As you might imagine, there was a comical symmetry when I, an often irritating female poet, watched the movie Adult World about . . . an often irritating female poet. The film opens on Amy (Emma Roberts) marking her stack of poems “for posthumous publication.” She looks at herself in the mirror, while behind her a Sylvia Plath poster hovers ominously. She says, “Oh Sylvia,” as though to an old friend, and then sticks her head in the oven, as we knew she would. She ultimately decides against it, though, because this act would amount to “suicidal plagiarism.” We also suspect she very much wants to live on and write.
I laughed at Amy at first. Part of it was that I was laughing at myself of course—earnest, pretentious poet-girl-Hagood. But part of me also felt this was not fair, and maybe there was something to admire about Amy. For one thing, she believes in her writing enough to think it will be published after she dies.
I’m bound to root for this character that I inevitably identity with, if only because she also grew up feeling and talking too much, didn’t know where to put it all, so started pouring it into the poetry. After she graduates college, Amy’s dad breaks it to her that he can no longer afford to “subsidize her poetry career.” He tells her it’s time to “cut the umbilical cord.” She tells him she’s feeling a lot and writing a lot. But he does give her stamp money “just until you win the Pulitzer.” My father is nodding his head in recognition right now as he reads this.
We then see her going on job interviews where the interviewers fold up her resume when she tells them she majored in poetry. Let’s just say I have seen my fair share of interviews that effectively end when I let slip my poetic leanings. I spent six years studying poetry in a PhD program for goodness’ sake.
When Amy loses hope, she sees a Help Wanted sign in the window of Adult World. She takes this as a “sign,” both “literally and figuratively.” The other double entendre exists in the store’s title, in that it’s both a sex shop and a symbol for Amy’s journey into, well, the adult world. A funny aside: because the store is run by an older couple and a guy her age works there, it seems she’s actually just moving into a different American family whose resources she will also squander while monomaniacally pursuing her poetry calling.
My question, though, is how Amy’s singleminded poetic passion might play differently if Amy were Adam and not a poet but a fiction writer. There has been a fascinating debate going on surrounding the notion of the female art monster that I’ve been following compulsively. A lyrical instance of this can be found in Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation, wherein this woman has vowed to remain husband-free, to be an “art monster,” that marvelous shimmering creator rather than created, which women so rarely get to be. Nabokov, Offill reminds us, didn’t even lick his own goddam stamps; he had his wife Véra to do that.
With Offill in mind, Claire Dederer came out with a much-discussed Paris Review piece on what’s to be done with the work of monstrous men. As you read on, it deepens into an essay on how women writers must, on some level, become monstrous to make their art. To clarify, Dederer refers to the supposed “monstrousness” of a woman taking time for herself, away from husband and children and her perceived duties as eternal caretaker, not the monstrousness of, say, offing someone to find writing time.
In her brilliant book Heroines, Kate Zambreno points out that the whole idea of the Great American Novel is a masculine one. If you think we have a problem treating women as valid novelists, as just as worthy candidates to tell the tales of our collective times, to doggedly pursue their art as art monsters, then imagine this whole thing times a thousand if the woman in question writes poetry.
Amy runs away from home soon after her father cuts that “umbilical cord” by refusing to pay for her endless poetry submissions or to allow her to cancel her car theft insurance by sending the company a poem. Her father has “birthed” her out of the family home and into the great wide yonder of adulthood. Or rather that in-between zone, not a girl, not yet a woman as Britney sang it—that endless runway (sometimes without takeoff) of privileged American childhood.
When she tells her parents she got a job her father says “welcome to the adult world,” having no concept of the other entendre. I currently work as an adjunct creative writing professor at multiple colleges and on more lit mags than I can count. I’m tired, and I love it, and I’m still waiting on that big job I can one day brag to my dad about, even if it is at a sex shop (JK).
You see, you have to have some degree of chutzpah to be a poet, to willingly belong to a group of people who are often the butt of endless jokes. I can’t tell you how many people I entertain every year by telling them I write poetry (if I even tell them, after the years of mockery). You really should see people’s faces. Part of this also has to do with the pause any writer who isn’t Jonathan Franzen takes before making the proclamation, “I. am. a. writer.” The other part has to do with a hesitation to call something I make so little money from my occupation.
There’s an online literary magazine interview series where you interview yourself (a cheeky metaphor for my whole poetry career, perhaps). I asked myself what a poet was and answered, “A poet condenses long strings of thought in a top hat, finds unlikely associations, pulls these figurative rabbits out of the hat for an audience that rarely claps, and then cries because nobody’s clapping.” I asked what a poet should be: “A magician okay with not receiving applause.” And I asked what the funniest part of being a poet was: “The pay.”
I usually cave and tell the proverbial dinner party crowd that I teach creative writing. Which is true, but isn’t the whole truth. I also write things other than poetry, but they often fall in that in-between zone called the lyric essay, perhaps the only territory more disputed and sneered at than poetry. Of course I also attempted fiction. I put it under my pillow. No tooth fairy yet.
I get that poets can come off as annoying, pretentious, cloying, just like Amy, but the thing is they used to be the celebrities, epic tellers of their time, their sacred words meant to be sung to the lyre. So what happened? Even poets themselves often have an ambivalent relationship to poets and poetry. From the opening of Ben Lerner’s book, The Hatred of Poetry: “I, too, dislike it, and have largely organized my life around it (albeit with far less discipline and skill than Marianne Moore) and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are for me—and maybe for you—inextricable.”
When Amy pursues her poetry idol, Rat Billings (John Cusack), in search of a mentor, he reacts by saying, essentially, of course this is the kind of muse I’d get. Why does he see her as muse, writing inspiration, and not as a writer? Zambreno’s Heroines looks at the ways in which women writers are cast, in contrast to their myth-making male counterparts, as mentally ill muses.
