Five Women Poets on Writing the Body

Five Women Poets on Writing the Body
Clockwise from top left: Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Patricia Smith, Ellen Bass, Toi Derricotte, Tina Chang.

To write about the body truthfully is a radical act.

It requires a rejection of shame and political correctness. It requires a willingness to defy what is normally okay to say in a public space. It requires unflinching bravery.

The following poets exemplify these traits. With a sublime mastery of language and craft, they ask us to consider bodies facing attacks both physical and psychological. They write in defense, in awe and awareness of the body, pointing again and again to our shared humanity.

Ms. writer Emily Sernaker connected with these five poets to showcase their work and learn from their example. 

Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith. Five Women Poets on Writing the Body

Collection: Incendiary Art

Writers who inspire her: Sharon Olds, Omotara James, Diannely Antigua, Ellen Bass, Rachel McKibbens

Favorite line: Body my house / my horse my hound / what will I do when you are fallen” —May Swenson

Patricia speaks about her collection: Incendiary Art began when I realized the power and prevalence of fire in the lives of Black people. In particular, I had three incidents in mind: the bombing of a Birmingham church (which resulted in the deaths of four young girls), my neighborhood burning to its bones during the riots following the murder of Martin Luther King, and hearing a white man at an early Trump rally musing about what it feels like to burn a man alive. That led me to think about how relevant the destruction of the black body, as well as the witnessing of that destruction, were in maintaining some sort of skewed societal status quo. “Incendiary Art : Ferguson 2014” converses with the book’s theme because of the length of time (four hours) that Michael Brown’s lifeless body was allowed to remain on the street before it was removed. It was there long enough for all the witnessing that needed to be done—long enough for white people to see that all was right with the world. Long enough to serve as lesson and warning. Long enough for Black people to mourn. Again.

Patricia on writing the body: I have never gotten used to the idea of the body being “owned” and manipulated by someone other than the person it belongs to. The fact that a man looked at another man, or a woman, and thought primarily of their body’s capacity for labor, thought of their bodies in terms of dollars, or pieces of paper, or their equivalent in cattle. Of course, the Black body in particular has been objectified, obsessed over, deemed entertainment, summarily dismissed. It’s the one body considered to belong to everyone. In many instances, you can tap a computer key and see a human being murdered again and again. The body that falls and falls is usually Black. So when I’m crafting a poem about the body, the route I take depends upon what I want the reader to walk away feeling: the shame of the body’s namelessness or the absolute wonder and glory of it.

Patricia on showing everything: If it is to be shown, show the whole of it—not just the blurred, faraway body on a phone or laptop screen. Show and smell the consequences of death, live with the afterwards. Make sure there’s no way to click past it. The poem asks: If you’re going to let his body lie there for so long, why not let it become part of the community? Let him be a child, a church, a reckoning. Let him rot and flourish. Let his people take care of him.

Patricia reflects on Black Lives Matter: BLM has become too much of a catchphrase—hence the line break and the word “matter” riding its own line for a change. It seems that our lives don’t matter, that nobody notices, until there’s a visible death. And then that life only matters as long as it’s a hashtag or headline. I wanted to remind people that we matter more when we are moving, fighting, screeching, when our hearts are thudding in our chests. When we can still stop the deaths.

“Incendiary Art: Ferguson, 2014” appears in Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith. Copyright © 2017. Published 2017 by TriQuarterly Books and Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Five Women Poets on Writing the Body

Collection: Seeing the Body

Writers who inspire her: Krista Franklin, Aracelis Girmay, Natasha Trethewey, Natalie Diaz,  Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman, June Jordan, Ai

Favorite line: You need not die today.” —Gwendolyn Brooks

Rachel Eliza speaks about this poem: “Another Age” is an anthem, a praise-song to our imperfect selves. I wanted to put the sad things inside of me on notice. Announcing my wounds instead of denying, hiding, or waiting for someone else to save me, felt possible because I had gone through such a difficult journey of grief after my mother’s death. Embracing things that had hurt me in the past, and would affect the wellbeing of any possible future, was an important sequence of insistence that my life, no matter how flawed, matters.

