The women poets taking over the world

Published in BBC Culture on July 14, 2017

Poetry. Does the word make you think of rarefied tomes on dusty bookshelves, po-faced readings with glasses of warm white wine, or trudging dutifully through homework? It shouldn’t. Poetry is exploding in popularity: igniting Instagram, streaming on Spotify, being shared on Twitter and going viral on YouTube.

Forget high-brow impenetrability – today’s poets are pop-culturally literate, politically engaged, and eye-wateringly candid. The new generation is producing surprise best-selling collections, winning the most prestigious prizes going, and killing it on stage at Glastonbury. Oh, and they’re mostly women.

“It’s a really interesting time for poetry at the moment – and especially for women,” says Greta Bellamacina, a poet who also runs her own publishers, New River Press, and has curated a book of feminist poetry called Smear. “Because of the internet people can self-publish their work and have the audience decide if they like it or not. Women especially can write freely about things they might not have been able to write about before. I’m surrounded by an incredible community of female poets.”

This community is a global one, with several poets I speak to pointing out that social media makes it easy to connect across continents. It also helps poetry find a huge, populist audience. US writer Maggie Smith’s poem Good Bones, about how to talk to children about the atrocities of this world, now seems to go viral after every terror attack. Brit Hollie McNish just won the prestigious Ted Hughes poetry prize – but long before that, she’d racked up over 2 million hits on YouTube with poems about breastfeeding and immigration.

‘Instapoets’, who amass huge followings on Instagram, are becoming publishing sensations: Indian-Canadian Rupi Kaur and Cambodian-born, New Zealand-based Lang Leav have both scooted up the New York Times bestseller lists. Somali-British author Warsan Shire became a global name-to-know after her work was sampled on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. And London poet and rapper Kate Tempest recently hit headlines when her set at Glastonbury included a storming screed against Theresa May’s government and the politics of hate.

“There’s a global community of poets… we kind of hold hands across the borders as well as up and down the country,” suggests Salena Godden, a British poet who suggests the homegrown scene is especially vibrant right now. “It’s changed a lot, particularly in the last two years. All the stuff that’s going on in politics, I think people are really showing up to write, and showing up to listen. Writing poetry is a revolutionary act. It’s like the world is at a funeral – and who do you get to write at a funeral? Poets.”

By embracing politics and pop culture, embracing feminism and the reality of women’s experience – and by utilising new technologies to just get the words out there – poetry is simultaneously attracting a new, younger audience and new, younger writers.

“Audiences have changed a lot; I also think the people participating have changed,” says Godden. “There’s more poets of colour, more women poets, more feminism, people are more awake, there’s fight going on.”

The distinctly 21st Century content of the new poetry aligns with wider cultural shifts, especially fourth-wave feminism. The angry activism of young women demanding to be heard is coming through loud and clear; so is the outspokenness about sex, relationships, mental health and bodily functions that we’ve seen in other art forms (think of Girls and the rash of female-led TV shows it ushered in).

Nineteen-year-old American Nina Donovan’s rage-filled yet irrepressibly defiant spoken word piece Nasty Woman became the answer-back to Donald Trump when it was performed by actress Ashley Judd at the Women’s March in Washington earlier this year. US slam poet Olivia Gatwood delivers ferocious take downs of male entitlement by mocking the concepts of the ‘resting bitch face’ and the manic pixie dream girl. And New Zealander Hera Lindsey Bird has found fame by writing about Monica from Friends, among other subjects.

To some extent, candid confessional poetry has always been associated with women – take a bow high priestess, Sylvia Plath. But contemporary female writers do seem more likely than their male counterparts to delve into the darker recesses of their psyche, exploring body issues, failed relationships or sexual abuse. These can be very powerful, but also exposing: Patricia Lockwood was catapulted to fame when Rape Joke, her poem about being raped, went viral, as did Indian poet Naina Kataria after sharing a poem about the politics of body hair, When a Man Tells Me I’m Beautiful.

Melissa Lee-Houghton, whose brilliant recent collection Sunshine – which viscerally explores her mental breakdowns, failed relationship, sex, drugs and body image, and was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award and the Forward prize – resists the label ‘confessional’. “As a term, it almost implies some sort of guilty activity,” she says. Her work may be laceratingly honest – and has led to abuse from men at readings and online – but she insists it’s vital that women are able to articulate their experiences with total honesty.

