Let No Man Steal Your Thyme
20 October 2017
Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, an evening of poetry and discussion organised by feminist book club Hard to Get, sets out initially to answer a series of dauntingly broad and slippery questions. What is feminist poetry? How does one begin to write “as a woman”, even as the experiential multiplicity of that identity is increasingly recognised? Why and how should we write feminist poetry? The final question posed by the event’s organisers, Gazelle Mba and Grace Linden, testifies to the urgency that characterises both the evening’s discussion and the contemporary feminist project: can we and should we make time for poetry when there is so much else to be done?
The diversity of resonant poetic voices at Let No Man Steal Your Thyme would certainly seem to provide a definitive answer. Sandeep Parmar, Nisha Ramayya, Helen Charman, and Chloe Stopa-Hunt (in order of appearance) delivered feminist readings that spoke in commands, shouts, songs, parody and pastiche, preserving a taut and reverent silence amongst an enthused audience of around fifty attendees. Either knowingly or by happy coincidence, Hard to Get brought together four poets who clearly – and deliberately, as emerged in subsequent discussion – locate formal experimentation at the fore of their work. Throughout the event each demonstrated the potential of such formal experimentation to carve out new spaces for a feminist poetic at all levels of expression, from the phonetic (as in Ramayya’s sound-collages of cries and melody) to the generic (as in Parmar’s reinterpretation of Hellenic myth, or Stopa-Hunt’s highly personal re-appropriation of the elegy form). Meanwhile, the experiential content of each poet’s work contributed to an atmosphere of solidarity and shared experience, and restored a salutary awareness of the intersectional differences and interstices of each poet’s experience of writing feminist poetry. In a harrowing year of Trumpian political misogyny and fast-flying revelations of sexual assault at the very highest levels of power, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme provided a vibrant counterargument to the idea that the pursuit of a feminist poetic is somehow esoteric. Feminist poetry, right now, is necessary.
The four performers all broached the question of how to write feminist poetry in various ways. For Sandeep Parmar, a lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool, and a scholar of women-authored modernist writing, one answer was to retrieve – or, really, to wrestle back – the female subject from an illustrious and corrosive legacy of patriarchal depictions. Reading from her 2015 collection Eidolon, which retells the story of Helen of Troy, Parmar introduced these poems as her own attempt to undo the flattening canonisation of Helen as a mythic figure. Male-authored interpretations through the centuries, she noted, had consistently reduced her to a mere sign or symbol of feminine beauty, “disembodied like a bowl turned over and its loaf thumping out”, while some even question her presence in Troy at the time of battle. Eidolon draws together Parmar’s terse, arresting, and declarative poems on this theme: she not only reasserts Helen’s historicity, placing her as a firmly embodied figure speaking over the voices of a “hell-house of primogeniture” who have attempted to speak for her, but also insists on her transhistorical relevance. Helen appears in a garish rendering of 1950s apple-pie suburbia; the cesurae (insistently enunciated by Parmar) which interrupt her speech fragment this setting and reveal its hollowness, as a Helen “blinded” by the artifice around her becomes its vocal anti-capitalist critic.
Where Parmar has re-woven myth, Nisha Ramayya’s mingling of song and spoken word changes the stakes of language itself. By exploding the most basic units of meaning – the word “too”, for instance, becoming a clearly segmented “too-oo-oo” – Ramayya grapples with the bare bones of a language (English, pointedly, as opposed to other languages present in her writing) that has historically been an instrument of violence against female and colonised bodies alike. Rearranging these into new phonetic patterns, Ramayya creates meanings that specifically enact the experience of her own diasporic womanhood and feminism. Saccharine, half-remembered lyrics by The Carpenters abut an unequivocal refrain that seems to wrench the speaker out of the sounds of childhood memory and into an inhospitable present: “Fuck a home in this world.” In a moment that most painfully and vividly enacts the rift between two homes, or between two cultures, that characterises a “brownhearted, downhearted” upbringing (as Ramayya has it), the cry of “I love you” receives the categorical answer: “Go home.” Nevertheless, despite such moments, it is impossible to listen to Ramayya’s freewheeling verse, which plays up and down octaves and blurs the line between meaning and mere sound, without seeing it as celebratory, as revelling in its own irreverence towards conventional metre.
