Bad Poems for Girls Who Steal

Cornelia Barber


One of the worst traits of my poetic process is that I find meaning in the words way too soon. Before the meaning has actually revealed itself. Then I project onto the poem what I think the poem is about. Instead of what the poem is. This causes a kind of artificial dis-ease. Sometimes flattering. Often vague. Or “personal.” “Interior.” The projection creates a wall for the work. And if the poem is read, certainly a wall for the reader. This has been a comment I often receive in my poetry. “There is a wall.” This is also a comment that I’ve heard my mother receive about her dances. So there is some learned, or genetic material at work.

What is nice about poems is their lack of boundaries: in form and content. Their ability to expand any genre, or material into an in-absolute form. In contemporary discourse we often talk about “hybrid” work. Poetry can’t be hybrid, because in its very seed, its earliest formation it is already composed of forces stolen from a plethora of genre and life and subconscious.

Often the work of mine that has been chosen for publication becomes my favorite work, and my favorite work to read. This is another serious fault. I allow other people to take my poetic temperature. Why should I give a fuck that you think it’s good? Even and especially if it is “good.” I want to make bad work that people publish. But in the publishing doesn’t “bad work” become “good work” by the inherent hierarchy that picking and choosing necessitates? I think of Diana Hamilton’s “Essay On Bad Writing” published in Prelude and the immediate recognition it got for being good. The piece was about “bad” writing and “good” writing and feminism and vaginal recuperation, and the silliness and seriousness of women (and men) poets, and emotional exhaustion, sexual violence and George Eliot.

It begins:

“This is a bad poem
by a lady poet.

It’s called “Essay on Bad Writing,”
but I’m actually only going to quote and talk directly about writing that’s good.”

When I first read Diana’s piece I read it like an essay. I really convinced myself it was an essay, a “hybrid” essay. When I heard her read part of it out loud at a Prelude reading I heard it as a personal story. Then when I re-read it again just now I am convinced it is most definitely a poem.

“I frequently hear writers observe the priority of “bad writing” over other offences, though.

It seems like one way of redirecting attention,
however sloppily, to the issue of writing
itself, I imagine,
and it comes from the recognition that lots of art
has justified its offensiveness
by way of some other merit.”

Here Diana is talking about a specific poem, published in a specific place, by a specific woman who received specific condemnation for her poem (about rape) by a specific group of male publishers who published a specific essay condemning her. Then these male publishers received criticism of the essay based on its (lack of) stylistic merits rather than on its misogyny.

Diana goes on to write:

“But if “bad writing” is a description that can cover up the offensiveness of someone else’s writing, it is more often used to cover up one’s own shittiness:

—In the comments section to “The Rape Joke,” as well as to Lockwood’s follow-up post, you can read all kinds of people pretending to be more worried about quality poetry than about rape.

By which I mean that their pretense to concern
—surely, they don’t roam the internet telling every poem they dislike it, or their
personal lives would suffer—
seems like a thinly-veiled way of voicing their anger that someone made them think
about her rape.

These circumstances share the hope of replacing
a more difficult explanation of offense
with the idea of good or bad writing.”

The same criticism of “bad writing” that covered up the male publishers misogyny, was used to critique the original poem itself. Something like, it’s not that I am offended by her writing about her rape, it’s that it’s just a boring, poorly written poem. As if the two conceits are extricable. As if using the excuse of bad writing to cover up your disinterest, or revulsion at confronting someone’s rape (in poetry) is different than saying “this poem is bad because it makes me confront something I don’t want to confront.”

One of the things I discovered through Diana’s piece is that the label of a “bad poem” is now proven to be a cover up for something else. So, in writing an essay/poem (poem) about how labeling things bad writing is a cover up for something else, what is Diana’s “bad writing” covering up? What is it hiding? What is the wall?

The initial cover up is that Diana is actually a good writer, writing a “good poem” which at the time of publication appeared true because people really liked her piece and thought about it a lot and it got written up in Lithub and was well received. But a less palatable and therefore fascinating theory is that maybe Diana didn’t give a shit if it was good or bad or well received or criticized. Maybe Diana was like I am working on this thing in between finishing my PHD and teaching and struggling and here it is, and Stu Watson and Rob Crawford of Prelude were like “wow this is cool you’re writing this weird thing, let’s publish it!”