“I’m not really ‘confessing’ anything; I’m divulging things that have happened because I think there’s enormous importance in sharing those things and being in an open space where people can talk about things. There are a lot of female writers that do write about very difficult personal experiences and emotions; less so with male writers, it has to be said. I think that women have a lot to be angry about these days… Growing up, I didn’t feel like I did have a voice, I didn’t feel like there was a space for me to be heard. [But] women are standing up and describing their experience through poetry and performance now.”

Emily Blewitt, a Welsh poet whose debut collection This is Not a Rescue has just been published, embraces the term ‘confessional’, however. “I rather like it, as far as labels go. For me, it means sharing something of oneself in order to connect with others’ experiences. There is a tradition of confessional women’s poetry that is brutally honest… the interesting thing is that it’s still shocking and radical [today]: the personal is still political! Writing about uncensored experience is an act of resistance.”

She certainly feels the art can be exposing – but therein lies its value, too. “The poems that are the most powerful and meaningful often have that element of risk to them. I would rather write about something important – say, sexual abuse or family relationships – that left me feeling exposed, than play it safe. I have to be brave, to take risks, otherwise what’s the point?”

The overlap between poetry and other media has also been key in its widening appeal. A lively, thriving spoken word and slam culture, which often shares DNA with rap or other musical forms as well as cross-pollinating with theatre, is also taken increasingly seriously. Kate Tempest winning the Ted Hughes award for her spoken word story Brand New Ancients, performed with a live band, back in 2013 was surely a breakthrough moment; she was nominated again this year with a narrative music album, Let Them Eat Chaos.

Godden recently released an album, LIVEwire, showcasing her funny, angry, tender live performances; you can stream it on Spotify as if it were a record. “I was tired of getting that ‘poetry face’, you know?” she says. “If you tell someone you’re a poet, you can see that they’re thinking about school homework. It’s not boring – do you think I would be doing it if it was boring, honestly? I wanted to make an album that reflected the UK poetry scene and the different kinds of gigs.” It too was nominated for the Ted Hughes prize this year.

Even advertising and fashion are getting wise to poetry’s hipster potential. Bellamacina, a model and film-maker as well as poet, relishes this unlikely overlap; her poetry has featured in campaigns for All Saints and Stella McCartney.

“Being a model does help in the sense that the fashion industry has a huge platform. I’m really obsessed with hijacking spaces which you wouldn’t necessarily see poetry in… We’re so bombarded with billboards of nonsense advertising language; to bombard with poetry seems absurd but also a nice place [to be in]?”

Then there are the Instapoets. Popular as they may be, there’s often a certain literary sniffiness about their work; the form demands clarity and brevity, but some veer dangerously close to vapid motivational quotes (“Honour your scars. They are proof you have lived”, goes one by Cleo Wade, who’s been dubbed the ‘Millennial Oprah’). Still, there’s no doubt that with celebrity endorsements from the likes of the Kardashians, Bella Hadid and Lena Dunham lending incredible global exposure, poetry is finding its own way to thrive in the scrolling squares and short attention spans of the digital age.

International best-seller Lang Leav, who first made waves on Tumblr and now has 361,000 Instagram followers, credits the simplicity and directness of her work – a marriage of form and (shareable) content) – for its success. Her parents fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to raise Leav in Sydney; growing up there, she became their translator. “I learned very early on to simplify the language and hone it down to the bare essentials. My writing style takes complex emotions and expresses them in a way that connects and resonates with my readers. I believe this is the reason why my work has massive global appeal.”

For her, anything that gets young people reading poetry should be celebrated. “When my first book Love & Misadventure first appeared in bookstores, I was sitting alongside books by Shakespeare and Poe. Today, there are entire shelves dedicated to contemporary poetry. There is a fresh new wave of poets making a mark in the literary world and inspiring an entire generation.”

Perishing Tame by Greta Bellamacina is published by New River Press; This is Not a Rescue by Emily Blewitt is published by Seren; LIVEwire is released on Nymphs & Thugs records; Sunshine by Melissa Lee-Houghton is published by Penned in the Margins; Lang Leav’s debut novel, Sad Girls, is published by Andrews McMeel.

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