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The Slow Game: Women, Poetry and the Cult of Youth

I pick up an unpleasant undercurrent when people talk about the demographic of the poetry workshop and the high percentage of middle-aged or older women. As if women are taking up poetry as a hobby like knitting or bridge, as if, somehow, because they (or should I say ‘we’?) are many, we are not to be taken seriously.

I’m aware that women are not the only ones who don’t have time, space or energy to become writers until middle age or later; others are disadvantaged because of income, education, ethnicity, family circumstances or other factors. But I was genuinely astonished by the outpouring of recognition when I posted this tweet a couple of days ago:

‘It is only now – with four grown-up children – that I have the time, energy and focus for writing, that I feel I am really finding myself as a poet, although I’ve been writing all my life. Think of all the great work age-barred prizes are missing. Why do that?’

I had no idea how many woman would identify with that statement, amplify it or speak their own truths about it. Clearly there is a systemic and shared problem here; one that needs addressing. Because of the often-gendered role of carer (for both working women or stay-at-home women) waiting decades for the time and space to find your creative self is a common experience.

There is another factor at work here and it’s not just about gender: that is the media’s oft-remarked love affair with the cult of youth. Young poets obviously have the advantage of a potentially long career in front of them, their work is often fresh and brave with a new, exciting perspectives and they inevitably represent a major part poetry’s future. And in these times of austerity and funding cuts, of course young poets need to be acknowledged and nurtured financially and creatively. Although now, as I write this, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the term ‘young poets’. Why even use that term? Ever? I mean, at what point does a ‘young poet’ become an ‘older poet’? Twenty-five, thirty, forty? It all seems very arbitrary to me. I would never choose to read or not read a collection based on the age of the poet who wrote it.

Even the astonishing Danez Smith, surely a role model for intersectionality, found it necessary to say in their recent Guardian interview that ‘we need to recognise more trans verses and young women poets’ (italics mine). Why young? Why not, as Joanna Walsh says in her Guardian article ‘new’?. This kind of unconscious prejudice is everywhere.

I’ll speak for for myself now, but I believe I speak for many: I (not a ‘young woman poet’) have a whole lot of life experience and insight behind me: personal, cultural and political recollections and connections spanning decades. I have also been a writer – intermittently and often quietly when could find a quiet hour or two – for a long time, putting in hard graft and practice. Poetry is a slow game. Learning it can take several lifetimes. And it’s good to have something to write ABOUT. A life well lived provides endless perspective and material.

For those who have been caught up with motherhood or a caring role, earning a living, just keeping going, for those of us who have amassed a great deal to say and are learning – or already know – how to say it, for those who have a lifetime of pent-up words to speak and need an audience to listen, it’s time to open the gates and let us in.

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