poets

5 Badass Feminist Poets Everyone Should Know

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Payton Alexi Moore

Bisexual. Marxist/Ecofeminist. Advocate. Actress. Dancer. Goal in life: Queer up the world and end heteronormativity.

If you ask someone to name a feminist poet, more than likely the answer will be either Maya Angelou or Emily Dickinson. Both of these women hold a level of badassery, but other female poets deserve recognition as well. Growing up, I remember hearing about the same poets over and over again. In school, we spent a day on female poets as opposed to weeks on male poets, and I always wondered, aren’t there more awesome female writers? It wasn’t until I went to an all women’s college and majored in English Literature that I discovered how many amazing female poets there are in the world.

The list below pays homage to some amazing, kick ass feminist poets. It isn’t, by any means all the female poets, but a select few of my personal favorites.

Gwendolyn Brooks:

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Gwendolyn Brooks. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was an American poet and teacher who was the first black (she preferred black over African-American) person to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Brooks was born on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago, IL when she was six years old. She has been quoted as saying that Chicago was always her home. Brooks began writing and publishing as a teenager. By the age of sixteen, Brooks had published around 75 poems! Moreover, Brooks never went to college since she deemed it unnecessary for her: “I am not a scholar, I’m just a writer who loves to write and will always write.” Instead, Brooks worked as a typist while writing. Brooks eventually achieved national fame for her first work A Street in Bronzeville in 1945 and she won the Pulitzer in 1950 for her second collection of poetry, Annie Allen.

Brooks is known for writing about Chicago and also for writing about the social issues black women faced. Brooks wrote about the neighborhoods in Chicago that were silenced: the urban poor areas. Furthermore, Annie Allen focused on the life experiences of a young Black girl who grows up in Chicago. The collection looked at gender injustice, class injustice, and other various urban hardships. Both of these works are a great place for people to jump in and discover Brooks for the first time, and most of her poems are on the Poetry Foundation website.

Brooks is on the badass meter because she told the truth about what urban people of color faced in Chicago. Not to mention, it takes a true badass to have published around 75 poems by age sixteen.

Kishwar Naheed:

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Kishwar Naheed (1940) is a feminist Urdu poet from Pakistan who has written several poetry books earning her the Sitarae-lmtiaz award for her contribution to Urdu literature. Naheed is best known for her passion in women’s education.

Kishwar Naheed was born in 1940 in India, but moved to Pakistan with her family after the partition in 1949. During her childhood, she fought for her right to education resulting in her studying at home for her high school diploma. After high school, Naheed went on to obtain a Master of Arts in Economics from Punjab University. From there Naheed has held several major positions, including but not limited to: the general director of Pakistan National Council of the Arts, the editor of Maha New, a literature magazine, and the founder of the Hawwa organization. The Hawwa organization’s purpose is to support women who do not have an independent source of income.

Naheed has six incredible works of poetry. Her first work Lab-I-goya was published in 1968. In addition to that, Naheed writes poetry for children. Naheed’s most famous and, in my opinion, most badass work is her poem “We Sinful Women.” This poem in particular speaks to Naheed’s feminism. A copy of this poem in English and in the traditional language is in the book titled We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry by Rukhsana Ahmad.

Obviously Naheed is exemplary for many reasons: fighting her way to education, setting up an organization to help women, and so on. But, for me, she’s especially admirable for calling out British imperialism and white British colonialists themselves in her poetry!

Mitsuye Yamada

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Mitsuye Yamada (1923) is a badass Japanese-American poet, feminist, essayist, activist, editor, and a former professor.

Yamada was born in Fukuoka, Japan, but moved with her family to Seattle, Washington in 1926. Yamda spent most of her childhood in Seattle until after the Second World War when her father was arrested for espionage. From there, Yamada and her family were moved to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. Yamada attended the University of Cincinnati, yet earned her BA from New York University. Yamada also went on to get her MA from the University of Chicago. She also has been a professor of English at Cypress College in Seattle, Washington.

Yamada is an activist for women’s rights and her poetry showcases her experience of internment. Her first collection Camp Notes and Other Poems, published in 1976, demonstrates the racism she and her family faced while also recognizing the sexism that Asian women have faced. A favorite work of mine is Desert Run: Poems and Stories published in 1988. In this work we return to her time in the internment camp where she takes more of feminist approach than in her previous work on this topic. I highly recommend checking out any and all of her works!

