Monday, February 17, 2020

Guest Post: Burning Bright: How Women Poets Conquered Horror Poetry by Jennifer Barnes

It’s been exciting to watch the discussion around Women in Horror Month expand over the years from why we need it, to how to support women in horror. It is now no longer possible to put out an all-male anthology or magazine without controversy, and we continue to see women horror writers publishing successfully. 

One place where the success of women is most obvious to me is in horror poetry. As managing editor for Raw Dog Screaming press I have seen first-hand a sharply increased interest in horror poetry and it’s the female poets who are leading the charge. If you tally the winners of the Bram Stoker award for Superior Achievement in Poetry since it was first given in 2000, there have been more women to receive this prize than men. By my unofficial count 15 women have been recipients compared to 11 men. Interestingly the women poets seem to collaborate more often so there are several years with multiple winners. You can start listing off the top of your head horror novelists or short story writers and not hit upon a woman, but you really can’t make a list of contemporary horror poets without including a few ladies. Powerhouses like Linda Addison, Charlee Jacob, Marge Simon, Christina Sng, Mary Turzillo, Corrine de Winter, and Stephanie M. Wytovich have been publishing for years, some for decades, and they have many awards, collections and hundreds of published poems to their names. 

One common thread is that many women who are poets actively support the scene as editors, board members, mentors, and volunteers. They are always supporting and showcasing other dark poets, and I think that is one of the keys to their success. Poetry editor for RDSP and several volumes of the HWA Poetry Showcase, Stephanie M. Wytovich, is always working to champion the female voice, “As the horror genre evolves, it’s doing so with a female-forward perspective in an attempt to even the playing field and get rid of stereotypes surrounding character tropes such as: the satanic pregnancy, the witch, the virgin, the final girl, the damsel-in-distress, etc. Because of that, female poets are also exploring and rewriting the way that we as readers interpret female body horror, sexuality, assault, and mental health in a way that is not only refreshingly honest and unapologetic, but new and very much needed.” Wytovich’s collection Brothela recipient of the Bram Stoker Award, tackles all these issues and more.

There have been a string of female poets whose collections have made a splash including Claire C. Holland, Donna Lynch, Lucy A. Snyder, Cina Pelayo, Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi, Saba Razvi and Sara Tantlinger and others. Readers are really responding to their work and it’s common to hear people say they never enjoyed poetry until they picked up one of these author’s books.

As both a publicist and poet Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi, author of the collection Breathe. Breathe. is a keen observer of publishing trends. “I believe women in horror poetry have really begun to open their flood gates so to speak and put their traumas, pain, regrets, hurt… all into their writing. With the ability to write deeply emotional words full of imagery we’ve been able to give readers a glimpse into the most intense and heartbreaking scenes from our lives that’s resonating more than ever before, not only with other women but with men too. I’ve never met so many men supporting women’s writing as I have with men supporting horror poetry and to me that speaks volumes.

She continues, “We’ve broken through barriers with women and men both who weren’t ‘poetry readers’ but learned to realize it’s relatable and real and raw and they like that because for some they’ve experienced similar things. Also, people can read it in short snippets over time or drown in it all at once, but everyone seems slightly changed after they connect with us through dark poetry.” 

Yet in any realm where the power dynamics are uneven there is also bound to be subversion and protest and that is certainly true in horror and poetry both. “I think the reason horror poetry by women is accepted is—in part—because of subtle, ingrained sexism,” Bram Stoker nominee Donna Lynch explains. “Women seem to get a lot of doubt cast on them when it comes to horror, as though they aren’t going to be raw or terrifying enough. Between that, and an outdated and erroneous belief that poetry is an inherently delicate medium, you get a really poor sense of what’s happening in the genre. So often I hear people saying they don’t ‘do’ poetry. People seem to forget the long (and predominantly male) history of dark, emotional, and terrifying poetry. It’s such a misunderstood art. 

“On the positive side, however, I think so many women have found their voice in poetry because it allows for so many complex ideas to happen hard and fast, and to be consumed quickly (though not always easily). And while horror poetry is not a new thing, women being able to use their voices without fear or societal backlash is, relatively speaking. We’ve got a lot to say, and it’s the perfect medium in which to say it.” In fact, Lynch’s own collection, Choking Back the Devil is a perfect example of complex, powerful ideas packed into a small space.

As with so many aspects of life, the doors of opportunity are not always wide open for women so they often take a backdoor approach. “Women are full of dark, complicated emotions, and many of us are full of anger – yet we’re always told to repress any emotion that isn’t pretty. I think dark poetry can be a bit of a covert way of expressing traditionally ‘unacceptable’ emotions,” says Claire C. Holland whose collection I am Not Your Final Girl is a manifesto of female strength.

“Writing horror poetry has been cathartic for me during my most difficult years, its brevity perfect for a life with little time to oneself and no support system,” says Christina Sng author of the Stoker winning A Collection of Nightmares. “It allows a poet to tell the story of her life in fragments of terrifying nightmares and enigmatic dreamscapes, leading a reader to wonder which is fact and which is fiction. As a reader weaned on confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, I believe it is the empathetic relatability of horror poetry that has led to its popularity because too many of us are living the same stories they tell.”

Regardless of the reason why women are at the forefront of the current swell of interest in horror poetry one thing is clear; they are here to stay. “Women have bloomed in horror poetry by transforming the hard edges delivered by life into searingly exquisite songs. Disavowing victimhood, we turn to, not away from shadowy corners filled with broken hearts, violence, and the ashes of hope. We will not be quiet,” declares HWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Linda D. Addison co-author of The Place of Broken Things.

Additional recommended reading:

Chimeric Machines by Lucy A. Snyder
The Devil’s Dreamland (Bram Stoker Award winner) by Sara Tantlinger 

Four Elements by Charlee Jacob, Rain Graves, Marge Simon and Linda D. Addison

heliophobia by Saba Syed Razvi

Poems of My Night by Cynthia Pelayo

Satan’s Sweethearts by Marge Simon and Mary Turzillo

Jennifer Barnes is managing editor of Raw Dog Screaming Press and has been in publishing for more than 15 years. She spent four years as an editor for The Dream People Literary Magazine. Her children’s book, Better Haunted Homes and Gardens, illustrated by Kristen Margiotta, is a seasonal favorite. Jennifer graduated from The University of Maryland with a BA in English and a concentration in poetry. She is also an accomplished graphic designer.

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