October 26, 2021

Why Do I Teach About Contemporary Women Poets?

Sara M. Robinson

When I was in my second fall UVA-OLLI session I was asked this on the first day.

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 learned 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 used the 2nd edition (2003) of the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry in the course I taught. 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.

I try to do my part in getting the voices of women poets 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, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).

1 comment:

  1. I was honored to ride the elevator two floors with Maya Angelou at a writers conference at Calvin University in Grand Rapids. She was so nice and even asked what I wrote. I'm glad you teach about women poets!