MISSING WOMEN POETS 

This first appeared in The Poets'Republic 7 (Spring 2019). It is a very considerable expansion of my previous blogpost A Leg Up For Male Poets.


‘I told [Leonard], in confidence and as gently as I could possibly do it, that if Virginia had ever been invited to an Edinburgh literary salon – not that it was likely – they’d have set her to butter the bannocks while the Real Poets got on with the chat.’
From a dream sequence in “Scotland the Brave – and me” by Joan Ure.  
First published in Scottish International Review 1968

In 1983 the Third Eye Centre along with Glasgow Libraries published Noise and Smoky Breath, An Illustrated Anthology of Glasgow, Poems 1900 – 1983. It features forty three male poets, and four women. Now why should this matter, you might ask. Can a good male poet not write for both sexes? Certainly, one wit quipped in the late 1950s that “a woman poet is a contradiction in terms”, and William Wordsworth himself wrote, “What is a poet? He is a man speaking to men…”.
             So did Glasgow really have an overload of talented bards and a dearth of women who could write a decent stanza between 1900 and 1983? A wander through anthologies and poetry magazines from the twentieth century soon shows that women poets were as likely to pop up in these publications as a capercaillie on a grouse shoot. But just like capercaillies, they were there. 
            And as Joan Ure points out in the quote at the top of this piece, they were unlikely to receive much recognition from the men who can be seen comfortably hogging centre-stage in Sandy Moffat’s iconic painting, The Poets’ Pub. In it the Great Men of Scottish poetry of the twentieth century are busy being Great Men – but look how the women are portrayed. See, girls of Scotland! If you want to hang out with poets, you can a) tout for business in the pub doorway b) lounge drunken and bare-breasted on a bar-stool c) be swept up in a passionate kiss or d) be an icon in a mural – La Liberté  in this one – aha, you get to bare your breasts again. Oh, and the female face is always vague. While the men, oh the men! They have strong, well-defined faces. They are thinking, deep, deep thoughts. And they are fully clothed. In very serious trousers. 
            Or you might take up the Muse Option. Then you get to drink with the lads, as young Stella Cartwright did in the late 50s and 60s. Stella, it’s claimed, had hundreds of poems written about her by many of Scotland’s greatest poets of the mid-twentieth century. Described by one as “a lassie frae the mune”, and by others as ‘The Muse of Rose Street’, Stella also wrote some poems. But a career in poetry? For a lassie? In the 60s? She probably had more chance of being frae the moon. 

     Stella, The Muse of Rose Street 

Poets gaze at her. Oh, the brightness of this teen, 
her golden laugh, her hair! In Milne’s bar, all oak

and smoke and gloom, her father orbits round 
his sparkling star, observes his drinking mates ignite

bright as turnip lanterns when she’s near. He preens 
himself to know this girl whose face illuminates 

the dullest room, this girl for whom these men will spill 
their pens, this adolescent who incites such passion 

with her numinescent glow, is herself a work of art 
that sprang from him; his very own creation.

And while she sparkles ever brighter, supping 
whiskies down with compliments from poets twice 

her age, while with gentleness she carefully unknots 
the jingle-jangled tangle of their genius heads, 

in distant darkened rooms the great men’s wives 
tuck their children safely in their beds. 

