The Lesbian Poets of Headmistress Press: Jessica K. Hylton and Jen Rouse in Conversation

There are many things you don’t know about lesbian poets. The poetry establishment—major literary journals, male poets, poetry professors—cannot hear, see, recognize or value lesbian poetry. Lesbian poetry is largely ignored. Headmistress Press is determined to make a change in this status quo. In this special Ms. series, the brilliant, lively, lesbian poets of Headmistress Press will be bringing you their conversations with each other, in a sort of online lesbian poetry conference.

This week, Jessica K. Hylton interviews Jen Rouse about her book Acid and Tender, a finalist in the Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest, and Rouse interviews Hylton about her book The Great Scissor Hunt.

Hylton: Acid and Tender seems to grapple with an amorphous “you.” How do you see your role as a poet in Acid and Tender? Are you seeking more to guide people to a deeper understanding or allow them to witness a vivisection of the personal?

Rouse: I run the full gamut of human emotion through Frida Kahlo, through my very personal version of slash connection with her. She yells at me in “What Frida Said,” scolding me for trying to use her story to uncover my own. And I let her. She’s an incredible presence.

Hylton: I love how the image of the hummingbird shifts throughout this collection. Could you speak a little about why hummingbirds?

Rouse: I grew up spending summers at a peaceful cabin by a lake in Minnesota with my grandmother. We watched hummingbirds for hours there, together, in silence. My grandmother was an incredible force and, with me, a woman of great understanding and compassion. After her death, I kind of turned her into a hummingbird in my mind. My myth of her. Of course, there is so much of the hummingbird in Aztec mythology that Kahlo carries into her work, as well.

Hylton: Acid and Tender does an excellent job of combining biography with the fantastic. It’s not an easy combo to balance. How do you see your lesbianism coming into play with achieving this fusion?

Rouse: The speakers in these poems are impossible to disconnect from the person I am, the lesbian writer I’ve journeyed to embrace and embolden. These fantastic poetic creatures make intimate relationship choices and are held to the lens in incredible moments of vulnerability. I believe that when we choose to look at each other as mentors, muses, lovers, artists, and friends, that those choices ripple, those choices matter.

Rouse: One of the first things that made me smile when reading more about you is that you write in the car. What impact did writing in the car have on the creation of The Great Scissor Hunt?

Hylton: Most of The Great Scissor Hunt was written when I was adjuncting at two universities. The drive included a 30-mile stent over the Atchafalaya basin bridge. If you’ve ever gone over the bayou, you know how haunting and inspirational trees surging up from the water can be. The determination of those trees really hit home with me and that drive gave me one of the most productive writing periods of my life.
Rouse: Many of the poems in The Great Scissor Hunt are about different kinds of loss and losing or the act of trying to hold on—how do you see these themes playing out in the journey of your book?

Hylton: My speakers struggle with the loss of grandiose love affairs that really only took place their own heads. Fictions tend to drive their realities, and how can you hold on to something that’s real only on paper? Well, you make it a book.

Rouse: How do you think The Great Scissor Hunt grapples with the idea of being seen?

Hylton: I think the characters in the book are trying to be seen in the same way you see birds attempting to attract a partner. There’s a lot of posturing and excessive displays of romance because they are incapable of separating their desires from plotlines.

Rouse: What would you say about being a lesbian poet and the importance of all the roles the lesbian speaker plays in The Great Scissor Hunt?

Hylton: The Great Scissor Hunt is really about some of the more colorful failures I’ve had to date, pun quite intended. I had hoped that the book would have helped me gain some skills, but alas, I am still relatively terrible at it. For me, it’s far easier to be sincere and to be relatable on the page than in person because reading is intimate.

MaryM-150x150-2Mary Meriam advocates for the right of women to love each other in their poetry and art, and strives to give their work a place at the table. She writes about and publishes such work in the journal she founded, Lavender Review, at the press she cofounded, Headmistress Press, and at Ms. magazine, The Critical Flame and The Gay & Lesbian Review. Her poetry collections, The Countess of Flatbroke, The Poet’s Zodiac, The Lillian Trilogy and Lady of the Moon, honor a cosmos of strong, creative women.  

Headmistress Press publishes books of poetry by lesbians, Lesbian Poet Trading Cards and Lavender Review. Their definition of “lesbian” includes both women who identify as lesbians and people who identify with lesbians, recognizing that lesbian communities have been and continue to be informed by bi women, trans women, Two Spirit, genderqueer, gender non-comforming and non-binary people, and that many of these labels are not mutually exclusive categories. In that spirit, they welcome submissions from all poets who feel an intimate connection with the term “lesbian.” They will be accepting submissions for the annual Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest from May 4 to July 4, 2018.

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Comments

  1. Carolyn Boll says:

    “I believe that when we choose to look at each other as mentors, muses, lovers, artists, and friends, that those choices ripple, those choices matter.”

    What a wonderful reflection of what this blog series is all about. And how lovely that it is in Ms. Magazine where such inspiring conversations have been happening for years. I look forward to following this conversation with all of the Headmistress poets and the Ms. readers as it unfolds over the coming weeks.

    • So glad those words resonated with you, Carolyn. Thank you for your generous reading! Indeed, no better place than Ms. for this series. I, too, am looking forward to the interviews to come!

  2. “The aura of lesbianism about Lowell and Stein, of bisexuality about H.D., and of sexual cynicism about Loy, almost certainly inhibited their critical acceptability within the academy.”
    –Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America

  3. I am definitely ordering both these books right now. From these interviews, it is clear that both poets are fierce, passionate, and intelligent. I’m excited to read their work!

  4. Thank you, dear Lesléa. Honored by your words. Can’t wait to spend time with your newest Headmistress title—LOVELY—this spring!

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