Sarah Fawn: How did this the idea for this anthology come about? What prompted your role and vision as an editor?
Susan: I became a publisher in a moment of rage. I am a writer and editor but, in that moment, my own words failed. I knew that some writers would still have theirs. I had no idea how to publish a book, but I figured I would learn.
In late May, 2018, the news was saturated with images and video of sobbing, terrified children, separated from their parents at the border, a result of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. A faux scandal erupted when comedian Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a feckless cunt, because she’d failed to take any action, despite her position in the White House and previous claims of concern for children and families. Donald Trump, our country’s President and crass clown, whom we’d all heard claim to grab women “by the pussy,” tweeted that Bee should be fired for her “horrible” language. By then we were used to that sort of hypocrisy. We saw it on display nearly every day. But as I watched these children, alone in a foreign country, their parents still believing that if they complied, they would be given sanctuary in our “nation of immigrants,” and I imagined myself, and my son, in similar circumstances—something in me snapped.
During the yearlong 2016 election, I’d recoiled from the vicious misogyny I discovered was present on both the Left and Right. On social media, I was repeatedly lectured by men, in paragraphs-long screeds, about why my support of Hillary Clinton was, among other things, “fucking moronic.” I unfollowed hundreds of acquaintances. I joined secret groups, where many women reported similar experiences. My thoughts turned to my early 70s childhood, when it felt like feminism was in the air and, listening to my “Free To Be…You and Me” record, I imagined a future where women were listened to and respected just as much as men. I visualized an overdue yet inevitable, progressive arc towards equality. Now it was 2016 and my country would rather elect this unqualified, incurious, offensive man than a highly experienced and even-tempered, if imperfect, woman. It occurred to me that perhaps many Americans had never come to terms with the fact of a black president. They weren’t going to follow that with a WOMAN. They meant to take their country back. To me, it wasn’t about Hillary or Donald but white patriarchy. A year and a half into this, I sat back and wondered: How are we doing?
I kept the submission call deliberately vague. I wanted to see any and every response the moment brought forth in feminist writers of prose and poetry: was it the specifically political? A rejection of shame and silence? A glimpse of how misogyny worms its way into every little girl’s childhood, and the threats that follow her into adulthood? I wanted anger, despair, beauty, humor, hope—all of it. I wanted a reclamation of forbidden words and bodies and stories. My inbox became a collective scream.
Sarah Fawn: Susan, I love your decision to keep the submission call deliberately vague in order to avoid prescriptive feminism, in order to keep the call inclusive. Writers, can you describe your responses to this call for submissions? What did this call for submissions and project mission mean to you? Did it inspire your writing or speak to work you were already composing?
Kari: First off, I’d just like to give another big thank you to Susan Rukeyser, our editor and publisher, for making this book happen. Her call for submissions, which I found on Twitter, really cut through everything else I was seeing that day, most of which was miserable and alarming. I thought YES. Thank goodness. I’m in. Much of my writing, honestly, stems from specific calls to action; I find cool prompts and themed issues delightful and inspiring. Following the 2016 election, and throughout the past two years, my response to Trump and the Republican party has been extremely visceral. I’ve written words in dark sharpies on poster boards and shouted them into the streets. I’ve sung them quietly in crowds lit up by candlelight. My words have made their way into my hometown paper and into conversations with family and friends when it has felt safe to do so. I wanted to be less safe, I guess, and I wanted to get back to the page. I’m an avid reader, reading whenever and however I can, and that desire to be read, to reach and connect with others through a written and well-thought-out piece, returned. I’d been wanting to contribute to something like this, to leave a mark, say I was here, to not let loud voices drown out the love and the light, and the fight of those things. So my piece in the anthology was absolutely written with the call for submissions in mind, and the vision came together quickly and powerfully.
Lisa: I wrote my poem, Anything But, specifically for Susan’s call. The call itself was a permission slip of sorts for me—an invitation to extend the quiet, everyday actions I’ve been trying to take since 45 was elected, but specifically through my writing.
Sarah Fawn: Tell us about your work that is included in the anthology—how does your work speak to themes of fecklessness, of frustration, of feminism? How do you see the work reacting to, responding to, or resisting our current social and political climate?
Sarah: My piece, “Don’t Ask Me Now,” responds directly to this idea of calls for civility from the very people who have, for decades, been responsible for so much indecency—even inhumanity—in the nation’s treatment of anyone who isn’t a hetero, CIS, white man. Civility isn’t possible unless there is first decency. It’s a trick, meant to get us to turn on one another, to weaponize our empathy and compassion as a tool in our own oppression. We cannot let a fear of offending make us silent.