                                                                 Magi Gibson

Poetry is not only about recording the present and reflecting on the past. It can be a revolutionary act. Through poetry we can imagine the future. As Audre Lorde said in her 1977 essay Poetry is not a Luxury “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” Scotland was the loser in the twentieth century when it failed to make equal space in its literary canon for the voices of its women to not only record and explore the nation and culture at that point, but to shape the political, cultural and social future it might have.
            As Dorothy MacMillan records in her introduction to Modern Scottish Women Poets in 2003, those few female poets of the mid-century who persevered did try on occasion to take the Great Men to task. There was a particularly feisty exchange over an anthology edited by Norman MacCaig in 1959 where he included no women poets. When a Scotsman reviewer raised concerns MacDiarmid dismissed the women poets of the time as ‘the bevy of Scottish songstresses’ and their poetry as “superannuated kinds of verse”.  As Mary Beard so eloquently explains in her essay, The Public Voice of Women, men from Greek times onwards have sought to keep women from having a serious voice in the public sphere. To label the Scottish women poets as songstresses was a clear signal there was no place for them in the male world of poetry, dealing with serious matters, It was designed to suppress Scottish women poets – and in so doing deprived the culture of its true heritage. As poet Elizabeth Burns later wrote,  “To believe in our voices as poets and to begin to mark out a place in the tradition in the face of such a denial takes a certain amount of courage and defiance.”
            But by the late seventies a new generation had come along, and a small group of feminist women in Edinburgh who wanted to write, and write on their own terms formed the Pomegranate writing collective. They’d had enough of being sidelined, of being up against the kind of rejection that American poet Sharon Olds experienced when she first submitted her poetry to literary magazines in the 1970s. "They told me,” Olds says, “'this is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are ... male subjects...' " Olds persisted in writing, including her glorious Ode to the Hymenand Poem for the Breasts, and in 2013 became the first American woman to win the TS Eliot Prize. 
            In Edinburgh the Pomegranate women’s collective, gaining in self-confidence, formed a small publishing house, Stramullion, (old Scots for strong woman). In 1980 they published a poetry booklet of their own work, Hens in the Hay. In 1984 the Workers Educational Association started up a women only writing group in Stirling. We even had a crèche, and we produced our own book, Recurring Themes,in 1985. That group led to both myself and the fine poet, Helen Lamb, starting to write, getting published, and going on to produce poetry that’s been anthologized both in Scotland and internationally for decades. 
            But the big landmark in Scottish women’s poetry in the twentieth century was Fresh Oceans, the Stramullion anthology published in 1989. Here were over forty women collected together for the first time. Strong, individual voices in English, Gaelic and Scots. Meg Bateman, Dilys Rose, Gerrie Fellows. Oh, so many I’d love to list them all! At last Scottish women poets could see each other, read each other as a distinct group. Of course, before that there had been occasional women poets appearing on the Scottish poetry scene, in particular, Liz Lochhead with Memo for Springin 1972, Valerie Gillies in 1977, and then Kathleen Jamie with Black Spidersin 1982. But when a hegemony is to be breached it is the appearance of a larger group that truly marks the possibility of real change. And no more songstress nonsense.
            Adrienne Rich has written of the frightening “tunnel of silence” the marginalized often find themselves in when no voices seem to have told their stories before. We hear in different fields the phrase, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. For whole generations of young Scottish women the female giants of their own country had been hidden from sight, the canon dominated by male voices, and the tunnel of silence seemed very real. With the publication of Fresh Oceansat last the “tunnel of silence” in Scotland had voices in it singing out loud and clear in all three leids, and we were not going to fall silent again. 
            Soon after came Polygon’s Original Printseries, a mix of poetry and short stories featuring new work from Scottish women writers. 
            In Glasgow by the second half of the 1990s the Glasgow Women’s Rights Education Network (WREN) was also running writing groups and undertaking publishing. Their third anthology from their Smeddum imprint, Silent When I Should Be Screaming(1997) was dedicated to women who’d committed suicide in Cornton Vale Women’s Prison. In a letter in August 1998, Tom Leonard mentioned by name poets Lesley Benzie and Sandie Craigie, saying “… it has been evident for some time that a lot of the most interesting and worthwhile stuff in poetry being produced in Scotland just now is being done by a wide range of women writers...”
            In her essay in Chapman 74 – 75, Women’s Forum(1993) one of the original Stramullion group, the hugely respected and much missed poet Elizabeth Burns writes, “this need for self-confidence, for support, for someone to tell us we are poets seems a particularly female need.” Women in Scotland had at last found a way to self-organise and create the all-female spaces they needed where they could share work on topics that mattered to them without fear of put-downs from men or being told they were not fit topics for poetry, where they could support and encourage each other and not be expected to fall into the traditional buttering-the-bannocks role. Or worse, be dominated as men spoke over them. As late as 2015 research shows women were not confident their voices were being heard in public discourse. “Women still have confidence in their views, even when they see that their status is low,” said Tali Mendelberg, a Princeton University professor who is co-author of The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation and Institutions,a study from Princeton and Brigham Young University published in 2015. “But they’re not confident that what they have to say is valued, and that in turn shapes how willing they are to speak, and what is discussed. Society signals that the domains of power are still reserved for men.”
