Ahead of their performance at Durham Book Festival, we caught up with the Dead [Women] Poets Society, to find out which female poets have inspired their work, and what we can look forward to at their event on 10th October. Two of the group, Jasmine Simms and Helen Bowell, offer their thoughts.
There are four of you in your group, the Dead [Women] Poets Society. How did you get together? What’s your common interest?
The poetry world is relatively small. All four of us are either current members or graduates of The Writing Squad, which is a professional development scheme for writers aged 16-25 in the North of England. So, while we are all students at Durham University presently, we knew each other before through the Squad, and through the national organisations which exist to support young poets, such as FOYLE and Tower Poetry. We’ve also been published alongside each other in magazines and anthologies, and some of us have long been in the habit of closely editing each other’s work.
This event was brought about initially through a collaboration between The Writing Squad and New Writing North (who run the wonderful Durham Book Festival). Although we could have done a more ‘ordinary’ reading of our work, we were keen to do something more exploratory. On the surface, gender seemed very much the theme that united our work. So the idea for Dead [Women] Poets Society came out of that – a desire to uncover what our relationship is, as poets, to this ‘uniting’ theme in our writing. Even the idea (often taken for granted) that this theme of ‘being a woman’ can, in some important way, unite poetry across time and across cultures etc – despite how experiences of ‘being a woman’ can contrast so greatly from place to place, age to age – seems to us a curious idea.
Who are the dead women poets you are going to be looking at during Durham Book Festival?
We’ll be resurrecting poets from across the ages, from Sappho to Plath. Three of us will be looking in detail at three different very poets. These include the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho, English Romantic poet Charlotte Turner Smith, and the wonderfully incongruous late-modernist poet, Stevie Smith. We will look at these poets and their lives, reading from their work, but also reading from our own in an attempt to reflect how they have influenced the way in which we write, particularly in relation to our sense of ourselves as ‘women’.
Sarah Fletcher will be taking a different approach, which we won’t go into too much detail here so as not to spoil the surprise. But expect poems from a range of twentieth century American woman poets, as part of a fascinating discussion of the ‘confessional’ identity often applied to women poets.
If you could bring one dead woman poet back to life, who would you resurrect and why?
The medieval poet Christine de Pizan seems like a bit of a badass feminist
Helen. This is kind of a difficult question because there are a lot of factors going into it that aren’t just to do with poetic talent. I mean, I’d love to resurrect a woman who suffered for her femininity/poetry and let her see how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve got to go. I would love to change the life of the poet I’m going to talk about, Charlotte Turner Smith, who managed to influence most of the most famous Romantic poets (especially Wordsworth) and herself resurrect the sonnet, but who only wrote in order to feed her dozen children, and said she felt she had been ‘sold as a prostitute in my early youth’ to a ‘monster’. Think of what she could do! Or someone older – the medieval Christine de Pizan seems like a bit of a badass feminist I’d love to bring back. A of people would probably say Plath. And this is just Western poetry!
The other reason you’d want to resurrect a poet is because you wish they’d written more. Actually, I think I’m a bit of a fake, because I can’t actually say I’ve read the complete works of any one poet, so my answer here will be less informed. But I like what I’ve read of Elizabeth Bishop and I’d love to read a bit more of her, perhaps set in the crazy modern technological world that she almost lived to see.
You and the others in the group also write your own poetry. Do you find yourself influenced by your female ancestors?
Jasmine. This is very much the question this event hopes to explore. Part of what inspired me to set up these Dead [Women] Poets Society readings, was when I began wondering what sort of connection I can really claim to have with a ‘female literary canon’ I (so far) mostly haven’t read. This suggested a need to resurrect them, so to speak – to discover not only what their influence is, but perhaps more importantly, what it could be.
That said, my chosen poet for this event, Stevie Smith, has already been a big influence on me, particularly through the ambivalent attitude she voices in her poems. Ambivalence not just towards the subjects of her poems – as an agnostic writing on religion, or in the satirical light she casts on the English middle classes, to which she belongs – but also in her own identity, as ‘woman’, ‘poet’, ‘Christian’.
One of the joys of writing poetry, I feel, is the exercise of putting ourselves and our experiences into the poem, safe in the knowledge that the speaker is not us; that poetry is not biography. This distance frees us to explore all these contradictions and uncertainty, that make up our complex and ambivalent identities. These qualities of Smith’s writing have shaped my very idea of what ‘poetry’ is, and what it’s capable of.
The Dead [Women] Poets Society will be reading at Empty Shop, Durham, from 5.00 on 10th October. Tickets priced from £4 are available via Durham Book Festival.