Poetry

Molly parked her walker up under the window of the dayroom and took the last place at the table. The poet was sitting on one of the long sides; he’d set up plates of cream biscuits down the centre as if this was a kitchen table and it was going to be some chatty morning. Molly tried to pull her chair in so she could reach the complimentary paper.

First thing, before mention of the biscuits, they went round the table listing favourite poets. Keats, Browning, Wordsworth, a nod to Shakespeare and even God with the Psalms. As the latecomer, the visiting poet – whose name she couldn’t recall – came to Molly last. She said she liked Sylvia Plath. Not that she’d read anything beyond the sensational newspaper reports at the time, she just wanted to be different; she’d never been one to conform and wasn’t about to start. The poet nodded sagely.

‘Wasn’t she the one who killed herself?’ asked Arthur, the only male resident to turn up to the poetry workshop.

sylvia plath

The woman beside Molly leaned over and whispered for her alone: ‘that’s where poetry gets you.’ She smelled of Yardley lavender talc. Molly recognised her as she breathed her in, and was instantly glad Patience was here. She reached into her low slung cleavage to fetch out her glasses – that way she could see what was going on too.

‘So you are all fond of a poem with a rhyme, Plath fans excepted,’ said the poet with a tiny bit of acid in his voice. ‘Do you want to see if you can write something without rhyme?’ The enthusiasm was not returned unconditionally. The idea of a three line form poem seemed okay though. ‘None of us are likely to die before we finish,’ murmured Patience. Molly couldn’t help sticking her glasses back on her nose and glancing across at Joyce just to make sure. Joyce’s chin was resting on her chest and her baldness was exposed: a naval gazing slump.

Molly was still muttering out strict syllable patterns for her haiku about a muddy pond when Patience shoved her own bit of poetry-paper over for her to see.

Blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah

Molly put her hand over the paper and started a reply, feeling like she was at school again, sharing secrets with a girlfriend, living in the light of her smiles and approval.

Ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha

Patience gurgled and spluttered and sprayed a bit of spit and Molly lost sight of her as her own eyes crinkled into slits.

‘Would you like to share your poems?’ the poet asked. Molly opened her eyes to see him looking straight at her. The poor thing, what disappointments he must have had to end up doing poetry in an Aged Care Hostel.

‘No, it’s a bit personal,’ Patience interrupted boldly. She reached over and patted Molly’s goanna-skin hand. Molly felt electricity shoot up her arm. The hostel’s nylon carpet was a bugger for static. And she’d been in love with Patience from the moment her son admitted her. She missed Nancy every day – who wouldn’t after forty-three years together – but Nancy was dead and Patience lived in a room in the same corridor.

‘A love poem next,’ announced the poet. ‘Maybe we can extend ourselves to ten lines.’

Molly didn’t hear the instructions; she was composing a love letter she’d never send. She knew every metaphor she could come up with was a cliché because love was a cliché no matter the age. A nipple still stood up like a rose bud, tides still rose too, and a storm wave still crashed through secret caverns.

The room went silent around her except for the scratch of pens negotiating their way across paper and Joyce’s soft snoring. Molly did try to put some of her thoughts down but they were always one step ahead of her arthritic joints. Arthur was quicker. He read out an ode to a woman who was ‘the prettiest rose in the garden’ and ‘the twinkliest star in the sky.’ He wasn’t the only one in the workshop to tear up as he read, though his face remained a continent of dry creek beds and no tears fell. They all needed a break and an orange cream. A trolley of teacups chattered in. Patience poured more electricity into Molly as she touched her.

‘I was thinking about all those years at boarding school,’ Patience confessed. The left side of Patience’s face sagged a little even when she smiled. A stroke was not always as gentle a thing as the movement of Patience’s hand down Molly’s arm.

‘It is like school,’ agreed Molly, hoping to recapture the collusive intimacy of their haiku laughter.

‘I had a thing with one of the girls in the dorm.’ Patience stopped. Picked up Molly’s hand. Stroked the loose skin on the back into gullies before travelling the length of her index finger. ‘I always wondered if it counted and whether it meant I was a virgin on my wedding night. Can I get you a cup of tea? Two sugars isn’t it?’

 

Jane Downing

 

Are you sick about hearing about feminism in fiction?

Women, right? They’re always prattling on about something. Wanting something. A Black Widow movie. Equal rights. The ability to express an opinion online without getting death threats. So needy, amiright? Everyone knows once you’ve declared something has happened (gender equality), you’ve done all the heavy lifting and everyone should just carry on the way they’re going, with no further inconvenience. So what’s with the constant barrage of people tweeting/blogging/otherwise ranting about female characters in fiction? THIS IS SETTLED ALREADY. EVERYTHING’S FINE NOW.

