Amy King is the author of I’m the Man Who Loves You, Antidotes for an Alibi, Slaves to Do these Things (forthcoming from BlazeVox), and I Want to Make You Safe (forthcoming from Litmus Press). She teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College, and co-curates The Stain reading series in Brooklyn, NY.
“My Barbaric Bitch of a Yawp”
She lost all her innocence
Gave it to an abscess
She lost all her innocence
She said, "I am not a feminist"
—Hole, “I Think That I Would Die”
I care but can’t go into specifics just now, no time. I’m busy making poems; you’ll find the details there. My visions in verse. So this’ll be a one-off rant-song to sing along with and jump-start your day to.
I get called a bitch, or a feminist-bitch, at least once a week and, likewise, I often name people to say something about what they’ve just done. “Asshole, just cut me off in traffic.” “Angel, just helped my grandmother cross the street!” So with such proliferation of naming going on, I really don’t get the fear of being identified as or, gasp, calling one’s self a feminist. We know a name doesn’t define our entirety; or as Audre Lorde so aptly put it, "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives." So they say it’s the history; they don’t want to come across as man-hating hairy dykes. Then they say they know the women’s movement was made up of a wide variety of women (as well as more than a few supportive uncles, fathers and brothers), that those women, who were so often our aunts, grandmothers and mothers, were not evil witches. They say they know that those women won a lot of rights and changed the structure of male-female relationships. But don’t ask them (the “I’m not a feminist but…” gals) what rights those women won, don’t ask them how relations between men and women have changed, don’t ask them how they benefited from the blood, sweat and tears of those unsung feminists…
I am a feminist because I recognize the label isn’t going away; it carries a brave history and it has a future. I love the efforts those feminists made, however misguided or right on they got it over the years. Feminism is a past and feminism is a future. It’s political. Though I’m no politician, I live in a world were my public persona carries real weight. Political implications. What I do defines the label I represent at that moment. What I say gives value to the movements I align myself with. It does not define me; I am defining it. I’m a lesbian, I say, because I need to defend other queer women, but I’ve fucked men. I’m an independent because I want people to have more governing power, but I’ve voted Democrat. I’m an American because I love so much the idealism we’ve advanced on, but I critique the atrocious acts my country commits. If I give up the feminist label to the straining voice against it, to those who insist that the name somehow distorts and pins me down, then I give up the parts of that history, and its power, that are so significant and worth my time and gratitude. And I would be forced to see the world through backwards blinders only. I would be giving up the privilege of working with people who fearlessly butt against the unequal, classist, homophobic, sexist, racist, religious, status-quo-for-the-masses mentality. I would be giving up the empowerment that community inspires.
“And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. … Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement Speech 2008
Any poet worth her salt knows that, generally speaking, you can do one of two things with language -- You can use your words to reflect what society surrounds us with. You can represent the insipid mainstream culture and repeat it however prettily or dolled up you like. You can distract with pseudo-epiphanies or masturbate to empty language games until you’re living in a vacuum of your own making. Or you can be a creator, you can write the poetry that is not popular because you are saying things that don’t just comfort people and tell them that the way they’re living now is perfect and lovely and oh-so-right. You can either reflect or you can create, at great risk, to improve things, reveal complexities, point out those brilliant chinks in the mainstream armor of duality and western rigidity. You create to show that there is more to perceive, that change is always afoot, that you want to have a hand in what that change should do, that you can visualize a keener, more interesting and diverse world where the roles and lines and tasks relegated to “woman” and “man” are thinning fronts that can no longer support humanity’s advancement. These “confusing” “crazy” creations are often unpopular because they shake us up; the status quo resists because people aren’t accustomed to seeing in radical and as-yet-unfathomed ways, they can’t visualize themselves in the odd pictures such poets are making. We are afraid to imagine other ways of being on a planet dominated by wars, environmental destruction, and the luxury of ignorance. We hope that if we stay very still, don’t move, and speak clearly, nothing will come undone—and we’ll be safe.
“… Race and class are rendered distinct analytically only to produce the realization that the analysis of the one cannot proceed without the other.”
