Name: Laura Madeline Wiseman
When did you first identify as a feminist?
I remember this vividly. During my sophomore at Iowa State University I changed my major to English literature and took my first women’s literature class, reading Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rys (a retelling of Jane Eyre), and others. On three class days I felt the world suddenly stop. On the first, the instructor placed on the overhead (yes, an overhead) an illustration of three women meant to symbolize the New World. They were nude and stood around a globe with ribbons and coils of hair carefully obscuring their breasts and vaginas (Think of Botticelli’s Venus de milo, but as a woodcut). The women were of different ethnic backgrounds—African, Native American, and Caucasian—and were depicted in different ways—the cast of a gaze, the lowered angle of a head, the placement of a hand. The instructor taught us to see how such images highlighted the narratives and stereotypes early explorers of the Americas held about women. On another day, the instructor placed on the overhead an excerpt of a letter by Sir Walter Scott that described the “virgin” land of the New World, asking us to pay attention to the verbs he used. She underlined them as we found them. When they were all found, she read only the verbs aloud and we quickly saw that they were verbs that described rape and sexual assault. The third involved watching a video adaptation of the nineteenth century short story, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” We discussed how Chopin’s piece sought to depict the ways women were trapped and controlled in their own homes. Each of these days, and likely others, I sat in class and felt myself chill. My skin grew clammy. My breath grew shallow. I couldn’t move. Every muscle tensed as the class discussed. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t have words. I was shocked—at this viewpoint, this way of seeing, this narrative about women’s value—and later, I was angry and later still, I was empowered to act, to speak, and to write.
After that class, I added a second major, women’s studies, earned a master’s degree in women’s studies from the University of Arizona, and Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For my dissertation I wrote about a powerful woman and feminist in my own family, one who I didn’t even know about until I began to look: Matilda Fletcher (1842-1909), the suffragist, lecturer, and poet from Iowa who was also my great-great-great-grandmother. An excerpt of my dissertation, in the form of poetry, in forthcoming in my chapbook UNCLOSE THE DOOR by Gold Quion Press, a fine arts press in Illinois. The poems seek to preserve a voice that might otherwise be lost from the historic record, as they invoke the political, educational, and suffragist landscape of the nineteenth century. This series follows the loves in her life and her career. After the death of her one and only child, Matilda joined the lecture circuit. She spoke to support herself and her first husband, John A. Fletcher, until his death. He died of tuberculosis, a disease he contracted during his service to the Union. Eleven years later, she remarried a Methodist minister, William Albert Wiseman, and became the stepmother to his three children, all under the age of ten. On the stage she spoke among other suffragists of her time, such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frances Willard. During her forty year career, she also invented and patented a design for traveling trunks, wrote bills that were passed into law, and published several books, including Farmers Wives and Daughters, a text that speaks of the plight of women on the grange.
How do you define feminism?
To be a feminist, means that you believe men and women are equals. Feminism, for me, is taking up that stance of equality and finding ways that I can manifest that in my own work. I do this in my writing. One project I find myself returning to is the voices of women, either silenced or never heard, much like my dissertation and forthcoming chapbook, UNCLOSE THE DOOR, on Matilda Fletcher. I love imagining women in the past, sometimes only a century or so ago, and other times in the very distant past of ancient Egypt, classical antiquity, and myth. My chapbooks, SHE WHO LOVES HER FATHER (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) HONEYCOMB OF DEAD SWEET BEES (Gold Quoin Press, forthcoming), and FIRST WIFE (Hyacinth Girl Press, forthcoming) all seek to imagine women’s lives in the past—the afterlife of Cleopatra, the world of the Goddess Demeter, and the gardens of Lilith.
