The Poetess, The Outraged, and The Wild Woman

The other day I was genuinely discombobulated (and a bit upset) that a fairly well-known literary author (or should that be authoress?!) decided to, completely out of the blue, tweet me at my Marija Smits Twitter account to say this:


@MarijaSmits PoetESS? Really? I’ve find that title very belittling. Poet is genderless. Like writer. And chemist.


Now, as some of you know, I am a deeply reflective person. I don’t do quick, clever retorts or off-the-cuff tweets (as I have to assume this was, given the typo). I don’t do ‘soundbites’, so I’m sure as hell not going to start a discussion about this on Twitter.

But… I thought and thought about it, and carefully considered what to do about this tweet. The HSP in me said: ‘Say nothing, don’t speak out, be silent, because then you won’t get hurt and overwhelmed by it all.’ But the Wild Woman in me – she who is very good at helping me to speak out when I know an issue is dear to me – said: ‘Be brave. Write. Explain yourself. Speak out for all the Wild Women who are silenced in small and big ways every day.’

So here are my thoughts. I would also like to add that as most of you know, yes, I am careful with my words, so I did not choose the title ‘poetess’ lightly, and I want to explain my reasoning behind this. To help me do this, let’s begin to analyze that tweet…


Definition of 'poetess'
Definition of ‘poetess’

The Poetess

Why is the female gendered form of ‘poet’ belittling? Is ‘poet’ truly genderless? I sometimes see women calling themselves ‘female poets’ but I don’t read about ‘male poets’. So is ‘poetess’ “belittling” because the author who tweeted me assumes that the male form is the usual default, and that the female form is obviously subordinate and therefore lesser?

This is the same impulse in genderless environments/occupations like ‘scientist’ or ‘chemist’. In fact, these cultures (academic and commercial) are competitive, aggressive and confrontational, and, in fact, stereotypically masculine. Women are equal in this “genderless” world as long as they behave like men. But not paid the same, of course. And, it’s worth noting, some women are better than other women at behaving like stereotypically masculine men. (The arena of politics is another apt example.)

Removal of the female gendered form in artistic contexts is denying the different lived experience and different aesthetic/sensibility that women have. It belittles them by suggesting they can only be equal to men by being the same and having the same identity.

As a deeply reflective person, I thought about the pros and cons of using the word ‘poetess’ for a fair while before I decided to give myself that title on my blog… I meant to call myself ‘poetess’ because my poetry reflects (and is generally about) my life as a woman and the impact that my feminine identity has on my artistic expression. Why should we women NOT be allowed to draw attention to our gender in the names we choose for ourselves? Why must the female form be suppressed? How does this suppression “enlarge us” and make us less “little”? And finally, why must I, a woman, face attack from another woman who wants to censor the names I use for myself? This, in itself, is a belitting, and sad disempowerment – which is fundamentally against everything that I have strived for in my breastfeeding counselling voluntary work, my writing and my publishing work.

Continuing to look at the bigger picture, I also see from the breastfeeding support world that sometimes people get upset about the use of the word ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and that it should be simply ‘parent’. Now, I think we’re getting into difficult territory here, because mothers and fathers have differing, though unique roles. And believe me, I’ve seen enough people arguing about this until I’m fit to burst with melancholy. I’ve been drawn into it myself, while arguing for safe spaces for women, and I’ve been called names to my face and seen some pretty ugly name-calling online. And then I’ve also read the arguments about how we should all just call each other and ourselves humans so that we cut out any gendered stuff like ‘man’ or ‘woman’. And perhaps, while we’re at it, we should get rid of female and male names (or perhaps adopt the male names only – they can be the standard, right?!). Again, this is tricky territory we’re getting into, and one that needs far more critical (and nuanced) thinking about than our social media–savvy society seems to be able to cope with.


