Poetry is often considered one of the most complex forms of writing and one of the most beautiful. Like all writing, it is a honed skill that can bring immense fulfillment and inspiration if used right. Yet only poetry can touch many lives in an infinite amount of ways. One line holds a new meaning for every person to pick apart and give a bit of their soul to see reason, genuinely bringing the eye of the beholder to fruition. Mastery of this craft is not done easily, as it often takes a life of its own, entangling the poet’s identity with the words on the paper for the readers to decipher.
Here to talk to us about Identity and Poetry are three amazing womxn LGBTQ+ poets who have perfected their craft.
Meet the Poets
Ellen Bass is an award-winning poet who has won three Pushcart Prizes and a Lambda Literary Award. Best known for her work on The Courage to Heal, a self-help book for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, Bass’s most recent release, Indigo, explores the joys and turbulence of life. She is also a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In addition, she founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and Santa Cruz, CA jails and teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University.
The multi-hyphenated Brit Fox doesn’t believe in boundaries as she sets her own path. An entrepreneur, producer, songwriter, audio engineer, vocalist, and poet, she describes herself as a “genre-bender.” Having worked with Sony, Universal, Disney, Netflix, and HBO, Brit is a talented and immovable force who believes everyone deserves to be heard and to be their authentic selves.
R. M. Romero is a Jewish and Latina poet and prose author best known for her internationally bestselling novel The Dollmaker of Kraków. She weaves her identity into her magical realistic novels, such as her upcoming The Ghosts of Rose Hill, a story about a biracial Jewish girl who aspires to be a musician and finds herself wrapped in the world of ghosts after finding a forgotten Jewish cemetery.
TW: Some answers mention sexual abuse and harassment.
How do you develop your poetry, and is it different from developing prose?
Ellen Bass: In his poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” D.H. Lawrence writes:
“What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.”
This is what I am always trying to do in poetry—to open the door to those strange angels, so I can discover something that I didn’t know before. We want to be transformed. We want to be enlarged. We want to deepen our awareness of our lives and the world we live in, to increase our capacity for compassion, and understanding, for the myriad inflections of joy and the muscles required to carry the pain with as much grace as we can muster. We want to hear the branches of trees creaking in the wind and smell the salt of the sea and be engrossed by rainwater running through the gutter and warm water sloshing over our hands at the kitchen sink. We want to be reminded that we’re held to the crust of this planet by the weak force of gravity as all the stars and planets are held. We want to be reminded of how small we are in the vastness and how gorgeous we are in the intricate workings of our bodies and minds, our hearts, and whatever it is that we call soul.
Writing a good poem awakens us to this. In the process, we are changed. And if it’s a very good poem, the reader is also changed.
Writing prose is quite different for me. In part because the prose that I’ve written is what I call functional prose, as opposed to literary prose. It’s prose that conveys information that people might need. I’ve co-written two nonfiction books: The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse and Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth and their Allies. In both of these books, the important thing was to offer support and practical guidance for people who were struggling. I wasn’t writing to discover something about myself or others or the world we live in. I had knowledge that I hoped would be useful, and I was writing from that place of surety to convey that knowledge.
Brit Fox: Ultimately, during development, I want to quiet my ego, but not my authentic self. Therefore, to me, it first starts with listening — to myself or to others. I intentionally tune into my inner voice or empathically listen to someone else during a conversation. I do admire writers who excel in prose; however, I find that many times developing poetry/writing songs is a natural way for me to communicate with others. Poetry forces you to be fresh, direct, and concise, which is a way I enjoy my messages to be delivered.
R.M. Romero: Poetry, in my opinion, requires an incredible amount of precision. Every word and line break has to have meaning and purpose; it has to stand on its own in a way individual sentences don’t always need to in prose.
In a prose novel, the writer has 60,000 to 100,000 words to tell a complete story and develop the characters in it. In a verse novel, such as my debut YA The Ghosts of Rose Hill, and summer 2023 release A Warning About Swans, a poet has less than half that. I’ve had to learn to try and make every line both lyrical and utilitarian in my own work, for it to strike at a reader’s heart while still moving my story forward. It has definitely been a challenge!
