When Kamy kindly asked us to write a piece for She Writes, Cate Marvin and I kicked around some ideas about what its readership might find interesting. We considered writing about the founding of WILLA and its daily operations (Women in Letters and Literary Arts is the new national organization we’ve started to promote the recognition of women’s achievements in writing). Ultimately, we decided this approach might be a little dull in its particulars, as most of our time is spent on long conference calls with our advisory board discussing organizational structure, sponsorship and other bits of not so compelling minutiae that are quite important when you’re trying to create a nonprofit, especially one that has the potential to be as all-encompassing (i.e., huge) as WILLA.
Instead, we thought it might be more interesting to ask each other a series of pertinent questions about how we respectively evolved as feminists, questions that we ourselves have never had the chance to ask one another. Back in August, when Cate sent out her now famous (infamous?) letter summoning WILLA into existence and asking if others wanted to come on board [link to Facebook page], I was one of the first to respond. I think my exact words were something like, “Yes, absolutely yes! Whatever you need from me, you got.” Cate then immediately responded with an email asking, “Will you be my co-director then?” Thus began our immediate and intense collaboration on figuring how to make WILLA move beyond its initial concept to become the actual forum we’d imagined.
But, somewhat strangely, Cate and I didn’t know each other as more than acquaintances before that moment when we spit on our palms and pinky swore our immediate and undying allegiance to the cause. I’d just always had a feeling about her—part admiration and, truthfully, part intimidation!—that she was the kind of woman who could actually make something as big as WILLA happen. Of course, over the past couple of months, we’ve since had the chance to become genuine friends—while working away over long telephone conversations while she’s nursed her baby Lucia through various bouts of rhinoviruses while my boy Jude screams his mock Pokemon battles at ear splitting decibels in the background. In just the past few months, Lucia’s learned to crawl and Jude got himself on the honor roll. And yet this is the essential conversation we haven’t yet had the chance to have. We’re hoping our frank answers here might encourage others to share their own unvarnished experiences as women writers. (Erin Belieu)
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Erin Belieu: I published my first book of poems (Infanta, Copper Canyon, 1995) when I was twenty-nine. I believe you were around the same age when World’s Tallest Disaster came out. What was your experience like as a young woman writer when you first entered the poetry world?
Cate Marvin: I had what I’d consider a very charmed entrance into the poetry world. When my first book, World’s Tallest Disaster (Sarabande, 2001), was published, I had just turned thirty; I’d completed two MFA degrees, at Universities of Houston and Iowa, respectively, and was at the time in the English Ph.D. program at the University of Cincinnati where I was fully funded. Robert Pinsky chose my first book for Sarabande’s Kathryn A. Morton Prize. I’d never met him personally, and it meant a lot to me that he’d selected my book without knowing me or my work prior to judging the contest. My professional life was going as well as I could have expected it to, if not better. The book was well-received by reviewers, and I did a number of readings across the country to support it—and all of this was quite thrilling.
The flip side to this was that it unnerved me to a great extent that my work had become public. One of the things I’ve always like about writing poetry is that no one reads it; I was surprised to find that people (other than my close friends, also poets) had actually read my work and had questions about it. One of the more shocking realizations was that it became apparent that people believed the work was autobiographical. Anyone familiar with my first book (not to mention my second) knows that the speakers of the poems are preoccupied with romantic disasters, one’s inability to control fate, and these and other quandaries are viewed through a lens of violence and dismay. In fact, my speakers are pretty obsessed with violence, against male lovers in particular. I was already accustomed to bearing the brunt of the “angry female poet” label, something that annoyed me, to be sure, but I tried not to let it bother me. Why would it annoy me? Well, it’s a pretty simplistic assessment, and I’d been writing my poems very carefully over a period of years . . . so to be dismissed as being an “angry woman” felt like a poor summary of what I was up to as a writer.
