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MY FEMINIST ASPECT—A NON-SELF INTERVIEW IN BRIEF
Dear Ones: Those who read my poems often gravitate to aspects of my work I hadn’t given enough attention. It’s the same process with interviews, depending on the slant of the article or the nature of the publication. In this instance, the focus is feminist. One subject is a newly published essay in which I repeat some of my favorite rhetorical stances on poverty, having been a working Single Mom with Children for a significant part of my life. The other focus is on one of my most published and censored poems, currently reprinted in a challenging and exciting new format. Given the current social and economic crises that currently dominate our nation’s headlines, my subjects, as reflected on below, unfortunately remain timely. The following interview by Amanda Montei was originally written for another publication. These are the parts that were left on the editorial staff office floor:
Feminaissance, a new anthology published by Les Figues Press and edited by Christine Wertheim, explores the nature of women’s writing in our post-everything world. A compilation of experimental essays, poetry and fiction that interrogates “post-feminist” ideologies, the book explores the intersectional relationship between poverty, abuse, literary theory, and gender. The anthology takes its cue from postmodern notions of the dead subject, but re-articulates and revivifies the importance of group collectivity and identity with feverish insight. This revelatory collection includes works from some of the most innovative contemporary women writing today, including Eileen Myles, Dodie Bellamy, Bhanu Kapil, Chris Kraus and Wanda Coleman. Ms. Magazine writer Amanda Montei spoke with Ms. Coleman about the implications of her startlingly acute essay “Striving to be a Man,” and “RAPE,” a poem, both of which appear in the anthology.
MONTEI: In your piece “Striving to be a Man” in Feminaissance, you say that the momentum of the feminist movement “has been successfully neutralized or reversed by fierce, greed-driven economic forces, be they corporate or entrepreneurial.” Can you give some examples of where you see or have seen that happening?
COLEMAN: Didn’t the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) fail in the early 1980s? And aren’t most women still earning 50-to-78 cents per the dollar earned by male peers for the same work, particularly if you go by my personal experience? Pardon my soap box, but women make up the majority of America’s homeless population, largely a bi-product of the Reagan years. When I was a child, panhandlers and beggars were all men and skid row was the realm of alcoholics and addicts. Now one sees many women on the streets, particularly mature women. Should one take this as a leveling of the cultural playing field, as evidence of social progress? My answer is no, that poverty has become a gender issue.
To “strive to be a man,” requires one’s best effort to earn the same amount of money, power or prestige that a man makes or more. Those women who’ve been successful at precisely that can be counted on two hands and a couple of toes starting with Martha Stewart and Oprah. When I reflect on my own strivings, I often think of my years at Children’s Hospital as an underpaid medical transcriber, insurance biller and secretary in the late 80s, early 90s. The insurance companies were often indifferent to the point of villainy in their denials of treatment modalities and prostheses for children. The financial burdens those denials placed on the families were horrific. Private charities are often helpful when the state and federal governments are not; however, even diseases have fads. If a disease is rare, the entire family suffers.
I met a blonde woman six months ago in front of a drug store. Her daughter was an extremely outstanding individual. When my husband and I asked about her, the mother explained that she had cancer, was receiving chemotherapy, but that they were living out of their car. It is too early to know to what extent national health care will alleviate the sorrows of families like hers; or, those children whose claims have been denied by insurance companies in the past, and their families. The most often quoted statistic is that 85% of the fathers desert their families when the children are born with a disability or became terminally ill. The mothers—across the racial spectrum—are left alone to carry the weight of their children’s difficulties, usually with little to no assistance from the larger society. That circumstance is virtually unchanged. Will national health care improve their quality of life? Will it stop the destructive separations that may come at a time when family unity is the optimum desire?
In times of economic strife, like that currently underway, women have often been the mainstay of the family until their men find work. What happens when jobs are farmed out overseas, targeted for newer immigrant populations, targeted for younger populations, or vanish with the changes in the workplace brought by irreversible technological advancements? All these things have happened since the end of the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement, affecting women who must work. For today’s qualified-and-able, few can support a family on one salary. Often, in the nuclear family, both adults must work more than one job to make the usual ends meet. The proper raising of a family today is too often a high-wire act, nearly impossible without help from that metaphorical “village.”
Another negative byproduct I mention is “the criminalization of women,” largely African-American, Hispanic and Latin. The prison population of women has risen dramatically with the corresponding increase in highly publicized acts of violence committed by women—if we only include those years between the recent incident involving Professor Amy Bishop several weeks ago and the Eula Love incident in Los Angeles from the late 70s, in which she was alleged to have attacked a service man and police with a butcher knife. Not only has the number of violent acts by women radically increased, but so has their horrific nature. Women are on edge because being “safe and secure” is no longer an option except for the wealthy 1% of the nation, if then. Between 1979 and 2010 there are too many examples to cite, including women who kill their children, starting with Susan Vaughan Smith. It galls me that there is only superficial media attention paid to the economic factors that play a “supporting role” in these actions.
Saving clippings of these incidents used to be an occasional matter. Now these acts are so frequent I can’t keep up with them, when they draw my attention. Unfortunately, they barely register if they don’t make headlines—if the crime isn’t deemed “sexy” by the mass media—thus making these tragic women and their families readily exploitable. If Professor Bishop had received tenure, would she have picked up the gun to slay coworkers? If Eula Love had enough money to pay her utility bills, would she have threatened the service man sent to disconnect the service? If Congress had ratified the ERA, would we be having this discussion now?
MONTEI: The men in “RAPE” are completely disconnected from the horrific experience/effects of the rape—does your poetry/writing have the potential to bridge or communicate that gap?
COLEMAN: Probably. I wanted to undermine the argument that male authority figures are helpful in these situations. This issue was given some discussion during the women’s movement, which resulted in the recruitment of more female law officers (in many communities), and sensitivity training for men; but the issue was never explored to my satisfaction, hence my poem. The tragic irony in “Rape” is that the rapists themselves are the most sensitive men in the poem. They’re gentlemen. They cared enough about their victim to study her. The symbolic rapes that follow, including the boyfriend’s, are thoroughly despicable. The authorities are indifferent to the victim’s feelings, because they buy into dated social myths and narrow religious tenets: she asked for it, she’s a whore by nature, ad infinitum. They are worse than the rapists. The rape of an 8-year-old Liberian girl last year tragically illustrates my point. The act itself was trauma enough, but then to be shunned by her family? My poem may or may not help bridge the communication gap (between men and women) brought to the fore in “Rape.” But then, it was written to assist victims who are unable to find adequate emotional support or psychological help, regardless of color, creed, or gender.
Amanda Montei lives in Los Angeles and is an MFA candidate at California Institute of the Arts. She is currently working on a memoir, a collection of prose poems, and other projects which explore and explode notions of femininity and the gendered nature of language and art. Her work has appeared in The Northridge Review, Word Riot, Nanofiction, Dogzplot, Nighttrain, et al., She is a nominee for the 2009 Million Writer’s Award and blogs for Ms. Magazine.