In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re talking to former Foyle Young Poets Sarah Fletcher and Phoebe Stuckes about gender, equality, and how they read their own (and each other’s) poems through a feminist lens. We hope Sarah and Phoebe’s words will inspire you to enter the Even It Up Poetry Challenge – we’d love to read your own poems about gender inequality!
We’re talking to Phoebe and Sarah about their poems ‘Daughters’ and ‘Brighton’ respectively, both of which have previously been chosen as top 15 winning poems in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.
Hi Phoebe and Sarah! We’ve picked your poems out because we think they speak to the themes of International Women’s Day, of gender parity and the fight against inequality – but do you agree with us?
Phoebe Stuckes: I first wrote ‘Daughters’ as part of what I lovingly refer to as my ‘big teen feminist awakening’ when I first started investigating and reading about feminism. I wanted to explore the things I was learning about at the time through poetry, because poetry is what I write and read the most. I was back then, and remain, a tiny angry feminist.
Sarah Fletcher: My writing has always been a bit preoccupied by gender. I don’t know how much ‘Brighton’ actively fights against inequality, but I can see how it would raise awareness of viewpoints which aren’t commonly depicted in popular media. I do think awareness is important, even if it’s not explicitly revolutionary; if another person can read ‘Brighton’ and feel less out of sorts with their surroundings and their place in the world, then I’ve done something good, I think.
What do you think of the term ‘feminist poetry’? Is it helpful or useful for readers? Can you give us some examples of poems or poets which/ who you think are particularly ‘feminist’?
PS: Reading more poetry and criticism has made me think the term ‘feminist poetry’ can be a little reductionist. I think if you’re part of a marginalised group writing outside the dominant narrative, your work is going to be politicised and characterised with ‘isms’, whether that was your intention or not! Sometimes I think this doesn’t allow women writers to be nuanced: no one supposes that male writers write on behalf of their entire gender.
Feminism is becoming such a buzzword that, in a sense, almost any woman living her own life and writing about it is going to be categorised as ‘feminist’ – although I think that this label is one that most women writers, myself included, would be proud to wear. Poet AK Blakemore recently tweeted “if u are female & writing about ur experience of being female you are part of the most avant garde literary movement that has ever existed”.
Isn’t there something both absurd and fantastic about that?’
black heels dangling over your shoulder,
red blisters hitting the sidewalk
SF: I think it’s important to remember that, when we talk about feminist poetry, we’re referring to two sorts of feminisms: one which is a political movement for women’s liberation, and one which is a mode of analysing the power structures surrounding gender in literature and other forms of expression. I can see how more overtly political slam poems or protest poems fit into the first definition, but not the latter; and I can see how poets like Sylvia Plath or Edna St. Vincent Millay who didn’t call themselves feminists but wrote about gender can easily fit into the latter and not the former. I think the concept of ‘the personal is political’ has made it increasingly tempting to ascribe the ‘feminist’ label to any artwork that depicts a female perspective.
It’s not a problem that’s confined to poetry: it’s become a big theme in pop music as well, with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and a few other pop stars identifying themselves strongly as feminists. The sceptic in me thinks this is because capitalism has redefined and repackaged feminism in a very watered-down, ‘anything a woman chooses is feminist’ type of way.
In our Even It Up challenge, we’re asking young writers to respond to some huge issues – global and gender inequality – through poetry. Creative responses to catastrophe can get short shrift in some quarters – why do you think that is?
PS: There are always going to be those who believe that poetry has no place in serious discourse. If you respond to disaster with poetry, the Powers That Be may not be reading it; however poetry is still an important and valuable response. There will be someone out there looking for comfort, just as you have looked for something (solace, clarity, catharsis) in the act of writing. Poetry can be a way to react fully to something terrible that you cannot otherwise comprehend.