The Outraged

But, coming back to the tweet… I cannot see that my use of the word ‘poetess’ is worth the outrage. Or perhaps it is? Maybe, by labelling myself thus, I unknowingly hit upon a nerve. But I know too that we are living in the age of outrage and people seem quick to look for reasons to be offended. Indeed, some of them go out of their way to be offended. (Something I cannot for the life of me understand.)

I also thought it particularly apt that just the other day I read this excellent blog post by Kristen Lamb about whether or not Facebook is dying, and how it really isn’t about fun (and harmless) socializing anymore. Kristen said that she’d done something she’d never expected to do – unfollow other writers – because they were simply too busy being outraged (my words here) and it wasn’t much fun.

These writers—The Unfollowed—have mutated from friends into geysers of hysteria, hate, ranting, or general pissed-offedness. And I think that’s sad. The same writer who’s spending time on social media might one day announce a book that I would have seen and maybe even bought…had they not pushed me to the point of unfollowing anything they posted.

There are even some well known authors I used to read and buy their books…but now I no longer like them. Deep down I resent how they’ve selfishly beaten me over the head with their opinions. Frankly, there are too many nice and considerate authors to buy from instead.

The thing is… when this author-tweeter started following me on Twitter the other day, I felt genuinely excited because she is an acclaimed writer. Though now… I feel deflated and I have a desire to stay off social media. But hey, that’s the world we live in at the moment and it’s probably a good reminder to me that no matter what I say online someone somewhere will be offended by what I, a woman, choose to call myself.


The Wild Woman

I now feel in a place in my life where I don’t just want to stick to Aren’t cats cute? online. Maintaining a front of 100% bland and inoffensiveness is exhausting and depleting to the soul. So I will continue to be me, to be genuine and truthful to my own Wild Woman. For she is the one who reminds me in countless ways every day that I am a woman, and a mother, and a poetess, and that I should take pride in my identity.





24 thoughts on “The Poetess, The Outraged, and The Wild Woman”

  1. Love this post, Marija. I’d never have thought to call myself an ‘authoress’, but I’m convinced by your reasoning – the idea of ‘genderless’ suddenly struck me as not unlike white people claiming to be ‘colour-blind’ and how unhelpful that can be to non-white people trying to draw attention to unconscious racism. 100% behind your right to call yourself whatever you like – go wild woman!

    1. Thank you, Becky! And I think you raise a very good point about the apparent ‘colour-blindness’ of some white people. Because it’s impossible to completely erase our memories and lived experience of being a white person living in a (mainly white) society. Just like it’s impossible for men living in the western male-friendly society (or call it the patriachy, if you will) to not subconsciously accept the male-bias and privileges that they receive as the ‘standard’. I’m not saying that therefore all white people are racists, or that all men are misogynists, but that we all have our own ‘default’ settings of what day-to-day life is like for us, and how people in that society behave towards us and so we can never be truly free of an underlying bias.

      I think that sometimes we have to consciously turn off (and re-evaluate) our own ‘default’ settings if we are to truly empathise with other people. And interestingly, for me, I find that writing short stories is one way to practise doing this, because I know that when I begin to create a protagonist (particularly if she is a heroine) I instantly imagine her as white, middle-class and heterosexual simply because I am. So, in fact, I revert to my ‘default’ (and perhaps a rather cliched character…?). So… just like when trying to dream up a non-cliched plot, or story idea, I make myself think outside my own comfort zone and try to think of characters who would be wildly different to me. I’m not entirely sure that people are always 100% comfortable with writers doing this (of course it’s awful when it’s done badly), but as long as I research the traits/background of that character and use the same level of high research that I would use for other aspects of my story e.g. the worldbuilding or plot, then I’ve done all that I can. And… you know what, I’ve learnt something new and maybe gained some insight into something that I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t pushed myself out of my own comfort zone. Anyway, thanks for the comment!

