Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Heathen and Heterotopia

[EDITOR’s NOTE: This is a reprint of an article originally posted at the Reaching Review August 25, 2010]

Photograph of poet Lesley Wheeler
Lesley Wheeler

Lesley Wheeler is the author of Heterotopia, winner of the 2010 Barrow Street Poetry Prize. Her first volume of poetry, Heathen, came out the previous year. With Moira Richards and Rosemary Starace she is co-editor of Letters to the World: Poems from Members of the WOM-PO Listserv. She took the time to answer a few questions about her work as a poet and professor, her experience of the contemporary poetry scene — both in person and online — and her own development as a writer.

When did you first start writing poetry?
I’ve been writing since I could hold a crayon—one of my first memories is defacing a picture book, trying to add new words—but I started to narrow in on poetry during high school. Two authors inspired me then: Keats (in the curriculum) and Ginsberg (very much beyond it). I remember how their sensuousness and their urgency pulled at me. Being a teenager is pretty awful, or it was for me, and they helped me write my way through it. My English teacher, Sister Ignatius, commanded me to enter poems in a contest sponsored by a local college, and I won first place. That encouraged me. I’m glad I didn’t know it would be decades until I won another poetry prize.

At what point did you decide that it would be a good idea to make a career out of it?
In my senior year of college, I was writing an honors thesis on Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and one assignment was to teach a portion of it to other thesis students. I had been very shy, afraid of public speaking, but I had them read Sexton’s “Rapunzel” and then asked a few questions. After a minute or two their faces kindled, then they leaned forward in their chairs and started talking intensely, and that was it—I knew I wanted to create conversations about poetry for the rest of my life. Most of a professor’s job is not so great, endless committees and grading and email and forms, but that core of literary conversation is utterly wonderful.

“I can’t quite bring myself to call writing and publishing poetry a career. It’s a money-losing operation overall.”

My career, then, is professing; I can’t quite bring myself to call writing and publishing poetry a career. It’s a money-losing operation overall: I buy tons of books and journals, give unpaid readings, and spend effort writing poetry that often just languishes in storage (scholarly publishing is a meritocracy; the poetry world is much more random and often inhospitable to risk). I knew that I would always write poetry, though, even as a teenager—it’s almost a physical need. In graduate school, when I often felt too busy to write poetry, I developed a chronic nightmare about being stalked by wild animals. I would write for myself, just to stay alive and away from the dream-grizzlies, even if no one in the world ever read the stuff.

Book cover image for Heathen by Lesley Wheeler
Heathen by Lesley Wheeler

I didn’t start working hard on delivering it to audiences until 2003. At that point, I had tenure, my younger child was turning three, and I just decided that it was time to be as serious about poetry publishing as I had been about scholarly publishing. Confronting the tastes of editors was good for my work, actually. It’s stronger now.

Tell me more about learning English from nuns.
Sister Ignatius was my only holy English teacher and she was tough and funny, though already frail by the time I met her. She used to roll her eyes at my all-girl class and tell us how much she preferred teaching at a boys’ high school years ago, but I personally seemed to amuse her—that was gratifying. I remember very little about what she had to say about literature but she recommended Catholic authors to me on the side and insisted that incognito should be pronounced inCOGnito. The lay teacher who taught me Keats, Mr. Moore, was very good, and one of the few people who actually challenged me to write better, rather than just scribbling A++ at the top of the page.

How would you describe today’s poetry scene? Does it fall into particular classes or schools?
It’s diverse and lively and full of surprises. The web is turning English-language poetry into a transnational enterprise—it’s easier than before for us to write to each other, read each other’s work—and that’s all to the good, although that makes it even harder to pretend one has a scholarly bird’s eye view of it all. I try to keep up but I’m always coming across interesting poems and books and performers whom I’d never known about before. I do think academic and/or elite-press poetry publishing is particularly visible and has the most cachet, and it is hard to break in without powerful mentors, but not impossible—and you can always just shrug your shoulders at that world and find community elsewhere. I really admire all those poets and programmers who focus on the local and make the art accessible to everyone.

“I make notes on my submissions lists about what kinds of poems journals seem to like, and my shorthand categories include ultratalk/narrative, surreal/jumpy, free verse epiphanies, formal/lyric, sound-saturated, political, experimental (which to me means broken syntax).”

