A Review of “Nasty Women Poets”

Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse edited by Grace Bauer and Julie Kane
Lost Horse Press, 376 pages, $24

Review by Freesia McKee

Feminists have known for a long time that we work best when we work together, centering our stories, their differences and sameness. At 376 pages, Nasty Women Poets is a literary march for women, each writer lifting her pen to be counted, casting her votes. For me as a woman writer, the acknowledgement of mutual support has been unequivocally powerful. One of feminist poetry’s most poignant functions names support’s necessity by calling out its absence. In witnessing pain and desperation on the page, we acknowledge mutual experience. Contributor Susan Nguyen’s poem “All The Good Women are Gone” is one example:

This is when you are driving west
and you ask your phone:
Does coffee make anxiety worse?
What are to-be verbs?
How long will 18 mg of Adderall last?
How do stop yourself from crying?
Answer: distract yourself with pain.

I read this anthology over several weeks in the fall of 2017, carrying the book in my backpack and bag, on my bicycle and in my car. I read this book after attending the Florida March for Black Women, which filled Miami’s streets. I read the Nasty Women Poets anthology reclined with my arm around my girlfriend. I read this book when I should have been working and read this book when I should have been reading other works. I read this book as students filed into class, one wearing a t-shirt with the word “FEMINIST” written across the front, another sporting heels and a Milo Yiannopoulos book. As Lisa Mecham writes in her poem “Refraction,” “I’m always in the wrong spot”—the spots, with gratitude, we see reflected on the page.

That was the beauty for me, as a woman reader of such an anthology, that I saw myself in so many moments of these poems. They are about the daily lives of women. These poems are a promise: “…if you think nothing &/ no one can / listen I love you joy is coming” (Kim Addonizio, “To The Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall”).

Unexpected harmonies arise in Nasty Women Poets, echoing the music of resistance at the 2017 Women’s March. The anthology is divided into ten sections. Each is named after a popular song from the last several decades. As evidenced by the section titles, the book is one of both humor and gravity. The poems are curated in an attempt to reflect our varied lives, how our bodies journey through triumph and danger, controlled in and out of our hands.

I was surprised by the amount of highly structured verse in this book. It finally occurred to me that this formality reflects the ways women are told that we must stay in our female boxes. One example is Lesléa Newman’s “The Coming Storm,” which goes, “Outside pounding sleep/ Inside pounding hearts/…Outside slick roads/ Inside slick skin/…Outside nasty weather/ Inside nasty women.” Expressing “nastiness” within a formal poem is a middle finger to the establishment, to those who wouldn’t care to see us shine, to see us published, to those who choose not to love us, those who see our bodies as objects and our poems as too angry, too nagging, too narrow, and too nasty.

This anthology also does some innovative work with form. Readers will find poems that break traditional rules such as Jan Beatty’s controversial and exquisitely skillful “The Shooter” from her 2008 collection Red Sugar. One of the few poems I’ve ever seen that effectively incorporates hashtags and even emoji is Nordette N. Adams’s “Digital Anthropologists Find Our Hashtags,” a careful reflection on police murders that invokes a major feminist issue: racist violence. Adams writes,

Dear #SandraBland, If only the cop…
            Dear #MotherEmmanuelAME, I will rememb—
            Dear #NimaliHenry and #FreddieGray, I believe that it…
Dear #ICantBreathe a.k.a. #EricGarner, I—We—I am sorry
            Because…more names.

In “Job (War Survivor’s Guilt),” Hope Wabuke writes of “a silent grace” in the spirit of women’s pain, of empathy. Nasty Women Poets is an affirmation that we are not alone, that there is power in numbers, in numbers of words and numbers of women. Shedding light on the nastiness of oppression, on the nasty messiness of pride and triumph, Amy Miller writes in “I Am Over Here Sobbing”:

and I am over here sobbing
at the history writing itself
and for once I am singing
the national anthem, that part
at the baseball game where I normally
lower my eyes in silence, my hand
nowhere near my heart, as I try
not to think of bursting or rockets
or bombs but instead rest my eyes
on the grass with its millions
of green blades patiently growing

We need this anthology for the world we live in. I can’t help but think of the NFL, paragon of male supremacy and the capitalist objectification of black bodies, and Colin Kaepernick’s kneel that rocked the country, the president calling him a “son of a bitch,” Kaep’s mother tweeting “Guess that I’m a proud bitch!” I can’t help but think of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz wearing a shirt on television emblazoned with the words “Nasty Woman.”

Though this anthology is designed to appeal to a broad audience of nasty women, readers who are also writers may see themselves especially represented. This anthology exists outside of the literary world, but also inside of it. “Fuck you, Bukowski,” Katie Bickham writes in “To Charles Bukowski, From a Young Southern Girl with Nice Manners.” Alice Friman writes in “The Poet,” “…I wish/ I could rewrite this story, saying/ no one nodded off or walked out,/ saying the big man’s poems were enough/ to fly us beyond judgment’s orbit/ to where the real stars burn.”

Nasty Women Poets is modeled, in part, after three 1973 women’s poetry anthologies (Rising Tides, No More Masks, and We Become New). Several germinal feminist writers from those first anthologies including Hilda Raz, Marge Piercy, and Diane Wakowski appear in Nasty Women Poets as well.

This nod to the feminist anthologies of the 1970’s is a beautiful opportunity to reflect on the ways that feminism and our society at large has progressed alongside the ways we have stagnated and regressed. In light of the disturbing reality that 53% of white women voted for Trump, how do white feminists recommit to a relentless interrogation of whiteness? How do white women writers work in an anti-white-supremacist manner?

Poets are called to continue to write about the politics of inclusivity. How do cisgender women editors confront our gender essentialism? Not every woman has a vagina and breasts; embracing that reality contains promise and freedom for each of us. How do we center our differences in our journeys towards inclusivity and equity? As feminist poets may have wondered in 1973, how do we create anthologies that include increasing breadths of experience across disability, gender, race, ethnicity, language, and more? How do we continue to center and publish the narratives of women? The sex worker, the homeless woman asking for change, the woman asking for everything, the woman in prison, the woman with a child in prison, the woman facing addiction, the woman at the abortion clinic, the woman who won’t leave her abuser, the woman who left her abuser, the woman we want to leave the room, the woman cleaning the floors, the woman in the mirror.

Reading this anthology gave me hope that we can carry forth these conversations. I finished Nasty Women Poets with a passionate litany of questions. Whether you attended the 2017 Women’s March, watched it online like I did, or just heard murmurs after the fact, reading Nasty Women Poets might make you feel the way you did when you learned that half a million people marched with nasty insistence that January day. Carry these 215 nasty poems in your backpack, your purse, your diaper bag, your back pocket, or your glove compartment as a warm-up for before the fight.