Poetess: for me, the word conjures up a lady in a white ruffled gown, flung across velvet chaise, sighing and scribbling with a pen that resembles a feather duster.
What is most objectionable about the word is how it implies that a female poet isn’t a poet–she is something different. Something a little less–a poet(l)ess.
Thankfully, the word doesn’t get thrown around (sincerely) very often anymore. Here are five powerhouse poets I adore (there are so many!) who happen to be female.
1. For Heather Christle’s poems, I am an unabashed fangirl. For me, it’s her cadence–it gets in your head and hangs out in there, popping up at the oddest times. Also, the tone of her work pretends to be light, but then it drops a piano on you. For example, in her poem, “The Spider,” which begins, “The spider he is confused/ b/c I am not killing him/ only moving him outdoors/ When I die I do not want/to feel confused…” Begin with What Is Amazing, and then enjoy her earlier books.
2. Jonterri Gadson has a voice that is vulnerable, brave, honest, and important. After reading or hearing her poems, the reaction I have is this: “Whew.” She knocks the wind out of me, gently. Exhibit A: “Cycle.” Exhibit B: “Cousins.” Exhibit C: All of Pepper Girl.
3. I have often lent out/recommended Leah Umansky’s Domestic Uncertainties. I love the way that she uses the page–she’s also a collage artist, and reading her work, this makes so much sense to me. In this book, she looks at how the self navigates gender, love, marriage, and loss. It’s a doozy. You can read a preview of the book here (just scroll down a little).
4. Recently, I read alongside poet pal Natalie Shapero. When she finished reading, all I could think was, “Now, THAT is the Real Deal!” Her poems are musical and crazy witty and littered with the kinds of truths that make you squirm. For instance, in “I Don’t Sleep in White,” (from No Object) she says (like it’s no biggie), “Cloud, have only patience with the lover/ presenting his nakedness like the unpainted/ puzzle they gave in grade school/ to test if we were smart. Cloud, I was always/ smart.”
5. Jan Zwicky is a prolific and lauded Canadian poet (just look at this beautiful poem, “Recovery”), but also a philosopher (Lyric Philosophy is a wonder, but tricky to find in print) and scholar. One of my favorite pieces of hers is “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” in which she so articulately captures the purpose/value of literary reviews. Just listen to this: “To trust an immediate impulse to reject such writing (or an immediate impulse to turn it into a craze) is to consign ourselves to eternal literary childhood, pouting or wailing when we’re not offered a certain sort of lollipop.” Swoon.