Sometimes the best way to discover new writers is through an anthology. For instance, I buy The Best American Poetry each year so that I can get a good sampling of poetry from the (mostly) big journals. I also love reading more thematic anthologies, including the world poetry anthology Not a Muse: The Inner Lives of Women, edited by Kate Rogers and Viki Holmes (Haven Books).
The anthology collects the voices of more than 100 female poets from 24 countries, including a few poems from Rogers and Holmes. Here are a few:
Beaching Your Ship of Rowing on a Hostile Shore
by Viki Holmes
you don’t write great lines, you discover; like the wish
the sculptor strips from stone, a chisel opening the art. i
carve with an unsteady hand, while something grows beneath. you
can mean so many things, that
proximity is what you crave; you wish your Other here
with you, or maybe that you want to share what you alone can’t see. were
your perceptions needing to be heard? letters from where you were
imply past tense, you’ve gone already, made a wish
in ink, in stone: the story leaps from your poised hand, and here
we stand, waiting to see what we uncover. i
wonder sometimes at the things that
we create, and where they come from; so do you.
a sculptor doesn’t know what’s locked inside the stone, you
start from outside, work your way back in until the pictures that were
always inside leap up to your fingers’ touch. that
feeling of discovery is so compelling: make a wish
and lay your fingers on the quiet rock–i
think that you’ll begin to feel that something new is here
watching and waiting. years ago and far away from here
those tricksters took their chisels to the lost Sumerian faces and you
cannot tell now what those rulers were. is such destruction something i
can render, or make good? such questions were
the heart of the beginning. now i wish
i’d known you, Enheduanna, your flight like the swallow’s, that
same urge to be consumed, blanketed in wool and ritural. that
scarf like a diadem, keeping you here
among the woven garments covering their queen: if i were there i’d wish
to hold your ritual basket, to turn you
my honey mouth in praise, so soft and sweet–but all we were
then was confusion. Ur and Uruk joined in my hands at your wish and suddenly, i
beached your ship of rowing on a hostile shore, i
lived in stone: circular and present at your side, that
holy profile as you made your hymn, the stars were
sighing for you, prow of the goddess: here,
on this shore, you set your claim, your sacrifice, you
trade your name for stone and dust, Enheduanna, so i place my wish:
by Kate Rogers
I am Scheherazade: I dance this poem.
I am snake charmer. Lure the dangerous
reptile from his basket in the market place.
He bobs and sways in time to my drum
and drools milky venom as I swivel my hips,
beckon with my cobra arms. The scent
of honey and cinnamon lingers in my wake.
Follow its trail to my bed. I will intertwine
tales told in gossamer whispers
and velvet moans as shadows gyrate
in flickering candle light. I need your gaze:
it makes me real. Wait on the edge
with me as our legs tremble. I will shake
my gauze draped hips and my girdle of coins,
tinkling like chimes licked by a breeze.
You will beg for release but there is no climax
to this tale. Only the present moment
and a hunger for tomorrow.
What have you been up to recently?
Kate Rogers: I have been writing a bit this summer and working on a new poetry collection. Viki and I have been recording podcasts for Not A Muse. At Easter I took Not A Muse to the AWP (American Writers and Writing Programs Conference) and did a reading there from
Viki Holmes: This summer I have been working with Kate on podcasts for Not A Muse! Otherwise I’ve performed for the Hong Kong Literary Festival: a wonderful event that reminded me of my first ever Happy Demon reading, which was also set in a library. The last couple of weeks I’ve been leading creative writing workshops for primary school students, which has been a refreshing contrast–it can be very inspiring to see how young minds react to poetry. I host a monthly jazz poetry event, which is another new take on performance–our
Kate, you’re originally from Toronto but now live in Hong Kong. How has that affected your writing and publishing life?
Rogers: In fact, it has been good for my writing and publishing life. I began having work published in Canadian literary journals in the 1990s and that has continued since. But by travelling and by meeting poets in other countries, I have learned a lot about developing my craft. And in the process I have also gotten publishing opportunities outside
Viki, your press release says that you began your writing career in Cardiff as part of the Happy Demon poetry collective. What is the Happy Demon poetry collective?
Holmes: The Happy Demon Poetry Collective was a group of five poets who performed and organised poetry events every three weeks in
You’ve twice been a finalist for the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry. What do you feel makes for a good poetry reading?
Holmes: Have someone in mind when you’re performing, and read your poem to them. Address them with your every word: believe in the importance of what you are saying to them, and allow your words–and ideas–space to breathe. Believe that your work is worth hearing, and you will convey that to your audience.
How did you get involved in the Not A Muse project?
