A Change of World, Episode 4 : A Place of Permission
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
Meryl Streep: In the 1960s, radical change came to American poetry.
Honor Moore: Women have been liberated to write about anything they want to.
I am the history of rape. I am the history of the rejection of who I am.
Meryl Streep: I’m Meryl Streep, join me for A Change of World, poetry in the Women’s Movement.
Curtis Fox: And I’m Curtis Fox, producer of that documentary. It’s based on a series of podcasts that The Poetry Foundation has been putting out over the past year or so. If you want to hear the Meryl Streep narrated special, check with your local radio station to see if it’s scheduled. If it’s not, please ask them to carry it. It’s free to stations and it’s on PRX, Public Radio Exchange. I’ll remind you about this at the end of the podcast. Here’s episode 4 of the podcast series, A Change of World, which originally dropped in November of last year.
Judy Grahn: You are what is female. You shall be called Eve. What is masculine shall be called God. And from your name Eve, we shall take the word “evil”. And from God’s, the word “good”. Now you understand patriarchal morality.
Curtis Fox: That was Judy Grahn with a poem from 1977, and this is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, a place of permission. In the 1950s and early 60s, if university students read female students at all, it was usually confined to Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. If a woman wanted to become a poet herself, there were few role models, fewer mentors and only a handful of creative writing programs in the country. But by the 1970s, ambitious and socially progressive women were taking matters into their own hands. Poetry workshops, run by women and for women, sprang up in cities around the country. They became communities unto themselves, and often they mirrored what was happening in the women’s movement. This is part four of our series, A Change of Word, about the intersections between contemporary poetry and second wave feminism. In this episode, we’re looking into this new path into poetry.
Alice Walker: When I was a student at Sarah Lawrence, I had many very difficult times. That was when I discovered that poetry was a way of saving my life by helping me to in some ways forget it by writing.
Curtis Fox: This is tape from 1979 of poet and novelist Alice Walker, taken from a reading she gave at Congress.
Alice Walker: I wasn’t thinking about publishing these poems, I was just thinking about getting through the night. I put them in a little blue notebook, and this notebook I put under the door of Muriel Rukeyser’s cottage. She was the poet on campus. Muriel took these poems and gave them to her agent who gave them to a publisher, and that was how I started publishing.
Curtis Fox: Alice Walker graduated from college in 1966. The support she got from an established female poet was rare at that time, if only because there were almost no prominent female poets to be found at universities. Even Muriel Rukeyser didn’t have a tenured job. If you really wanted to study with her though, you could find her in New York City.
Muriel Rukeyser: In the human cities, never again to
despise the backside of the city, the ghetto,
or build it again as we build the despised
backsides of houses. Look at your own building
You are the city.
Curtis Fox: “Despisals” is a poem by Rukeyser that turns the marginalization of urban groups into a metaphor for sexual and bodily shame.
Muriel Rukeyser: Among our secrecies, not to despise our Jews
(that is, ourselves) or our darkness, our blacks,
or in our sexuality wherever it takes us
Curtis Fox: Rukeyser had been writing poems with a distinctly feminist perspective since the 1930s. In the 1960s and 70s, she was celebrated and championed by poets involved in the women’s movement.
Muriel Rukeyser: – never to despise
the homosexual who goes building another
with touch with touch (not to despise any touch)
each like himself like herself each.
Sharon Olds: each like himself like herself each.
You are this.
Curtis Fox: Among her readers in New York was an upcoming poets who would herself be celebrated one day for her own sexually frank poems, Sharon Olds.
Sharon Olds: She had lived a whole life in a female body, therefore she knew a thousand things that I knew, and then she knew another thousand I didn’t know. And she was bisexual, so she knew a lot more than I knew!
Muriel Rukeyser: In the body’s ghetto
never to go despising the asshole
nor the useful shit that is our clean clue
to what we need. Never to despise
the clitoris in her least speech.
Never to despise in myself what I have been taught
to despise. Nor to despise the other.
Not to despise the it. To make this relation
with the it : to know that I am it.
Sharon Olds: She was brave. In a way, it was more important to me that she was brave. That has something to do with me growing up in an atmosphere where although women had to be quite brave in many ways, they weren’t know for that quality.