  2. maddy@writingbubble

    This is such a thought-provoking post Marija. I’d noticed and wondered about your ‘poetess’ label just in an interested way, so it’s really enlightening to find out more about your thought process. It makes sense too. i’d always thought that genderless words were liberating in some way but, ooh you’ve made me think. in fact I need to think before commenting further really! I totally stand by your right to call yourself what you want though and without meeting outrage along the way. xxx

    1. Thanks for your comment, Maddy – and as you know already, I’m ever so pleased to know that my posts are making you think. I also think that we’ve tried to have this discussion a couple of times (about poetry being personal) and never quite got around to it… Anyway, I think my point is that poetry (for me anyway) does seem to be an intensely personal kind of writing and I can see that that’s so for some other women who write poetry too. So when it’s SO intensely personal (and about the female body, breastfeeding, motherhood etc.) I do feel that my identity as a woman comes in to play then. Now, if I was only writing poetry about abstract concepts, or non-gendered material things in an objective fashion then I would imagine one’s sex/lived experience of being that sex doesn’t come in to play. But then again, I also think that poems that leave out any kind of personal are rather cold… So I kind of go back to square one and think that yes, poetry is personal, and so yes, if one is writing about anything of substance, and the personal is part of it, then it does matter whether you are a male poet or a female poet, hence the beautiful word ‘poetess’ instead of ‘female poet’. Anyway, thanks for commenting. And, as always, I’d love to know what you think. M xxx

  3. I’ve agonised about this myself. It’s a very hot topic in the poetry world – or at least the female poetry world, particularly since women actors have been claiming the term ‘actor’ rather than ‘actress’. Honestly, I can understand someone not wanting to be thought of as a poetess when she is a poet and has to fight every day to be seen in a world that favours males a lot – just look at the Vida stats! I used to call myself a poetess occasionally, partly because of Erica Jong’s poem about sexism in the poetry world (it includes the clever line, “They think: the only good poetess is a dead.”). I wouldn’t now. It’s great to celebrate the feminine and I’d never berate someone else for calling herself a poetess, as the person who contacted you on Twitter apparently did. If that’s what you feel you are, then fantastic! I would say that for me, we’re still on the front lines of gender equality in poetry, and when ‘poetess’ had connotations of irrelevance, lack of ability etc for centuries, it will one day be time to reclaim it. But for now, I think it’s important (for me) to stand up and say, we women are poets too. You men are poets – well we are too! When that battle is more or less won, I’ll be excited about reclaiming the phrase ‘poetess’ as part of poetic history/herstory, rather than it being a dismissive term. Just as in the 80s we wore trouser suits and did power dressing to make a point and claim male clothing, so we need to do the same with the term ‘poet’. Though now we celebrate traditionally feminine dress too and can wear anything, I hope. Fingers crossed that poetry follows suit, as it were.You might be a trailblazer in this regard.

    1. Thank you Cathy for your enlightening comment, although I can’t find the poem you mention online, gah! If you have a link/a book reference I would love to read it. But, as I went searching, I did find this excellent article about sexism in literature by Erica Jong and that was pretty enlightening too. I’m putting the link here to remind myself (and others) who love long lists of books by women.

      And yes, I hear you and can, equally, understand your reasons for wanting to call yourself a poet rather than a poetess (and especially as you are far more immersed in poetry world than I am – I feel that I am more of a dabbler). Do you mind, though, clarifing your point here (because I’d like to better understand): “and when ‘poetess’ had connotations of irrelevance, lack of ability etc for centuries, it will one day be time to reclaim it.” Do you mean that it had connotations of irrelevance, lack of ability for a long time and so it was abandoned in contemporary times because of those negative connotations? And I’d love to know what you think about books that have titles such as “contemporary women poets” or “female poets”. Do you think them relevant/necessary?

      And… I have to wonder when the battle will be won though? Sometimes it feels as though we’re almost there. And then at other times it feels as though it’ll never happen. We definitely seem to be in a time of flux when language is used as a weapon and the policing of language is vicious too; which is strange, really, because language is always in flux too. So perhaps that’s why it’s so powerful? Anyway, thank you for your comment and I one day hope we’ll be able to talk more about this. And, of course, I’d love to be a trailblazer, but then again, that would mean that I might actually have to find some time to write more poetry, eh? 😉

      1. ‘Do you mean that it had connotations of irrelevance, lack of ability for a long time and so it was abandoned in contemporary times because of those negative connotations? And I’d love to know what you think about books that have titles such as “contemporary women poets” or “female poets”. Do you think them relevant/necessary?’

        Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Think of the excellent female poets of the Romantic era: Mary Alcock, Mary Robinson and Felicia Hemans. How many people have heard of them compared to Byron, Shelley etc? Dorothy Wordsworth is well-known, but mainly because of her brother. In the literature of the time there were disparaging comments about poetesses.
        It also distresses me that people need to make the distinction between ‘poet’ and ‘female poet’ or ‘poetess’ – because they, like the more sexist men, dont see the word ‘poet’ as including their work, sadly. That is what they have been taught.
        Re. anthologies of ‘female poets’ or ‘woman poets’ – my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, it’s redressing a balance – like anthologies of Poets of Colour, or QUILTBAG poets, they allow voices to be heard who have been marginalised. However, as the poet Anna Percy pointed out, they “…always have tits on the cover.” Well, not always breasts, but it’s as if you can’t have poetry by women unless accompanied by an arty print of a naked woman. This is improving since the internet made a wider variety of publishing possible, and these days, if you google ‘anthology women poets’ you get a healthy mix of covers.
        There are hardly any anthologies of work by ‘poetesses’.
        It’s also a form of ghettoisation, and gives white male poets an excuse not to include us under the umbrella of poets: you have your own anthologies, they can say. But the anthologies themselves usually contain marvellous and fascinating work, so I do buy them.
        Are you familiar with the #derangedpoetesses furore?
        There’s a lovely, and also balanced, discussion of gender in poetry here:

        Recently, I won letter of the day in The Guardian’s football newsletter. The next day there was a letter accusing the guardian of sexist bias in favour of women, because they had given the prize (a book!) to a woman, and had done so on one occasion before. The newsletter is a daily newsletter, and a woman wins the prize, when there is one, on about one occasion in twenty. But women must not step into the men’s domain. That is still the feeling out there. And for me, as long as we don’t claim that land, we’ll be excluded from it.

        1. Cathy, thank you so much for your thoughtful and enlightening comment, and thanks for responding to my question. Yes, I can see that ‘poetess’ had negative connotations and so it was abandoned in contemporary times, and I see, too, your point (made here & earlier) about there needing to be a fight to get ‘poet’ to include both sexes. And that is absolutely fine – it’s a fight that needs to be fought, but as I said on my Facebook page, it’s not my fight, because I would like to reclaim the word ‘poetess’ as being relevant in today’s world – for those women poets who feel it is the right word to describe them and their poetry. It also strikes me that there is much of this infighting going on in the world of feminism/women’s rights and I see analogies here with mothers who are fighting to get more free hours of childcare because they want to return to work soon after they’ve had their babies. Now, that is absolutely fine – that is their fight, and I do believe that our society should help mothers to return to the workplace, if they so wish. BUT… it’s interesting that I have seen online (and in real life) mothers telling those who have chosen not to return to work that they are dishonouring this fight (and I’ve been called out/attacked about my decision to full-time mother my children when they were little and actually say that I was a full-time carer). Again, there are analogies here, because surely, true feminism is about choice? If a mother wants to stay at home and mother her children she should be allowed to do so free of attack. Likewise for those mothers who truly wish to return to the workplace they should be able to do so with the support of others. And as for claiming the title ‘poet’ or ‘poetess’, surely it is about the individual woman’s choice? So in fact, the ‘fight’ is along various battle lines, in various locations and terrains, and perhaps it would help us all to look around amidst the battle and see that in fact, we are still on the same side, just fighting for equality in our own unique ways.

          And thank you so much for the links – I will look forward to reading them soon, and I’m SUPER GLAD that you won the letter of the day! That is ace! But boo to the sexism. Still shocks (and saddens) me that this can happen nowadays.

