I love being part of the collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. It pushes me to write in a different way and about subjects I wouldn’t have even thought of approaching.
Each term, members can volunteer to hold one of the workshop sessions and last term I forced myself to raise my hand – despite huge nerves.
Several weeks passed and I hadn’t worked out what on earth would be the subject matter of my session. “Pick something you feel really passionate about,” advised Jill Abram, MPK’s Director.
I’ve always felt passionate about the power of place, but too many workshops already explore this subject. Then bingo – Sarah Howe won the T S Eliot Prize and was subjected to such questionable, sexist reporting (causing a twitter storm around one particular journalist’s remark that turned into the hashtag #derangedpoetess) – I knew I wanted to explore the language of gender.
Language is used to denigrate people of either gender. Correction, a gender that’s different to the writer’s own. Because let’s face it, the expansion on the M and F tick boxes is one of the biggest developments in humanity recently.
As poets we make conscious decisions about the exact word to use and when. But what if those words come laden with unconscious gender-bias? What if we’re accidentally using language programmed into us?
A lively debate ensued, aided by pink and blue post-its, mind-blowingly restrictive search engine definitions of male and female words, poems written by women and men, poems about and men or women, poems that kept you guessing. I then set some writing exercises based around using he and she, to see what the outcomes could be.
Admittedly, I could’ve kept a tighter rein on the ratio of heated debate to actual writing (lesson learned there for the next time I run a workshop) but to be honest I was enjoying myself too much! It’s clear that language has a long way to go before becoming gender-neutral and that our own choices as poets may only be choices peppered with bias that we aren’t even aware of unless challenged.