50 Whispers: Poems by Extraordinary Women is the first anthology in a continuing series of anthologies edited by Abriana Jetté. The work collected in them predates 1923, and spans the globe and roughly 2,500 years—from Sappho to Marianne Moore. The forthcoming second installment of this series, 50 More Whispers, will be available in a Kindle Edition later this year.
I was fortunate to speak with Jetté about the series and some of her hopes for these anthologies.
WR: There are many wonderful anthologies dedicated to collecting poetry by women, Read Woman: An Anthology (Locked Horn Press), Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (University of Iowa Press), Fire on Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry (Two Sylvias Press), Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint), and No More Masks!: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets (Harper Perennial), to name some. What are some insights or possibilities you believe 50 Whispers: Poems by Extraordinary Women adds to this necessary compiling?
AJ: You’ve mentioned some really wonderful, important anthologies. Most of all, I appreciate your phrasing of “necessary compiling.” Each one of those anthologies adds awareness and directs readers to acknowledge the female voice experience, and neither one competes with the other. When I think about the books you’ve mentioned, I’m tickled with delight because, wow, we have choices. We have choices as to what female-based anthology we’d like to read. What a gift.
Anyway, to get to your question…One basic difference between the books you mention and my anthologies is that 50 Whispers is electronic. It’s this precise format that stirred my desires to create it. I felt the need to create art that bridges all types of public structures. I don’t mean that I wanted to take these already existing poems and make something new with them. I wanted to take these poems and make them more readily available, real, alive creations that can survive in our digital reality. Typically, hard copies of anthologies range between $15.00-$35.00. At its most expensive, 50 Whispers is $4.99, and there are many times throughout the year when it’s offered for free. The creation of the e-book cuts costs, and, at least in my case, extends readership. When my publisher shares the news that the anthology has been downloaded in countries across the globe, from India to Russia to Ireland to China, well, honestly, there’s not a better feeling. I unapologetically fantasize about these readers going about their ordinary business, scrolling through poems of yesteryear and in the next minute tweeting or updating their status with a line from the 18th or 19th century.
This brings me to another difference between 50 Whispers and the collections you’ve mentioned. 50 Whispers does not concern itself with the present. Now, what do I mean by that? I don’t mean that the anthology is not useful in the present or that it refuses to acknowledge the era in which it exists. The opposite, actually. The anthology is certainly contemporary in its format: the electronic book, but its pages are peppered only with poems of the past 100 years, and often older.
I believe our past informs us; that history sets us free. The process of writing, for me, is about preservation and remembrance. I can’t remember who said it or where I heard it, but I believe that the whole history of the human heart starts with the head of a pen. The poets included in the anthology do this. So, what I hope 50 Whispers adds to the long list of female-oriented anthologies is a preservation of the voices of the past and accessibility to those voices.
WR: Since you have clearly approached 50 Whispers with history and its implications in mind, how do you see these anthologies interacting with history and the historical periods represented? What are some of the relationships you see between the past in these poems and 21st century readers?
AJ: It’s been said that art is the human being’s way of communicating with the dead. When we read Phillis Wheatley, we connect with the female voice of the 1700’s – and I’m sure I don’t even need to explain what a rarity it is to read about history from the authentic perspective of the black female voice during that malicious time in American history. And after I read Wheatley, I have to wonder about how different things really are. Of course, we have VIDA, VONA, Cave Canem, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and many other rising organizations dedicated to offering platforms for women writers and writers of color, but the patriarchy still remains. Of course “things have changed,” but how much?
When I reflect on the poets included in 50 Whispers I have to remember the privilege I was born with: a white woman in the western world. My struggle is getting it right. The women poets in 50 Whispers struggled in ways that are slightly unfathomable to me. It wasn’t just about getting the credit they deserve or having the chance to be heard. I am blessed with the freedom to write. It’s important to remember this isn’t universal. Women are still being stoned to death because they have written a few lines. Women (and men!) are fleeing their countries because their governments do not support freedom of knowledge. Because Stay Thirsty Media has offered me the platform to do so, I feel it’s my personal duty to honor those voices in some way.
I’m not sure if I’m really answering your question here, so I’ll end with this. Poetry is ancient. What we know of ancient civilizations we know through their art. And because of that, 50 Whispers connects its past to its present.
WR: To extend this theme of history in the present, how do you see echoes in contemporary poetry and/or society of these women and their work?
AJ: Here’s the thing. We can write about death without ever having read Emily Dickinson. But after we’ve read Emily Dickinson, will we ever think about Death the same way? If we wanted to, we could draw all sorts of exciting parallels between contemporary women writers—for instance, when I read Grace Hazard Conkling, I am astonished at the bravery and freedom in her lines. Even by today’s standards I think Conkling would be considered experimental. Her work reminds of the way Jorie Graham spreads her language across the page. Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s command of rhyme and form, and her concern with the domestic and ordinary are akin, at least for me, to A.E. Stallings’s sonnets. But if there’s one poem in the anthology that I see as groundbreaking, that smoothed the bumpy road of feminist poetics for any writer to twist the narrative, it would have to be Aemelia Lanyer’s “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women.” “Surely, Adam can not be excused,” she wrote. Still, and unimaginably so, we women writers work hard to divert such blame.
