‘My hands are still shaking’

It started with this op-ed from Vida. Salt, which stopped publishing individual collections in favour of best-of anthologies, selected a poem entitled “Thank You for Swallowing My Cum” for its next poetry edition. The poem in question was originally published in a webmagazine called B O D Y, a magazine that made critical comments on a submitter’s picture and then forwarded it back to her, thus ensuring many women poets, myself included, would never submit to that publication.

It’s not really about the poem itself, or its quality, or the poet, or his quality. It’s about contributing to a cultural dialogue. Taking a poem with this title and publishing it in a year-end best-of edited by men is a propagation of the dominant discourse – but the discourse of British poetry is not limited to men’s voices. Taking it further, apply Caitlin Moran‘s theory on feminism from How to Be a Woman: “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’.” A poem by a woman about a man entitled “Thank You for Swallowing My Cum” changes the dynamic of the sexual encounter, and that is why Parker’s poem is problematic. A woman should be ‘grateful’ to a man for going down on her, so says the dominant discourse. She’s being done a favour. This is the same ‘total fucking bullshit’ that argues a woman smiles on her wedding day because she’s given her last-ever blowjob. That is not equality.

I am not a prude – hell, if I had a problem with strong sexual or graphic content I would have zero publication credits – but this isn’t about being a prude. It’s about saying enough is enough. If my 20something self could see me now I’m sure she’d have no idea what the hell happened to me, but I can tell you: I’m done with ‘learn to take a joke’. I’m done with this idea that *your* sexist joke should be the exception. I’m done with “more men submit to us than women” or “we publish quality writing” as though women don’t write with quality. I’m done with being expected to have a sense of humour, as though sexism is funny; I’m done with being expected to be the one who has to bend, or compromise; I’m done with taking the blame or being expected to shoulder the burden of what ‘men’ seemingly are not expected to be held accountable for. I’m done with the notion that women’s bodies are a point of public discussion. I’m done with women being responsible for preventing rape, with being ridiculed for wanting birth control, for being punished for having a period, for using their voices.

I’m done with sucking it up. And I’m not alone.

Poetry is a form of protest. So let this be another one, in the spirit of Against Rape, in the spirit of Catechism, in the spirt of Binders Full of Women’s Poems: if you’re done sucking it up, submit your poems. There are two requirements: your poem must be good and it must challenge the preconceived notions that hurt all of us, of every colour, gender, sexuality, age, religion, nationality and shape.

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11 Comments

  1. The editor of the Best British Poetry this year is Emily Berry. Along with all the other ill-thought-out assertions in this call for poems, you might want to reflect on the fact that you didn’t even bother to check this.

  2. Dear Jon Stone,
    Thank you so much for dropping by and recommending that I “reflect” on some facts I was actually already well aware of, and for informing me that my assertions are “ill thought out”. Nothing demonstrates more that this anthology is necessary than a random dude showing up to tell a woman he doesn’t know that all how her thoughts and opinions about her experience as a woman in poetry are wrong.

    Feel free to submit something to us… and don’t forget the duckface selfie.

  3. Well I came across this post and I think the author has missed an opportunity here; instead of slating a fellow creatives work why don’t you write a poem about it?

    Poetry is a powerful weapon true; why don’t you address the issue you see via poetry? If it’s not worth you writing a poem about it then the same arguably could be said for your analysis on the poem you didn’t like. Anyway, the worlds a beautiful place, ideally poets should work together in harmony; have a good day and thanks for the read.

  4. “Taking a poem with this title and publishing it in a year-end best-of edited by men …”

    Wait – you’re now claiming that you knew Emily Berry is the editor, despite the above sentence?

    As someone in favour of better female representation in published poetry, why are you not remotely interested in (or prepared to be supportive toward) the work of a female editor publishing one of the most visible annual poetry anthologies in the UK? Instead, you’re concerned with undermining her choices?

    I’ll be more precise about which of your assertions are ill-thought-out.

    “Taking a poem with this title and publishing it … is a propagation of the dominant discourse.”

    This is a very questionable statement, especially since the person publishing it is a woman. What is ‘the dominant discourse’? The title – and indeed the poem – are a celebration of a woman’s actions and a woman’s choice. It’s also a direct challenge to the politesse of the middle-class-dominated poetry world to publish a poem with ‘cum’ in the title. Sex isn’t the only schism here.

    “A poem by a woman about a man entitled “Thank You for Swallowing My Cum” changes the dynamic of the sexual encounter, and that is why Parker’s poem is problematic.”

    The first part of this sentence is right; the second part doesn’t follow at all and you don’t really offer any clues as to your reasoning. Which, to my mind, is more problematic than the poem.

    After this, it’s more a question of what on earth the rest of your post has to do with the poem at all. The poem has nothing to say about whether “a woman should be ‘grateful’ to a man for going down on her”. It’s not a joke you’re expected to ‘suck up’. It’s not supposed to be humorously sexist. It’s not even sexist.

    To be fair, you do say ‘it’s not really about the poem’, but it rather begs the question as to why you mention at all, why you’re centering this call to arms around this poem, if not to imply that it’s a part of the thing you want to protest against.

