In 1971, Goucher College professor Florence Howe and her student Ellen Bass gave themselves a prompt: Could they, solely from memory, recite poems by women about women’s lives? They knew plenty of poems by men who wrote about women, but actually hearing a woman’s perspective in her own voice was less common. As they called up few examples, they wondered why they hadn’t retained many of these poems. Were there books they could turn to? If not, how could they go about putting women’s voices forward?
In what would become a two-year project, Howe and Bass dedicated themselves to reading the entire American female poetry cannon and soliciting work from contemporary authors. The result was No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women. Eighty-seven poets—including luminaries Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Ruth Stone, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Muriel Rukeyser and Adrienne Rich—were included in a volume now regarded as an influential turning point in literature.
The book was honored in Washington D.C. this April at Split This Rock’s Bi-Annual Poetry Festival. “It is hard to communicate to anyone who wasn’t an adult at that time what an impact this anthology had,” Bass said at the Split This Rock panel celebrating the historic anthology. “We didn’t have access to these poets. If you look at anthologies from American poetry back then, like the Norton anthologies, they were 90 percent male. We saw a little of Sexton, Plath, Levertov, Rukeyser and Moore, but most of the poets were not available to us unless we knew to go looking for them.”
Bass and Howe originally considered including a percentage of male authors, but soon committed exclusively to women. They began organizing poems by birthdates, showing each woman’s range of interests from oldest to youngest. Bass, then 23, found herself happily checking card catalogs at the Radcliffe Library and xeroxing copies of her favorites at Kinkos. The poems she selected explored sexuality, childbirth, love, domesticity, poverty, solitude and female friendship.
“I just picked out what I thought was interesting,” Bass told conference attendees. “That is what I tell all my poetry students: to focus on discovery. Whether the poem is personal or political, it should tell you something you didn’t already know.”
The 360-page first edition is revolutionary in range—not just in women’s ages, races, classes, professions and sexual orientations, but also in their assessments of daily life. Some poets wrote odes to their lives. Some felt trapped. Some wanted to burn down myths and stereotypes that society has forced upon them (see: the wondrous poem “Witch” by Jean Tepperman). Many wrote of women they knew, devoting pages to mothers, daughters and teachers. Pioneers in history made cameos too, like in Susan Griffin’s gorgeous “I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman.” Sometimes angry, sometimes hopeful, the poets always came across as wanting to heard and known. The opening selection, “The Poem as Mask” by Muriel Rukeyser, perhaps illustrates this versatility best. In it, she combines stories of war and Greek myths with a mother’s fear for her child and domestic life.
“The same is true for women that’s true for any disenfranchised group: we need to see ourselves reflected,” says Bass. “Between each other, I need to reflect you and you me. We also need to see ourselves reflected in the culture — to feel that we have standing in the culture, to have a voice in the culture, and also to give us courage to act in that culture.”
The co-editor byline in No More Masks! between the mentor and mentee is noteworthy. Howe was a distinguished professor in her mid-thirties at the time of publication and formative figure in Women’s Studies and the Feminist Press. She had done significant work with the Mississippi Freedom schools and chaired the Modern Language Association. In other words, she didn’t need to offer Bass co-editorship. Still, she invited Bass to take on the project as an equal; an opportunity Bass can still hardly believe. The young woman who would one day become an Academy of American Poets chancellor was encouraged to participate fully in the anthologies’ decision-making process, not to mention correspond with her literary heroes.
Gratitude for poetic lineage was a big theme at the Split This Rock festival filled with open mics, workshops and readings. Heavyweights Sonia Sanchez and Sharon Olds read on the mainstage to palpable affection, while No More Masks! panelists Elizabeth Acevedo and Solmaz Sharif shared more recent stories of their mentors and publishing journeys. Acevedo, who penned Beast Girl and Other Origin Myths and The Poet X, spoke of her previous work leading Split This Rock’s youth slam team and cited the nonprofit’s director and co-founder Sarah Browning as a source of encouragement and support. Sharif, a finalist for the National Book Award with her debut LOOK, referred to her teacher and literary icon June Jordan. Sharif read Jordan’s “What Would I Do White?” from the anthology. Acevedo chose Sanchez’s “Poem at 30.”