The multiplicity of experiences and formal approaches to feminist poetry volunteered by Parmar and Ramayya testify to what, if anything, became the event’s guiding principle: the necessity of an intersectional interpretation of feminism in the twenty-first century. As Chloe Stopa-Hunt put it, “I want my feminism to be big”: a body of thought to encompass her own disabled womanhood, which she sees as inextricable from her feminism, as well as and including diasporic womanhood, the experiences of women of colour, trans* women, and other identities that have historically been less recognised, or indeed maligned, by mainstream feminism. The variety of registers at Let No Man Steal Your Thyme hinted at new and much-needed vocabularies for these experiences. In a similar vein, Helen Charman takes her cues from a tangle of intertexts that mirror her own experience as a young female academic. Her poem “Tampon panic attack” sent a wave of laughter around the room. Drawing on an unacknowledged and yet clearly formative anti-canon of teen-girl magazines from Mizz to Sugar, it addressed the mythical terror of Toxic Shock Syndrome amongst young women. Framing this corporeal topic in her supple lyric, Charman drew out a terror of one’s own body instilled by the mythologisation of what is in fact a relatively rare reaction. Her poem exposed the misogyny inherent in the way that medical discourse frames TSS as a betrayal by, or an essential fallibility of, one’s own reproductive organs. Charman’s poetry is characterised by a highly physicalised reclamation of woman’s body from the grasp (both literal and rhetorical) of men. She retreats from their advances, insisting on her own bodily autonomy: “The next time you lay a hand on me, I’ll make a / perfect gleaming dive into the Thames”. Her verse is sharp and exhortative, pushing intrusions of other registers to one side: “you and yours have no place building nations here.” Another poem, simply entitled “Instructions for getting up in the morning”, reads: “love other women / collaborate only with them”.
This idea was ultimately one of the most important of the evening. As Parmar pointed out, we all knew what we were there for, and we all to some degree strove toward the same aim: creating a new space for feminist discussion and collaboration, of the kind that seems to be rapidly disappearing or becoming inaccessible. The discussion, initially slightly awkward and diffuse, soon coalesced into a stinging and nuanced institutional critique. Why are academic spaces, and indeed the language used to discuss feminism in such spaces, so inaccessible? Why is the publishing institution so inhospitable to women who exist at the intersections of oppression? How do we reclaim ground for feminist discussion and feminist poetry in light of these facts? In addition to these questions, another refreshing takeaway from the debate was the speakers’ collective practical advice for carving out a place within the institution. Ramayya advised consciously deviating from prescribed reading lists, reading a non-canonical work for every-canonical one, and thinking about why the former had been jettisoned from “the canon”. Stopa-Hunt also spoke eloquently about the possibilities of the online forum as an “underground” space for feminist discussion and publication away from institutional hegemony, in particular for poets with reduced mobility such as herself. Perceptive audience members picked up on this point, and opened it out to a discussion of the value of platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram (on which many poets including Nayyirah Waheed publish their work) as means of circumventing the biased valuations and exclusionary honorifics of mainstream publishing. However, equally as important as this consensus around institutional (or anti-institutional) path-forging was the other significant consideration of any “feminist discussion space”: the possibility of disagreement. The discussion turned fruitfully to an appraisal of the role of anger in feminist thought (peppered with reading recommendations that were hastily jotted down by audience members). Turning over the frequently rehashed complaint of the “dividedness” of the feminist community, Parmar commented that feminism was not, nor had it ever been, undivided. In spaces in which “rational debate” is less likely to serve as a cloak for “rational” male actors dismissing the experiential and emotional knowledge of women, it was suggested that different feminisms might productively encounter and contest one another.
So, should we make time for feminist poetry? Let No Man Steal Your Thyme proves that we should, and tells us why. The evening – which it is in everyone’s best interests to schedule as a recurring event – promised and permitted the start of a restoration of a feminist community and discussion space in Oxford, arguably one of the most institutionalised and atavistic places to read and write poetry in the UK. The skittishness of the audience in asking questions arose perhaps from their awareness of the weightiness of this subject and the importance of the project at hand: questions, when they came, were organic, genuine, and earnest, and elicited practical and nuanced answers. Between them, the panel ensured that attendees walked away with an up-to-date reading list on intersectional feminist thought and action. The tone of the evening, in short, was circumspect and careful, but also quietly “revolutionary”. The term “revolutionary”, introduced by Parmar, is admittedly loaded with a historical freight of instances where feminism hasn’t quite lived up to this proclaimed aspiration. It nevertheless seems highly applicable in the context of Oxford today. This place is in dire need of more feminist forums, and it is to Mba’s and Linden’s great credit that they have planted the seeds for one which, if it musters the confidence, momentum and interest that it seems on course for, will continue to grow.
Emma Christie  is studying for a BA in History and English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
The title of this article is taken from “Agony in the garden” by Helen Charman. The image that accompanies this article is by Anjelica Smerin & Grace Linden.