Curtis Fox: Perhaps because role models were scarce and mentors even scarcer, Olds didn’t get serious about her poetry until she was 30.
Sharon Olds: I had a big breakthrough, and I started writing all the time. I began to realize that I needed help. My poems were too sentimental, they were sort of self pitying. I didn’t know how to revise without taking out the rude stuff, which was not necessarily what I should take out of my poems. Maybe, but it might not be. I just happened to see in a newspaper, when I didn’t read the newspaper, “Muriel Rukeyser, Poetry Appreciation”.
Curtis Fox: In the 1970s, Rukeyser tough ta poetry class at the 92nd street Y in New York City.
Sharon Olds: What I needed was Muriel.
Curtis Fox: When Olds took the class, it wasn’t a workshop where students brought in their own poems.
Sharon Olds: I don’t think they had workshops yet, except maybe at Iowa. She would bring in a poem and ask someone to read it, and then ask someone else to read it. She was good for the ear, I’m realizing. Then she would say, let’s see if we can reconstruct the first line. It was like great talk with poets.
Curtis Fox: One day the students were allowed to bring in their own poems, and Sharon Olds was ready.
Sharon Olds: It was a sexual love poem. One of the fellow members of the class said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with this poem, but something is really wrong with it. I don’t know, all this milky and creamy”. Muriel said, “Too dairy?”. (LAUGHING) Too dairy! I knew as soon as I was in the room with her that she was really important to me. She was so smart, so strong, so musical, so political.
Curtis Fox: And she was that rare model for how to be a female poet in a male dominated literary scene.
Sharon Olds: She was of an age that she had suffered much worse sexism than was there when I came along. When I came along, it was amazing how much there was. There was plenty. I got a lot of rejection slips from editors who were all male, many of which were contemptuous and a couple of which were scary.
Curtis Fox: Olds thinks that their contempt was because her poems featured a woman’s experience from a female point of view. Woman-centered poetry, as it came to be known.
Sharon Olds: These were love poems, many of them. And they had children in them. The editor would say, “If you wish to write about your children, may we suggest the Lady’s Home Journal? We are a literary magazine”.
Curtis Fox: The problem for up and coming female poets wasn’t just rejecting by male literary gate keepers. It went deeper than that. As Honor Moore explains, she and other poets wanted to find their poetic voices as women.
Honor Moore: Can I please, please put a pen in my hand and write what I really mean? Can I find the language for that? Well, where am I going to find the language? Where have poets always found language? By listening to other poets and making a shift.
I’m a woman in the prime of life, driving her dead poet.
My lover’s teeth are white geese flying above me.
Once it was easy to know who were my people.
I did not say male or female
Honor Moore: It was something ineffable that came out in the poems that everybody would respond to. I want to know that aspect of myself that that woman has freed within herself. What the poet was hitting that had to do with women’s lives that had not yet been spoken. You try and get to know the poet. Oh, I want to talk to that poet, I want to know what she knows.
Curtis Fox: This is a poem of a young child, dark house…
Honor Moore: And then you might hear that Muriel Rukeyser was giving a workshop in her apartment.
Curtis Fox: Back then, pre-Internet, pre-email, it was word of mouth. You might have heard that Adrienne Rich was holding a workshop in her New York apartment, or that Eileen Myles was teaching at The Poetry Project, or that Honor Moore was giving a workshop in her apartment.
Honor Moore: When I taught a workshop in my living room in 1977, I had this crazy idea that women poets wrote short lines because they didn’t have the courage to write long lines. So I got everybody to write long lined poems. But we were talking about getting our own experience into poems.
Judy Grahn: We had aroused this sleeping giant of women who had so many stories to tell.
Curtis Fox: Judy Grahn credits the women’s movement for the surge in interest for writing workshops.
Judy Grahn: It was phenomenal. It was like a flood. Women wanted to tell their life stories, they wanted to tell stories about things that had happened to them, or happened to their mothers, or happened to other people they knew.
Curtis Fox: Grahn was a lesbian activist in California who wrote poems that were very influential among feminists and feminist poets. She began giving workshops at feminist retreats in Upstate New York in the 1970s, and later in the Bay area.
