Dead [Women] Poets Society (D[W]PS) is a collective which began in 2015. Its aim is to resurrect women poets of the past, both in live events (séances) and online and also to raise awareness of women’s wide-ranging and profound literary heritage, and open up conversations between living writers and these often forgotten and side-lined women. It’s a great mission statement to have. During the event, two featured poets present a dead female poet and bring her back to life by reading her work and then performing their own poems, written specially for the evening and which are in deep conversation with the resurrected poets. D[W]PS evenings also include an open-mic section, with a difference: you can only read one of your own poems if you also read a poem by a dead woman poet or a living/dead non-binary poet. I’m a huge fan of these séances and both the featured poets and open-micers have really extended my knowledge of the female canon. I especially love the way the events begin with the evening’s medium (Jas, Helen or Lily who you’ll meet below) reading Maria Tsvetaeva’s poem (translated by Elaine Feinstein) We Shall Not Escape from Hell which begins with the immortal lines:
We shall not escape Hell, my passionate
sisters, we shall drink black resins––
You can read the whole poem here:
The last D[W]PS séance featured Thea Ayres (image below) talking about why HD (Hilda Doolittle) inspired her so much, particularly HD’s rewriting of myths.
Thea read a selection of HD’s poems for us before moving to a poem of her own which responded to the highlighted themes in HD’s work. Julia Copus (image below) gave a presentation on Charlotte Mew and a fascinating insight into why she was ignored in her lifetime. Her personal poetic response to Mew was to create a cento made from lines from all the acknowledged and fêted male poets who were contemporaries of Mew, but to intersperse these with lines from Mew’s poems, and, most importantly, to give her the first and last word! Copus has recently completed a biography of Mew, This Rare Spirit: A Life of Charlotte Mew (Faber 2019).
You can read Thea’s and Julia’s poems here:
I’m so excited to find out more about this radical organisation!
Jas, Helen, Lily, what gave you the initial idea for this project, and how did you get started?
Lily (image below): Dead [Women] Poets Society is Jas’s brain child! She founded the original collective with Helen, Sarah Fletcher and Katie Byford while they were all students at Durham University.
Helen (image below): Jas emailed us one day with the idea. She pointed out that we hear so much from living writers – for obvious reasons – but you rarely hear the work of poets of the past performed at festivals and gigs. And we were all at university, where we were feeling frustrated with how few women writers were being taught on the syllabus. So combining the two ideas, and the great name which gave us the spooky feel, we got Dead [Women] Poets Society – a space to ‘resurrect’ women writers of the past, and trace that neglected lineage between us and them.
Lily: The first séance was commissioned as part of Durham Book Festival 2015, and was held at the now closed (and greatly missed!) DIY space: Empty Shop HQ. It was a magic evening, and the first time I had been to a poetry event if you can believe it. And look at me now!
Before the collective got Arts Council funding to go on a national tour, we were just putting on events and workshops when and where we could, resurrecting dead poets in as many cities as possible! Now in the pandemic we’ve had to go virtual. We never thought we would be communing with the dead online in this way, but it means we’ve reached global audiences. At our last séance we had attendees from across the world.
Helen, Jas and Lily – the three of you seem to have very different skillsets – what do you each bring to the mix and what makes you work so well together? Tell us a bit more about yourselves and what makes the collective tick!
Helen: Ah, thanks! I think we are a great team. We all share the admin really – contacting poets and venues, marketing, social media, updating our website, answering queries, funding bids and reporting, forming partnerships and attending meetings. Lily is obviously the illustrator/designer extraordinaire, while Jas and I tend to work more closely with the poets and host the séances themselves. I really love sharing hosting duties with Jas. I’m very energetic and/or chaotic, while she has more of a calm and thoughtful vibe on stage. We balance each other out!
Lily: Also Jas (image below) and Helen are just such lovely people to work with, I feel very lucky. We all go way back, so I think our bonds are deep now.
There’s such a strong feeling of sisterhood in everything you do. Could you say more about the zine you have created, Resistance? I notice you also do zine workshops – how do these reflect your ethos and aims?
Lily: Haha thanks, I could chat about zines all day! RESISTANCE was put together to raise money for Sisters Uncut, an intersectional feminist collective that take direct action for domestic violence services. It is made up of incredible contributions from poets and artists. There are still copies up for grabs if you want to support the radical work of Sisters Uncut through the medium of print.
But anyway zines are just a great tool to use in our adventures in communing with the dead. It is DIY guerilla publishing! The zine workshops we run facilitate people in self-publishing their own ideas and work, and explore new ways to open up conversations between the living and the dead.
