In embracing the ‘witch’ figure, Sexton’s “Her Kind” pushes back against stigma. It’s also object lesson in writing well on tough subjects.

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A representation of the Salem witch trials, a lithograph by Baker, Joseph E., from 1892. Accessed via Wikimedia, made available by the Library of Congress.

For Anne Sexton, writing poetry provided an opportunity to use and refine difficult life experiences into art.

Born in 1928, Anne Sexton was raised in the middle-class milieu of the Greater Boston area. She married young, at 19, and never received a college degree. A few years into her marriage, she had two daughters, one in 1953 and another in 1955. In those years, as in the years to come, Sexton was hospitalized after suicide attempts and nervous breakdowns. It wasn’t until the age of 28, with the encouragement of her therapist, that Sexton began to write poetry.

Having no formal college education, Sexton began to attend poetry workshops led by John Holmes and received mentorship from the Boston-area poets W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell. This informal support was enough to get Sexton writing and publishing — her debut collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back was published just four years after she began writing poetry, in 1960. …

Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Not All Dead White Men’ explores the reductive tendencies of online ‘red pill’ communities

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A bust of the young Marcus Aurelius. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For three years, classicist Donna Zuckerberg spent nearly every day reading through the darkest, most hateful corners of the Internet, researching how misogynistic online communities misappropriate ancient texts. The final product of this research, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, was published by Harvard University Press in October 2018. In it, Zuckerberg argues that far-right online forums, like /r/TheRedPill, “have turned the ancient world into a meme: an image of an ancient statue or monument becomes an endlessly replicable and malleable shorthand for projecting their ideology and sending it into the world.”

At the time of the book’s writing, during the final years of the Obama presidency, Zuckerberg had expected her research to make a small contribution to her discipline: in shedding light on how the Internet’s “manosphere” abused ancient texts, her book might expand how scholars of the classics study contemporary uses of the ancient world in lesser-known realms like /r/TheRedPill. She hadn’t thought that the many varieties of hate she witnessed — homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and so on — would be prominent aspects of American public discourse when her book was eventually published. But then, a few days after submitting her first draft in the fall of 2016, Donald Trump was elected, and the structure of her project changed. …

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Protestors participate in the “March for Science” in Pittsburgh in 2017. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn’t stop at the page’s edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief — a mouse tail, a pigtail — is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!
Wisława Szymborska, “Pi”

The poet Jane Hirshfield stands on the stairs that lead down to the Dupont Underground arts space in Washington D.C. It is 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 20, 2017. Dismayed by the actions and proposals of the Trump administration, Hirshfield has traveled to D.C. to read at a series of events related to the March for Science. She is part of a delegation from Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center who together have organized a group they call Poets for Science. In an hour and a half, Hirshfield will read her poem “On the Fifth Day.” (“The facts were told not to speak / and were taken away.”) She will use her time on stage to talk more broadly about the importance of empirical exploration to both science and poetry. But until that happens, she needs to find someone who would bring the banners up to New York for another science and poetry event on Monday. …

Because the essay fee isn’t the only way you can benefit from (and be harmed by) your published work

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What we think of when we think about freelance writing (Photo by Christin Hume via Unsplash)

Let me get this out of the way first: I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

When most people, myself included, consider whether or not they should freelance their work, they think about the benefits: the flexibility to work on your own timeline, pursue your own ideas, and shop your work around to any and every magazine or literary outlet. The mental image we conjure of “freelancing” probably looks something like the beautifully filtered, soft-focus coffee shop image above (^^^).

This, needless to say, is not the reality. Freelancing involves a lot of self-initiative and self-discipline. It also comes with rejection and its own unique frustrations. So when you shop around an idea or an essay draft and you get an email from an editor who says they want to publish your writing, it’s reasonable to feel elated. You clarify the word count and the fee. You get back to work on the essay if it’s unfinished. A few days later, or sometimes even weeks later, the publication contract arrives in your email inbox. And the contract’s stipulations can make the elation from an editor’s acceptance seem much less warranted. …

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In the past few weeks, as a group of thousands of Central American migrants walks on foot to the US border and President Trump sends thousands of troops to the border to make a “wall of people” to prevent the migrants (dubbed the “caravan”) from seeking asylum, the six final lines of the poem “Cenzontle” (Spanish for “birdsong”) by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo have resurfaced in my mind repeatedly:

Call it wound
call it

The bird’s beak twisted
into a small circle of awe.

You called it cutting apart,
I called it song.

Earlier this year, I wrote a profile of Marcelo, a poet and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipient whose poetry navigates his trauma and anxiety related to growing up undocumented in the United States. In that essay, published online at The Paris Review, I attempted to convey the experience of Marcelo’s poetry, albeit in prose. Marcelo’s lyric and image-rich poems, which have few direct references to his material situation (living undocumented, knowing that at any moment he could be separated from his family, the anxiety and hypervigilance that stemmed from this), carry readers across (metaphysical) borders into Marcelo’s interior landscape.

