Sarah Marcus on Feminism, Publishing, and Teaching Activism

The following is an interview with Sarah Marcus, author of BACKCOUNTRY, feminist, past StS poetry reader, regular StS guest blogger, teacher, and VIDA Count intern.

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).

Q: Your first chapbook, BACKCOUNTRY, is now available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press. What do you hope BACKCOUNTRY teaches us, argues for, and inspires us to do?

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.)

This book is about the kind of love that kills you. It’s about the struggle to let go and our incredible ability to endure. I hope it inspires us to hunt for revival.

These poems are also about “gaslighting.” Adrienne Rich said, “Women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted’, for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.” By implying that women are only angry, wounded, and in desperate need of acceptance is not honoring the courageous act of loving. I hoped to highlight the danger of the patriarchal, classist, and capitalist assumptions embedded in our struggle for survival.

I wanted this work to consider the loss of control (especially over our bodies), and I intended to challenge the construct of the heterosexual relationship or love poem.

Advance sales will run from January 27th – March 13th. You can order from FLP here. Also, here’s a link to my NEXT BIG THING interview.

Q: Tell us about being a 2012 VIDA count intern?

A: This year’s Count is complete, and being a part of this amazing effort has been incredible! The numbers will be released at AWP. I am truly inspired by the commitment and dedication of the VIDA staff and count interns. What an awe-inspiring group of women! I believe that the VIDA Count is an essential catalyst for change within our literary community. Among the most important people to reach out to when attempting to educate and change attitudes about our literary gender bias are the editors and staff of literary journals and publications. These publications clearly shape our academic and writing environment, and the lack of understanding or acknowledgement of this problem, reflected by the male to female publication ratio, is detrimental to our community’s attitude and allows us all to maintain a subtle repression that has become the norm. I believe we are obligated to show people that this is an issue that impacts all of us, not just women. I very much believe in empowering female-assigned and/or female-identified individuals as well as educating male writers and publishers about the impact of these statistics on our communal psyche. It is important to construct an accurate public view of the problem in order to move towards a solution.

Q: What do you hope for feminism and the feminist literary community in the future?

A: I want us to eliminate  the lack of sensitivity and understanding that is reflected by the way we talk and write about sexual violence. The way sexual assault is reported by us and the media is detrimental to societal attitudes and maintains the oppression of victims of sexual assault and women.  Sexual assault has continued to be viewed as insignificant when, in reality, sexual violence has deeply impacted our communities and our denial of this fact perpetuates cycles of victim persecution as well as an acceptance of the culture of violence against women.

We must reframe our conceptions of feminism and reexamine who we accept as perpetrators of sexism. Instead of reinforcing negative behaviors, let us face the uncomfortable truths. I am a feminist because we still live in a world where I am asked, “why is feminism important?” For there to be a future, we must continue to endure student complaints that we are teaching too many women writers. That this is a class on feminism and not on poetry. I have never, in a more “traditional” classroom, heard a student complain that there were too many old, white, straight men being taught this semester. In service of our future, I will continue to not take resentment and anger to heart. I will try not to take the attacks on feminism personally, because while it is directed at us as individuals in these moments, the epidemic of hate stems from a much greater problem. Today and in the future, I hope that we choose to be a part of the solution. We refuse to be quiet.






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