Dead [Women] Poets Society has resurrected dead women poets at “séances” across the UK, since 2015. They ask contemporary poets to choose a dead woman poet that interests them, read their poems aloud, share their life, and respond to their work.
Recently Dead [Women] Poets Society (run by Jasmine Simms, Helen Bowell, and Lily Arnold) were invited to guest-edit an issue of the long-running literary magazine Modern Poetry in Translation. To celebrate the launch of the bumper edition of the issue, entitled Origins of the Fire Emoji: Focus on Dead [Women] Poets, they held an online séance the day before Halloween, which was livestreamed on YouTube.
In their editorial of the issue, Simms and Bowell explain that between 2008 and 2018 only 28% of published translations were of women’s work. Dead [Women] Poets’ mission is therefore to “resurrect” neglected women poets of the past, and work to right the gender imbalance of poetry published in translation.
“I really hope that [this issue’s focus] will draw attention to how historically under-translated women poets are,” says Clare Pollard, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation. “I can confirm that when you read this focus, as I did for the first time, your blood is absolutely going to boil, you just won’t believe that you haven’t heard of all these talented women. Basically it’s absolutely full of bangers.”
Simms starts the séance the way Dead [Women] Poets Society start all of their séances – by resurrecting a translation by Elaine Feinstein of ‘We Shall Not Escape Hell’ by Maria Tsvetaeva. It perfectly sets the witchy, defiant atmosphere of the evening. The dead women poets and the contemporary poets who resurrected them were the “queens of the whole world,” as Tsvetaeva puts it, but the “necromancers for the evening” didn’t let us forget that dead women poets are often forgotten on syllabuses, best book lists, and by contemporary women poets.
As a title, “Origins of the Fire Emoji” is brilliant. It’s the title of Jessica Wood’s translation of a poem by Enheduanna, who was a Sumerian high priestess in the 23rd century BCE, and the earliest poet whose name has ever been recorded. The motif of fire spans the four millennia and several continents that the dead women poets featured in the issue come from. Fire can be nurturing, crackling quietly in the background, or angry and demanding to make itself known. The motif of fire encapsulates how the power of women and the feminine can be all manner of quiet and loud, but is above all persistent. To me, this motif is quintessential to the experiences and nature of women, and more importantly, to dead and living women poets alike. In her translation of Enheduanna’s poem, Jessica Wood was interested in the ways that women encourage one another. “We do have our own versions of praise songs, but we don’t really write poems anymore, we comment on our friends’ Instagram posts when they look really good, and we use the fire emoji as a way to express to our friends how amazing and powerful we think they are”, she says.
At the séance, Wood’s resurrection of Enheduanna’s work brings something ancient into a modern context while retaining the heart of the dead woman poet, in a way I could never have imagined before I heard it. In the issue itself, it’s the first poem – since each poem is ordered chronologically by the original author’s death date. The redefinition of goddesses as pop stars such as Beyoncé and Rihanna, and the invocation of WAP, instantly connects dead women poets to their living counterparts. The lines “Teach us how to entrance with exposed skin,” “Teach us to laugh after wild cows in the field,” and “Teach us how to sing a birdsong note of freedom,” at the beginning of their respective stanzas beautifully string together the liberation of sexuality, of running, of nature, and of music – the diverse experiences of women, all linked together with mutual joy.
There is a specific type of honour and solidarity in translating another women poet’s work – what Helen Bowell calls, “having conversations with poets throughout time and space”. Origins of the Fire Emoji redefines female solidarity across millennia and across continents, because in being “necromancers (for this evening)”, contemporary translators are advocates for their ancestors. They refuse to let brilliant work be forgotten, and in doing so, make the work their own as they carry it forward. Translating poetry is undeniably intimate, and this is emphasised by the forward for each poem, where the translator briefly recounts the life of the dead women poet they are resurrecting. Hearing the necromancers at the séance talk about the inspiration for their translation/s and what being a poet or translator means to them felt even more time-defying, an exaltation of women’s creativity.
Sometimes, however, a translator knows that a dead woman poet would hate what they’re doing, and does it anyway. This is certainly the case for Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, whose poem is about how much she hates English people and the English language. I’m still thinking about what the necromancers called “the role of haunting in translation practice”. Who is the better ghost, the poet or the translator? Some translators preferred to think of themselves as the “minor ghost” while the original poet was the “major ghost”.
In their role as guest-editors Dead [Women] Poets Society encouraged first-time translators to submit to Modern Poetry in Translation, and one of the questions put forward at the séance was what advice the poets had for these fledgling translators. Wood explained that while it might feel bold to take someone’s work and declare that you have something to say about it, it offers a chance to explore and have fun – as you attempt to embody your chosen poet. For Natalie Linh Bolderston, who resurrected poems by Vietnamese poet Hồ Xuân Hương, deciding what’s important to you as the translator is the essential factor. While Zoë Brigley, necromancer of Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain, explained that translation can be healing and validating, and allows you to be much more daring as a poet.
My favourite question asked at the séance was, paraphrased for clarity; “In what ways do you think invoking imagination and imagery through poetry can combat a society that still polices women’s bodies?” Wood, relating back to her translation, was interested in thinking about the women who are held as icons in the popular eye. She explained that all the icons who she mentioned in her translation are examples of women whose bodies have been policed through their art and career – attempts to make them conform to one image of female sexuality. There are definitely ways in which women can become unified and find strength, as Wood illustrates in the translation, and there are layers of colourism, racism, ageism, ableism, and other prejudices that play into the policing of a woman’s body. Seeing the differing experiences of inhabiting a woman’s body represented through poetry and other forms of art is important. Zoë Brigley likened Gwerful Mechain to “the medieval version of WAP”, saying, “Women who speak frankly about their own bodies are terrifying to conservative aspects of our society and community, and that’s why we need to embrace it, and do it more, and scare them more.”
As important as the diversity of women’s experience is, Simms and Bowell were aware that women’s experience is often associated with tragedy. As a counter response Origins of the Fire Emoji (both séance and magazine issue) often chooses to highlight women’s joy. I especially loved the translation by Katie Kirkpatrick of ‘After the Matinée’, a poem by French poet Louisa Siefert whose work Kirkpatrick says carries with it “a feeling of light”. The first line reads, “Well! I’m a triumph, the applause is deafening,” continuing on to lines like “Everyone else? No. Of all the anguish I’ve suffered, / they know nothing. I was always brilliant, always alive, / every time I walked away I came back with a wider smile.” I very much read it as Siefert putting on a ‘play’ of hiding chronic pain, since Kirkpatrick mentions in her foreword that Siefert lived with chronic illness from adolescence onwards. It’s such a subversive change to the narrative of female self-hatred, especially the sort of self-hatred that often comes with being a disabled woman. The final poem of the séance and of the issue is ‘A Woman is Laughing’, originally by Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz and resurrected by Ankita Saxena, which rounds things off with a universal female experience of joy, exemplified by the line/s: “In the wild valley, lapping // her face with kisses – // hair flying long and loose, // wind’s daughter is singing // alongside the wind: // a woman is laughing.”
Buy MPT’s Origins of the Fire Emoji: Focus on Dead Women Poets here.
Visit Dead [Women] Poets Society here.
Watch the séance yourself here.
Words: Beatrix Livesey-Stephens
Image: Lily Arnold