Anne Champion is a poet who featured in Sweet’s 9.3 issue. Her most recent work, The Good Girl is Always a Ghost, is an anthology that focuses on what it means to be a woman in society, and channels her own voice into historical figures. Below, she responds to what inspired her to portray these women, the thought process for writing, and what she is working on next.
The Good Girl is Always a Ghost includes the haunting theme of women from the past that were broken either by history or their inner demons. What brought you to depict these stories in verse?
Like many girls, I grew up with the idea that I had to be a “good girl.” But since I was young, I was drawn to goals that were considered “masculine”: I wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to be in the Air Force. I was told I couldn’t, that women didn’t do that, but I saw women doing it on the news, and I read books about Amelia Earhart and Annie Oakley. As I got older, it was my sexuality that trespassed the gender taboos, as I was inspired by the sexual freedom of Madonna.
It was only as I became an adult that I realized that this whole notion of the “good girl” was simply a means of control: no matter what we do, we are never good girls. Even if we stay within gender constraints, we are still scrutinized and degraded. If we are raped, we asked for it. If we consensually have sex, we are sluts. If we come forward about our assaults, we are liars seeking to ruin a man’s life. If we are angry, we are having a meltdown. If we are intelligent and successful, we are feminazis.
In reality, the only girl that a patriarchal society approves of is a dead one.
When I watch shows like Dateline, in which the majority of episodes center on women who are killed by men, this is the only time I see women spoken of positively. Suddenly, women are angelic, saintly, taken too soon, loved.
And if we look at the women throughout history who have broken records, trail-blazed, entered the historical records of our consciousness: they are all dead. Many living women are role models for other women, but they are still living: they are still able to be viciously attacked.
So I decided to resurrect some of these “good girls,” and try to examine them in the context of the patriarchy that abused them. Not all of them are role models: in fact, I hope to present them as real women—thus, not angelic—but human, flawed, chafing against their constraints.
It was important to me to have a diverse group of women: I wanted women from all over the world, old and young, able-bodied and not, with differing politics, sexualities, races, religions, careers, and gender identities. I include one transgender man, Albert Cashier, because he lived in a time when people could not name, much less respect, his gender identity, and so I see him as a victim of patriarchal abuse too, as he was forced into a feminine role he was not meant to inhabit.
What I learned most from this project is that my story, and my struggles, are not new: it’s one of the oldest stories there is. I think this book ultimately became a project that helped me grow stronger, become inspired, feel less alone, and heal.
“The Most Terrible Thing” illustrates Sylvia Plath’s influence on a generation of women writers and readers. In what ways has Plath influenced your work and why do we turn to her for inspiration?
I would probably not be a poet if it were not for the work of Sylvia Plath. When I first picked up Plath in my early 20s, it was as if every foundation I’d ever known cracked. I thought, “Wait, you can say that?”
She spoke the unspeakable for women: she spoke with venom and rage, with a poetic voice that sounds like an incantation. She spoke of her pain—I know this may sound strange, but I had never considered my personal pain to be valuable writing material. Quite simply, she gave me permission. Living in a patriarchal society teaches us many values, but of the utmost importance is silence and pleasantness. And furthermore, we are taught that if we want greatness, we need to emulate men. Plath’s poems did none of that.
And the vitriol against Plath that still exists today points to the misogyny in our culture that still exists. Often, male grad students would tell me they found Plath to be “self indulgent and overrated”; yet, if a male poet shows any kind of emotional expression, he is deemed brave and emotionally vulnerable.
Plath’s story is particularly tragic, and I’m sure that plays a role in some of the allure surrounding her, but I think that—for me and likely for many women—her story is one we fear. We feel that we could very easily end up like Plath, and we don’t want to. We want to beat the system and end the abuse.
Each poem includes the truth of historical events, like the Challenger explosion. How did you choose these events and what were the obstacles—if any—in turning history to poems?
The events I chose really came to me the same way most images come to me in poems. My brain latches onto something like a dog with a bone and starts gnawing at it.
With Sally Ride, I was reading about her, but it’s very hard to find her voice: she was notoriously quiet and reclusive. There’s not a lot of interviews to refer to. And I don’t blame her: she was asked absurd questions and she was protecting her partner and her sexuality from the public eye.
As I was thinking about what I personally remembered about space exploration growing up, I couldn’t get the image of the Challenger explosion out of my mind. I was a child, but I remembered it and it struck terror in me at the time. Then I wondered: What must Sally Ride have felt? In doing some more research, I discovered that she was actually on the committee that researched what happened with the Challenger, and she personally knew the astronauts. So, that image became a way into the poem, but also a metaphor for her life: for all she had to protect, for the fear of what would happen to her career if it were exposed.
I think the biggest challenge in working with history was the feeling that many of these histories are not mine, and I have no right to them. I did not want to do anything disrespectful or that could be deemed cultural appropriation. But I did not want to ignore them either. In those cases, I generally turned towards odes and elegies rather than personas.
In “Florence Nightingale: The Lady with a Lamp,” you chose to write the poem from her perspective. I’m curious about what is the poet in the poem and what is the historical figure? How did you find her voice?
I’d like to think that all of my persona poems are a mixture of both my voice and the figure. Florence Nightingale is a good example of this because her views are so different from mine.
She was actually against the feminist movement: she felt that women needed to be taking advantage of the careers that were already there for them to gain financial and emotional independence. She believed that she’d worked hard in creating the career of nursing for women to be respectable, necessary, and professional. And she certainly did—she changed the field entirely. She also saw it as a means to independence: she never married or had children.
But I see her view as limiting. So, in writing her voice, I had to really try to imagine a view very different than my view, and I had to find the value in that. But it’s impossible to say there’s none of my voice in the persona poems: as I researched these figures, they all became a part of me.
The voices I wrote for them were the plethora of voices inside me that took root as I read more about them. For me, writing persona poems is the process of cultivating empathy for others, and that is what I was trying to do.
It is clear that the central focus of your work is female identity. How has this shaped your writing thus far? How do you see it evolving in other projects?
As long as the world sees me as a woman before a human and sets limits on me based on my gender, there’s no way for me to not write about womanhood. Traumas related to womanhood are simply a defining part of my life, though I wish they weren’t.
However, I will say that my writing has branched off from this topic a lot, as I’ve been doing a lot of travel research that has led me to look at issues of colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and race. I wrote a whole book on Palestine, and I have another political book that I’m working on now: it’s important for me to not only be focusing on my fight, but to join the fight of others as an accomplice in resistance and an eyewitness.
Nevertheless, my poems on gender are much more successful and much easier to publish in book form. I think a lot of that comes with the time we are in right now: after the election, it was clear that this was going to be the political time of the angry white man, and so the voices of women and minorities are coming forward in the arts, and feminist poems are in high demand.