When I was an undergrad at Iowa State University I took an honors seminar on Cleopatra, taught by a professor of antiquity and the classics. I loved the idea of a queen and what a powerful woman did with her time, how she ruled, where she focused her attention. In taking that honors class at Iowa State and later, in all the coursework I did for my degrees in women’s studies, I was taught to become aware of the ways in which women have been, and still continue to be, portrayed as powerful, but a certain kind of power, a power often relegated to their beauty, sensuality, and sexuality. One feminist project is to rewrite women’s stories, to retell the myths, to re-vision women as more than just sexpots and beauties, but minds, with ambitions, desires, and game-plans of their own. Think of Ursula Le Quin’s Lavinia, a retelling of the aftermath of the Trojan War from Lavinia’s perspective, the wife of Aeneas mentioned only in brief in Virgil’s The Aeneid. Or think of Judy Grahn’s Queen of Wand, a retelling of the story of Helen of Troy. Or Mariam Zimmerman Bradley’s novel Fire Starter, a book that gives voice to Cassandra in the Trojan War. Or The Island Project: The Sappho Poems by Eloise Klein Healy focusing on the author’s search for Sappho. Or Averno by Louis Gluck that retells Persephone’s story. Or the Penelope poems in Wendy Barker’s Way of Whiteness or in Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside offering a new account from Odysseus’s wife in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. There are so many wonderful books and projects by women writers who seek to do this important work—voices are given to women previously overlooked and/or narrowly presented.
My collection SHE WHO LOVES HER FATHER seeks to do this same work, retelling Cleopatra’s story post-death (no one knows where she’s buried). SHE WHO LOVES HER FATHER begins there, with Cleopatra musing about her life after it has ended, what she made of the lovers she had, how she feels about her family members (she murdered some of them), and what she thinks of the preservation of life by ancient Egyptians. Love and desire are a part of my exploration of Cleopatra, but so is the power-play between siblings, her mediation on loss, and what motivates one to reflect on their life, having lived it fully.
My forthcoming collection HONEYCOME OF DEAD SWEET BEES (Gold Quoin Press) focuses on the myths on Demeter and Persephone. For a long time I tried to write poems from Persephone’s perspective, the girl who is snatched by Hades and made to be his queen by threat, and later, by seduction and trickery after he slipped her a pomegranate (the food of the dead. Meaning, Persephone could never really leave the underworld). In early machinations of what has become HONEYCOMB OF DEAD SWEET BEES, I suppose I was drawn to the betrayal, the sexual assault, the girl perspective meeting the sexual energies of the man as she leaves what she knows of home, family, and love. However, for the most part, the poems I wrote from Persephone’s perspectives were failures. Once I gave up trying to write from the persona of Persephone, I still found myself drawn to the myth, which is the myth of Persephone’s abduction, but also the explanation for seasonal change and the story of how a mother reacts to the loss of a daughter. I am not a mother, but I am a gardener, and though I cannot speak to the loss of a child, I have lost beloved pets. And when I lose things I’ve planted in the garden for one reason or another—a trellis of morning glories blown over during the prairie gusts one summer of uncanny winds, a tree sawed down in an apartment I rented as a co-ed, my husband chopping down a cherry bush he didn’t realize I’d nurtured in a back corner behind the compost and woodpile, sunflowers snapped at the throat by neighbor kids who just wanted the prickly brown faces framed with soft yellow petals for their own—I cry (silly, I know). Once I got there in my writing—to gardening and to loss, to the opportunity and hope gardening brings—I was able to write in the persona of Demeter, to retell the myth. What I love about retellings is that women’s voices matter, that a female perspective that may seem counter to the machine of contemporary culture are vital—the mother, the daughter, the home gardener. HONEYCOMB OF DEAD SWEET BEES is my retelling of Demeter’s search for what is lost.
Has your (definition of) feminism changed over time? How?
There are lots of definitions of feminism, but mine has been, and continues to be, focused on equality, however, my way to get there has evolved. For example, my chapbook GHOST GIRL (Pudding House Publications, 2010) is interested in the heroic narrative as told from the feminine perspective, Ghost Girl. Many of the poems in this collection tired to make sense of gender violence and why so many people, women, girls, and queers, are targeted, and literally beat down and assaulted for their gender expression.