I remember a woman coming up to after a reading I gave at University of Minnesota and asking me, “Are men afraid to date you?” I was totally unprepared for this question. The male writer sitting next to me (this was a group reading and we were at a signing table) chimed in, “Of course not! Men love to date crazy women!” It left a bad taste in my mouth. Probably first of all because I thought her question was plain bad manners. (Who the hell did she think she was to ask me this?) I also did not take well to being deduced as the sum of my poems, nor was I happy to have my poems deduced to being a mere outlet for my personal life. Even more annoying, for a moment I caught myself wondering, “I don’t know—are men afraid to date me?” Are male writers asked these kinds of questions?
The funny thing is that the year after my first book came out and I was doing all of these readings, I was going it alone a lot. I was about to say I’d just come out of a divorce, but really I’d come out of a very bad marriage that suffered from professional jealousy. To say my then-husband was displeased that my first book came out before his did would be quite the understatement. I’d imagined (hoped) our union would be insanely productive: that we would live the “writer’s life” together, inspire one another to write more, read each other’s poems late into the night while sharing insightful line-edits—that ultimately we’d help each other along as our respective poetry “careers” moved forward in fits and starts. This wasn’t to be.
The truly clarifying moment for me with regard to the implications of being a female poet came over a weekend during which I attended a lavish awards ceremony for an emerging poets prize my first book had received. At the time, I was very poor. I was in deep, deep credit card debt, much of which had followed me from the marriage, and I was heading toward all-out financial disaster. (The purse that came with this prize would help me pull myself out of this pit to some extent.) In any case, to be suddenly transported to a luxury hotel suite, to which an incredible, four foot high fruit basket was delivered upon my arrival, where I could order any and all room service whenever I felt like it (something I realized much too late into my stay)—well, it freaked me out. And it freaked me out to be around so many really famous poets. When I say they were all, without exception, male, I am not exaggerating. There was a collection of about 8 to 10 major American poets, all significantly older than I was, all wearing very nice suits. Was I intimidated? A little. Was I thrilled? YES.
I’m someone who wears jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers on a regular basis, but that weekend I was dressed to the nines. The pure delight of my attire: it was confection. Pink clogs on one night, paired with a flowery blouse and expertly tailored pants. Another night, a smart jacket, exquisite earrings, and black leather boots with the shapeliest of heels. In other words, I’d dressed up. I was not dressed provocatively by any means, but I had gone to the effort to look stylish and professional. The long and short of it was, I tried many times to speak to these older, male poets; not in schmoozing kind of way, but because I was very interesting in talking with them about poetry. Was it my imagination that every time I approached their tight circle of suits they disbanded or moved to another part of the room? I worried. Was I coming off as immature? (Obviously I was a nobody and not worth talking to.) Later, I came to suspect that none of them felt comfortable being seen with me because they were all, for the most part, married, and perhaps they didn’t want to be seen with a younger woman in a bar.
Fast-forward to my last night in the hotel. I’d gone down to the bar to see if anyone was around to chat with. It was deserted. I returned to my room. I felt very alone. I considered that my work had ultimately prevented me from being in a close (i.e. romantic) sustained relationship. I didn’t have a wife waiting for me at home, watching the kids . . . because I didn’t have any kids. I’d spent too much time in school, working, and writing to put the time into a successful (whatever that means), sustained relationship. I considered a possibility: The serious female writer is doomed to a life alone. I ordered a bottle of wine from room service. This was in California. A unsavory man I’d met at a dinner on the first night (who displayed zero interest in poetry, mine and/or anyone else’s)—why had they seated me next to him and not the older poets I surely had more in common with?) called me on the hotel phone to ask if I wished to visit the set of “The Practice.” At that dinner, he’d informed me he was a director of this show, or something to that extent. He seemed to think I should be very excited to visit the set. I didn’t watch television back then and had no idea what he was talking about. When he called, I politely declined his invitation and then sat down to polish off the bottle of wine that room service had finally delivered, feeling very morose indeed.