Rogers: Viki and I have been friends and edited each others work for about four years. We launched our new poetry collections together: Viki’s Miss Moon’s Class and my Painting the Borrowed House. Our shared launch was a huge success—attracting more than one hundred people. At that moment we said to each other, “What next?” After workshopping poetry together for several years, collaboration seemed like a natural next step. The answer we came up with was an anthology of women’s poetry—I think because as women poets we were aware of writing about topics particular to the feminine experience: the life of the body, desire, joy, loss and longing as only women experience them. And at the same time we thought of the idea of women finding inspiration from their own lives.
The woman who became our publisher at Haven Books was in the audience and we approached her with the idea of the anthology on the spot. She immediately said “Yes!”
Holmes: Not A Muse has for me been so much about dialogues between women: shared experiences and shared intimacies. So it’s natural enough that our project began as a conversation. I remember a train journey with Kate about a week after we’d celebrated the joint launch of our solo poetry collections, and discussing what we should do next. We’d both been thinking–and writing–about the nature of the Muse in our poetry at that time. In our reflections about the nature of woman as mysterious, enigmatic, silent Other, we speculated about what the Muse would say were she given a voice. The creative process as women experience it: being the writers of poetry rather than the subject of it. As with so much of the process of Not A Muse, the central idea for the book grew organically from this initial unfolding of ideas between friends.
What process did you use to collect and assemble the anthology?
Rogers: We wrote a call for submissions which was designed to elicit the kind of poetry we were hoping to receive: risk taking with both theme and form. We quoted Virginia Woolf to help frame the type of work we were looking for. Here is an excerpt from the call for submissions:
Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword. On one side all is correct, definite, orderly; the paths are strait, the trees regular, the sun shaded; escorted by gentlemen, protected by policemen, wedded and buried by clergy-men, she has only to walk demurely from cradle to grave and no one will touch a hair of her head. But on the other side all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course. The paths wind between bogs and precipices. The trees roar and rock and fall in ruin.
—Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays Volume III
Virginia Woolf wrote that in 1925; in 2008 are we living in a post-feminist age? How do we define ourselves as women? Are we living our lives honestly, completely true to ourselves? If we choose an unconventional life, what are the costs?
Not a Muse is about our choices.
How we define ourselves as women and poets. How we define freedom.
Male writers and poets throughout the centuries have turned to a feminine muse as a creative catalyst. But there is much more to us than providing a source of inspiration. Now, the Muse is finding her own voice.
Not A Muse is an exciting new anthology of writing by women from around the world, who look within for their inspiration, whether they embrace solitude, or struggle with it, whether they fight to balance children and marriage with writing, or choose another way.
As for how we assembled the anthology, we saw themes and categories emerge organically from the work submitted to us. We did not have preconceived ideas of how we should organize the anthology. Certain themes appeared over and over and they inspired the creation of sections, such as “Woman as Archetype.” We also realized that much of the work sent to us had more than one theme: Woman as Lover and Woman Ageing co-exist in Lorna Crozier’s “My Last Erotic Poem,” for example. So when we were deciding how to organize the poetry, we often put it in the less obvious theme and corresponding section.
Holmes: We sent out a call for submissions both in
It was immensely gratifying to see how our writers responded to the ideas and questions raised by our call for submissions. And to see the breadth and depth of submissions–I think I can say that Kate and I were both amazed by the number of poets who were eager to contribute.
Of course, once we realised that this was going to be a big book, we had to think of some way of teasing an order from the multiplicity of voices! Rather than impose an order, an identity on the wonderful poems we had in front of us, we looked to the poems themselves for guidance. The themes emerged from the selection process, and then it was a case of deciding where best to place each voice. Many of these editorial meetings took place on Cheung Sha beach, a beautiful and inspiring place where Kate and I often have our writer’s meetings! I remember a summer filled with sheaves of paper, whether at the beach, in the office, or at our homes. Because the themes were chosen in this way–you might say that the themes chose us rather than the other way around–there is a certain degree of fluidity. Just as women themselves do not easily fit into a single identity, so with the poems. But of course, a reader has to start somewhere. We hoped that our themes would work as a springboard for our readers’ reflections, rather than imposing limitations or a rigid view.
What separates the Not A Muse anthology from other poetry anthologies? And why is that relevant?
Rogers: Not A Muse is about women creating a community of experience. As women writers, the things we choose to write about are unique and at times, disdained by the male writing community: for example the inescapable impact of spending a lifetime in a female body. It reminds us all the time that we are life givers, nurturers, and the original creators. It is our landscape, which shapes who we are, just as cultures develop in response to the topography they appear in.
Holmes: Of course, there are other anthologies of women’s poetry, but Not A Muse I think presents a unique angle on its emphasis on women’s creativity and our inner lives. There are writers whose work has not previously been seen in English. I think the mixture of established writers such as Erica Jong, Margaret Atwood and Sharon Olds with previously unheard voices presents a new and fresh view.
In general, what do you consider the strengths of poetry anthologies?