            Meanwhile, in the 1990s, more women were beginning to appear at pub poetry readings, though as Elizabeth Burns explained in her Chapman essay, “the haunt of the male writer – the pub – has often been closed to women”. It’s worth remembering too just how male the preserve of the pub could still be in 80s and 90s Scotland. Only a decade earlier a fair number of bars still didn’t have women’s toilets, and a woman was often met with cold stares and disgruntled comments, not to mention suggestions she should leave. The University of Glasgow had an all-male students union until 1980, its misogynistic legacy still being played out at the utterly shameful debate in 2013 where a woman speaker from Cambridge suffered overt sexist harassment. Pubs chosen for poetry readings might be more woman-friendly, but even so, women poets needed to be exceptionally brave to get up and read in such a male domain, especially as their writing might, quite obviously, have women’s concerns and life experiences at its heart. One man complained to me, why do you women always have to write about childbirth? On another occasion a regular came up to me at the bar after with the dubious – and destined to fail - chat up line, “I had a wet dream about you after last week.” And on another occasion a male member in the audience at the Clutha Vaults gave me a ticking off for using swear words. On the plus side, I got a poem out of that particular experience.
            Often there could be a clash of cultures. While some women were using poetry to speak about taboo subjects and bring them out into the open – their poetry being a precursor to #metoo  some 20+ years later – the dominant lads’ culture might still think it funny to run a raffle as part of a lit mag evening offering a prize of a Playboy porn video.  
            But we women needed to write our lives. 
            We wanted to use radical poetry as a power tool for political change. We had breached the pub doors, we had taken control of publishing for ourselves. And we were getting noticed.
            Recognising the sudden upsurge in activity from women writers, many of the literary magazines were keen to feature more women. Opportunities were opening up and by the 90s women were appearing more and more, particularly in the newer burst of magazines such as West Coast Magazine, Cencrastus, Rebel Inc, Northwords.The women-run magazine Harpies and Quinesfeatured feminist poetry. Gairfishpublished a special Calemadonnas: Women and Scotlandissue in 1994. The Edinburgh University Press imprint, Polygon, along with the Women 2000 movement launched a Women’s Writing Competition, Looking Forward to the New Millennium. Part of that venture was the anthology, Meantime,published in 1991, followed by a conference at Glasgow University, with speakers like Liz Lochhead and Janice Galloway.
            Chapman in particular, where editor Joy Hendry had been championing female writers for years, was publishing more and more collections from women throughout the 90s, including Margaret Fulton Cook, who I’ll return to later in this essay. 
            And why does this matter? Because being creative, having the self-belief to be a poet can be hard enough, but to do so in a climate where one is constantly being given signals, subtle and not so subtle, that you’re a second-rate songstress, or you belong in the kitchen, or on the moon being the Muse, or sitting on a bar stool with your breasts hanging out, is soul-destroying. As Janice Galloway said in her introduction to the Meantimeanthology, ‘Do we need encouragement and the support of other women’s writing? Do you really need to ask?’  
            Breaking down old hierarchies is never easy. Bias is rarely a conscious trait as anyone who has suffered racism at the hands of kind people can no doubt attest. In the 90s and noughties it was not at all unusual for a poet like myself to read at events and be the lone woman in an all-male line up. It certainly was the norm for the men to headline. At the launch of one magazine, I congratulated the organisers on inviting me as ‘the token woman poet’ when I took the mic. 
            But, you might be thinking, that’s all ancient history. Ah... if only! 
            In 2014 an event in Glasgow - one that sees itself as radical - accidentally billed a poetry line-up with eleven men and one woman. The subject? The Independence Referendum. An important political topic. Were our female poets too busy buttering their bannocks? When I contacted the organisers to object they apologised and tried to fix it, rather late in the day. But how could it even have happened? Because of millennia of conditioning? Or because women are not a minority and therefore silencing (by omission) does not count as oppression?
            In 2000 I was sitting on the Scottish Arts Council Grants to Publishers Committee. An application came in for a Scottish anthology of new writing on the theme of Irishness in Scottish writing – with almost no women included. Three male editors. All intelligent men who’d see themselves as enlightened. I refused to give my backing for funding until the editors actively sought out more women writers. Which they did. Because there were women writers in Scotland who should have been included. They had failed to identify them. And simply hadn’t noticed. Neither had anyone else on the committee until I pointed it out. In the end the anthology came out with a ratio of  thirty four men to eleven women. Yes. That was the improved ratio. It had first been presented with four women. And I was made to feel I was being difficult in insisting more women be included. 
            Oh, the Lord save us from a difficult woman!
            But nonetheless, she! and she! and she! persisted. 
            Until today we have wonderful women’s voices adding whole new dimensions to the Scottish poetry canon. Of course, there are those you know. Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay. Kathleen Jamie, Janet Paisley, Sheena Blackhall. And many others. 
            And there are some remembered in part because they died too young, such as the ground-breaking Glasgow poet, Maud Sulter, who in 1985 was experimenting with urban Scots in Thirteen Stanzas:

