December 25, 2013

Why Do I Teach About Contemporary Women Poets?

 By Sara M. Robinson

I was asked this on the first day of my second fall UVA-OLLI session. The easy answer is because I like so many of the contemporary women poets. But that’s too easy; and I’m skirting around the issue. The issue is that women poets have not always received the recognition they’ve earned. I’m not sure I know why, but I can tell you that when I read bios of well-known women poets(i.e. Anne Sexton, Rae Armantrout, Maxine Kumin) I learn that most were influenced by well-known male poets(i.e. Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams). You get the drift.

In one source, I did learn that Gertrude Stein mentored Ernest Hemingway through her famous Paris writing salon. I read in scarce commentaries of the influence of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Bishop; I do find comfort in that. However, it’s not enough for me. I want to see more of our spectacular women poets being cited and mentioned more frequently in journals and literary magazines. Even anthologies need to step up and increase the exposure. For example, I use the 2nd edition (2003) of the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry in the course I teach. This text contains seventy-five outstanding poets, but only twenty-two are women! Not even half! In the Best of the Best of American Poetry (25th Anniversary Edition, 2013) there are one hundred poems, of which only thirty-eight are written by women. What gives? I could continue with my count, but again you get the picture. We have Pulitzer Prize winning women poets and yet one had to work pretty darn hard to find them in years past. And, by the way, out of ninety-one Pulitzer Prizes given for poetry, only twenty-five have been given to women. Having said that, to be fair, starting with 2010, all the poetry prizes have gone to women. So, maybe something is happening.

So, why do I teach a course on Contemporary Women Poets? Because I want to do my part in getting their voices out there. I don’t buy into the line that there are not as many as men. They are out there all right. We shouldn’t have to dig with a backhoe to find them either. I want to see shelves filled with Tracey K. Smith, Jane Hirshfield, and Sharon Olds books, Lesley Wheeler and Charlotte Matthews, too. I want to see more community-based readings where the list is balanced between the men and women. I want to read more essays about the influence of women poets on our current literature.

While many of the general anthologies omit the presence, never mind neglecting the importance, of women poets, here are several books with women featured: Innovative Women Poets(2007), an anthology of contemporary women’s poetry and interviews; Fire on Her Tongue(2011), a ground-breaking eBook anthology of women’s poetry(1st electronic collection of poems by women who are writing to day!); When She Named Fire: AnAnthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women(2009),the mother lode: 461 poems by 96 American women poets.

Can I hear a call for more?
Sara M. Robinson is Poetry Matters columnist for Southern Writers magazine and author of TwoLittle Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), a book of poetry; A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013) a chapbook; and Stones for Words (2014) a book of poetry.           

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