This experience is what I recall when people assume that having a book published will solve all of your problems; or that being successful as a woman is the same thing as being successful as a man. If I had been a young male poet, wearing a plain (and expertly tailored) suit to the awards ceremony, would I have been welcomed into that fold of serious, older poets? My poetry would certainly not have been described as “feisty,” as it was that evening when I was being introduced to receive the award I’d come to claim. I winced. “Feisty”? It reminded me of hot peppers, of a gaudy string of lights, of some frivolous girl in a bright skirt with too much lipstick. In short, it made me feel very small indeed. Because despite my (tastefully) flowered blouse and pretty shoes, I was, as a writer of poems, deadly serious.
I’m curious, Erin, as to what point in your life you found yourself becoming interested in feminism-- or, should I say, as identifying with women's issues. Is this something you came to through your own writing and reading, or through experience outside the literary, or both?
EB: I’m pretty sure I was born a feminist. And I come from a family where, starting at an early age, I was always directed to put my money where my mouth is. One of the first things I did upon entering grade school was stage a campaign to integrate the school playground—we were divided into boys and girls then, back in the mid 70s when disco and dinosaurs still ruled the earth—and I remember giving a little speech in front of the class about how it wasn’t fair that the boys got the much bigger area and how I didn’t particularly want to play jacks or sit quietly braiding my girlfriends’ hair when I could be playing kick ball! It was a very impassioned appeal. I even remember strategizing about this, figuring I had a better chance of winning my point politically if I shaped the debate as a health education issue—you know, good exercise, physical and moral fitness, fresh air, etc.
So the teachers were like “Uhm, okay…whatever, Erin.” They just sort of shrugged—as in, “let the mouthy tomboy do as she likes.” I was so disappointed. Little egoist that I was, I think I’d had this image of some wonderful Little House On The Prairie moment where I’d be celebrated by all the townsfolk and we’d rush from the school onto the boy’s playground with them carrying me on their shoulders to celebrate our newfound freedom. Instead the victory was pretty much roundly ignored. And then—and I think this is very revealing in a number of ways—it turns out that I was really the only girl who ended up playing consistently with the boys on their playground. The other girls were maybe suspicious of mixing with them in that way and weren’t sure they were too psyched by the possibility, or that this was something they necessarily even wanted.
Thinking about it now, I realize that was a very illustrative moment for me—and that’s something I’ve been learning even more about as you and I work on putting WILLA together—it turns out the “girls” aren’t of one mind about anything, to say the least, and there are a whole lot of differing voices to consider out there other than my own (duh). And that political action usually means planting a slow-growing seed—it really can take a long time for anything to present itself above the dirt--and, honestly, it can often be disheartening. Nonetheless, you fight the good fight. What else is there to do? But I think you’re really good at this, Cate—at genuinely listening, I mean--which is a true gift and one of the great strengths you bring to our new organization. You have the ability to hear people and to do so gracefully and that is a rare and valuable thing. Bravo.
As for the literary connection to feminism, I spent a lot of my 20s kind of ignoring the obvious and fairly alarming signs I was seeing in terms of how women’s writing is received (or not) by the American literary establishment. As a young poet I was taught poems primarily by men—the first poets I ever fell in love with (and I still love them) were James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren and Richard Hugo, and I don’t think you could pull together a more hairy-chested group of voices if you tried!
So I don’t remember ever really being exposed to women poets in any serious way during my high school or undergraduate days. Of course, I’d adored Plath since high school—I stumbled upon her on my own—but I also had this self-protective instinct that this preference was something I’d better keep to myself, since she was/is such a lightning rod and whipping post for many male writers. I just desperately wanted to be a part of Poetry with a capital “P,” to be allowed into the conversation, and back then I wasn’t brave enough to rock that boat too obviously. And I have an unfortunate tendency toward a kind of handy, Gee Whiz! naiveté—it’s a Nebraskan thing—a very high value is placed on “niceness”--that I’ve allowed myself to fall back on too much in the past—I mean, I haven’t always seen things as they are, but rather how I would wish them to be. It would have been better to be braver sooner, but I suppose we come to things when we get to them in this life.
