‘#JoinTheSeance!’ is Helen Bowell’s excited exhortation to a low-lit room of poetry enthusiasts, surrounded by electric candles in the basement of The Poetry Café and awaiting the ‘resurrection’ of three female writers by The Dead Women Poets Society. The group has held events in Bradford’s Fuse Art Space, at the Durham Book Festival, and inside Durham Castle, with four students and newly graduated poets forming its inner circle — Jasmine Simms, Sarah Fletcher, Katie Byford, and Helen Bowell. They describe themselves as a conversation between female poets both living and dead, facilitated through the medium of reading, interviews, and essays. Like a ‘revenant’ (as the publicity says), the group are returning to The Poetry Café in Covent Garden for a second time following a successful reading with Camille Ralphs and Phoebe Stuckes two weeks ago.
The event hosts talks by different contemporary female poets on a particular — often previously neglected — dead woman poet: tonight Rachel Long will talk on Audre Lorde, and Emily Harrison on Sarah Kane. This evening opens with a reading of ‘Bound for Hell’ by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (as per DWPS tradition), followed by Bowell’s ‘resurrection’ of Elizabeth Bishop and the introduction of the guest poets, before the stage is opened to the audience to join in the ritual (a deviation from DWPS tradition). There is just one caveat if you want to read your own poem: you must read one by a dead woman poet.
Beyond the playful hashtags, a séance is a helpful analogy for what the event strives for. ‘It’s an intellectual interest, not what we do on a Saturday night’ Helen tells me before the event, but I like to think the occult element flags up something more than intellectual about the gathering: a collective desire to bring back a voice from the past, to listen intently to it, and perhaps trace a line of descent to ourselves.
Rachel Long, a London-based poet and spoken word artist, spoke of the genuinely transformative influence upon her of the American poet, essayist, and novelist Audre Lorde. ‘Reading Lorde, I felt at my most erotic’, says Long, who claims the American writer taught her that the erotic and the sexual could be, indeed are, totally divorced. Long painted both herself and Lorde as gutsy and vulnerable, at once wholly subject to outside pressures and defiantly resistant to them. The second half featured Emily Harrison, member of The Burn After Reading Collective and solo feminist poet. Like Long, Harrison’s talk was alert to the poetic in writers who are not (or not always) poets: she spoke on a particularly poetic monologue from the playwright Sarah Kane’s ‘Crave’.
The Society’s aim is a promotive one: it’s about (re)discovering women poets who have been sidelined by the traditional white male canon (the four DWPS girls were all English or Classics students at some point). The object is recognition, not reverence: ‘let’s not forget she was a racist’ says Bowell of Elizabeth Bishop, on whom she delivers an in-depth talk on the theme of outsiders, honest in its confrontation of what is problematic in Bishop’s work.
For an audience, what is compelling is the sense that we are witnessing a conversation — and, crucially, being invited to contribute to it — between a woman speaking directly to us and another for whom she plays the medium. The talks were long and in-depth, but received with warmth and attentiveness by a small audience.
If the resurrection is figurative, I wonder if there are poets still alive who could benefit from more recognition on this kind of platform; as the DWPS’s publicity states, the resurrection is from both ‘death’ and ‘patriarchy’. Helen clarifies: ‘the living ones can speak for themselves, the dead cannot’. They need a helping hand, evidently, and Bowell’s liveliness and enthusiasm do the job.
Of course, by this she intends a silence on stage, not page. Does she believe in literary ghosts? ‘I hate Harold Bloom, but yes.’
By Alice Troy-Donovan
The Dead Women Poets Society hosted their event at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden on 24th August. You can keep up to date with their events here: https://dwpssite.wordpress.com / facebook.com/deadwomenpoets / @deadwomentweet