Rachel Eliza on giving herself permission: I felt empowered that finally I’d given myself permission to look directly at something I’ve carried much shame about. I needed to keep the intimacy of my voice intact, as though I was speaking to a friend or lover, someone whose own life was also at stake. In the space of such intimacy, I could offer this poem to those who are struggling to live, to survive the dark, to seek the love that is both within and waiting nearby, perhaps, in family, friendships and for me: art. Many times we have no idea that our beloved is in so much pain. When we are aware we can be bewildered or helpless as to how to offer support. I feel charged to hold this vulnerable space however I can, knowing personally how much strength and support is required to resist surrendering.

Rachel Eliza on writing the body: I’m concerned with the how the rhythms of poetry can hold itself against the vulnerability and courage of taking the next breath, the next action. In terms of craft, I’m interested in how the body opens itself for discovery, revelation, and wonder. I’m fascinated about how poems can be vessels, muscles, lungs, wombs, spines, pussies, tongues, hips or hands. The poem can be symptomatic of the body’s needs so there is also bruising, ecstasy, swelling, hunger, suffering, dreaming—the poem can also survive the body’s mortal life. I love that. We have, and always will, need new and expanding languages for our bodies. There can never be a static perspective when we consider our bodies, especially now.

Rachel Eliza on warfare against bodies: It’s hard enough for us to nurture and grow our inner relationships and acceptance of our bodies when so much of the time there is warfare against and within us. June Jordan once wrote, “Sometimes I am the terrorist I must disarm.” We should always question how reductive and harmful it is to value/devalue and harm any human being more or less because of body politics. The language of capitalism immediately harms any true conversations about our bodies. There aren’t nearly enough actions happening yet to address these concerns.  

Rachel Eliza on writing the whole self: The poem was part of the powerful surfacing from my grief. I visualize this poem as a mythological phoenix. It’s a talon, a burning wing. It is a body that has survived the fires of grief and must speak. I also wanted to consider a long vein in my previous work, regarding ideations of harm, which I’ve often buried. I needed to have a direct engagement with my personal difficulties surrounding issues of mental health. It took me at least four years to comprehend this poem, much less write it. During this period of waiting, there were many incarnations and drafts, shapes and faces this poem claimed, before I let it go. I would like to think that a poem like “Another Age” can speak, in the name of love and survival, to others who are struggling. It is also about whether the reader is open to imaginations and languages that may very well feel threatening or uncomfortable. People can feel uncomfortable when they see that you love yourself. People will show you who they really are when they see you are going to fight for your right to be a whole person.

“Another Age” appears in Seeing the Body: Poems by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Copyright © 2020. Used with permission of the publisher W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte. Five Women Poets on Writing the Body

Collection: “i” New and Selected Poems

Writers who inspire her: Audre Lorde, Natasha Tretheway, Tracy K Smith, Claudia Rankine, Dawn Lundy Martin, Elizabeth Alexander, Patricia Smith, Nikky Finney

Favorite line:And how have I used rivers, how have I used wars/ to escape writing of the worst thing of all— / not the crimes of others, not even our own death, / but the failure to want our freedom passionately enough.” —Adrienne Rich

Toi on writing the body: The most important thing is to be in touch with the part of myself that holds sensual memory. It’s a place that seems to be deep inside my body, like a storeroom. Ginsberg talked about the way, when you make a poem, images come down from the brain, like a movie reel, and air comes up from the lungs and the images and air meet in the throat, where words come forth.  It feels different than that for me. I feel a kind of physical awareness when a “body” poem is coming, a kind of acuity, like special fingers coming awake inside me. It’s like sinking down inside that part in me (in my mind or body? or both?) that holds the sensual memory of experiences (I think I believe that we hold memories of every experience we have inside us!); it’s like going down in a bathyscaphe and finding a time capsule. Inside there are words and feelings with textures and sound. My tongue and mouth start to move—forgive all these metaphors—but as if I’m a player piano. 

