Writing/ being a “strong female character”

One of the students in my senior seminar is exploring representation of female characters in contemporary fiction. On the one hand, there’s pressure to write “likeable” women protagonists. Koa Beck wrote about this for The Atlantic in 2015, quoting an amazing retort from Claire Messud, in response to a journalist’s question about whether anyone would want to be her protagonist’s friend:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

If only I could be that direct and brilliant when people annoy me. My student Chloe assigned Beck’s piece to the seminar, as well as this one about strong vs. strongly written female characters, as she prepares to write a final essay on the subject. Discussion was lively.

These essays resonate with my train of thought during last weekend’s World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, which was mixed. I saw some very good readings panels–mine, on speculative poetry, was brilliantly moderated by Terese Mason Pierre–but a couple of half-baked ones, too, plus participants asking hostile questions and volunteers who seemed strained to the limit. I’m not sure I would go to this convention again, although the city made up for it: great walks, great pastries, and vaccine policies a woman can get behind.

Listening to one of the presentations I found most useful, on story structure and character, made me think about revising my novel Unbecoming. Panelist Susan Forest said something like: the core of the book, the hard work it does, is rooted in the one action your character takes at a defining moment, the action that produces irreversible change. Ellen Kushner, in the Q&A, also remarked that everyone is haunted in a way that prevents them from living their best life; the author’s job is to decide, what is the worst thing that could happen to a character haunted in this particular way?

My editor helped me locate and rewrite the crisis moment Susan Forest describes. At the outset of Unbecoming, the main character, Cyn, refuses to recognize her own strength, magical and otherwise. And when you don’t admit the power you have, others get harmed in ways you could have mitigated, or maybe even headed off, if you had your wits about you. Cyn does come to terms with power and its consequences by the end, but the choices she makes about how to use her magic are problematic: some good, for sure, but some ethically questionable, to put it mildly. The problem she faces lies in the nature of magic–by definition, power is inequity, right? The MOST ethical thing is to give up your magic/ privilege, to redistribute it, but that’s ALSO hard, for a million different reasons. In short, I’m sympathetic to Cyn, but I don’t entirely like her.

A book of poems creates characters, too, some of whom are strong or strongly-written. Eric Tran visited campus this week, and while his poems seem intensely autobiographical, he emphasized their fictionality, how many of them rely on invention rather than personal history. One of my favorite’s of his is “I Tell My Mother About My Depression” (scroll down at the link and you’ll find it), and, interestingly, that was the one he chose as an example of writing in persona–not what I would have expected. Yet all poems fictionalize, even when they hew closely to fact. How you experience your life, after all, changes all the time; the you who writes the poem won’t exist in the same exact way tomorrow. I often feel distant from and critical of earlier poetic selves. Some of the poems in my most recent collection, The State She’s In, like “The South,” involve a version of me looking back at an earlier mindset and telling Former Lesley off.

Further, compelling poetic characters, the people implied by the words, are often flawed, messy, self-interrogating. I love a good poetic self-indictment.

Are the women characters in The State She’s In “strong” or “likeable”? I invoke strength in some of the poems, weaving spells to banish bad people. Elsewhere I explore the accusation that Hillary Clinton wasn’t likeable (like Claire Messud, I say, For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?). I also test, I think, the limits of womanly likeability by writing from anger–against Trump’s regime, workplace harassment, and the racist past and present of Virginia, you name it. My collection received many lovely reviews, but a mixed review that often comes to mind (not linking to it!) was by a writer who wrestled with her own discomfort with or even distaste for those gouts of outrage. It was one of those reviews that reveals at least as much about the reviewer as it does about the book, but it brought home to me how, even in an age of activist poetry, it’s hard for a woman to write from negative emotion without risk of alienating otherwise sympathetic readers.

By Ruth Rodriguez

Rhyme. Activism. Speculation. Revision. Pumpkins.

I still don’t have exact dates for my forthcoming essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, but I can see the light in the distance now. I’m STOKED to have a version of the Introduction appearing in the new American Poetry Review, where lots of people will see it. I just finished revising the whole ms according to my editor’s notes, too. It feels polished and good. I need to reread it as a whole to make sure I haven’t introduced other errors, but I’m nearly ready to share it with others!

