the eye-opening nature of art and the element of personal and sexual awakening that appears as a dominant theme in Wishbone. Sara later remarked, “The eyes have a certain meaning for me that they don’t for anyone else.” They are her mother’s eyes.
As much as I was taken with the original photograph, I was that much more enthralled by the work of art that Sara had created from it. Originally, for Sara, the art she had created from the photograph had been a transitional piece. She was working on a new process that combined an attention to bodies and landscapes. To prepare to share with my editors at Colgate, Sara photographed the final image many different ways, lighting it from the front, from behind, playing with its translucent quality. In this process, as her artwork evolved once again—this time into the cover of a book—Sara recounts that she was invigorated by seeing her visual art become part of another artist’s literary journey. The image, as she says, “took on a new meaning” as it began to relate to the words in my book.
The photographs of Sara’s mother’s eyes were from an earlier project, and Sara hadn’t yet told her mother that she had incorporated her eyes into this image. When she shared the image with her mother and asked her permission to use it, eyes included, as part of a book cover, her mother was receptive to the idea. She became our third collaborator, remarking to Sara, “Then, the eyes are universal. They aren’t necessarily mine.”
From there, with remarkable ease, the book came together. My editors at Colgate loved it, and to this day, the cover is one of the most remarked-upon aspects of Wishbone. When the book cover was projected on the enormous screen at the Lambda Literary Awards in May 2011, there was an audible gasp in the room. The image was that striking. I wished, in fact, that Sara had been there to hear it. Read more