National Poetry Month! Every Poet Needs a Bawd


“THE PROCURESS,”by Dirck van Baburen, 1622

In honor of National Poetry Month, I have just finished Ovid’s Amores (love elegies), which are flashy, facile, and very funny, with roots in Roman comedy.  He wrote these when he was very young, and developed many of the themes more elegantly in his later work.  Amores I.8 is very comical indeed:  the narrator happens to be hidden behind a door and eavesdrops on a bawd/procuress who  is advising a young woman on how sluttily to attract a prosperous man who desires her.  “Beautiful women frolic; chaste is she whom no one has asked./Or, if peasant breeding does not forbid it, the woman herself asks.”

If, like me, you do not live in ancient Rome,  you are unlikely to attend such entertaining readings.  But there are many amateur workshops in every city, and you no doubt know some poets.  You are always going to some bar or dark cave of a cafe to hear your friends give a poetry reading. One friend will be talented; the rest just love to write.  “Great feminist image of the filthy t-shirt soaking in the sink,” you will say wildly.

And you dread the moment when they whip out a manuscript for you to criticize.

“This is so good!”  Say that, no matter what.  Your friend does not want your criticism. It doesn’t hurt to lie and say you read little poetry and don’t like to criticize, because (a) it will get you off the hook; and (b) make your friend feel superior, since she has no qualms about criticizing others. Don’t tell her to throw it in the wastebasket.  That is the job of the teacher at the Summer Writing Conference (and if she is a good teacher, she will be tactful).



2013-artwork-poetry-reading-sketch1. Do not ask the Poet in Residence to play the role of bawd.

A friend thought she would publish her poetry if she had contacts. She was as beautiful as the dawn, but very quiet.   She wrote pared-down poems, two or three words per line, as if she could never let go.  When a colleague poet agreed to read her work and discuss it over lunch, she was excited.   I didn’t dare say it might end badly.  She had attended some New Age workshops where everyone was positive and empowering, and had no idea how ruthless professional writers could be.  She came back from lunch furious, because he mercilessly criticized her  work. Perhaps  he dealt thus with the situation so he wouldn’t be inundated with manuscripts. He was in an awkward position.  But couldn’t he have told her he never criticized friends’ work and just had lunch?

2. If you have friends, you will sell more poetry.

Small presses are the places for poets.  Or so I thought.  Then an employee of a small press  showed me boxes and boxes of hundreds of unsold books.   “If I had my way, I’d never publish a poet who didn’t have friends,” he said sadly.   Heavens, I didn’t like the sound of that.  Were all poets garrulous?  Were they popular?  Where on earth did they make friends who buy poetry books?  The small press was local and funded by grants, so did it matter?  Well, they probably were expected to sell the books.

3. Publish a chapbook.  You’ll be happier!

I have seen many beautiful chapbooks of poetry:   they are small books or pamphlets, sometimes illustrated, sometimes hand-stitched.  Most are self-published, but no less wonderful for that. You won’t need contacts.  And you can give them to your friends!

4 Get a patron.

Poets need patrons. They need a rich person who wants to give them gifts so they can write.  You need somebody to lend you a free house on Cape Cod for the summer, equipped with a liquor cabinet and jacuzzi, and then whisk you into New York City for a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y.  You’ll open for Robert Pinsky.  What?   You don’t have a patron?  You don’t live near the 92nd Street Y?  Well, how about Java Joe’s?  What do you mean, it’s not the same?

5. Get an agent!  Do poets have agents?

Well, I am not a poet, but I cannot imagine that many have agents!


Robin Morgan’s “Monster”

Robin Morgan

Robin Morgan

At Mirabile Dictu, we are celebrating  National Poetry Month.

In 1972, I heard Robin Morgan read from her first book of poems, Monster, at the Women’s Center in Iowa City.  I was a teenager, and it was the first poetry reading I attended.

Morgan is an award-winning writer, poet, feminist leader, political analyst, journalist, editor, and co-founder of the Women’s Media Center.  “Monster” is a feminist poem that reflects the radicalism of the Second Wave Women’s Movement.

It was a very different time.

Although I no longer am the radical young  girl who attended that reading,  I still get chills when I read the title poem, “Monster.”  (Note:  Morgan’s Monster has been reissued as an e-book by Open Road Media.)

by Robin Morgan

Listen. I’m really slowly dying
inside myself tonight.
And I’m not about to run down the list
of rapes and burnings and beatings and smiles
and sulks and rages and all the other crap
you’ve laid on women throughout your history
(we had no part in it — although god knows we tried)
together with your thick, demanding bodies laid on ours,
while your proud sweat, like liquid arrogance,
suffocated our very pores.
Not tonight.

I’m tired of listing your triumph, our oppression,
especially tonight, while two men whom I like –
one of whom I live with, father of my child, and
claim to be in life-giving, death-serious struggle with –
while you two sit at the kitchen table dancing
an ornate ritual of what you think passes for struggle
which fools nobody. Your shared oppression, grief,
and love as effeminists in a burning patriarchal world
still cannot cut through power plays of maleness.

