In the Honours year of my undergrad degree in English Literature, I signed up for a module called Modern Poetry. When the student gaggle – twelve or so of us – arrived for the first seminar, our tutor announced that he wanted to talk to us about the “politics” of the course content before we got started. One of my fellow students, he said, had raised the issue that there was only one female poet – Marianne Moore – on the reading list. This, the tutor freely admitted, was very unfortunate.
He hadn’t meant to suggest that there were no important female poets working during this period, nor had he set out to create a course that focussed mainly on men’s writing. However, he said, there were only ten weeks – only ten spots available to talk about ten poets. Which man should he remove from the list? Eliot? Surely not – you can’t teach a modern poetry course without Eliot. Auden? No, same problem. Yeats? Well, if you’re teaching Auden you have to teach Yeats first, right? We saw his dilemma.
The modern poetry course turned out to be absolutely wonderful. However, it also serves to illustrate precisely why women’s writing needs – if you’ll forgive me – a room of its own. Great female poets – like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and even the likes of Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson – still have to jockey for position alongside the Eliots and Audens of our literary canon.
Contemporary women poets struggle to find the literary foremothers that Eliot himself suggested (in his famous essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’) we need to converse with in order to be any good at all as writers. Our foremothers are out there, but many of them are hard to find – over the years, their writing has been lost, buried, or forgotten. This struggle to find foremothers is even tricker for women poets of colour, and for LGBTQIA+ poets. This hasn’t necessarily happened out of any conscious malice or bias: rather, it’s happened because there’s always been a perceived need to make room for the Eliots and the Audens first.
My upcoming online course for the Poetry School is an attempt to right the balance: to give women’s poetry a small room of its own. Not everyone likes the idea of courses, anthologies or prizes dedicated solely to women’s writing, but these things are necessary. The 21st century is the first century in which women writers have a chance of achieving critical parity with their male counterparts, and that’s partly thanks to the fact that in recent years, dedicated spaces have been created where women’s writing can flourish. When I was offered the chance to teach a course with the Poetry School – an institution that has always worked to expand poetry’s horizons – I decided I’d like to contribute to that, albeit in my own small way. By signing up to this course, you’ll be contributing, too.
There’s more to Creatrix than just that, though. I’m also excited to introduce lesser-known contemporary female poets to new audiences. I am a huge fan of the Canadian poet Patricia Young, for example. In Canada, she’s a big deal – her work has appeared in every major Canadian literary journal, won many awards, and been published in twelve pamphlets and collections. However, when I mention her name in the UK – even to my friends who are poetry buffs – they’ve never heard of her. Similarly, Sapphire – the brilliant novelist behind Push, the novel that became the movie Precious – is also an accomplished poet, a fact that not many people know. Like Push, Sapphire’s poetry explores the difficulties and dangers of being a black woman in contemporary America: a topic more recently explored, to great critical acclaim, in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.
These are just two of the brilliant contemporary female poets whose writing I’m fired up about. I’m keen to share these and many other poems with you as we move through the course’s ten weeks. I’m keen to see how you’re inspired by the various poetries of these many talented women, and excited to see how their writing will shape your own poetic responses. I imagine it will be a journey of discovery for all of us, and very much hope you’ll join me.
Poetry for women is poetry for everyone. Come discover bold, independent and original poetry on Claire’s new online course Creatrix: Women’s Poetries for the 21st Century. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.