By the time I got to Boston in my mid twenties-- where I lived for years (first as a grad student and then as an editor for a large, well-funded literary magazine)-- and had reason to be closely involved with the intense literary machine there, I couldn’t keep ignoring the wild, arbitrary imbalances to which I was a first-hand witness. It was fairly disgusting, watching the shenanigans that went on with publishing and awards, teaching jobs and other forms of financial recognition. For instance, one time I got a phone call at my office from an editor at another big magazine that shall remain nameless (though if you get a couple glasses of wine in me no doubt I’ll tell you later). He wanted my opinion as to whom they should give that year’s BIG FAT WHOLE LOT OF MONEY prize. The problem they were having was that they’d already given it to Adrienne Rich a few years back and the editorial board couldn’t think of a single other woman poet who they believed was “important” enough to give the prize to! Mind you, that particular prize had been given out for at least twenty years annually at that point. They knew that politically they needed to throw women writers a bone every now and then—don’t want the ladies getting all uppity and vocal about such things—but their distaste was very apparent. And I’d hear things like this all the time. This case was in no way exceptional.
Boston is a great literary town in so many ways—I loved living there and was shown many acts of kindness and generosity by a lot of writers there-- but it’s also a rigidly hierarchical and competitive community, still very Brahmin, driven by deeply ingrained class issues, and may the Baby Jesus hisself help you if you ever forget your place in the food chain! But then my first book came out and did well and I suddenly had the opportunity to teach—which is what I’d always wanted to do—I come from a teaching family--and I felt more and more like I had a right to speak, even a duty to do so. I felt like I was finally in a position where I couldn’t be sent back to Nebraska on the next turnip truck for opening my mouth. And now I have a wonderful, supportive press that’s been with me since the beginning—thank you, Copper Canyon-- and I have the ridiculous blessing of tenure and knowing that I can take care of my son for the indefinite future—well, if I didn’t speak up for others and work hard on things like WILLA, I think I’d be a pretty shabby human being. Those of us who are relatively safe have a moral obligation to help to make a safe space for others. I really believe that.
Who are the women and men who've been the most important role models for you and why?
CM: Having a somewhat rebellious character, I tend to shrink from the idea of “role models.” I admire my mother, my friends, my writing teachers, and a great many poets I’ve never met (many of whom are long dead), and you, Erin. With regard to individuals who’ve had a real affect on how I conduct myself in the world, I’ll offer two very different examples.
Between the ages of 18 and 20, I worked full-time at an animal shelter over the summers. I was a “kennel person,” which meant that I not only cleaned and fed the animals, but examined them when they were brought to the shelter, and was present when a great many of them were euthanized due to the space constraints at that facility. This was before they had “no kill” shelters. It was a huge shelter, with literally hundreds of animals coming in all the time, especially during the summer because that’s typically when most litters are born. It was brutal work. Purely physical. Whenever I smell bleach I’m taken back to that place. And it was a very sad and scary place. It was there that I met a woman named Marjorie, whose last name I cannot recall, as she and I never stayed in touch. When I started this job, I was really slow, because I was not, frankly, used to working that hard. Marjorie would scream at me, “WORK MUCH?” She was small and wiry with hard, marble blue eyes, and she stared at me in this terribly clear and direct way that made me want to crawl into a hole. She was probably only 25, but she was terrifying to me, and her sense of humor was so biting, she could take anyone down with two words and a roll of her eyes. I loved her. I immediately resolved to work as hard and fast as I possibly could to earn her approval. I worked so hard that when I came home from work I was so exhausted I immediately went to bed.
After a while, working that hard began to feel good. I took pride in how clean the cat room was when I’d finished mopping it; I knew I’d done the best possible job I could, and this was a new feeling for me. In short, it was Marjorie who taught me how to work. She taught me an ethos of labor. I didn’t get this in school. And she taught me that working hard, as hard as you can, is actually a lot more pleasurable than doing something half-assed. She was also quite the feminist, and when I look back on the social dynamics at the animal shelter, I realize there was in fact a real gender divide—indeed, an all-out war – occurring among the employees there at the time. It was due to some conflict regarding gender (my recollection of the exact details is cloudy: Marjorie was not allowed to work with another woman because it was perceived they were (together) overly critical of a male employee’s work) that Marjorie quit (and this was a resolutely moral decision and ethical statement on her part, as she was financially supporting a mother with cancer) and stepped clean out of my life.
