The Lesbian Poets of Headmistress Press: Laura Foley and Maureen Bocka

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 DenenbergGail Thomas and Lesléa Newman, Marissa Higgins and Samantha Pious, and Robin Reagler and Diane Furtney conversed. 

This week, Laura Foley interviews Maureen Bocka about her book, First name Barbie, last name Doll, and Bocka interviews Foley about her book Night Ringing.

Foley: How did you decide to focus in on Barbie dolls and bring them to life?

Bocka: I had vague memories of playing with Barbies as a kid. As I was working on the project and talking to friends, they would ask me—do you want any Barbies, we have over thirty Barbies in storage, do you want them—and that’s where the cast of characters came from, playing with these dolls and figuring out their story.

Foley: Did you know right away that you had struck a rich vein of material? Did you feel something inside that clicked?

Bocka: I started in the Intro to Poetry Class where one of our prompts was to write a poem using the voice of a toy you played with in childhood. Eventually the professor gave us more prompts and that led me to write more poems about Barbies. As I was writing the poems, I realized that most of my play was with Barbies and no Ken at all. So, I was like, I get something here, this is important about me.

Foley: I thought it was interesting, the stylized way you speak about sexuality and gender, by using the dolls. Would you speak about your choice, instead of going autobiographical, to go into this other form. Did it help you to speak about difficult things?

Bocka: Yes, definitely. It’s easier to speak about things when you have a buffer. And the more I researched Barbies, the more I realized she is being used as an example of what happens to kids as they play with them and the way women are expressed through the media. She’s like a metaphor for the ideal American woman, but she doesn’t represent any or even most women at this point, so I felt like that was the metaphor that wasn’t really being played out correctly.

Foley: “The Surfer Gurl Takes a Stand” seems to be an iconic poem, that line: “Make you see past all the pink/ distractions and see my life.”

Bocka: That poem is about everyone thinking Barbie is just about being a mom, and Surfer Gurl is going out to bars late at late and dancing with girls. There’s a lot of cool stuff that happens in the world, and just because someone looks a certain way doesn’t mean that’s who they are in reality.

Foley: On the “Margaret Reminisces” poem, I felt a lot of connection to the dolls, and it brought tears to my eyes.

Bocka: That poem is about these dolls I kind of wish I had still, and as I was working on this project, I thought I really would have liked to have these and to play with them. When you grow up as a gay kid, you don’t really have many role models at all. When I read Night Ringing I felt like I went on an emotional journey. What challenges did you encounter while putting this collection together? What is your writing practice like?

Foley: Writing has helped me to look at my past and relive it as an adult and reflect back on those things. It’s a bit chronological and a bit about self-discovery. I like to go to a quiet place and meditate. I often go to coffee shops, but it’s mostly about getting some place where I can quiet my mind or see where my mind is. It is pretty much a daily practice. I started it when I was 45 years old so I have been doing that same practice for 15 years. I feel like because I was such a late starter that I don’t have time to mess around.

Bocka: How do you make writing a daily part of your practice?

Foley: It’s what I love to do so it feels like a necessity. When I started writing it was like I was on fire so much had happened. Because I had never written before I had a lot I had to say.

Bocka: In Night Ringing the narrator deals with coming into their own as a person. What is your advice for writers that are also writing about big life changes?

Foley: I’ve done a lot of meditation and a lot of meditation retreats, a lot of soul searching. I don’t try to write about big life changes but writing about where you are at this moment. What are you feeling? What are you seeing, what are you hearing, what do you smell, what do you taste? Get rooted in the present moment and through that rootedness will come the bigger changes that need to come out.

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.