Megan Kaminski is the author of the chapbook Across Soft Ruins (Scantily Clad Press, 2009). Her poetry has been published in Coconut, Denver Quarterly, Phoebe, 6x6, Third Coast, WOMB and many other fine journals. She lives in Lawrence, KS, where she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Kansas.
When I entered graduate school, I didn’t think of myself as a feminist poet. I was a feminist, of course, and a poet, or at least someone who occasionally wrote poetry, but the two didn’t have much to do with each other. Like a lot of women/students my age, I was wary of anything that bore a resemblance to “identity politics”—we were past those sorts of totalizing narratives. Furthermore, while it was cool to be a feminist, it certainly was not cool to carry on about gender inequity. I didn’t even believe, and still don’t, in the idea of two genders. We read literary theory in our undergraduate classes—the academy had to be a place where sexism, racism, classism, etc, didn’t happen. We had read those articles in classes taught by professors. We all knew what was up.
And that’s part of the reason why it is so hard to write this kind of an essay. Gender inequality is something we don’t like to talk about, a conversation that we don’t want to have. Partially, it’s because we should be beyond it. There are people in our own departments busy writing about the ways that gender is constructed. We talk about it our classes. We’ve included more women in anthologies. And we’d like to think that the discussion is over and done with, or at least that it is based on historical source materials. But the fact is that women professors earn 81% of what male professors earn . Moreover, many of us work as contingent workers in the academy. So when we speak about these things—when we even have time to speak about them after teaching twice as many courses per semester at about 25% of the pay, after tending for our children, and after we try to squeeze out a few minutes to write at all—it tends to be received as sour grapes, old and outmoded thinking. As a result, we find ourselves stuck in a cycle of exclusion and oppression, and without witnesses willing to speak.
When I entered graduate school, I thought of myself as someone who wrote poetry. I didn’t want to be “ghettoized,” or at least that is how I thought of it, into the world of women’s poetry. It was easy to hear the condescension in the tone of certain professors and graduate students when they spoke about “women’s writing,” “chick lit,” or even “women’s studies.” I just wanted to be a poet. I wanted to have my work received in the way anyone else’s would be, regardless of gender. But my experiences in academia have always been shaped by my gender, despite my desire to escape it. In some ways it was probably more pronounced because of the fact that I was the only woman poet in my graduate student class. I know now that this is unusual, but at the time I didn’t think anything of it. At the fall reception a young female lit professor expressed surprise and sympathy when she heard—“Oh, that’s tough. It’s a hard position to be in.” But I didn’t get it at the time.
It wasn’t like it was anything more than a strange mix of offers and acceptance decisions that created that situation, and I want to be clear that I am not writing an essay about the horrors about being the only woman in my class. I am still friends with many of my former classmates and professors, and I value those friendships dearly. But however it arose, the situation I was in made my experiences regarding gender more pronounced. At first it just started out as a kind of careless exclusion—my classmates would get together for drinks and talk about poetry and no one thought to invite me. It started to creep into our classes—inside jokes, discussions about books that people were reading together, and I was just a little left out. I thought maybe I was just unpopular. I had just moved back from Paris and I felt a little awkward. But the distinction wasn’t merely social; I was the same age, had the same basic background, liked the same poets, and had gone to the same highly competitive colleges as the rest of my cohort. There were other issues at play.
When an established poet paid attention to my work, or invited me out to a group lunch after a reading, there were insinuations that I was sleeping with him…no matter how old he was, or the context for our friendship. When my favorite poet and mentor, the poet who was the reason for me wanting to attend the program, accepted me as his thesis student and turned down a couple of my fellow classmates, one disgruntled student said to my face, and to anyone who would listen, “He’s only working with you because he thinks you’re hot.” My appearance, my gender, could always function as a way to discount my work. And I saw it, and now see it, all around me, too. How many young female poets have their work described as “sexy,” as compared to work by men? And while you could think of “sexy” as simply descriptive, and as a favorable review, it can work to chip away at authority. I have a friend who was on a search committee a couple years back for a tenure-track faculty position. Of the four female finalists for the position, three had letters of recommendation containing physical descriptions: the committee knew the size, shape, and gait of these candidates, which were described from a distinctly male point of view. Not a single letter of recommendation from the dozen or so male applicants had any mention of the candidate’s physique. The male candidates existed only as scholars, while the female candidates had bodies that were (unbeknownst to the candidate) on display as well.
I wanted to be thought of as a poet, not a woman poet. But it has become clear to me that my status as a woman affects my poetry and my career. And it doesn’t just stop with the way my work is perceived. Some of those insinuations made it hard, if not impossible, for me to have the same relationships with mentors that my male counterparts have had. If I had a drink with a male faculty member, something my fellow students did frequently, it was something to gossip about. My mentoring relationships were restricted to formal meetings in office hours. When I completed grad school, and moved to a new city, I was excited to find a group of poets to work with. But after I rebuffed the advances of an unwanted and married suitor in the group, I stopped getting invited by other group members to hang out and talk about poetry. It just wouldn’t have been “comfortable,” never mind the fact that he showed up uninvited to my small studio and practically chased me around the apartment until I made him leave by threatening to call my boyfriend. No one thought about how “comfortable” that evening made me.
I’m still figuring out what a feminist poetics looks like for me , and how it would work, but its importance is clear . When women are systematically excluded and oppressed because of their gender, it becomes necessary to write as a woman—to think of oneself as belonging to the political category of women. Maybe it’s a kind of “strategic essentialism.” I’m not exactly sure. What I am sure of is that I am not the only one who has had these kinds of experiences. I’m a twenty-nine year old poet, a woman, and a feminist, and I no longer try to keep them separate.
1. American Association of University Professors Study, 2006. This statistic is also cited in Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s important essay “Number Trouble” (Spahr, Juliana and Stephanie Young. “Numbers Trouble.” Chicago Review 53:2/3 (Autumn 2007)).
2. I certainly have some great models, poets that first started to shape my ideas about what poetry, a particularly feminist poetry, could do: Etel Adnan, Bernadette Mayer, Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Alice Notley, Adrienne Rich, Leslie Scalapino, Juliana Spahr, among others.