Hilary Menos talks to Kim Moore about everyday sexism, her recent Forward prize-winning poetry collection All the Men I Never Married and her new collection of lyric essays Are You Judging Me Yet?
HM: ‘All the Men I Never Married’ and ‘Are You Judging Me Yet?’ are obviously rooted in and inspired by your own personal experiences of everyday sexism. You say, “This book aims to create a space for new ways of thinking about sexism and the role it plays in society.” We have been discussing and fighting sexism since the 1960s – what is there to say about it that’s new?
KM: I think it could be argued that women have been fighting sexism for as long as humans have been on the earth! Although perhaps we would need to revise and widen our concept of how this takes place – I am interested in other types of resistance but of course I’m aware of the legacy of the first and second wave feminist movements. My own book is deeply indebted to and in conversation with the ‘consciousness-raising’ sessions of the 1960s. Unfortunately, sexism is not a single thing – it’s a structure (to quote Sarah Ahmed) and a shape-shifter – women experience it in multiple ways – some of which will be the same as in the 1960’s – some of which will have changed immeasurably.
Added to this, despite those gains you talk of, sexism was not something explicitly discussed and named as such in my family, or the wider working-class community I grew up in. Feminism was certainly not thought about, except perhaps as the butt of a joke. I came to it through writing and reading really as a twenty-something music student. I read Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife and it was like being electrified – to realise that the myths and fairy tales I’d grown up with were not truth, that the lessons that they taught me could be unlearned. Thinking about that now, that was my first introduction to poetry as transformational – that book changed the way I thought about those stories, about the inherent misogyny baked into them.
You ask about new ways of thinking that I hope this book opens up. One aspect of this is putting the white space of a poem around an experience of sexism which I hope helps to elevate the subject matter – so it can’t be dismissed as ‘nothing’ or ‘trivial’. The second part of this is to put many experiences of sexism alongside each other to make clear the structural nature of sexism and to illustrate that they are connected.
I read Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife and it was like being electrified – to realise that the myths and fairy tales I’d grown up with were not truth, that the lessons that they taught me could be unlearned
Finally, although these conversations have been taking place for years in various forms, I feel there’s a new conversation starting, and part of this is about the things that female poets in particular have to navigate in the literary community. This is something that is talked about between close friends, even between women as we meet each other at festivals or readings, but I think it needs to be a public conversation. I hope this book can be part of that. Obviously my experiences of sexism in my work as a poet need also to be read through the lens of being white, working class but university educated. Racism or ableism or any other types of discrimination magnifies and multiplies experiences of sexism.
HM: Do you think that there is a particular problem with sexism within the poetry community?
KM: I think the poetry community is part of society and that there is a problem with sexism in society. I wouldn’t necessarily say poets are any more or less sexist than any other group of people. I do draw similarities with the world of music in that problems with sexism are magnified because of the power that people hold – and if a perpetrator happens to be in a position of power, it then becomes very difficult to speak out. I think there is starting to be movement in this area, with some festivals signing up to Codes of Conduct which I think is a welcome move. The problem with sexism is that to quote Sarah Ahmed again, it is “often concealed under the language of civility, happiness, and love”. So it’s not as simple as avoiding that awful sexist person – I’m interested in how we deal with the paper cuts of routine sexism, how we exist in these spaces together, how we resist and persist.
HM: I have lived in France for nearly seven years and, while there are still archaic remnants of French bureaucracy which rub me up the wrong way (our joint bank account, for example, is in my husband’s name), when it comes to meeting and interacting with people, I rarely experience sexism. It has happened a couple of times, though one of those times the man was English. We live in a rural area and I am aware that my experience might not be representative of the whole of France. To what extent do you feel your experience of sexism is representative of women’s experience generally?
KM: Maybe we all need to move to rural France! On a serious note, as I’ve said previously, I think women experience sexism in myriad ways, and often these experiences are filtered through a further level of prejudice based on their identity. So I wouldn’t say I wanted to write about these experiences because I felt they were representative of all women – that would be an impossibility. But conversations at readings have shown me that many women do recognise a lot of the experiences I describe.
Just last week I was called ‘young lady’ at work by a man in front of my students, and I corrected him, asking him to either call me ‘Kim’ or ‘Dr Kim Moore’. In the grand scheme of things, I found this irritating rather than upsetting. It doesn’t stop me going out or doing my job. It didn’t make me lose sleep at night. That doesn’t make it unimportant though – if I hadn’t said back what I said, what does that teach those young men and women about the way women in the workplace can be spoken to or treated? What does it tell them about the respect women are afforded, if they see me, ostensibly in a position of power, being patronised like this?
These ‘everyday’ moments are important.