How does your unique intersection of identities influence and inspire your poetry?
I exist in liminal spaces. I am neither this nor that; I’m somewhere in between.R.M. Romero
Ellen Bass: My various identities–-woman, lesbian, mother, wife, Jew, old person, etc.—all inform my poetry. I write from my sensibility, which is formed in part by these identities. It couldn’t be otherwise. But I never–-or very rarely–-think consciously about trying to get Jewishness or lesbianism into my poems. If the poem wants it or needs it, then it enters on its own. But I don’t set out with the intention of speaking for or to a specific group. Even more, I don’t set out to write a poem with the reader in mind. I begin by writing to myself, trying to understand something, to grapple with something, to mourn or to celebrate or simply to pay closer attention to something that I don’t want to miss out on. My first reader is always myself. I am talking to myself. Then, if the poem is successful, it will hopefully speak to someone else as well.
Brit Fox: Thankfully, I’m at a space both internally and externally to not give as much thought to others’ opinions. Most of my writing themes focus on freedom, sexuality, and resilience. Similarly, I feel the freedom to express myself, and I hope to encourage another to do the same in their lifetime. Growing up, I felt alone, but with writers, I felt in company. I’ve been thankful to be influenced by other poets and songwriters who challenged the “social moral code” of the time and make their own lane in life. However, during the earliest stages of development as a writer, I believe my identity would have held me back as I would feel the need to edit myself, or be modest, drawing the shades on my true nature because I simply did not want to see any glance of judgment. Right now, I’m more of a “no filter” type of writer and if you don’t like it you can do one of two things: open your mind or stop reading. Either way, I’m still going to write what I want.
R.M. Romero: My particular assortment of identities—from being biracial to being a Jewish convert to being queer—means that I exist in liminal spaces. I am neither this nor that; I’m somewhere in between. I believe that’s why I write magical realism both as a poet and a prose writer; it’s a genre that lends itself naturally to liminality. The magic is real, but never fully explained. You just have to believe that reality contains more than we can always see and understand. And the same can be true of identities as well.
How important is the accessibility of meaning within poetry?
If a poem requires you to work to understand it, the work should deserve it, and you should be commensurately rewarded for the work you put in.Ellen Bass
Ellen Bass: I believe that poems are meaningful communication. So I want my people to be able to understand–-on some level–-what I’m saying. It’s true that sometimes we can be moved by poems that we don’t understand–-the music, the images, the syntax can be so engaging that we feel even if we don’t understand. But for my own writing, I hope that readers can also understand. And I believe that clarity doesn’t have to be sacrificed for complexity and mystery. Mark Doty is my prime example of that. However, that doesn’t mean the reader should never have to work to understand a poem. Even with relatively accessible poems, if they’re very good, the more you read them, the more you take them apart to see how they work, the more you notice the structure and the sound, the metaphors, the images, etc., the more you appreciate them, the deeper they affect you. I think the bottom line is that if a poem requires you to work to understand it, the work should deserve it, and you should be commensurately rewarded for the work you put in.
Brit Fox: A good poem is intended to make you look through a magnifying glass. Each word holds a power that once unified solves a puzzle. The more accessible the meaning of a poem is to readers, the more a message has the potential the resonate universally. However, in some cases, it may be responsible to keep a language understood within a culture or community. Expanding one’s own thinking or working to understand the meaning could bring great benefits to the reader too. Therefore, I believe it is up to the writer’s discretion to choose which words to use to share the meaning. To me, few things are more gratifying than a succinct way to share an abstract thought.
R.M. Romero: Poetry especially lends itself to personal interpretation, but I do think it should be accessible to some degree. Poets are still writers, and it’s our job as writers to offer a window into our experiences in a way readers can engage with emotionally and/or intellectually, even if they can’t completely comprehend or relate to all aspects of it.
What are common obstacles you have faced as a poet, and how did you get over them?
