Since 2015, Dead [Women] Poets Society have been hosting events to resurrect, you guessed it, dead female poets. People come together to immerse themselves in these brilliant but often lesser known works, followed by a classic open mic. Now that the organisers have moved the event online, the rrramble team popped along to their latest poetry seance.
We shall not escape Hell, my passionate
sisters, we shall drink black resins––
we who sang our praises to the Lord
with every one of our sinews.Marina Tsvetaeva tr. Elaine Feinstein
The night opened with a reading from Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘We Shall Not Escape Hell’ (tr. Elaine Feinstein). The poem is centred in ugly truths, but spends its words relishing in a dark power that replaces any fear or sorrow. I hadn’t read it before, but now I’m seriously craving a pint of black resin. Or maybe just a pint. Who’s to say.
The last poetry night I attended in person was back in March 2020 at a BrewDog in Norwich. They were refurbishing the outside of the building so I could see scaffolding through the windows. The wooden stools were incredibly uncomfortable and some of the poetry was, as usual, not that good. I can’t wait to get a numb bum again and listen to people broadcast their family issues in rhyme. There’s no better way to spend an evening. Bliss!
So as you can imagine, I was quite ready to experience the Dead [Women] Poets Society’s first online poetry séance. Alas, no Zoom witchcraft occurred – their poetry seances are an opportunity to learn about the lives of dead female and non-binary poets from the perspective of current poets who’ve been inspired by their work. I really enjoyed the more academic approach they took, but I am a nerd at heart so a PowerPoint presentation was bound to get me going.
First, the lovely Hannah Hodgson taught us about Julia Darling. Julia believed there are two kinds of people – drains and radiators. Here’s a bit of life advice from Julia for you kids: “I avoid drains on the whole, and it’s a very helpful way to live. Then there is always the fear that I may be a drain.” Don’t be a drain. You’re better than that! Hannah’s presentation was my favourite because it felt incredibly personal, as though the two poets were in conversation. Maybe there was a little witchcraft that evening. She spoke of Darling’s appreciation of life in the face of death and how one can only exist alongside the other.
Next up, we welcomed Momtaza Mehni’s fascinating presentation on May Ayim, an Afro-German activist during the 80s and overall badass. Everything was going swimmingly until Momtaza’s internet decided to take a nap. That’s one thing I won’t miss post-lockdown. When someone’s connection is severed, I can’t help feeling jolted at the immediate reminder of how fragile these threads holding us together are. I want to be with people so badly. I want to hold them tight, I want to hear their random laughter, I want to smell them up close (well, maybe not too close).
When Momtaza managed to find her way back to us, she described May Ayim’s friendship with Audre Lorde, a brilliant poet that I had the privilege of studying at university. Lorde identified the Afro-German community as “invisible” within German society. To be made invisible, according to Lorde and Ayim, ensured your destruction by creating ghosts from difference. “Our difference must create something other than destruction.” This is the message Momtaza left us with before the open mic portion of the event. It’s a powerful sentiment to commemorate Ayim, but I think it’s also a message that should be applied across the board as we begin to step back into each other’s lives. This time apart has shown us how much we crave humanity around us, in all our variety. I hope it’s a lesson we don’t forget.
It seems only fair to preface this by saying that I went into Dead [Women] Poets Society fairly wary. ‘Women’ is right there in the title, so I wasn’t sure how the organisers would walk the line between a specific focus and inclusivity. Unfortunately, I’ve come away from it thinking that they themselves aren’t sure how they’re doing that either.
The basic premise of Dead [Women] Poets Society is one that I’m definitely ready to be on board with – it’s a shame that so many lesser-known both recent and historical female poets are forgotten about somewhat, with our focus being on those still living. As stand-out talent Hannah Hodgson explored, “people are alive for as long as we animate them”. She was a great featured poet for the event and reminded me of the warmth and collective experience at a poetry event and/or open mic that I’ve definitely missed over the last year. I’ve been to my fair share of poetry events in the past, and at its best (including several of the open mic-ers) Dead [Women] Poets Society reignited my love for them. Particularly notably, I’ve come away with a few poets to research, collections to buy and poems I want to re-read where possible.