So it is with feminism and poetry, which are movements, hand-in-hand progressions, the visualization of hope and the often-belittled notion of investing in improvement, even *gasp* looking for some moral imperative in context. Feminist poets do not invest substantial attention in that static image of a hairy angry bitch meant to shut us down and squelch our efforts and dry the ink of our pens; we are too busy moving and shaking shit up and asking people to become aware of and check the power structures we participate in and to give up certain power privileges so that we each might arrive at some semblance of equal footing with access to basic necessities and accesses and to share and to look at other aspects of our humanity that we have been told to repress because they’re too feminine. Feminist poets are putting pen to paper where and when it counts and challenging the very core notions of what it means to be human, literally, conceptually, and emotionally. If I blur and confound the line between one more “them versus us” modus operandi, then I’m doing my job and causing people to pause & reconsider the next actions they’ll take: to hit and kill and segregate, or to lean in, study, consider, smell, see, think and breathe shared air—and then act and react.
“I think … that we have not yet become human. Or, I might say, in a different way, that the category of the human is in the process of becoming. What constitutes the human is a site of contestation. There are clashing cultural interpretations about what the human ought to be, and that every time you assert human rights, you are also adding to the meaning of what the human is.”
Empathy, you suggest? But isn’t it better to give a good ass beating and take one’s seat higher on the scale? Fuck the hierarchy. It’s not the “natural” order of things, despite the desperate protests of those that sit atop their mountain of things and cling to a misanthropic power. Our current situation is a complex ideological structure designed with all manner of booby traps, many self-policing, to keep us in our places, sequestered in valleys and caves, in our lady and dude roles, scared to say that on the face of it, this scene isn’t right when, across the worldwide board and at its most basic, one gender is still supposed to cow tow to another. It’s even got us scared to say that there aren’t only two genders nor two scripted ways to act: feminine or masculine, for each of us. That’s why so many young people want to talk about fluidity: they’re tapping into how this hostile-yet-invisible way of seeing and being (invisible so that we can’t point the problems out) bars access, holds us in place, tells us if we don’t wear the “proper” dolly clothes or sport manly muscles and strictly maintain aggression as a male norm then we’re out of line and doomed to a life of miserable outcast status. It’s why some can’t even see that women could never just “act like men” to achieve equality (see Clay Shirky http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/01/a-rant-about-women/comment-page-8/) – that kind of “way in” is bogus because the very structure of the way things are doesn’t permit such “feminine” considerations as empathy and mindfulness, in fact eliminates them, and this is why we don’t let mothers engage in ground combat. The social fabric as it stands would simply melt and implode.
Remember in “The Matrix” when Neo is asked if he senses that something is off? That reality isn’t sitting quite right? Well, we word workers are all friggin’ Neo. We’re each “the one” and “the one” and “the one” gathered into a sharp arrow point called feminism, guided and guiding together into every next moment and context. And it’s up to those of us with even an iota of awareness to daringly claim that label and continue to define it and redefine it and work together and add to it and impose on it and make that label act on our behalves—despite what mud is slung and fears are put upon us to slow us down and stop us. Because even the fallout changes and we can learn from that: feminists used to be scared of being relegated to lives of “old maids.” Now we’re just afraid of not being sexy. Just think if Emma Goldman caved and said, “Oh no, they’re forever calling me names, screw the vote. Screw the way I want to live, I’ll just marry and shut up and dutifully light the home fires now.” Like Emma G., poets should catch that mud and work it into the sculptures they want to see. We’re not here to smile and be pretty; we write the poems we want to see in the world, however difficult it is to birth them, however much we are berated, however many want to scare and break us. And to respond to this anger with the act of creation is love itself, that sentimental “feminine” essence, the firm basis from which feminists and poets have been acting together forever.
So goddamn right, this is what a feminist poet looks like – keep on looking and watch me work *or* slide on your typing shoes, join me beneath the disco lights, and sing your barbaric bitch of a yawp with feeling—
“Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which the publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; not yourself. Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don't like the true texts of women - female-sexed texts. That kind scares them.”
—Hélène Cixous, 1976