Let’s Talk About Poetry by the Sea 2016

Let's Talk About Poetry by the Sea 2016
Kim Bridgford & the Cast of the Children of Children Keep Coming

One glorious afternoon last week in Madison, CT, I was gathered with the amazing women of the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Seminar (Shout out to Maryann Corbett, Jean Kreiling, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Wendy Sloan, Kathryn Voorhees, and Kyle Potvin, who came down for a day) when Kathryn voiced a thought that many of us were thinking.

“This conference is too good,” she said. “I can’t get any down time, because I don’t want to miss anything. Everything is brilliant.”

If you have to hear a criticism of a conference that you, personally, have poured your heart and soul (not to mention time and money) into, then that would be the one you want. But let’s unpack that a little, shall we?

During the day at Poetry by the Sea, apart from the 1-3 pm Workshop/Seminar slot, there were pretty much always two things happening simultaneously, giving participants a choice of what to attend. Kim’s astute scheduling meant that for many there was often an obvious choice, but sometimes people were clearly torn. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Todd Boss’s excellent presentation of the Motionpoems project, for example, but I had to miss the first participant reading at which several of my friends were represented.

I was on two panels myself (Negative Reviews with Quincy R. Lehr & David Katz, which, somewhat ironically, got highly positive reviews, and Editing Poetry Journals with Allison Joseph & Anna Lena Phillips Bell, marvelously chaired by Allison), but that meant I had to miss Artistic Collaboration with Elizabyth Hiscox, Michael Bergmann, Morgan Post & Jo Yarrington, and later June Jordan at 80, with Brian Gilmore and Wendy Scott Paff. I had elected to take Richard Blanco’s one-day workshop, which was inspirational, but therefore had to forsake Young Adult Poetry with Marilyn Nelson & Helen Frost, and Translation, with Laura Marris, Todd Portnowitz and Carina del Valle Schorske. And the list goes on.

Poetry by the Sea 2016
Mercy Beach

Furthermore, when we got to the portions of the day where only one thing was scheduled, it was typically unmissable. Consider Ange Mlinko’s incisive Poetry by the Sea Lecture in Poetry, or Spotlight Readings with X.J. Kennedy & Patrick Phillips, then the completely unforgetable Mahogany Browne (and her daughter, Amare) & Gregory Pardlo, or our Kimiko Hahn Keynote, or our Faculty readings (Dick Davis, Allison Joseph, Terri Witek & Cyriaco Lopes, Rafael Campo, Richard Blanco, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, A.E. Stallings (Her new heartbreaking refugee poems!), Marilyn Taylor, Annie Finch, and Joshua Mehigan), or Russell Goings’ and Quentin Talley’s The Children of Children Keep Coming. Dempsey Hall was always full, and I counted two standing ovations.

Therefore, yes, people were on the go from morning to night. But I don’t think they were really complaining! That’s what poetry conferences are meant to be like, after all–intense, joyous, inspirational celebrations of diversity and excellence, all taking place in a gorgeous setting with a shell-strewn beach and a jewel-bright sea.

So, thanks again to our Founder & Director, Kim Bridgford, for a marvelous conference, to Board members Natalie Gerber, Kat Gilbert & Cherise Pollard, Ned Balbo, Tom Cable & Russell Goings for their hard work, enthusiasm, and support. And to anyone reading this, I ask you consider three things:

  1. Come join us next year, Tuesday May 23–Saturday May 27
  2. Like us on Facebook. We have 981 likes! 1000 would be an awesome milestone!
  3. Sponsor us. We are non profit, so it’s tax-deductible, and you can give online. We just want to make it possible for anyone who wants to join us in 2017 to do so regardless of circumstances.

Poetry by the Sea 2016 was brilliant, and with your help, Poetry by the Sea 2017 can be even more inclusive, even more diverse. I’d say it could be even more brilliant, but then when would we sleep?


Why Write Female Historical Persona Poems?

female historical persona poems
Veronica Franco (1546-1591)

“History is more or less bunk,” said Henry Ford famously, and so, quite often, did my father, a graduate in History from Bristol University. His actions typically belied his words—he would be pushing our eclectic collection of Edwardian silver napkin rings around on our Elizabethan oak dining table, attempting to explain the military tactics of a famous battle, his eyes gleaming.

What he meant was, “Don’t study History, study Physics.” This may stun readers who know me now, but I was an obedient girl back then, and so I did as I was told. I dropped History as soon as I could for the sciences, and went on to study for a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College, London. And everything else, as they say, is history.

