Friday essay: garish feminism and the new poetic confessionalism

Protestors at an anti-Trump rally in 2017. Shutterstock

Friday essay: garish feminism and the new poetic confessionalism

Garish (adjective) Extravagantly bright or showy, typically so as to be tasteless.

-Oxford English Dictionary

Stevie Nicks once wrote in her celebrated song Dreams, “Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?” As a lyricist, she gathered up stories and told them back to us so that we might all contemplate (“In the stillness of remembering what you had/And what you lost”) who we really are. If secrets were spilt, and terror ensued, it was for the greater good of better knowing ourselves: as Nicks sings, “You will know, you will know”.

But that was Fleetwood Mac, that was the 1970s, and today the ethics of “story spilling” is another matter entirely. To be a writer of the confessional genres has unique risks that can routinely include, for example, excommunication and love lost in all quarters.

So why do it? This is also the key question for the confessional impulse fuelling the #MeToo narrative spill: what kind of good is being done, and for whom?

For some women writers it is the core business of our work as a feminist artists and activists working to restore women’s sanity (in my case, with the secular metaphysics of poetry). It was Philip Larkin who claimed that poetry was an affair of sanity, and that the object of writing is to “show life as it is, and if you don’t see it like that, you’re in trouble, not life”.

Telling stories from the contemplative trauma pad, engineering them with the alchemy of poetry, and launching them into the world of what Nicks calls “You will know” is a garish business. For some of us, showing life in its full monstrosity — no matter what costume we must assume and even if it involves a loudspeaker and a hashtag — is the only business in town. It is also the only way to turn trouble away from its ruinous attachment to our lives, which are otherwise sometimes too horrible to bear.

On horror

Abjection is something we can understand as a horrible state that results from our reaction to a breakdown in meaning — in this place we are lost. While we are abject, crimes are committed on our watch — psychoanlayst and critic Julia Kristeva talks about Auschwitz, but we can imagine, for example, human conduct that results in the #MeToo movement.

Kristeva argues that art can purify our abjection, because it offers a cathartic opportunity. Confessional poetry — with all its small apocalypses — helps us to play with both language and its meaning, and offers us what Kristeva calls “a language of want” so that we can both write and run with our fears. Can poetry be so bibliotherapeutic? And is it always best to confess?

Telling stories against yourself invariably involves revelations that frighten or shock others. For life-writers, developing professional resilience to people’s reaction to your work is essential to building a career in this field.

In the 1990s, at the premiere of my first play on the Sydney stage, during interval and after the show, I was surrounded by well-intentioned guests, pressing their business cards into my hand, promising to put me in touch with their lawyer, or their therapist, or even their “man who takes care of things” (sometimes I wish I still had that business card). The play was about domestic violence; the story was not autobiographical in impulse. The writer risks being misunderstood whether writing fiction or nonfiction, and learning this was freeing.

Fast forward to another decade. “Why are you so drunk?” I’d asked my husband, who had been ploughed with drinks by sympathetic audience members at a festival poetry reading, feeling sorry for him having to put up with me writing and reading “such horrible” poems about him. But they weren’t. The poems were about a different husband.

Another time: a verse novel I’d written, The Screaming Middle, about the daily grind and glory of being a mother (incidentally referencing children with mental ill-health) was at one stage celebrated by said children but subsequently used by them in daily family life as evidence against me and formed part of the plea to never write about them again.

Likewise, retrospectively my first memoir, Friday Forever, about postnatal depression (written before any of my three children could read or I had the emotional intelligence to comprehend that they would one day acquire this skill) made my children’s taboo list of things never to be read from at public readings. Why didn’t you ever apologise to me for being so violent? my current husband once asked, forgetting I had. Part of my apology had been outing myself in that memoir.

A writing colleague at a recent reading asked me if I’d pull a book or stop a reprint if my children, for example, asked me to. No. I would not. I did not, however, have the courage to voice that at the time, in front of an audience of academic writers who are well-versed in “capital E” ethics, because my ethical relationship to the confession is of a guerrilla warfare kind.

My honest answer is “capital N” no. I’d reprint the memoir, for example, and the verse novel, and include the letters and messages of thanks I’ve received from readers, all of which I’ve read to my children.