Buffy-Willow-season-4-buffy-the-vampire-slayer-1272084-1859-2560Sarcasm aside, I’m a feminist but even I sometimes feel tired when I see yet another blog dissecting female characters in a book or film and bemoaning the state of the industry. Sure, you’ve got female characters, but are they strong enough? How’s their agency? Are they TOO strong – caricatures, or just men with tits? Sufficiently and realistically flawed? How about Joss Whedon, is he an ally or part of the problem? I mean, I googled something about Frozen the other day* and ended up reading dozens of opposing articles about whether it’s a good feminist movie or a bad one, whether the characters are good for women or not, whether it subverts tropes or reinforces them. It’s exhausting.** As a writer, it seems terrifying – so many chances to get it wrong.

But never fear, dear readers. I have a solution to all this agonising.

Just put more women in.

Seriously. It’s not that hard. Forget about obsessing over your female characters, trying to work out if they meet all the criteria. Spoiler alert: there’s no settled criteria and you’ll never please everyone.

I mean yes, your women should have agency (by which I mean, they should not be passive little lilypads bobbing on the sea of your plot – they should make decisions and take actions which drive the plot), but that’s about your writing, not about your women – ALL interesting characters have agency. No, they shouldn’t be clichés; but again, that’s because clichés are boring writing. If you’re writing stories where your characters have no agency and/or they’re all clichés, you might just be a shit writer, not a bad feminist.

If you can look at your own work and see common traits in most of your female characters that isn’t just the shape of their genitals, you’ve probably got a problem, and that problem is you’re being thoughtless and lazy. This is true whether that trait is submissiveness, red hair, sarcasm, massive upper body strength or bad BO. If you only write ‘strong women’ and you think that means ‘women who aren’t like those other crappy women – hey, I hate sewing!’ you’re contributing to the problem as much as someone who only writes women as props for men. You don’t beat this problem by writing women who epitomise traditional femininity or tear it down – you beat it by writing BOTH. ALL.  Gender isn’t the most important or interesting thing about a character – it’s not even up there in the top 10.

Just put more women in.

Write women into a bunch of roles in your story – God, maybe lash out and make it something like half the roles, since, I dunno, that’s the reality of the world we live in?***

Cos here’s the magic of my solution – you don’t need to panic that your female characters don’t perfectly embody the right amount of strength and the right number of flaws and are likeable but not too likeable!! and are sex positive but not all about the boobies if you don’t make all of this crazy difficult juggling act rest on the shoulders of only a couple of ladies. Spread the load! Write women in powerful and powerless and power-indifferent positions. Make them nice and naughty and jerks and generous and spoilt and clever and clueless and every other character trait that people routinely, without thought, apply to male characters. Write them young and old and fat and hot and thuggish and graceful.  Write them all over the gender spectrum. Write them from different backgrounds and cultures and with different priorities. Because the thing is, women are just people, and people are not all interesting in the same ways. They don’t have to each of them be perfectly imperfect if there are only enough of them.

Just put more women in.

We wouldn’t need to scrutinise every word Black Widow says if there were dozens of female superheroes on screen. We wouldn’t have to worry about Bechdel and Mako Mori and teeth gnashing about writing strong women if women were just routinely given as much screen/page time as men. Every woman in Buffy didn’t need to be free of problematic traits from a feminist perspective, simply because there were plenty of them in there, and they were all different. If you’re sick of all the constant analysis, know this: we all have the power to actually make this issue retreat, not by getting every female character ‘right’ but by having enough of them that it’s absurd to even lump them together just because they’re women. The discussion would just go away.

Like magic.

Now go forth and populate your stories with so many ladies I never have to think seriously about whether Elsa is a triumph or a disaster.


 

  • Don’t ask me why. I have 2 small boys and Frozen is part of parenting now.

** Yes, I know, I could have NOT kept reading. Shut up, I have poor impulse control and the internet has a hold on me, all right?

*** I too am a fantasy writer so yes, you could make up a world that has a different gender balance – but you should probably only do that if it’s a genuine part of the ‘what if’ associated with your story. Don’t just do it because your default position is ‘white man’. There shouldn’t be a default position. (But that’s a rant for another time).

 

Sam Hawke

 

Sam Hawke is a Canberra-based author who has recently been signed with agent Julie Crisp, formerly of Tor UK.