Except it isn’t. I continued to be fascinated by history and to read history texts and historical novels—the well-written kind like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. My favorite period is, indeed, the Tudors and Elizabethan England, but I am also borderline obsessed with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and with the early years of the Colonies. I married a man who loves History—his obsession is with the Founding Fathers and Political History—and our bookshelves are full of history books. Then five years ago I became involved with the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline, founded by Dr. Kim Bridgford.

About half of the fifty-plus essays about women poets currently on the Timeline concern American or British late twentieth century or contemporary poets, whose cultural context requires little explanation. But the rest span a broad swathe of historical eras from the dark ages to the second world war, and come from cultures as diverse as T’ang Dynasty China and Fourteenth Century Paris. A historical background is essential to these poets’ biographies.

I am a housewife, of sorts, and something else began to be clear to me as I co-ordinated essays on poets such as Kassia, Hildegard of Bingen, and Veronica Franco (pictured above.) Before Anne Bradstreet, housewives really didn’t write poetry. They didn’t have time. Women’s poetry up until the 17th century is almost entirely represented by women who had chosen a religious vocation, were royal or extremely wealthy, or existed on the margins of polite society—entertainers, mistresses, and women who otherwise used their bodies as currency. The idea behind Sisters & Courtesans was born.

Why Write Female Historical Persona Poems as Sonnets?

As I explain in Female Historical Persona and Character Poems, it’s not enough to decide who you are going to write about, you also have to determine how you are going to write about them. For me the super-flexible sonnet was the obvious choice, partly because sonnets are sexy, and sex plays a huge role in Sisters & Courtesans (not always just in the Courtesan corner either!) To illustrate my thought process further, here’s “My Life as an Honest Courtesan in Venice” (loosely based around Franco and her contemporary Gaspara Stampa):

I must confess that I can barely walk
in these new shoes, the platforms are so high.
Advancing regally, I pause to talk

(and rest) when an acquaintance passes by.
These split brocaded sleeves force me to hold
my arms spread out as if I mean to fly.

My heavy pendant heart is solid gold.
I hope it’s the epitome of class—
for that’s the point of all this, so I’m told.

I may be nouveau riche, but I can pass.
Don’t ever dare to lump me in with whores
with their thin skirts and ornaments of brass.

And as for those new sumptuary laws
I am exempted by a special clause.

Female historical persona poems need to wear their history much more lightly than the courtesan wears her ridiculous fashion in the poem above, and the sonnet forces the writer to do this. In approximately 140 syllables there simply isn’t room to explain the role of the Honest Courtesan and how she differed from a street whore. But this is where the persona becomes helpful. Because the poem is in the voice of the courtesan, and she is reflecting on her position in society and what it takes to maintain it, we can get a sense of the full historical context from her insecurity and vanity. And if you want to know more about sumptuary laws, you can always google them!

I wanted to create a Timeline of my own with Sisters & Courtesans, not of women poets—very few of the personae claim to be poets themselves—but of the history of women having control over their decisions, whether those decisions primarily affect their lives or their bodies, and of the correlation between control and happiness.

Other people can be the judge of whether or not I succeeded, but my Dad loves the book, and that means a great deal.

Sisters & Courtesans — the Self-Interview

Sisters & CourtesansBehind Every Good Woman There’s a Bad Woman?

This may be an obvious place to start, but where did you get the idea to write a persona sonnet sequence about nuns and prostitutes?

It’s an easy one to answer! I’m the essay co-ordinator for the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, which is an online database of essays about women poets., and so I read all the essays as they come in. It occurred to me that, until Anne Bradstreet, the only women writing poetry were outside of society in some way—some royals, but mainly cloistered women and women of easy virtue. Everyone else was busy having babies and raising chickens. I felt it would be interesting to explore women’s lives throughout history using that lens, and to attempt to see what else such women might have in common.

You don’t need to get very far through Sisters & Courtesans before you realize that the women’s calling has very little to do with their actual level of morality, which in turn has almost nothing to do with their happiness. How do you explain that?

Firstly I get very frustrated, especially in this country, with the way that goodness is so often correlated with religiosity and chastity, both of which, it seems to me, tend to produce more hypocrites than saints. On the other hand, I didn’t want to glorify prostitution, so, yes, my “Crack Whore” is miserable, although not evil, while my “Gangster’s Moll” is definitely a criminal, but in her words, “Jeez, it’s fun!” I wanted a balance of those elements throughout my sisters and my courtesans. (I talk a little more about this earlier in this blog.)

But why sonnets?

There are so many reasons for that! I love sonnets, and can write them blindfold standing on my head? The sonnet is the perfect length for this particular kind of poem? A long tradition of book-length sonnet sequences? I almost feel they couldn’t be anything other than sonnets.

