Notes Toward a New Language: On Women Poets and Nourishment
In 2010 I began to construct an anthology of poetry written by women who had and/or continue to struggle with an eating disorder. The initial germ of this project was my own desire for such a collection to exist. There was, and continues to be, no such anthology, which is not to say there are no anthologies of writing about women suffering from eating disorders. There are, in fact, plenty. If you visit the self-help section of any bookstore you’ll be shocked by the number of memoirs and self-help books written about this exact subject. Likewise, there are a number of anthologies of poetry about eating disorders as well as anthologies of essays written by published female writers. These anthologies tend to collect work addressing the symptoms of an eating disorder such as weight, food, and body image issues. But none of these are what I was seeking.
The two main impulses behind the creation of the anthology were my desire to trouble the public’s limited understanding of eating disorders and to compile a collection of poems written by women sufferers of eating disorders. In order to make such a collection, my main criterion was strong poetry. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. Each time I submitted the collection for possible publication, it became clear that strong poetry was not among the criteria people expected. What people seemed to want instead were poems “about” eating disorders and with the limited understanding of what an eating disorder is—this meant poems about food or the body. This is akin to expecting an anthology of poets who suffer from bipolar to consist only of poems about shoplifting and compulsive sex. In other words, in order to publish an anthology of poems written by women who have suffered from an eating disorder, I needed to compile a collection of poems that fit the public’s limited understanding of what an eating disorder is.
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The one thread connecting nearly all of the existing collections is the narrative. The memoirs tend to tell the narrative of how the speaker suffered and then how she got better. They are redemption stories. The trouble is that nearly all of the stories we hear about eating disorders in the United States tend to be structured around one basic narrative: a young white woman succumbing to an eating disorder because she wants to be thin to attract male attention.
Ever since the 1980s when Karen Carpenter became the first public celebrity with an eating disorder, there has been a steady stream of movie stars, actresses, and singers who have “come out” with their own experiences of struggling with an eating disorder. These public appearances of anorexia and bulimia are how most Americans have learned about these disorders. As a result, most Americans believe eating disorders “happen” to white girls and women, especially white girls and women with money, and that eating disorders are the result of an insatiable desire to be thin and, as such, are connected to consumption of culture and implicit in this is the notion of conformism to culture and its norms.
Alongside the many public manifestations of eating disorders is the media’s analysis of both these public figures and then their analysis of the disorders. According to most media accounts, an eating disorder is the result of the fashion industry and its relentless thinning of fashion models. A psychological analysis asserts that eating disorders are the result of familial dysfunction, that the starving and/or bingeing girl is “acting out” buried dysfunctions hidden within the middle/upper classes; the so-called “perfect girl” illness. But neither of these analyses makes sense of the fact that both anorexia and bulimia are, like bipolar or schizophrenia, mental illnesses. And though there have certainly been studies that link both the onset of bipolar and schizophrenia to a traumatic event, mental illnesses cannot be conjured. The same is true of an eating disorder.
ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders) defines the two different types of “eating disorders” as “sub-clinical” or “threshold” eating disorders. In some ways, these two kinds of experiences might be likened to the two kinds of depression: one that occurs after an event or an experience and one that is not rooted in a particular experience, one that is biological and ever present. The former type of depression is real, it exists. But it is not the same creature as clinical depression.
This comparison seems an apt way to describe the two different types of eating disorders—one that sidelines the sufferer for a succinct period of time and is usually stopped within the first year, versus another type of eating disorder that is not stopped and stays on. For a large number of sufferers, an eating disorder is not a “phase,” something that happened when they were in high school or college, but a mental illness that they must grapple with and learn to live with. The term “chronic” is often used in such cases and in such cases the eating disorder becomes much more than an obsession with weight or food. In fact, these aspects are mere symptoms of a larger, more looming malady.
In 2010 I began submitting proposals for the collection and over the past five years many have simply not responded. Those who have responded were quick to say they don’t publish “such works.” There have been a small number of university presses who did respond positively, at first. But when it was determined that the anthology could not, in the end, fit squarely in the “patient/health,” “narrative medicine,” or “women’s studies” categories, I was told we could not move forward. I have contacted university presses, independent presses, mainstream presses and women’s presses, to no avail. Over the years, it has become clear to me that the issue has to do with the subject matter itself.