They’ve been sent to me from mothers “spelling” in psychiatric hospitals, from prisons, from ex-students, from absolute strangers, from family with whom I never speak — Thank you for talking about this on the page, we will never manage it in the flesh — all with the theme of, “If not for your book…”

A form of disobedience

My writerly acts of confession are garish, they are vulgar and dazzling both, but they are the only form of disobedience at many a woman writer’s legal disposal.

A poem about sexual assault may sound like this:

You ran into me bodysurfing. You were made of thunder and mirrors. You marshalled me to safety, the shark alarms sympathetic to your cause. You smelt faintly of salt and horror movies, lurking there beside the lifeguard, who declared me unharmed. You knew everyone on the beach. Your message transferred into me as if by gravity, like ink from a punctuating cartridge. You said you had a spare beachside apartment to rent (you owned the building) and a wife at home you’d like me to meet. You lied. You stood blocking your door, nagging for my number. You grew taller than your chandelier’s talons, rounder than your cellar’s aged barrels. You forced a pen upon me, I only want your number, a beautiful combination of physics and chemistry and engineering. I began to write on your grocery list which included garlic and nappies. Your hands were too soon filthy with rape and seed to fend off the nib and knob and mouth and thrust tube that prefaced your shroud. You were every woman’s uncle, the hand over our primary mouths, you were the bastard at every barbecue in history, the flasher in the church, the man in every dark. You were a poem I wrote with a cheap hotel pen instead of re-enacting your sad opera for the police. I liked the sounds of you both, your click, your clack, your leak of Chartres-blue blood. Your fatal snap.

-Anatomy of a tragedy

shutterstock

I wrote about an act of sexual abuse, (condensing a history of such), fictionalised as per this until now unpublished prose poem, although I had posted other poems about this incident on Facebook and Instagram. I felt healed in many ways from the show of support on those platforms.

I’ve told my husband, but not my children: we had other more important family stuff to deal with at the time, including one of my children being in hospital for an extended and frightening stay, and the arrival of a stepdaughter to live with us.

The poem above is my final response, for now, to sexual abuse. I did not go to the police because the man in question is a well-known local dignitary, and I had willingly gone back to his apartment (albeit having believed his trickery).

Plus, I was absolutely, utterly exhausted, and had what felt like a million essays to grade — if one surrendered every time one was sexually assaulted, I said to myself in my best 1950s movie star voice, who’d be alive to write about it? Something I also did not do was murder him. It’s a poem, not a pogrom.

Garish feminist poetics: two snapshots

Confessional poetry as a genre emerged in the 1950s and is famously associated with poet Robert Lowell, and (his pupils) Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Writers had suddenly become urgently interested in discussing personal subject matter that modernism had previously dismissed as less important — the private realm.

But the confessional poets were as interested in craft as they were their embrace of topics, pioneering new relationships to the patterns and sounds used in poetry: confessional poetry wrote a new kind of music to accompany those bold (fresh hell) interrogations of the self. Women writers and their self-revelation became the hallmark of confessionalism, developing as they did a personal style, which in turn exploded many a fixed idea about women and their usually mythological place in contemporary culture.

Then …

We could discuss Sylvia Plath or Sharon Olds, but they didn’t also start their own band, so let’s talk about Anne Sexton, who did (Anne Sexton and Her Kind)

You, Doctor Martin, walk
from breakfast to madness. Late August,
I speed through the antiseptic tunnel
where the moving dead still talk
of pushing their bones against the thrust
of cure. And I am queen of this summer hotel …

-from Anne Sexton’s You, Doctor Martin

Sexton once told her students at Boston University “I do not want to be known as the mad-suicide poet, the live Sylvia Plath,” but as her contemporary Adrienne Rich commented she nevertheless “auditioned for the role and rehearsed it in book after book until she wrapped herself in her mother’s fur coat and gassed herself in October 1974”. Should Sexton be best read “madly”?

Here we have a woman who was most violent against herself: Sexton threw her poetry — begun and nurtured through her therapeutic relationship with her first psychiatrist Martin T Orne — around like missile-sized deadly darts, but only after it had already done its ravaging work on her own self. But it is the other side of her personal bedlam that is most interesting: the garish declaration of herself against all social-contracts that constituted good taste for womanhood of that era.