SF: I think any work that is explicitly political runs the risk of being seen as a form of propaganda, or that it somehow sacrifices an artistic message in favour of a dogmatic or didactic one. We live in a society where, with our constant exposure to the news, we absorb a lot of politics by osmosis, and I think it’s good for young poets to be involved in this. If you can send a message through your poem, I think it’s all the better.
Do you find competitions and writing challenges and prompts useful for encouraging your own writing, or sparking an initial idea?
SF: Definitely! Some of my best poems have come from workshops. I think most poets go through times in which they’re writing a lot, and then other times in which they’re writing very little. Whenever I’m going through the latter, I feel like workshops and challenges can provide the kind of stimulus I need to get inspired again. My favourite ever workshop theme came from Helen Mort: ‘write about something that did not happen’ – ‘you did not take the bus this morning, you did not attend a life changing event, you did not fall in love.’ It’s almost like reverse psychology for poems, and always makes me feel creative.
PS: Prompts help to take the pressure off your imagination and experience. They force you to think harder about what you’re writing and I definitely find them most useful when I’m stuck in a rut.
Apart from ‘Brighton’ and ‘Daughters’, which poems would you be your pick for people to read on International Women’s Day, and why?
SF: ‘Diving into the Wreck’ by Adrienne Rich. I love these lines about exploring a shipwreck: “I came for:/the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth”. I’ve always taken that to mean that she is examining what it means to be a woman beyond any stereotypes of femininity or myths about what ‘real women’ are. It empowers women to define their own experiences.
PS: I’m currently recommending the entirety of Sarah Howe’s T.S. Eliot prize-winning collection ‘Loop of Jade’ to everyone who will listen and can’t pick a favourite. Warsan Shire‘s writing is also deeply beautiful; a lot of her poems speak to the experience of womanhood and she never shies away from pain or ‘difficult’ subjects.
Just a tiny question: can poetry change the world?
SF: I do believe poetry can inspire the course of action of great individuals, who go on to change the world. I think of Nelson Mandela, who said he was inspired and empowered by the poem ‘Invictus’ by William Henley. In this way, I think poetry can put change into motion.
PS: I don’t know if poetry can change the world on its own. That sounds like a terrible thing to believe as a young writer, but I think even if poetry can’t have some huge political effect on society’s problems, it is still a wonderful thing. Poetry’s ‘use’ is that it’s an expression of wonder and truth; it may not be able to change the world but it can certainly change your world, and that is incredibly important.
Sarah Fletcher on her poem ‘Brighton’
Sarah, in your poem you talk about magazines dictating to women (although it’s not limited to just women !) how they should look, and the mirror being an “ever-present eye”. Do you think this is still the case?
I think the sad thing about the ‘ever-present eye’ is that it extends far beyond mirrors. A lot of women see their bodies as a separate part of themselves to keep in order. In this way, many women are their own ‘ever-present eyes’ — and it’s an ‘eye’ that’s disassociated and separate from the ‘I’ of the brain or consciousness — an ‘eye’ that’s closely linked with societal norms and self-judgement. I feel like the speaker of ‘Brighton’ finds a certain relief from this constant anxiety; she’s able to forget the mirror’s constant reminder of her own inadequacy.
Sarah on Phoebe’s poem, ‘Daughters’
Would you call Phoebe’s poem a ‘feminist poem’?
I would call ‘Daughters’ a feminist poem. It’s a poem that feels like a warning shot to the rest of the world — almost a call to arms for other women! I love that it starts with ‘Enough’ — it’s the word I imagine someone shouting in the middle of a big fight to bring things to a halt. It sounds like both a command and a plea, depending on how you read it.
Let us never evolve to be good or beautiful
The line “let us no longer keep keys in our knuckles” really stood out to me — it’s one of those things women all over the world immediately recognise, but no one really notices they do — and something many men are oblivious to. I particularly love how the poem shifts from the universal ‘us’ to the ‘you’ at the end: the speaker directly addresses the (I assume, female) reader and tells her she is beautiful, and commands her to ‘feed it’.
