WILLA Blog

About WILLA

MISSION

WILLA seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.

HISTORY

WILLA (Women in Letters & Literary Arts) was founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.

The need for WILLA was made apparent by the overwhelming response to a single email (reproduced below) written by co-founder Cate Marvin in August 2009. This email, which called for the need to create an independent forum for women writers of literature, was passed from person to person, from website to blog, with all indicating an immense enthusiasm for the ideas and call to action that Marvin had expressed in her letter. This remarkable outpouring of interest and support inspired Marvin to seek the input of poet Erin Belieu, who would then help her co-found the organization.

WILLA’s structure is “grass-roots.” The individuals presently involved in creating WILLA are spread across the country, represent different identities, work from within a range of aesthetics, and share the common goal to create a forum at which all women writers may engage in much longed for conversations about literature being produced by women and its reception by the larger culture.

THE INITIAL LETTER

Subject heading: “As I Stood Folding Laundry: Women’s Writing Now”

Dear Friend,

I just experienced a moment of vicious self-mockery, in which I imagined myself in the same pose of concentration over the laundry I had spread over my bed as the narrator of Tillie Olsen’s legendary piece in which a mother considers the circumstances of her gender as manifested in her daughter’s (lack of) self-confidence . . . I was dwelling on a thought not entirely dissimilar. You see, I had an AWP panel proposal rejected today. Big deal, right? Everyone has their proposals rejected. Yet, this rejection really nagged at me. I proposed on a topic concerning the narrow field (sarcasm intended) of contemporary American women’s poetry . . . I’ve had a lot of panels accepted over the years. Last year, one on Wallace Stevens. The year before that on the elegy; before that, the crafting of an anthology. Then transgression in poetry. Ahah! This was the first panel I ever proposed that concerned women’s work exclusively.

It was an excellent proposal. Because it was interesting. I just honestly can’t see HOW it could be turned down.

Here it is:

Title:
Arsenic Icing: Sentiment as Threat in Contemporary American Women’s PoetryDescription:
Six contemporary female American poets explore how sentimentality is deployed in twenty-first century women’s poetry, with regard to both content and rhetoric, as a means to counter traditional assumptions regarding female desire and identity. What personal and political alchemies occur when the affectionate address verges on acerbic? What transformations are sought when a female speaker, once familiar as mother, daughter, sister, wife, or lover, employs sentiment to reveal herself as Other?

Rationale:
The first female American poets to be respected for their intellect, Marianne Moore and her protégé, Elizabeth Bishop, were careful not to express an excess of sentiment; poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath would make a stark departure from this mode by channeling emotional extremity. It is now important to explore how twenty-first century American women poets understand and reinvent these opposing traditions in their work.

By the way: I had a stellar group of panelists (VARIED and FAMOUS) lined up for this.

As I stood rolling my socks into balls and shoving folded shirts into drawers (warning: dangerously clumsy use of heavily figurative language in use: the women are the clothes, get it?? Being shoved into drawers, i.e. oppressed!), I considered how another panel proposal I was asked to be on was accepted. It concerns the uses of criticism, harkening back to the New Critics, Eliot in particular. Nothing WRONG with that . . . but hasn’t it been done?

And I thought, too, of how often I see more men’s names in prominent magazines than women’s, how I see men getting prizes more often than women, how even though female students would love to read newer work by female writers, they are rarely taught the work of women—except for the usual suspects.

And I thought about how a male poet friend of mine discouraged me from getting involved with editing a book of feminist poets/poems from the past two decades because it would be “dangerous” and “divisive.”

And I thought about how one male poet friend of mine only refers to Ellen Bryant Voight and Louise Gluck when he speaks of female poets. Not that I don’t love these two poets—but I am sure these two women would be none too happy to learn that they are the sole representatives of where women’s poetry has arrived (and, practically, to this male-poet’s mind, where it comes from).

I am, in short, irritated, and it’s not just because I’m on the rag.

Here’s the thing: why can’t we have an organization of female writers (poets fiction, creative nonfiction writers) that has a conference every year? Where we writers of women’s lit can get together and talk about issues that affect our work as women? An organization that would be very open aesthetically, one that would really be a forum for discussion along any lines of the female writer’s experience? An opportunity for women writers to be exposed to everything (or almost everything) that’s going on in our country with regard to women’s literature?

Like AWP, it could be an organization for writers, not scholars. And in that way different from some organizations that no doubt already exist.

Perhaps this organization could also produce a literary journal to present women’s writing (prose) on what it means to be a woman writer in our time? An overview of some of the presentations from the conference itself?

Perhaps we could have a retreat at which established female authors MENTOR younger women writers? (Like Cave Canem does for younger African American poets.)

We’d have to start out small, and we’d necessarily become big (there are lots of women writers!). We’d need grants and the help of our affiliate universities. We’d have to be national, with representatives from all over the country. And our organization would have to be DISTINCTLY different than those of the past that have the lingering smell of post-feminism and the eighties hanging over them.

We need not even announce ourselves as a feminist project. The very definition of feminism in women’s work could be discussed at our conference. (By a panel, naturally.)

Eventually, we might think of creating a press or an imprint of female writers.

But, first things first . . . are any of you as “concerned” as I am? I really do think we need unity as female writers more now than we have for some time.

You are welcome to tell me I’m crazy. Or offer ideas. Am I crazy? Am I?????

Your friend,

Cate

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