“Poets to me are magicians,” began Ana Sampson, anthologist of She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women (2018) for Pan Macmillan at a Hillingdon Libraries poetry event on the evening of Thursday 28 February 2019.
Tucked cosily into floral armchairs in the Garden Room at Southlands Arts Centre in the London Borough of Hillingdon, guests listened to Ana discuss what drove her to make this collection a reality – when reading through numerous poetry ‘greatest hits’anthologies, the question struck: “where were all the women?”
While there are numerous niche offerings anthologising the work of women poets
from a particular place or period, for example, there was no collection that aimed to capture the breadth of women poets from Sappho to the contemporary poetry scene. Ana aimed to create a book that would function as an inclusive canon of women poets, from classic poets such as Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti to the contemporary voices of Liz Berry, Hollie McNish with many in between. “This is my attempt to write them back into the canon,” Sampson explained.
Ana then took the audience on a whistle-stop tour of the history of women in poetry,identifying “rich seams of work” and women’s “hidden histories,” exploring the barriers to both writing and publishing that might account for this historical under representation of women’s voices: that women were seen as muses; that there was a lack of access to education; that there was very little time in which to write; a lack of role models or “poetic grandmothers;” and no community.
Ana opened up the discussion to the evening’s guest poets, Instagram poetry superstar Nikita Gill and London-based poet, filmmaker and photographer Katie Byford, and conversation turned to focus on the contemporary poetry scene, including poetry on social media and spoken word.“There’s something fundamentally wrong with this idea that there’s only one way to write poetry,” Gill lamented, referencing the snobbery, gate-keeping and misogyny that exists in poetry publishing and the backlash against the phenomenal rise of #instapoets such as Gill herself, with many attacking the trend as ‘not proper poetry’ and dismissing the work.
Poetry’s recent explosion onto the digital scene via platforms such as Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram has had massive impact: “Poetry is thriving, and women’s poetry in particular is thriving…they are digital superstars,” said Sampson, and as a result more and more young women are engaging with poetry.“Women are amplifying each other’s poetry, lifting each other up…what I love about sharing poetry online is the community it creates,” Gill explains.
The talk then turned to the panel’s mutual love of women in mythology, which Sampson described on a later Instagram post about the event as her “catnip”. Katie, with a degree in Classics, read her poems Not Andromeda and Odysseus/Penelope, tender and powerful works that Sampson said made her cry. Gill, who belongs to what she described as quite a traditional Indian family, recalled a visit to the Gurdwara and a conversation with her mother about how their goddesses are all presented through a male lens, to which her mother replied, “If you are so unhappy with them then why don’t you rewrite them?” And she did – Gill’s been voraciously working her way through classics – Sappho, Homer and more – and in her rewriting, giving these women their own voices: “women voicing their own trauma rather than men writing it for them,” women rescuing themselves and empowering each other, Gill explained.
Gill credited Margret Atwood’s poem Siren Song, which she read for the audience, as being what ‘radicalised’ her to want to give these voices back to women in mythology, then shared some of her own poetry, including The Fable of Thermodynamics from her collection Fierce Fairytales (Trapeze, 2018). After taking questions from the audience, the poets closed with advice to women poets everywhere: “Write what you want to write even if it upsets your parents,” said Byford. Gill’s advice? “Write the thing that scares you and give it to the world.”
Written by Emma Filtness
Emma Filtness is a poet, visiting lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University
London and stronger communities coordinator for London Borough of Hillingdon.
She shares her poems on Instagram @cultofflora