GMR: This anthology is a gift to young women everywhere. It strikes me a poetic version of what “Our Bodies Ourselves” was to me growing up in the 80s. I know you have teenage daughters. Can you talk about the way this project took shape from inspiration to completion? I enjoyed hearing you talk the other night at the Sundog Poetry Center reading about the intersectional approach to producing this anthology. Can you talk a bit more to our readers about that to our readers as well?
Diana Whitney: In some ways the project grew organically out of my work as the poetry columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, where I reviewed mainly women and LGBTQ poets. Those were the books and poems I was drawn to, but over time it became a kind of secret mission for me as a reviewer, to amplify the voices of writers outside the traditional (ie patriarchal) canon. After my first book, Wanting It, came out in 2014, I spent four years working on a memoir about mothers and daughters and generational patterns of female silence. That book didn’t sell, which I now see as a blessing because the story wasn’t finished yet.
But after all that time focused on the “I” speaker and her journey, I wanted to do a project that didn’t center my own voice and experience, especially as a white woman with economic privilege. I’d become a feminist activist after the 2016 election, advocating for women, girls, and survivors of sexual violence in my hometown and beyond. Around this time, my literary agent approached me about the anthology and connected me with my wonderful editor at Workman. From the outset, I had an intersectional feminist mission for the project. I included many of the poets I’d discovered while reviewing for the Chronicle and ended up expanding the project from the initial proposal of 50 poems to 68. About half the poets in the book are BIPOC and about one third are queer, including fabulous trans writers like Stephanie Burt and Joy Ladin. I’m a queer woman who has often felt like an outsider— having a diverse range of identities was important to me. But ultimately I chose the poems I most loved, poems that spoke to my private heart, poems I imagined my teenage self reading with wonder and affirmation.
GMR: This anthology is chock full of talent and speaks to so many different concerns. Can you tell us more about the organization of the book, and how you decided in your editorial vision how to establish sections?
DW: Initially I wanted to organize the sections according to the elements—fire, water, earth and air. I imagined grouping poems by their metaphors and images—sparks, oceans, mangoes, etc. But when I talked to my pre/teen daughters about this idea (they were 12 and 14 at the time), they said, “No, Mom, that’s stupid. Teens don’t think like that.” My girls are smart and outspoken and have kept me grounded in the reality of Gen Z throughout this process. It was my editor who suggested emotional experience as the framing device and I realized it could work, especially if I included difficult or “taboo” emotions like rage, desire and shame, feelings that girls aren’t supposed to have or acknowledge. I wanted to push back against the patronizing stereotype of girls and feminine people as overly emotional, weak, and “hysterical,” to show that feeling things is an act of courage. I wrote a long book proposal with 8 chapters and sample poems, and it became a map for me while editing the book. Although to be honest, most poems are so layered and complex, they could fit into multiple chapters—both Seeking and Longing, for example. If I found a poem I definitely wanted, I was able to make it fit.
GMR: Poetry can heal. What was your mission in offering this anthology? This book seems like a medicine for a wounded society that doesn’t always allow for women to experience true freedom. Can you talk about the effects of patriarchy and gender roles in regard to editing this book?
DW: I came to the project not only as the mother of two daughters but as a survivor of sexual violence and the daughter of a survivor, carrying generational trauma in my body. It was vital to me that these poems reflect the multiple experiences of living in a female body under patriarchy, and I kept pushing the boundaries of what might be “appropriate” for a gift book for teen girls. There are poems about rape and the fear of rape, about eating disorders and teen pregnancy, about periods and queer love and the driving force of desire. There’s a stunning poem by Lynn Melnick set outside an abortion clinic—I had an abortion when I was 19, and her poem gets to the loneliness and shame of that experience. There are also deeply-embodied poems about gender identity and self-love, like Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s tender “On Crescents & Transition & Waning.” And the whole Attitude chapter features fierce women poets like Maya Angelou, Kim Addonizio, and Lucille Clifton— unapologetic voices that have been a touchstone for me for decades with their boldness and grit. I hope all these poems are medicine for our wounds, that experiencing them gives readers a sense of freedom. My mission for this book is to give girls permission to let go of shame and perfectionism— especially the false shame the culture has put upon us. I want to encourage them to resist the limitations of gender, to embrace the fullness and complexity of who they are—and who they are becoming.