Which of the Sisters & Courtesans sonnets were most interesting to write, and which ones are most fun to read for an audience?

Good question! Typically the ones which were fun to write either came out of interesting research, like “Sworn Virgin of Albania,” or play with the sonnet form a little, like “Norse Spae-Wife,” which uses the alliteration common to the verse of the time. By contrast the ones which I really get a kick out of reading in public are the ones where I can get into character—I used to be an actress in my youth—and do voices: “Victorian Streetwalker” has to be my favorite, but “French Carmelite Nun” is also fun. Oh, and the really raunchy ones like “Serving Wench of the Round Table” and “Canadian Dominatrix,” but I don’t dare read those many places.

Yes, some of them are quite R-rated, and others pretty controversial, like the one where you vilify Mother Teresa! Aren’t you worried the formal poetry establishment will disown you? I’ve heard those people can be stuffy.

I don’t vilify Mother Teresa! Her name isn’t even mentioned, and that’s a true story, reportedly, but I know what you mean. I don’t think the formal poetry establishment is quite as stuffy as it used to be, and anyway, I’ve never been its darling—I’m way too liberal. But seriously, if you’re going to write a book like this, you can’t do it half-heartedly or in a politically correct fashion. It would be dull!

Actually I think the most genuinely controversial sonnets are the ones where I write from an ethnicity other than my own—“Jim Crow South,” ‘Apache Scout” and “Geisha” come to mind—but my defense of that is that in attempting to build a picture of women’s lives throughout history, it would be more offensive to write only from the perspective of white women and omit all those other voices.

So what’s the reaction been to Sisters & Courtesans, especially from said establishment?

Audiences and readers love them. That’s the main point. But reaction from the establishment has been more mixed, shall we say? None of the sonnets was picked up by any of the formal-friendly print journals, and even some e-zines were dismissive, although Angle, Light, The Rotary Dial, E-Verse Radio, and Mezzo Cammin all got on board. I think the problem is not that they are offensive, but that some male editors just don’t see the point? I also feel, not to detract from the individual poems, but the concept does work best as a book.

I love what one of my Amazon reviews says: “The poems catch the moment, and which is what I mean about building up a picture of women’s history – one recognizes commonalities and themes which play off each other. The individual poems are memorable, but the collection as a whole is something more.”

It’s almost as if the ‘Sisters’ of Sisters & Courtesans doesn’t refer solely to nuns, but is intended to include the whole sisterhood of women. Is that right?

Wow! You’re so clever! I wish I had thought of that…

Nice! Now, we can’t end this without talking about the cover photo. Is it you?

Does it look like me? Seriously, the cover has produced some good stories. When my fourteen-year-old daughter saw it she asked me the same question and got the same answer, whereupon she said, “You should have got Kate Upton to do it!”

You didn’t answer the question?

I know.


Sisters and Courtesans is available from Amazon, White Violet Press and annamevans.com

The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets’ Timeline Launch

Last night I attended this groundbreaking event, which was held at The Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington DC, and hosted by the project’s driving force, Kim Bridgford.

It was delightful to be reunited with so many of my fellow timeliners (from last June’s West Chester seminar)—Barbara Crooker, Marilyn L. Taylor, Patricia Valdata, Kathyrn Varnes and Kathryn Voorhees—for such a varied celebration of women’s poetry. After a brief introduction by Kim, we were treated to two songs from the hauntingly lyrical Somi. This was fittingly followed by a tribute to Lucille Clifton, presented by friend and former student Carleasa A. Coates. Alicia Ostriker delivered a fine keynote address, after which the names of the original timeline contributors, and all the women poets in attendance, were called by Kim and Marilyn respectively. Annie Finch read a spirited poem created specially for the event, which invoked the muses as well as pretty much every dead woman poet of any renown. Then the Timeline was officially launched with a ceremonial click of the mouse. (You can find it here on the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets’ Timeline website.)

Following another two of Somi’s original songs and a brief intermission, Rhina P. Espaillat headed up the list of featured readers—I confess I am a little in awe of her, although she spoke to me (for the first time ever) with much grace and kindness. Then Molly Peacock gave her usual exuberant performance, and finally we enjoyed a dramatic recital by Terri Witek.

During the course of the evening I was also able to speak to Mike Peich, whose sponsorship originally got the project going, Mike Juster (current featured poet at The Barefoot Muse), Eratosphere moderator and fine poet Maryann Corbett, and recent Donald Justice Award winner Ned Balbo, among others.

All in all, it was a fantastic evening for women’s poetry, and the timeline will continue to roll out. (If you are interested in contributing an essay on a woman poet to the database, please query Kim at kbridgford@yahoo.com.)