Jan Beatty’s "Shooter," A Controversy for Feminist & Gender Politics

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


by Mary Kate Azcuy

Award winning poet and professor Jan Beatty’s controversial poem “Shooter” from Red Sugar (2008) finds the persona taking revenge on men by whom she was abused. She leaves the intimate, private space of secrets assigned to women by male perpetrators and launches into the public sphere with testimony as the political activist and metaphoric assassin shooting silence, shame, and injustice.

Beatty has said that “Shooter” is a poem about “women speaking about violation” (Sacramento Poetry Center 2008), as the voice aims and fires in vengeance for the unacceptable: sexual violations. Although the poem is presented by Beatty in an ironic tone and she defends it as metaphor, the literal reading of the text brings forth the conversation about women as sexual objects, the Othered, seeking revenge. Fear of such revenge by the Othered is a rationale used in domination to keep women sequestered in domestic space, as objects that men may violate in private. This fear premise of the powerful Othered overtaking the dominant has long been used as an irrational rationale for the control of women by the political, social, and religious systems and laws that remain in place in the United States, and the world, into the twenty-first century.

Feminist and gender theorist Judith Butler’s essay—“Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street” (2011)—addresses voices such as Beatty’s that demand the right to speak in public about corrupt power systems. Butler finds such voices “lay claim to a certain space as public space…bodies that come together to make a claim in public space, but that formulation presumes that public space is given, that it is already public…the very public character of the space is being disputed and fought over” (2011). This right to address public issues in public space comes with the right of assembly, yet that right has been fraught with difficulty, especially for feminist poets.

Beatty finds her alliance in the audience at her public poetry readings, where she brings forth controversial topics of the empowered and feared Other, the vengeful, violent feminist, with a poem as her weapon. During a question and answer period, after a New Jersey reading in 2008, a man asked Beatty if she was the persona in “Shooter” and if she was actually violated in the way the poem outlines. She declined to answer. He was indignant and continued saying that if the poem wasn’t fact or autobiography, then she was [I paraphrase] “twisting the image of men for all of the nice young ladies in the audience.” The reaction, not one of concern for the victim in the poem or the actor of and action of sexual violation, the telling in poetry was unacceptable for this representative male.

In this paper, I draw from Judith Butler’s ideas about feminism, gender theory, and the public sphere relative to Jan Beatty’s controversial poem “Shooter.” I examine the feminist and political issues the poem antagonizes, relative to theories presented by Butler via Michel Foucault’s What Is Critique? concerning the dominant gender and political power structures that equal the regime and those that stand up to the regime. Additionally, I include discussions brought forward by Judith/Jack Halberstam in Female Masculinity (1998) and Gaga Feminism: Sex Gender and the End of Normal (2012). This draws forward a parallel to Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010), her life’s retrospective at the MoMa (where one million people attended), and Rhyme 0 (1974) where the subversive, sadomasochistic performance, involving six hours of torture by the audience, as the artist says, serves as “a mirror of the social.”

My premise is that the poem, “Shooter,” retaliates against male predatory entitlement that is condoned in society, while the voices of women standing up against sexual abuse and objectification are silenced. The undoing of the silence, by voicing the truth, finds a strong reaction. I find “Shooter” the ironic rebound to violence, the metaphor of the shot fired back.  

This paper was presented at the FAAAM: Femmes Auteurs Anglo-Américaines Conference 2013, the theme of the conference is “Inscriptions in the Public Sphere,” at the Université of Paris, Ouest Nanterre, on June 14.

Jan Beatty Interview, June 2013

 

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24812">Click here to see Jan reading "Shooter" at the Sacramento Poetry Center, 2008.

Mary Kate: I actually witnessed a man having a weird reaction to your poem “Shooter” from Red Sugar after you read it at Monmouth University in 2009. He insisted you justify the ‘truth’ of the ‘accusations’ in the poem because there were (I’m paraphrasing) “a lot of young impressionable women in the audience and you were really giving a bad impression of men.”  Do you find such strong reactions to “Shooter” and that speaking out against silence and violence creates an antagonist?


Jan: I remember that man. He was an older white man, and when he started with his statement, I knew what was coming, because yes, I do find strong reactions to “Shooter” on a regular basis. It’s an odd situation to be in, in that I have written an intense poem that calls for women to say no to abuse—and now I am mediating my response in a way that hopefully, can be heard. I don’t think that my work creates an antagonist, but rather, it identifies some of them.