In an entirely different universe, I’ve always admired my former teacher, the poet and critic Richard Howard. I was very young, maybe 24, when I became his poetry student at the University of Houston. He was a model of generosity. Like Marjorie, he was imperious and terrifying and did not, for a moment, suffer fools. It is difficult to explain: he lorded an incredible knowledge in the classroom, yet he really allowed you read alongside him. For example, he’d say, “You are of course familiar with [author] and his/her work ‘_____’” -- and you were of course completely ignorant of it, but now that you had learned that this work existed without having had that fact made embarrassingly clear to anyone (but yourself), you knew you had better get your ass over to the library and figure out what he was talking about.
I could discuss Richard’s attributes as a professor and mentor at great length, but for the sake of this interview I’ll try and keep myself focused on three major examples of his teaching and person I cleave to:
First, he taught the reading of poetry as appreciation, as opposed to mere criticism or analysis, and thus completely redefined my poetic tastes. He taught me how to be receptive to literature from all periods, and to recognize (and rid myself of) my prejudices as a contemporary reader. He would walk you through a poem line by line and show you what was revolutionary about it, whether it be the technique, the feeling, the sound, or the image. I studied the Victorian poets with him, and they remain some of my favorites.
Second, he invited students into his home and discussed their poems with them individually. He would provide careful line-edits and he quite literally taught me how to craft a line. I admired how he had his own notion of the boundaries between professor and student. It was an amazing act of generosity that he invited you into his home and gave you immediate and direct feedback on your poems. This event was of such significance to me that when I would wait outside his house before our appointment, I’d often suffer a near attack of the nerves. Richard put himself in direct dialogue with his students. He knew younger writers would some day be older writers.
Third, Richard consistently taught women poets. He turned me on to May Swenson. And he was well aware of women’s writing as its own specific and important movement, and he even spoke to me on occasion about how my work, as bad at it was back then, fit into that context. He was all-encompassing in his tastes, voracious, and eager to see the history of literature unfold before him, especially in the work of his students.
Richard Howard is still a hugely important presence in the poetry world; he now teaches in Columbia’s MFA program. He is also an incredible poet in his own right, one who often writes in the voices of women, to great effect. He was a terrific mentor.
Which brings me to the fact that we've talked a lot about literary mentorship being a cornerstone to the development and success of WILLA as an organization. But mentorship as an experience (how you find a mentor, how one finds you) is a pretty tricky subject when you come right down to it. Could you talk a bit about your most important mentors? Did you have any female mentors?
EB: This is indeed a tricky subject, but I’ve already been candid with my thoughts and will continue on.
I was a little disappointed as a very young writer with how few older women really reached out to me. It was primarily established male writers who took an interest in my work when I was in my 20s. Their mentorship—I’m thinking of Robert Pinsky, Hayden Carruth and Sam Hamill particularly, all incredibly generous souls—meant the world to me as a growing artist. I can only claim a single case where that male interest tuned out to be something skeevy (and there’s nothing more cartoon-like than being chased around a couch by a budding “mentor”--I remember feeling as if I were trapped in an old Doris Day movie—you know, outraged and well-girdled, if not in fact virginal).
It’s completely possible that there were simply fewer established women writers to encounter back when I was a youngster or the ones I did meet just didn’t like the cut of my gib—that is, to mix my metaphors, I am an anchovy personality, as you know, Cate—a strong flavor people tend to feel strongly about one way or the other. But I also suspect we’ve been through a time in the past where women generally didn’t feel like they could afford serious mentorship of other women, that their own place in the literary world was so tenuous that to allow another woman into the club would make such a hard won space that much smaller for themselves. This is probably overstating it and I’m not sure that I’m right--especially as we know of such good relationships between women like Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore--but I’m speaking generally about what I think may have been a struggle in the recent past.
