Letters to the World:

Poems from the Wom-Po LISTSERV

Edited by Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace, and Lesley Wheeler.
(Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2008).
456 pages. Paperback: $25.00, ISBN # 978-1597090995.

Reviewed By Jeannine Hall Gailey




     I have to admit when I first heard about this anthology project I felt…dubious. I enjoyed being on the “Discussion of Women’s Poetry Listserv” – or “Wom-Po” – and respected the purpose that Annie Finch started the Listserv with: the idea to create a space to discuss poetry by women. But when they proposed the idea for an anthology on the list – a poem from each member who wanted to contribute, whether they had never published before or had great reputations as poets – I had my doubts that it would be a collection worth reading. I’m skeptical that way, especially about “all-inclusive” projects.

     But when I received my contributor copy from Red Hen Press, I sat down expecting to just flip through it and ended up reading the whole thing, cover to cover. This anthology was better than many of the academic collections I’d looked through for classes or anthologies that tried to capture a generation or a certain kind of poetics. It was inclusive, and yes, it included poets that had never been published before – and the poems themselves were consistently and surprisingly terrific. While this review can only focus on a few examples, I have to say I was impressed with the majority of the poems that appear here – which I can’t say about many anthologies.

     The poems are organized alphabetically, with Katha Pollitt next to (this magazine’s editor) Cati Porter, with poets of every imaginable poetic stripe, and a lot of names that were familiar to me and that I already admired – Alicia Ostriker, Kate Greenstreet, Rachel Zucker, Eloise Klein Healy, to name a few – as well as poets I’d never heard of. There were formalists like Marilyn Hacker and experimental poets like Heidi Lynn Staples. There were poems from women I know personally and from women I know from their blogs, and poems from women I’d never heard a peep from on Wom-po. There were poems from North America, yes, but also from Ireland, South Africa, India and Iran.

     Among the standouts for me was the witty and biting “What It Takes to Be Lois Lane” by Celia Lisset Alvarez:

Her shoes pinched as she walked
handing over typed carbon copies of her resume
explaining once again that she was not interested
in the secretary position, although she was
good at steno and really appreciated
that comment about her legs.

     Suzanne Frischkorn’s poem, “Mermaid,” about a domesticated fantastical creature, was sharp and touching:

I still don’t know how I washed up on shore,
           drunk from the storm, a third of me stuck
in mud. I used to sing this wild melody
like an Aeolian harp…
           …That’s so far west now.
Before those creatures with spliced tails freed me.
To teach me to kneel.
To teach me to spin.

     Many of the poems are explicitly about the experience of being female, like Annie Finch’s “Letters for Emily Dickinson,” Kathy Pollitt’s “The Expulsion” (“Adam was happy—now he had someone to blame/for everything: shipwrecks, Troy…”) or Diane Lockward’s “Losing the Blues,” which finished with the lines:

                I’m cerise, vermillion, scarlet,
           ruby, crimson, fuchsia, magenta,
      and flame. I could burn
the hands off a man.

     But it’s not the only subject: various vivid landscapes appear and disappear in these poems, along with pop cultural references, religious iconography, and poems about poetry, including one poem by David Graham called “Long Overdue Note to My College Professor Who Broke Down and Cried One Morning in 1974 While Teaching Yeats.”

     The poems are interspersed with short essays about what the Wom-Po list has meant to various members, about problems with race and class and country, diverse allegiances and experience levels, about how Wom-Po allowed members isolated by circumstance or geography to learn about the poetry world, about how some women poets wrestled with the idea of needing a “women’s poetry listserv” at all. These essays give a glimpse into the political, personal and poetical struggles that each listserv member has as they try to come together, to create civil, intelligent, vibrant discourse about a subject they all value.

     Despite my earlier misgivings, I think I like this anthology mostly for representing so many voices, so many points-of-view, so many stylistic choices, instead of the narrow range that most anthologies embrace. I’d compare it the experience to shopping at the produce department of the local A&P for many years, then suddenly finding yourself in the midst of Seattle’s Pike Place market, surrounded by stacks of marvelous fruits, vegetables and flowers from hundreds of countries, from every season, of every color and shape.



Jeannine Hall Gailey is the author of Becoming the Villainess, published by Steel Toe Books in 2006. Poems from the book were featured on Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac; two were included in 2007’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Ninth Letter. She teaches for the MFA program at National University and volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review.