Kari: Yes! I love and am cheering for everything Sarah Einstein has just said. And I got chills for “Don’t Ask Me Now” which reads to me almost like an anthem, something to be played over and over until we understand, until we acknowledge, until we act.
My work in the anthology is called “Rebirth is a Mother” and as I mentioned above came directly as a result of this anthology’s call to action. It’s an allegory in flash. I sometimes find I can uncover more truth with a short piece of flash fiction than I can in a longer essay. Likewise, fiction often allows me to be more hopeful. I suppose I was in search of some truth and hope when I set out to write this, but what I consciously brought to it was anger, and yes, frustration, to be sure. This particular piece came out of a vision I couldn’t shake, a picture I had in my head of a woman in a hole in the ground. What angers and frustrates me to no end is that, in 2018, and now looking at 2019, humans in all corners of this world—for many reasons—are denied their humanity. And honestly, I don’t know if we have it in us to change. This is a story of the present but also of generations before, and of generations to come. It’s a story of renewal amidst continued oppression and violence and fear. Of preservation instinct but also of community. Of Earth, and motherhood. I wanted to honor these things, in some small way.
Lisa: My poem is framed around specific experiences of my childhood, but it’s not just about being my father’s daughter; it’s about the lifetimes women spend being defined by men—how our language is shaped by them, how our self-esteem is shaped by watching and listening to them, how we learn to use words that describe our physicality to degrade others. I wanted to try to illustrate that my experience isn’t unique—rather, it’s all too common. So many of us grew up watching men ogle women or being ogled, comment on women’s/our bodies, relegate women to parts—even men who are fathers, even men who love their daughters. I also wanted to convey that I co-opted this language; I wanted to please the men in my life. I went along far too often and that, too, is a problem. I’m not proud to say that it’s taken me 40-some years to start to understand this and that I still struggle with the shared language and learned stereotypes that harm us.
Sarah Fawn: Susan, can you say more about your editorial process in putting the anthology together? How did you select work and how did feminist editorial principles guide your selection process the way they guided the project’s mission?
Susan: I was lucky that, for the most part, the writers who submitted understood that the word cunt was intended as a springboard for feminist contemplation. I only received a few submissions that really missed the point. Those writers seemed to think I was simply offering permission to use “bad” words. Submissions by cis men who used cunt as a slur, humorous or otherwise, missed the point entirely and were quickly declined.
I let instinct guide the editorial process, at first. I stayed open to whatever visceral response each submission evoked in me. When something hit me as original, urgent, lean, and articulate—I knew. For instance, as soon as I received Sarah Einstein’s “Don’t Ask Me Now,” I knew I had to have it. Yes, I thought: there is the power I wish I felt right now. There is the reminder of our systemic racism and sexism that makes this “outrage” over Samantha Bee’s language seem absurd and hypocritical. I knew it would open the anthology and sets its tone: this will not be a gentle book. This is not a book that asks permission or apologizes for making you uncomfortable.
As I accepted pieces, I started to see the shape the anthology would take, how the reader would travel from the anger and despair of living through this particular administration, to light-hearted work that rejects the negative, misogynistic connotations of cunt, to declarations of female sexual pleasure. This led to stories of reclaimed bodily autonomy, and the many, many ways we suffer under patriarchy: from being background scenery in men’s stories, to the ways we learn from early girlhood that society’s expectations of us, physically and otherwise, are devastating and impossible—as in Lisa Allen’s “Everything But.” I tried to make sure it represented as diverse a perspective as possible, in cultural background, age, and gender expression. It includes work that presents women who never wanted kids, as well as women who see motherhood as hope—as in Kari Nguyen’s “Rebirth is a Mother,” part of the anthology’s final section, which suggests new ways of approaching the world, a return to nature and the female. The very last piece, your poem “Outspoken,” is, for me, the perfect parting gift for the reader, a wish that our words will creep like vines into and through the oppressive system that must be dismantled.
Sarah Fawn: The title suggests a reclamation of the word cunt and its many connotations and implications. What is the importance of reclaiming this word and how does the act of writing facilitate this reclamation?
Kari: Language is a powerful medium. I remember so vividly the first time I registered hearing the word cunt; the response that it brought about in others, particularly in the boys sitting near me, stunned me at the time. A word could do that? I was in sixth grade, in science class, and one of my classmates blurted it out, loudly enough for a couple tables to hear her, but not loud enough for our teacher to notice. I’ll never forget her mischievous smile or the shine of her eyes as she said it a second time, when I was looking at her and marveling at the power she held just saying this word, a word I didn’t know and had never heard before, a word that captured the attention of the boys and held them there, awed and impressed. To me, in that moment, she was cool and powerful and mysterious (and in middle school especially, everything I felt that I wasn’t). That moment has stayed with me, and it feels almost fitting to be here now writing about it.
