Women, “Forgotten” No More


Before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, there was 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, a wisp of a girl easing herself into a seat and refusing to budge when a white passenger demanded her place. Sitting her ground for the greater good. 

Until recently, Colvin was excluded from history books and narratives about the Civil Rights Movement. Eight years ago she made it into Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, and more recently into Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World. When poet Laura Altshul heard about her narrative somewhere in between those publications, she felt something moving through her, driving her to the page. 

Now, Colvin’s story is about to get more airplay—as one of over 100 poems in Forgotten Women: A Tribute in Poetry, a new anthology of poetry from Connecticut imprint Grayson Books. Edited by Connecticut poet and writer Ginny Lowe Connors, the collection celebrates history's “forgotten” women over multiple sections, feting them for their contributions to science, technology, literature, and the fine and performing arts. In other words, un-erasing their history, long after it’s due.  

On Saturday, Sept. 23, the Yale University bookstore will host a reading from the anthology, with Connors and several authors in attendance. Earlier this week, Altshul spoke with The Arts Paper about her work in the book— poems honoring both Colvin and French sculptor Camille Claudel—and next steps for both poetry and feminism. Selections from that interview are below. 

How did you find out about this collection? Was there an open call for submissions, or were you approached by the editor, or something different altogether? 

The editor of this book [Ginny Lowe Connors] happens to be in a poetry group that I’m in. She put out a nationwide announcement saying she was looking for poems about “forgotten women.” I had written some poems about that theme before she had put out the announcement,  and then she encouraged me to enter. 

People were invited to send as many as five poems; she selected no more than two from each poet. She divided them into sections: “Hard Work,” “Unknown to the World: The World to Someone,” “In The Shadows of Men,” “Making Herstory,” instead of history. That’s about a lot of women who have gotten the short shrift. There’s a movement, I think, to recognize the situation, but there’s a long way to go.   

Let’s go back a minute. Tell me more about these writing groups you’re in. 

Well, first there’s a Connecticut Poetry Society. My husband, who is also a poet, and I are leading the New Haven chapter. It meets once a month in the Miller Library [that’s the Miller Memorial Library on Dixwell Avenue] on the third Saturday of each month. We are also part of the West Hartford chapter, and it’s a very good group. Ginny is in that group. 

Then there’s another small group that meets at our home—they’re all workshop groups, feedback groups. And we also go to Paul Schwaber, a professor at Wesleyan. We read poetry and talk about it under his auspices. There’s also a monthly group called POP (Poets on Poetry) in the Hartford library—it’s a beautiful library—where famous poets are discussed. It’s like a seminar. It’s a chance to really study.

Where does this fall in that network of poets, poetry, criticism?

I think for one thing, if you read this, there’s an educational element. I learned a lot from this book about women I really didn’t know anything about. From females who took up lighthouse keeping to female explorers, female scientists. I’m thinking about the movie I brought my granddaughter to…

Hidden Figures?

Yes! These figures are finally getting their due. It’s just uncovering this history … There’s a lot to learn. There’s a lot that we don’t know. And it’s endless. It’s education, but it’s also poetry.

For instance, the poet Vivian Shipley—she’s a professor at Southern Connecticut State University—wrote this piece about “Radium Girls,” young women who worked at the Timex factory. They painted radium on the dials [and licked their brushes to keep the tips stiff] … They died really really young, and they lost their jaws. I had no idea. I don’t know that Timex really ever apologized. 

You mentioned a movement … I sense that too. Women are definitely getting galvanized. And there’s this question of what to subscribe to—like a second wave feminism, or a humanism, or an intersectional feminism like Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour talks about. So where do you see this book falling within it?

Well you mentioned Linda Sarsour—I guess you were at the Community Fund for Women & Girls’ event [where Linda Sarsour presented with author and journalist Rebecca Traister and moderator Kica Matos]?

I was.

Well, Rebecca Traister kept talking about knowing women’s history. This is exactly where this book fits in. It’s so important for us to be aware who came before us and what struggles are involved. Looking forward, and looking backward. 

I want to talk about your poems in this book. One is dedicated to the sculptor Camille Claudel, who I love very much. (Claudel was Auguste Rodin’s student and mistress; she became an extraordinary sculptor whose career was cut short by factors including a miscarried pregnancy, Rodin’s other mistress and then wife Rose Beuret, and institutionalization in a sanitarium at her brother’s hands). How did you arrive at that subject? 

It’s really interesting. Aleks Romano presented a concert for Yale Opera. Some of the pieces that she sang were about Camille Claudel. She gave some biographical information about Camille Claudel. I guess that struck a chord. 

I read that poem at a Berkeley [College] Fellows’ meeting. I asked how many people had heard of Claudel—these are really educated people—and there was only one person who had, because he had seen the film.  

Life was not kind to her. She was eclipsed by Rodin … she really was a woman who was working in the art of a man’s world and she had amazing talent. Her brother was a poet, but her family really shunned her. It was pretty criminal. She’s just now starting to get her due. 

Have you seen her works?

No, not yet! I’ve only seen images of it.

But you’d like to.

Oh yes. 

What about Colvin? Tell me a little about that piece. 

I was fascinated. I always knew the story of Rosa Parks, and we read about it when I was teaching. When I realized that there was this sassy teenager who actually sat her ground—I really wanted to write about her bravery and courage, that she was a little too much for people. She really knew what she was all about, which is a hard thing to do. 

She also is getting her due in a much bigger way. I found out that there’s a young adult biography of her, and I found out that my granddaughter had read about her at Foote School. So there is a generation of people learning about her. She’s also in the book She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton, although I wrote the poem before that came out.

So with these, what’s your process? 

I actually compose on the screen. I put up a draft and I go back every day and look at it, if that’s the particular poem I’ve been working on. I try to catch it from afar and try to get a new perspective on it. A friend once said: sometimes you do something at night and think it’s great, and then you come back in the morning and gremlins have gotten to it. You need to revise, revise, revise and keep thinking about it. It’s almost as if a poem is never quite done.

What's next? More poems about forgotten women?

Ah. I have a whole collection of notes. Since reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I’ve been thinking a lot abut migration.      

What do you want the takeaways to be when you read on Saturday?

I love the book. I think Ginny did a fabulous job. I would love for people to just have an appreciation of the breadth of the poems in there. Not only of the breadth, but also of the people that they’re writing about. 

There are some funny poems; they’re not all heavy. There’s a poem that a guy wrote to a nun who he studied with (“Everything About Egypt”). The event occurred on St. Patrick's Day when Sister Judith just kept the class singing Irish songs in lieu of learning about Egypt. It was really delightful. Or there’s a woman who discovered all these fossils and she was belated … she wasn’t really recognized. Mary Anning, who was a Irish fossil collector. She was very poor, she was unschooled, and yet she had an eye. It was just great. Her father worked with her, but she outdid him too.

I hope that people get interested in all these women. These fabulous women who have done so much and accomplished so much.

A reading from Forgotten Women: A Tribute in Poetry will take place Saturday, Sept. 23, at 2 p.m. at the Yale University Bookstore. For more information, visit the bookstore’s website.