It was way back in the 1980s, I was a creative writing student and had published a few poems, and I thought it was time I got a bit braver and hit the readings scene. There was a hippy cafe near whereI lived in Melbourne that had a friendly and well-attended weekly poetry night and I had faced the worst of the nerves here over some months. Now it was time to try the pub readings. Yeah, ‘just add alcohol’. What could possibly go wrong?
You start out thinking, ‘This is a poetry reading, I am a poet, therefore I belong here’.
I could not have been more wrong.
The #MeToo hashtag in recent weeks has demonstrated just how all-encompassing and pervasive sexual harassment and assault really is, across all professions and all sectors of society. And it also demonstrates the extent to which women have been gaslighted, not believed, told they are over-reacting, yada yada yada.
One would have thought things might be better for young women amongst supposedly leftie creatives, but I was sadly mistaken. I know what it is to be prey. I know what it is to have to fight to exist in a space that should have been mine to inhabit without begging.
I won’t list all of the instances in which I was harrassed, just the standout ones. Because what I’m noticing now is that columnists such as Helen Razor are saying that telling our stories and using the hashtag is not enough, that we actually have to DO something.
So this is an account of what a young twenty-something aspiring poet did when faced with harrassment, and how I was affected by the repercussions.
* A small suburban pub in Collingwood, many people I know, some who I consider friends. Male poets more than twenty years older than me often had partners playing audience, sitting quietly and clapping politely,but there were also a few female poets prepared to take the stage and face the heckling – which was usual, and expected, in this kind of venue. Poets cared about the artform, they argued about form and structure, the effectiveness of metaphors, the merits of free verse versus structure. And they argued amongst themselves about who should have most access to young women.
I read my poem, then head to the bar. A pair of hands grabs my breasts, another fondles my arse. I turn around and say, ‘Fuck off! Don’t touch me!’
‘What are ya? Frigid? A fucking lesbian?’
They continue to touch me.
I remember retreating to the toilet, my Doc Marten’s boots holding the unlockable door closed, and frantically scribbling down my frustration.
This is what I wrote:
it’s safe in this pub
if you don’t wait till closing time
the light’s blown in the dunny
have to lock the door
of my own body
when these boozers grab me and say
‘g’day darlin’’ and ‘how about it?’
it’s safe in fitzroy
if you don’t ‘ask for it’
if you don’t walk down the street
to the shops
to buy cigarettes
if you don’t wear clothes
that show you’ve got
yeah, it’s safe around here
as long as you’ve got yourself a man
if you don’t ‘talk too much’
so you keep saying
Then I went back out to the bar, waited my turn for the stage, and delivered it to the room with vehemence. I was told I was ‘a bit extreme’, that I ‘had a problem with anger’. My rage was seen as a personal failing, not a valid response to inappropriate behaviour. Thus began my reputation as a ‘man-hating feminist bitch’, a descriptor which then dogged me for the next decade.
I continued to attend readings, and continued to publish. And my writing took a turn towards feminism, women’s rights, rape statistics. I like things out in the open. I was raised in a house full of boys and knew the disgusting and predatory way they spoke about women behind our backs. I had learned to stand up for myself. I was a poet and I was not going away.
* A small publisher with a wife and five children at home promised to sign me if I had sex with him. (File under ‘why I self published my first two collections’.)
* A male poet I barely knew verbally attacked me for showing up to a venue with an obviously butch lesbian friend. He screamed at me, so close to my face that I could smell his beer-soaked breath and was sprayed with saliva. ‘You’re just a clit-sucker, that’s all ya are, ya fuckin’ bitch!’ he eloquently intoned. ‘You just need a good fuck, ya fuckin’ dyke!’
(This particular incident has stayed with me, as I could not for the life of me understand why this angry entitled man I barely knew would take it upon himself to (a) make assumptions about my relationship with my friend, and (b) try to dictate to me who I am allowed to associate with. Talk about entitlement! Entitled to my attention, to access to my body and attention, to decide who I am allowed to speak to. I found it astonishing then, and I still find it so now.)
* I was invited to a male poet’s home in the country for a weekend. I was fond of this poet. He was much older than me but in the decades I knew him never once harassed me. Whenever we met he wanted to hear my new work, or discuss what I was working on, or recommend editors to send my work to, or writers he thought I should read. He had a lovely partner who I also held affection for, and they were both very welcoming and kind to me.