We always start our workshops with a basic premise. You choose a poem by a dead women/non-binary poet and turn it into a zine through the magic of photocopying/collage/drawing whatever you want to do. Then this zine gets photocopied a bunch of times, so at the end of the workshop you leave with your own print run of zines to distribute. But once people get into the zine zone, the workshop always grows into something more powerful! It becomes this kind of space for collective exploration and contemplation, which is reflected in the zines that get made. Often people leave these workshops having written and published their own poetry in just a couple of hours.
I treasure my copy of Modern Poetry in Translation which features a Dead Women Poet’s Society takeover! You used “translator mediums to resurrect ghostly grandmothers”. What a brilliant idea! Could you say more about this project and whether the issue is still available?
Helen: Thanks so much! We had such a brilliant time guest-editing Modern Poetry in Translation – it was the perfect project for us to take up when our events had been postponed by the pandemic.
Translation does seem very much aligned with what we’re trying to do: bringing the work of women poets of the past into the present. A study from a few years ago found that between 2008 and 2018, only 28% of all translations were by women, and Clare Pollard (the editor of MPT) was just as keen to redress this balance as we were.
Each issue of MPT has a ‘focus’, and ours was (of course) dead women poets. The format of MPT in particular is almost precisely aligned with our regular work: each translation is introduced by the translator – just like a resurrection at one of our séances. It was just a different angle from which to ‘resurrect’ women writers. A few of the translations we published took ancient poems and re-interpreted them into modern language and situations, and felt like the ‘creative responses’ we commission of the poets on our tour. For instance ‘Origins of the Fire Emoji’ by Jessica Wood, which gave our issue its title, was a version of ‘The Exaltation of Inanna’ by Enheduanna, the oldest named poet.
The support we received for the project was astonishing, too: we crowdfunded 161% of our target amount to fund the issue, and managed to publish an extra-long issue as a result! We’d love to do more work like this.
Lily: Also yes, the issue is still available. You can still order it directly from the MPT website, and also through our site when you get a ticket for one of our online séances.
(Here’s a link to the MPT website: https://modernpoetryintranslation.com/)
You have put together an impressive array of living women poets to act as mediums for dead women poets at your events including Caroline Bird, Jade Cuttle, Nina Mingya Powles, Momtaza Mehri and Hannah Hodgson (images follow) to name but a few. How does this process work? Do the poets approach you first or are they commissioned or is it a mix of the two?
Helen: Though we’re always interested to hear from people, we approach the poets as and when we have opportunities to do so. Until the Arts Council funding, it was very ad hoc – who did we personally know, who would be up for doing this on a shoestring budget? But with the funding, we were able to ask some of our favourite poets to get involved, and pay them for their time.
What’s next for Dead Women Poets Society? Can you give us a sneak peak of any future projects?
Helen: Well, first we need to finish our tour – we’re doing an online séance every month between now and September. And looking further ahead, we’re thinking about a project with music, working with the librettist and general excellent human Laura Attridge, but it’s very much in the planning stages at the moment.
You can find out more about this fascinating organisation here:
Helen Bowell is a London-based poet and co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society. She is a Ledbury Poetry Critic, and an alumna of The Writing Squad, the London Library Emerging Writers Programme, London Writers Awards and the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. Helen won the 2020 Bronze Creative Future Writers Award and was commended in the 2020 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She was Poetry Business’s February 2021 digital Poet in Residence. Her poems have appeared in bath magg, Poetry Birmingham, Ambit and elsewhere. Her debut pamphlet is forthcoming from Bad Betty Press in 2022. She works at The Poetry Society.
Jasmine is a Yorkshire-based poet and co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society. Her debut pamphlet, Like Horses, was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2019. She is an alumna and current trustee of The Writing Squad, an Associate Artist for Grimm & Co (children’s writing charity) in Rotherham, West Yorkshire, and in 2019 was Writer in Residence for the University City of Tübingen in Germany. Jasmine has won awards for her poetry including the New North Poets Award (Northern Writers Awards), the Yorkshire New Poet Prize (The Poetry Business), and was formerly Vice Chancellor’s Scholar for the Arts at Durham University.
Lily Arnold is a Leeds based artist. Sometimes she does huge paintings on big walls, and sometimes she does tiny drawings in small zines. She’s been working closely with Dead [Women] Poets Society since the collective’s formation. Lily likes watching garden birds and eating pizza, though not always at the same time. Find her on instagram: @gutt_trustt
More Women D[W]PS: Ruth Sutoyo, Bridget Minamore, Lizzy Hawkins (all drawings by Lily Arnold)
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon. More information at www.sueburge.uk
WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.
Make a one-time donation
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly