Switchback Books

On Women's Writing

Here are some thoughts on women's writing that we find inspiring, significant, and necessary. We welcome your additions to this list.


In writing, I allow myself to be the monster, the wacko, the paradise creature that I'm not allowed to be in the real world. It's no less true, but it won't affect other peoples' lives in a painful manner. In writing, you are completely free. In living, you are not -- and that isn't necessarily a problem. Freedom (as a philosophical idea, not when it comes, of course, to real repression by using other people physically or economically) is overestimated. There will always be forces that hold you back: children, for example. You have to keep your desires back, otherwise they will kill you. Freedom is a patriarchal idea, invented by men who don't want to take responsibility for their actions. But in writing, you are allowed to act like a monster with selfish desires not only in your topic, but also in language itself. You don't even have to communicate, just play with it. Maybe someone else will understand something, but that's not the main goal.

--Aase Berg, Interview with Paul B. Roth, Bitter Oleander 11.2

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.... This is not idle fantasy, but a disciplined attention to the true meaning of "it feels right to me." We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.

--Audre Lorde, "Poetry Is Not a Luxury"

Against a backdrop of prohibitive literary history, asserting one's editorial position, as well as writing and agreeing to have one's work read and published -- insomuch as these amount to an exercise of agency -- is a feminist undertaking. The appearance of these writers and editors upset the prevalence of a set of top-heavy relations (subject/object, speaker/listener, viewer/viewed) and served to fully deconstruct the hegemonic order of feminist realism and masculinist innovation that preceded it. This in itself is revolutionary.

--Linda Russo, "The 'F' Word in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: An Account of Women-Edited Small Presses and Journals"

I have never thought there was one way women did or should or could write: style, form, structure, language, rhetoric are all tools consciously and unconsciously used in the deep agency of writing. As Woolf said in A Room of One's Own--certain material differences between men and women are still constructed and perpetuated in our society, and it is the job of feminism to resist these, to try to dismantle these, and, as well, to understand their impact, which can be considerable in the case of artists. This is the importance of feminist reception and writing inspired in the general matrix of ongoing feminist critique.

--Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work

For writers, and at this moment for women writers in particular, there is the challenge and promise of a whole new psychic geography to be explored. But there is also a difficult and dangerous walking on the ice, as we try to find language and images for a consciousness we are just coming into, and with little in the past to support us.

--Adrienne Rich, "'When We Dead Awaken': Writing as Re-Vision"

I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind

--Adrienne Rich, "Planetarium"

...who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?

--Virginia Woolf, "A Room of One's Own"

It is important to know the past and the women writers of the past but not with the sense of "civilizing savagery" that Eliot's tradition imposes. It is important to know these poets in the context of a future entirely outside history and its expectations. All poets believe in the timelessness of their art; it is women who are required to face this flow without a literary trust fund.

--Carol Muske-Dukes, Women and Poetry

Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies -- for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text -- as into the world and into history -- by her own movement.

Her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible.

If woman has always functioned 'within' the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this 'within', to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.

--Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa"

I have brought you here so you will know forever
the silences in which are our beginnings

--Eavan Boland, "The Journey"

The son of many fathers, today's male writer feels hopelessly belated; the daughter of too few mothers, today's female writer feels that she is helping to create a viable tradition which is at last definitively emerging.

--Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar, "Forward into the Past"

So how is Gurlesque poetry different from work produced by women who came before -- Leslie Scalapino's identity-stripping Language poetry or Sharon Olds' spit-out confessions? In Gurlesque poems, the words luxuriate: they roll around in the sensual while avoiding the sharpness of overt messages, preferring the curve of sly mockery to theory or revelation. Gurlesque poets are unafraid of making poems that seem silly, romantic or cute; rather, they revel in cuteness, and use it to subversive ends, complicating the relationship between feminism and femininity. Gurlesque poems own their sexuality, wear it proudly, are thoroughly enmeshed in the visceral experiences of gender; these poems are non-linear but highly conversational, lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful. And, like glittery snowflakes, no two Gurlesque poets are exactly the same.

--Arielle Greenberg, "On the Gurlesque"