Category Archives: Women Writers

2012 Pen Awards for Literature

So many worthy recipients here. Particularly happy to see Toi Derricote named. From their citation:

Toi Derricotte

The judges wrote in their citation:

“We are very proud to name Toi Derricotte the winner of this year’s PEN/Voelcker Award. Derricotte is the author of five books of poetry:The Undertaker’s Daughter; Tender; Captivity; Natural Birth; The Empress of the Death House; and the literary memoir, The Black Notebooks. Her poems carry both truth and a higher knowledge in scenes of everyday life, consistently depicted through taut language. And her voice is, at once, tender and unflinching. A voice that she has honed over her long career from poem to poem and book to book as she investigates a distinctly American psyche rendered by experiences of race, color, gender, and grief, however blatant, however nuanced. The poems remind readers that personal and societal histories intersect sometimes in the most brutal, the most tender, and the most surprising of ways. In Tender she writes, “‘At the still point of the turning world,’ the job of the artist is not to resolve or beautify, but to hold complexities, to see and make clear.” Derricotte’s poems push readers and practitioners into the hard work of seeing with rigor, intelligence, and grace. Her intellect and her imagination continue to forge new territory in the field of poetry, challenging what we think a poem might be and what we think it might do in the world.”

A Survival Guide: Smith Blue, by Camille Dungy

ImageSmith Blue, by Camille Dungy. Crab Orchard Series in Poetry/Open Competition Award. Crab Orchard Review, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 2011. ISBN-13:978-0-8093-3031-7.

When you marry an ambitious poet with solid craft and intense passion, you almost invariably get a great book. Perhaps the most intriguing poetry to cross my desk this year is Camille Dungy’s Smith Blue. I admire Dungy’s work not only for what she accomplished in this offering from the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, but for what she attempts, no less than to “Wizard a track through our own screaming weeds,” a quote found in her opening citation from Gwendolyn Brooks (“XV,” The Womanhood). Following Brooks’ admonition that there are “no magic or elves/Or timely godmothers to guide us. . . ” Dungy cobbles together an extraordinary view of modern life, it’s foibles and distractions (“At Costco, everything comes cheap”/A Massive Dying Off) and most of all, its harsh realities and tremendous losses.

Much of this work is elegy, whether societal (“I ate the last orange in Nebraska /Post-Modified Food) or personal (“The poet’s hands degenerate until her cup is too heavy”/Arthritis is one thing, the hurting another), but none of it is polemical in the least. Dungy accomplishes this with a breathtaking grasp of the details, large and small, of contemporary life weighed down by war, economic distress, political intransigence, and material envy, yet she avoids the merely partisan by turning every personal loss into an observation about a greater grief, and every social issue into a challenge to be lived out, worked out, in individual choices that cut to the bone.

“This is not the year for palliatives. It is not the year for knowing what to do,” she writes in the latter poem, which begins with the suffering of arthritic hands, and ends with the trenchant observation: “Many are dying for want of a cure, and the poet is patient/and her hands cause the least of her pain. ” In between, there is a cataloguing of ills–burning women in schoolyards…tarped bodies on runways and in restaurants…three ancient cities met their ruin…third and fourth tours–and a warning not to let one newsreel image slide into the next: “This is not one thing standing for another.”

See each moment, each disastrous occurrence; notice everything, the poet tells us, though it hurts to feel the weight of the world’s grief.

“…Shame fits comfortably/as my best skirt, and what can I do/but walk around in that habit? Turn the page (After opening the New York Times I Wonder How to Write A Poem About Love).

Come back to the Earth itself, “to the rock, dissimulated by the rush but still/loved. …Before things are muddied/before/the turbulence recalled by walls that they have built” (How She Keeps Faith).