I’ve been interested in the ways in which girls and women are depicted and represented in consumer culture, in advertisements, in magazines, in film and TV, and in their own presentation of self in the photographs they posted or are posted of them on social media. We are creatures of culture. We consume culture, we mimic culture, and sometimes, we change culture. I was particularly interested in the art by Miwa Yanagi, a Japanese artist, and her series on elevator girls, White Casket, Melanie Pullen’s work High Fashion Crime Scenes, and Lauren Greenfield’s series Girl Culture. Their work is chilling. My collection BRANDING GIRLS (Finishing Line Press, 2011) seeks to enter into that conversation and try to make sense of the media representation of girls and women.
My chapbook MY IMAGINARY (Dancing Girl Press, 2010) and my forthcoming book SPRUNG (San Francisco Bay Press) focuses on gender, but in a different way. While I was doing my masters degree, I wrote my thesis on the ways in which writers played, teased, and challenged traditional and contemporary gender depictions. Judith Butler, of course, calls gender a copy with no original, a copy of a copy. When I began writing the series, or perhaps I should say the series began writing me, I made a purposeful effort to avoid all gendered pronouns. When I “dressed” the two main characters in gendered clothing, I reversed those gender markings in the next poem. Likewise, I sought to reverse and challenge other gender expressions throughout the series. After I’d written the series and had begun finding homes in literary journals for the poems, emily m. danforth and I were invited to be visiting writers in Dr. Barbara DiBernard’s women’s literature class at UNL. Her students read from emily’s novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post and my collections MY IMAGINARY and SPRUNG (though I should say, at the time, neither of the books were published and we were both grad students). Being invited to join Barbara’s class was such fun! The student questions were smart and engaged. There were a lot of laughs. The most surprising part of the class visit for me was trying to talk about my characters in MY IMAGINGARY and SPRUNG without using gendered pronouns. I felt like I was rewriting my sentences as I spoke them (Gender is so entrenched!) What fun, then, we poets and writers have when writing a series that challenged the linguistic structure.
The last collection I’ll talk about is FIRST WIFE, my forthcoming chapbook from Hyacinth Girl Press. My husband, Adam, is a feminist. In fact he owns the tee-shirt This is what a feminist looks like. For years I’ve thought I’d love to write a series of playful poems about Adam and Eve, a kind of play on my own marriage, gardening pleasures, and the obvious biblical narratives that lay out gender roles for its first couple. To be honest, unlike my failed Persephone poems, I never wrote poems from Eve’s perspective (Maybe I never felt like an Eve? I don’t know). However, there have been plenty of poems where “Adam” has appeared, with allusions to biblical stories about “multiplying and being fruitful,” naming the animals, and being tempted by the fruit of hidden knowledge. This past summer, almost by accident, I began to read about the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. I’d read the Red Tent by Anita Diamant, The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman and just about everything by Geraldine Brooks the spring before and the spring before that, I took a master poetry class with Alicia Ostriker that focused on the divine and the spiritual, and so perhaps my mind was primed for a biblical retelling, to remake such stories from the female vantage point. All of the sudden while I was a writer-in-residence at the Prairie Center of the Arts this past May, I wrote poem after poem from Lilith’s perspective, did research on Lilith and the bible, and pulled out poems I’d previously written and had had published that were, indeed, Lilith poems and began putting together the manuscript FIRST WIFE. Once it was finished, I sent it to Margaret Brashaar, editor of Hyacinth Girl Press, a mirco-feminist press that focuses on the spiritual, myths, and retellings. She loved it and accepted it.
Have you ever experienced resistance to identifying as a feminist? If so, why do you think that is and how do you handle it?
