I recently received a forwarded email, by way of my editor, from a person wanting to interview me about my first book, Flood Bloom. I couldn’t find anything out about this person through googling and was a little skeptical of both him and the interview, but decided to give it a shot. Sometimes I struggle to reflect on my work, and I often get a lot out of interviews—when people ask me questions I think very deeply about my work and sometimes I grow quite a bit from this process.
If only that were the case this time.
I received the following first question: “Let’s start with something simple, characters. I love how much range your book has with them. The scene can shift from girls at the beach eating burritos in Only We Don’t Know Why, to the fight for survival, in the Big Adventure sequence. My question comes back to the girls at the beach though. Sun tanned, bikini clad women, show up quite a bit in the book. How do you feel about utilizing characters with stereotypes behind them, and using those so called, “clichés” to really show the existence of these people?”
I read this and felt a little stunned. I wasn’t aware that “bikini clad women show up quite a bit in the book.” I make it a point to avoid reading poetry that objectifies women and felt horrified that I might do that in my book.
Then I thought a little more. I have written quite a bit about the beach, as I grew up in South Florida and then lived there for two years after graduate school. But, the thing is, I wrote Flood Bloom while in graduate school. In Massachusetts. And while Flood Bloom includes some Florida poems, the book’s most prevalent landscape is woods. And the particular poem mentioned in the question, “Only We Don’t Know Why,” describes the characters in the poem as wearing “lamé leggings / and fur-lined cardigans” and also includes the place word “courtyard.” Not to mention that the girls don’t even eat burritos; the “we” in the poem eat the burritos. Bottom line, this is not a poem about “girls at the beach eating burritos.”
I reread the entire book and found one poem that references girls who are likely wearing bathing suits. The poem is set at a pond and the girls are described as reposing on rafts. So, the bathing suits are implied, I suppose. But that’s a big distinction to me. These girls are not objectified. Their bodies are not the focus.
Now I felt angry. Angry that someone would read my work in a cursory manner and then ask questions based on non-existent content. Angry that someone would ask me why I use “stereotypes” and “clichés” in my writing; whether or not the content is there, this question itself is insulting. And ultimately angry that I then had to question if my author photo contributed to this line of questions. After all, I’m a young woman and in my photo I’m wearing a spaghetti-strap top. In my bio I divulge being from Florida.
Given the nonexistence of this content in my work, I have no choice but to read this question as a response not to my work, but to me.
My sister was in town when I received this email and she, my husband and I spent a lot of time talking about how to respond. I could ignore it entirely, which felt appealing. Or I could write him back, pointing out his mis-readings, which would hopefully challenge him to assess his own assumptions. I’m a teacher, so I chose the second one. My sister is a badass, so she encouraged that.
I responded with this: “I’m curious as to where you’re reading ‘sun tanned bikini clad women’ in this book. For example, in the poem you referenced, the only setting word is ‘courtyard’ and the twins are described as wearing cardigans and leggings. And flipping through I can only really see one poem that suggests women who are likely in bathing suits (“Ultraviolet”) and their bodies (tanned or not, bikinis or otherwise) are not focused on or specified. I’m struggling with answering a content-based question when I don’t see that content as present in the writing.”
His response began with the following sentences: “Thank you for outright saying that, those bikini clad stereotypes are not in the reading for you, I know some people would dodge around that and try to answer the question anyway. I must have committed the reader’s sin and read the author biography midway through the book, I saw Florida, and having never been, all the media portrayal, and my own personal thoughts of the state flooded in.”
Did you catch that? The content is not in the reading FOR ME.
Subtext: It’s there; you just don’t see it.
Subtext: Regardless of the care you take in your writing, the specificity of language that you employ as a poet, I will persistently read your work through my own lens, which, given the particular content of this question, means the lens of your appearance + your bio + how I choose to read that.
Oh, and also I get a big old pat on the back for being straightforward.
Subtext: That ‘a girl.
At the end of all this, I feel a little ashamed of myself that I initially questioned my work, that I looked though my book for potentially objectifying language or imagery. When I lived in South Florida between 2012-2014 I did write a lot about the ocean and the beach, and even some about the objectification I experienced as a woman on the beach. But, of course, I don’t see women as objects so I could never (even unintentionally) write them that way.
I look back at the interviewer’s question, particularly the phrase “these people” and I don’t quite understand it. People who wear bathing suits at the beach? Would that not be all people? I suppose wearing bathing suits while at the beach is cliché, the way that, say, wearing spacesuits while on the moon is cliché.
But I look back at that word “girl,” the words “bikini-clad” and “sun-tanned,” and realize “these people” are those whose bodies are so apt for objectification. Those young women whose bodies are read as sexualized even when they just want to cool down at the beach, read a book, chat with friends, eat burritos. The lovely women reposing on rafts, who I admire for their friendship, will always be objectified by some, by virtue of their existence. It turns out I know a lot about “these people.” I am one.