Rogers: I think poetry anthologies can allow disparate voices to unite around a theme and thus, create a new reality and collective voice.
Holmes: As an editor, I’m fascinated by the structures and themes that emerge when anthologising–whether it be my own work or those of others. I love the meta-narratives that can be teased out, the links between poems, that make an anthology even greater than the sum of its parts. Reading a good anthology is like uncovering a hidden story–wonderful!
You are a poet yourself, and your work appeared in the anthology. How did you decide which of your own poems to include?
Rogers: Viki helped choose my poems and I helped choose hers: we wanted them to relate to the theme of being “Not a muse.” I particularly love Viki’s “Muse” because it is all about the down side of being the iconic, inspirational woman. We each made suggestions from among our own poems and helped each other select the best ones.
The poems I suggested from among my own were narrative poems (as most of my poetry is). “Why I Won’t Worship at your Feet” and “Scheherazade” both tell stories. The former uses the story of Penelope—wife of Odysseus—to tell both a personal and universal story. Other classical Greek references imply that the history of woman on the margins is a long one: woman always waiting, “unpicking” her cleverness like father-in-law Laertes’ shroud—so it is never seen by day. And of course the muses we refer to in Western literature originated with the ancient Greeks. As for Scheherazade, she is the original female story teller, and her tale is about a woman who saved her own life by telling stories. Written self-expression is a matter of survival for many writers, not just a source of solace.
Holmes: Both Kate and I had been writing and reflecting on the nature of the female Muse in our poetry, which is partly what inspired us to produce the anthology, so of course we included those poems. For the others, we applied the same rules for ourselves as we had for our contributors: risk-taking and original work. We discussed potential choices with one another and eventually I chose a poem about the Akkadian moon priestess Enheduanna, one of the first epic poets, and a very strong woman. It’s also a sestina, I’m fascinated by form and wanted to make sure I had a form poem included. My other poem is very much rooted in the modern! Kate’s selections had a similar balance of ancient and modern.
Did you encounter any surprises while working on this anthology?
Rogers: When male poets wanted to submit I was surprised. I didn’t want to exclude them, and as Viki has observed, we didn’t set out to do that. But since one of our primary goals was to create a female poets’ community of experience it didn’t make sense to include male poets in the end. Viki may have more to add on this.
Holmes: I think perhaps the biggest surprise was the size of the book, and the sheer number of submissions! It was an amazing moment too when Erica Jong agreed to contribute. I think at that moment Kate and I realised the scope of what we were doing–we felt absolutely empowered and validated in what we were doing!
What do you feel is the greatest challenge of assembling a poetry anthology?
Rogers: From my point of view the biggest challenge was the task of making Not A Muse representative enough. We wanted it to have a huge scope and to include far more women poets who do not write in English. But translation takes time and costs money and we had a deadline and budget constraints to keep in mind. If we were to do this again or go into a second edition, I would hope that we could include far more Chinese women poets in English translation. I met some interesting Indian poets at the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival this year and it would be great to consider their work too, so we could add some of them to augment the work of Indian women poets we have already featured, like Rati Saxena.
Holmes: I think that choosing the right people to work with is crucial! Kate and I are lucky in that we have a very intuitive and balanced partnership, so we were able to work together under pressure. We also have an amazing publisher, Dania, who has been supportive, encouraging and pro-active.
Kate, your collection Painting the Borrowed House was published in 2008; what do you think makes a good collection?
Rogers: I think themes, moods, images and locations should flow from one another, but in unexpected ways. That is what we tried to do with the anthology: reframe the standard interpretations of women and our roles to foster fresh and unusual views of women. Collections should do the same.
Who are you currently reading?
Rogers: Two poets I admire: Turkish woman poet Bejan Matur, whom we met at the Ubud Literary Festival in
Holmes: It’s the summer holidays, so I’ve a great stack of fiction to look forward to! I’m a sucker for Victorian sensation fiction, and Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is a wonderful contemporary working of the genre, full of glitter and sensuality. Kate has lent me The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds, a fictive biography of the nature poet John Clare, and for poetry I return to Eileen R. Tabios’ I Take Thee English, for My Beloved. Eileen is one of our Not A Muse poets, and has long been an inspiration for my own work.
If you could offer only one piece of advice to poets, what would it be?
Rogers: Don’t self-censor: take risks with the things you choose to write about. When you write about things which might make others (or you!) uncomfortable, you are giving everyone a gift. Your reader may find you have mirrored a previously unexpressed experience and you may surprise yourself.
Holmes: Read your work out loud! Listen to how it sounds, pay attention to your rhythms and cadences. If you can, read your work in front of an audience. Not only will it develop your confidence, but you will quickly be able to tell what works and what does not.
Learn more about Not A Muse and Haven Books at www.havenbooksonline.com.
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Check out the Big 10 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, which includes my own list of 10 things for poets to consider. Click here to learn more.