Reflections on the ‘Being Alive’ anthology

As part of our ‘Research into Creative Writing Practices’ class, we read ‘Being Alive’, an anthology edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe. Part of a trilogy, I love these anthologies and I have a long history of reading them: they were some of the books I read most when I was starting to take my poetry practice seriously. It was great to look more closely at them.

The anthology is split into chapters based on aspects of life. We were each assigned a section to focus on, and asked to come up with a creative response. I was assigned ‘Men and Women’ (p211 – 256).

Although there was a lot I recognised in this section – from being a woman who interacts with men day-to-day – it felt very heteronormative. It deals almost exclusively with romantic and sexual relationships between men and women; I would have like to have seen poems on fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, best friends…

The knowledge it produces is around what it feels like to have a gender, and to enact that in a world which is unequal. Because it is poetry, it does this in an evocative way, and many of the poems are visceral. Many poems made me sad and/or angry, and some made me sigh with recognition.

It also gives interesting insights into attitudes and values around gender; for instance Frederick Seidel’s ‘Men and Woman’ gives away a particular kind of sexism through its focus on women’s (but not men’s) bodies, even whilst claiming that “women have won”.

The knowledge of what it feels like to have a gender in this context is meaningful and important. However, it immediately sets itself up as a binary through the title, which feels exclusive to people who don’t fit normative or binary ideas of gender. If the title referenced gender more generally, or feminism (as the chapter is really about the trouble with gender roles and patriarchy), it would have felt more like an interesting exploration – as many of the poems are when taken on their own terms. However, the way they are framed changes the knowledge they produce. The title makes the section more likely to reproduce essentialist ideas about binary gender; it reifies ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman rather than opening them up. And while there are poems that are not gendered, eg Alice Oswald’s ‘Wedding’, the title forces them into a heteronormative framework.

I found that as a queer woman, I didn’t really see myself in most of this section. This felt like erasure, because it’s claiming a universal theme with its title and introduction.

As well as imagining re-naming the section, I imagined adding some poems which would diversify it:

  • ‘Andrew’, Andrea Gibson
  • ‘A genderful pep-talk for my younger self’, Andrea Gibson
  • ‘The female husband’, Carol Ann Duffy
  • ‘Mail’, Danez Smith

I also decided to create my own space out of what was presented in the section; I wrote a pantoum using lines from some of the poems. This feels familiar to me because reclaiming language is something LGBTQ+ people have to do all the time: whether it’s because the language is offensive, exclusive, or irrelevant, we have to keep remaking it, and we often have to repurpose the materials we’re given. The repetitiveness of the pantoum fit my purpose because these are conversations we have to have over and over; in addition, the words we reclaim often take on multiple meanings out of necessity, which is something that is mirrored in the pantoum form.

 

 

Staying Alive

 

In the garden a moonflower is stretching its jaws in the cold

We talked across gin and grapefruit,

who are both vivacious and angry as a bee.

Summer thunder rumbled over Brooklyn, a far-off sadness

 

We talked across gin and grapefruit

because she was one of my kind, my tribe.

Summer thunder rumbled over Brooklyn, a far-off sadness:

I’ll wear it like bones, like skin.

 

Because she was one of my kind, my tribe;

and her to hell-with-everybody stare:

I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,

even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver.

 

Her to hell-with-everybody stare:

both vivacious and angry as a bee,

even though her lower lip is beginning to quiver.

In the garden a moonflower is stretching its jaws in the cold.

 

Lines taken from:

A: ‘Done’, Minnie Bruce Pratt

B: ‘A Simple Story’, Gwenn Harwood

C: ‘I’ll be a wicked old woman’, Radmila Lazic

D: ‘Men and Woman’, Frederick Seidel

E & G: ‘The Change’, Tony Hoagland

H: ‘Men in Space’, Billy Collins

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