Under the Influence.... of Women Artists
March 5, 2014
In honor of Women's History Month, we asked poet Maureen Seaton—a 1994 NEA Literature Fellow—to share with us five women artists who have influenced not just her work but her life as an artist. Or as Seaton put it, what follows is her list of "women writers who rocked my world when I needed it most, though some had been writing for years, and all have continued to rock."
To Marilyn Hacker, for writing intimately and juicily in traditional poetic forms as both a lesbian and a mother. Among her poems that thrilled me then (and will always) is “Rune of the Finland Woman” (from Assumptions), which I was privileged to hear in person at Womanbooks on the Upper West Side, circa 1985. Hacker made me want to write. She made me HAVE to write. She also helped me come out and eventually risk writing as a lesbian myself. And that particular poem, that gorgeous wordfeast, may have been the first to fill my mouth with flowers, but everything Hacker has ever written is delicious.
To Ntozake Shange, for saying “poem is my thank-you for music” in her choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, and taking me to a place where words danced and chanted and healed in community. I also toted Nappy Edges around with me until the cover fell off. Then I let my own rhythms carry me around Chicago as I peddled textbooks in the city schools. I memorized “i live in music,” which I still assign to my students all these years later in every Intro to Creative Writing class I teach; and “with no immediate cause,” which restored me, both personally and communally.
To Tillie Olsen (1912-2007), for tracking and asserting the creativity of writers silenced by the dominant society because of sex, color, and class—whose groundbreaking book, Silences, equipped me with the stories (and statistics) I needed to break my own. As the first woman in my family to divorce, graduate from college, work outside the home, and write—even to believe I had the right to write and teach and raise my kids at the same time—I was primed for Olsen’s literary support. Her short story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” literally blew me into a new space of awareness.
To Audre Lorde (1934-1992), for making her own name into a visual poem when she was still a child; for her poems and essays, especially “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (from Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press), which continues to be the most moving piece of writing I’ve encountered in my life, a song of the “deeply female and spiritual,” seven short pages guiding me toward consciousness and responsibility to self. It took me years of reading this piece to fully understand it, and I’m not sure I’m there yet. But always, there is the warmth, the light, and there is hope. And dignity.
To Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), for her incredible life and poetry of activism. I found her first through the Poetry Wall at St. John the Divine Cathedral (NYC), mid-eighties, and I loved her for making that wall a place for anyone to exhibit their work. Then Paris Press reissued The Life of Poetry (with a forward by her dear friend, Jane Cooper) in 1996, and I was mesmerized by Rukeyser’s theories of why so many fear poetry, how poetry is an exchange of energy that both creates and requires consciousness, and how it inevitably, undeniably, changes the greater world for good—and, once again, my own world tilted.
Seaton has authored numerous poetry collections, solo and collaborative—recently, Fibonacci Batman: New & Selected Poems (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2013). In addition to her NEA fellowship, her awards include the Iowa Poetry Prize, Audre Lorde Award, Lambda Literary Awards for both lesbian poetry and memoir, and the Pushcart Prize. She is professor of English/creative writing at the University of Miami.