When Red Sugar first came out, I received a phone call from a director of a national press (not the University of Pittsburgh Press). This man, who I know, told me that he was disturbed by my book, that he thought it was man-hating—until he got to the last section of the book, which he said, “…had some very touching family poems.” I was incensed by his remarks, and told him that my poems were not man-hating, but that they were reporting on the lives of women. He didn’t specifically name “Shooter,” but I know that it was part of his response. It’s as if he was pissed off, then he was okay when he saw some poems that “fell into line” according to his limited vision of what women should be saying.

This happens again and again, in various ways, around the country. It sometimes happens with other women writers. While teaching in an MFA program, I did a reading of Red Sugar which included “Shooter.” The next day, some male students approached me and asked: “We want to know, are you shooting ALL the men in the world in ‘Shooter,’ or only the ones who have done something?” I was appalled at this simplistic response to the poem, especially from a graduate student. I said, first of all, this is a graduate program, and this is a poem. I am not the speaker of the poem, and I’m not shooting anyone. It’s a metaphor. The graduate student went on to tell me that at the party the night before, a woman faculty member (a writer) was telling everyone that my poem was “hate speech” and that it was dangerous. This was shocking to me, and I confronted the woman later, asking her if she said that, and she confirmed it. I was very disturbed that a woman writer would fuel this controversy. I was so angry that I told her that what she was saying was so ridiculous that I couldn’t fathom it—that it’s not hate speech, and that she needs to stop starting fires about it. She and I had previously had some disagreements, but I was stunned that she would mess with another woman’s writing, that she would not come directly to me.

Mary Kate: Is “Shooter” making a statement that one must address violence with violence or is it the way to provoke a conversation?


Jan: “Shooter” is not saying that one must address violence with violence. It IS saying that women experience these abuses on a daily, widespread basis, and that it’s unacceptable. My goal was to write the best poem I could write, not to provoke conversation. I am aware that there are not enough poems out there with women raging about truth. But, I think that it’s the work of poetry to disturb, inflict discomfort, record the truth, among many other things. If that provokes a conversation, great. I’m interested in moving people, in reaching them emotionally, changing their minds about something.


Mary Kate: Criticism for men and violence in writing is a shrug of the shoulder. Is it perceived differently for women, even if the voice is ironic or vigilante?


Jan: Yes, absolutely. This really pisses me off. It is unbelievable to me, but Western culture still imagines and desires and pressures women to be “nice” and “sweet.” This is entirely unacceptable and obsolete and dangerous. I direct a program called the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University. We exist to empower women, to work against this insane discrimination. The only rule we have for workshop: no apologies. We have women ages 20-90 from all backgrounds and disciplines. It is a community workshop, but we include some undergraduates. We have had women who return to writing in their 80’s, after their husbands die—since they felt no freedom to write. This cultural censorship and internal censorship is deep. Unfortunately, it is alive and well with young women also.


Mary Kate: Is “Shooter” a voice for Women looking back saying, ‘No?’


Jan: Yes, it is. I vividly remember writing “Shooter.” I was at Jentel, a writer’s residency in Wyoming. It was 2 or 3 in the morning and I was writing. I thought I should make a list of all the abusive things that had happened to me (I was doing free writing). As I wrote, the list grew and grew and grew. I started getting angrier and angrier—but also started to feel physically sick, in that way that happens with abuse. The feelings were coming back. I stopped after a while to read the pages and pages, and then I started feeling crazy, like there was something really wrong with me. I think that every woman knows this self-inflicted guilt or shame that really comes from external forces. I went back to the list and kept writing. The gun, the shooting came later. The poem came later.


Mary Kate: In “Shooter,” the persona gives the cause and effect, for why some of the abuses have occurred, and for why the speaker is stopping the action in the metaphoric shot. Is this a call to action for women?

 
Jan: Again, my main goal was to write the best poem that I could write. Of course, as I crafted the poem, and realized what it was, I asked myself if it earned its way as a poem. I don’t want to dump my anger or agenda onto the page, but I want to write a good poem. Many good poems are angry, are seething. So, I had to question my agenda—was I writing this to call for action, to tear someone down? I wanted to record what happens to women on a daily basis, to get it out into the air in a very clear, unapologetic way. I wanted to keep the ugliness in, to not whitewash anything.


Mary Kate: Judith Butler said that women need to come together as a political body in a movement of resistance, taking to the streets. Do you think the twenty-first century needs a new Women’s Rights’ Movement or does the Women’s Movement need to join other Human Rights actions ala the Occupy Movement?


Jan: I think we need a new Women’s Rights’ Movement. There is so, so much to do. If we still don’t have, in reality, equal pay for equal work—how can we not have this? In my experience, some of the most dangerous men are the ones who pose as feminists, and many young people seem to think the Women’s Movement is no longer needed. This tells me we do need it. With abortion rights severely threatened, we need to work as women, not be subsumed by a larger movement.


