[I asked the women featured in the New York Daily News article if I could interview them about the public response to the article. I asked them each the same set of five questions. Some of the women preferred to answer specific questions; others chose to write their own essays. I’ll be posting their responses here serially over the next 24 hours.]
1) What was your approach to presenting yourself in the photo? And was it actualized?
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is for my agency to be acknowledged, as much of the reaction to these photos has characterized us as passive subjects, naive or attention-seeking enough to be exploited by a male photographer out for his own recognition and profit.
I think it’s important to note that this wasn’t a planned, costumed photoshoot intended for the NY Daily News article.
I wore a crop top bustier thing on a miserably hot day to attend the NYC Poetry Festival, which is like Coachella for poets. Lara, you’re right to detect annoyance in my expression. My thighs are sticking to an inflatable couch while I try to look somewhat elegant. For who? Oh, anyone on facebook, including myself. I’m suspended in that gap between photographed object (aware that I’m being singled out for the way I look) and an empowered subject who agreed, and even enjoyed, being photographed out of my own curiosity to see my image on that little camera screen moments later.
Is that vain? The idea of vanity has always smacked of sexism to me. It’s a word that men have used for centuries to distinguish women’s interest in adornment and self-actualization from their own and make it seem frivolous, so it’s really disheartening when women presume that a sliver of midriff is a cheap shot for attention that can somehow be cleverly redirected at our poems, or that we’re too stupid to realize when and how the male gaze shines upon us. When Becca Klaver sent me the tumblr link to womenpoetswearingsweatpants I was pleased that its humor equivocated the lightness of the article and I said, “Great! We all know what we were doing in that article anyway.”
The publication, which is meant for easy consumption on the subway, constructs the article around novelty. It’s the news, after all. It invented a reason for its existence: a gender power shift in poetry based on newfound empowerment for women to talk about their bodies and sex. The article is (and I don’t mean to slam the writer, who did her job succinctly) amounted to a joke. My posing, somewhat classically on an inflatable couch amounts to a joke. Of course, anytime I’m on the other side of a man’s camera, I feel ambivalent. I can’t say it was my idea to languish on a blow-up couch, but I certainly wasn’t coerced or duped. I was thought-fodder for the camera as well as myself. I was considering myself being considered.
2) Is visual cultural important to your poetry? if so, in what way?
When mostly white women on facebook were policing the appearance of the brown bodies in the NYDN article, I was watching Beyonce’s visual album and noticing similarities in how white, academic detractors were responding to the overt sexiness of her performances and the traditional heteronormativity of her lyrics and public statements. While, personally, I aim to dismantle gender norms and the institution of marriage, I would think twice before slamming another woman for celebrating her marriage and family life in her art.
So many images of women in the media do disturb me as much as they mesmerize me, and my poetry tries to air out both sides of that. I cringe at Miley Cyrus’ twisted performance of a manufactured sexuality, the pro-patriarchal garbage spewing from the mouths of Fox News blondes, the ubiquitous battered, raped body of the black woman in 12 Years A Slave, and on and on.
On the other hand, there’s power in the images of themselves that girls put online, even when they’re highly decorated or their flesh is on display. Does that mean they are in collaboration with the culture that hurts them? Sure they can’t control whether their image will become an affront or a pleasure object, but they’re beating the culture to the punch anyway.
3) Do you consciously cultivate a public image that refracts, troubles, or adds to your poetry in some way?
In college one of my professors asked us to draw our vision of a good feminist. Having felt liberated by the idea of throwing off the accoutrements of femininity as a way to shun cultural fallacies of femininity and resist male oppression as related to the market and its advertising apparatuses, I felt obliged to draw a woman in plain clothes and bare face standing in front of Hull House. Those were the feminists I loved most: the socialists who only dated women and refused to be slowed down by fashion. But I didn’t. I drew myself, who is occasionally attracted to men and short party dresses, because it was important to see myself represented.
How Should A Woman Look has been a huge question for me, especially because one reason I wanted to write came from a desire to disappear behind mind’s labor and be recognized for my intellect. Therefore, I do understand the discomfort that a midriff in an article purportedly about poetry might cause.
In truth, I’m glad there was a cringe response. It’s just too bad that that gut response was articulated as a patronizing lament from my older feminist sisters.
When I perform my poetry- and I purposely say perform instead of read– I understand that I’m going to be measured against my looks no matter what, and I want that to be part of the critical discourse around my poetry. I know full well that my validity as an artist is undermined if I seem attractive, or worse, aware of my attractiveness, so I try to do my own beating to the punch by playing the target and the archer, thus hopefully making the audience aware of the patriarchy inside them.
The truth is, patriarchy is an insidious discourse, and both men and women tend not to expect much from a youthful, female body. I have to resist that kind of, um, resistance to a pretty genius all the time. It was so refreshing to read it confessed in Stephanie Young’s Ursula or University, which acknowledges the culpability of men and women in poetry “scenes” in reducing young women poets to bodies. I think my performances would like to dare the audience to do try.
Not too long ago, I was privy to one woman’s response during a discussion in an MFA visual art class who, when shown a video of the brilliant poet and performance artist Bunny Rogers, immediately, and without any qualms, questioned whether interest in her work stemmed from her talent or her appearance.
Because I’m both repulsed and enchanted by this deep paradox that is our regard for the woman artist, I will sometimes taunt my audience by alternating between beguiling and vulgar affectations to create discomfort. Discomfort heightens self-awareness. It’s the feeling you get watching stand-up comedy.
I’d like people to feel complicated about how they’re viewing me, especially as they’re being entertained or, at least, distracted. I ventriloquize some nasty cliched girl-on-girl jealousy in my poems because that voice is with me. She’s my twin, like it or not. She is the same as me just as I am all that she is not. The way we women regard each other is strange enough to call poetry. But I would never organize myself as a real woman around those thoughts.
4) What have been your thoughts and feelings around the uproar over the article?
It all felt misplaced. My poetry is nothing if not a reproach to the male gaze.You have to enact feminism on inclusionary terms because it’s too intersectional to be done correctly.
My thought is that the uproar was a rehash of second wave white feminist politics in what Becca aptly called Poetryville. As strange as this analogy is, an example that always pops up when I ponder the impossibility of really escaping one’s body: when Kanye West interrupted a pretty white girl at the Grammy’s and the white supremacist world rejoiced because he’d just proved them right: he really was a jack ass. Yet if he had always minded his manners, he would have been another part of the myth of post-racism and the American Dream.
To be an image accessible to publicity, a story in yourself, is, as odd as it sounds, a way to keep the death of the author alive. This whole thing made me ultra aware that it’s the strength of the work that keeps us from becoming cyphers. This is not an apology for the pretty girl in poetry. It could work just as well as a theory of the ugly girl in the poetry world. This is just to say it was important.
I’ve got a younger sister whose body I wish to protect. I can’t snatch it from her when she posts an instagram picture of herself on the beach. I can’t tell her not to enjoy it. She already knows the toll it takes to be looked at and must navigate it for herself.