Toi on selecting the right form: For many years, I struggled with form.  It really wasn’t until this last book that form began to feel “natural.” I’ve always felt that a poem is also a kind of sculpture, that is, a poem isn’t finished until it looks right on the page. For many years I might do hundreds of revisions of a poem. A line holds a certain amount of information.  The space between words, the space between the lines and stanzas create a kind of breathing space for the ideas. It’s like arranging the furniture in a room so that it’s both functional and attractive; it’s like putting lights in certain places that you want people to notice.

Toi on writing against silence: When I was very young, I’d watch my mother dressing.  I’d watch her in the mirror. I’d notice how people’s eyes followed her when we were out. I thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world.  And then there were so many years when I had to keep myself emotionally distant from her in order to figure out who I was. This poem brought me back to a feeling of connection with and compassion for her. In a line in one of my poems “Dead Baby Speaks,” I say: “In the body, out the mouth.” It’s a poem in which I rage against my mother wanting me to be silent about my father’s violence and my molestation.   

Toi on writing generations: There was so much that wasn’t talked about when I was growing up, so much of the pain of my parents’ history (they were only two generations away from slavery!), and so much of their day to day fears and oppressions that were not discussed.  They focused on moving ahead.  But I could feel the effects of slavery and racism in my body, in the way they held me, in the way they thought about themselves and in the way they treated each other. I ached because of the sadness and pain I felt in them, which I felt so helpless to affect or change. I believe a poem has the power to change the past.

Toi on her mother: My mother was very beautiful. Sometimes she’d dress up and she was exquisite. But, mostly, I think she thought of herself as a worker. She used her body hard, like you would use a tool, without consciousness of herself. She was a great cook, homemaker, and it seemed to just come out of her, as if that was what she was made to do. Once I told her and people in my family that I had been molested by a friend of the family—it was years after it happened—and she was angry at me for telling, for causing problems within the two families. She said, “Worse was done to me and I never told.” 

“I give in to an old desire” appears in The New Yorker and “i” New and Selected Poems by Toi Derricotte © 2019. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Used with permission by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Tina Chang

Tina Chang. Five Women Poets on Writing the Body

Collection: Hybrida

Writers who inspire her: Carolyn Forche, Aracelis Girmay, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Sylvia Plath, Marie Howe, Natalie Diaz, Cathy Park Hong, Kimiko Hahn

Favorite line on the body:

What a thrill— / My thumb instead of an onion. / The top quite gone
Except for a sort of a hinge / Of skin, / A flap like a hat, / Dead white. / Then that red plush
. —Sylvia Plath

Tina speaks about this poem: When I wrote “Fury” I was concerned about the verdicts of well publicized legal trials involving young Black boys in America. It took me a few years to process the difficult feelings of the poem so this poem took me a few years to write. I think about Federico García Lorca’s essay, “Theory and Play of the Duende.” There is no true art without the metaphorical wrestling with the art itself. As I worked through the poem, the feeling of fury began to evolve about police protection, anti-black racism, and its impact on our most vulnerable: our youth.

Tina on writing as a mother: When my son was growing inside me, I fed him, sang to him, read poems to him. We grew together. My thoughts were his thoughts, my hunger was his hunger or can we say it was the opposite way around? Even now, when he experiences pain, I can feel it viscerally. When I think of him, he wakes from sleep and comes downstairs to see me. The line: “I think / my son senses what is happening / one the street” refers to the clashes between protestors and authorities after the Eric Garner and Michael Brown verdicts. Though my son wasn’t actively watching the news footage, I felt he knew about the conflict taking place on the streets across the U.S. because his feelings were so deeply tied to mine. 

Tina on transformation: As I wrote the poem, the feeling of fury began to transform until I was left with only a feeling of love. Art can surprise us like that. If we begin with intention, art has a way of taking over and revealing an outcome that’s completely surprising. I’m invested in this art form for that feeling, one of awe and revelation.

Tina on writing the body: The body is our material proof of hardship, love, and, yes, humanity. In many ways, all my poems are about the body because I use this body of mine to understand the world. If someone jostles me to get onto the NYC subway, my body reacts. If another human reaches out to embrace me, I feel the gesture of kindness. If I’m running along the beach, I feel the wind urging my body on. All of it, my body interprets. The poems in Hybrida convey the need for a mother to protect a child, to use her body to stand before his to shelter him and those two figures become symbols for all mothers and children. The poems also relay disbelief that anyone, any body can come to harm at the hands of the authority figures charged to protect them. 

