Tackling the poetry patriarchy

 

Irish poetry operates in something of a male-dominated culture, but is being a female poet a raison d'être or a clunky categorisation? Fiona McCanncanvasses five well-versed women

'WE AREN'T SUPPOSED to write poems, we are supposed to be in them." It has been 10 years since Eavan Boland made this statement about her gender in an interview in this paper, and more than 40 since she published her first collection of poetry, New Territory, at the age of 22. Boland talks of living in the "ambiguity as a woman poet", yet given societal shifts since this woman poet made her debut, does such a statement have any relevance for a new generation of Irish women poets who were not even born when Boland's New Territorywas staked out in 1967?

Derry-born Colette Bryce came of age in a different world, yet still struggled to find her place within the poetic tradition. "In terms of finding out how to be a writer, I had access to this very male tradition but it didn't seem to admit women, and so I do feel in a very unconscious way, looking back I was really trying to find some kind of continuum of women writers," she says. Bryce is the author of three collections: The Heel of Bernadette; The Full Indian Rope Trick, the title poem of which won the National Poetry Competition in Britain; and most recently Self-Portrait in the Dark. She was born in 1970, and struggled to connect with the few female voices emerging from within the general male clamour. "There were some brilliant women poets that I had access to - Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and Medbh McGuckian - but they were so few. If you only have three women writers it's very hard to find the connections, because literary connection is never as neat as gender."

Bryce's contemporary, 33-year-old Leontia Flynn, also acknowledges the predominance of male voices. "There are more well-known, accomplished writers who are men, this is true. That the canonical writing you encounter at school and university is dominated by men is also true. But if you felt alienated by the literature you first engaged with, if it didn't somehow speak to you, you would hardly have started wanting to write yourself," she points out. In her recently published Drives, Flynn examines some of these literary predecessors through her poetic lens, including poems titled Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Parker, F Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath's Sinus Conditionand Elizabeth Bishop. The latter poet had her share to say about the categorisation of women poets, and famously refused to let her work be included in women's anthologies. Bishop's concerns are echoed by Bryce.

"The fact that it's still in our society to put together anthologies of women poets tells us something about the status of women in poetry," says Bryce. "It's basically saying that this is a sub-category, because you wouldn't have an anthology of male poets."

This label as a "woman poet" is something Flynn accepts only as one of many to be applied at varying moments. "Some days I might see myself as a woman poet, yes, some days as a Northern Irish middle-class asthmatic culturally Catholic woman poet," she says. "I do tend to hate it when publications do the review-all-the-women-together thing."

Dubliner Caitriona O'Reilly rejects such easy categorisation. "Categories are for critics, not poets," she says. O'Reilly, 35, whose most recent collection The Sea Cabinetcontinues her thematic exploration of the natural world noted in her first book, The Nowhere Birds, finds the label woman poet as reductive, given that "part of what you are attempting is to think in new ways, to attain some kind of originality". Leanne O'Sullivan - at 25, the youngest of this group of five poets under 40, which includes Mary O'Donoghue, the 33-year-old author of Tulleand Among These Winters- is similarly dismissive of glib categorisation. "I would resist being categorised in a way that the interest or the concerns of the poems might not seem to be seen to extend beyond the label of 'woman'."

WRITING ABOUT THESE five women together perhaps only serves to further propagate such reductive associations, particularly given the varied thematic preoccupations exhibited in their work. Can the subject of a poem who disappears in Guildhall Square ( Full Indian Rope Trick, by Colette Bryce) be be linked to one seeking visibility ( Waiting for My Clothes, by Leanne O'Sullivan), or does this attempt at grouping five emerging female voices from Ireland together only ignore the dissonance? Yet as Bryce points out, artists are not immune to searching out such connections themselves. "We're always looking to know that we're not alone in art," she says.

"We have things in common because we are women," admits O'Reilly. "We also have things in common with men because we are human beings."

For O'Donoghue, writing as a woman serves to provide her with a particular space, but not one she consciously seeks out. "In the writing of those poems I'm more likely thinking of human experience, where it is marginalised, made strange, and so on. This often dovetails with woman-centred experience."

In writing about the human experience, these poets have explored the whaling industry, travel, an eating disorder, schizophrenia, a car wash - a variety of themes and subjects that defy easy classification. It's clear that gender is only one of the myriad lenses applied on a range of subjects, yet is it the only one readers look through? "I have no doubt that my gender has affected the reception of my work," says Caitriona O'Reilly. "For one thing, you are less likely to be reviewed by a male critic if you are a woman writer. Sexism is alive and well in literary circles."

Flynn agrees that starting out, it felt the odds were stacked against her - "To a certain extent I felt there was more to prove" - but she feels times are changing. "I don't think young writers will feel like that now, because there's a lot of emphasis on identity politics in literature courses." Bryce agrees. "There's so much going on for younger women poets, it's very interesting and lively at the moment, and there are different voices being heard." As if to illustrate this, O'Sullivan does not feel she had to push past a patriarchy of poets to be heard.

"From an early age I was fortunate enough to have poetry published, and much if not all that poetry dealt with female issues - birth, family, the body - and I never felt that I was having to do that against the tide of a dominant male orthodoxy. I always felt aware of, and in school I was always provided with, a very strong female presence in poetry," she says.

So what about what Boland once described as the "down-to-earth question of availability" that affects women writing when children are introduced to the equation? For Bryce, it's clear that women still face the burden of care in families and that this has evident effects on their work. "I do think the career pattern for women in all fields is still being interrupted very significantly in a way that men's isn't. I see women poets go quiet after a first or second book, and that's awful really."

O'Donoghue agrees that it still pertains, with O'Reilly arguing it always will. "The fact is there will always be a struggle for women trying to have families and work and write," she says. Flynn sees a silver lining, however. "I've also read of plenty of women who find that having families forces them to concentrate and write more, but this seems so outside the vision of writers we enjoy - moody, continually solitary, etc - that it doesn't get much talked about."

THE PRACTICAL issues of the female experience might continue to be played out, yet there is a symbolic side to femininity that O'Sullivan feels can be mined to her advantage too. "I was always interested in the symbolic dimensions of the feminine, such as creativity, and felt I had a natural access to that," says the author of Waiting for My Clothesand Cailleach: The Hag of Beara, to be published next year.

There are other positives that reveal how things have moved forward in the four decades since Boland began to publish. "There's been a lot of good change for the better and publishing has opened up to women which is a great thing," says Bryce. "But I don't feel it's balanced yet at all. From my point of view as a writer, I think all I can do is try and be a good writer, try to be a link in the continuum for young women writers coming up and try to support them."

The overriding concern expressed by these five women poets is that beyond gender and experience and political imperatives, the poetry is paramount. "Being a poet is the main thing for me. That's what I'm involved with," says Bryce simply. She points out that even looking to a new generation of Irish women poets as a starting point for this article is telling. "You wouldn't even think about doing an article like this about men and maleness, it just isn't done," she points out. "I think it would be really interesting if it was."