Sarah Fawn talks to Grace Bauer and Julie Kane, editors of Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse (2017, Lost Horse Press).
Sarah Fawn: How did this project come about? How did the results of the election and transition impact the anthology?
Grace Bauer: As I say on the back cover, the idea for the anthology came to me in the shower—a few weeks after 45’s “nasty woman” comment during the debates. The phrase had quickly become a hashtag, a meme, a t-shirt, etc. and one day the widely circulated phrase just hit me with “poets” added to it. I knew there were plenty of them out there, and thought it might be interesting to see what a collection of them might look like. I contacted Julie, because we had worked together on a previous anthology (Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Possum: Critical & Creative Responses to Everettte Maddox) and she was game. Then I contacted Christine Holbert at Lost Horse Press, who had previously published my collection Retreats & Recognitions, as well as an anthology on women and work (Raising Lilly Ledbetter). She was game as well, so we were off and running. We explain in the introduction how we planned to put out the call the day after the election, with inauguration day as the deadline. We proceeded thinking election day would be a celebratory occasion, and when things turned out otherwise, I almost gave up.
Julie Kane: On November 9th, the day after the election, Christine and I got an email from Grace saying only “Well, the unthinkable has happened, so our brilliant idea is a moot point. God help us all.” But then Christine emailed us back insisting that the project was now more important than ever.
Grace: So Julie and I rallied, revised the wording of the original call, and put it out a day or so later than planned. We felt a sense of urgency about getting the anthology out into the world as soon as humanly possible, so our “window of opportunity” for submissions was limited. We relied primarily on social media to get the word out—posting and reposting on Facebook, Twitter, the Lost Horse Press website, and various groups and listservs focused on women writers. We asked friends and followers to re-post and re-tweet and include the call in their blogs, etc., which many people did. Our call was picked up by Black Lives Matter and StudyBreaks.com, among others. As overwhelming as the response was (we received over 1500 poems), we know many nasty women poets whose work might have fit perfectly into the anthology may have missed the call, but as it was, we still had to say no to many wonderful poems. We still ended up going over the page limits Christine initially suggested—by a lot! We’re grateful that she indulged us.
Sarah: How do you see the poems, poets, and this anthology as a whole resisting, reclaiming, or reinventing what it means to be a “nasty woman?”
Grace: Like beauty, “nasty” is in the eye of the beholder. We never wanted the anthology to be just about the election—though there is certainly plenty to be said about this event, and the potential repercussions for women. The call for poems made it clear that we were looking for broader—and more varied—perspectives on women’s experience. Women poets have always been resisting, reclaiming, and reinventing—sometimes subtly, sometimes more overtly. To my mind, any refusal to allow others to define what it means to be a woman is a kind of resistance.
Julie: We were certainly not the first to reclaim the term “nasty woman.” As soon as the term spewed out of a certain candidate’s mouth, women began reclaiming it with pride, to mean any woman who resists sexist stereotyping. If you look closely at the photos of Grace and me on the back cover of the anthology, Grace is wearing a t-shirt that says “Nasty Woman,” and I am wearing a silver necklace that says the same thing—we acquired those items months before the anthology came out. There has been a huge unofficial movement to reclaim the term and redefine it as a positive thing.
Grace: Just had to say that I like Julie’s choice of the verb “spewed.”
Sarah: While prompted by recent events, this collection also speaks to “the stereotypes and expectations women have faced dating back to Eve, and to the long history of women resisting those limitations. The nasty women poets included here talk back to the men who created those limitations, honor foremothers who offered models of resistance and survival, rewrite myths, celebrate their own sexuality and bodies, and the girlhoods they survived. They sing, swear, swagger, and celebrate, and stake claim to life and art on their own terms.” Why was it important to situate this collection within this broader context?
Julie: We chose to situate the collection within several broader contexts, actually. The very first themed section in the book is “Sweet Inspiration: Nasty Women Poets on Foremothers & Role Models,” because where would we be without the inspirational examples of real women who came before us? Myth and legend can be just as important as a source of inspiration to resist limitations, especially on an unconscious level, and so we have a whole section devoted to those imaginary foremothers, as well. And in our introduction, Grace and I talk about how three women’s poetry anthologies from the second-wave feminist movement empowered us as poets at a time when the textbook anthologies in our college courses were nearly devoid of women writers.
Sarah: This anthology contains poems from 217 writers, each approaching what it means to be a “nasty woman” in different ways. How did you go about organizing the material? Did you have the sections in mind during the selection process or did they arise while putting the anthology together? How did the act of bringing so many voices together through arrangement enrich the spirit of the project?
Julie: It was tempting to just put all of the poems in alphabetical order by last names, because doing the themed sections added so many more hours of work for us. But we’re happy with the way they turned out. To begin with, Grace and I each read back through all of the poems we’d accepted and jotted down lists of themes we saw running through them. Then we compared our lists, hashed out the ten major themes you see in the book, and started assigning poems to each themed section. Within each section, the organization is alphabetical, but that led to some amazingly serendipitous juxtapositions: two poems in a row about straightening hair, a poem about tampons following one about menstruation bloodstains, and a left-hand vulva poem squaring off against a right-hand blue balls poem, for example. Throughout the book, each poem speaks to those around it, which (I hope) adds another dimension to the reader’s experience. We decided that song titles associated with women singers would be fun to use as our section titles—unlike song lyrics, song titles can’t be copyrighted. Some of them came really easily, like “She Works Hard for the Money” for the section about women at work; but some of them really stumped us. Grace and I found ourselves Googling the complete song lists of every significant women singer we could think of, from Bessie Smith and Edith Piaf through Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. Then what seemed like the perfect song title to express a given theme might get vetoed because the song itself did not support women’s empowerment. For example, “Legend in Your Own Time” was a perfect title for the myths & legends section, but the song itself is about a jerky guy.
