Thursday, March 10, 2011

Female Poets Shill Clothes for Oprah

I hate this:

For so many reasons. It's hard to keep them straight in my head. I hate the implication that a female poet has to be a clothes horse in order to get any attention, and that her poetry here is incidental to the business of selling clothes that most of the poets I know could never afford. I wonder what happened after the shoot was over? It's kind of fun to imagine Oprah herself approaching the poet-models, cackling wildly, and ripping the designer duds right off their backs.

Inevitably, though, the rage returns. And I have to ask myself Why? Why does it matter if these women chose to accept an opportunity for some exposure to audiences their work might not have otherwise reached? This is an impulse post, so I haven't really fully considered all of the angles, but I think it comes down to the commodification of it all. Like this $300 Ralph Lauren vest? You'll love poetry by Sarah Herrington!

Then again, maybe I'm just jealous. Maybe this is tapping into my baggage about pretty girls always getting all the attention. It's true, I'd love to model this old Gap t-shirt for you, with all its implications about my lifestyle and artistic talent, especially if it means you'll read my manuscript. What, you're sending the photographers right over? Great! I'll go wash my face.


V. Wetlaufer said...

WOW do I hate this too, and I am a fashionista!

I think my rage is related to my anger toward the fact that it seems like you only see author photos of pretty, thin, cissexual female poets. Where are the other poets who look like me??

Trina said...


This reminds me of a certain review ( wherein the reviewer creepily spends the last paragraph waxing philosophical about the poet's author photo as "another way of putting [her] work in perspective. Because you can't figure out how to read a woman's writing unless you know what she looks like, apparently.

carrie murphy said...

i'm happy to see poetry (and women poets!) getting attention on a platform they wouldn't normally get attention. i'm also a clotheshorse, so i liked the concept of the shoot and the way it was executed. i think that concerns about featuring thin, pretty, cisgendered poets are definitely founded, but overall, i thought the feature was well-done and interesting. female poets getting exposure for being female poets! poetry receiving exposure in a mainstream media publication! small presses (ugly duckling) receiving exposure! for me, it's more of a happy novelty than it is problematic.

kristy bowen said...

Yeah, that review was sort of creepy. Of course, I would be gushing over Simone's clothes (she without fail has the prettiest dresses of anyone I know..)but for some dude to do it when he's supposed to be talking about the actual work is just ridiculous..

I said this in my e-mail to you on this, Trina, but I'll repeat it here:

A more interesting project would have definitely been to have actual poets in there actual clothes, in their natural settings talking about their style and a little more attention given to their poems and aesthetics. I mean, I guess am more interested in seeing poets in clothes than random models (as I would be with any more interesting group -investment bankers, artists, astrophysicts) but the execution sort of fails. Or maybe if they'd made some sort of comment on art and artifice, poets, women as commodity. I don't know if it would have been different if they had guy poets modelling as well.

Kelly Kathleen Ferguson said...

My initial reaction was Bwahahahaha

So—If a poet wants to be taken seriously, maybe posing for a fashion spread in Oprah isn't the best way to go.

Devil's advocate thought: Artist image has always been part of promotion. The White Stripes. Andy Warhol. Oscar Wilde etc.

Another thought: this spread does what fashion mags always do, make women (me) feel like their bodies are wrong, and that what we look like is only important value we possess.

Trina said...

Carrie--I have to disagree with the idea that any attention is good attention. I'm not sure "female poets getting exposure for being female poets" is an accurate depiction of what's going on here. This is more like stunningly attractive female poets getting exposure for being able to fit into sample sizes. Where are the female poets who don't fit into that mold? And wouldn't it be great if there were a platform for female poets that didn't pander to the most basic gender stereotypes--first among them, that female poets can only be considered in isolation from male poets, in the context of their "female-ness"?

Kelly--Sure, sure. Your examples are definitely one approach to self-promotion. There is also a long tradition of artists living in relative anonymity, dying in obscurity, with their work only being "discovered" later, without any representation from them--Emily Dickinson, Henry Darger, John Okada. Is their work any less valuable because they didn't employ a public identity to sell it?

Kelly Kathleen Ferguson said...

I don't know the other two, but Emily D. enjoys a mystique, and has a marketable image. Of course, this was all after her death. Also crucial is that the poetry continues to speak to people.

I was wondering how I'd react to a "hot new nonfictionistas" spread and it'd probably make me depressed. And...I like to think any writer I truly respected wouldn't participate.

Well, unless the writer could just completely Lady Gaga it. Maybe what we don't like about the spread was that the fashion was tame and cliche. I mean, skinny poet ladies in ruffled skirts? YAWN.

Trina said...

I wouldn't say Ms. Dickinson enjoys anything that postdates her death, but I get your point. It's true that the examples I gave were promoted by third-party agents to a greater/lesser degrees of branding. And it doesn't really matter whether they did the branding themselves or whether someone else did it for them--their level of notoriety is directly proportionate to the hype/mystique/whatever created around them.

And I do recognize that self-promotion is necessary. But I still maintain that flogging a public image is only one of many approaches to getting your work out there. The key distinction here (I'm also responding to your recent post) is that there is a huge gulf of difference between letting interested parties know about recent successes and taking part in a photo shoot that, as you say, "does what fashion mags always do, make women (me) feel like their bodies are wrong, and that what we look like is only important value we possess." This additional, nay--central function--of the Oprah shoot has nothing to do with the work. For me, it is alienating. I'm sure there are people who will look at the magazine, like the clothes, and go seek out these poets' work. Bully for them. I don't think the benefits to these 8 poets is worth the collateral damage.

Annski said...

For me the issue is even deeper than just questionable promotion tactics. It's the idea that a female artist (no matter the medium) has to fulfill both a talent and a beauty quota in order to be given her street cred. And it seems to be that the more sway you have with the latter, the less it matters what you've got going with the former.