Change is inevitable, and not all of it is doom. Some of it is human spirit rising up, “to get to the places beyond the places we know. This is the way, /how we have always found more . . . . ” and, in case we missed the point, there are lessons from our elders’ wisdom:

“–and of course you won’t let me see you/ neglecting to serve,whatever that means/don’t let me catch you neglecting to serve.” (Prayer for P)

It was about here that I saw the thread of American poetry running clear, Robert Frost to Ms. Brooks to Lucille Clifton to Camille Dungy. I have said nothing yet about Dungy’s craft, but she does not remind one without cause of those American originals: Clear, concise, articulated lines of fierce imagery draw one in from the first page.

From a tiny, impossibly elegant butterfly, its founder and namesake tragically lost in the practice of his calling, comes a title that is appropriate to the huge scope and delicacy of this work. California in all its diverse beauties and unfathomable contrasts breaks into life on these pages; the whole of the human dilemma whispers through it’s lines. Camille Dungy is among the most accomplished of our poets, a treasure we must not let slip. Call her an antidote for the times.

Jeanette Winterson Tells Us All She Knows About Love

Sorry to be so late in pointing this out, but if you haven’t yet read Jeanette Winterson’s incredible personal essay in Granta, Spring 2011, entitled All I Know About Gertrude Stein, run to your bookstore and hope they still have a copy, or check out Granta online. I read it there first, then lucked out this past June–B&N still had a copy. I mean it–run! It is the most exquisite thing I’ve read in many years.

Rhapsody for Lessons Learned or Remembered

Rhapsody for Lessons Learned or Remembered

By Georgia Ann Banks-Martin

Plain View Press

ISBN 978-10935514-64-0


An intrigue of a title, right? A sign that here is a poet who won’t let you down easy. Indeed, Georgia Banks-Martin states her purpose here in the introduction, to move beyond race as a signifier of identity, moving deep into the individual imagination and history to build a bridge with the reader.

Nothing is more admirable than a high reach. Mostly, Banks-Martin succeeds in pulling us along into her world through these ekphrastic poems, neither denying nor insisting on her African-American ethnicity for connections, so that when she chooses to write from a Jacob Lawrence painting, the poem “Railroad Station” chronicles people who are certainly African-American, but also immigrants from Southern cotton fields, traveling with uncertainty and nerves and dogged hope, and they might be understood anywhere. Deftly, Banks-Martin catches the wife’s whisper to her husband, the father weighed down by more than luggage, the children’s innocence focused elsewhere than the perils of the journey.

One of my favorite poems here is “The Floor-Scrapers,” after Gustave Caillebott, in which the poet merges the imagined instruction of the master to his apprentice with her own memories of each mark on the wooden floors of her childhood home, and brings forth from that combination issues of respect and aspiration.

Van Gogh is here; Monet, Renoir, and Vermeer, too, but also writers and visual artists from other canons, all engaged with skill: Romare Bearden, Natasha Trethaway, Anne Sexton, Robert Mapplethorpe, even the fairy artist Jasmine Beckett-Griffith. (A handy reference list in the rear identifies the inspirations for each poem.) This is a poet with many interests and, yes, a high reach. She perfectly captures the exhausted quality  of Anne Sexton in her own weary paean to colorism, and excels at describing the Southern landscape:

From “Evening Guitar”:

Someone loaned me a book

filled with images of Mississippi, of people washing clothes,

fishing, pressing hair.

. . .

The book smells of smoke

from the coal-burning stove,

sharing the table with the lady’s

porcelain tea service,

the pages repeatedly read,

savored between long sips.

And she does not shy away from race or class or gender issues; this is not a poet who leads with artifice. Instead, the work is grounded in, but not overwhelmed by, the poet’s identity. As a consequence, the reader’s eye darts everywhere the poems lead. Here are a classmate’s suicide, a religious man’s repressed daughter, a tired man on a bus, numerous glimpses of rural Alabama. Generally, she does not go for the obvious image, but scrapes for us the layers that obscure other possibilities:

From “On Highway 80”

. . .

I’ve seen the fog lift like a curtain

to reveal a flock of fat buzzards,

with heads tucked between wings,

sitting atop a half-circle fence,

like a string of pearls,

around a woman’s neck.

. . .