This piece was originally published on her blog, samhawkewrites.com

The Hemingway

I glimpsed her before she noticed me. Proud affect but generous smile, turquoise wrap, blonde shoulder-cut: not too long (not too young). I could hear her admission in my head, spoken with a wink: There are certain things one must accept with age. From the blurred corner of my eye I could make out the bright red of her lips, the dark contour of well-made eyes. She paused at the table over my left shoulder, thanking the waiter like an old friend, the kind of woman who owned a dog, a small dog, a city dog as they call them here.

I felt her eyes on me as I turned back to my journal, felt the burn of her curious stare: A young woman, alone, on a Saturday afternoon? Hers was a life of faded curiosities, memories of gilded grandeur and headline parties, now a sepia echo in her mind, kept alive, artificially, in photos, individually framed, of course, that frosted every surface of her Manhattan apartment. She must live nearby, I decided. She had the bearing of a regular, but not too regular. Just the right amount, just enough to keep them guessing.

Light cut down through the glassed courtyard, cold but bright. There’d been snow the day before, but not today. Today was a day you could believe spring was coming. A strange day for a young woman to be alone, here. I guessed she hadn’t come for the exhibits, had probably stepped through the red-velvet rooms countless times. No, she was here for the place, the atmosphere; her favourite drink, perhaps: The Riesling, thank you darling, it is lunchtime after all.

I’d ordered the devilled eggs, an entrée, of course. The only thing on the menu without bread attached to it. Protein was all one needed these days, apparently, especially if one were slightly militant about those things. And I was. I hadn’t eaten all day, but still the entrée was only an adornment for my drink, to make sure not too many eyebrows were raised. I knew that when my drink came she would stare harder: Who is this sassy girl, on her own, here on a Saturday afternoon?

I decided to ignore her, ignore my sense of her, and attend to the journal. I had promised myself I would write, every day, but of course I hadn’t. How do you put these things into words? All these moments, all these instants of awe. The illuminated Dante. That had been the one, my breath-taken moment. Hadn’t it? What about the scribbled entry from Thoreau, in its pre-Walden, anecdotal rawness? Or the barely legible Beethoven, a piano trio, I think. My hands tingled at the memory, a moment already glistening like a fantasy in my mind, as if it happened years ago, to someone else.

Hemingway-picMy food came, four lonely half-eggs on a plate. And then the main course, the one I couldn’t resist: The Hemingway. The menu had mis-referenced, of course, it had been Ford who’d championed the three-martini lunch, an American rite of passage. Hemingway, though, was more romantic. I loved martinis, I loved Hemingway (who cares about Ford, really?), and I loved doing ridiculous things on Saturday afternoons, on my own. So here they were, three one-ounce perfections, a twist, an onion, and an olive.

I was sipping my second when she made her move. “Excuse me, do you mind if I sit?” Her voice hoarse, a smoker from decades past. I smiled, nodded, gestured, gritting my internal teeth, actually, no, I’m writing in my journal, can’t you see? But who was I kidding? I had time for her. “I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet a woman who can take on gin before three pm.” I looked up, actually tilted my face, now, seeing her eyes for the first time. Deep brown, chocolaty almost, ironic, incisive, and sparkling, yes I know, a cliché, but I had never, before now, seen someone’s eyes truly sparkle.

I was thrown. “Say, where’s your husband, darling?” She didn’t even shift her gaze from mine, didn’t look at the ridiculously large diamond on my finger. Her voice, underneath the deep husk, was smooth, direct. A singer’s voice. I smiled again (yes, I smile a lot; it’s disarming and I like the upper hand). “He’s in Midtown,” I hear myself saying. “Waiting for me, actually. I’m late.” She snorted a conspiratorial laugh. I hadn’t meant to say it, she knew that. It was the twist talking. “You stood up your husband for a drink? My, my, I thought we’d have a lot in common…”

She asked about my accent, asked about my husband, asked about my life, my tastes, my desires. And I told her everything. Me. Usually the grand deflector, the one who holds the brief on everyone else, cards firmly to my breast. The afternoon seemed unreal, suddenly, like a dream, like a story, a narrative beyond my control, and I thought to myself, who is this woman, this woman who has disarmed me?

Out on the street I wrapped my scarf tight beneath my chin, felt the trailing end float behind me as I turned my head to cross the street. I ran through the cold, bright, ringing streets, ran west to my husband in Midtown, heels tapping clear on the grimed pavement. People stopped to watch me pass, cheeks flushed, and I was filled with a wondrous, ethereal awe of the world. Call me, she’d said, and she made me write her number down. A landline, I smiled, she was too proud for anything less. I thought of her smile, that direct, no bullshit smile, and the sparkling eyes and I thought,

I will.

Elise Janes