Where are the Female Poets?

Earlier this semester I was fortunate enough to sit down with Shara McCallum, UConn’s Aetna Writer-in-Residence for the spring, and have her review my work. As anybody who had the opportunity to talk to Shara while she was on campus can attest to, she was incredibly lovely and warm, and our workshop together was no different. She was certainly tough and critical when critiquing my work, but in a way that always conveyed her deep love for poetry, especially student poetry. Our meeting that day ended with Shara asking me, “What poets do you read?”

I of course immediately forgot the name of every obscure poet I loved that might impress her, and nervously admitted the truth, “Oh, I like Ginsberg a lot, even though he isn’t very respected by academia…I am also quite fond of Whitman and William Carlos Williams.”

Shara pressed on, “What about female poets?” This question took me aback; of course I like female poets but in that moment I couldn’t think of a single female poet except for Emily Dickinson. Why had I named three male poets? Why had I named three white male poets for that matter? As a young female poet myself, why couldn’t I think of a single female poet who has inspired me to write? The truth of the matter is that while I am partially responsible for not seeking out female voices. Poetry remains a boy’s club and this is especially true within the classroom. As students of creative writing we are constantly taught using the texts of monolithic writers of modern literature, most of whom are male voices—Shakespeare, John Keats, T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden—and the list continues on seemingly indefinitely. I would be hard pressed to name any female voices as anthologized with the exception of Syliva Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and ‘the’ female poet, Emily Dickinson . The situation does not improve much when you take into account the great novelists of literature either.

I was talking to a friend of mine who is a PhD student in English here at UConn last week, and she was telling me how she feels that even in contemporary journals the parameters of what is appropriate for a female voice remain quite rigid. She explained that male poets are able to write about whatever they please and still have their work published, female poets are limited to distinctly female experiences if they want to be published—housekeeping, marriage, children, the female body, etc. The only way to change the status quo is for us as poets and consumers of poetry to seek out publications that do honor female voices and subscribe to these journals, and to buy chapbooks in mass of female poets.


Anyways, here is a list of female poets for you to get started with, that I wish I had been able to come up with when Shara McCullum asked me that terribly simple question a few weeks ago. Why not start with Shara herself, a truly talented young Jamaican-American poet (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/438). Two other incredible female poets also graced UConn this past year as well, U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/352) and Irish prose poet Mairead Byrne (http://www.maireadbyrne.blogspot.com/). The poetry world lost two pioneering female poets this past year whose collections could nourish you for decades, the American Feminist poet Adrienne Rich (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/49) and the Polish Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymborska (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/340). As for lesser-known young female poets, I would suggest Bluets by Maggie Nelson (http://books.google.com/books/about/Bluets.html?id=WaIsAQAAIAAJ). This chapbook was assigned for a creative writing class I took last fall, and honestly it is one of the few books of poetry that I have ever devoured in one sitting. Lastly, I would be remiss in not recommending to you two lovely female poets who teach here at UConn, Dr. Penelope Pelizzon (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/238374) and Darcie Dennigan (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/darcie-dennigan). I hope that these few female voices are the just the beginning of your exploration of female poets, I know they will be for me.

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