Confessions / Feminism / Lit

Women In Poetry: Cattiness, Mansplaining, And Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?


I used to have a real problem getting along with other female poets. I’m not sure why. Possibly it was equal parts insecurity, self-loathing, jealousy, and women looking like the easy targets to take down, while men appeared as the gatekeepers, the ones to please. I would be more likely to mock what I saw as “bad writing” by women (not that I wasn’t making plenty of that myself), I would get involved in rivalries (always the other woman’s fault, of course), I would judge a female poet based on her looks.

I’m not proud of any of it. Please don’t think I excuse this behavior, these thoughts. But I had them. I did these things. I was young. It’s not uncommon. That does not make it okay – in fact, I think that makes it worse.

I’ve gotten past being in that space. I wish I could explain how in a witty and entertaining story, but it was a longer process of maturing, a process of learning to be a feminist and it ultimately is the sum of a lot of little stories, small realizations. These days, the vast majority of my poet and editor friends are women. I’m going to be on a panel at the upcoming AWP conference about women and feminism in small press publishing. I run a feminist micro press.

But sometimes the cattiness still comes. I’ve always been feisty, and when someone challenges me, I tend to go claws-out, though I often will mask it in being “funny”. I’m a performer, and can steal a spotlight, a stage, from someone if I choose.

Case in point, a while ago I was giving a talk with a few other editors, and the editor from whom my opinions most diverged was the only other female editor at the talk. As I spoke about my editorial philosophy, I watched her face change, realized that she thought I was insulting her/her press. I wasn’t. I didn’t mean to. Her press is very, very different from mine. That’s okay, but yes – they do things I don’t necessarily agree with.

When it was her turn to talk, she explained why her press does things the way they do, and I will admit that the way she spoke and her tone and the way I felt she compared my press to hers made me feel a little dismissed – talked down to. And when, earlier in the evening, a poet friend of hers had tried to introduce her to me, she had seemed less than uninterested in talking. So I got a little offended – never mind that poets are a socially awkward bunch. Never mind that I can be very high-energy and have been told I’m intimidating to talk to (though this always puzzles me). Never mind that maybe she was just having a bad day – who knows?

So the next time she started to talk, I interjected twice with little jokes/one-liners. I got laughs. I won over the group of editors who, other than her and I, were middle-aged white men. She probably thought I was obnoxious. I wouldn’t know because I didn’t speak a word to her, nor her to me, after that group discussion. And that’s pretty messed up. And it’s partly my fault.

If she had been a man would I have done the same? Of course I would have. But I am writing this story to show I am not morally superior. I am not sitting here and saying “I do it all right. I have all the answers and you should all listen to me me me me me.” I am just as culpable as anyone else. I have committed all these feminist poet sins.

But I try. I swear to god, I try. I check myself, I inspect my thoughts when I’m being particularly critical of a female poet, I have tried to make amends with some of the female poets I had rivalries with in the past. I try to give all people the benefit of the doubt, including and perhaps especially women. I have become very good at recognizing my own jealousies.

And so, in a moment of particular earnestness and the desire to love on my fellow lady poets, I posted the following Facebook status:

“Ladies in poetry and publishing – we may not always agree/see eye-to-eye, but let’s be supportive of each other nonetheless and be unafraid of engaging without cutting one another down or glaring across the room. I think we have it in us – I really do.”

A lot of female poets and editors “like”d the status, but when I initially posted it, all the comments came from men. And those men were universally dismissive, calling women fighting with one another “sexy”, making some sort of remark that was utterly off-topic but “witty”, or explaining how cattiness in poetry is NEEDED, didn’t I see? I was being dismissed and mansplained to at once, and it was infuriating.

But such is the way of the internet, I suppose. Get out of the kitchen if I can’t take the heat or something, right?

I try not to get into internet fights. They’re generally pointless, no minds are ever changed, and no one ends up looking good in the end. And so I did not engage with these men. I think it is difficult for those in positions of privilege and power to truly comprehend what it is like to live without their privileged position. I fully understand that as a white woman who is partnered with a man, I have a certain amount of privilege. I try to be as sensitive to that as I can. I am certain that sometimes I fail.

My friend Dan Nowak is presently running a chapbook competition over at his press, Imaginary Friend Press. The only stipulation is that no straight, white male can win. There is a small irony in that Dan is a white male in a heteronormative relationship. He’s already gotten flack for this contest from at least one straight white male claiming that he’s being unfair to them – how dare he not let straight white males enter his contest? They should have every opportunity that women, non-white, and queer people do! Of course, the straight white male in question failed to see the irony.

Another friend of mine told me recently that her brothers, who are both writers, will often go off on her (also a writer) about how she has “all the advantages” as a woman in the writing world. That she is so much more able to get published than they are because she’s a woman. They accuse her of going for shock value when she writes about her experience growing up female. They tell her she is the one in the position of privilege.

These things make my head feel like it might explode.

Then something really lovely began to happen on that Facebook status – rather than engaging with the dismissive dudes, women began commenting and discussing with one another. The more we talked, the more the mansplaining faded. There had been a moment when I regretted making the post, considered taking it down. In the end, I’m glad I did not, because in a small way the female commenters demonstrated exactly how we can really all just get along.

Image: Marcel Lamont Walker


Margaret Bashaar’s poetry has been collected in 2 chapbooks – Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt, 2009) as well as in many literary journals and anthologies. She edits the chapbook micropress Hyacinth Girl Press, attempts to repair antique typewriters, and spends far too much time at haunted hotels in coal mining towns for her own good. She’s only been suspected of being possessed once and hopes to someday become a rogue taxidermist. Follow her on Twitter @myhyacinthgirl


2 thoughts on “Women In Poetry: Cattiness, Mansplaining, And Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

  1. Just dropping you a note: I started a blog called women poetry. I have found the most amazing early poetry from women in the 1850 – 1900s. I hope you will stop by and read some ~ I know everyone will find inspiration!

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