Monday, October 28, 2013

A conversation with Laura Madeline Wiseman, editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, part 1

We recently published a review of an important anthology of poetry called Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gendered Violence.

In addition to that review, co-editor Stacia M. Fleegal recently caught up with the editor of the anthology, Dr. Laura Madeline Wiseman. Here is part one of their conversation:

SMF: You mention the work of Judy Grahn and Chrystos (among others) as catalysts to your interest in poetry as an agent of change in the realm of domestic and gender-specific violence. I adore and revere both of these fierce writers, but they aren't as widely known as they should be. Would you agree with that statement? If so, do you believe their "invisibility" (from the canon and/or popular literary consciousness) to be part of, or symptomatic of, the silencing you speak of in your introduction? What titles by these women would you recommend to those who aren't familiar with them?

LMW: It’s interesting that you ask me about these two writers and the literary canon, because to have a Ph.D. in English and a B.S. in English Literature suggests that I should be well versed in the “literary canon,” have studied it, mastered it, but what a fickle, fashionable beast the canon is, no? It made me wonder how I came to read Judy Grahn and Chrystos, for though I may have read them in some anthology before I started Ph.D. school, as some necessary poem in a women’s literature class, as some required activist profiled in a women’s studies seminar, I don’t recall them, meeting inscription from one woman to another, a note of love, but given that I now had the book, I did wonder if the couple had broken up, parted ways, found new loves to recite poetry to at night. I was drawn to Chrystos’ work and by that point, I had already begun researching the poets and poems I was considering for their poems, if you will, in some well lit library corner. In my first year of the doctoral course work, I took a class in lesbian literature. In that class the professor, Dr. Barbara DiBernard, asked us to read to In Her I Am by Chrystos, a book of love poems, a book that I ordered used and in mine included an Women Write Resistance. Some of the poems in Chrystos’ Not Vanishing astonished me. I felt while reading her work the visceral impact of her words, the way I’d read one of her poems while I studied on the couch on the mornings I did not teach, and feel myself pinned to the cushions, all of my breath gone, the room zeroed in on a line, a phrase, an image.

Judy Grahn also came to me that first year of Ph.D. school.
Lucille Clifton was the visiting writer. Several graduate students and faculty were invited to lunch with her at the restaurant of the hotel where she was staying. I was sat directly beside her and across from her sat Hilda Raz, my dissertation chair. I tend to feel shy, to be overwhelmed by art and literature—I am the kind of person who can be brought to tears by the beauty of the fall gold of a horizon mid-afternoon on a bicycle ride through the mountains—and so while sitting next to Lucille, I could barely talk, let alone breathe, even as she was interesting and polite, even as later I was moved by and laughed at her wit during her reading that week on campus, even as Hilda addressed Lucille to address me directly, at that lunch, saying that Judy Grahn would be a good poet for me to read and asking Lucille if she agreed. “Her” meaning me, “her” meaning a young poet without a book or chapbook, let alone an anthology, to her name, meaning the graduate student, the woman sitting next to Lucille who was eating fish and chips with her fingers (she’d asked Hilda if that was okay in Nebraska), in a brightly lit room with sterno candles on the tables covered in pale tablecloths, a room blended in hues of cream, burgundy, and wood. Lucille replied that I should. At that moment, I’m can’t remember what I thought, but here’s something: after that, I read Judy Grahn.

I read her books, all of them that I could find, including old, yellowing chapbooks of hers published decades ago. I did a mid-term project, a sort of poet profile on her in an American poetry class, the class where I also wrote the first draft of the critical introduction to Women Write Resistance as my final project. I included both authors on my comprehensive reading list. For me, Judy’s poem “A Woman is Talking to Death” absolutely astounded me with its complexity, its beauty, its layering of images. Later, much later, when I contacted Judy and asked if she would like to submit something to the anthology, listing poems of hers I’d love to publish if she didn’t have anything new, I was thrilled she responded to my query, that she submitted, that I was able to collect her work, and even agreed to read in a WWR reading in San Francisco this fall.

But you asked me about the cannon and that reminds me of a conversation I had with a writer over dinner recently, a writer who shot me rapid fire questions about one canonical poet after another (read: dead, white guys) and though I had read them, I didn’t know them, not really. As an undergrad, I studied as all undergrads do in my double major of women’s studies and English literature, studying far and wide in those areas. As a master’s student in women’s studies, I read the feminist theory and focused my thesis on three women writers—Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, and Jeannette Winterson. As a Ph.D. student, I focused on poetry, a good deal of that that would be also called women’s literature. It was those writers that I had read, had read well. Those were the poets and writers I knew, know. Really. In this sense, both Chrystos and Judy Grahn are part of my literary cannon. Their poems speak to me and as such I know they influence my scholarship, my poetry, my activist vision.

SMF: Along the process of writing and publishing this anthology, did you meet with, for lack of a better word, any resistance? Did you encounter any of the trivialization or condescension you outline in your intro as obstacles to women raising their voices against being victimized? And, if you're comfortable answering this publicly, was the anthology rejected by other presses, and which ones, and were any reasons offered? How did you select Hyacinth Girl Press as a possible venue? 

LMW: In the early stages of putting this anthology together, several publishers were queried. They were very supportive of the ideas and theoretical approaches that grounded the anthology. They thought it was an important and necessary book and everyone that I contacted was absolutely professional. At that time, however, I did not have the book completed – it was more of a proposal than a book, and I was only a graduate student and in order to graduate from graduate student to “Dr.” I had to graduate, meaning as my chair, Grace Bauer, said, I had to “jump through fiery hoops.” Once I’d jumped through the fiery hoops and landed on the other side in cap and gown, well, I was ready. Ready too, for your next question.

You asked me, why Hyacinth Girl Press? Why not? Okay, I can think of why not. HGP is small. It’s micro. It’s an itty-bitty feminist press run by one fabulous editor, Margaret Bashaar, with the aid of one designer. There’s no marketing team. There’s no one paid to do PR. All the chapbooks HGP publishes are hand-bound. All the promotion is done in-house or in-house of the poets HGP publishes. All. She doesn’t have a team of workers who handle copyediting, permission, acquisitions, etc. She’s into her third year of chapbooks, with the four year lineup announced. Beyond that, she’s published one other anthology and a third anthology is currently in the works. She’s kind of like a small god.

There is something really fabulous about small presses. They have a lot of freedom to try new things, to take risks, to experiment, to play. Presses like HGP and Dancing Girl Press publish some of the freshest, most interesting, edgy, and fun writing being done. I find the grassroots, collective, independent pizzazz of small presses thrilling.

Women Write Resistance has been, for me, a labor of love. I put it together while I was in graduate school, contacted poets and finalized the manuscript while I was lecturing post-Ph.D., and given that it was released in late-February of this year, it has continued to be a labor of love for me. I believe in what it stands for—resistance through art, resistance through poetry. I believe in the poets it collects and the strong words they utter in their poems. I am honored to be able to bring all of their voices together in one anthology, to organize readings where they can take the stage and read their work, and to be able, by donating a percentage of the sales at such readings to local women’s crisis center and national organizations that seek to raise awareness about violence against women, to financially support others seeking to stop gender violence.

Check back later this week for part two of the interview. In the meantime, visit Dr. Wiseman's website to view performances by the authors of the some of the poems in WWR here.


  1. Awareness of poems against violence and discussions about those poems could be a powerful tool to promote societal change. Does anyone have any ideas as to ways we all, as authors, can interest and encourage the everyday reader to read more poetry in general and poetry with social ramifications in particular?

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