Something happened in America in the 1950s, and something particularly peculiar happened in Boston, where Sexton lived. Afterwards — let’s for now borrow from poet Robert Lowell and call it Mayflower Screwballism Unhinged — afterwards, there was a profound caesura in contemporary literary history. On the shoulders of this mood rode the confessional poets, and there to catch them when they fell were their Bostonian doctors.

The society that flourished within and around this co-dependent relationship changed the cultural aesthetics of a nation, and invented a new breed of feminism. It included a lot of sex, and suicide. To read that embrace as accidental, somehow defective, would be a lowering experience, and not one mindful of the spirit that funded the mood. Sexton is an important exemplar of this caesura. Confession is costly. But you can’t argue against the shift in literary time that Sexton caused with her poetry.

Now ….

There are so many women poets being garish in their own cultural and transnational ways that to single out one seems churlish. It is easy, for example, to name Pussy Riot as the collective this-century version of Stevie Nicks, turing her “the personal is political” into their “the political is personal”.

Or easier still to name instapoet phenomenon Rupi Kaur with her more than 3 million followers on Instagram, her impeccable credentials in artistic activism on behalf of women and the oppressed and her poetry collections that sell upwards of 2.5 million copies.

But a shiny, extravagant example of the new feminist poetics where it can be seen to be read as tasteless in the most beguiling and political manner is the young British poet, filmmaker, actress, library activist, and model Greta Bellamacina. By “tasteless” I mean garish in the sense where garishness re-defines taste, is beyond established taste. By “tasteless”, I deliberately denigrate taste as a middle-class opiate that oppresses.

Bellamacina’s feminist negotiations under capitalism are spectacular. In the same way that Sexton slept with her (later) psychiatrist, Bellamacina metaphorically sleeps with her enemies, converting capitalism to her end.

While developing her signature poetic style, she also founded a successful London poetry press (with her husband, the conceptual artist Robert Montgomery). She has modelled in major fashion campaigns from Burberry to Mulberry having first negotiated a feminist incorporation into those campaigns (such as including poetry, or promoting women as muses). Bellamacina’s engagement with consumption insists on a peculiar post-capitalist embrace: yes, she models for major international labels, but while doing so re-configures their ethical relationship to the personal. Via a garish methodology, the client is freshly recognised as a consumer of poetry as well as conventional fashion products.

Not to mention the films, or her community work in this same domain, or the edited collection Smear, an anthology of contemporary feminist poets that sells at point-of-sale alongside the latest fashion offerings in Urban Outfitters. All this and more in the first quarter of a century of her life: garish is the new sublime.

The bed remains ancient in its ritual of worship
a personal attack against strangers
made up of all its own Trojan wars
hung in literature, undebated.

-From In the morning Penelope, Greta Bellamacina, commissioned by the National Poetry Library to respond to Homer’s Odyssey

On amplification (#WhyIDidntReport)

Fear, shame, even ignorance (“isn’t this just what happens?”), contribute to women’s being complicit in their own silence. Sometimes the loud voice of poetry married with a bit of garish confessionalism is much needed to recall women to themselves, to restore sanity, to relocate a self that is far away from trouble that has too often defined them.

Are we obedient, or disobedient, to the social order? I am both: we most of us are. But the time has come to be bolder, more courageous, more garish.

Greta Bellamacina. Shutterstock

Confessional poetry for the garish feminist is a method to manufacture some quality dissent, to not take our intellectual freedoms for granted, or allow them to be muted by our too-often abstract observations of unfairness, or our complicated relationships to exploitation. I have some other ideas, but for now, all I can manage is poetry.

Poetry, because when garish feminists write they develop a radical poetics that rise to and meet and imagine above and beyond women’s current #MeToo realities. Because to do so remains an avant-garde act, and we need that more than ever.

Garish feminism, because it grows out of and further contributes to the women’s movement (and we need that too). Because it inspires us to speak in new ways, with a transformative impact. Because Anne Sexton did not “moan” enough before she killed herself, and because Bellamacina and her kind have, as her New River Press logo says, “New Language for Sad Times”.

And because there is no other way I can fasten my gaze.

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