“Fury” appears in and Hybrida: Poems by Tina Chang. Copyright © 2019 by Tina Chang. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 

Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass. Five Women Poets on Writing the Body

Collection: Indigo

Writers who inspire her: Natalie Diaz, Robin Coste Lewis, Toi Derricotte, Lucille Clifton, Lucia Perillo, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe

Favorite Line:Never to despise in myself what I have been taught / to despise...” —Muriel Rukeyser

Ellen speaks about this poem: This poem was a joy to write. My wife was emerging from an illness during which she’d lost weight at a frightening pace and I was both happy and relieved to see her roundness return. I was able to be playful with language and fool around with sound in the poem because we were past that grim time. I had fun thinking about all the foods that we’ve been told we shouldn’t eat because they’re fattening, like butter and brie (the keto diet notwithstanding). I took pleasure in praising the flesh, especially the fleshy aspects of a woman’s body. I also like that this poem is one woman praising another woman who has gained some pounds. And there a little anti-agism in the poem as well. Talking about the way the beloved’s body has returned to the slender body of a girl as frightening, rather than as something we’d wish for. And celebrating that older, larger—healthier—body.

Ellen on crafting an ode: I’ve written odes to boredom, to repetition, to the invisibility of being an older woman. In my most recent book, Indigo, there’s also an ode to a pork chop and an elegy for a gopher. Looking beyond the most superficial and predictable judgments expands my sense of possibility. In this poem especially I was thinking about gratitude. My gratitude for my wife’s body, the body I wasn’t going to lose, that was being returned to me. I think gratitude and awe always underlie any poem I write about the body. The most basic workings of our bodies and the bodies of living and dying creatures, including plants, are so intricate and fascinating, having evolved over millennia.

Ellen on praising when possible: I find that during the hardest times, it’s essential for my survival that I praise. When we are suffering, it’s natural to only want it to be different. We want what we want and we don’t want what we don’t want. But that resistance increases suffering. In my poem, “The Long Recovery,” I ask: “How can I hurl myself deeper into this life?” Poetry is my way of doing that. Of working to accept my life during very rough times. And it’s work! I’m not good at it. So I have to keep writing. Almost all poems are some combination of praise and lament. The Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, said, “If you can hold the pain of the world in your heart but never forget the great vastness of the great eastern sun, then you can make a proper cup of tea.” Or, we could say, a proper poem.

Ellen on poetic lineage: I often think of Anne Sexton’s “In Celebration of My Uterus,” in which she connects her own body to the bodies of women everywhere, always joining the body to the sacred. I think of Sharon Olds who is the literary mother of so many women poets writing today, in naming and celebrating almost every aspect of the body in a multitude of poems, including her marvelous odes. And Natalie Diaz who writes gorgeously about the body of the beloved, about desire and about the bond between the human body and the body of the earth. You can follow the lineage straight from Muriel to Anne to Sharon and to Natalie!

Ellen on writing against thinness: It’s not news that our culture has elevated thinness to an insane degree. I was ill some years back and also lost weight then and it was disturbing to be complimented on how good—and thin—I looked. There was so much dissonance in how I looked to others and how I felt. I don’t remember anyone saying, “You’ve lost weight. Are you okay?” So in writing this poem, I thoroughly enjoyed turning that obsession around. More generally, I find it satisfying to explore what is usually disliked or overlooked. I didn’t write this poem to be helpful. That frame of mind isn’t compatible with poem-making for me. But I’m gratified if this poem does help anyone to release themselves a little from the tyranny of thinness and regard their fleshy body with more appreciation. The way we see ourselves reflected in the culture and in art has a strong impact on us, so I am hopeful that this poem can do some positive work in the world.

“Ode to Fat” appears in The Sun Magazine and Indigo. Copyright © 2020 by Ellen Bass. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of the author and Copper Canyon Press.

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Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.