The Lesbian Poets of Headmistress Press: Marissa Higgins and Samantha Pious 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 are bringing you their conversations with each other, in a sort of online lesbian poetry conference. Previously, Jessica K. Hylton and Jen RouseJoy Ladin and Risa Denenberg and Gail Thomas and Lesléa Newman conversed. 

This week, Marissa Higgins interviews Samantha Pious about her book of Renée Vivien translations, A Crown of Violets (finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize), and Pious interviews Higgins about her book Shopgirls.

Higgins: What do you think the relationship between translation and “queering” language is?

Pious: The discourse about translation describes translators as inherently untrustworthy and promiscuous—think of the medieval proverb traduttore traditore (“translator, traitor”) or the early modern witticism of les belles infidèles (“lovely and unfaithful”). Among “queer” communities, the same accusations are frequently made against bisexuals. I like to think of bi translators (such as myself) as ambassadors among many languages, cultures, genders, and sexualities.

In your prose, you address poverty and classism. Do you see any connections between these topics in Shopgirls?

Higgins: When writing Shopgirls, I thought a lot about vulnerability and the give-and-take in intimate relationships. I also thought about survival and class, and the way women—especially queer women, and especially queer, poor women—push ourselves. Whether it’s the way we dress, how our bodies look or how well we “pass” as non-queer, capitalism tries to shape us and place value on us.

Much of Vivien’s work deals with the erotic and sensual. For some queer people, these subjects can be taboo to broach, much less for others to read. How did it feel for you to translate it?

Pious: It felt great! And I don’t think the erotic should be considered out of bounds among consenting adults. The kink community has a wonderful phrase: “Don’t yuck my yum!”—which roughly translates to, “Don’t shame people for their sexual preferences or practices.” Queer communities would do well to learn from that.

Much of the imagery in Shopgirls involves violence—slicing, biting, piercing—inflicted on the speaker. How did it feel for you to write about this?

Higgins: For me, pleasure, and specifically sexual pleasure, is linked intimately with pain. I think a lot of queer people can relate to this duality: fear and excitement, anxiety and thrill. I’m drawn to writing about sex and sexuality because it makes me uncomfortable, so it’s a space I push myself to explore again and again. Shopgirls is, in part, about intimacy, but it’s also about the startling oddity and surreal nature of sex—and specifically for me, queer sex—itself.

Do you feel that queer women are given equal space in translation? For people who wanted to read more translated works of, or by, queer women, where would you suggest to start?

Pious: The world of literary translation into English is overwhelmingly white, male, cis and straight. Some exceptions are Colette and George Sand (from French), Marina Tsvetaeva (from Russian), Sappho (from Ancient Greek)—and, of course, Renée Vivien. To find more queer and trans women and non-binary people, I’d suggest taking a look at Women In Translation (#womenintranslation on Twitter), founded by Meytal Radzinski and maintained by a collaboration of women translators and advocates.

What artists do you consider as inspirations for your own work?

Higgins: Louise Glück, who isn’t afraid to embrace the ugly and uncomfortable. Richard Siken, particularly Crush. Elizabeth Bishop, for her aching restraint. I look to visual art for inspiration, too; I wrote much of Shopgirls while thinking about Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures of the female body, which are often headless, twisted or upside down.



About and

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.
Mary 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. Her latest collection, My Girl's Green Jacket, was published in 2018, and her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, Prelude, Subtropics, and The Poetry Review.