Lisa: I grew up a cradle Catholic. One of my first memories is taking a bath at my great-aunt’s home and being scolded for touching my nipples. She died when I was in 2nd grade so this memory is from when I was very young. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t told that my own body was wrong somehow, that celebrating my body or touching my body was definitely wrong and that I was a bad person for doing any of that, or for using the words that others used to describe various parts of my body. I learned the word cunt by sneaking into my parents’ room and looking at their pornographic magazines; I heard people hurl the word at women they hated for one reason or another. I knew that every word that described a body part I possessed was either sexual or violent—and that I wasn’t allowed to say any of them. The importance of reclaiming the word cunt is part of changing the narrative about women’s’ bodies, women’s agency, and women’s worth regardless of size, physical appearance, or whatever other qualifiers society places on us. One of the reasons I titled my piece Anything But and didn’t specifically use the word cunt is because I’m still working toward that. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.
Susan: I would urge everyone with a cunt to get comfortable with saying that word out loud. I would ask them to consider: why does a word for my genitalia make me gasp and cringe? Who says it’s a “bad” word? Might those who defined it as such have some incentive to keep me ashamed and silent? I suggest that we reject the definition we’ve been handed and create our own, positive meaning. Susan Abbott’s “Litany of Collective Cuntsciousness” repeats cunt at the end of every line in an attempt to shift our response to it. It becomes something entirely new and, dare I say, holy. Every time we reject and reclaim a means of our oppression, we gain power.
Sarah Fawn: And finally, what are the next steps? What ways can we actively reject, resist, and reclaim going forward?
Sarah: I find that I’m often reminded of the compensatory networks of care we had to build during the early years of the AIDS crisis, when the first need was to take care of our sick and dying because the state and the medical establishment both had abandoned them. The guerilla activism of ACT UP! was key to creating systemic change, but we also needed the quieter activism of the people who provided for the care needs of people as they sickened. I think we’re headed in the same direction now, with the gutting of the ACA, proposed attacks on Medicare and Medicaid, and the diminishment of women’s health care protections. Not all the old strategies will work. For instance, Jane in Chicago trained women to perform safe home abortions, but at the time any woman who experienced complications would be treated, without consequence, in local emergency rooms. This is no longer true—now, in many places, the women could be turned away and/or arrested. So we need new ways for these grass-roots networks to function, but those networks themselves will still be key to getting vulnerable people through these difficult times.
Lisa: When I saw the call I flashed back to a conversation I had with my father after I returned from the Women’s March in D.C. He asked if I really thought going and marching (and spending all that money, and taking time away from my work and my kids) made a difference. I answered that yes, I think it did. I still think that. I think our daily actions can continue to make a difference, albeit sometimes small. Putting this work into the world is to participate in the reclaiming of language and how we use the most intimate of words to hurt and degrade others. Using our individual and collective voices to protest, to resist, to educate, to draw others into our experience and ask them to consider how their actions/beliefs affect others are all acts of resistance.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women, Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.
Susan Rukeyser edited Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology and published it under her newly-formed imprint: world split open press. She is the author of a novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications), and a chapbook of tiny stories, Swap / Meet (Space Cowboy Books). Her work appears in a number of journals including River Teeth, Luna Luna, Mom Egg Review, and Black Heart Magazine. In 2017 she moved home to the Mojave although she grew up in Connecticut. Find her here: www.susanrukeyser.com.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK and other journals. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is the founding editor of Signal Mountain Review
Lisa Allen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now (Putnam 2015), Bacopa Literary Review (2018), the anthology Feckless Cunt (2018), and the anthology Greasy Spoon: Bottomless Coffee, Homefries & Pie and Other Things We Love About Roadside Diners (working title) from Hippocampus Books & Magazine. Lisa holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College, where she was a Michael Steinberg Fellow in Creative Nonfiction. She is pursuing an MFA in Poetry, also at Solstice. She’s inspired by the work of Abigail Thomas, Dr. Randall Horton, Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, Anne-Marie Oomen, Meg Kearney, and Laure-Anne Bosselaar. Lisa volunteers at VIDA and Bettering American Poetry.
Kari Nguyen lives in New England with her husband, daughter, and twin sons; she writes fiction and nonfiction and is the former nonfiction editor for Stymie Magazine. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a two-time prize winner in the Glass Woman Prize. Her writing has received recognitions from Glimmer Train, The Binnacle, and New Hampshire Writers Magazine, and her work is included in four anthologies—two published in September 2018. For more on her work, visit karinguyen.wordpress.com and @knguyenwrites.