Aesthetically, I see lots of microtrends, and this is only in the print world (I love performance poetry but am not good at it myself). I make notes on my submissions lists about what kinds of poems journals seem to like, and my shorthand categories include ultratalk/narrative, surreal/jumpy, free verse epiphanies, formal/lyric, sound-saturated, political, experimental (which to me means broken syntax). Call me snarky/reductive, but there are definitely some common subgenres out there and it’s hard to get beyond them. Most editors favor two or three of those categories, I think, with little side-obsessions affecting the mix, but although I like to read and write across the spectrum, the poems of mine that editors like best seem to involve conventionally punctuated sentences, slightly surreal imagery/situations, and dense sound play without regular meter or full rhyme. I’m not sure if that kind of poem is in fashion, or if that’s just what I’m best at. I wish I could get away with breaking the sentence more or being talky, but no one seems to like that from me.

Tell me more about that turning point in your own work in 2003. What changed?
I attended a class at the Kenyon Writers Workshop taught by the brilliant poet Janet McAdams, and learned a couple of basic things: that I needed to lighten up the closure in my poems and allow risk and chance to open them up in weird new ways; that persistence and simultaneous submissions (when allowed) can get you far; how to organize those submissions and write a good cover letter. I was already an English professor with a scholar’s knowledge about poetry, and I was willing to work hard, but I didn’t have the practical pieces that some people get from good MFA programs. I’ve picked up a great deal of helpful information since, sometimes just from reading and listening in a more pointed way and sometimes from other mentors and conferences—but that 2003 event was an especially rewarding experience, a kick in the pants.

“When an editor will take the time to challenge you on a weak phrase or line break, that strikes me as incredibly generous. And a few put out books and journals that are consistently full of powerful poems, so I’m grateful to them as a reader, too.”

Can you speak a little more about confronting the tastes of editors?
Mostly what I feel about editors is gratitude that they exist—they work hard for little or no material reward. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few great ones, especially on my books from C&R Press and Barrow Street, but also occasionally at journals. When an editor will take the time to challenge you on a weak phrase or line break, that strikes me as incredibly generous. And a few put out books and journals that are consistently full of powerful poems, so I’m grateful to them as a reader, too.

Most magazines with solid reputations, though, do seem conservative to me; there’s an awful lot of competent verse out there, poetry that’s by no means bad but just a bit too familiar or not fully thought-through or felt-through. I’m sure I produce some of it, despite my desire to do better. I’d rather read a messy, slightly embarrassing poem that takes an interesting risk than a competent, making-the-right-moves sort of poem, but the latter is easier to publish than the former.

I write whatever I want to, but when I revise, I do consider potential audiences, and editors are gatekeepers to audiences. I imagine a tough reader who doesn’t know or care about me encountering the poem, then identify what might attract or repel that reader. Mostly that process improves the work, but occasionally I worry that I’m smoothing away a good weirdness.

“The poets I write about, the aspects of their work I attend to, and even how I write endnotes — it all tries to redress how scholarship by women can be overlooked by male critics.”

Book cover image of Heterotopia by Lesley Wheeler
Heterotopia by Lesley Wheeler

Do you consider yourself a feminist? How has gender politics influenced (or not influenced) your work?
Absolutely and fiercely, I am a feminist. I know feminism has shaped my life—my relationships, my professional ambitions, my teaching. I know it has shaped my scholarship—the poets I write about, the aspects of their work I attend to, and even how I write endnotes, trying to redress how scholarship by women is sometimes overlooked by male critics. I know it must shape my poetry too, but that’s harder for me to pin down, probably because poetry’s sources are not under conscious control. I don’t set out to write a poem about rape (“Metamorphoses”) or a girl’s fear of growing into a woman’s body (“Spring-Sick”) because the material is feminist; it’s more like I’m feminist because those subjects move me. I did think about privilege a great deal as I drafted and revised Heterotopia, and I hope I got the balance right. My mother came from working-class Liverpool, and she’s of Irish descent—the Irish suffered horribly in that city. Writing about that is tricky enough, as a well-educated child of the New Jersey suburbs. Also, though, it felt wrong to write historically about Liverpool without addressing its role in the slave trade and the infamous race riots in Toxteth. I struggled to do so without seeming to exploit the material or lecture pompously about it; I needed to pose a critique without allowing myself to stand safely outside the fray. “Vronhill Street in Liverpool 8” in particular almost killed me. It was incredibly difficult to find a tone that worked. Perhaps these considerations of race and class wouldn’t seem feminist to some people, but to me they are.

