Helen Bowell

This is my final blog of my residency and it’s been a pleasure! I plan to collaborate with your next poet in residence, Lenni Sanders, but until then, I wanted to leave you with some thoughts about resurrection and queer history.

I’ve worked at The Poetry Society as my day job since 2017, but since 2015 my side hustle has been resurrecting women poets – or at least, in recent years, facilitating their resurrection. Dead [Women] Poets Society runs séances (not really, don’t worry) up and down the UK, working with living women and non-binary writers to shine a light on a less patriarchal literary heritage. We started off as five students at Durham, and now there’s three of us co-directing what has essentially become a live literature organisation with a spookily fun website: me, poet Jasmine Simms and artist Lily Arnold.

February is LGBTQ+ History Month so it felt like the perfect moment to resurrect and trace the lineage of queer women poets of the past. So here are a few moments with a handful of shining women poets who deserve more attention.

Caroline Bird Portrait: Artwork by Lily Arnold

Anna Wickham

I want to start with someone who I first heard of exactly a year ago. On 28 February 2020, Caroline Bird resurrected Anna Wickham at a séance in The Forum, Norwich. It was our last event before the pandemic meant postponing our Arts Council England funded tour (which has just started back up online!) and it was a good’un.

In Caroline’s words, ‘It is amazing, the amount of things that a woman can do in her life and still be forgotten. […] When we talk about forgotten female poets, we’re not talking about forgettable female poets.’ The first thing I learnt about Anna Wickham was that she supposedly threw Dylan Thomas out of her house in a snowstorm – maybe the fact that this rumour has been repeated so often tells you something about her, whether it’s true or not.

Wickham was an Australian-born poet who spent most of her life in England and France, between 1884 and 1947. As well as being a devoted mother (‘the most maternal woman I’d ever met’ said Edna St Vincent Millay) and a wife to a bore (see below), she had affairs with Bloomsbury Modernist women writers like H.D. and Eliot Bliss, and fell unrequitedly for Natalie Clifford Barney.

I have to be honest, I sometimes find the Modernists’ writing a bit flowery. But Wickham is funny, and surprising, and sad all at once. One poem titled ‘King Alfred and the Peasant Woman’ begins:

Throw me from the house – did he?

Well, to new chivalry that is no great thing!

There’s so much movement in that first line alone. It could be a writing prompt, couldn’t it? Start a poem ‘Throw me from the house – did he?’ Meanwhile, in ‘Nervous Prostration’, which Caroline read at the séance, you find these heart-breakingly frank lines that teeter between funny and tragic:

I married a man of the Croydon class
When I was twenty-two.
And I vex him, and he bores me
Till we don’t know what to do!
It isn’t good form in the Croydon class
To say you love your wife,
So I spend my days with the tradesmen’s books
And pray for the end of life.

But we all know about queer sadness, and isolation, and pain. Wickham also wrote of great, sense-numbing passion:

When you kiss me I am blind,
My senses are filled with ecstasy …
I am myself earthquake and eclipse

This, written early in the twentieth century, is brilliant and clear and subversive. Similarly, from ‘The Sculptor’s Hands’:

Your hands on me work a transcendent pleasure,
Myself becomes a universe, vast beyond measure

Publishers – reprint Wickham’s work! She is apparently one of the most important poets of the early twentieth century, and I’d never heard of her until last year.

As part of this séance, Caroline shared ‘The Golden Age’, a poem about forgetting women, which featured in her Forward Prize winning book The Air Year. You can hear Caroline’s resurrection in full – we podcasted it, thank goodness – alongside Jade Cuttle who performs new songs inspired by Gisèle Prassinos on our website.

Natalie Clifford Barney

My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one.