Yet carving out this Saturday, jack-o’-lantern style, for processing those edits (and this morning for contacting finalists for Shenandoah‘s Graybeal-Gowan Prize) was HARD. I think this week and next may be the busiest of my fall–unless I’m just deluded about things easing later. My pumpkin-head is so full these days I don’t know how to quiet it. Some of the lovely too-muchness:

  • I’m preparing a craft talk and a reading for UNC-Wilmington’s Writers Week this week–all Zoom, all free–and full of luminaries. See the schedule and Zoom links here. My craft talk, “Led by Sound,” is about using rhyme as a way of getting past your rational brain to access the weird stuff that makes a poem powerful. It’s based on a workshop I gave years ago, but I felt the need to renovate it deeply, so it’s taken lots of time.
  • I’m ALSO preparing for the World Fantasy Con in Montreal next weekend, where I’m giving a reading plus participating in a panel on speculative poetry (which I haven’t prepped yet, but I know this stuff, right? I’ll pull it off, right?). Never mind packing, doing the Covid tests, etc. I’m vaccinated with Moderna and not scared of flying (casting no shade on people who are, which I think is a reasonable position), but flying was always a pain and now is an even bigger project.
  • Two wonderful poets, Ashley M. Jones and Sally Rosen Kindred, visited different classes of mine via Zoom this week, and each hour was an oasis of forest, music, inspiration, and transformation. I also visited two classes, the Shenandoah internship to talk about poetry selection and a fiction writing class to talk about Unbecoming. I LOVE doing that. But my head is buzzing with everything we said and didn’t say, as well as the regular discussions happening in my classes and office hours. I’m teaching books I’ve never taught before. Students are devising final projects. There’s a lot to talk and think about.
  • Setting up W&L’s Task Force on Chairing–wait, you do NOT want to hear about that!! Much more interesting are the whirlwind days coming up of a campus visit by Eric Tran; presentations by finalists for our tenure track job opening in postcolonial and indigenous literatures; and doing some advance training for my late November-early December gig as a Fulbright evaluator in creative writing.

In short, not much time to answer messages or haunt social media, so I’m sorry if I’ve been a Bad Art Friend by not liking your posts. I’ll catch up.

I’ll close with a Halloween scare: I am full of dread about the upcoming Virginia governor’s election. I voted weeks ago, but the outcome is very iffy because of what they call an “enthusiasm gap” (Trump fans love Youngkin; McAuliffe is the better candidate by miles, but he doesn’t warm the cockles of anyone’s heart). Youngkin, by way of one small example of potential future horrors, is encouraging book-banning. I just started reading the excellent YA novel Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez because local right-wing parents are bombarding the high school with demands to remove books from the collection, including that one. Everyone needs to marshal arguments to keep them in the stacks. As activism goes, that’s definitely my speed, but what a stupid battle to be fighting when the world is burning.


A friend told me to break a leg yesterday and I had to laugh–I’m literally home with a sprained ankle, unable to put weight on my left foot. I apparently did something bad during a beautiful Saturday hike on a bit of the Appalachian Trail, where water rushed by sedimentary rocks flipped almost vertical by some long-ago seismic catastrophe. Weekly walks on unfamiliar paths have been sanity-saving since March, but I guess I’m grounded now, or “winterred,” as Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria put it in their wonderfully playful new year’s poetry video “NEOLOG” (poetry prompt #1: write a poem using one of their neologisms as a title, crediting their brilliance, of course).

My friend made this too-timely comment because I was on the verge of two literary events. I gave a reading yesterday in the Poetrio series at Malaprops Bookstore, run generously and flawlessly by poet Mildred Barya and Malaprops Director of Author Events, Stephanie Jones-Byrne. I forgot to take a screenshot or watch the clock because my co-readers Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran were so amazing, but the recording is here, and you have the option of supporting a great indie bookstore by ordering any of the books (or others) here. (Speaking about clocks, I should say we each kept to our time of 12 minutes-ish, which is basically a holy miracle of restraint where poets are concerned.) Mildred introduces writers not by listing their accomplishments but by reflecting on their poems, setting a mood that was both thoughtful and celebratory. In this case, she noted how many ghosts populate all of our new books. Kathy spoke to that in a wonderful way by reading a poem about the period costumes ghosts are described as wearing, speculating that in twenty years we might be haunted by ghosts in tee-shirts and skinny jeans. Eric began by talking about building an altar to ancestors, noting that everyone wants to escape the ghosts of 2020 but maybe, instead, we could consider how to honor them. It’s a moving idea.

I was also impressed by the emotional range of Kathy’s and Eric’s poems–grief, hilarity, anger, love–and how they talked about that in the Q&A. Eric’s advice for infusing a serious poem with humor is to take your first draft and make it gayer. Add glitter. That can be prompt #2. Prompt #3 is something I try sometimes: after you put down a sentence or two of a potential poem, walk (or limp) away for a while. Each time you come back, put down another sentence or two. Try to do it renga-style, so you’re picking up an element but also moving into a different mood or scene. One of the signal qualities of a strong poem is surprise, and writing slowly can be a way of surprising yourself with unplanned associative leaps.