One of the things that I think about a lot is whether or not to get an MFA in poetry. I am 26 years old, I graduated college almost four years ago, I have worked dozens of odd-jobs since then, done a lot of writing, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking and meeting and talking to poets and to writers, and making friends with them and not making friends with them. I have felt included and alienated and really positive it would be suicide to do an MFA and really politically against doing an MFA and really stupid for not getting an MFA, and sometimes I have even felt that if I want to teach I have to suck it up and get an MFA otherwise who the fuck am I? Am I so privileged that I really can forever abstain from institutional benefits financial and otherwise?

Recently Jennifer Tamayo posted a Facebook status that says:

“gonna bloggg myself out of myself. here’s where i’ll be, writing slowly and badly for a little bit. <3 <3”

She wrote this status a few days after being featured on The Sundress Blog’s list of “2016’s most Transformative Essays.” The essay that was featured on the list is published in Mice Magazine. An essay primarily about “invisible labor” called “When You Handle Poison.” In it Jennifer—

—Is it weird that I’m calling these female poets by their first names? We are not “friends” though I have interacted with both of them via work and socializing. And how will readers react to this? Will they think I am belittling them? Dolores Dorantes use of the word “nenas” in her book Estilo pops into my head. And Jen Hofers translation of “nenas” as “girls”.

“Un racimo de nenas./A cluster of girls.”

“Somos la guerra y somos el refugio./We are the war and we are the refuge.”

There is anarchy and wisdom to “girls”. There is anarchy and wisdom in writing women’s names into form. The names of the women and not their fathers.

—Jennifer tries with great mobility to be transparent about her writing process and the labor that goes into it, while writing something that is accessible and poetic enough to convey the deep politics of the work.

“The prices of these essays and their aftermath is only becoming clear to me as I sit down to write this very essay:”

As a result of taking the time to write essays of this kind, I wrote only two poems in 2015. I withdrew a published book from a press and ceased contact with former editors. I lost a handful of poetry colleagues and mentors. Many friendships have gone to shit.

As a result, in 2015, I withered a little but woke the fuck up. I learned more about who I wanted to be, and what it might cost to get there.”

She goes on to write:

“Essays of this kind are written with the body. If I track the progress of writing, my body becomes the compass. While I write, these become the guiding procedural questions: do you feel anxiety ill, like a constant-vomiting sensation? Do you feel afraid in your lungs? Can you feel the heat coming off those publishing and professional bridges you are burning? Have you said what has needed saying & is the language like wood-chips in your mouth, awkward against your gums? Will your corpse be satisfied with what you have written?”

Putting the body out of its comfort zone. Taking risks. At high costs. Enduring loss for the sake of the work. I don’t know if an MFA program can teach a young woman, a girl how to do this. I think probably girls mostly teach themselves things, and then steal from other girls (of all ages), the way poetry steals from everything, to expand. And this stealing is part of what’s hidden in Diana’s “Essay on Bad Writing” and what Jennifer is revealing in her essay on Invisible Labor.

Girls steal from the body to write. Girls steal from girls to write. And it is a different kind of stealing than what men do—the struggle and trade and references on references, the fear and indifference, the violence of patriarchy and the western cannon, the enacting of violence—versus women. The stealing as care. As urge, desire, kiss and felt. The vomiting up of that violence that so often gets labeled as “confessional” or “silly” or “bad”. Bad writing is an eating disorder. Bad writing is getting raped. Bad writing is an essay that’s a poem. Bad writing is an essay that demands transparency and demands payment. Bad writing is only called good by those who are also bad.

In her blog-post where she will be “writing slowly and badly for a little bit” Jennifer calls the post “Whiteness Is The Desire To Free Oneself From History.” Recently, but from the position of absolute whiteness (versus Jennifer’s complex relationship to race where she is considered white sometimes, some places, and not in others, but identifies as latinx regardless), I came to two similar conclusions in language.

1. White people think we know everything about black people and can teach black people about themselves.
2. Whiteness is the history of forgetting, because why would you want to remember?

