Poets In Blameful Bodies: A Response To NY Daily News Poetry Feature Reactions

ny daily news

We know, SHOCKING.

Editor’s note: The editor of Luna Luna is featured in this NY Daily News spread. While many of the comments around the article were supportive and excited, there were many still that asked why the poets showed skin, why they wore makeup, why their poetry “needed” sex appeal. However, many people reacted against these shaming comments, like poet Kelli Russell Agadon. The editor decided to publish the below piece, as it pertains to shaming as part of the bigger picture. 

By Kelly Davio

Growing up in the fundamentalist church, I learned early on that my female body belonged not to me but to everyone else.

Before we’d even grown into our bodies, before we even knew quite what adults around us were talking about, we girls learned that it was our responsibility to help the men and boys around us resist sin.

We could help our Christian brothers, we were told, by making sure we didn’t wear clothes that were too tight, too low, to high, too shiny, too too, as though we could control men’s thoughts by the cuts of our clothes. We were asked to think twice before we so much as picked a piece of lint from our sweaters, just in case a passing male might notice our hands near the general regions of our nascent chests.

Incongruously, not a few of us were made to grow our hair long at this same time, whether the style appealed to us or not. We were taught that our hair was our “crowning glory,” and the more of it, the better—the more attractive we’d be to those Christian brothers we were trying to help by walking around with lint on our shirts. I remember my father huffing at the television, disgusted by the sight of then-

Attorney General Janet Reno, saying “she needs to grow some hair.” This wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last time, that I heard that a woman’s power, skill, position, or expertise was not enough to make her a real woman.

We girls learned from the likes of Pat Robertson, the way that girls today learn from hipster pastor Mark Driscoll, that men cheat on their wives because the women they’ve pledged devotion to aren’t making enough of an effort remain attractive.

Women who don’t appeal to the male eye are forgetting their role as bodies. Weight gain? Lines on the face? Shifting gravity? Dereliction of duty. The female body is always at the heart of the problem.

Men wanted us to be pure and non-threatening, but also unbearably and inescapably desirable. We were set up to fail, we young girls. Whatever we did, we would be wrong, and we would be subject to policing by the men in our culture.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of body-shaming as an outgrowth of the fundamentalist world. Those behaviors, that shaming, those mixed messages about what a woman should be—that’s just the bizarre behavior of a fringe culture, right?

I wish it were true that in the wider world, we didn’t subject women to this kind of noise, this distraction from women’s talent and skill. I especially wish it were true of the literary world, a community of artist who are, presumably, working toward a common goal.

But last week, when the New York Daily News published a rather innocuous feature on up-and-coming women poets in New York, some elements of the poetry world came out in force to make sure the women in the piece were duly shamed for the quantity of skin shown in their publicity pictures.

Monica McClure is shown sporting a cropped top, one of the most prominent fashion trends of this past summer. Camille Rankine wore a loose-fitting tank tucked into a pair of jeans. Trisha Low rocked tights with stripes on them. Somehow, these garment choices led to a barrage of social media snark about the poets’ states of undress, then to charges of using sex to sell art, and to questions about why poetry can’t be about the quality of the work instead of about the appearance of the woman.

Let’s set aside the fact that the Daily News feature, puff piece though it is, publishes excerpts from these women’s poems and mentions the poets’ professional credentials, reading series, forthcoming work, and performances alongside their pictures, leaving readers no basis on which to complain that skin trumped verse in this article.

What truly pains me about the backlash against these poets is not so much the groundlessness of other writers’ anger at them; poets slamming other poets for achieving a rare moment in the publicity sun is rarely anything other than professional envy.

What truly hurts me is that women are still set up to fail by a culture that believes it both owns women and has the right to shame and blame women for existing in bodies.

A woman poet can’t wear a tank top on a hot summer day in New York without being accused of being undressed any more than I could pluck lint off my sweater as a middle-school girl. Our hair will always be too short or too long for someone’s moral code.

Our hemlines will never be high or low enough to suit anyone’s policing. What hurts me is that, to the wider world, we aren’t women poets, just poets in blameful bodies.

Kelly Davio is a poet and teacher in the Seattle area. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and works as an instructor of English as a Second Language. She is the former Managing Editor for The Los Angeles Review and current Associate Poetry Editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. She is also a book reviewer for  Women’s Review of Books. Her debut collection, Burn This House, is available from Red Hen Press and from Amazon, Barnes And Nobel, Powell’s, or your local book retailer.

