By Emily Wood, Collage by Rachel Davies
Alexandra Wuest is electric. Her chapbook from Bottle Cap Press, The Female Gaze Is Cool, is captivating and inventive in conjunction with its author’s distinctively fresh voice. Phrases such as, “People like you are the reason we invented Greek Yogurt—a sort of apology to humanity,” ring with poignant humor and relatable clarity. Whether tweeting or blogging, her language and presence are both compelling and comforting to be immersed in. I talked to Alexandra about being a woman in poetry, the importance of girl gangs, and stuff you haven’t read, but should.
The title poem of your chapbook, The Female Gaze Is Cool, came from something a straight dude said to you at a party. Ever since reading that poem I’ve been dying to know the story behind it! What is the context behind it, and what does that statement even mean?
Alexandra Wuest: I was actually at the birthday party of my friend, Vanessa Castro (who did the cover and illustrations for the chapbook), and we were discussing the male gaze for some (probably kind of drunk) reason. I showed a male friend a photo taken by a woman and he immediately was like “The female gaze is cool!” I wrote it down as a note in my phone that night so I wouldn’t forget it because I thought it was the funniest expression. As for what it means, I’m not sure. The term “the female gaze” gets thrown around a lot these days, but I think half the people using it have yet to really define it. As for the female gaze being “cool,” I always feel like the word “cool” is used in a kind of derogatory way in relation to women. Like the idea of a “cool girl” or “a girl that can hang” etc. When you combine the two (female gaze + cool), I feel like it really sums up the ways in which women’s ideas and work are often relegated to this realm of “other” or inherently feminine, and therefore secondary.
Feminism/gender identity is a very prominent theme in your work, and there’s one line in Catcalling (Or Naming of Things) that I’m obsessed with that says, “You see I was taught the best kind of mouth a woman can ever have is an ear.” Is poetry a way of retaining your voice and being heard as a woman?
A.W: I would say both yes and no. I like confessional poetry because it is the art of over sharing, or of making the private public, which I think is still always a revolutionary act as a woman–I mean no one will ever ask you to write a poem (unless you’re in some sort of formal workshop setting). But as for feeling heard as a woman, I don’t know if writing poetry really does that. It’s less about being heard by some broader public than about being validated by my peers sharing similar experiences. I make fun of the fact that I don’t think many people read poetry besides poets, but I am seriously fortunate to have found a little community of talented women writers to email ideas and work back and forth with.
How did you first become involved in poetry, and who are some peers or contemporaries that you look up to?
AW: I first started writing poetry after dropping out of college. Everything got shitty really, really quickly but after free falling for a little while I ended up working in a bookstore and that was when I first started reading poetry seriously. This was around the same time that I realized poetry could be funny, which I think is such a common misconception for young people in their relationship to poetry. So many people think poems have to be these really abstract, inaccessible ruminations on the sky or grass, but my favorite type of poem pinpoints a social problem, or anything relevant to experiencing the world, and uses humor to dissect it. Monica McClure’s TENDER DATA was so good because it takes these super serious topics–like sexuality, race, abortion–and without trivializing them shows just how ridiculous so much of today’s status quo is in relation to how we treat women and bodies and outdated binaries. I also always love anything written by May Lan Tan, Chelsea Hodson, Ariana Reines, Lucy K Shaw, Kate Durbin, Jenny Zhang, Tracy Dimond, Ana Carrete, and so many other talented people.* It’s really exciting (and not to be cheesy, but also really inspiring) to see so many people making cool stuff.
*I didn’t intentionally only list women writers–that was a total accident. But I think this is just further evidence that women are making the coolest shit out there right now.
I know this is the most dry/cliché question of all time, but what advice do you have for girls who are aspiring poets?
AW: I think the most important thing is to just find like-minded people that help you produce your best work and push you creatively. I feel like I have really found my people. My friends and I share many of the same concerns and their ideas and opinions have continuously informed both my practice and resulting work. Writing can be such a solitary activity, but when you create communities–either through book clubs or reading series, or even just emailing work back and forth–it makes everything seem way more worthwhile. It also gets you out of your head a little bit and opens you up to seeing things differently. Make a joint google doc with your friends. Email your poems to a friend you admire. Make zines. Organize exhibitions and readings. Anything you can do to collaborate helps open up a space for new dialogue and discussion, which I think is one of the most rewarding parts of writing.
And FINALLY, are there any poems that you consider required reading, and have influenced your own work?
AW: This is my favorite type of question because I am constantly trying to force my friends to read my favorite things. So most of these come from a special folder on my computer that is half poems/essays and half crock pot recipes for a crock pot I have never used. So here’s a little mixtape of poems and essays I always come back to:
The folder on my computer that these came from also has a few pictures of geckos and baby goats so I recommend checking those out too for inspiration.