Since then, a veritable hailstorm has descended upon the poetry world and even ignited a hashtag on twitter: #derangedpoetess. Katy Evans-Bush penned an article published at The Guardian, “TS Eliot prize row: is winner too young, beautiful – and Chinese?” on January 23rd that discusses her opinion on the issue that has resulted in over 9,700 social media shares at the writing of this piece.
In the article, Evans-Bush calls out several individuals in the literary press including Oliver Thring, a writer who published an interview with Sarah Howe in London’s The Sunday Times last week, saying, “Here’s the thing: people who don’t belittle women also don’t use the term ‘poetesses’,” referencing a tweet he had posted on January 22nd.
Certainly, there is a place for literary criticism. But when it is fettered by the unsavory voices of individuals spouting the derogation of women, or other specified targets, the criticism at its core is invalidated.
The conversation should be about her work, period. Take a look at this dramatic recitation of her poem, “Crossing from Guangdong,” in a TedXHarvardCollege presentation published on December 2, 2015. The poem is about her first visit to Guangdong in mainland China, where her mother was born, when Sarah was in her twenties. She presents the poem in the context of her personal pilgrimage but also frames it within international issues. In her introduction, she says, “migration, exile, where we belong—are urgent political questions.”
She describes her visit with exquisite detail, giving us a visceral vision of the food, the city sounds, the faces and voices of waitresses and interactions with fellow travelers, with a distinct yearning of her searching for this sense of home that, as I feel it, is just out of her grasp. This experience of her pilgrimage through objects, people and landscapes seemingly, as I interpret this particular poem, intentionally creates a distinct space between what she allows herself to feel, and in turn, allows the reader to know. Sarah recites this line, “my heart is bounded in a scalloped shell,” and I melt for her as I feel my jaw tighten and sit in anticipation of a further reveal. But she holds tightly to her form.
Around 8:19 in, she says,
Something sets us looking for a place
old stories tell if we could only get there
all distances would be erased
As she recites those lines, her arms are folded in front of her body, her left hand holding onto the upper part of her right arm, a stance of defense, as if there is a sense of stark reality, and of need, behind the sentiment.
It’s the creation of these spaces, these divides, which need to continue to be addressed to garner equality in not only the arts, but across the many realms of life. Sexism, racism, and other isms that develop an Us vs. Them mentality only work to break down the connection that is the true intention of poetry and other creative means of expression.
The large, almost larger than life, words above are part of a poem that has a journey of its own, but the greater meaning, in essence, is the same: a striving for a sense of wholeness.
Arts and humanities lovers and practitioners should be at the forefront regarding issues of equality, as it is the presence of these poets, writers, painters, musicians, dancers and others whom I personally believe have the best chance of saving humanity from itself.
The context of a pilgrimage, as Sarah Howe says in the above video, is one of historical and cultural significance—as poetry, itself, is one.
I can imagine that those who throw words such as “deranged poetesses” like Thring come from an internal space filled with privilege and spite for others who best them in words and deeds, having little understanding of the need for either internal or external journeys through the blistered feet of a pilgrim’s search for progress. Still waiting for any signs of contrition from what he boasts as his personal “twitstorm” on his twitter feed. And waiting…
It has been encouraging to see the “taking back” of the term, similar to the many epithets that have a history of being reused as an emblem of power against those who strive to oppress.
Continuing to honor a diversity of quality poetry and literature and all forms of artistic expression can only help to reduce those spaces between us and build the connections of understanding as we all wind and wander our own way home.
Congratulations to Sarah Howe for winning the 2016 TS Eliot Award. If you would like to read more about her poetry collection, you can find it on her website here.
Laurel Dowswell is is the Features Editor at Change Seven. Her short story “I Am the Eggman” was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. She was a copy editor for an independent feminist newspaper in Santa Fe, NM, after being raised and educated in Florida. She lives and writes in Georgia, just outside of Atlanta with her son. She is currently working on a novel filled with oil paintings, family drama, and the spectrum of sexuality. Her twitter username is @laurels_idea.