October is Violence against Women Awareness month. This October we bring together four poets whose writing appears in the anthology Women Writing Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), along with the book’s editor, to discuss navigating truth and fact, the historical record, and the influence of the outside world on poetry. Women Write Resistance views poetry as a transformative art. By deploying techniques to challenge narratives about violence against women and making alternatives to that violence visible, poetry of resistance distinguishes itself by a persuasive rhetoric that asks readers to act. Leslie Adrienne Miller, Jennifer Perrine, Sara Henning, Sarah A. Chavez, and Laura Madeline Wiseman explore poetry of resistance in this roundtable discussion. These poets were featured at this year’s Omaha Lit Fest.
How do you navigate fact when writing about the present and the past in your poetry and prose?
Leslie Adrienne Miller: Very few things qualify as fact for me. Those that do are generally concrete things. Once you add language, however, nothing qualifies as a stable fact because every word choice brings different tonal shadings. That said, I work on the magpie model; I look for the shiny bits and make a new nest of them. I’m attracted to things that appear to be fact, things that somebody (sometimes myself) once believed were facts, and the tension between those facts and the instability time has subjected them to.
Sara Henning: It would be silly not to argue that facts are artifacts of hegemony and historiography, though some things seem fairly unalterable—for instance, the riots at Kent State, or the shooting of Michael Brown. In my writing, logos is both a foundational principle and a site of exploration. I tend to allow things to bevel amongst a series of perceived moments that try to sustain their own truths.
Sarah A. Chavez: “Fact” can certainly become tricky. Mostly the facts I encounter in my work are those from my own life. Sometimes I will ask a family member or friend their memory of a situation, or if the personal fact is attached to historical or global fact, I’ll do more substantive research. For the most part though, I’m not terribly concerned with facts, so much as truth. Facts and memory can be distorted and interpreted differently. I don’t have any interest in debating events, so much as sharing the emotional truth I feel is relevant. In that sense “fact” and “fiction” become delicately intertwined.
Laura Madeline Wiseman: When I was writing Queen of the Platform, navigating fact was key in interpreting the life of Matilda Fletcher, the suffragist, lecturer, and poet, who was also my great-great-great-grandmother. When I began this research, very little was known about Matilda. I started with creating a chronology from newspapers. Reporters offered some sense of the event in terms of topic, venue, admission, attendees, banners, etc. Other accounts of her life were found in Matilda’s books and her letters to the editors. Susan B. Anthony wrote a brief biographical account of Matilda in The History of Woman’s Suffrage. In my book I incorporated these facts in the form of the foreword, notes to the poems, epigraphs, and dates that placed Matilda in the historical record. Though facts were the architecture and structure that supported my story about her life, it is the characterization of her and the people she cared for that gave Queen of the Platform a story worth telling. I also offer moments from the present, opportunities for the poet, researcher, and ancestor to talk to Matilda and be curious about a past we can only partially know.
Jennifer Perrine: I tend to play fast and loose with facts; I focus more on the greater truth I’m attempting to reveal than I do on accuracy of historical details. When writing, I’m always aware that facts might have to give way to the greater force of making meaning.
For example, one of my earliest poems, “War Bride,” came out of a struggle to make meaning of what people assumed about the relationship between my Asian mother and my white father. The poem works through the story that people want to hear—that “my father […] carried her home / from Nam like a photo / of a pin-up girl”—to find the story that is true: that she “met my father / in a textile plant in New Jersey.”
Navigating between those expectations and realities, I write, “truth is, my mother / was born in northern California.” The fact of my mother’s birth—which occurred not in California, but in Peru—leads down a rabbit hole of systems that blocked my Chinese grandparents’ immigration to the United States and would have distracted from what I needed to explore in that poem: how the stories people created about my mother shaped my understanding of my own race, gender, and sexuality.
Someday, though, I may need to write a poem that tells the truth and makes meaning of the U.S. history of racist immigration policies. When that day comes, I will be led back to the fact of Peru.
How does the influence of the world outside the poet hinder or enrich the truth as it is conveyed in poetry?
JP: By “the world,” do you mean the people who read the poem after it’s made? If that’s the case, I’m not sure I’d call that interaction either a hindrance or enrichment, exactly. I don’t really believe that poetry is an act of conveyance, of the poet delivering a truth to a reader. The reader makes as much sense of the poem as the poet does—more, I suppose, because there’s not one single reader (one hopes), but an array of readers, bringing to the poem their diverse interests and experiences. Truth is made in the process of reading as much as it is in the process of writing.
SC: There is no truth to convey in poetry if there is no influence on or reflection of a world outside the poet. I suppose someone might argue that fantastical imagination can be hindered by a narrowly viewed realism, but poetry is not created in a vacuum. We live and write within the context of our culture. Poetry doesn’t create a truth outside of everyday life, it brings us closer to it.
LAM: I would say that the world outside the poet is all there is, and if we stop looking out, we’re ruined. What’s inside our heads is mostly chaos without the touchstones of the outside world. Maybe that’s what ego really is, an inner chaos disconnected from the world outside the self: it can be intensely attractive, but only momentarily, so it needs exterior anchors. Language navigates the space between inner and outer and allows us to at least feel that things have order and purpose, not that they really do, but none of us would survive thinking otherwise. No two of us see the same outside world anyway, so one thing a poem can do is allow us to show others what it looks like to us.
SH: If I remember one thing from ninth-grade advanced physical science, it is that nothing exists in a vacuum. Classical mechanics is simple, predicable and flawed in its beauty. I think that the poet as disembodied orb of experience gets quite tricky when one forgets to include that poetry, and the poet creating it, is a product of embodiment. As a writer, I live in a woman’s body, and this affects the way that I am permitted to observe the world. I am not going to argue with poetic fact as Federico García Lorca envisioned it—hecho poetico—as prime legitimizer of poetic imagination, the same way I’m not going to argue with Keats’ notion of negative capability. I find it interesting, though, that both of these notions are products of male—and thus hegemonic—subjectivity. The poem is its own truth, the same as I experience my own truth. But the poem, just like my body, is an invention of the world.
LMW: My book Intimates and Fools seeks to explore a truth many women face in this world—the complicated relationship to their bras. Bras are expensive. Many haven’t been fitted properly for the bras they wear. The lingerie industry offers expectations beyond proper sizing and comfort, hooking functionality to ideas of beauty and desire. All this can make for an uncomfortable carriage and a provocative exploration of truth in poetry.
Sarah A. Chavez is a mestíza born and raised in the California Central Valley completing her PhD in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found in various publications such as Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, the journals North American Review, The Fourth River, and others. Her chapbook All Day, Talking is forthcoming from dancing girl press in summer 2014.
Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013), as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.
Jennifer Perrine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry, and In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. In 2014, she will serve as a member of the U.S. Arts and Culture Delegation to Cuba. Perrine teaches in the English department and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University.
Leslie Adrienne Miller is author of six collections of poetry including Y, The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See from Graywolf Press, and Yesterday Had a Man in It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an M.A. from the University of Missouri, and a B.A. from Stephens College.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com