If there is a concept in common to all these poems, aside from their reference to other works of art, it is that pretense wounds in a hundred ways, and rejection makes everyone bleed. A girl being urged to walk like a lady and deny her sexuality, a sidewalk musician capturing the blues from passersby, New Orleans after the storm––all images of unconsoled heartache. But there is also joy, the intense Southern commitment to beauty, and, above all, a wide sensibility engaging the world.

I have re-read this collection three times, not because I had to in order to write this review, but because bits of it kept sticking in my head like a new favorite song.

What more does a reviewer need to say?

Should She Stay or Should She Go? Kate Evans’ Complementary Colors

Complementary Colors

by Kate Evans

Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing (2009)

ISBN-10: 1935407864

ISBN-13: 978-1935407867

Gwen Sullivan is a woman adrift. She has returned from a stint teaching English in Japan, and is committed but unfulfilled in her job at a tutoring center and her volunteer work for Bill Clinton’s campaign. She has been married and divorced and now drifts into a live-in situation with her boyfriend, Daniel, a scientist who works long hours and does not make much room in his life for her. Seeking something more, she joins a community poetry class. There she finds her passions stirred by the instructor’s assignments and her imagination piqued by two rather raucous dykes. Through her attraction to both poetry and one of the women, Jamie, Gwen begins to unravel what is missing in her life.

Evans writes well about the teacher-student relationship, the entanglements of love, and the difficulties in coming to self-acceptance. Gwen’s delight in poetry is playfully and exquisitely rendered, as are her growing doubts about her relationship with Daniel and the push-pull between her and Jamie, who has her own entanglement in an affair with a woman minister. Gwen has had one failed marriage and doesn’t want another. Reluctant to give up, she pushes Daniel for more communication, only to find him moving away from her. Meanwhile, her every communication with Jamie is sparked by desire, curiosity, intrigue. Is Gwen just bored? Is Jamie evasive because of her relationship with a woman minister, or is there something else that holds her back? Who can Gwen trust?

Although the plot turns on Gwen’s acceptance of her attraction to Jamie, and, subsequently, on her parsing the reactions of her women friends and family, Complementary Colors is more than a coming-out story. It is really a deep exploration about self-awareness and acceptance, about the nature of love, and the limitations of relationships. Evans is also a poet, and we feel that in her often-stirring prose. This is a very close portrait of a woman in the throes of change, who is discovering just how much of her happiness she is willing to entrust to another.

I admire a great deal about Evan’s thematic structure and her language. I am happy to see a coming-out story that delves deeper for the universal meaning. However, I found myself exasperated with her heroine, Gwen, for her seemingly-endless equivocations. I wanted to scream, “He’s not into you. Move on!” long before Gwen makes the first tentative steps toward Jamie. Better calibrated is her growing attraction to Jamie and Jamie’s response. Evans is too accomplished a writer to have our girl fall straight from Daniel’s bed into Jamie’s arms. There’s enough tension to make us doubt Jamie’s motivation, and enough faith in Gwen’s growing self-awareness to trust her judgment, at last. On the whole, though, I kept wishing she would step up sooner and take charge, not only of her love life, but also of her career choices and her evasive family.

But what I wish is not what happens in real life, is it? We dither and spin and cause ourselves endless heartache. I’d like my literary heroines a bit punchier––sometimes I wished to hear the story from Jamie’s point of view––but this is a fine book by a strong writer, and well worth your exploration.

Kate Evans is the author of a poetry collection (Like All We Love, Spirit/Q Press) and a book about lesbian and gay teachers (Negotiating the Self, Routledge). Her debut novel, For the May Queen, was released in 2008 by Vanilla Heart Publishing. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in more than 40 publications, including the North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Santa Monica Review,and ZYZZYVA.  Her work has been nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Lambda Literary Award and two Pushcart Prizes. A California native, she teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Jose State University. (A word to Vanilla Heart: better proofreading would do this author justice.)

Jane’s Stories and I are featured on Tamara Sellman’s Blog

Jane’s Stories and I are featured on Tamara Sellman’s blog (Thanks, TKS!): Writer’s Rainbow Literary Services

A literary sister telling it like it is:

A literary sister telling it like it is: YouTube – Connie May Fowler reading her essay from “UnspOILed”

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly. Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-446-54068-1.