But the party was wild, it started in the morning and went for hours. Drinking, pot smoking, long loud discussions. I had taken a boyfriend with me, a musician I sometimes gigged with. At some point during the afternoon, my poet friend asked us to play a song, which we did. I have a deep, loud, resonant voice and have been singing all my life. When we finished a man sitting opposite shouted at me, ‘Who do you think you are? Fucking Wendy Saddington or something?’ ‘No, I said. I am myself. And I like to sing. If that’s okay with you.’ I was astonished at this aggression; it was as if I had ‘broken the rules’ by taking centre stage, even for the few minutes it took to deliver a song that had been asked for.
Eventually it all wound down and sometime in the early hours about ten of us, including three women, bedded down on the floor. I was woken by a stranger’s hand down my pants, feeling around in my pants as I slept. For a moment, I thought it was my boyfriend but then noticed he was sound asleep beside me. ‘Piss off!’ I yelled, sitting bolt upright in the dark. He did. But five minutes later I heard the same response from another woman in the room as he tried it on with all of us. I didn’t mention this incident the next morning, either to my hosts or my partner. I knew it would just cause anger and violence in the men, and that I would probably be blamed for (a) telling, and (b) hanging out with ‘bohemians’ in the first place. I mean, what did I expect? So I let it go, and when I got home the next day had a long hot shower and tried to scrub the experience from my mind as well as my body.
* Another pub. Another poet I barely knew, drunk and staggering. Stands in front of me and yells, ‘You’re the bitch that hates men!’ ‘No, I don’t. I love men. Just not assholes’. He spits on the ground and slinks away. Noone defends me. Noone says a word. I know people have seen and heard this exchange but I feel so alone. I don’t know what to do with the rush of adrenaline this incident has given me, except to cry, and there was no way I would let them see me cry.
* A male poet who didn’t like my choice of boyfriend – because he had a criminal record – attacked me from the stage in a poem detailing my transgressions. Which, basically, were that I had sex with whomever I wanted to, and not with HIM.
All this occurred over a decade. There are micro and macro aggressions here, but every one of them is unforgettable. To be attacked for simply being a woman, for being in a public place, for practising my art and using my voice. If I brought it up, I was often told i should be flattered, that it’s the price for being ‘attractive’. I dyed my hair bright red, shaved it into a radical punk style, and got around in a leather jacket and army boots. I got a bull terrier dog as protection.
Men would then approach me with this: ‘Why do you do this to yourself? You’d look so pretty if you didn’t do this to yourself.’
‘I am not here to look pretty for you. I am here for the poetry.’
‘Frigid bitch!’ ‘Man Hater!’ ‘Lesbian!’
What did they want? To own all the spaces? To make the scene so ugly that the women would retreat, leave them to the life of art and get back in the kitchen? They didn’t know me. I have never been someone to buckle under intimidation. It may make me feel under siege and afraid, but it also makes me angry. White hot, enraged angry. And, as John Lydon so famously sang, ‘Anger is an energy’.
In retrospect, I see my anger during this period as a survival mechanism. Without it, I probably would have buckled, walked away, and given up on my dream of being a writer. But I would not deny myself the company of writers because of a few nasty, unevolved men. There were too many talented writers, and, of course, respectful men, about, and I wasn’t going to let those hateful, sexist bastards have the power to keep me away.
I’m writing all this now because I feel this is a good time to revisit the work these experiences produced.
Most of it did not please editors – I was ‘too radical’ or ‘exaggerating’ – so I published the work myself. ‘Under Her Eyes’ (1984) and ‘Conscious Razing: combustible poems’ (1986, with some work from the former reprinted in the latter) have been scanned for free download on this site, along with my other later books. The angry feminist poems sit here alongside work about nature, family, love and sex, urban life, and coming to terms with my rapidly progressing disability. They are a part of the life have lived and they deserve to be there.
I wrote them for myself, and for all women who endure this disgraceful treatment, simply for existing. I believe that this work’s time has finally come. Yes, #MeToo. Repeatedly. The behaviour of these men imposed an ugly veneer of sexism over what should have been a young poet’s time of artistic growth and discovery and, yes, sexuality,on my own terms. I do not forgive, and I do not forget. I hold these men to account, as strongly now as thirty years ago. You have not won. You are dinosaurs, anachronisms. Your time is over. You are, at long last, done. And guess what? I’m still here. Writing. Publishing. Existing, despite your best efforts.
A postscript. I still have many poet friends, and some of them know ‘Mr Clit-Sucker’. A few months ago he came up on my facebook feed in a poetry thread, pontificating about feminism as though he was actually a kindred spirit. I knew his behaviour had not changed in the intervening decades, and I imagined other young dewy women clutching a handful of poems coming up in the scene and having to deal with him. I am not proud to say that I wrote out the exchange I’ve related here on a public thread for all to read and accused him of being a sexist, nasty, hypocrite who hates women and ought to be ashamed of himself. Then I blocked him. Before he could respond. It felt very,very good.