Towards the end of the blog-post Jennifer writes

“call for guidance: there’s this thing I want to re-train myself in: when a white person in the (class)room does something “good,” i find myself saying thank you to them later in ways that I don’t intend. it just comes out of me, the gratitude. what am I contributing to in this interaction that always makes me feel shitty inside. is it fear that makes me say thank you. what is really on my retina, here.”

I want to ask Jennifer what she means by “good” here. Does she mean she liked it? Does she mean it seems like something other people would like? Does she mean it’s not completely racist and sexist? Does she mean studied? What does she mean?

And is the alternative making work that is “bad”?

If a man performed something in the theoretical graduate class I am not in, and the performance hung around the values of not raping women, or feeling sorry for the women who are raped, or confronting himself on his own misogyny in a way that made me feel like he was actually risking something, actually being vulnerable and I went up to him afterwards and thanked him for his piece, I might, like Jennifer, feel nauseous and gross after. Because why the fuck should I be thankful that someone is confronting their personal or historical violence in front of me? That’s what everyone should be doing all the time. Is that what Jennifer means? She shouldn’t have to thank white people for being ‘courageous’ in their artistic and emotional handling of race and sex and language and performance. White people should be thanking her. I should be thanking her. Thank you, Jennifer Tamayo, for teaching me so much and putting so much effort into your work and risking so much and being so vulnerable.


I kept Estilo under my pillow for the week leading up to Dolores’s arrival in New York where she would first read at Pratt to Melissa Buzzeo’s students, and then read at our reading series in Lefferts Gardens. I typed into my phone that I have to bring Estilo to Pratt for Dolores to sign. And that I have to print out my manuscript to give to her. I forgot to do both.

Dolores told me three things that I think about everyday since I met her.

1. Trump will get elected
2. When you do reiki or other body work and it is painful it means that the transformation you’ve been undergoing is at its last stages, at the level of your cells. The physical pain means it’s almost over.
2. Estilo and Style are two different books. Estilo is my book and Style is Jen Hofer’s book. They are two different books from two different women. In Spanish Estilo is of the earth. In English it is more

Listening to the Spanish at Pratt before she had told me about the earthiness of the book I felt the earthiness of it, I heard it. I felt the earth move through her mouth and into the classroom. I felt the bitterness of the text, the leafiness of it, and it’s ground. In English I could see fire, and weapons and girls dressed in masks resisting arrests. In Spanish I saw sun. In English felt heat.

The book is gone now. Abducted by my boyfriend to give to the first lady of New York City, Charlene McCray, in a last attempt by him (before quitting) to honor his job, and his city with complicated and poetic truth (Charlene is a poet) instead of mediocre bureaucratic reverence. But he never got to give it to her. And now we don’t know where the book is or if it will find its way back to me. Which is frustrating because I need it now to quote from.

Its absence is significant. I don’t know why.

Something about girls, and my mother, and walls, and resistance, and women of color, and poetry. Something about women of color having to demand being called women-of-color because they are not included in the “universal” title “women” and then being called too demanding, exhausting, and bad for making this demand by the women who are included in this “universal” title. So let’s say from now on whenever I use the word “woman” or “girl” I am first talking about women of color, then talking about white girls, and I am simultaneously talking about women who identify as femme, or trans, or gender fluid, or refuse to identify at all. From now on the word woman in my writing means something unknowable, something we have yet to figure out: an absence, a recollection, a recuperation, a dream.

Women who write poetry are bad. Sometimes they are bad at their jobs, bad at friendships, bad at love. Sometimes they are bad at being bad. Sometimes they are bad at poetry.

In her poem “Bender” published in The Felt Jasmine Gibson writes:

“What are we going to do when politicians and superstars

aren’t problematic

Will you let the enemy in

when they say they appreciate the way yr ancestors died

to give you that pretty brown skin that looks good

under the flood lights or how nameless dead bodies are now the ultimate

aesthetic to accepting the bourgeois death drive

and how radical is that when our want

for freedom gets recuperated in the shape of an ugly boxy silk dress

All the women I know,

and not women are returning to points of youth

to regain something they lost”

Recuperation. The opposite of Jennifer’s “Whiteness Is The Desire To Free Oneself From History.” Return. How many women do I know who are returning to herbs and homeopathy, who are becoming doulas, body workers, and song healers, who are attempting to discover or rediscover histories that have been hidden or stolen from them “to regain something they lost”? Outside institutions. Body parts that have been stolen. Traces of Mothers and Grandmothers whose voices have been stolen. Girls who are attempting to manifest the traces, confront their violences and move through their reality deeply awake and fighting.