Trip tae the local – shoapin centre – dogshit boarded up
            business –
capital before people – profit before
            need – hustle –bustle – cheery hullos –
how’s it gawin? – how ra wains? - - n the damp? – auld school
            Pals

Unrecognisable – under the weight – o lost dreams and 
            illusions – other places – 
other spaces - other possibilities – beyond the
            Predictable – bloke – screw – n
how do ye do – quick jaunt up the aisle – offer a
            smile – bridesmaids in candy

(MS) from As A Blackwoman (Akria 1985)

And the irreplaceable Sandie Craigie, who would no doubt have bellowed with laughter had MacDiarmid tried dismissing her as ‘a songstress’ writing ‘superannuated kinds of verse’. 

She wakes an casts oot
dreams wae a fag an
donnes her black
an stands bi the windae

In the backgreen, claespoles lean
West as if towards the sun
In atween the gravel, shoots 
dae a per imitation ae gress
pigeons an sparries pick-fikey
at the earths carcas

His washins hung 
here as the dayz long
She cannae bear tae
bring it in
Bi night its crackt
in the winds dry air
skelpt tae life

An even then only half the man
… the ghost ae him

(SC)

Two more voices often missed from anthologies are those of Margaret Fulton Cook and Lesley Benzie. 
            Margaret Fulton Cook was involved in Glasgow in the early 1990s with the editorial team of West Coast Magazine. Her first full collection of poetry, Good Girls Don’t Cry,was published in 1996 by Chapman. Poet and publisher Graham Fulton, brought out a pamphlet of Margaret’s poems, Burning Orange, in 2015 under his Controlled Explosion imprint. “I can't think of another Scottish woman poet who has written about such tough subjects as madness, abuse, disability, inequality, war and violence in such an uncompromising, fearless way,” he says of Fulton Cook. “Beautiful, moving and brutal. Full of humanity. She always does it her own way and that's probably why she's not as well known as she should be. She writes about outsiders, subjects often looked down on, subjects people would rather ignore. She is never part of the club,the establishment, and she wouldn't have it any other way. Yes, I think she's been overlooked, as are many, but if there's any justice her lyrical honesty will be rediscovered and remembered long after others have been forgotten. The same reason she's important is the same reason she's been 'overlooked'.” 

Bella

look at the size o that
Bella said
as she cradled
a hot steaming shite
from the unlocked toilets
as if it was
a fragile fortune
as if it was
some unwanted orphan
as if it was her long awaited child

she strutted through the ward

thirty years before
her husband
strutted through the war

and

glory filled
Bella had danced
her man came back
from the war
with stockings, stories
and a long line of gory tales
of dying men
and wandering WAFFs
but never mentioned 
the campaigns
of his untouchable barge pole
that put Bella
in an asylum
for the rest
of her life

gonorrhea
syphilis
medals from the king

Bella carried the shite
tenderly
the ward sister
told her
to put it back where she got it

largactil burned in her mind
tears burned in her eyes

but obediently
Bella stuffed her thoughts
and dreams
down the drain
of the hospital sink.     

(MFC)


Aberdeen poet Lesley Benzie also writes with pared down honesty and humanity about people living on the edge of society. Many of Lesley’s poems are in an contemporary urban Doric. Her first – and only – collection to date, Sewn Up, was published in 2000 with Wisdom Teeth, an offshoot of Glasgow-based Cutting Teeth magazine. Lesley, like Margaret, is a fine performer and was one of the poets on the Two Weegies, One Quine, an Edinbury Whoor and a Sassenach Tootour to New York. Lesley being the Quine and Sandie Craigie the Edinbury Hoor. 
            After Sewn Up’s publication there was a flurry of readings around the book, then Benzie found herself increasingly unsure of how to move her poetry forward. Lesley was writing in urban Aberdeen dialect about the most disadvantaged in that city. She contacted Aberdeen University who were hosting a literature festival featuring poetry hoping to read at it, but they suggested her poetry perhaps wasn’t quite right for them. With a lack of support and direction for her poetry, and the need to support her young family, Lesley moved towards writing for film.
            