There’s a definite difference in tone between your first and second volumes. Can you tell me a bit about the journey between the two collections?
Heathen
feels personal, lyric, and spiritual to me; I wrote it as an uncertain thirty-something negotiating new identities (parent, teacher) and illness I didn’t fully understand. Each poem was hard-won, crafted independently from the others, and these pieces fought their way up one by one through magazine slush-piles, usually after many, many rejections. The book itself was therefore hard to shape effectively and it made the rounds for five or six years, a persistent finalist that took a long time to win an editor’s heart. I think of it as a ship full of tough customers who jostle each other around and I’m proud of them for surviving.

A few of the poems in Heterotopia are older, but mostly they came together as I was turning forty and feeling more confident professionally and personally. This time I was not just writing poems but deliberately writing a book centered around a set of interconnected stories and ideas. The collection has a great deal of narrative in it and plenty of feeling, but it feels primarily idea-oriented to me. It won the Barrow Street prize after circulating for only a few months and I felt such pleasure in that rapid acceptance. It seemed to validate not just the work but a part of myself that I tended to downplay outside the classroom, as if I finally had permission to identify as an intellectual person in any context, without apologies. You’d think I would have conquered that inhibition against seeming too smart by the time I was a full professor, but somehow I really hadn’t.

What’s next for you?
I’m looking at a very, very rough draft of a new book with the working title Signal to Noise. There’s a long narrative poem in there, speculative fiction in terza rima, that is incredibly weird and unmarketable, but I needed to write it and still like it, so perhaps there’s hope. The rest is more lyric. All of the poems concern listening or communication, influenced by my scholarly research on voice: where messages come from and through what media; what interferes with their reception; how we interpret their significance; and why we listen in the first place. I’m enjoying the science behind the poems—reading about everything from how radio works to neurochemistry to the weird effects of infrasonic waves. While the ideas are in place, though, the individual poems haven’t all found their final or near-final form. I need to fiddle with it and think about it for a while still as, again, I test them with journal editors.

I’ll also be in New Zealand with my family for the first half of 2011; I’ve won a Fulbright to conduct research on twenty-first-century poetry and community. I need to turn myself into a sensitive receiver and read, listen, and think like crazy, both for the sake of the scholarly project I’ve proposed and to let the next big poetic subject, whatever it might be, slowly germinate. Or, at least, this is the story I’m telling myself about what I’m up to, and I hope to make some version of it come true.

Review and Interview: Snow White Red-Handed by Maia Chance

Book cover image for "Snow White Red-Handed" by Maia ChanceSnow White Red-Handed is the first in a series of new mystery novels that follows the adventures of Ophelia Flax, a young woman of Yankee origins and indomitable spirit.

Author Maia Chance manages to weave together a complex set of tropes into a unified narrative, one which includes an ensemble of characters worthy of an operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan.

The novel opens in 1867 with Ophelia and her adopted sister, Prue, stranded on an ocean liner on the Atlantic. Ophelia finagles employment with a New York family traveling to a remote castle in the Black Forest, where adventurers and academics have descended upon what could be the cottage where Snow White and Seven Dwarves once lived.

Soon after they arrive, Prue finds herself unjustly accused of murder. While Ophelia tries to clear her sister’s name, she unearths layer after layer of secrets surrounding the Snow White cottage and the denizens of the village and castle nearby. Like Laurie King’s Mary Russell, Ophelia doesn’t hesitate to buck the social mores of the time and dons a variety of disguises to investigate the mystery before her.

I caught up with Maia Chance recently to discuss her new book.

Snow White isn’t your first book. Tell me about how you got your start as a novelist.

A: I published two historical romances with Dorchester Publishing about ten years ago. That didn’t take me very far, and in retrospect it’s as clear as day why: I seldom read romances for fun.  But I have always read mysteries, beginning with Nancy Drew and the John Bellairs books as a kid. So the next time I took a stab at publishing, I went with mysteries.