Reviewed by Glenda Bailey-Mershon.

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly contains an encyclopedia of wondrous writing skills from Connie May Fowler. Memorable characters are Fowler’s forte. But the heart and humanity at the core of her latest novel surpasses even her best so far, and will make this book, I predict, a bestseller.

Fowler carries her readers forward like intrepid explorers of the human psyche, alive to each twitch of synapse, each pulse of her characters’ breaths. She paints the Florida landscape, the tethers of history, spirits struggling to break free, and even the souls of animals in prose that frequently lifts off the page. Impossible not to love a character as conflicted, as burdened, as funny and sensitive as Clarissa. But a fly? Well, that would not have been on my Valentine’s list, before now.

A summation of the plot might sound depressing: one day in the life of Clarissa Burden, a writer who suffers writer’s block—the literal stoppage of her voice—while she struggles against the disintegration of her marriage to a photographer who flaunts his young, naked models and treats her with contempt. A downer, you say? Well, hold on.

Ultimately, this is a triumphal story, one that is mindful of, but not subordinate to, gender or polemics in general. What I believe makes Clarissa Burden an important book is the intricate and deep portrait of self-abnegation drawn in the title character. Clarissa succumbs, as many people do, to the linked weapons of past and present emotional abuse, which rob her of self-esteem. Her challenge, and the main plot of the book, is learning to fight back, not with her body or the law, but with self-discovery and strength of character. In one very long, very hot Florida day and night, we accompany Clarissa on a journey that will set her free for good.

And did I mention the book’s humor? What if we threw in the fly, who dotes on Clarissa’s every breath; a slapstick interview with a youthful, breathless, admiring, but clueless journalist; blue cerulean boots that grant super hero status to the wearer; and the voices of the author’s Ovarian Shadow Women, who chant, cajole, shame, and celebrate like the most relentless, and closest, of girlfriends?

And what if one lingering scene of potential romance on a semi-tropical bay during a long, moon-bedeviled Solstice evening tempts you with extraordinary detail enough to put you on the next flight to Florida?

What if all this is written in the closest third person narrative you might ever have read, in the voices of characters who feel so close their breath brushes your cheek? If there are subplots that elucidate both the best and the worst in humanity? If, at the end, you feel you’ve learned something important about how souls contract, and how we can take charge of our own expansion?

When I feel like that, I keep reading, and I predict that many other readers will keep reading as Clarissa climbs the charts. Don’t miss the scene at Poor Spot Cemetery or the aforementioned scene on the Bay, or the story of the Villada family, or many other vibrant scenes, all the way to the end.

Speaking of the end––well, this is a complex, overflowing book. Only once did I lose the thread, near the final pages, when Fowler draws the knots of the plot taut––and suddenly there is a circus I wanted to brush out of the way while I found out what happened to the characters I had come to adore, as well as those whose heartless machinations I feared. But this was no more than a minor annoyance, and the conclusion is, as Publisher’s Weekly noted, explosive. Overall, it works.

In Connie May Fowler’s hands, Florida is a magical place. The state should seriously consider building her a monument, from which she can entertain us all by reading, shod, of course, in blue cerulean boots, and with all the Shadow Women singing doo-wop to her tune.

About the Author

Connie May Fowler is an essayist, screenwriter, and novelist. She is the author of five novels, most recently The Problem with Murmur Lee, and a memoir, When Katie Wakes. In 1996, she published Before Women Had Wings, which became a paperback bestseller and was made into a successful Oprah Winfrey Presents movie. She founded the Connie May Fowler Women With Wings Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to aiding women and children in need.

Laura van den Berg guests on See Jane Write!

Laura van den Berg guests on the See Jane Write! blog:

1st novel at 15 and $800,000 richer-CBC

1st novel at 15 and $800,000 richer-CBC News – Books – Australian author wins Astrid Lindgren award for children’s literature

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