Conversations: Poetry and the Lives of Women

(Left to right: Anne Waldman, Toi Derricotte, Linda Pastan, and Taslima Nasreen)

It was my great privilege to attend a discussion featuring four amazing women poets: Toi Derricotte, Taslima Nasreen, Linda Pastan, and Anne Waldman.

The format was an open-ended conversation about how these diverse women came to poetry. Linda was a housewife for many years before eeking out a space of her own. Anne spoke about her mother, who encouraged her to make her own path in life. Toi discussed her clouded family history as a light-skinned black woman. And Taslima was raised in an oppressive patriarchal society where women are not supposed to learn to read much less write poetry.

Now that I have given this oversimplified summary, here are a few points from this enlightening conversation.

1. Duty and Domain—two words that seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, but are points on a linear track. The women spoke of how they were raised to be good girls: grow up, get married, have babies, keep a clean house. But all of them went against the grain to make a path. Yet even as writers, they felt certain subjects were in the male domain, as if they didn't have the right to write about the body, sex, unfulfilled desires, etc.

2. All of the women spoke about how they had no models for being a poet. Toi even referenced Lucille’s poem, “won't you celebrate with me.” So as you might imagine, community was a common theme among these poets.

3. On the flip side of community, there was much discussion about a how women tend to break each other down instead of supporting each other.

4. Anne talked about how she had to raise her voice to be the loudest voice in the room.

5. Toi was struck by the degree of passion many women poets have. For Toi, being able to write is what she called "coming to voice." There are some days, where she doesn’t feel like she’s even feels worthy to write. I sat there thinking I know what she means. It goes beyond thinking that I’ll never been as good enough as a male. It’s the feeling of never being good enough as a black poet and as well as a woman poet. It's the feeling of never being good enough as a black and a women. I could see many people, white and nonwhite, nodding their heads as Toi spoke. We all have some stone in the bottom of our hearts weighing us down.

6. Linda reminded the crowd that being a poet means that you can write about anything. You can write about political topics or you can write about flowers if that's what you want. I think we forget sometimes that writing a poem can make a reader open his or her imagination. As Linda said, "The job of the poet is to make the imagination work."

7. There was concern among the women in the audience about the next generation of women. Girls today don’t seem to have a sense of history, and are complacent about what’s going on in the world today. Concern about girls on cell phones trying to be like their pop idols with no regard for what’s going on in their communities and homes. Are we, as women, providing enough guidance and wisdom as mentors?

8. Probably the most important message I took away was something Taslima said, “We [women] cannot be free until we are all free. There are women in all corners of the world suffering. Not one of us is safe unless we all have the freedom to live our lives free of oppression.

At this point, the conversation turned political. Why, other than Cindy Sheehan, are their no female voices speaking out against the war in Iraq, against poverty and injustices across the globe. Where have all the poets gone?

I think there’s a lot of truth in that last statement. The Bush administration has done a bang-up job of silencing voices of decent. And by letting the silence continue, it’s almost as if we’ve given up control—which is not uncommon for women to do. Poets and writers—male and female—have to let their voices be heard. Whether it’s in the home or on the page or in front of an audience, we must not be silent any more.

I’ll leave you with this poem from Taslima Nasreen, who has published more than 30 books that have been translated into 20 languages. She lives in exile in Europe from her birthplace of Bangladesh.


With as much pain as a human being becomes a woman,
That much pain makes a woman a poet.
A word takes a long year to be made,
a poem an entire life.

When woman becomes a poet, she is totally a woman.
Then she is mature enough to give birth from her suffering heart,
Then she knows how to care for a word.

You have to be a woman first if you want to give birth to a poem.
A word without any pain is fragile, breaks when touched.
Who knows more than a woman all the lanes and alleys of pain!


Cate said…
January, just taking a moment to say that I truly "gobbled" up this post, just as I gobble all of your others. I don't comment on blogs as much as I used to, but your observations and poetry continue to stir me! xo
January said…
Gosh, Cate. I am honored. Hope you start blogging again--I miss your voice.
twitches said…
Interesting post, interesting conversations. Thanks again for sharing!
Catherine said…
Women weren't allowed to write about the body and sex? Gee, I thought that's all that some women poets do write about these days ;)
(wrong smiley, it is supposed to be the tongue in cheek one).
Seriously, I don't see men writing about the body and sex nearly as much as I see women doing so. Maybe things have changed.

(It is telling me I can use my blogger account, but won't accept my details)
Anonymous said…
Hello, I just found your blog on poetry and it's so interesting to read. Thanks for this post about the lives of women.

There are women poets standing up against the war though, it just hasn't been publicized as much as other responses.

Kelli Russell Agodon edited broadside series of poems against the war and I think most of the poets who were part of the series were women. Jane Hirschfield & Naomi Shihab Nye were part of it along with other women poets.

Here's the link to it:

A lot of the poems are online,

Thx 4 your blog---I am happy to have found it.

a reader from the northwest
January said…
Susan, thanks for the link, and thanks for visiting!

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