Mary Kate: How does one address the controversial ‘shooter’ metaphor in the poem that is retaliatory, ironic, and fraught with issues about gender disputes, women’s rights, and does it evoke a conversation about gun control?


Jan: I don’t have a problem with the idea of retaliation, with the shooter metaphor. I know that it’s not friendly, not sweet, not a cooperative solution. I believe that a hard line is needed when it comes to women protecting our bodies and our psyches. To backpedal is to lose ground in this area, and I’m not willing to do it. I did have trouble reading it when the book first came out. I was nervous about possible response. I was nervous about the poem being mistaken for something it wasn’t. But, when I started reading the poem, some surprising things happened. After my readings, women started coming up to me and saying things like, “That happened to me, too” or “I was in an abusive marriage,” or “I love your shooter poem.” Then we would start to talk about being alive as women in the world and what that means, and that often led to tough but wonderful conversations, sometimes tears.

I remember reading at an outdoor festival in rural Pennsylvania. I was the last reader, and I had planned to read “Shooter” and some other challenging poems. As the night went on, I noticed that all the readers seemed to be reading “safe” poems, with no disturbing moments, no profanity in sight. I felt that the audience was fairly conservative by its responses. I started to change my reading list, thinking that “Shooter” might be too intense and aggressive for the setting. When I got up to read, I looked out at the crowd, and thought, “Fuck it, I’m reading what I want to read.” So, I read my original list, and after the reading, there was a long line of women waiting to talk with me. I was stunned.

They all wanted to talk about “Shooter.” They hadn’t heard anything like that, they loved it, they loved the retaliation. One woman approached me, and I thought at the time that she looked like someone who was wealthy and conservative. This was my stereotype based on the way she was dressed. When she started talking, she cried and cried. She couldn’t stop. We walked to a more private place. She told me that she had been abused for years by her first husband. She said she had never told anyone except her new husband (who was waiting for her in the distance). She said, “My husband tells me it wasn’t my fault, but I can’t believe him. Hearing you has brought it all back.” We talked for about 20 minutes, then hugged. I said to myself that from then on, I would read “Shooter” regardless of crowd or my impressions.


Mary Kate: I find your honesty is about removing women from an imprisoning silent space of secrets where abuse occurs. Was this a conscious decision to release such truths into the public sphere and was there a moment that influenced the decision?


Jan: This was definitely a conscious decision, once the poem was finished.  I workshopped the poem with my friend, Judith Vollmer, who is a feminist and a poet. I remember asking her if it was too much—the main question being, does it earn its way as a poem? She assured me, yes, definitely, but it went through many, many revisions to find the best details, rhythm, etc. I am absolutely, clear about sending out truths into the public sphere. Poetry, in a very real way, saved my life as a young woman, and continues to save it by writing the difficult, the unbearable, the things I’m afraid to write.


Mary Kate: I have read that you consider yourself a feminist but not a feminist poet. How do we separate the two?


Jan: I’m absolutely a rabid feminist. To me it’s not so much separating the two, but avoiding the label of “feminist poet.” Feminism, ultimately, to me is about choice. As with the label of queer poet or African American poet, etc—feminist poet is a dangerous label in poetryland. It could mean the ghettoizing of your work, putting your book in the women’s section (which is not a bad place to be, as long as it’s also in the poetry section)

There is still so much white male influence in the poetry world, and any labeling is limiting in that sense. I want to be known as a writer, not a woman writer. I’m proud to be a woman who is a writer, but those labels are used mercilessly to oppress.


Mary Kate: Men write about sex and sexuality and it is accepted masculine behavior. When women write about it is termed ‘graphic.’ Is writing about sexuality gender specific or is it a human experience?


Jan: I just had The Switching/Yard reviewed in the Pittsburgh City Paper by a male poet. In a two-page review, he talked about my work in very dated, sexist terms. He quoted a poem of mine which used the word, “twat”—he didn’t contextualize the usage. He also characterized my work as like that of Quentin Tarantino. I love Tarantino, but my work is nothing like that. I think that this writer had no way of talking about the sexuality and violence in my work. I think that writing about sexuality is gender specific and is a human experience.


Mary Kate: I have read some strange reviews of your work that remind me of the reaction to other female avant-garde writers, women who broke new ground, like Kathy Acker or even early reactions to Anne Sexton. Are their female writers that you found added something new to poetry and that have influenced your work? Are their female writers who acted as literary mentors to you? Someone you read that influenced your honest voice?


Jan: I have had some really pissed-off reviews of my work, and mis-characterizations that are so flawed, by both men and women. Years and years ago, the first writing professor who I showed my work to, said I was mentally ill. It has gone on from there. I really appreciate your noticing this.