Yamada is also the founder of Multicultural Women Writers of Orange County and is featured in a documentary titled Mitsuye and Nellie: Asian American Poets. This badass lady wrote and spoke about the racism and sexism Asian women endured and continue to endure today.

Carol Ann Duffy

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Carol Ann Duffy (1955) is a Scottish poet and playwright. What’s totally badass about her is that she is the first Scottish person, the first lesbian woman, the first woman, and the first mother to ever have been appointed Britan’s Poet Laureate (2009). In a nutshell, her work focuses on systems of oppression and in making her poetry accessible.

Duffy was born in the poor part of Glasgow. It is noted that she was an early reader, and she had wanted to be a writer. Duffy wrote her first poem at the age of 11 and had her first poem published at the age of 15. From there Duffy went on to the University of Liverpool to obtain a BA in Philosophy. Duffy has worked as a poet critic for The Guardian. Her plays have been performed at Liverpool Playhouse. She was editor of Ambit and the creative director of the Writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University.

What’s even more impressive were her first couple of poems she wrote as poet laureate. Duffy, not afraid to speak the truth, wrote poems like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which spoke about climate change, the banking crisis, and the war in Afghanistan. In fact, her first poem as poet laureate was a sonnet discussing the British parliament expense scandal. Duffy also wrote “Vigil” a poem dedicated to the memory of LGBTQ people who had lost their lives to HIV/AIDS.

Duffy also makes sure her poetry is accessible. Her style is to work with every day language and experience but to add in fantasy. Duffy’s own words on her poetry are: Like the sand and the oyster, it’s a creative irritant. In each poem, I’m trying to reveal a truth, so it can’t have a fictional beginning.” Duffy’s poetry is well known in British schools as part of the curriculum.

Qiu Jin

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Qiu Jin. Qiu Jin was a Chinese feminist revolutionary and writer who is considered a national heroine in China. Her badass nickname is the Female Knight of Mirror Lake.

Qiu Jin’s story begins with her becoming involved politically during an unhappy marriage. Jin became involved with the Triads, a group who advocated for the destruction of the Qing dynasty and a restoration of the Han Chinese government. In 1903, Jin left her two children behind to travel to Japan to study. Jin was known during her school time as one who wore Western male clothing and for her ideologies. Jin also became a part of the anti-Qing society which joined together with other anti-Qing groups to form the Tongmenghui. Later on, sparked by a belief that women held a better future with a government based on Western ideologies, Jin joined with her cousin Xu Xilin and they worked together to unite secret revolutionary groups. Jin spoke about her belief that women should have the freedom to marry who they choose and women shouldn’t have to bind their feet. Jin not only wrote about these things but acted on them as well. She founded a radical women’s journal and became principal of a school for secretly training revolutionaries. In 1906, Jin was arrested after her cousin’s confession and execution resulting in her torture and beheading. At the time, she was immediately recognized by fellow revolutionaries as a martyr and a heroine. She became the symbol of independence for women in China.

Not only are Qiu Jin’s actions full of badass, so are her writings. Her poetry and essays are often overlooked, but when read, her poetry can speak to one’s soul. Her essay titled “A Respectful Proclamation to China’s 200 Million Women Comrades” discussed the problems of bound feet and the restriction of marriage on women. Her poems speak of nationality and femininity. For more information on Qiu Jin, I suggest reading Ch’iu Chin: A Chinese Heroine by Lionel Giles. Or you can check out the movies made about her life Qiu Jin (1983) or Jing Xiong Nüxia Qiu Jin (The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, 2011).

H.D.

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I know I said I would discuss five badass female poets, but I couldn’t help but add in a little blurb about one of my favorite poets of all time!

Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) was a Bisexual American poet, novelist, and memoirist who published under the pen name H.D. What makes her a badass is the fact that she was completely open about her sexuality, wrote about exploring sexuality, and incorporated many feminist and queer tones to her work. She also challenged Freud during her time as his patient! Interested in women’s mythology? Check out her poem Helen in Egypt which is part of a trilogy!