I was only going to include poets who’d been resurrected already through our work in this blog, but while researching Anna Wickham, I came across Natalie Clifford Barney and I think I’ve found a new obsession? (Occupational hazard.) Barney was one of many American writers who spent most of her life in Paris in the early twentieth century. Born into a wealthy family, she nearly lived a century herself, from 1876 – 1972. Barney realised she was a lesbian aged twelve and said she wanted to ‘live openly, without hiding anything’. This, she said, was ‘the best way of getting rid of nuisances’, i.e. straight men. Her love affairs inspired such important works as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), which despite its problematic elements offered queer women clear fictional representation. Barney was non-monogamous (though often against the wishes of her partners) and even published a list of liaisons, demi-liaisons and adventures. As you can imagine, she wrote extensively about love, loss and beauty. Here’s just a short example from ‘How Write the Beat of Love’:

How write the beat of love, the very throb,
The rhythm of our veins’ deep eloquence?

Our veins’ deep eloquence. Yep. She also wrote a book of epigrams, and as a child was inspired personally by a conversation with Oscar Wilde. Here are a few:

I have sometimes lost friends, but friends have never lost me.

Youth is not a question of years: one is young or old from birth.

Entrepreneurship is the last refuge of the trouble making individual.

Barney was at the heart of the literary scene in Paris, where she held salons, helping out writers and artists who were struggling for money, particularly women. In 1927 she started the Académie des Femmes (in opposition to the Académie Française which celebrated French [men’s] literature and language), bringing together such big names as Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and Mina Loy. 

There was darkness in her too. Barney held some horrible beliefs: though she seemed to have changed her mind by the end of the war, she was apparently pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic in the 1930s. This was despite, or out of fear of the fact, that one of her grandparents was Jewish, and she had a close run-in with the fascist government in Italy who would have sent her to a concentration camp.

Like Wickham and so many (queer) women at this time, Barney’s life was complex and often difficult, full of mental health difficulties. But her personality shone bright throughout. She fell in love again and again, meeting her last love affair when she was nearly ninety years old.

For more on Barney here’s a long read in The Paris Review.

Ruth Sutoyé Portrait: Artwork by Lily Arnold

June Jordan

Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth. To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.

I want to finish with the first poet resurrected on our ACE funded tour – June Jordan. Ruth Sutoyé communed with her spirit at the National Poetry Library in November 2019, kicking off our tour. As part of her work for this séance, Ruth wrote an incredible poem ‘The Poem After The Detonating Body Confirmed’, exploring women’s power and the cancer that took Jordan’s life. You can also listen to that séance podcasted in full here.

June Jordan was a Jamaican American writer, teacher and activist who lived from 1936 to 2002. As well as being one of the most widely-published poets of the twentieth century, she was a leading figure in the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights. (To find out more about all these intersections, I suggest checking out A Place of Rage, a 1991 film by Pratibha Parmar which features Jordan alongside Angela Davis, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Alice Walker speaking about race and homophobia.)

Jordan identified as bisexual and in her work In A New Politics of Sexuality, she explored how those who don’t fit into binaries, like bisexuals and mixed race people, are othered:

Bisexuality means I am free and I am as likely to want to love a woman as I am likely to want to love a man, and what about that? Isn’t that what freedom implies?

If you are free, you are not predictable and you are not controllable. To my mind, that is the keenly positive, politicizing significance of bisexual affirmation… to insist upon the equal validity of all the components of social/sexual complexity.

She advocated for and wrote beautifully about non-standard Englishes, particularly ‘presence of life, voice, and clarity’ in Black English, which can support cultures and value systems that are otherwise othered. Jordan was committed to language, saying in an interview towards the end of her life, ‘The role of the poet, beginning with my own childhood experience, is to deserve the trust of people who know that what you do is work with words.’

I’d guess it’s more likely you’ll have heard of June Jordan than Wickham and Barney. You may even have read her most famous poem ‘Poem about my Rights’, which furiously and passionately deals with the horrendous everyday assaults that she and so many other women (specifically Black women) have faced throughout history. If you have, you’ll recall that the poem ends with resistance, the kind that comes with self-knowledge and a visceral understanding of her worth.

I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life

Find out more about Dead [Women] Poets Society

Get your tickets to our online séance on 11 April 2021 with Momtaza Mehri and Hannah Hodgson

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