When looking that the literary landscape today, Split This Rock speakers nodded at progress but warned against tokenism. This concern came up frequently throughout the 3-day event. Poets seemed to be pleased by the diversity of voices recently included in a traditionally a white, male dominated field—but—they could tell the difference between nuanced and re-occurring inclusion versus being treated as if they were checking off diversity boxes.
Acevedo said that even in the last two years she has felt a shift. “I think folks are realizing there are writers that have been previously marginalized and disenfranchised who are writing the best work in the country right now,” she said. “But I also get reached out to like, ‘because you’re a writer of color who’s writing some of the most exciting work in the country right now, can we just have a poem?’” In those cases, she said, it felt like they hadn’t read her work.
Creating space for marginalized voices is something Split This Rock specializes in. The non-profit, which just hit its 10-year anniversary, has a mission of promoting poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. The group believes that poets should be at the center of public life and works to create opportunities for a range of voices to be featured on a weekly basis. This year, the organization teamed up with Poetry Magazine to create a special edition highlighting festival readers, many of whom were appearing in the magazine for the first time.
In what is her final year as director, Split This Rock co-founder Sarah Browning identified No More Masks! as an important work to feature prominently. She conceived and moderated the panel, which to everyone’s surprise is something Bass is seldom interviewed about. Notably missing at the celebration, however, was 81-year-old Howe, who was at her residence in New York. In an interview with Ms. shortly after, she reflected on what the work meant.
“The reason we did it in the first place was to give young people like you the possibility of expressing themselves—and reading other women’s dreams and thoughts and values,” she said. “I had been taught that women were bad writers. I had been taught this by teachers who cared for me and had no conception that they were leaving out half the human race. And they were doing this for centuries.”
As Howe reflected on her life-long passion for highlighting women’s voices, she traced her concern back to her high school years. “Every now and then something happened. There was a woman that could be included in an anthology and was indeed included and she turned out to be as good as most of them and better than some. Well, I wondered, what if all women had an opportunity? Wouldn’t there be more good writers coming out of the large group? Just as there were good writers coming out a large group of men, it looked possible. And, of course, as we know now it’s very possible. It’s actually true.”
Howe said that even though the need for No More Masks! seemed obvious to her, poetry publishers were not that crazy about the book and devoted a limited amount of advertising to the project. Still, the book sold $70,000 worth of copies through word of mouth and poetry classes. “I’m not making this up, this is from my royalty reports!” she said proudly. “And so, I was asked to do another volume. To bring it up to date.” In 1993, Howe assembled a revised and expanded second edition of No More Masks with 150 pages of new poetry.
She noted that in the 20 years between volumes, more women had published collections and seemed to exhibit a heightened level of openness in their work. Like the first edition, this one also sold successfully. She was moved by how many new voices had entered the arena, and by how many people wanted to be a part of the project. In the first edition, there had been pushback from a handful of poets for including unsegregated voices. This time around that wasn’t a problem. Hundreds of writers including a few that had passed on the original expressed interest in contributing.
Bass was unable to co-edit the second edition, but appears on the dedication page with a caption from Howe: “To Ellen Bass, a true partner.” When asked about the decision to co-edit the first anthology with her student all those years ago, Howe said the choice was simple.
“I saw Ellen as a prospective professional poet,” she told Ms. “I was in awe of her talent and knew I had more of a critical mind. It didn’t seem to me very remarkable [to have her co-edit], but I was wrong. It was remarkable and I’m pleased that I did it.”
Bass continues to be grateful for her literature teacher’s guidance and example, as well as her friendship. “Florence is the role model of what a great mentor should be. I think there’s a way in which doing it together was such a joy. Not that she didn’t love her own work but we had fun together. We loved each other. That brought joy into her life as it did into mine.”
When asked what the collection instilled in her as a young female writer, Bass paused and smiled. “I learned we can say anything. We can say anything we want to say.”