Today I hope to rest some, submit a story I’ve been working on, and maybe get an x-ray, sigh. I’ll also be prepping for my SECOND reading of 2021, hosted by Cafe Muse tonight. The order of events, in case you can drop in: it begins at 7 pm Eastern with live music, classical guitar I think, to finish your dinner by. At 7:30 Don Colburn reads for 18-20 minutes; then I read; then, if there’s time and interest, we’ll do a brief Q&A. You can register here. I’ll read different poems from The State She’s In (mostly) plus a couple of new ones I haven’t yet aired. It should be fun. Being a clumsy person, I’m also really glad I’m not ascending to a podium on crutches.

cats : making a ruckus :: poets : blogging

My daughter and her cat have moved in for a couple of weeks. We have two cats of our own who were already unimpressed with each other, so the house is full of hissing AND purring, as each cat circles back around for reassurance that they are still the best cat, the most handsome and loved, and certainly everyone’s boss. I know from living with Poe and Ursula that the feline dominance battle never ends. Ursula wins more often–the toy, the spot in the sun–but there are flags Poe keeps re-staking, such as the sill of a certain downstairs window. Without that particular view of sparrows, the mailman, and an offensively brassy groundhog who needs to be shown a thing or two, would life even be endurable?

As you suspected, I’m working myself up to a metaphor: the vehicles are cats, the tenors are moods, and there’s struggle all round. (I could even say that Ursula stands for inexplicably confident cheer, Poe for the rational pessimism of intelligence, and the visitor Sabina for rage behind which is a yearning for peace and freedom, but I think we’ve all had enough of this.) As the season turns to lengthening daylight which is also the start of a long winter, my equilibrium is shaky. I had a challenging year; I had a lucky year and should never complain about anything. It’s all true.

My fifth poetry collection The State She’s In, seems to be doing well. But, and this won’t shock anyone who knows that 2020 has been a bad year for publishing, I just learned that my first novel, Unbecoming, isn’t selling much despite good reviews. I am heartsore. I’ve seen my spouse go through this; in 2011 he published a novel in stories with a university press that immediately went under and eventually learned that the marketing person, last woman standing on the sinking ship, never sent out the review copies or publicity she’d promised. He wrote a couple of great novel mss after that and just couldn’t sell them, because the publishers’ marketing people looked at those numbers and said “bad risk.” This happens in poetry, too–the best way to jump to a press with a big presence is to sell the hell out of your small-indie collection–but the effect is stronger in novel-publishing, probably because poetry has so little money in it anyway. I had felt excited about the new novel I’m drafting but pivoted immediately to fear that no matter how good it is, it might get stuck in limbo. What I care about here isn’t advances or royalties–I have a day job–but to keep writing books, publish them when they’re good and ready, and find appreciative readers.

I’m sad but not paralyzed. On the practical side, I’m making to-do lists for post-publication prize entries and other ways 2021 can be an occasion for a second push. On the emotional side, I’m reminding myself how many literary gifts I’ve received in 2020: generous reviews, reading opportunities, and a LOT of nice notes from friends and strangers praising one book or the other. I am truly, wildly grateful, even when so much about the publishing landscape is dispiriting or just plain pisses me off. I’m also trying to pay back the love. Here are a few things I do beyond buying indie books (ideally from independent bookstores), and I hope you’ll try them too:

  • celebrate books I like on social media (especially books from indie presses).
  • rate books on Goodreads and Amazon. I know people don’t like those linked sites for many good reasons, yet it’s a big kindness to authors to post a few stars there. The number of reviews matters much more than the content; I don’t know what the magic numbers are, but more reviews makes it more likely the books will pop up as search suggestions.
  • ask your local/ university libraries to order titles. I’m behind on this myself but will work on it in the new year.
  • teach new work when you have the opportunity, especially when the book can be on the required or suggested list for your class. Many indie authors are willing to Zoom in cheaply or for free–I’m one of them–and that’s a great way to raise the energy of a flagging class.
  • suggest a book for your book club or library event series, also with the potential excitement of a virtual author visit.

You can also look for a year-in-reading post from me soon, featuring a few poetry titles that deserve more love. And please sign up for one of my readings early in the new year! I promise to make them fun as well as quite different from each other. For the Poetrio event, poster below, the wonderful bookstore Malaprops is stocking The State She’s In. Another bit of light from the moody universe! Happy holidays, stay safe, be patient with whatever your feuding cats are, and I’ll see you next week.

Poetrio Series at Malaprop Books with Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran, 3 pm ET, January 3rd, https://www.facebook.com/events/708758299776747

Café Muse with Don Colburn, January 4th, 7 pm ET, sign up here (https://sites.google.com/view/cafe-muse-events/home)