HM: ‘Are You Judging Me Yet?’ is a mixture of prose, poetry and lyric essay which invites the reader to navigate his / her way through it in a variety of different ways – a “reader-directed format” inspired by the Fighting Fantasy adventure series of role-playing game books which you read as a child. What’s the purpose of this? Do you think this makes the book more accessible, more collaborative?
KM: I set the book out like this for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a literal map of the way my thinking and research progressed. I wanted the creative and critical research to be intertwined, to be talking to each other, and to illustrate with the actual structure of the book how they grew out of and developed in tandem with each other.
Conversations at readings have shown me that many women do recognise a lot of the experiences I describe
I also wanted the structure of the book to be playful, despite the serious subject matter. It feels like an honouring of humour, which has got me through so many difficult experiences in my life, and has been an important coping mechanism, even a survival mechanism for me.
I am also interested in what we choose to look at, and what we choose to look away from, and I wanted to make this explicit by giving the reader the choice of what they wanted to read next. Sometimes I hope it feels like collaboration, sometimes I hope it feels like complicity – I want the reader to ask themselves – why did I want to read this section next?
HM: In Are You Judging Me Yet? you say “Women have always been punished for their sexual histories, but part of the job of being ‘woman’ or even ‘girl’ is always to negotiate these categories, to ‘give an account of oneself’.” Is that what you are doing in All the Men I Never Married – giving an account of yourself?
KM: I don’t think I started off thinking I was doing this, but once I started reading Judith Butler’s book of the same name (Giving an Account of Oneself) my brain started to make connections between that and the idea of confessional poetry which is always flung around when women write about their experience or their lives. I also began to realise that there was a connection between my personal experience of domestic violence and my experiences of everyday sexism. In Are You Judging Me Yet? I talk about how the book became a way of exploring the landscape that makes domestic violence not only possible, but allows it to thrive. I realised that underneath a lot of what I was writing was this desire to answer this question that often feels more like an accusation direct at victims of domestic violence – why did you stay?
HM: The collection has been described as taboo-breaking, brave and open-hearted, and searingly honest. Do you feel you put yourself on the line in this book? How hard was it to write?
KM: When I was a student at music college, I used to ring my dad in tears because I’d been dumped again and he would say “Kim ! I’m thirty foot up a bloody scaffold!” It was always a wonderful reality check for me – the thought of my dad hanging somewhere in the sky above me, but still wrestling to get his phone out of his pocket to answer my call.
All this is to say that I think all books are ‘hard’ to write, but not hard in the same way that working a physically demanding job is hard. My dad gently takes the mickey out of me now, asks me if I’ve taken a full stop out of a poem or put one in to day, as part of my hard day’s work!
This desire to please is a dangerous thing – it allows us to go along with things we would otherwise protest
But if I think about what I did put on the line, it was probably my own desire to please people, which feels utterly engrained and was a difficult thing to escape. This desire to please is a dangerous thing – it allows us to go along with things we would otherwise protest, and as bell hooks says, it “undermines radical commitment”. Writing this book opened a door out of that life of pleasing other people, and I will probably be learning all my life how to keep walking through.
HM: I’m interested in the concept of the female gaze. In Are You Judging Me Yet? you say, “even if I write with the female gaze, I cannot force the audience to see me, when what they want is to see woman not as poet, but as body, as gendered body.“ How do you counter this?
KM: I think it is a problem of all writers and all human beings – we cannot control how we are perceived, or how our poems or conversations are received. All we can do is keep trying. I counter it by writing poetry, by speaking with a public voice, and by not letting myself be reduced by these exchanges, whether that is by putting boundaries in place in the moment, with silence, or with writing about it afterwards. Mostly, by giving myself grace not to be perfect.
HM: It’s been a good few years for you – ‘All The Men I Never Married’ (Seren, 2022) won the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2022, your second collection ‘The Art Of Falling’ (Seren, 2015) won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and your first pamphlet ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ (Smith|Doorstop, 2011) was a winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition and was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year Award. You also have a new non-fiction book out with Smith|Doorstop this year, ‘What The Trumpet Taught Me’. What’s the next project?
KM: I’m not sure yet. Are You Judging Me Yet? has only just come out, so I haven’t really even started thinking about the next project! I’m also settling into a new permanent role Manchester Metropolitan University as a Lecturer in Creative Writing, and as part of that, working as a Research Fellow on a residency at Trafford General Hospital. At the moment that feels like enough to be getting on with. At some point, I will start working on my third collection, but I don’t have any inkling what that will be yet. Possibly something about motherhood, but who knows! I’m also still really enjoying reading and thinking about lyric essays and would love to have space and time to think more about this form.
Book for the virtual launch of Are You Judging Me Yet? by Kim Moore at 6.30 pm Sunday 2nd April. Free, online, via Zoom