When I ask my undergraduate and graduate students what they think of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, the vast majority of my female students cringe and say they can’t stand her. When I ask again, this time more specifically regarding Plath’s poetry, their faces go blank. It isn’t her work they don’t like; in fact, most of my students haven’t actually read an entire collection of Plath’s work. Their aversion has to do with a kind of visceral reaction. They have intuited from the literary establishment that Plath or other female writers who write about any aspect of their personal lives, are weak and thus, their writing is weak, or, rather, that they have used their own personal suffering to do the work that their writing should have. This kind of thinking is implicitly misogynist, the implication being that writing about one’s experience is a sign of weakness.
This assertion is not aimed only at women. It is also aimed at writers of colors. When a white man writes a poem he, of course, writes from his own experience. That it isn’t read as such is only a symptom of the power structure inherent in the literary world. When a woman or a writer of color writes from her experience it is considered “confessional” and, thus, weak, despite the very real fact that such writing is no different from writing by white men. Those in power define the rules and those not in power must either assimilate to these rules (i.e. female writers choosing to align themselves within this power structure and, as a result, censoring themselves and their writing) or find themselves shut out of the literary establishment. These dynamics exist, also, in the public’s, including the literary establishment, analysis of eating disorders. There is an implied notion that sufferers of eating disorders should just “get over it.” Recently, this has become stronger due, in part, to female writers writing in a nonchalant manner about their experiences with an eating disorder, as if an eating disorder were a choice or a trend. If an eating disorder is a mental illness, and it is, then how can it be a choice? It is interesting, too, to note that such essays are published often because, I would argue, they further and reinforce the shared (mis)understandings the public have about what an eating disorder is.
The anthology has not been picked up because it resists such simple reductions. The poems included are not obviously “about” anorexia or bulimia, the body, or food. The poems collectively unravel the reductive myth of what an eating disorder is and how someone with an eating disorder exists in the world. Also, the poems and the poets whose works are included are not part of a redemption story; the book is not a book about recovery. The collection complicates the issue because the issue of eating disorders and the experience of living with an eating disorder is complicated.
Some of these complications include the diversity of those who suffer from eating disorders. According to the National Eating Disorders Association “Over the past few years, there has been increasing evidence of disordered eating occurring among racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.” In fact, the myth that eating disorders occur only in predominantly young, white, straight, middle class, cis-identified women is a dangerous one, the risk of which is the mis- or un-diagnosing of sufferers who do not fit this narrow definition. Aloud/Allowed, an eating disordered group for marginalized groups, has as their aim the disruption of such myths and advocacy for those who remain invisible as a result of these blindspots. In fact, according to a study they cite, this antiquated definition of eating disorders is actually entirely off the mark when (mis) diagnosing transgender and gender-diverse communities: “As reported April 28, 2015 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Transgender students were more than four times as likely to report an eating disorder diagnosis as cisgender heterosexual women.”
This April I moderated a panel on this issue and the anthology. Four of the poets included in the collection read their poems followed by a moderated Q & A. Some of the questions I asked were: “In what ways does an eating disorder serve as an act of resistance?,” “In what ways has your eating disorder served as a language?,” and “How does the experience of an eating disorder inform your writing in terms of form, language, space on the page (silence, hesitation, stutter, repetition, compression, excess, etc.)?” The panel and discussion proved to be as complicated (if not more) than I had anticipated. Each poet’s experience of feeling outside the margins of society, of hybridity, of how these experiences inform their writing differed from one another, each writer’s responses complicating the others’ further. The audience turnout was larger than I’d anticipated as was the feedback, which was uniformly positive, with many audience members wanting to know when the collection would be printed and what other events were lined up for the project. What I had intuited before became clear to me at AWP: there is a large audience for both these types of public events as well as for projects such as our anthology.
The questions I asked are questions I had been thinking about for some time, questions that go back to issues of power: those who have it and those who do not and what those without power can do in order to be heard. In addition, it turns out those who do write about eating disorders tend either to be so-called experts (medical doctors, psychiatrists, or other people in power) or those whose experience is with sub-clinical or threshold eating disorders—In other words, those who have lived with an eating disorder for an extended period of time tend to be sidelined from the conversation, thus perpetuating the same reductive mythologies of what an eating disorder is.