It was mentioned this was their first attempt at putting on the usual event in an online format, and sadly this showed. Technical difficulties seemed to attack them at every corner, and as much as they filled quite adeptly, you can never really undo the way that freezing will interrupt the flow of an evening. As a clear side effect of the format, I felt for them, and definitely assume this event normally runs without a hitch. The clearest upside of the technology was in the accessibility, with both AI generated closed captions and most speakers screen sharing the text of the poems they were reading.
There was an elephant in the room for me attending Dead [Women] Poets Society, however virtually, and although I could lose myself in the art at times, it never really vanished. I think this event is trying very hard to be inclusive, to the point where it has become misguided. As a nonbinary person, of course I appreciate that they acknowledge that nonbinary poets exist and have existed and are also marginalised by the male historical literary record. However, there is something odd about the phrase “women and nonbinary poets” in one sentence, and “queens” and “our literary mothers” and simply “Dead Women Poets” in others. By odd, I think I mean wrong. I totally understand the drive to be inclusive here, but there’s no problem with just focusing on women, as long as you specify that your definition of womanhood is trans inclusive (something along the lines of ‘anyone who identifies as a woman’ would suffice). Instead, the veering back and forward by different speakers from nonbinary inclusive to simply “women” made me uncomfortable, which I’m sure the organisers never intended.
I didn’t have a bad time at Dead [Women] Poets Society, but it’s hard for me to come to a final impression on it. I think they have the makings of something really great here, but they didn’t quite take me along on the ride of getting there. Just like books have an imaginary reader, I felt like this event had an imaginary audience member, and at the end of the day, it wasn’t me.
A few months before the pandemic, I took my sister to a Dead [Women] Poet’s Society event. It was held in DINA, a café-bar in Sheffield, low ceilinged and candlelit. Upon entering, we were offered a glass bowl containing rolled up poems like they were sweets. I still have The Starry Night by Anne Sexton, tied like a scroll with a piece of pink wool.
Opening my laptop on Sunday night, I felt once again like I’d stumbled across a friendly coven. DWP refuses to be challenged by any veil: the one between life and death, the veil of Zoom… the intriguing, friendly atmosphere wasn’t diluted by digital format, and the host’s warm chatter made me feel privy to something secret.
The first ‘resurrection’ was of poet Julia Darling, articulately performed by Hannah Hodgson. Hannah’s ….talk? (I am loathe to call it a presentation, lecture, lesson, or anything similar, there’s a reason they use the word séance) was like poetry in and of itself. Her Zoom square was lit softly by the Spring evening as she guided us through her own poetic responses to Darling’s work.
If you’re an open-mic regular, you might wonder how the intimate hush of writers sharing writing translates onto a video call. On Sunday night, it came from being shown the poetry on-screen. Yes, it was only a word document, but seeing felt similar to being shown Hannah’s personal notebook, or being given a window into her head. She guided us through every screen she sees when writing, and I felt more connected with the poetry than I would have if she’d been on stage with a microphone.
I felt much the same about Momtaza Mehri’s resurrection of May Ayim. There were one or two tech issues, which I only mention because they were so magnificently handled. As host Helen rightly pointed out, ‘it’s like really communicating with the dead,’ broken sounds and can you hear me? They transitioned to open-mic readers for a while, which was well-judged and seamless. When we did get to hear Momtaza, I couldn’t define where her explanations ended and poetry began, as she absorbed us in the work of Afro-German poet May Ayim.
The difficulty I found was focussing. I had to create my own space to feel poetic, and I failed to welcome myself to it with a bowl of rolled-up poems. The high calibre of the few open micers helped me stay on track, and I was grateful there were only around six of them. The usual DWP rule of two poems per reader (one dead poet’s poem and one of their own) translated excellently into a digital format, and I can wholeheartedly say that every reader I heard that night was excellent. I do not say this lightly. Some of my personal favourites were readings of Helen Dunmore and Lucille Clifton poems, and the jaw-dropping (genuinely, my mouth was open) work of Ellora Sutton.
As the event came to a close, I was craving that collective feeling of applause. I wished everyone would turn their mic on and clap, although trying to enforce that would have fractured the laid-back feeling of the event. Summoning the atmosphere of a crowd is something not even the Dead [Women] Poets can quite achieve, and I felt its absence after hearing so much genuinely brilliant writing. For a long time after I shut my laptop, I was haunted by longing for a candlelit room, crammed-full seats, and the hush of poetry.
Find out about all their upcoming events by visiting their website here.