Girls stealing is inevitably a stealing back.

And what about Jasmine’s question about the plasticness of celebrity, capitalistic recuperation? About liberation without blood-letting? About Beyoncé and Rihanna and Oprah and fancy dresses without the critical history of Claudia Jones, or Sun-Ra or Angela Davis? Will you let the enemy in? Will I?

As a white woman one of my enemies is my own history. The history of white women projecting sexuality onto black slaves, becoming jealous of them, contributing to their violent treatment and sexual abuse. The history of voting to imprison black men, to segregate neighborhoods, to gentrify, to flaunt privilege, to speak over, to look down on black people, and on immigrants. To underpay workers. To de-humanize women. My family’s known history begins in the small cities of Vienna and Germany and in the mountains of Russia and England. There are stories of witches, dancers and writers. There are stories of men who left, abandoned, and killed. There is a combination of Jewishness and Christianity and no one is exactly sure what started where, or how, though my father would beg to differ.

In attempting to understand this history I am aware of two sometimes conflicting stories…the stories of immigrant women who came across the ocean and who had their own dreams and troubles, and whose blood is in my blood. And the story of white women in America today. I am a white woman in America today. I accept both as my history. As women of color recuperate a stolen history, it is white women’s duty to do the same, to confront our violence, to confront our choices, to confront our blood.

This is the same for poetry. “All the women I know and not women are returning to points of youth to regain something they lost.”

Jasmine? This phrase “not-women”. Can I ask you for it ? Can I thank you for it? Can I steal it as a girl? Can we steal more together and keep stealing and keep growing together? Not outside of history, but within it? Not within capitalism, but on its outskirts, its detriment, its waste? How do women and “not women” write poetry together in the 21st century? How do we live?

From Estilo/Style:

“8.-Venimos a visitar tu cama. Un racimo de nenas. Todo era muy ambiguo. Todo estaba sin sangre. Venimos. A abordarte. A buscarte las manos para la tortura. A mancharte para cuando despiertes. Somos un racimo de nenas jugando a que se besan. Tomándote las manos. Deslumbre. No hacemos nada malo. No somos ni dolor ni cansancio ni muerte”.

“8.-We came to visit your bed. A cluster of girls. Everything was very ambiguous. Everything was bloodless. We came. To approach you. To find your hands ready for torture. To stain you for when you awaken. We are a cluster of girls playing at kissing each other. Taking you by the hands. Dazzle. We aren’t doing anything wrong. We are not pain not exhaustion not death.”

Somos un racimo de nenas jugando a que se besan.
We are a cluster of girls playing…

In the early 1970’s the American radical Abbie Hoffman wrote Steal This Book. Here are a few short excerpts from a chapter called “Fuck New York”:

Furniture: The best place to get free furniture in New York is on the street. Once a week in every district the sanitation department makes bulk pick-ups. The night before, residents put out all kinds of stuff on the street. For the best selection try the West Village on Monday nights, and the East 70’s on Tuesday nights.

Ghosts: If you would like to meet a real ghost, write Hans Holtzer, c/o New York Committee for Investigation for Paranormal Research 140 Riverside Drive New York, NY. He’ll put you in touch for free.

Poems: Poems are free. Are you a poem or are you a prose?

Poems are not free. They are neither liberated from history nor are they free of labor nor are they cheap. But poetry might be one of the last forms that can take shape without monolith dependence on technology and money.

I started writing this mid-reading of an e-mail correspondence between Rosmarie Waldrop and Michael Palmer recently published in Bomb. At the end of this long correspondence on writing and time and collaboration and being artists, Rosmarie writes on translating the work of Edmond Jabès: “I had to follow him into that realm of totality and potentiality.”

Poems are not free. But they hold within them the potential of what is possible and what is impossible. The potential of dream. The potential of walls, resistance, receptivity, labor, vacation, propaganda, triviality and depth.

The potential for girl process. Finding something new. Resisting arrest, occupation, pipeline. Protecting each other. Stealing back.

A cluster of girls playing….