WR: Those parallels are striking, and exciting! Now you’re getting me to wonder what an anthology of these and similar parallels might look like. In your introduction you mention your desire to collect poetry by women from across the globe. How does 50 Whispers achieve this, and how might there be more possibilities to do so? What are your thoughts about gaining this global perspective?
AJ: I really appreciate you asking this, because it’s the area in which I acknowledge I will always need to do more, and with which I will never be completely satisfied. Many complicated factors go into picking and choosing poets and poems for the anthology, from copyright issues to the simple truth that women were not published as widely as men, and I need access to archives that I sometimes don’t have. I’m not afraid to say I’m still learning and finding access to resources I was unaware of before, and I hope that with each new anthology I get better and better at including a wide variety of voices. When I think about poetry in a global context, I think automatically of translation, so I’m going to focus on translation to answer this question.
In 50 Whispers, the translations are pretty straightforward, and they don’t include the original language. By the time I got to writing 50 More Whispers (the next installment of this growing anthology), I realized it would be much more interesting if readers were able to see the poem in its original form, and so I included it alongside my translation. The intention here is for readers to be inspired to write their own versions, but the choice was not just for the readers. I wanted to honor the poem and poet in a more concrete way. I can’t stress enough how lucky I feel to be a woman writer in 2016. I have endless resources, as long as I go out, find them, and am relentless in acquiring them. So last year I started thinking that if I have the ability to search sources for the original language, there is absolutely no reason why I should not include it in the anthology. In 50 More Whispers, the original language is available alongside my translation as an attempt to promote readers to translate the poems on their own. As I prepare for the next installment, I’ve decided that I want to include the original language, my translation, and a trot – a sort of verbatim translation that excludes any poetic elements. My hope here is that the trot will better assist readers in recognizing the liberties I’ve taken or changes I’ve made.
This is something that is often on my mind, and I think it’s a concern that rings true for many who are interested in translation. Knowing the culture and having an intimacy with its language, with its innuendos and idioms, only helps the translator’s understanding. It’s impossible for me to know all of the languages I want to know. I translated Li Quingzhau’s “Huan Xi Sha” with an incredibly limited understanding of Chinese, let alone ancient Chinese. I want my readers to read my translations and think to themselves, “hmmm…but I think X meant this, not that. I wonder if I can write this better.” And then I want that reader to write a better version.
The simple truth is that we live in a very small world made large by unnecessary complications; complications like borders and language. But global connections are not difficult, especially when the anthology is online.
WR: It sounds like, with these anthologies, you are really encouraging the dialogue that is translation, not only in your own interpretations, but between readers and the women whose work is collected here. And not only are there dialogues in that translation, it seems that there are dialogues between the poets and poems collected here. In your introduction you write, “These poems speak to each other in that they fill the others’ grooves; the way they move on the page and in the mouth echoes the sentiments of the past to pave the sounds of the future.” How so? Which sounds of the future?
AJ: As I mentioned previously, I notice many connections between contemporary women poets and the poets in the 50 Whispers series. Here’s how these poets speak to one another: Where Ann Taylor may neglect to mention the subjugation of the female spirit and mind in “About the Little Girl Who Beat Her Sister,” Anna Laetitia Barbauld confronts the issue directly. If the tradition of marriage discussed by Anne Bradstreet seems out-dated to one reader, Sappho will surely make up for it.
Sound is a tricky thing. I don’t think I meant to say “rhythms of the future”—I do think I meant sound, but now as I think about the word, I wonder, what determines the “sounds of the future?” Forgive the cheesy rhyme, but when I talk about sound I have to talk about Pound.
Pound believed that each word would contain either its “own original weight,” which was based on the placement of letters, thus the development of syllable, or a weight “naturally imposed…by the other syllabic groups around them.” That is, a sound can be original, or it can depend on what comes before and after it. Thunder cackling in the middle of a quiet afternoon. The soft hush of silence after a baby has stopped crying. Each of these is an example of a sound deeply individual and made even more significant because of where, when, and how it was placed. Maybe we are still defining the sound of our future. Maybe the sound of the future is something we’ll always be chasing. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe all 50 Whispers wants to do is be part of what came before it.
WR: That seems like a meaningful consideration with which to close: how we consider “the sound of our future.” Perhaps readers can leave this exchange, make their way through the 50 Whispers anthologies, and bear in mind what the sound of their futures might be, how these poems might inform their futures. We might allow these poems to shape our understanding of women’s voices and experiences throughout world history. We might allow these poets to impact our own conceptions of gender, of culture, or of poetic craft.
One final question: How do you imagine this anthology might encourage readers also to write?
AJ: I really hope readers will translate. I hope even more that if my readers translate, they feel the desire to share their translations with me. Wouldn’t that be something? But, also, I hope that after reading these poems and listening to these women, readers tap into something they want to share, and that they do it.