On Friday 24 November, an intersectional crowd gathered at East Oxford Community Centre to explore feminist poetry.
Monique Ewen of Threads Equality Agency and Phoebe Nicholson of Oxford Poetry Library, created the event to help others feel more confident in their self-expression, to be honest, express their experience, find their voice, feel capable, and own their creativity.
The event was a call to action: Ever felt like there was something you really wanted to say but you just weren't sure how? We're exploring the why and how of women's speech and writing with the help of some amazing women writers and gender experts.
The night featured guest readings by Michelle Madsen (poet, regular Glastonbury performer, and investigative journalist) and Serena Arthur (English student and former Birmingham Young Poet Laureate), as well as poems from the audience during the open mic session.
The poetry covered a range of themes such as belonging, home, love, sex, bodies, the future, silence, resistance, identity and growth. We traversed a range of styles from loud to quiet, funny to serious, angry and sad to humorous, curious, and delighted. Many explored themes of self-belief and self-love, and the challenges of balancing our own needs with the demands of others.
The night finished with a thoughtful and considerate discussion, exploring definitions of poetry and of feminism. We defined poetry as:
articulating the feelings in your heart
a complicated, long, interesting noise
a quest for truth - concentrated and distilled
a stock cube
raw and vulnerable emotion - making emotion tangible
use of language - form
a lyrical way of looking at the world - a way of being
leaving an impression
We defined feminism as the need to question power: who holds it? how? who expects to have it? and how do we share it? We considered the need to have space for anger and resistance, while also being productive with that anger, and finding ways to own your own dignity. We thought feminism meant changing culture and changing thinking, questioning our own implicit bias, and checking our own beliefs and behaviours.
My favourite thing was… “the fact that there was a space to talk about feminism without judgement or worry that I don’t think I have ever experienced before.”
We then asked whether feminist poetry has to be written by women, whether it has to be political, and whether it is feminist because of the person who writes it or the person who reads it.
A strong theme emerged around whether men could write feminist poetry. And while some went away feeling energised, others felt frustrated and angry by the dominance of men's needs in the discussion. Why did we have to spend so much energy talking about men's speech when we were trying to empower women?
This is a valid question and one which, as the organisers, we have considered and worried over. But what is striking from the feedback is that regardless of the content in the session, the message we took away was positive.
Women wrote in their feedback that after the event they would start putting themselves first, respecting themselves, and stop allowing men to dominate conversations. One said, I will… put myself first as a woman – not allow men privilege of speech because they are men. Others said they would write more, read more, and speak up more, as well as listen more to others. Meanwhile, men wrote in their feedback that they would create more opportunities for women to speak.
“I loved it! I had no expectations, which was good, because it was an evening that was much lovelier than I could have imagined."
It seems that although we spent a lot of time discussing men, we came away with an improved understanding of how gendered power structures affect us, and with an empowered sense of how we can take action.
The overwhelming tone of the feedback was thank you, great initiative, it was fun, a fantastic evening, more please and organise another! One person said, I loved it! I had no expectations, which was good, cause it was an evening that was much lovelier than I could have imagined. Another said, my favourite thing was… The fact that there was a space to talk about feminism without judgement or worry that I don’t think I have ever experienced before.
People enjoyed hearing other incredible female poets, the openness to contribute, hearing other peoples’ ideas, the expansive conversations, the open atmosphere of the discussion, the opportunity to meet wonderful people, and considering questions I never have and talking to new people. Women particularly appreciated having a space to perform, and seeing people relax and share ideas and listen and be brave, creative, positive, thoughtful, and caring. While men appreciated being invited and included.
A couple of people said they would spend more time with people across a wider age spectrum, and consider ways to examine white privilege and listen more to women of colour. As the discussion facilitator I was guilty of inadvertent racism, which I apologise deeply for and have written about in another blog post, "Apology from a White Woman Feminist."
The feedback forms generated an inspiring list of things that people would take away from the session. People said they learned…
…how tentative many young women still are about feminism.
…that although feminism is about equality, it’s ok not to consider men, [to] put women first. That it can be hard to recognise as a feminist for women of colour or men.
…how pervasive men’s privilege is, to feel the right to speak (naturally) in a female-dominated space. Not that it’s bad. Just strikes me how different it is for women in similar situations.
…facts about the intergenerational nature of the feminist movement.
Feminism changes depending on country/space/age.
Feminism is less structured than I thought.
(from a man) ... not [to] speak my ideas as much when a woman can speak instead.
Feminist poetry isn’t as easily definable as I previously thought.
(from a man) Feminism is about sooooo much more than I thought.
We want to thank everyone again for coming, contributing and being generous with each other. We will host more events soon and look forward to seeing you again. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have more thoughts on the event or want to keep updated with future events.