A (Very Incomplete) Feminist Poetry Syllabus for 2011

Recently, I have been hearkening back to my literary year–1988. That was in college when I had a feminist poetry class, and also the last time I read such material in depth. Not that it was a chore back then. I was intrigued by the irreverent, political, intellectually fierce and nakedly honest material, which grabbed me by both the brain and the loins like a shot of dopamine. In those days, I discovered exciting voices like that of Sharon Olds and Carolyn Forché, who are still very much circulating and relevant today.

But I realized last weekend that I owe it to myself to finally update my poetry knowledge past the Reagan years–and make a new, admittedly very incomplete, syllabus for myself for 2011. After all, that’s the only way many of us non-academics ever read from that intimidating genre called poetry. I made this decision last weekend in Washington, D.C. at the gargantuan conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Wandering the exhibit halls housing literally hundreds of publisher tables, I soon discovered one of the of strongest feminist presences there: a posse of independent presses specializing in woman-centered poetry.

My reading list  began with a visit to the table of one of the most expressly feminist, newest and most exciting of these publishers, Switchback Books, founded in Chicago in 2006. Its theme is appropriately, “Skirting the Status Quo,” and employs a definition of women “that is broad and includes transsexual, genderqueer and female-identified individuals.” Brandi Homan explained how she and her two co-founders had been motivated to fill a gap in publishing women poets–they had been emboldened as MFA students at Columbia College after seeing a panel with Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Goransson, the editors of Action Books, who encouraged those in the audience to take matters into their own hands and launch their own presses.

If I were judging Switchback’s striking books only by their covers, that would be a good thing. Homan explained the striking design as a priority; she has a background in advertising and a wealth of freelance design talent to draw on. But the content does stand on its own. As of 2011, the press has published seven full-length poetry collections, by both well-known and emerging poets. (Homan’s own work, “Bobcat Country,” published by Shearsman Books in the UK, is centered around life as a Midwest teen of the 1980s, replete with references to “blue Wet-n-Wild Nail polish” and drinking “Zima through licorice straws.”)

Another Switchback collection focusing on the inner world of teenage girls coming of age is Marisa Crawford’s The Haunted House, which won the press’ annual Gatewood Prize in 2008. Switchback also publishes the unique health-themed collection, Pathogenesis, by Peggy Munson, who was familiar to me as the editor of Stricken: Voices from the Hidden Epidemic of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Munson describes her work on her website as being for “weary-to-the-mitochondria travelers.”

Homan pointed me to other feminist presses, and I found some others with feminist content. They include Tucson-based Kore Press, which published and awarded a prize to Sandra Lim’s Loveliest Grotesque, described on the cover as “a dark, post-modern romp” that dismantles Asian stereotypes; the visceral collection about birth and motherhood Milk Dress, by Nicole Cooley, published by Alice James Books, based in Farmington, Maine; and from Louisville-based Sarabande Books the powerful, crackling Orange Crush, by poet Simone Muench, which represents some of the most exciting poetry on the list.

Of course any syllabus, no matter how forward-thinking, still wouldn’t be approaching complete without some classics. I was reminded about that by the poet Sapphire (author of the novel Push, the basis for the film Precious), whom as a conference speaker reminded us several times to remember the “great African American poets Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Rodgers, and Ai” All three died in 2010, marking a huge loss in the poetry world. She noted that these poets’ works were so popular in the 1970s that it was common in the African American community for “regular people” to be able to recite them by heart.

Indeed, these poets of the past help provide a strong foundation for study. Readers are welcome to submit other titles below, to make it a more complete “wiki-syllabus” for the badass poetry-lovers of any generation.

Above: Cover image of Talk Shows, by Mónica de la Torre, from Switchback Books.


  1. Thanks for the website references! Very exciting!

  2. Great choices! I'd like to suggest more feminist poets for you to check out:
    –K. Lorraine Graham, Kelli Russell Agodon, Martha Silano, Rebecca Loudon, Rebecca Livingston, Jessica Smith, Kristy Bowen, Mary Biddinger, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Matthea Harvey, Denise Duhamel, Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, Marie Howe…well, the list goes on…Small presses can be surprisingly feminist-friendly, even if they're not labelled as such, like White Pine or Steel Toe Books.

  3. Thanks, Paula.
    I'd just like to add a request that readers look for these titles at their local feminist bookstore if they're lucky enough to still have one in their area (or search for online). These shops were often the first places to support the feminist presses and poets and their knowledgeable staff would also probably be happy to make recommendations.

  4. Love it! My thanks for posting this. I was sorry to not be at AWP this year, but encouraged by the focus on women-centered events that VIDA was promoting. All the presses you mention are doing such fine work, often on a shoestring (or half of one), yet pressing on. It's essential to support them.

  5. Stephany Creamer says:

    Paula, thanks for all this informtion. I'm glad you felt a lack and did this research for us. Clearly I am so behind and so glad to have a path to follow.

  6. Good suggestion to buy these at feminist bookstores, to do a double good deed. I'd recommend going online (or via phone) to Room of One's Own in Madison, which just publicized some financial difficulties. The thought of Madison without a feminist bookstore is…unimaginable. See this URL also for 5 other feminist bookstores to order from online: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2010670/
    Thanks to Bridget for this info.

  7. oops, forgot URL for Room of One's Own, http://www.roomofonesown.com/
    Can phone in orders at (608) 257-7888

  8. Thanks so much for writing this! I'm one of the editors of Switchback Books, and we really appreciate the shout-out. We'd love to work with any poetry teachers who would like to add us to their syllabi, or poetry readers (or would-be poetry readers!) who would like to to add us to their reading piles or book club selections. You can contact me at becca at switchbackbooks dot com.

    I'd also like to add the following small presses, all of which publish exciting new poetry by women, to the list of recommendations: Belladonna, Noemi, Kelsey St., Fence, Dancing Girl, Bloof, Fence, and Dusie.

    (I included links before, but I think my comment got rejected when I did that, so apologies if this is a re-post!)

  9. Cecilia Milanes and Martha Marinara!

  10. Cin Salach, Pamela Miller, Olivia Maciel, Beatriz Badikian, Lisel Mueller, Deborah Rosen, Arlene Zide, et al The only Chicago poet you included was the late Carolyn M. Rodgers…….

  11. I’d urge you to add Monica A. Hand’s moving and beautiful first collection Me and Nina, just out from Alice James Books, and Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation, by Iraqi woman poet Amal Al-Jubouri, beautifully translated by Rebecca Gayle Howell — also from Alice James. No, I don’t work with the press, I just love these two books and applaud Alice James Books for bringing them out.

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