In Zambreno’s important book, she shares that she’s always been trying to learn how to be a serious writer who writes important books. But this is hard to do when you’re cast as the kooky muse again and again. See every movie and its Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I marvel, though, at a dazzling wordsmith like Zambreno feeling she has to learn how to become a serious writer, or that, as Dederer says, to do this she may have to conceive of herself as a sort of monster.
But then I remember what Norman Mailer said about women writers, and how this belief is alive and well today. He wrote, “I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale . . . I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”
Perhaps women writers take on male pseudonyms not only to help with selling the book, but also to help with writing it. Maybe Amy doubts herself where Amy pretending to be Adam would not. There’s even a scene in Adult World where Rat tells Amy to go out and live more in order to become a better writer (the MFA teacher’s favorite fallback advice), and literally places a faux beard on her face before sending her off.
In Mailer’s large-scale takedown of women’s talent, we see their ability twisted up with their supposedly repugnant sexuality (Amy works in a sex shop, doesn’t she?)—woman writer as potential prostitute, weird lesbian, or failed mother. As Dederer doubtlessly knows, this female art monster is hardly a new concept, and her monstrosity has always been tied to sex. In fact, she’s as old as time, beginning perhaps when women’s stunning and sometimes gory reproductive capabilities got folded into a simultaneously frightening and awe-inspiring belief in her potential for creativity (and perhaps also its flip side, destruction) that needed to be kept in check.
One of the monstrous male art-makers that Dederer confronts in her article is Woody Allen. I mention this here because few filmmakers have so loved and included poetry in their films while also mocking women poets and conflating their creativity with their sexuality. What’s more, like Adult World, Allen targets Sylvia Plath in particular.
It’s hard to find one of Allen’s countless films that doesn’t have some reference to poetry, such as the lines penned by Boris (Allen) in Love and Death that are actually Eliot’s: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Yet his engagement with female poets is far from laudatory. Allen takes his most prominent potshot at a female poet in Annie Hall. When Alvy (Allen) spots Annie’s (Diane Keaton) copy of Plath’s Ariel, he says, “Interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic, by the college-girl mentality.”
In general, Allen treats female poets and their poetic output as punchlines to extended sex jokes. In his early science fiction spoof film Sleeper (1973), Luna (Keaton again) is a terrible poet who sells verses and greeting cards and, in a demeaning twist, majored in “cosmetic sexual technique in poetry” in college. When Miles (Allen) asks why she needs it since they have orgasmatrons, she replies, “in case the machine breaks.”
In Adult World, too, Amy’s poetic journey is inextricable form her sexual journey. Her quest to lose her virginity runs parallel to her quest to become a successful poet. In an early scene when she’s about to have sex with a cute college poet guy, she realizes his friends are secretly filming them from his closet. This is right after the guy says her poetry helps him see inside her, and that he wants to be inside her. Later, being Rat’s protégé ends up meaning that Amy cleans his house and offers to sleep with him. He doesn’t take her up on the sex offer but he is kind enough to include her in an anthology of shitty verse.
This scene recalls the girl poet movie I loved back when I was a girl poet, Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. I was riveted at the sight of another young poet trying to form herself, even though the film was way more obsessed with who gets to pop Lucy’s (Liv Tyler) cherry than with those haunting poem fragments she burns after writing. In short, the movie was way more interested in the moment she bears her breast for a portrait (muse, work of art) than the brave way she bears her inner life (writer, artist) in that incredible notebook of hers, bursting with her collaged poem pieces. How I longed to get my hands on it.
Some of Adult World’s and Allen’s treatment of female poets has to do with our current cultural belief that poetry is the province of teenage girls—or at least young (read immature) women—something to be grown out of and replaced with something more sensible and less embarrassing. (Somehow we forgot about all the macho male poets, and how back in the day they were rock stars.) Think of Allen’s saying Luna majored in poetic sexual technique in college or that Plath was misread by college girls. It almost seems like “poet” has come to mean a magnified version of all the qualities that have, with macho Maileresque repulsion, been attached to women writers in general. And no female poet has become more of a symbol of all this than Plath.
I came to the conclusion recently that every single review of a woman’s writing (not just poetry, but writing) since Plath forms its judgments by whether the reviewer imagines the writer loves Plath. For an example of what I’m talking about, check out Jessa Crispin’s Boston Review article on what she dubs wounded women writers, in which she touches on Leslie Jamison and also Zambreno. She doesn’t mention Plath explicitly, but both Zambreno and Jamison address her in their work, and Jamison loves her, so you see where I’m going with this.
Rebecca Solnit was not pleased with Dederer’s art monster article, arguing essentially that writers need not be selfish people. But I don’t think Dederer was saying that women have to become bad people to make art. She was just saying that they need to snatch a certain degree of space and time, and they need to believe the work they’re doing merits this.
Astutely, Dederer stresses that when women do this, it’s often coded as monstrous. In a certain sense, they either have to embrace this and find creative possibility in this monstrous territory or not take up that time and space at all.
On a related note, perhaps my favorite part of Zambreno’s book is where she talks about her new writing ritual. She wears high heels and tells herself, “you’re a fucking genius” in the mirror. She then tells her readers: “I urge you to write your own selves, your true and complicated selves. My scribbling sisters.”
My own writing ritual is as follows. As a self-professed annoying female poet and art monster, I pretty much am Amy from Adult World in this one way: I do have pictures of female writers on my walls, and I admit (announce proudly?) that Plath is among them. My wall is so full of them, in fact, that it’s coming to resemble a serial killer’s lair rather than any sort of serene writing space. I’m okay with this. And so I look up to my women (I think of them as mine and I love them) and I salute them; I say, “We’re doing this.”