I first read and loved Margaret Atwood’s novel in 2010. But in 2018, we need to think carefully about how and what we use to argue for women’s rights

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I took this picture in 2014. Someone had scrawled the famous tagline of Atwood’s novel in the women’s bathroom of Refuge Cafe in Allston, a neighborhood of Boston, MA.

In April 2017, four months into the Trump presidency, I grimaced for the first time at a Handmaid’s Tale reference. I had loved Margaret Atwood’s novel since reading it nearly a decade ago, but I saw how audiences and the press were reacting to the Hulu adaptation series premiere, and I was worried.

I do not need to tell you about the glowing articles that detailed how viewers felt that the show was “chillingly resonant.” As episodes premiered each week, I heard and read people say that under Trump, “we are living in Gilead” or, if they wanted to hedge a little, “America could become Gilead.” …

I explore “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich, a poet whose work explored female identity, patriarchal oppression, and sexuality

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A diver explores Guantánamo Bay (via Unsplash)

In “Diving into the Wreck,’ the late poet Adrienne Rich provides a map to her creative process. The poem, the story of a scuba diver who has gone into the depths of the ocean to explore a shipwreck, suggests how Rich, known for her feminist sensibilities, negotiated writing creatively in mid-20th century America, a time when literary ecosystem was even more male-dominated than it is today.

“Diving,” then, suggests a possible solution to the idea that “women can’t write,” a prejudicial phenomenon typical in the nineteenth and twentieth century, by proposing that the spirit and soul, the murky unconsciousness (the ocean in the poem) from where poetry and art springs is androgynous. …

Hamilton’s reconstruction of Athenian tragedy, Americanized to focus on individual “poetically transmuted pain,” appealed to Robert F. Kennedy.

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Robert F. Kennedy greeting supporters in 1968, the year the senator was shot and killed while on the presidential campaign trail. (via Wikimedia Commons)

On April 4, 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed, he knew what to do: he had a plane arranged to transport King’s wife, Coretta, and had three more telephone lines installed at the Kings’ home. In Indiana to campaign for the state’s presidential primary, Kennedy even knew what to say when he addressed a largely African-American crowd in Indianapolis that night. …

On Friday, Irish citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of repealing their country’s amendment banning abortion in nearly all circumstances. This article, published on May 21, tells the story of the women who worked to help secure this victory.

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Protestors in London march to raise awareness of the significant number of women from the Irish isle who seek abortions in Britain every year, a consequence of the abortion bans in Ireland and Northern Ireland. (Photo credit: Alastair Moore via the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign)

A few years ago, in the lead up to the 2016 Irish general election, Andrea Horan found herself surprised when the patrons of her Dublin nail salon had little to say about the upcoming vote that would decide Ireland’s next prime minister. Horan remembers how several of the patrons, the kind of young Dublin women who frequent the Tropical Popical salon, shrugged and said they hadn’t thought about the election much. “However my dad and mum are voting” was the answer that she heard from many of them.

Up until recently, this political indifference was typical among Irish women, and especially so concerning hot-button social issues. Women’s rights seemed to pale in comparison to past decades’ turmoil caused by political conflict with Britain, and the Catholic church’s pressure made issues like reproductive health essentially taboo. However, the movement to legalize abortion has gained considerable support in Ireland, and with polls suggesting that the Irish people will vote to repeal the country’s constitutional ban on abortion, it looks like 2018 could be the Year of the Woman in Ireland as much as it has been in U.S. …

Woolf invented Shakespeare’s sister Judith to advance her feminist argument in “A Room of One’s Own

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A portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry (via Wikimedia Commons)

Virginia Woolf was unconventional in her advocacy for feminist causes. Woolf believed in equality, but like other Modernist writers of the early twentieth century, Woolf saw herself as an outsider and observer. This identity made her participation in women’s political groups fraught — as the scholar Clara Jones demonstrates in Virginia Woolf: Ambivalent Activist, Woolf supported and helped organize organizations’ feminist projects but would return home from a meeting and lampoon other advocates in her journal. It is this sympathetic-yet-skeptical relationship to feminist activism that makes Woolf’s pro-equality argument about the dearth of great women writers so interesting.

A woman novelist writing at a time when women’s writing received even less respect than it does now, Woolf wanted to know why women writers were so few and inferior. To answer this question — the “perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet,” Woolf writes— the writer turned her scrutiny to the society in which women lived, rather than women themselves. And it is this investigation that eventually became the writer’s compelling essay A Room of One’s Own.


Tara Wanda Merrigan

Philadelphia-based essayist. 2019 NBCC fellow. More info at:

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