The baby is asleep a room away. White. Male. American.
Potentially the most powerful, deadly creature
of the species.
His hair, oh pain, curls into fragrant tendrils damp
with the sweat of his summery sleep. Not yet, and on my life
if I can help it never will be “quite a man.”
But just two days ago on seeing me naked for what must be
the three-thousandth time in his not-yet two years,
he suddenly thought of
the furry creature who yawns through his favorite television program;
connected that image with my genitals; laughed,
and said, “Monster.”

I want a woman’s revolution like a lover.
I lust for it, I want so much this freedom,
this end to struggle and fear and lies
we all exhale, that I could die just
with the passionate uttering of that desire.
Just once in this my only lifetime to dance
all alone and bare on a high cliff under cypress trees
with no fear of where I place my feet.
To even glimpse what I might have been and never never
will become, had I not had to “waste my life” fighting
for what my lack of freedom keeps me from glimpsing.
Those who abhor violence refuse to admit they are already
experiencing it, committing it.
Those who lie in the arms of the “individual solution,”
the “private odyssey,” the “personal growth,”
are the most conformist of all,
because to admit suffering is to begin
the creation of freedom.
Those who fear dying refuse to admit that they are already dead.
Well, I am dying, suffocating from this hopelessness tonight,
from this dead weight of struggling with
even those few men I love and care about
each day they kill me.

Do you understand? Dying. Going crazy.
Really. No poetic metaphor.
Hallucinating thin rainbow-colored nets
like cobwebs all over my skin
and dreaming more and more when I can sleep
of being killed or killing.
Sweet revolution, how I wish the female tears
rolling silently down my face this second were each a bullet,
each word I write, each character on my typewriter bullets
to kill whatever it is in men that builds this empire,
colonized my very body,
then named the colony Monster.

I am one of the “man-haters,” some have said.
I don’t have the time or patience here to say again why or how
I hate not men but what it is men do in this culture, or
how the system of sexism, power dominance, and competition
is the enemy, not people — but how men, still, created that system
and preserve it and reap concrete benefits from it.
Words and rhetoric that merely
gush from my arteries when grazed
by the razoredge of humanistic love. Enough.
I will say, however, that you, men, will have to be freed,
as well, though we women may have to kick and kill you
into freedom
since most of you will embrace death quite gladly
rather than give up your power to hold power.

Compassion for the suicidal impulse in our killers? Well,
on a plane ride once, the man across the aisle –
who was a World War Two paraplegic,
dead totally from the waist down,
wheeled in and out of the cabin — spent the whole trip avidly
devouring first newspaper sports pages
and then sports magazines,
loudly pointing out to anyone who would listen
(mostly the stewardesses) which athlete was a “real man.”

Two men in the seats directly behind me talked the whole time
about which Caribbean islands were the best for whoring, and
which color of ass was hotter and more pliant.
The stewardess smiled and served them coffee.
I gripped the arms of my seat more than once
to stop my getting up and screaming to the entire planeload
of human beings what was torturing us all — stopped because I knew
they’d take me for a crazy, an incipient
hijacker perhaps, and wrestle me down until Bellevue Hospital
could receive me at our landing in New York.
(No hijacker, I understood then, ever really wants to take
the plane. She/he wants to take passengers’ minds, to turn
them inside out, to create the revolution
35,000 feet above sea level
and land with a magical flying cadre
and, oh, yes, to win.)
Stopping myself is becoming a tactical luxury,
going fast.

My hives rise more frequently, stigmata of my passion.
Someday you’ll take away my baby, one way or the other.
And the man I’ve loved, one way or the other.
Why should that nauseate me with terror?
You’ve already taken me away from myself
with my only road back to go forward
into more madness, monsters, cobwebs, nausea,
in order to free you — men — from killing us, killing us.

No colonized people so isolated one from the other
for so long as women.
None cramped with compassion for the oppressor
who breathes on the next pillow each night.
No people so old who, having, we now discover, invented
agriculture, weaving, pottery, language, cooking
with fire, and healing medicine, must now invent a revolution
so total as to destroy maleness, femaleness, death.

Oh mother, I am tired and sick.
One sister, new to this pain called feminist consciousness
for want of a scream to name it, asked me last week
“But how do you stop from going crazy?”
No way, my sister.
No way.
This is a pore war, I thought once, on acid.

And you, men. Lovers, brothers, fathers, sons.
I have loved you and love you still, if for no other reason
than that you came wailing from the monster
while the monster hunched in pain to give you the power
to break her spell.
Well, we must break it ourselves, at last.
And I will speak less and less and less to you
and more and more in crazy gibberish you cannot understand:
witches’ incantations, poetry, old women’s mutterings,
schizophrenic code, accents, keening, firebombs,
poison, knives, bullets, and whatever else will invent
this freedom.

May my hives bloom bravely until my flesh is aflame
and burns through the cobwebs.
May we go mad together, my sisters.
May our labor agony in bringing forth this revolution
be the death of all pain.
May we comprehend that we cannot be stopped.

May I learn how to survive until my part is finished.
May I realize that I

am a
monster. I am

I am a monster.

And I am proud.