My hope with the anthology is to begin to trouble the literary community’s understanding of what an eating disorder is and at the same time trouble the fear of the feminine and fear of weakness, which really translates to fear of those not in power. In the end, fear of those not in power means fear of the Other by those in power. As it stands now, the topic of eating disorders has become a binary conversation in the literary community: those in power tend to ignore the issue completely and the writers whose work gets published tend to be those who have experience with “sub-clinical” or “threshold” eating disorders. My hope is that the anthology and panel will be the beginning of a long and complicated conversation.
The poems included in the anthology perform the inherent structure of the eating disorder: its kinetic energy, guttural and animal sounds, the viscousness of its unknowing and, of course, its silence. Maybe the poems are settings for a dance, a soundtrack for living. Each poem, in any case, has its own beautiful sound.
THE BONES EXPLAIN
We didn’t know you would look like a war:
holed up in your apartment all Fall
With only a measuring tape and a bag of grapes,
cutting grapes in half and licking knives.
Rather, we thought you’d become
a swan-like girl from the Eastern Seaboard,
all ponytail and pearls, and we’d lay,
aristocratic and smooth, in your delicate
décolleté. It’s your mother’s fault, not ours.
She always said we were big. We wanted to prove
her wrong, and look, we did. Just look at your wrists.
Small as sparrows, lithe as wintering wrens.
The wish is to vanish. Always
there is the problem of not enough
horizon and then of sex as the means
of deflection. Desire can’t be located
only followed into a procession
of hands. I told you feeling
could fix a gesture to its source
but I was thin and I was lying.
Lucy Daniel Anderson
Enter the birds.
Then the time of the clock.
Then the sky reflected against the tiles reflected in the face of the clock.
Then the dawn chorus’s halfway hoping chirrup.
The sugar cane left for the bananaquit.
The bananaquit never came.
The gargoyle silhouette of the knowing
Pearly-eyed thrasher dipped and licked
Returned to the sky, a band of white that is nothing
Like the dream that is leaving
Its towery aspect all over the clouds, that is, the clouds
The dream has left and split.
Enter the flit of the bananaquit.
The brilliant sky now piqued.
Allison Benis White
Loneliness moves through large worlds like flamingos. In
1941, Toba wrote with news of the Germans until she had no
hands. And see how each world has already grown large? Even
if we say small things, at least we are speaking. The woman
in the cafeteria holds an unpeeled orange in one hand—
tangible as a light switch, her thumb underneath the skin,
forces up. Maybe the lesson only has to do with hunger: the
white mist the orange sprays can only be seen at the
correct angle, in the correct light. One narrator explained
the world projected into squares of light, moment by
moment, satisfaction and control, as in butterfly and glass
jar. Or that silver contraption made to core and section an
apple in one slice. But an apple has nothing to do with
grace. God’s first lesson was: don’t eat. Eve ate and Adam
ate and Uncle David prayed for his two sons until they were
shot. The first piece she imagines sliding into her mouth
is the most frightening. Peeled, sectioned, the orange
opens in her hand like a flower. Most similes are lies. It
must open in her hand until no one screams for mercy. Make
me whole, God, make me a blue flock of birds moving through
a triangle of light. I knew a girl in high school who
stabbed herself in the stomach. The next day was an
assembly on grief and the problems of eternal weather. I’m
sorry, world. In late September, a Russian soldier stopped
to feed their horses apples. It must be less lonely to
focus on one memory of touch. Instead of good-bye, God set
a toy bird in my palm.
“Spirit desire, spirit desire, we will fall.”
Coinstars are junkie heaven.
We are here
As we’ve been,
Teenagers at the discotheque.
We did not agree
To participate in this study.
Cynthia Cruz is the author of four collections of poetry, including three with Four Way Books: The Glimmering Room (2012), Wunderkammer (2014), and How the End Begins (2016). Cruz has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in writing and an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts. Cruz is currently pursuing a PhD in German Studies at Rutgers University. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.