‘When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience’ edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard
This slim volume is a conscientious effort to showcase the multitude of queer female voices that hail from the Midwest. In her introduction to When We Become Weavers, Kate Lynn Hibbard shares that Adrienne Rich’s writings were an inspiration for the book. In fact, the title is gleaned from an excerpt of Rich’s essay “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”:
There is no “the truth,” “a truth” – truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.
This anthology (the first of its kind to focus exclusively on the Midwest) strives to include as many vibrant threads of experience as possible. Hibbard’s selection criteria are inclusive, and the poems were chosen with consideration both to craft and to “the poem’s ability to challenge given assumptions and offer new visions,” its demonstration of the adage “the personal is political.” Due to this specific selection strategy, the poems collected in When We Become Weavers vary widely in style and content, yet all of them retain an essence of radical thought, quiet or otherwise.
The book begins with Sheila Packa, whose poems examine the interaction between nature and self. The landscape of the Midwest threads throughout the book and grounds the poems in the earth and hills of the land, as can be seen in Valerie Wetlaufer’s poem “Iowa”:
My insteps are the bend of the rivers,
the natural borders between this beautiful
land and the next.
Blooming prairie grass is the hair
falling over my temples.
Another of Wetlaufer’s poems, “Call & Response,” reaches into the history of the land, telling the story of two queer women who lived as man and wife in the 1890s. Other poems draw from the rich historical background of the area, like Ching-In Chen’s poem “Heritage,” which takes some of its language from Victor Jew’s ‘Chinese Demons’: the Violent Articulation of Chinese Otherness and Interracial Sexuality in the U.S. Midwest, 1885 – 1889.
Yet the poems address aspects of life more universal than regional. Several poets touch on the experiences of childhood and adolescence, including Christine Stark’s four interconnected, stream-of-consciousness poems from the point of view of a breathless ten-year-old just discovering love. Family is a big influence in many of the poems; Jes Braun examines the intricacies and impact of her family in “Family Tree,” while Julie Gard offers contemplative poems about partnered life in the Midwest.
Trauma is a recurrent theme in the book, as in Carla Christopher’s “Always a Survivor in the Room,” or Natalie J. Byers’ “Poor White Girls,” which both deal with sexual assault. Crystal Boson examines the role of race in “the metaphysics of nigger hating,” while Jennifer-River Eller’s “Tyra” explains the needless death of a transwoman through bigotry with arresting lines like “She / heard the laughter and I wonder, did / She / know it was her saving angels laughing?”
Alongside these poems, however, are points of joy and humor, such as Laura Madeline Wiseman’s “Mating Call,” describing the pure exhilaration of spring. There are also bursts of resilience and reclamation, as in Sheila Packa’s “Red Clover”:
I’ve gone to seed
and come back, been trampled
but revive, a daughter of red clover –
one among many, a source of honey.
The depth and distance of the poetry selected gives a comprehensive look into the Midwestern queer female experience, although, as noted by the editor, “no anthology can tell the whole story or fully represent the experience of its writers.” Its success lies with the power of each of the selected authors – together, their carefully chosen words do indeed knit a kind of truth, one that is worth telling and worth being heard. When We Become Weavers is a valuable addition to the body of queer poetry, both for the quality of its work and for its contribution to the ongoing story of queer experience.