Women We Read this Week

Sandra Beasley’s “Nice Poem, I’ll Take It,” in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review

In this essay, poet and memoirist Sandra Beasley describes her experience of having her work plagiarized by repeat-offender Christian Ward, who won a citation for his trouble in the University of Derby’s Buxton Poetry Competition. Line by line, poem by poem, Beasley makes a concrete technical case against Ward, who defends his transgressions as poetic influence. But it is here that the poetess lands her estocada:

With every draft I read aloud, I tasted the words in my mouth. Salty, sweet, fatty, lean, velvet, metallic, mean. Mine. What does it feel like, tasting words you’ve stolen? Like sand, I suspect. Sand that a man dying of dehydration drinks in the desert, never slaking his thirst.


Nadine Sander-Green’s “Confessions of a Yukon Arm-Wrestling Champion, Women’s Division,” on The Hairpin

I don’t often get to read one of my Yukon neighbors on the U.S. websites I frequent every day, so it was a thrill to find Nadine Sander-Green’s thoughtful essay about crushing all her challengers in an arm-wrestling contest – and about how, for a woman who describes herself as “shaped like a brick,” the victory wasn’t really very satisfying. Here’s Nadine:

The table was chest-height and constructed that morning from a couple two-by-fours. My first opponent was short with bulky arms. I beat her quickly, but not without effort. The second women I was up against was more gussied up. She approached me, looking toward her friends and laughing. What’s so funny? I asked. You, it’s you! she said. You just took that other girl down! I don’t want to wrestle you. When I beat her, she threw her head back. You’re a monster! She screamed and pranced back to her seat. With every arm I reefed to the table, the more self-conscious of my arms, of my whole body, I became. The roller derby girl called me a tank after I beat her.

…The thing about having a body that’s shaped like a brick is that it can be hard to continuously convince yourself this is sexy. Petite is sexualized. Breasts are sexy. Curves are hot. Big asses. Meaty thighs. Flat stomachs. Round stomachs. But solid?

Marin Cogan’s “‘They Want Another Serena’,” in ESPN: The Magazine

Reading this story about young tennis star Sloane Stephens got me thinking about how rarely we see teenage girls depicted in all their messy glory in sports journalism. The gymnasts of the U.S. Olympic team tend to be polished and poised, and otherwise, young women don’t figure much in the big-name sports landscape. But Cogan captures Stephens (who, okay, is actually 20 in the story) in a way that I think many of us can recognize:

While waiting for her pizza, Stephens talks about the music she’s been listening to lately. “Oh — Shania Twain! Huh, Mom?” she says.

“Old-school Shania Twain,” her mom clarifies.

“‘You’re Still the One,'” Sloane says, and the two of them begin singing another Twain hit. “From this moment,” they belt in mock alto.

Then it’s just Sloane: “I have been blessed, I live only … ”

Her mom picks it up: “For your happiness! And there’s nothing, I wouldn’t do … ”

“Okay, we’re done,” Sloane says.

But Sybil keeps going, leaning in to throw her arm around Sloane’s shoulder and egging her on in the way in which moms seem to sometimes delight in provoking their daughters. “From this moment — ”

Sloane shrugs her off with a familiar flash of that adolescent irritation. “We’re done, stop!”

Yep. I’ve been there. — Eva

Anne Lamott’s “Why I Hate Mother’s Day,” in Salon

Is there anything more politically incorrect than hating Mother’s Day on Mother’s Day? In this essay, Anne Lamott argues against the narrow commercial definition of the day, the way that chocolate and flowers have come to symbolize both everything and nothing. I have always struggled with Mother’s Day because I was raised in a family where all holidays were defined as arbitrary commercial inventions. In recent years, I have adopted Nicholas Kristof’s suggestions to do something that honors all mothers and have donated money to organizations like The Fistual Foundation. However, I never feel like I have done enough, for how can one truly do justice to mothers? Lamott argues that fulfillment can be found in the ordinary and the beautiful, in flowers picked from her garden.

I like Lamott’s essay because it challenges both the commercial definition of the day and the notion that mothers are somehow superior to non-mothers, that they have more empathy or understanding of life. Lamott also demands a more inclusive understanding of motherhood, of sisterhood, of womanhood. She explains:

But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, and my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing.

Motherhood, she suggests, is not a gender but a state of communion. — Alice

Cecilia Pinto’s “In Light of Darkness,” in TriQuarterly

I’ve been speaking with a friend recently about writing personal essays–the classic sort of essay with a strong “I” voice, where the narrator sets out to tell you what’s on his or her mind in a very Philip Lopate kind of way, with a “now I am going to ponder” sort of tone. When I write lately, I seem to find myself getting so caught up in narrative, in the events of the story, in being sure to show (that old workshop favorite), that sometimes I forget what I set out to say in the first place. “So what’s the story?” has been the refrain from many a grad school writing workshop, but sometimes I just want to write what I’m thinking. My friend mentioned Cecilia Pinto‘s essay, and when I read it it made me want to write the sort of piece where I’m constantly trying to brush the cobwebs aside to get at some sort of treasure, some sort of truth, to work my way through some sort of plaguing thought.

Pinto’s piece is a fragmented essay that ponders a line from a Robert Creeley poem: “the darkness sur-/rounds us, what/ can we do against/ it, …” Pinto picks up this thought and asks, “what can we do in opposition to the darkness?” And then, “what is meant by darkness?”

In his intro to The Art of the Personal Essay, Lopate writes:

The essayist attempts to surround a something–a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation–by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter. In a well-wrought essay, while the search appears to be widening, even losing its way, it is actually eliminating false hypotheses, narrowing its emotional target and zeroing in on it.

This is how I see Pinto’s essay; she takes us from Creeley to a painting by Gerhard Ricther to the Restaurant Sarajevo in Chicago to Abraham Lincoln to Aleksander Hemon (not necessarily in that order), to eventually arrive at this culminating thought:

I have little to show for my own creative efforts, and no defense for how disparate the work is, how irregular the output and how minimal the success. I have a restless mind, which is better than saying I am unfocused and lazy. But I am uninterested in pursuing the long inquiry; for me the disparateness is the inquiry. I am doing something against the darkness; it just isn’t much. Mostly I sit around worrying. This doesn’t seem like something to be shouted over bus fumes in the presence of a more successful writer and in the shadow of the Great Emancipator.

I suppose lately I’ve been hard on myself–feeling like I have little to show for my own creative efforts (or more like frustrated with the results of my labor). I sit around worrying, too. I’ll chalk it up to having a restless mind, and hopefully I’ll get it down on the page, and make some beauty out of the disparate mess. — Amanda


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