TOWARD A POETRY THAT MATTERS:
EMILY DICKINSON AS ACTIVIST/ACTIVATOR
by Frances Payne Adler
Page 8Emily Dickinson wrote that her wars were laid away in books. Mine weren't solely in books. I was spit on while reading this poem, "Friendly Fire," at an anti-war protest march:
Someone wants to know how I feel about women in war, women inAs Alicia Ostriker says, "We've moved beyond Dickinson. . .we no longer pretend to prefer nonexistence." We have Tillie Olsen, making visible the ways in which our will has been "leeched"; we have Mary Helen Washington telling us about Zora Neale Hurston "jumping at de sun"; we have bell hooks teaching us to "talk back"; we have Maxine Hong Kingston refusing to collude any longer in the erasure of her aunt; we have Susan Griffin "putting a frame around our lives"; we have Gloria Anzaldua "making face, making soul"; we have Adrienne Rich, "What if I tell you you are not different / it's the family albums that lie"; we have Joy Harjo, giving back the fear; we have Sandra McPherson saying we don't need a "security clearance to write our poems"; we have Judith McDaniel proclaiming that "Witnessing is especially necessary when the reality of a lived experience is denied by the culture at large, the culture to which the witness is brought. . . ." We have Audre Lorde, "For women. . .poetry is no luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. . . .Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. . . .It is the skeleton architecture of our lives." And on and on.
Yet semester after semester in my classrooms, Dickinson's poems are pivotal in breaking open the silence that has blocked students' writing--particularly in my "Woman As Witness" feminist creative writing class. I remember one student in particular, who said to me two days before the semester began:
"I'm nervous about taking your class."This from a young woman who had lived more than 20 years, lost a father in her early years, a mother in her teen years, raised herself and a baby alone, and here she was apologizing for having something to say. Two weeks into the "Woman As Witness" class, her response to "I'm ceded - I've stopped being Theirs - " was a poem titled, "To My Rapist's Mother." Dickinson is the first step in reversing the domino theory of felled and muted women.
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