Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice

Daisy Fried is an admired, established poet who has received numerous well-deserved national awards and much praise from her colleagues, like Tony Hoagland, Ange Mlinko, and Susan Wheeler, just to name a few. However, despite her presence as an important contemporary voice in American poetry, she’s also active on a local level, and we are lucky at Philadelphia Stories to have her as a judge for this year’s Sandy Crimmins prize.

Fried’s latest collection Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice begins with the poem “Torment.” When I first read the poem in Poetry in 2011, I was blown away. I shared the poem with friends, co-workers; there was something about it that really resonated for me, especially as a teacher of young adults. It was like she had put words to the complicated feelings that come up in an all too often romanticized profession. Every time I return to this poem, I feel the same sense of wonder as to how beautifully the layers of connection, misunderstanding, uncertainty, indifference and concern are woven together.

It takes place on a train. The speaker, a professor of poetry, in the throes of pregnancy induced, or amplified, self-pity, finds herself sharing a car with several of her students, “responsible children,” on their way back from interviews at big name financial firms in New York City. The gap between their aspirations for the future, albeit already half-disillusioned (“’You wanted money,’ says Justin./ Brianna: ‘It went down with the towers.’”) and the speaker’s reality provide the central source of tension in the poem. The speaker has recently had a several interviews herself for adjunct positions, where her age and/or pregnancy were potential deal-breakers or complications:

I keep trying to look not-quite-40
in a different way than I’m not-quite-40.
The woman interviewer looked at my belly.
‘As a new mother would you have time to be
literary mama to your students?’ so I could sue
when they don’t hire me for the job I don’t want.

The students wear clothing the speaker can’t afford, trust in their trust funds and connections, and gently try to show her they care about her class, when their own goals lie so far from poetry. “’Think of me as raw talent wasted,’” says Brianna. The speaker’s response: “I’m pissed I think of her at all.”
The students are not shown in a flattering light; their hypocrisies and sense of entitlement are on full display. Yet there’s a gentleness in their attitude towards the speaker that can’t help but be reflected back, even the tiniest bit. As a result, in giving the poem the same name and length as her student Justin’s assignment, which most likely was a kind of ‘torment’ to read, the speaker/poet seems to be giving a lesson in how to craft a truly impactful poem of that name and length, while simultaneously paying a kind of tribute to her well-meaning students.
Another favorite of mine in the collection is “Econo Motel, Ocean City,” which describes a fumbling sex scene between a husband and wife in a dirty motel room while a Korean monster movie plays and a baby sleeps in the background. (Yes, another one of those poems.) It’s all brilliantly overlapped throughout:

[…] Monster brachiates from bridge girders like a gibbon
looping round and around uneven bars, those are your fingers
in my tangles or my fingers, my head hangs
half off the king-size, monster takes tiny child actor
to its bone stash. Pillow’s wet. The warped ceiling mirror
makes us look like fat porno dwarfs
in centripetal silver nitrate ripples . […]

We learn that the marriage did not last, but instead of sentimentality, it’s a combination of complicity and fatalism that blend in the final lines’ assessment: “Sad Armageddon/ of marriage; how pretty much nice/ we meant to be, and couldn’t make a difference.”
The final section of the collection contains the long poem “Ask The Poetess: An Advice Column.” The ‘poetess’ gives cheeky, zen master-like responses to a variety of questions, some of which are sexist and/or overly familiar to poets. The speaker names Charles Bukowski our greatest poetess. In response to the question, “Why can’t I write poems about my grandma? She was a wonderful woman!” the poetess replies, “Exactly.” To explain how confessional poems are different from Catholic confession, she writes: “In confessional poetry persons of all faiths confess how others have sinned against them.” The sign-offs are always the same, affectionate: “LOVE, THE POETESS,” despite how intentionally unsatisfying the “advice” may have been.
The entire collection is filled with the same kinds of insight, humor, feminism and creativity displayed above. If you feel yourself drawn to any of these elements, you’re sure to love it.