‘When She Named Fire’ Examines Contemporary Women’s Poetry

BY Paul Solman  August 6, 2009 at 1:59 PM EST

'When She Named Fire'

“It appears to make sense, for many reasons, to have anthologies of women writers or exhibits of women photographers; it would seem very odd to propose an anthology of writers or an exhibit of photographs who had no motif in common except that they were men.”

— Susan Sontag, from the introduction to “Women” with Annie Leibovitz

When the editors at Autumn House Press in Pittsburgh started looking around at various anthologies of contemporary poetry, they noticed most of the general collections still featured more male bards than female. They figured they could do something about that and tapped poet and longtime reviewer Andrea Hollander Budy to edit a collection made up entirely of poems by contemporary American women. The result, “When She Named Fire,” highlights work by nearly a hundred women poets.

Budy recalled being inspired by two earlier anthologies that emerged in the 1970s. At a time when the women’s movement was coming to the forefront, “Rising Tides” and “No More Masks!” helped highlight a range of new voices. “They gave me examples of subject matter that hadn’t been touched before,” Budy said. “Writers like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were no longer the exception to the rule, but were part of a larger group of voices.”

Over the course of 10 months, after combing through piles of books and journals, Budy gathered a wide range of voices and included many of today’s finest writers. Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove and Maxine Kumin will be familiar to poetry fans. Others such as Kay Ryan, Natasha Trethewey and Claudia Emerson will be known by viewers of the NewsHour’s Poetry Series. But, like the earlier collections that had inspired her, Budy wanted to pair bigger names with new names. She was delighted to discover the works of Tracy K. Smith, Deborah Nystrom and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, who brings a unique take on what it means to be a Liberian-born American.

Elizabeth Bishop, who wanted to be seen as a great poet rather than a great woman poet, famously refused to be included in “No More Masks!” calling it a “segregated” collection. Any anthology that is organized by broad categories of identity — gender, race, sexual orientation — begs an exploration of how those categories actually influence and unite the particular points of view of its writers.

Combing through this latest collection, readers will find topics like nature, the body, family and the role of women in society. All told, the anthology does not say where feminism is today or tackle overtly political topics, but it does showcase many of the finest voices in contemporary poetry who just happen to be women.

Listen to Budy explain whether she had any hesitation about giving the writers in her anthology the label of “women poets”:

Editor’s note: Click here for a poem by Andrea Hollander Budy.