Judy Grahn: I started working with the idea that we have a very powerful inner critic. That is their mothers, or their fathers, or their very first teachers telling them they don’t have anything to say, they’re not worth anything, they’re not articulate, they can’t write, doesn’t matter anyway. These awful voices. I had such a voice as well, but I learned how to help people through it by addressing it directly, because otherwise it just sneaks up on you in the dark.
Curtis Fox: Grahn says she also tried to help women in very practical ways.
Judy Grahn: I helped them set up special places in their house to sit every single day and say that this was their time, playing music that was just theirs, lighting a little candle that was just for them, having a little notebook that was just only theirs. I think what made it work was that absolute permission to come up with anything they wanted to talk about and write about.
H: It was akin to consciousness raising. In other words, it was to find in our own lives as women the subject matter that was forbidden in other workshops, not only taught by a male poet but populated by let’s say 10:1 men:women.
Judy Grahn: Women’s content as I discovered was, and still is to some extend, so controversial and so unheard of. It was such a new thing.
I have been raped because I have been wrong. The wrong sex, the wrong age, the wrong skin, the wrong nose, the wrong hair…
Honor Moore: There’s always the big question, is this a poem? Especially if you’re starting. Why would you write a poem if you’re just going to write them like everyone else? You’re going to do something new. You start that way, and you want someone to say yes, this is a poem. Validate it, exactly. That’s the word we have now, but we didn’t have that word then. All that 1970s validating and support group, that all really came out of the women’s movement.
Curtis Fox: In the late 1970s and early 80s, Master of Fine Arts or MFA programs were rapidly becoming the standard path to becoming a poet. This helped democratize poetry, bringing more women into close contact with established poets and writers. At the same time, more female poets were finding jobs in these programs. Much of the feminist workshop scene followed these poets to colleges and universities.
Honor Moore: I never imagined that MFA programs would suit or support women. In fact, they have. And it’s because of individual women within MFA programs.
Audre Lorde: For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
Curtis Fox: Audre Lorde taught at Hunter College in New York City. In 1980 someone gave Donna Masini something Lorde had written.
Donna Masini: For some reason, it really spoke to me. I was at an Adrienne Rich reading at the public theatre. It was a benefit for this woman’s theatre group, and I was pouring drinks. Someone said, “There’s Audre Lorde!” I put down the bottle of wine, walked over to Audre and just started talking. Audre, as she always with me said, “Yes, yes, I understand, I understand. Come and study with me”.
Curtis Fox: The problem was, Masini wasn’t a poet. Nonetheless, Audre Lorde persuaded her to take her poetry workshop at Hunter.
Donna Masini: There was no difference between the world and the poem. Audre would walk in and say “Eleanor Bumpers”. I’d think, “Who?” Eleanor Bumpers was that old black woman who was killed by the police. Audre would come in and talk about that. one time she looked at me and said, “Who mined the quartz that’s on that watch you’re wearing?” I would say “Quartz? I didn’t know there was quartz on a watch.” But she made us think about those things.
Curtis Fox: Even in the academy, workshops like Audre Lorde’s helped to foster close relationships between women that could be life changing.
Donna Masini: Pretty early on she grabbed me and said “Come to my office”. She said, “You are a poet”. I said, “What?”
Curtis Fox: This was the beginning of a mentorship that turned Donna Masini into a poet.
Donna Masini: At that time she was living on Staton Island, and that’s where my family was. She said to me, “Now you have two mothers on Staton Island, a black one and a white one”. She was almost worse than my own mother, she was really really tough. But she gave me the permission, and I think the sense that whatever you did, it had to be urgent and necessary.
Eileen Miles: I was born in Boston in
1949. I never wanted
this fact to be known, in
fact I’ve spent the better
half of my adult life
trying to sweep my early
years under the carpet
Curtis Fox: In 1992, tongue planted firmly in cheek, the poet Eileen Miles ran for President of the United States as a writing candidate. One of her campaign stops was Wesleyan University, where Maggie Nelson was a student.
Maggie Nelson: It wasn’t a reading at a sanctioned spot, it was in the hippie dorm were the kegs were and stuff.
