From the Introduction
Edited by Sondra Zeidenstein


Speaking for my Self: Twelve women poets in their seventies and eighties

The poets in Speaking for my Self are twelve American women still writing and publishing poems in their seventies and eighties. I have followed the work of almost all of them for decades. A year ago I told these writers about my plans for this anthology and asked them to send me a sheaf of recent work, ten or so poems, written after they were seventy-five. I told them I was not looking particularly for poems about aging, just poems written in age: what is on our hearts as old women poets looking ahead, back, around. I didn’t know what the resulting collection of sixty poems would look like, though I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what might be revealed by such a concentration of old women writers in our mostly silenced generation.

Not that we haven’t read the work of old poets increasingly in recent years. More men than women, of course—W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, C. K. Williams, Gerald Stern, for starters. I read each of them ardently for the proven beauty of their work and to learn something I don’t yet know about the long-lived life. Among old women, I have turned in the last decade to Maxine Kumin, to Marie Ponsot, to the late Lucille Clifton, the late Grace Paley, the late Adrienne Rich and Ruth Stone. I have so wished there were more old women poets who were well published.

For this volume, I have sought out those of my cohorts, born in the twenties and thirties, who had the chance to take up writing, often later in life, and didn’t die young, those who had the talent and support and courage to devote time to a pursuit that was not likely to pay off. Each poet in this volume is a “self,” an individual, an accomplished poet. Each has a distinct voice. All identify as poets and have had a lot of their work published. Each has willed her life into words. I chose five poems of each poet that captured something important about the poet’s individual voice and many-layered sensibility, as well as the commonality of experience among women who came up through the twenties, thirties, forties of the last century into the present.

When I look over these poems, all sixty of them, as I have again and again, always thrilled and proud that they are coming to my hands, into my care, I find themes or categories in common. We write of loss, justice, compassion, connectedness, love, art, creativity.

The first book Chicory Blue Press published more than twenty five years ago is A Wider Giving: Women Writing after a Long Silence. This book celebrated women of my generation who started writing “seriously” after the age of forty-five. It owed its existence partly to Tillie Olsen’s ground breaking book Silences in which Olsen examines the various ways in which writers who had begun to create were silenced: for example, by poverty, by exclusion, by the necessity for political action, by censorship, by lack of time and support, by alcoholism and suicide. Women were silenced by all these obstacles, but especially by what we have come to call sexism.

Because such oppression is often internalized and experienced as inadequacy, it is often hard to identify and combat. In breaking the silence imposed by their culture, women have had to give themselves time and permission, seek out training, face rejection and self-doubt, fight the negativity sometimes ingested from their own mothers, begin to develop their craft and, hardest of all, summon the strength again and again to continue. It is no wonder that Adrienne Rich said once, in a talk about Ann Sexton, any woman who writes is a survivor.

And now this book, Speaking for my Self, which is a concentrate of age. In it, we move in the company of old women writers who are braving age with us, twelve poets giving shape to their/our lives, warming and reassuring us that we are alive and even mouthy. I am so grateful for what writing has given us, a sense of self, a commitment to speak from it, against conventional culture, forces that would silence us all. What a wasteland would lie ahead of us if we were not humanizing existence to the edge of incapacity and death, bringing that experience into the fold.

         
    Speaking for my Self    
     
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