I couldn’t write without the work of the women who have come before me. Some of the writers who gave me permission to write (through their writing) are: Sharon Olds, Satan Says; Anne Sexton (all); the work of the poet, Ai; the work of Alicia Ostriker, especially her critical work (Stealing the Language, Dancing at the Devil’s Garden); the poetry and prose of Wanda Coleman; Monique Wittig; the poetry of Sandra Cisneros; Awake by Dorianne Laux; Mary Daly; Susan Stewart; Susan Griffin; Judy Grahn. There are so many women writers who have influenced me, but those are some of the seminal influences early on, and still today. I think—if Sharon Olds and Anne Sexton could write these poems so many years ago, then I have to be able to be brave.


Mary Kate: You have just released your fourth book, The Switching/Yard. Is the switch in the gender dialectic, the voice that tells the truth, the solution for women?


Jan: I think that I’m always using dialectic in my poetry as a way to foment, expand, explode, and reappear. I want to shred the very limiting visions of women that exist in the culture and in literature. There is a lot of switching in the book—switching of genders, switching of babies, actual switching/yards of trains. I don’t think the voice always tells the truth, whatever that slippery thing may be, but it moves toward the truth of voice or story. As for the solution for women, I think that every woman needs to find that, but I’m not naming solutions. I’m recording voices of women to show what is real, what can be real, what needs to be said in new ways. I’m purposefully leaving in the rage, the ambivalence, the confusion, the fuck you, the tenderness. I’m recording the wide and sometimes as yet, unstated voices of women in their glory, their wildness, their man-hood, their loveliness, their damage, their real-life selves, their mistakenness, their unparalleled beauty and brilliance.


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Jan Beatty’s books include The Switching Yard (2013), Red Sugar (2008, Finalist, Paterson Prize), Boneshaker (2002, Finalist, Milton Kessler Award), and Mad River (1994 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize), all published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her limited edition chapbooks include Ravage, published by Lefty Blondie Press in 2012, and Ravenous, winner of the 1995 State Street Prize. For the past twenty years, Beatty has hosted and produced Prosody, a public radio show on NPR affiliate WESA-FM featuring national writers. She worked as a welfare caseworker, an abortion counselor, in maximum security prisons, and as a waitress for fifteen years. Awards include publication in Best American Poetry 2013, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, two PCA fellowships, and the Creative Achievement Award from the Heinz Foundation. Beatty has read her work widely, at venues such as the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival, Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and Split This Rock. She is a professor of English at Carlow University, where she directs the creative writing program, runs the Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops, and teaches in the MFA program.

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Mary Kate Azcuy is an Associate Professor of English at Monmouth University, in New Jersey, where she specializes in contemporary American literature with research interests in literature by women, feminist and literary theory, classical literature, and creative writing. In 2013 she presented research on the poets Jan Beatty, Louise Glück, theorist Judith Butler, and author Flannery O’Connor at conferences throughout France. She recently published “Vampirism, Catholicism, and Colonialism, in Gabriel García Márquez' Of Love and Other. Demons” in Hispanet Journal 6 (March 2013). Azcuy is also a poet and recently read at the O’Miami Poetry Festival, April 2013. 

I shoot the old man who followed my 11-yr-old body on Smithfield St/because I smiled at him/because it was Xmas/I shoot the man who jacked-off/on the bricks of our house/put a ladder to my window when I was 12/I shoot the professor who said my work was illogical, then used me for publicity when I won an award/the businessman who wanted to talk about my teenage breasts/I’m loading & re-loading/the guy who walked up to me when I was a cashier & asked about my “hole”/I hope you still like me when I say the gynecologist stuck his tongue down my throat when I was 16/the writer who read his gang rape poem to a room of women students/I’m putting my finger on the problem/the men who pose as feminists/the predators/the rapists/the bullies & thugs among us/my uncle who tried to kiss me when he was drunk/my 60-yr-old neighbor who grabbed me when my parents weren’t home/it was my fault/a man named Roy who wouldn’t stop when I said no/he said shut up, he said now/he taught me to love the trigger/I’m shooting the cook who grabbed me from behind in the restaurant kitchen/the famous poet who said there are no great women writers/the boyfriend who left his handprint in black & blue/the men who say we’re too serious, prettier when we smile/I’m smiling & shooting/the shrink who tried to lock me up/the boss who gave me a ride home/wanted a blow job/pushed my head down/the poet who said I didn’t praise him enough/here’s one for you/the restaurant manager who told me to grow a thicker skin & wear a skimpy uniform/because really we have an attitude/we need to lighten up/I shoot all the men I’ve left off the list, so I don’t have to worry my pretty little head about it.