Symposium Retrospective: ‘Sisters in Verse’

This time last week we were heading into parallel panels of postgraduate papers at the PG CWWN ‘Sisters in Verse: Contemporary Women’s Poetry’ symposium in Oxford. In running this event, I sought to redress the imbalance between fiction and poetry papers at most literary conferences (which I’ve mentioned here before), and give my postgraduate peers working on women’s writing a space to consider how far we’ve come in recent years in the light of developments including the appointment of the first female poet laureate in 2009.

The day began with a poetry reading from two of our keynote speakers, Sophie Mayer and Jane Yeh. These readings were not only a pleasant post-lunch listening, but they began to engage with some of the political issues often prevalent in writing by women. We then went into panels, and I was pleased that we managed to fit 10 papers into a half day event (no mean feat). The panels I chaired included papers on Shapcott and Rilke, Ali Smith’s use of poetic epigraphs, Marilyn Chin and motherlessness and Irish women poets and fathers. There were some papers from those working on creative PhDs too, which made for a nice bridge between poetry and academia. I was sorry to miss a paper on middle Eastern women’s poetry, which seems timely given international events.

I chaired the keynote panel discussion with Kate Clanchy, Jane Yeh and Sophie Mayer. Over 50 minutes we covered everything from misogyny in book reviews to the role of sexuality, motherhood, affiliation, influence, anthologies, and labels in contemporary poetry.  Clanchy also shared an anecdote about misogynist anonymous reviewing a few years ago, which led to me to search for this lecture by Neil Astley at StAnza festival):

Imagine a fiction editor or a record producer going to his boss and saying, here’s my list of new titles for next season, all of which have been selected purely on merit, but I’m afraid only 15% of them are by women artists. And the boss responds: but two-thirds of our audience is female, why should we not give them more books/records by women. And the editor or producer answers (as I’ve heard one leading poetry editor respond): none of the other women are any good. In any other area, this kind of arrogance would not only be unacceptable but suicidal in business terms.

But because most poetry is published for an elite, the elitism involved in what is selected goes unchecked. No one is expecting these books to sell more than a few hundred copies. No one says: why don’t we publish two-thirds women, or even fifty percent women, and see how the picture changes.’

The wine reception after the panel gave delegates a chance to mingle, since the day was a bit manic up to that point with readings, panels and the keynote coming in quick succession. I bought some poetry books and pamphlets from some of our published speakers, before heading for a quick dinner with my co-organisers and Sophie Mayer.

All in all, I hope everyone else felt the day as big a success as I did! Organising a half day event was just about as exhausting as organizing a full day event – which I’ll bear in mind next time and just go for a full day!

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