Grace: Yes, alphabetizing would have been much, much easier, but we just couldn’t let ourselves go the easy route. Once the sections evolved, we played around with which poem fit best where (many could, of course, fit into more than one section). This added hours to our work, but in the end, I think it makes for a far richer collection. And yes, some of the serendipitous connections that occurred turned out better than anything we might have planned. The song titles, I think, add a fun dimension to the possible readings of the poems, but also show how women artists have been resisting and redefining for a long time. If you listen to that Lesley Gore song “You Don’t Own Me,” which came out when I was just a kid, you realize it’s pretty damn defiant—especially for a Top 40 song from that time period.
Sarah: Nasty Women Poets includes work from what you describe as “a fabulous coven.” How did you go about including diverse women’s voices, perspectives, and experiences? What editorial principles guided your decision making? How do you see these editorial practices resisting or reacting to the current social and political climate? What is our responsibility as editors during these times?
Julie: Grace and I each read every poem submitted and scored it a yes, no, or maybe. Then we would compare our lists. Even though our own writing styles as poets are very different, we tend to agree on editorial decisions about 90 percent of the time, so the “two yeses” and “two nos” were easy. Then we hashed out the rest of the decisions in emails and phone calls.
Grace: Our main criteria were 1) whether the submitted poem fit the parameters of the anthology and 2) whether the poem spoke to us on a significant level. It didn’t matter if the poet was well known to us or not. We were choosing poems more than poets. We did solicit poems from a small number of poets who were not, to our knowledge, users of social media or others who might not be our active “friends” of “followers” and were pleased when some of those we solicited sent us their work—though others did not respond, for whatever reason. When all was said and done, we felt we had amassed a fairly diverse range of voices in terms of race/ethnicity, class, gender identity, age, geography, etc.
Sarah: What poems stood out immediately from the submissions? Why? What poems do heavy lifting in this collection? Why?
Julie: That’s like trying to pick a favorite child. Every poem in the book stood out immediately to one or both of us when we were reading submissions. But Nordette Adams’s “Digital Anthropologists Find Our Hashtags” definitely impressed both of us. It’s a poem protesting the police shootings of young Black males that fuses current events, personal experience, and pop culture into a stunning verbal torrent that keeps breaking into tweetable fragments with hashtags and emojis—a summary that does not do it justice. It’s the voice of a woman speaking to power—one of our definitions of “nasty,” from our Introduction—and it does so in a way that feels so utterly fresh and groundbreaking. I might also add that Grace and I were both thrilled that the last poem in the book, by Andy Young, ended with the image of a grieving mother “turning to look / into everyone’s face.” That’s what we wanted each poem and the book as a whole to do to its audience of readers, to look out boldly and nakedly, to communicate and confront, person to person.
Grace: Yes, I agree that picking favorites is impossible. There are some poems in the anthology that made us laugh out loud and others that made us want to scream. Each speaks to power in its own way and adds to the collective voice of resistance. Ultimately, I prefer to think of this coven as more cooperative and interactive than competitive. It’s the chorus of voices that we hope will speak (and sing) to readers, more than soloists.
Sarah: It seems each day we see more and more alarming news stories—how do you see this anthology reflecting, responding, or resisting the rapidly-shifting political and social climate?
Grace: We could not have predicted the current rash of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault while we were working on the anthology, though we knew it was an all-too-common phenomenon, and there are poems in the anthology (Jan Beatty’s “Shooter,” Emari DiGiorgio’s “Little Black Dress,” and Sue William Silverman’s “If the Girl Considers Revenge,” among others) that address the issue. The section on “Social Justice & Political Protest” also shows some of the intersections with current events/issues that affect women, such as Hope Wabuke’s “Job (War Survivor’s Guilt).”
Julie: In that “Social Justice & Political Protest” section, the poems by Nordette Adams and Andy Young that I mentioned earlier both address the shootings of young Black males. Stacey Waite takes on the issue of transgender bathrooms. There are poems about the Arab Spring uprising, the Pussy Riot protests, the 2016 election results and the subsequent March on Washington.
Grace: Muriel Rukeyser, an important foremother to this collection, said that if one woman spoke the truth about her life, “the world would split open.” Maybe what happens is not so much one dramatic split, but a series of cracks that eventually create a break. My hope is that this anthology will add a few cracks to that monolithic structure of patriarchy and let in a little bit of nasty women’s light.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018), and three poetry chapbooks, Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2017), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press, 2014). 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, The Los Angeles Review, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor of English at Bridgewater State University.
Julie Kane’s poetry collections include Rhythm & Booze, Maxine Kumin’s choice for the National Poetry Series; Jazz Funeral, which won the Donald Justice Poetry Prize; and Paper Bullets, a collection of light verse. Her poems appear in anthologies including Penguin’s Poetry: A Pocket Anthology, Norton’s Seagull Reader: Poems, and Best American Poetry 2016. A past Louisiana Poet Laureate and Fulbright Scholar, she is Professor Emeritus of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. In 2018 she will begin teaching in the low-residency MFA program at Western State Colorado University.
Grace Bauer’s history of resistance began when a nun told her that the greatest thing a girl could grow up to be was a virgin. Having failed at that particular life goal, she became a poet instead. Her books include MEAN/TIME, The Women at the Well, Nowhere All At Once, Retreats & Recognitions, as well as several chapbooks. She hates being called Miss, Ma’am, or Little Lady, but these days, takes nasty as a compliment. The idea for this anthology came to her in the shower.