Eileen Miles: traveled
widely, met the famous,
the controversial, and
and I knew from
a very early age that
if there were ever any
possibility of escaping
the collective fate of this famous
Boston family I would
take that route
Maggie Nelson: She was doing an experiment with memorizing her poems and then delivering them kind of like campaign speeches. Her campaign slogan was “Radical Disclosure”.
Eileen Miles: I thought
Well I’ll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
I became a lesbian.
Every woman in my
family looks like
a dyke but it’s really
stepping off the flag
when you become one.
Maggie Nelson: She’s pretending to be a Kennedy who has stepped off the flag in the guise of a dyke so she wouldn’t be recognized.
Eileen Miles: A woman I
am currently having
an affair with said
you know you look
like a Kennedy. I felt
the blood rising in my
cheeks. People have
always laughed at
my Boston accent
confusing “large” for
Maggie Nelson: It was very unnerving in a way because it wasn’t like a poetry reading with somebody at a podium looking down all the time. She was just standing there in her raw body, telling us these things.
Eileen Miles: Everyone
here, are we all normal.
It is not normal for
me to be a Kennedy.
But I am no longer
ashamed, no longer
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.
Maggie Nelson: I just thought, “Well, whoever that was, time to follow it”.
Curtis Fox: After college, Nelson did just that. She moved to New York and started taking workshops with Miles. The other students were poets and artists from various disciplines. There were a few men, usually gay or gender queer.
Maggie Nelson: They were pretty free of heterosexual dynamics in a way.
Curtis Fox: During the workshops, they’d usually do a writing exercise.
Maggie Nelson: For a while she was into this idea that why do we always look at women, nude models, and write? So for a while she was having men come nude that we would write about. For like 15 or 20 minutes, nude models. (LAUGHING) Sometimes we’d do walking meditation. There’s a poem in my first book that came from a walking meditation through Times Square. We’d just go walking through Times Square for a half an hour and then come back and write about what we saw.
Curtis Fox: When Maggie Nelson was taking workshops with Eileen Miles, the feminist poetry workshop scene had been happening for 20 years. Most of it was now happening on campuses, yet there was pockets outside of academia where it persisted. The literary old boys club that female poets had faced in the early 70s was still strong, but in the 1990s, partly because of the workshops and the relationships they fostered, there were alternative ways to find support and develop careers. Maggie Nelson’s experience in the 1990s was very different from female poets in the 1970s.
Maggie Nelson: What I never had I guess I’ll say is a poetry world where I felt men were the gatekeepers or had things I wanted. I wanted the world Eileen represented. It was the kind of power you create when you’re making your own world. So we were making the world that we wanted and living in it, but we weren’t asking anybody for anything.
Curtis Fox: Once again, Donna Masini.
Donna Masini: I still think there’s a boys club. When somebody decides who’s going to be invited to read, the first names that come up are often men. But it has changed a lot. I think that women know that they can be women and write from a place of what is female in the largest sense.
Muriel Rukeyser: Never to despise in myself what I have been taught
to despise. Nor to despise the other.
Not to despise the it. To make this relation
with the it : to know that I am it.
Curtis Fox: This has been the fourth episode in our series A Change of World. Honor Moore is our advisor. She’s also the editor of the anthology Poems From The Women’s Movement, which is published by the Library of America. Thanks to Hannah Brooksmodel for her editorial advice on this episode. Do let us know what you think of this podcast, and of this series in particular. Email us at email@example.com. You can link to the podcast on social media on SoundCloud or you can subscribe to it on iTunes. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.
Meryl Streep: In the 1960s, radical change came to American poetry.
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
Meryl Streep: I’m Meryl Streep, join me for A Change of World, poetry in the Women’s Movement. We’ll hear how the women’s movement changed poetry, and how the women poets worked together to change the culture.
Curtis Fox: Check with your local public radio station to see if they’re carrying this hour long special with Meryl Streep, which like this podcast is produced by The Poetry Foundation. If it’s not on your radio station’s schedule and you want to hear it, please ask them to carry it. It’s free to radio stations, and they can find it on PRX, Public Radio Exchange.
In the '70s, poetry workshops run by women, for women, sprang up in cities around the country. They mirrored what was happening in the women’s movement, and they became communities unto themselves.