Eventually I did meet with women who were incredibly generous—Michelle Herman who took a special interest in me when I can’t imagine what she found promising there--and Kathy Fagan, my teacher at Ohio State—both are fantastic writers who are both teachers of the highest order. The poet Susan Aizenberg’s friendship has been one of the most important and meaningful ones of my life as well. She’d blush to be called my mentor as we were undergrads together, but Susan taught me a lot about being a writer and a grown up woman. And there’s Eleanor Wilner, who is, as I’ve said before, who I want to be when I grow up. Marie Ponsot is another hero who’s been very kind to me. And, of course, Adrienne Rich, who I have had the chance to meet a little in the past and admire tremendously. I often use her as the standard for a life well lived in the writing world.
But then as I write this something is nagging at me--I wonder if maybe the embarrassing truth is that I’ve just grown into being a better friend to women myself? For all my early feminist inclinations, maybe I was too much of a “man’s kind” of woman when I was younger. Too eager to please, too willing to sit at the great man’s knee and listen adoringly. It’s not becoming to admit, but for a long time I found it easier to be friends with men than with women writers—maybe because other women saw through my bullshit more easily than men did and seemed to hold me to a higher standard personally and professionally. I’m glad that’s changed for me. One of the great pleasures of my teaching life is having had the opportunity to mentor some really exceptional women writers—most recently Ashley Capps and Kara Candito, whose first books are ones everyone should read—no kidding, these women are kicking some ferocious poetic ass!--and up and coming young poets like April Manetris and Olivia Johnson. I’m so incredibly proud of them and feel lucky to have developed these close friendships with women younger than me. They keep me feeling poetically challenged and have also (bonus!) markedly improved my ability to accessorize an outfit.
I’ve wondered, Cate, if you are ever afraid that people will misunderstand you or even avoid you personally/professionally because of your feminist activism?
CM: This is a very hard question at answer honestly. Perhaps because fear begets fear, and for me to be afraid would imply that I’d made someone else afraid. Deep down, it’s not my wish to create fear, not by creating a feminist organization, or through opinions expressed in my poems. But, then, fear is also a byproduct of anger, and I can’t really help it if something I express in a poem or as a teacher rubs someone the wrong way. In the past, it was really only in poems and in the classroom that I conducted any sort of “feminist activism,” and I certainly never announced it as such. Speaking about women’s issues in the classroom has always come out of my desire to express my world view, in the hope that others might connect with it, as I, too, hope to learn from other’s viewpoints by taking myself out of myself. It seems to me that’s largely what the activity of literature is about.
Indeed, when someone expresses a negative response to the formation of WILLA, or to our response to Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2009 List, I feel further confirmation that the conversations we’ve begun are necessary. And I’ll admit: the idea that anyone would be against women writers engaging in discussions about their work and its reception confounds me. It seems an innocent enough undertaking. But then there’s the fact that many of the conversations have been so very provocative and powerful and clearly point toward the need for change—and this might, understandably, make some uneasy (while making others feel relieved!). Finally, if a person or group were to avoid me because my involvement with WILLA, or because of the content of my poems, that might be for the best. I’ve no desire to seek out those who wish to avoid me. It seems pretty cut and dry. If you’re interested in the conversation we’re having, please join us. If not, fine.
We’ve had a lot of support for WILLA. But there are also those who have responded negatively. For example, Erin, you mentioned to me the other day that you received a threatening phone call, presumably from someone who had read our statements against the all male Publisher's Weekly List of the Top Ten Books for 2009. We both laughed it off. However, I'd be curious to know what you make of such a phone call? The motivations? The desired affect on behalf of the caller?