  5. Wait – you’re now claiming that you knew Emily Berry is the editor, despite the above sentence?

    Series editor: Roddy Lumsden. Publisher: Chris Hamilton-Emery. A guest editor doesn’t carry the same weight as the editorial staff who are there for book after book, who set the tone and the standard of what is ‘best’. How much autonomy does each guest editor have, for example?
    (That question is rhetorical. I don’t really care and am not interested in a discussion about it.)
    Emily Berry being a woman does not actually cancel out the issues that many people have with the poem or its inclusion in a collection that claims to be the Best of British Poetry.

    The forum that initially published this poem is male-edited and has had some questionable practices raised in regards to its treatment and respect of women.

    This ‘call to arms’, as you call it, is not about the poem – it’s actually inspired by the article, linked at the top, which I suggest you give a thoughtful read. All of these issues dovetail into a culture that you can either acknowledge or deny. The poems, as they appear, will provide the evidence.

    As directly regards the poem, it is provocative. Readers are provoked; they have their own interpretations and readings. “It’s not even sexist” is your opinion, it is not fact, and there are readers who disagree and provide compelling arguments to the contrary. If you’re interested in that aspect of the debate, you’ll have to find it elsewhere.

  6. “How much autonomy does each guest editor have, for example? (That question is rhetorical. I don’t really care and am not interested in a discussion about it.)”

    Uh, it seems to me rather disingenuous to couch this as a ‘rhetorical question’ when you suspect (rightly, as it happens) that the answer doesn’t do your argument any favours. Emily Berry has almost complete control over what she selects for the anthology. As series editor, Roddy Lumsden selects the editor for each edition (Berry is the second female poet out of five editions so far) and does the monkey work of contacting the poets/securing permission etc, while Chris Hamilton-Emery handles design and production.

    “Emily Berry being a woman does not actually cancel out the issues that many people have with the poem or its inclusion in a collection that claims to be the Best of British Poetry.”

    It wouldn’t – if those issues had good grounds in the first place – but it remains the fact that while saying you are concerned with issues of female representation in poetry, you are actually protesting against the decisions of a female editor rather than celebrating the all-too-rare example of a woman having complete editorial control. It just makes me wonder why you’re completely uninterested in Emily Berry’s perspective on this.

    ““It’s not even sexist” is your opinion, it is not fact …”

    Well, I think it *is* a fact – at least until one of these compelling arguments is provided. So far I haven’t seen any.

    I had actually already read the op-ed you link to and have submitted a reply to the author. The problem is that it jumps the gun and what it asserts about the poem simply doesn’t hold stand up to scrutiny. The poem is a celebration of a loving relationship and how a woman’s choice/decision to partake in a sexual act is more important/meaningful than something experienced passively (like the sunset) by the male narrator.

    I agree with you about the various problems with female representation in poetry, and with VIDA’s cause in general – but in this case, you are wrong to say it ‘dovetails’ in and to count this poem and its publication as a part of the problem.

  7. Do not presume that you are in any position to tell me, or anyone, that your opinion about a poem is actually fact, what is or is not part of the problem of women’s representation in poetry, or whether readers have “good grounds” for their responses.

    By doing so, you are essentially attempting to invalidate and silence the experiences of women who *do* see it as sexist and part of a bigger picture. And THAT is *also* part of the problem. Until you can actually recognise that, I am not interested in a discussion with you.

  8. I am in no way “attempting to invalidate and silence the experiences of women who *do*’ see it as sexist and part of a bigger picture”. With respect, that is nonsense. It’s not your experiences I think are dead wrong; it’s your opinions.

    There’s no presumption on my part. I’ll tell you something is a fact when I believe it is a fact. If you believe otherwise, well, there we are – that’s what debate is for. But it’s meaningless and faintly absurd for you to insist that I couch my opinion as one of multiple possible truths when I sincerely believe that I have read the poem properly, considered the poem properly and you have not.

    You’re here proposing that people write in protest (that’s the word you use) of a decision by a female editor because of a belief you have about the poem she has selected – a belief which you refuse to substantiate with argument. My problem is that I think your reaction is counter-productive, in that it undermines the work of a fellow female poet and editor without good cause.

    If you refuse to engage with or answer that criticism, well, so be it.

  9. Jon has just questioned a number of different parts of the argument that importance was put behind, and even when it turns out one of the assumptions is untrue, it’s then claimed it’s not important anyway. No-one is attempting to silence anyone’s experience, but debate the points on which opinions have been made, such as Emily’s active role in choosing the poems in this anthology, which was an important point when it was thought it was a male editor, but now it’s a female editor, it apparently doesn’t mean anything.

  10. My views about the poem, like my views about pretty much everything, are complicated. But I am interested in the assertion that it’s a “celebration of a woman’s choice” that was made here.

    Do we know anything about the woman? Do we get to hear about her choosing? Do we know her name, what she likes for breakfast, why she swallowed this man’s cum? Do we know if she had an orgasm during this encounter? Do we really even know, for certain, that it was her *choice*, and not that he held her head and ejaculated into her throat while she struggled? I know that’s violent, and nothing in the poem really indicates violence, but the poem gives NO additional information (either violent or non-violent), so we CAN’T know.

    I’m really not sure how something could be argued to be a “celebration of a woman’s choice” in a poem where the woman, herself, is not once mentioned — only her mouth, and only in relation to the man’s ejaculate. We know literally NOTHING else about her. It’s not a celebration of a woman’s choice to swallow cum, it’s a celebration of a man’s cum being swallowed. I think that the difference is notable and important.

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