Ophelia certainly fits the bill as a “strong female character.” How would you describe her? Why did you choose to give her some of the characteristics that she has — such as being rather tall, thin, and not classically beautiful.

A: Ophelia Flax is a woman who has had a difficult life, financially speaking, and she comes from a fractured family. She has led a nomadic life, having supported herself as a textile factory-worker, a circus performer, and a variety hall actress when the book begins.  She’s tough and smart, with a Yankee pride and a certain reluctance to discuss her own feelings. I decided that she should be tall and thin first, so she could easily disguise herself as a man and second, because in 1867 tall and thin was not considered feminine and beautiful the way it is nowadays.

I didn’t want her to be an obviously beautiful woman because I write a lot about the concept of beauty—its perception, its making, its downfalls—and also because love stories are boring when everyone is—to quote Zoolander—“really, really good-looking.” Professor Penrose does not think Ophelia is beautiful until he begins to fall in love with her, a move I modeled on Pride and Prejudice.

Are you a feminist?

A:  Absolutely yes.

Ophelia and her friend are both Yankees trying to fit into European society. Their internal monologues feature a sharply different kind of vocabulary as a result. What was your thought process in choosing this method of characterization, and how did you research the colloquialisms used?

A:  I love writing in Deep POV—where every word, including the narration, match any given scene’s POV character. This gave me the opportunity to create variety in tone and bring three different back-stories to the table, too. The colloquialisms were in large part pulled from my PhD reading list, since I was hatching this book while preparing for my PhD qualifying exams.

What inspired you to combine fairy tales with the mystery genre.

A: I love fairy tale retellings of all kinds, and as I said, I mysteries comprise the bulk of my escapist pleasure reading, so I smashed the two together and tried to make them stick.

I noticed that you have three characters in this novel whose size (fatness) is used to demonstrate their unlikability. Tell me how you arrived at the decision to use body size as shorthand for unsympathetic characterization. Do you think that fat people are naturally unlikable? Or that fatness is a consequence of greed and veniality?

A:  No, I certainly don’t think that fat people are naturally unlikable, or that fatness is a consequence of greed and veniality. Snow White Red-Handed is populated by people in a variety of shapes and sizes, and there is no index of likability based on body composition. There are larger-sized people who are pleasant (Frau Holder, for one), as well as unpleasant characters, such as Franz, who are small in size.

That said, two characters who are described as not-thin were designed as such to work for the story. Mrs. Pearl Coop is not especially large, but she is described as thick-waisted, and there is a scene in which she is anxious to have her corset cinched as tight as possible to reduce her waist, while looking in the mirror. Here is the “magic mirror” of the fairy tale, the talking thing that provokes the woman to gaze at herself with dissatisfaction and self-loathing. Mrs. Coop is not a likable character, but she is also a victim—via corsets, crinolines, face paint, hair dye, and self-loathing—of what Gilbert and Gubar term patriarchal “mirror madness” in which a woman “kills herself into an art-object.”

The link between Professor Winkler and greed—well, that was completely by accident.  Winkler was originally written as the clichéd thin, ascetic scholar (I think I had Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch in mind). But I revised Winkler to be heavy first to take out that cliché, and then as he developed I wrote him as someone who also eats with undisguised relish. I wanted him to be—borrowing Elaine Scarry’s term—emphatically embodied. Winkler’s emphatic embodiment operates in contradistinction to the anti-worldly metaphysic of fairy tales. In other words, his embodiment is meant to underscore his belief in cold, hard science rather than magic, in fact rather than fiction.

Is this the first published work that features Ophelia Flax? Tell me more about how she came to be.

A: Yes, Snow White Red-Handed is the first published work featuring Ophelia Flax. The character had an evolution, though. Before I wrote this book I wrote a draft of another mystery with an Ophelia prototype, set in England, and the story revolved around amanita muscaria (that is, fairy tale mushrooms). I’d set it in England because everyone in publishing says that European settings are a hard-sell in genre fiction. But while writing that draft, I realized that what I was really trying to do was treat fairy tales. So I started over, and put Ophelia in a quintessential fairy tale setting: the Black Forest.

