Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Am I a feminist poet?

I’ve been a feminist for a long time now–even in my more conservative days, I was a strong supporter of equal rights for women, even though I was a bit of an ogre personally. I’ve had a long way to travel from my fundamentalist upbringing, but it’s been a good road and I’m glad I’ve walked it.

But does that necessarily make me a feminist poet? I ask this because, well, I was looking for something to blog about and I came across this piece from Femagination asking “what makes a feminist poet?” The main question that Ellen Keim, who wrote the piece, was really asking was whether a poet who didn’t identify as a feminist could be called one. Her answer is yes, and I don’t have any argument with that.

I’m more interested in the other side of it. Could someone like me, who is both a feminist and a poet, be considered a feminist poet if women’s issues aren’t a major part of my creative work? In other words, is “feminist” an adjective in this construction, or one half of a compound noun? What’s the difference? And does it really matter?

I’m not sure how much it has mattered to me so far, but that’s because there’s no social expectation that I be a feminist poet (compound noun). That’s the privilege of being a man–from a certain perspective, all I have to do is not be a misogynist, and I’ve set myself apart. Being an advocate for feminism is, by that construction, lagniappe, or gravy. And in places other than my poetry, I have been an advocate–I talked about this some in a post a couple of weeks ago. But is that enough?

I guess it depends on who’s doing the judging, and I feel uncomfortable pointing fingers at others and saying “you should be doing more” (though I am comfortable at calling out insensitive or misogynist language and actions), so I’ll just point a finger at myself and say it’s something I ought to be more aware of in my work. I don’t want to be someone who just gets credit for not being a douche–I’d rather be an anti-douche, whatever that is.

I have no idea how to do that in my poetry, by the way. Teaching, editing and reviewing? No problem. I’m responding to the creations of others. But in my poetry? If anyone has suggestions, I’m open to them.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | poetry, privilege, Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

I’ll Never Make This Mistake Again

Way back in March, I posted the reading list for my summer class in Contemporary American poetry. Right about now, I’m feeling like Gob Bluth–“I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

I included Billy Collins’s Nine Horses for a couple of reasons. I’m focusing on the variety of voices in contemporary poetry, and while Collins’s voice is bland and generally inoffensive, it is an unfortunately popular voice outside much of the traditional poetic community. It was a chance, I thought, to give my students an accessible book, which could act as a breather in an intense, six week course. I should have read the book more closely before I did that.

No, I should have read the book before doing that.

I’ve found my angle of attack into this book, though. It’s a book that presents a world of out-of-touch privilege, and is sublimely unaware of just how privileged it is. It’s going to make a nice contrast to the in-your-face politics of Marge Piercy and the outsider-looking-in voice of Mohja Kahf.

There’s a series that begins with the poem “Paris” that’s really indicative of this voice. The speaker in “Paris” spends three pages musing on what he’s going to do after he finishes his bath in an apartment someone gave him. What paintings, what street signs will he see? What bridges will he lean against while he muses on the day? In “Istanbul,” the speaker glories in a Turkish bath, the servants pouring tub after tub of water on him, servants he thanks silently. In the next poem, “Love,” his speaker sits on a train watching a woman struggle with her cello case; in “Languor,” he speaks of redesigning his family coat of arms, et cetera, et cetera.

I could deal with the privilege better if there were any indication that Collins is aware of it, but there’s no ironic turn in it, no twist, no moment where his speaker is even conscious of the benefits he enjoys. It’s poetry for the oblivious upper-middle class white person, which may be its greatest sin of all.

May 5, 2008 Posted by | Billy Collins, privilege | Leave a comment