You Amazon, you Gloria, you Swiss army knife of a woman.
Phoebe’s line “Let us never evolve to be good or beautiful” is a really interesting one. What does it mean to you?
I really like these lines, and find the word ‘evolve’ particularly interesting. ‘Evolve’ usually seems like a positive term, implying growth: humans and animals evolve to survive. But this poem suggests ‘evolve’ as a negative thing. I almost read ‘evolve’ here as a sort of ‘giving in’ to social conditioning.‘Good’ seems to be playing on this very arbitrary notion of women being ‘good’, wherein ‘good’ is equated to tame, compliant, pure, and unchallenging. ‘Beautiful’ seems to refer to the slim standards in which we find ‘beauty’ today — standards in which women are stuffed into. I always think of the ugly step sisters in Cinderella trying to jam their feet into the glass slipper that doesn’t fit. Phoebe’s speaker begs the women reading this poem to reject that.
“women are all different and, no matter what, still deserve to have the power to control their own futures”
If you had to pick one line out of Phoebe’s poem to be a mantra for women struggling with inequality, which line would you pick, and why?
“Let us never be conquered” — it’s simple, but very strong. I think the simplicity works well here, because women may see themselves as ‘conquered’ by many things. For some (and for the speaker of my poem), it may be the anxiety about beauty norms. For others, it may be career stress or being unsure about their future. The line shows women are all different and, no matter what, still deserve to have the power to control their own futures.
Phoebe Stuckes on her poem ‘Daughters’
When I read it now, it strikes me as a poem about frustration and a desire for freedom. I thought at the time I was writing this about women, and the ‘us’ was designed to bring other women into the poem. At the time I had little to no understanding of what intersectional feminism [the view that different women experience prejudice and oppression in very different ways] was. Now, more than ever, I understand the importance of an inclusive ‘us.’
The line ‘Let us escape these attics still mad’ was designed to hark back to the idea of Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, a woman who has a frightening and threatening presence in the novel despite not being present for most of it. Whilst reading Jane Eyre I related far more strongly to Bertha than I did to Jane. I wanted to argue in favour of a mad female character; why shouldn’t women be frightening? Why should we be hidden away in fictional or actual attics? I’m hopefully far more informed about feminism now than I was when I wrote ‘Daughters’, but I still feel affection for it; I can still relate to the anger and frustration I was feeling back then.
Phoebe on Sarah’s poem ‘Brighton’
‘Brighton’ is an unapologetically feminine poem that shimmers with energy and humour. The narrative of a ‘walk of shame’ captures brilliantly that marriage of pain and beauty that haunts girlhood. The use of ‘You’ as the poem’s dominant pronoun invites the reader into a close correspondence with the writer; it almost seems like the reader is the ‘friend you hug too hard’, catching the writer in a moment of simultaneous reflection and disarray.
You don’t stumble. You don’t dare. You fly:
dancing into the obscurity of swaying street lamps.
Like ‘Daughters’ the poems is defiant, staring the magazine headlines and mirrors straight in the face with unwashed hair and blistered feet. Sarah takes an unglamorous reality and holds it up against societal expectations. My favourite image of the poem; however, is the mirror, the “ever present eye.”. What Sarah has concisely personified here is the particularly female experience of being constantly watched. From the male gaze in media, to a catcall on the street, there are always reminders that women are being observed, even by ourselves. Sarah undercuts the mirror’s power by embracing the messy appearance of the poem’s figure; the mirror becomes ‘a friend’ and the bruises are ‘hilarious’. The complexity of this is that the figure still struggles against the powers larger than themselves.
Let us never be conquered
We’d love to know your top poetry picks for International Women’s Day – you can tweet us at @youngpoetsnet or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know. If Phoebe and Sarah have inspired you to write your own poem exploring gender and inequality, why not enter it for our Even It Up poetry challenge! Full challenge details and guidelines can be found here.
Published March, 2016