Girl Talk

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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I think of poetry as a boys’ club. Do female poets have to learn to write in a “masculine” style to gain any praise for their poems?

— Sarah, Malden, Massachusetts

P.S. Do you know of any good poems about female relationships?

You’re right, to some extent: Poetry is a boys’ club, as are many professions. This is something that I have noticed more and more as I’ve lived, but maybe I’m being too sensitive. After all, I did just buy an anthology of female poets writing about birth and childrearing (Not for Mothers Only published by Fence Books), but anthologies like that seem to exist almost on the fringe. Maybe some women feel that they have had to alter their style to gain any credence for their poetry. From personal experience in writing workshops, my narrative poems — which are more straightforward — receive much more praise than my lyric ones, which are more imaginative and less easy to understand. Many of my narrative poems have been published in literary magazines, while my lyric poems are often rejected. That doesn’t necessarily prove anything, though — it’s just something I’ve noticed, and in fact, many female poets have received much praise for their lyric, imaginative style (Ada Limón to name but one — I have a “Crush” on her). So, for the most part, I don’t think that female poets have to change their style to get noticed in poetry. I do think, based on my experience, that female poets might initially encounter a lot of opposition to a particular style or, for that matter, theme:

I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade,

a song for what we did on the floor in the basement

of somebody’s parents’ house, a hymn for what we didn’t say but thought:

That feels good or I like that, when we learned how to open each others’ mouths

how to move our tongues to make somebody moan. We called it practicing, and

one was the boy, and we paired off…

We sucked each others’ breasts, and we left marks, and never spoke of it upstairs

outdoors, in daylight, not once. We did it, and it was

practicing, and slept, sprawled so our legs still locked or crossed, a hand still lost

in someone’s hair … and we grew up and hardly mentioned who

the first kiss really was — a girl like us, still sticky with the moisturizer we’d

shared in the bathroom. I want to write a song

for that thick silence in the dark, and the first pure thrill of unreluctant desire

just before we made ourselves stop.

(Marie Howe, “Practicing”)

Ahhh…poems are great, aren’t they? All poems encounter opposition — the workshop, the red pen, the slush pile. That’s one of the reasons that they are so good when they finally reach us. • 7 June 2010

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.
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