I am going to admit here that poet Caroline Crew and I have taken a lot of Instagram photos together. And the captions of those Instagram photos usually include the word “coven.” (We were living in Massachusetts at the time and so it was okay.) I promise that even if I didn’t know Caroline, with her big laugh and beautiful hair (seriously the most beautiful hair) and ever-stoked righteous anger, I would still love her poetry. It is complicated and beautiful, obsessed with lady saints and lady ghosts, funny as often as it is angry or disappointed. Though she’s now in London, we took some time to talk on Skype about her new book of poems, Pink Museum, and what it means to be a feminist artist.
What’s the genesis of Pink Museum?
It was Valentine’s Day in 2013. I was struggling with how to be in a long-term, committed relationship with a straight white dude—how to navigate being a feminist in a romance. It was difficult. I thought about examples feminist romance—if you can call that a genre of poetry—and arrived at Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who I think everyone reads in high school at some point, at least “How do I love thee, let me count the ways”—but everyone stops at that. She’s an incredible, before-her-time intellect and feminist and poet. She wrote this amazing verse novel about sex work and gender roles, she could speak a billion languages, and she was in every way her partner, poet Robert Browning’s, intellectual and poetic equal. She was his superior, really. I reread her beautifully romantic poems to her husband, Sonnets from the Portuguese. When we talk about feminist poetry, people tend to think about directly political poetry. This is a little quieter. They are traditional love lyrics, but so embedded in them is the idea of equality. It was really comforting to me. It was what I had been looking for.
Pink Museum began when I started rewriting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems. It was a mechanical process at first. I was using Google Translate, running my source material back and forth through that. Or I would dictate the poems into voice recognition software to see what my American Mac made of my accent. I was mangling the source texts.
For a really long time the book was a literal rewriting of Sonnets from the Portuguese. Now it’s a combination of pretty straight love poems, poems written in this other lyric voice (which is essentially Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ghost), and poems that could be seen as a little aggressive. I see those more as the final claiming of voice.
You wear your feminism on your sleeve and your Twitter account. I know it’s something you think about a lot with relation to your art and your own life. What does it mean to be a feminist artist?
It means shouting twice as loud to be half as heard. It means extra work, really. That’s going to be the case for a very long time. There is a vast canon of women writers that is mine, but I have to go out and find those authors. They are writers you don’t read in school. For everyone one Elizabeth Barrett Browning, there were hundreds and hundreds of Victorian women writers, many of whom were outselling Dickens. And I don’t know them! Twenty years from now, people will be reading some of my peers: women poets, poets of color, queer poets. I think about what I have to do to make sure these future readers get to access to all these amazing writers. And I think about how loud we all need to keep shouting.
What does a feminist poem look like?
It’s as varied as feminists are. Something I contend with a lot in poetry is syntax and diction, and some of that is reclaiming vocabulary. Why else would you write a book called “pink” in some ways? I’m attempting to break down syntax and grammar and to examine and resist the ways in which gender is coded into language. But it’s difficult. It’s so difficult to tease apart what’s happening in a poem along the coded, societal lines. I’ve been reading a lot of Romantic poems recently because I’m writing pastoral explorations now. When I had to read this in high school, I didn’t realize the ways in which women are literally dragged through the mud in those poems because they are the mud. I hate this horrible, continual metaphor of women as territory. The feminist poetry that I’m most interested in right now is doing stuff on a sentence level, on a line-by-line language level. It’s interrogating the idea of grammar as a social convention and as male.
You also write a fair amount of nonfiction—you recently had an essay in Conjunctions. How did you come to write in this mode? What about nonfiction interesting about it to you?
I came to nonfiction through poems. It was a natural move—so many of my favorite essays seem so close to poems. And so many of my favorite nonfiction writers are poets. For me it really came out of researching poems. I wrote a little chapbook about poems based on saints’ lives called CAROLINE WHO WILL YOU PRAY TO NOW THAT YOU ARE DEAD and I’m kind of a nuts researcher. While I was working on that book, I’d make a lot of notes to myself. I’d write in the margins about Catherine of Sienna, “she did what?” Those little asides to myself in my research notes were essays. That’s how I first started getting into nonfiction.
I love poetry and I love political poetry, and I think it has a huge capacity to say important things. But so does nonfiction. There are things I need to grapple with in sentences. I know that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction and poetry are pretty arbitrary, but having the label of nonfiction for myself keeps me somewhat accountable. It gives me a different level of transparency. It prods me to think a lot more deeply. It’s not necessarily about honesty. I also really enjoy the collage element of nonfiction and being able to include other people’s ideas in a much more elegant way than I can achieve in poetry. That’s really appealing to me, to create a bigger space in which to put Kathy Acker and cage fighting together.