          Anyway, thank you again, Cathy, for your comment and for making me think. M xx

  4. You’ve got me thinking. Perhaps everything really does have a default gender and that Gallic cavemen had a synaesthetic gift for discerning what it is. Also I’m thinking the suffix -ess is a rather lovely embellishment. If you have a valid reason for tagging your membership of the female subset, rather than the male subset of the universal set of poets, why not use a poetic word for it?

    1. So glad I’ve got you thinking, and I must admit I love the -ess suffix too. It’s part of so many beautiful words I love and somehow, it just feels ‘right’. Thanks for your support, Ana. 🙂

  5. A very considered and powerful post, Marija. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but I do agree with you that we are in danger of losing our gender identity by denying it all the time. In purely aesthetic and imaginative terms, the very word ‘poetess’ conjures up for me a wise woman, a shaman (or should that be shamaness?) and all the divine and all-powerful qualities which go with such a title. We should be celebrating the female voice, and all the things which make it different and special and if we want to end in an ‘ess’ then who should tell us otherwise?!

  6. Thank you for really making me think. I have nothing to add to this conversation, yet, but (as a poet who happens to be of the female persuasion) I will definitely be mulling it over.

  7. Marija, what on earth was going through this writer’s head to basically strike out at you like this?? A few points…

    1. It has nothing to do with this person what you call yourself.

    2. Poetess to me feels like a strong word…think lioness.

    3. Why do people feel it is okay to do this, bloody armchair warriers hiding behind a computer. Would this woman have done this to you face, I think not!

    4. If we are going to talk about belittling, then calling someone out, who you do not know and for no good reason is the epitome of that word.

    I really feel for you with this Marija, I can mull things over like this for weeks, but really this person is not worth your energy. That said, it has produced a beautiful and thought provoking post.

    Thank you always for sharing your thoughts and for always being you.

    Much love, Jane xx

  8. Hello. Thank you for your tnought provoking post. I love that you draw attention to another blog where we live in the age of outrage with arm chair wwarriors. I had no idea that such a war was raging around poet/poetess. Women have always been authors and poetsand writers to me, having never really come acrossthe word, and i gave no thought to the gender of the noun until now: thank you. It Seems to me that ( and I need to give it some thought) that if you feel the need to claim the title becuase it sums up p, who you are and your innate sense of self then that is your right. No one should sneer at that and anyone who feels the need to should get their own house and sense of self in order.

    It seems to me you have e taken a step towards reclaimimg something that is other; imbued with a sense of mystery a d feminine power. No coincidence that the word iyself is full of sibilance and magic: think prophetess .

    In otherwords do what you need to do which says who you are.

    1. Hello! and you’re welcome. I’m so glad you found my post thought-provoking – and I agree, I think I am reclaiming something that is “other; imbued with a sense of mystery and feminine power.” Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. Best wishes, Marija. 🙂

  9. Yes! I feel the need to claim the feminine words because the erasure of them is not addressing sexism instead it’s pandering to the equality in the realms of men thing that’s going on at the moment. Women’s traditional and current roles are devalued because of misogyny, not because of the ‘ess’. I don’t see why I should pretend to be a man to be taken seriously. Thanks for the brilliant and thoughtful piece.

    1. I’m so glad that my piece spoke to you, and you’re quite right – women’s traditional and current roles are devalued because of misogyny, nothing else. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the root problem. It’s just crazy what’s going on in some spheres – I heard a while ago about ‘pregnant person’ being the “correct” terminology for an expectant mother and I felt like a part of me had been erased. Most men wouldn’t care about this – because those words are not about their lived experience. But I’m sure there would be a lot of outrage (just like on International Women’s Day when some men immediately ask “What about International Men’s Day?”) if words like “father” “he” “him” “brother” etc. were erased and replaced with genderless/neutral words. I just wonder sometimes (rather despondently) about where all this female erasure is going to take us. Don’t feel it’s going to be good for us women and our daughters (and sons)…

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