Aneath the stairs

Havin nothing else
but neighbourly relations,
she wis caught
unawares
fan he said he had something for her.
Then she wisna sure
if he wanted ti gie her it at a,
cause, as he placed it in her hand
he pulled it back
and fore
then pinned her to the wa
aneeth the stairs, ahind the lobby door.
His grin frothed whispers
she didna understand
till he came
ti the point
in her hand
She pulled aha
her sma grasp
on reality,
retreatin
intae the childhood fold,
She closed the door
and washed,
secretly.

(LB)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that when voices have been suppressed in a tunnel of silence and are at long last given space and permission to speak, what emerges first is pain. Wounds need to be exposed to the air so they can be cleaned out and healed. We need to be able to point and say, look this is where it hurts. Come see it through our eyes, listen to it in the rhythm of our voices. Writing in the 90s both these poets invite us into worlds where poetry had not often dared to tread. They do so with humanity. They write in living language.  Muscular, musical language that is spoken aloud, that is muttered, that knows pain, that can get you into trouble if you use in the wrong place or at the wrong time, that can bring derision down on you, that often labels its speaker as being lesser in some way, less intelligent, less wealthy, less refined, less educated. Simply less...
            Through these poems the poets give these voices power. They say, we are here.
            Polish poet, Anna Swir said, “The poet has a conscience with room to grow. What does not, as yet, shock and outrage others, shocks and outrages her.” Both Fulton Cook and Benzie  are poets who do not flinch from the injustices of society. Their poems combine anger and humanity, they are capable of uncovering wounds, and of healing them. And doing so with technical skill and beauty.
            Of the later poems in Fulton Cook’s Burning Orange, Alasdair Gray says, “They give  shapes and voices to the most injured people in our selfish and wasteful country.” And the same can be said of many of Benzie’s poems in Sewn Up.
            I hope they’ve both been writing away all these years. Scottish poetry is richer for their voices in the silence, and where better than The Poets’ Republic to let them be heard again.


Culture Shock

A nominee patre et spiritus sancti
of holy water
wets the veil
of the fairy tale bride
covering her in
ritualistic traditions
and outside in the summer sun
sprays of confetti petals
rose tint this Saturday spectacle
that strikes the seven year old Scottish daughter
with awe

she races home to tell of
Latin chants
holy smoke
Roman rants
which awoke a thousand questions

An Ulster mother regulates her Hotpoint twin
puts a lid on simmering stew
and with a barrage of ballyhoo
years of tears and buckets of bigotry
she forces a hand worn bar of fairy
into her child’s mouth
and names her

Bloody Wee Skitter

Margaret Fulton Cook (2015)



Ah’m nae fat

Ah just need
ti tak a lot a space,
cause Am tryin ti find my place,
in a world far Ah thocht
Ah didna belong.

Swollen on the ootside,
cause Ah
swallyed my pride hail,
ti feed the need
that went unheeded,
buried in flesh
ti cushion the shame
o fa Ah am.
spirit lame,
crushed aneath the weight
Ah blamed,
and went on gainin,
ti hud doon rage
that caged my hurt,
would one day spurt
and regurgitate
my wonderful life.  

Lesley Benzie (from Sewn Up)



Quine o '59

She wis a quine,
caught in the transition 
atween, Frank Sinatra's
‘Rat Pack' generation
and the Mama's & Papa's 
'California Dreamin'.

In black an white 
she soaked up the ’60s 
in a city borderin’ the North Sea 
kent for its harshness 

her hoosehold strugglin
ti get beyond the era o the 
‘Good Housewife’s Guide’.

A metter o pride for her faither 
like his black shiny shoes. 

She wid spit an polish, 
spit an polish, spit an polish 
in the hope o seein’ hersel 
reflected well 

as she tried ti buff awa’
his memory o poor parish boots.

                   She watched her mother
                   try ti stop him gan oot one night
                    by hiding his newly polished shoes 

                   and get locked oot, half naked 
                    on the landin o their cooncil flat 
                  
                   pleading to be let back in!

                    The price for this was 
                   her mother giein’ up 

the location o the shoes.

An for her ony notion o free love 
went oot the door wi them.


Lesley Benzie (2019)




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