She is Fierce: brave, bold and beautiful poems by women
In this blog to celebrate National Poetry Day, Ana Sampson describes the selection process behind her latest collection She is Fierce. The collection contains 150 poems by women, from beloved classics to innovative modern voices in poetry, on topics from women’s suffrage, to school, to civil rights and activism. The collection explores “everything from love and freedom to protest and bloody images, dip in and embrace words of beauty on a daily basis”.
I started with a list of the superstars I knew we had to include: Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Carol Ann Duffy, Dorothy Parker, Sappho et al. Depressingly, it didn’t take long to list the handful of women who tend to grace traditional anthologies. I began to realise there was a rich, under-read seam of women’s writing to explore, and I started to read.
I scoured my own shelves, second-hand bookshops, my editor’s book collection, libraries including the stupendous National Poetry Society (which offers e-loans if you aren’t in London) and the internet. I engaged in benignly stalking poets through social media, reading both their own poems, and the poems they recommended – there’s a thriving community out there enjoying and championing each other’s work. We had to put up new shelves. The kitchen table disappeared beneath stacks of books.
Every time I found something that I loved, something that intrigued me, or something I felt was in some way important, I marked it. The manufacturers of Post-It notes must have been rubbing their hands with glee. I had considered a chronological overview of women’s poetry, but it was hard to know where to divide eras – some poets were writing in both the Victorian and modernist periods, for example – and the brilliant explosion of women’s writing in the nineteenth century and beyond would have dwarfed the output of previous centuries. Instead, I made a note of all the poems I’d marked and began to sort them into themes.
The process of cutting was agonising. I lost perhaps hundreds of works I loved for many reasons including the occasional impossibility of clearing permissions or, more often, a similarity of tone or theme with another poem. Once the poems were gathered into themes and the cut was more or less final, I sat with print-outs of each chapter and shuffled them until everything felt in its proper place, trying to balance variety with some sense of a logical flow.
Finally, I researched the biographies of every poet whose work was included in the book, and what women they were! For hundreds of years women have been denied education, freedoms and opportunities afforded to men. Women’s songs have always formed a part of oral traditions, but their written work – when they managed to obtain the liberty and the learning to produce it – was frequently overlooked and often suppressed. Writing was one – dubious – thing, but publishing was for many women in many eras too scandalous to consider. Selling a book was seen as somehow akin to selling yourself – fine for a bloke, but not ‘proper’ for a lady – so many didn’t write, and many wrote but didn’t publish, and many published under male names, the Brontës included. It’s hard to get inspired by nature when you weren’t allowed out to experience it without a chaperone, and your very wardrobe (and shoes) conspired against you. The wild and free artist was a difficult role for women, of whom certain behaviours and proprieties were expected, and who were often responsible for their families. (I do wonder whether I found so many wonderful nocturnal poems because women with children could only find time to write when the household was in bed.) But still: these women wrote.
Among the poets I discovered, many for the first time during my research, are suffragettes, schoolgirls, civil rights activists, online sensations, aristocrats, an eighteenth century kitchen maid, spoken word superstars and more. Some of the poets from earlier times endured physical and mental health problems, some fled repressive regimes, many fought for their place in systems stacked against them because of their gender, race or class. All of them wrote brilliant and beautiful poetry that deserves to be read.
Today, poetry is popular, and women are at the forefront of the scene: becoming Laureate, winning prizes, topping bestseller lists, selling out stadiums, going viral and gathering enormous online followings. It wasn’t always so, and it has been not only a pleasure but a privilege to explore the past as well as the present of women’s poetry. I hope She is Fierce will introduce new voices to readers, and inspire them to explore further themselves.