Oh, you bet. Recently, I’ve been putting out a CFP for the forthcoming anthology I’m editing WOMEN WRITE RESISTANCE: POETS RESIST GENDER VIOLENCE (Blue Light Press). Occasionally I’ve had a man ask why I’m doing this project, as if the topic needs to be justified, as if it’s so radical. Have they never heard of Take Back the Night, the Clothesline Project, women’s shelters, SlutWalk or others? The anthology I’m putting together isn’t particularly radical. It’s just a collection a poems where women resist gender violence. What’s so radical about that? Women have been naming and resisting the violence in their lives for a long time. Though I guess, in some ways, it goes to show you how scary even the idea of feminism still is. Sometimes I want to say, “I’m a feminist. Boo!” and see if anyone runs away screaming.
What do you see as the future of feminism?
I’m not sure if I can speak to the future of feminism as a whole, but I can speak to my part in it regarding my anthology WOMEN WRITE RESISTANCE: POETS RESIST GENDER VIOLENCE, though if I do, I fear I may contradict myself and my answer to the previous question. Very well then, I contradict myself.
The poets in this anthology intervene in the ways violence against women is perceived in American culture by deploying techniques to challenge those narratives and make alternatives visible. The anthology views poetry as a transformative art. By deploying techniques to challenge narratives about violence against women and making alternatives to that violence visible, the American poets in WOMEN WRITE RESISTANCE intervene in the ways gender violence is perceived in American culture. A poem from a victim’s perspective, for example, might use explicit imagery but also show the emotional consequences often obscured when newspapers, video games, films, and television programs depict violence in superficial or sexualized ways. A poet might also critique dominant narratives, such as calling into question the perception that certain women deserved to be raped.
The introduction, which draws on the work of Tami Spry, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Chela Sandoval, frames the intellectual work behind the building of the anthology by describing how poets break silence, disrupt narratives, and use strategic anger to resist. Poetry of resistance distinguishes itself by a persuasive rhetoric that asks readers to act. The anthology’s stance believes poetry can compel action using both rhetoric and poetic techniques to motivate readers. In their deployment of these techniques, poets of resistance claim the power to name and talk about gender violence in and on their own terms. Indeed, these poets resist by revising justice and framing poetry as action.
I believe that WOMEN WRITE RESISTANCE: POETS RESIST GENDER VIOLENCE will appeal to community activists, women’s advocates, and social workers (not to mention the women and families they help) as a tool to raise awareness. The anthology dovetails with a movement in social work scholarship on poetry therapy, particularly Nicholas Mazza’s work or Ellen Bass’s The Courage to Heal. Further, WOMEN WRITE RESISTANCE: POETS RESIST GENDER VIOLENCE could motivate women to seek help. It will also reach readers of contemporary American poetry interested in women’s experiences and important social issues. WOMEN WRITE RESISTANCE: POETS RESIST GENDER VIOLENCE would be of particular interest to teachers and students of English (literature and creative writing), Sociology, and Women’s and Gender Studies.
If the future of feminism includes the end (or at least, the mitigation) of violence against women, then that’s a future I want.
Laura Madeline Wiseman has a doctorate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches English. She is the author of several chapbooks, including the recent collections She Who Loves Her Father (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), Branding Girls (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Ghost Girl (Pudding House Publications, 2010), and My Imaginary (Dancing Girl Press, 2010). She is also the editor of the anthology Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence forthcoming from Blue Light Press in 2013.
Her poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and reviews have appeared in Margie, Poet Lore, Blackbird, Arts & Letters, Prairie Schooner, Feminist Studies, Thirteenth Moon, American Short Fiction, Cream City Review, and elsewhere.
She has received an Academy of American Poets Award, a Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award, a Will P. Jupiter Award, a Susan Atefact Peckham Fellowship, a Louise Van Sickle Fellowship, several Pushcart Prize nominations, and grants from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Focus for the Arts, and the Center for the Great Plains Studies. Find her on Twitter.