EB: Yeah, I don’t like to think about this because if I think about it, it will frighten me. And I HATE feeling frightened. I’m not good at it. But here’s a story by way of answer: once when I was about 17, my old, piece of crap Plymouth Duster broke down late at night in a sketchy neighborhood. And I had to walk through the dark to get to some restaurant where I could call my brother—pre cell phone era-- to come and fetch me. As I was walking the several blocks back to wait by my car (and I why I didn’t just stay in the restaurant is a very good question), some creep started following me. He was clocking me from about half a block back on the other side of the walk. I knew absolutely from my gut that this guy had seriously bad intentions. I think pretty much every woman has a radar for that sort of thing. So I get to my car and the guy comes up to me and tries to get a conversation going, all the time inching closer and closer to where I was sitting on the hood. So what did I do? Did I scream? Did I tell him to back the fuck up or I’d put my thumb through his eyeball as I’d been taught in my Girl Scout’s Defensive Training class? No. Instead, I answered him politely, desperately trying to convince myself that I had it wrong, that nothing bad would happen to me if I just acted politely and in a ladylike fashion. And of course he finally lunged at me, and was in the process of trying to drag me off into a dark parking lot when my brother finally came around the corner and scared him off. So, thank God, tragedy was averted. And I was very, very lucky.
But I guess the point is, being nice and ladylike won’t save anybody from anything ultimately. And if I’m going down, I’d rather go down swinging. I’d rather go down with my thumb stuck firmly in some asshole’s eye. As Audre Lord said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
I wonder if it’s okay to swear in our interview? . . . I know you’ve been actively trying to cut down on swearing since you had Lucia, even though she’s only ten months old. Has becoming a mother changed your sense of your self as a writer and as a feminist?
CM: Becoming a mother was a decision I made carefully and coherently, and I knew it would change my world-view and, thus, the entire trajectory of my writing. I knew it would force me to connect more with the world at large, that I would need to put my immediate needs aside and literally abandon my self (much loved) and my habits (much cleaved to) not just to accommodate this new person in my life, but to take very seriously the desire that my daughter flourish in my care.
The funny thing about becoming a parent is that you don’t change. You remain the same person, with the same flaws and attributes. However, your newfound needs and views reshape the world around you. First, I realized that I don’t have a whole lot of time on this planet. There’s no point in thinking about something you’d like to do—you might as well just go ahead and do it. Second, I started communicating, through a list-serv, with a large group of women poets who are also mothers. At first, I felt a little out of place in these conversations. I hadn’t had a typical delivery (Lucia, my daughter, was born seven weeks premature), and I didn’t share many popular views (on breast feeding, vaccinations, natural birth, etc.)—but, as time went on, I started to realize that the conversations I’d become part of had, daily, given me a lot to think about. And that I wasn’t alone in much of what I’d been thinking for a long time about the situation of the female writer in our current culture. The gift of these ongoing conversations was that I could think for days on a particular topic that had arisen, then finally sit down to write a long response, one that would be read by women with whom I had much in common. And I don’t mean we just had in common the fact we were mothers. It was more that we could exchange recipes, advice on diaper rash, ideas for syllabi, and converse on poetics— as well as the experience of the female writer as it is lived on a day-by-day basis. These conversations were (and still are) comprised of critical discussions, as well as personal anecdotes and experiences that, once shared, became revelatory. In short, becoming a mother resulted in my becoming much more connected to other female writers.
I’ll admit, Erin, that I’d long been more comfortable in the company of men. For whatever reason, most of my mentors were male. When I first pushed Lucia’s stroller across the college campus, I felt distinctly emasculated. Before I had Lucia, I embraced a sort of machismo that felt very safe to me, even though all the while I was constantly reminded that of being a woman—and I resented being relegated to female status. At the same time, I never wished I was a man. It’s a very complicated issue to dissect with regard to one’s own self. It may have been that I had institutionalized within myself a certain denial of my status as a woman. No doubt, I did this for survival’s sake . . . but I was also bullshitting myself. I was participating in the very tokenism I’d routinely criticized. The crazy thing about becoming a mother is that you immediately find yourself in the company of women. What’s funny is that women can be just as dismissive of you as men when you become a mother, especially in academia. So, as a result, you feel very close to certain women you’d previously felt little in common with, and, conversely, quite separate from the women you may have related very well to before you became a mother.
