Slam Poetry & New American Best Friend

Last year I went on a few book buying binges. In one of my hauls, I purchased a book of poetry called ‘New American Best Friend’ by Octavia Gatwood

I like poetry, but don’t read it often. Every time I do, I think I should read more because I enjoy it.   Poetry feels much like music – the “story” tends to be in snippets of emotional impact, often without the form or structure of a chronological story.  It’s not comprised of facts. It’s not deprived of facts. You have to sit with poetry a bit, digest it slowly before it can be realized. 

The majority of the poems in ‘New American Best Friend’ revolve around a coming-of-age theme. Such stories are popular in a lot of fiction no matter the audience age. They are the demonstration of how a person came to be who they are and ultimately help us understand ourselves, which is the key to any good story. Even if the tale being told resembles nothing like our own life, becoming a person is something we can all relate to.  I’ve always found that if a coming of age story has good bones, it will likely resonate. 

I recently read some reviews (aka. Goodreads comments) that criticized Gatwood’s work, calling it ‘period poetry’ and that no one thought it made her special.  I have to wonder what makes other women so angry about a poem to feel the need to leave a review like that. 

While unsurprising, it saddens me to think we still have a such a stigma about female bodies and that the thought of those bodies growing from childhood to adulthood is somehow shameful or gross. The misogyny colliding with the objectification of women is so routine and so ingrained, that it hardly makes a ripple. 

If the idea of period poetry is abhorrent to you – have you considered why?  I’m not talking about a casual dismissal where it’s simply not interesting. I’m not particularly interested myself, but it doesn’t disturb me to read about it. It doesn’t offend me. And questioning why it’s embarrassing – well, that isn’t new either.

So yes, the first poem in this collection might’ve turned off some readers. I cannot imagine that wasn’t intentional. I applaud the poet for putting it right out there in front. It’s like saying ‘if you can’t handle this, you can’t really handle me’. Forewarned is forearmed and you can’t say she didn’t warn you. 

One of the poems is ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’, which I had first encountered while browsing poetry slams on YouTube – a pandemic hobby of mine which is the thread that brought me to this book. This poem reignited in me all the anger I’ve ever felt when someone says “why don’t you smile” while simultaneously letting me know I’m not alone in feeling so judged and on display- under surveillance. There’s a sisterhood out there and we can commiserate. 

Parts of ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’ remind me of that famous quote attributed to Margaret Atwood that ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them’. Whenever I mention that quote, I know some feel I’m being overly dramatic – but it’s a hard truth and this is the society we really do live in. Women do spend an incredible amount of energy to maintain a feeling of safety in every day life. 

While I’m not sure I can wrap up on a happy note, nor can I say I particularly enjoyed all the poems, they did leave an impact.

They made me consider and reflect.

They made me angry, they made me laugh, they made me feel a little sad and a little less alone. 

And isn’t that the point of poetry anyway?

A Room of One’s Own

Thinking about women and stories led me to revisit Virginia Woolf’s book, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This book is derived from lectures she gave at Cambridge women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, in 1928 on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’.  It has been an influential work in feminist studies with a central theme that women need a room in which to write. The room is both literal and figurative. Woolf maintains that women of the past had neither the space, time – nor financial means to acquire either – in order to pursue writing.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor…”

– Virginia Woolf

Woolf begins by comparing the women’s college to the men’s, the decadence and luxury afforded to the men’s college, including the size of their libraries – finding the women’s college lacking. She doesn’t do this in a malicious way, or in any way that’s rude to either college. She doesn’t push to attack the men for having so much, nor shame the women for having so little. 

What she does focus on, is the lack of opportunity. While discussing famous women authors of the 18th century, Austen and Brontë, she notes how one of them wrote on small scraps of paper, constantly hiding her scribbling away because what was a woman doing, writing? 

If women, perhaps, did write… well then what was the point? Certainly anything they wrote about wasn’t as important as what men wrote about. War and sports outweigh fashion and drawing rooms, regardless of how steeped either are in observations of human nature.

And yet, creativity and persistence will find a way.  On Jane Austen, Woolf remarked “here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That’s how Shakespeare wrote.” 

Another one of Woolf’s observations struck me as interesting. A flaw she found in some of the earlier women writers was that they didn’t write in their own voice. That whether their work implied they were protesting that they were as good as any man, or if it were self-deprecating in saying they were ‘only a woman’, she concludes that one had “altered her values in deference to the opinions of others.” 

How many women still do a version of this today in the work place?  How magnified is this for women of color? How many women modulate their voice in order to be heard, in order to not be vilified?

Woolf herself comes from an upper-middle class British family, so tends to focus on the same. She does talk of a woman named Mrs. Aphra Behn, who made a living writing in the 17th century. Mrs. Behn was not of the upper-middle class, but a woman who made a living writing out of necessity to support herself. A feat as it wasn’t a common practice for women to be educated, particularly those not in the upper class. “She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote.” By being paid, she showed that women could make a living by writing.

“Money dignifies what is made frivolous if unpaid for.”  

– Virginia Woolf

But is it just about a room? Space to write? “Women never have half an hour… that they may call their own”, a quote Woolf attributes to Florence Nightingale, resonates today. Not just with me, but with other women juggling life demands during these pandemic days. Sonia Feertchak suggests that “digital space has replaced the physical one” and that working from home has most of us dividing up not only our space, but our time. 1

I think the demands on our time isn’t necessarily a women-specific issue today. In addition to work and family we have dozens more mundane tasks to deal with every day that are soul-sucking time-wasters – planning meals, exercising, calling the cable company, preparing for holidays, laundry, running errands – the minutiae becomes an avalanche, crowding out space even for those of us who do have a room of our own.  Keeping the room and remaining solvent is another matter.

In chapter five, Woolf starts with a brighter outlook. She considers the library of her day and all the books written by women that she didn’t find in the libraries of the past. 

How far have we come in the past 90+ years? I am thankful to see more and more women authors in the ranks of the top sellers, but it doesn’t seem like a level playing field yet. And what about all the voices who still don’t have a room of their own?

You can read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ free at Project Gutenberg. https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200791h.html

  1. www.philonomist.com