Rejection in this industry is one obstacle I fully accept and expect, however, me rejecting others was something I did not see coming!Brit Fox
Ellen Bass: The biggest obstacle I faced was a lack of understanding of how to improve my craft. I thought that if I just kept writing, I would develop as a poet. But that’s not true. You must keep writing, but you also must keep studying the craft. I needed a teacher and it took me years to find the right one. Finally, I worked with Dorianne Laux for several years and she taught me how to study a poem and apply what I learn to my own writing. She taught me how to discern what was strong and weak in my poems and how to write toward the strengths and address the weaknesses. It was my great good fortune to have such a mentor.
The obstacles I continue to face are ones that are common to many writers. Time. Of course. There is never enough. And then the limits of my own talent. As I tell my students, if I could choose to have been born with more talent, I’d choose it in a second. But I have only the natural gift that I have and so I have to work very hard.
Brit Fox: Once I’ve opened up about my identity, common obstacles include the balance between being comfortable with my sexuality and being over-sexualized. Surprisingly the obstacles came from nearly everywhere. At one point I told a collaborator about what capabilities my studio had for our project and the collaborator brushed it off as I must have only got the equipment through sexual favors, not my own merit or success. Rejection in this industry is one obstacle I fully accept and expect, however, me rejecting others was something I did not see coming! Unwanted advantages come in many forms and are, at the bare minimum, an insult and annoyance. I wish I had a stronger answer than what I have done to get over them which so far has been: to move past their comment and chose not to work with them any longer. Luckily, it re-aligns me with others who share my beliefs and seeks to improve the world through not only speech but action. To me, being a poet is an obstacle that makes you face your most authentic self and set up tomorrow to be a better day because you are satisfied with what you did today before bed.
R.M. Romero: For a long time, I struggled with the idea that I couldn’t be a poet because I wrote in free verse rather than a more structured format. That was very much a holdover from my early days in public school, when haiku and rhyming poetry were the formats I was exposed to the most. I also chose to explore topics in my poetry through a fantastical lens rather than a purely realistic one, which I (falsely) believed was something serious poets couldn’t do.
It wasn’t until I discovered the works of other speculative poets such as Theodora Goss, Catherynne M. Valente, Amal El-Mohtar, and Shira Lipkin who chose to use a more free-flowing style and used fairy tales and fantasy in their work that I realized my own had a place. After that, I felt free to experiment and develop my own style without feeling like I was doing it “wrong.”
What are your thoughts about LGBTQIA+ representation in the publishing industry?
It’s an imperfect situation in traditional publishing that still has a lot of gatekeeping surrounding itR.M. Romero
Ellen Bass: Fortunately LGBTQIA+ representation has increased a great deal. It’s enriching to be introduced to so many emerging and established LGBTQIA poets. I am sure there’s still much work to be done, but organizations like The Academy of American Poets, where I’m currently serving as a Chancellor, have made changes that ensure a robust representation not only of LGBTQIA+ poets, but also of poets of color. It’s gratifying to see this development and exciting to read the work of these talented poets. I think it’s important that this progress be structurally embedded in all levels of our institutions, from the boards of directors, staff, publishers, and editors. That way inclusion is not dependent on particular personalities but becomes a permanent part of the institution.
Brit Fox: I believe we have progress that has been made, but overall it is still underrepresented. Presently publishers geared towards LGBTQIA+ writers do exist, but may be smaller in comparison to mega publishers. Therefore the distribution of the authors’ works signed to them can be limited resulting in a limited audience or even a biased audience. I would love to see work being heavily distributed to those who may have not picked it up otherwise. Marginalized groups can benefit from leaders being allies in regards to making their voices heard in the publishing world. At the very least, writers who identify as LGBTQIA+ need documented works of art, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, song lyrics, and other written media to mark the thoughts of today. I’m thankful for platforms like Bookstr which actively seek and promote the works of LGBTQIA+ authors.
R.M. Romero: It’s ironic that even as the situation for LGBTQIA+ people in the United States worsens, we’re seeing more and more queer authors becoming successful and more and more queer characters in stories who aren’t always doomed for death or villainy.
It’s an imperfect situation in traditional publishing that still has a lot of gatekeeping surrounding it — how many times have authors been forced to come out in order to prove to their audience they’re “allowed” to write queer experiences?— but it’s still refreshing to see the industry embracing queerness in a way that was unheard of when I was younger.
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