Ultimately, becoming a mother has made me less inclined to worry about how I am perceived when expressing my views on the obvious disparity in cultural reception to the work of male writers as compared to female writers. I feel a lot less special now that I’m a mother. I don’t feel I’m an exception to anything. When you’re struggling with caring for your baby (and it is often a struggle), or when you’re thick in the crazy love you have for your baby (a sort of delirious haze that renders all else unimportant), you realize, in the true Dickinsonian sense, “I am nobody.”
And then there’s the immediate reflex that follows upon the heels of that realization: “Who are you?”
This is a question I was much less interested in asking before I became a mother. And I believe this cannot be anything but helpful to my writing.
What do you think are the assets to being a female writer today?
EB: I suppose they’re the same as they’ve always been—that is, for artists representing more than one half of humanity to have the opportunity to tell the world what it was to live as a specific voice, character, soul at some very specific moment in time. To fashion our most essential selves and set them loose like paper boats on the river of The Great Conversation. Isn’t that the best part of being a writer? I always think so…
But then I am deeply grateful to the women writers who’ve come before me, the ones who’ve done the absolutely necessary work that you and I hope to continue with WILLA. When I hear the stories about the bad old days—or maybe I should say the worse old days—the absolute absurdities women had to deal with in the writing world, or their total inability to receive any kind of meaningful support or recognition for their work, I realize both how far we’ve ventured and yet how far we have to go.
I was watching a cartoon with my son Jude the other day and one of those super irritating commercials came on for a hyper PINK make up-rock-star-hair salon-rhinestone beading set. The little girls were dressed like some kind of Lolita patrol and screaming into the camera about how “YOU can be the COOLEST girl at SCHOOL with all these FABULOUS looks you can make… BLAH, BLAH, BLAH”. I find myself literally grinding my teeth when things like this come on, wondering again if I should actually remove the TV all together from the house (though I would be sad to give up Mad Men). But then Jude looked up at me and said, “Mama, why would anyone think that’s all girls care about? Girls aren’t stupid.”
Ah, I love my boy.
So while I am thoroughly depressed by such a commercial, I’m excited about the fact that there are increasingly more and more little boys like Jude who know to ask that question unprompted. My male students are generally very interesting, open-minded men and so many of them don’t even blink when they tell me how much they love Plath or Sexton, etc. They actually read (that is, have been taught) women writers and don’t seem to be afraid of strong female voices. This feels very different from when I was back in grad school (when one of my male classmates quite earnestly paid me a compliment by saying “Your poems are so good they don’t sound like they were written by a woman at all...”).
Really, Cate, I think we live in interesting times that are going to just get more and more interesting. And women writers will be there in increasingly visible numbers to record this.
We’ve talked a lot about our goals for WILLA. Imagine the organization five years from today and predict what we will be doing. What will we have accomplished?
CM: One of the most amazing things about the structure of WILLA is that it is constantly evolving and unpredictable, so in many ways I cannot know what we will achieve, and I expect the organization will address challenges and take on initiatives that I cannot even begin to foresee.
WILLA’s mission statement is: “WILLA seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.” I believe the most significant thing we can do is put women writers in dialogue with one another, and I like to think we’ve already succeeded in doing that. Such conversations are contagious. That’s the beauty of the collaborative forces that have already begun to shape WILLA.
Practically speaking, I hope that in five years WILLA is a self-sustaining non-profit that offers a yearly conference. I would also love to see WILLA offer a yearly retreat that focuses on mentorship between both younger and established writers. I expect that WILLA will by that point have initiated programs that influence the implementation of more contemporary women’s texts being read in public schools. You and I have also discussed how much we want to see women writers become more active in writing reviews and criticism. I hope we will have made some serious headway on that front in particular.
What, in your ideal world, Erin, will WILLA have achieved in ten years?
EB: Obsolescence. I have my fingers crossed.