WomanSpeak poetry book
- Published: 24 November 2009
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WomanSpeak is a collection of poetry that ‘explores topics where the great men of literature never dared venture’: the inner workings of a woman’s mind throughout her life. Sarah Hannah Fisher chats with writers Louise Nicholas and Jude Aquilina.
Written for women, by women, the poems cover all aspects of a woman’s life from adolescent longing, pregnancy, motherhood and gynecological exams to old age, long lost memories, housework, sex and family. Peppered with stories of historical and fictional female figures, the writing itself is all at once funny, reflective, passionate, cheeky, highly original and always brutally honest.
One of your aims in creating the book was to re-interpret health issues pertinent to women into a different format. Why did you choose poetry?
L: It’s probably more correct to say that poetry chose us – long before this project came up. But poetry, of all the writing genres, fits well with the notion of recording the often small, ‘unsung’ aspects of a woman’s daily life.
J: Poetry can say a lot in a short space; it can be performed to audiences; it can be strange - and there are no rules, as such. Louise and I have always preferred poetry over other forms of writing, perhaps because we had parents who loved poetry. It was Louise’s poems about smear tests and mammograms which led to our engagements with health sector. We are thrilled to have reached new audiences and to have read poems from WomanSpeak to doctors, nurses and community groups. Our poetry can be appreciated by everyone, and the combination of poetry and humour has proved a good choice.
Did you ever worry about ‘scaring people off’ by using poetry?
J: I have witnessed ‘fear of poetry’, even experienced it myself when I’ve been at a reading and felt completely shut out by some baffling, longwinded navel gazer. I’ve met countless people who were put off poetry at school -- some relate tales of being rapped on the knuckles with a ruler if they forgot a word in a rote learnt poem – no wonder they’re still afraid of poetry.
I went to school in the 60s and 70s and not once were we asked to write a poem. I didn’t think poets were normal people, rather people born with a head that attracted lightning bolts of inspiration producing perfect poems instantly. Now I know anyone can appreciate and write poetry. It’s a shame that poetry has taken a back seat in Australian literature, with major publishers dropping it from their lists. If poetry was more widely promoted, then more people could enjoy this age old art form. At grass roots level, Louise and I are hoping to plant some new poetic seeds in scared/scarred minds.
You’ve known each other longer than the time it took to collaborate on the book. What made you decide to write the book together? Why now? Was there a specific catalyst?
L: It was Jude’s idea actually. We were both guests at the Canberra Spring Poetry Festival in 2002 and it occurred to us that we often write in a similar (light-hearted, humorous) vein about how we feel about ‘a woman’s lot’. A collaboration seemed worth a try – and it was – and is!
The book seems to blend humour with reflective writing successfully. How did you go about choosing the order of the poems?
J: We were fortunate to have one of Australia’s finest women poets, Jan Owen, assist us with the choice and order of poems -- I like the way she has found links between our poems and balanced the humorous with serious. We decided not to put our names on each poem, but to have an identifying list at the back of the book, so the flow wasn’t interrupted. Many of our family and friends were unable to tell which of us wrote the poems – I feel privileged to work with Louise, who is on the same poetic wavelength.
L: I also think of the collection as being a bit like an animated conversation between close friends: once it begins, it can go almost anywhere and end up God-knows-where! And there can be tears and anger and laughter and every emotion in between (depending a bit, perhaps, on the situation and how many glasses of wine you’ve had to drink etc!) all within the space of a single conversation.
You write very humorously about a number of serious topics. Do you think people may be offended at the way you describe them?
J: I don’t think we ever write in a gross or derogatory way. ‘Sometimes rude, never crude’, as the cover says, means we address taboo subjects but certainly don’t ‘cross the line’. I’ve never had anyone indicate they were offended by a poem.
L: I actually do sometimes but judging by the response we get when we read them to the general public, it’s generally unfounded. And you can never please everyone, no matter what.
What are your favourite poems? Why?
J: I love Louise’s character ‘Sharlene’, who features in many of the medical poems – she can do and say things Louise wouldn’t dare! I guess my favourite poems in WomanSpeak are the ones which make people laugh, poems like ‘First Penis Transplant’ and ‘Mrs Pap’. The reward for reading such poems to audiences is a constant flow of new ideas, because when the ice is broken with a bit of laughter, women tend to approach us after readings to tell us their own smear test story, or wardrobe malfunction.
L: For me, it varies from one day to the next. One of the strengths of the book, I think, is the changing mood and tone, sometimes from one poem/poet to the next. All of us encompass so many different feelings, opinions, thoughts, etc and if we contradict ourselves from one day/moment/poem to the next, then (to quote Walt Whitman) we contradict ourselves!
Some of the topics you deal with might alienate younger readers who are unable to relate to things such as pregnancy and mammograms. Is there a specific demographic for your work?
L: We write from where we are now, so I guess younger readers might feel our book doesn’t meet their needs and interests …yet! But I don’t think we’d ‘alienate’ them, anymore than biography ‘alienates’ romantic fiction readers (say).
J: WomanSpeak is aimed at women (and men) of all ages. Young people read books relating to their future careers and lifestyles – pregnancy, mammograms, etc are another aspect of adulthood, so there’s not reason why young readers wouldn’t enjoy WomanSpeak. We have had excellent feedback from women and men of all ages. One woman said she read WomanSpeak to her hubby in bed, adding, they went to sleep with aching cheeks, from laughing.
Have you found that younger generations seem to be more hesitant in calling themselves feminists? Why do you think that is?
L: Never mind the younger generations! I don’t call myself a feminist because labels all seem to have a set of assumptions attached to them that don’t necessarily apply to everyone who may be lumped under that label. Labels can be very ‘alienating’ I think!
J: I find my daughter and son and their friends quite different to my generation, in that teenagers of today seem to have less barriers and more communication between the sexes. I like to hope that these more assertive young women will gain ground in the home and workplace and take their generation closer to sexual equality. Perhaps, like many words, ‘feminism’ is dying out. Today’s young women expect equal rights (although don’t often get them).
This change in attitude is a good thing. As long as today’s young women appreciate the history of feminism and know how far women’s rights have developed and how hard fought for they were, the word doesn’t matter. Although, young women must be aware and vigilant so women’s rights don’t slip backwards.
Some of the poems are very personal, are they autobiographical?
J: Yes, some poems do reflect my own experiences but, like all poets, I like to embellish, to take poetic license as they say, so these poems tend to be only partly autobiographical. I like to write poems and stories in first person perspective, but that doesn’t mean they are about me. My mother asked me to use a pseudonym, after I published an erotic short story in Australian Woman’s Forum. In the poem ‘Villanelle of a Late Husband’, I chop off my husband’s head, but I assure you my ex-husband is still alive and kicking!
L: It’s the essence of a thing or situation (as I saw it or felt it at the time) that I’m after, rather than a blow-by-blow account of what actually happened. It’s what all poets (writers?) do I think. And when the reader’s response is added to that…well, we’d be hard pushed to say whose biography it is!
You were inspired by certain photographs and historical events. What drew you towards these inspirations?
L: It’s the human element in the photograph or historical event that inspires me. And often it’s a tiny, seemingly insignificant detail within the event that sparks my imagination. That, and the comforting/fascinating/amazing fact that through the ages, we’re all so different – and yet so much the same.
J: A book titled ‘The History of Fashion’ influenced my poems about bras, roll-ons and pantyhose. I tend to choose a topic, write a first draft, then consult reference books for more information. The poems about witches and Judith from the Old Testament were written this manner.
WomanSpeak is published by Wakefield Press.