This book explores issues of wealth and social class and the assumptions people make based on them. For instance, Ophelia has to elide over her history in the theater in order to secure work as a lady’s maid. And there is palpable tension between the college professors come to study evidence of Snow White’s cottage and the “backward peasants” who live in the Black Forest. Tell me more about this theme and how it figures in your storytelling.

A: The snobbery of the professors (or, in Penrose’s case, his ostensible snobbery) was influenced by more of my academic work. I wrote a paper about traces of superstition in 1850’s and 60’s American domestic advice manuals, and in the process I learned that the academics of that time period correlated traditional knowledge with both femaleness and intellectual debasement. Folklore and folk knowledge—such as medicines and midwifery—carried the taint of, basically, superstition throughout the nineteenth century.  So, fairy tales—orally transmitted sub-literature, often transmitted by female story-tellers—encapsulate this weird class/gender tension. Of course, this is complicated in my novel since Ophelia is reluctant to believe that fairy tales have a historical reality, whereas the academic, Professor Penrose, secretly belives in magic.

What’s next for our heroines?

A: Their second adventure, Cinderella Six Feet Under, picks up only weeks after Snow White Red-Handed ends. Ophelia and Prue travel to Paris to find Prue’s mother and, naturally, murder and fairy tale intrigue ensue.


This post originally appeared on Gender Focus

Hanne Blank’s Take on National Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today (November 20) is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Please take a moment to honor those whose lives, health, and safety have been taken from them because of their gender expression. My fellow queer writer Hanne Blank posted something on Facebook today that sums up my feelings about transphobia perfectly. It’s reposted with permission below.

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance I am thinking of those we’ve lost and thinking about the connection between anti-trans violence, misogyny, femmephobia, and, most of all, power.

When people on the transfeminine spectrum are attacked for being trans, a large part of what is going on is that they are being punished for having the audacity to relinquish masculinity and the symbolic power of masculinity while being, or originally being, male-bodied.

This is power and that is supposed to be inherent and inseparable from being male-bodied.

When people on the transmasculine spectrum are attacked for being trans, a large part of what is going on is that they are being punished for having the audacity to claim masculinity and the symbolic power of masculinity while not being, or not originally being, male-bodied.

This is power that it is supposed to be impossible to possess if one is *not* male-bodied.

Continue reading “Hanne Blank’s Take on National Transgender Day of Remembrance”

Speaking Out About Sexism and Harassment is a Way for Feminist Writers to Find One Another

The Hairpin recently published a piece by Emma Healy about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways men ignore, negate, and harass women in the world of writing and publishing. Stories like the ones she and her colleagues recount make me feel so much less crazy as I contemplate returning to the world of writing and publishing, an industry I ran from years ago when New Media was the big idea. The Web seemed like an easier alternative to the hermetically sealed world of NYC publishing houses and academic presses. I started publishing my work on my own website in 1996 and haven’t looked back since. On a few occasions, it’s even resulted in literary journals soliciting my work — something unheard of in the more traditional literary world.

Like just about any industry on earth, web development (or web design, or web application development, or interactive design, or UI/UX design, or whatever the kids are calling it these days) is also a boys’ club. In the 1990s, I was a member of an organization called Webgrrls that brought women in the field together, but sometime around the turn of the century its founder Aliza Sherman sold it to a man (!) and it faded into obscurity. That heralded the end of the golden days of the web, a world that’s been co-opted by Silicon Valley startup capital and an increasingly crowded and complex Internet (or the Intarwebs, or the Tubes, or the blagosphere, or whatever the kids are calling it these days).  The gender discrimination I’ve faced has been subtle and difficult to name. On the whole, my experience has been less creeptastic dudebro trying to get in my pants and more male coworkers bonding over football and beer and then passing me over for promotions.

Continue reading “Speaking Out About Sexism and Harassment is a Way for Feminist Writers to Find One Another”

The Poet According to Harper’s

This poet, first arrested by the implied promise of this passage (Buzzfeed headline: “How to become a Great Poet (TM) in three easy steps”), is struck by the subtle gendered irony contained therein.

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous: one gets Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” or Plath’s “Daddy,” or Lowell’s “Sunday Morning” (or Wallace Stevens’s). But without that last ingredient, ambition, nothing great will come.