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13 Thoughts on “Poets In Blameful Bodies: A Response To NY Daily News Poetry Feature Reactions

  1. Pingback: [Confession] My Sliding Scale Of Sexual Harassment |

  2. I never saw the criticism of this. Instead, I saw criticism of Women Poets in Sweatpants. Now it all makes sense.

    I was happy for the poets in the paper. I wondered briefly if poets not in striped tights or short skirts would make the paper, though. That wondering was not against the poets shown, not for a moment. I am in support of women wearing what they want, when they want. I am just also in support of women who are not dressed stylishly being given attention, too.

    • One of the main reasons the criticism is ridiculous is because we just HAPPEN to be wearing this sort of thing; there are plenty of times when we too wear “normal clothes” or sweatpants. I had several reactions: “what, you need to dress up to write well now?”

      –LMB

    • I want to mention that my article isn’t in any way a response to the poets in sweatpants blog, which I find delightful and fun. My response was prompted by a number of mean spirited comments I saw, mostly from men, flooding my social media feeds. I couldn’t launch a feed without reading that women poets needed to cover up in order to be taken seriously. Long live sweatpants, tank tops, short skirts, leggings, high heels, clogs, scarves, sweaters, bikinis, and whatever other packaging poets come in.

    • I think it’s an example of “Sexuality selling,” because had Lawrence captured most of us, including myself, on another day, or in another outfit, it would certainly NOT be a bustier. I happened to be in the Poetry Brothel performance at the time of that shoot.

      Now, I DO think the media loves a woman who is showing a little something, sadly. But what’s NOT sad is that I like/and I presume some of the other poets LIKE to dress the way we do. It does not strip us of our agency in any way, just as “sweat pants” don’t.

      And of course everyone deserves attention, no matter what they wear. I know I were leggings to many of my readings. I just think it’s one example of the media being interested in looks (TOO) whereas most lit. journals/mags don’t focus on that. It’s the Daily news. It’s gonna happen. But no poet, none of us, should be shamed for their outfit. Did any of those shit-talkers actually read the bios? Come on now. A dress shouldn’t matter.

      For the record, SCREW anyone who won’t support someone in sweat pants. I don’t get it. It’s just an outfit. None of it REALLY means anything in the end. I can think of three people whose work is tantamount to their physical representation, but that’s b/c their physicality informs their art form. Other than that, it’s about the work. Not the image. Not the clothes.

  3. Here is a strange part of all of this that I think the community should discuss.

    When I read that article, I was happy that poetry was getting some coverage, and I thought the photos were cool. And…that’s it. Weird, right?

  4. A former whore on December 23, 2013 at 6:10 pm said:

    It is worth acknowledging, though, that the organization from which some of this (albeit well-deserved) attention stemmed is called the Poetry Brothel. Don’t mistake this for judgement; it’s the prerogative of any artist, as well as every embodied being, to derive empowerment however and wherever they want. Nor is every member of the Poetry Brothel a woman.

    But.

    The Poetry Brothel is in fact a conscious attempt to bring poetry to the masses (or, more accurately, the masses to poetry) by putting it in a sexual context. Now, to their credit, the integrity of the poetry itself is pretty much untouched by the sexualization of the event, but the poets themselves bare a fair amount of skin. It’s all self-determined, the costumes in particular, but perhaps the eager young writers are falling into the trap of society’s gaze? Why is it that the male “poetry whores” dress dapper, in bowties, hats, vests, and the like, while their female counterparts are often attired in skimpy dresses, lace, corsets, and plunging necklines?

    • Thanks for your insightful comment! I have a few ideas:

      As someone who has performed for the Poetry Brothel for three years, and have been the center or focus on several interview and/or documentaries related to it, I can say a few things for certain: we’ve had a few males (to date) that do dress in a “revealing way,” while also have women who dress like men, women who don’t dress “revealing” and women who play parts that aren’t remotely “sexualized,” as you suggest.

      The play on the Brothel is what might lead some to dress in a scantily clad manor, obviously. Sex sells-this is true. However, the Brothel isn’t diminished because of the outfits. In fact, many of us LIKE to dress up, feel empowered by this act.

      The last time I checked, which was three weeks ago, we had 7+ published, award-winning, grant-winning poets. As for your comment on “eager young poets” being trapped in a “gaze,” many of the younger poets have been working in the literary arena in their own ways outside of the Brothel, and they have a secure sense of who they are. I do not believe for one second that any single one of us have stepped into that performance space feeling objectified or produced by some male gaze. We own our own agency.

      Some are translators of major bodies of work. Others are internationally renown. Others still edit, publish and read on a regular basis. If a person likes to play make believe once in a while, let them. And guess what? People have fun.

  5. I have been lucky to be involved with writing groups that are very supportive and drama-free, but I have been shocked about a lot of drama that exists in the literary world. Are we still in middle school? No.

  6. bigshotprof on December 23, 2013 at 5:46 pm said:

    Ladies! Make an effort. There must be a female version of Robert Frost. ;)

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