— “Poetry Slam: Or, the decline of American verse,” by Mark Edmundson, in Harper’s July 2013, p. 64. Full text behind a paywall here: http://harpers.org/archive/2013/07/poetry-slam/

Some relevant pieces of information about the text:

  1. A few years ago, Harper’s was one of the worst offenders on the VIDA list. It’s still not doing so well.
  2. The author uses the feminine pronoun to refer to the hypothetical Great Poet.
  3. Three out of four of the examples of Great Poetry are by male authors.
  4. The author of the article is a man.

Since I’d rather be a Great Poet (TM) than a Women’s Studies professor, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about these facts and whether or not they indicate that Harper’s Magazine has a long way to go before its head will be completely removed from its own posterior.

The Paradox of Body Acceptance

Image of street art reading "Love your fat body"
Photo credit: Green Kozi, via Flickr

Fat acceptance isn’t always about loving your body. It’s not always about standing up and proclaiming that fat is flabulous. Sometimes fat acceptance is just about accepting your body as it is at this moment.

My road to fat acceptance has been a long and winding one. Unlike some of the larger voices in the movement, I’m not a lifelong fattie. I’ve fluctuated up and down in body size since childhood, although I’ve been holding steady at my current size for the last decade or so. My first introduction was back in 1996, when my mother gave me a book called Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body, by Cheri Erdman. This was long before the fatosphere — even before the blogosphere — and it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that fat people shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies. I’d already gone through two large fluctuations in weight at that point: once in the sixth grade, and once again in college. In the sixth grade, my mother took me aside one day and told me that obesity ran in our family, and that I “had to be careful.” I joined the YMCA and began to run every day. I still remember one of the neighborhood kids looking at me incredulously and saying, “You can’t run!” I went ahead and ran anyway. Puberty caught up with me and I grew out of my ugly ducking phase.

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Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

Continue reading “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path”

Okelle’s Guide to Online Shopping for Curvy Ladies

Despite the fact that my blog is mostly devoted to poetry and other arcane topics, the top search term bringing people here lately is “North Style.” Back in April I posted a strongly worded letter to North Style — a company I’ve never actually done any business with. They send me catalogs on a fairly regular basis though, like a lot of other companies do. That’s because I do, in fact, buy clothing from catalogs.

“Why buy your clothing from catalogs?” you ask.

“Funny you should ask,” I reply.

Continue reading “Okelle’s Guide to Online Shopping for Curvy Ladies”

Rest in Peace Adrienne Rich: Fellow Poet, Feminist, Queer Woman, Trail-Blazer

Last week, I was about to board a plan to San Francisco when I saw Adrienne Rich’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to describe Adrienne Rich’s impact on my life with grace and brevity. That’s because my relationship to her work mirrors my relationship to the literary establishment as a whole. I first heard of her when I was a junior in high school, young poet full of promise and bereft of friends after the class of 1989 graduated and scattered off to college. A precocious freshman named Deborah, with reddish hair and presumptuous mannerisms, was shocked to learn I hadn’t already read and loved her work. What Deborah didn’t know (and neither did I) was that I’d been raised on the literary canon, comprised then as it is now almost exclusively of men. Five years later I wrote my senior thesis at Vassar on her work and the arc of her life. Seventeen years later, Margalit Fox‘s obituary said it better than I ever could.

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Open Letter to Get in Shape for Women

Dear Get In Shape for Women:

Thank you so much for your congratulations on my new house! Nothing says “welcome to the neighborhood” like a postcard from a company that found me via an automated report from the United States Postal Service. I’m also touched and gratified that you care enough about my health to offer me an affordable, convenient option for losing weight so close to home.

Here’s the thing:

I don’t want to lose any weight.

I have no interest in losing any weight.

And if I decided I *did* want to lose some weight or join a gym, your marketing approach has completely ruined any chance of your getting my business. I’ll spare you the diatribe about the way constant media messages and images screw with women’s perceptions of what constitutes a normal, healthy body. I’ll refrain from quoting the statistics that show how much money the weight loss industry collects from women in their vain attempts to lose weight and keep it off.

Continue reading “Open Letter to Get in Shape for Women”