I'm always enthusiastic about any writing that celebrates women. In Jesi Bender's poetry collection Dangerous Women, she categorises her subjects by the perceived 'danger' they pose to society, through their freedom, their status or their visibility. From biblical characters to modern-day activists, Bender celebrates these women by bringing them viscerally to the page.
The poems are haunting, using sharp visual language and experimental form to explore the different women throughout. I loved the musical tone in Augusta's Harp about sculptor Augusta Savage and the fierce imagery in Huipil for Comandata Ramona really resonated with me.
Comandata Ramona inspired Huipil in the collection
I wanted to find out how Bender went about choosing her varied subjects, and why she was drawn to the idea of these 'dangerous' women. Read on to find out more.
I was intrigued by the way you ordered your collection into 'The Threat' and 'The Story,' using threats like 'The Free Woman' and 'The Unseen Woman' to link your stories. Why did you focus on the idea of woman as a threat in your collection and how did it affect the pieces you wrote?
This collection is a gloriously varied celebration of powerful women
As a woman, and like all women and female-identifying individuals I know, I have encountered negative stereotyping and consequences from conducting myself in ways that are seen as threatening by (largely heteronormative) men. The gendered expectations for female conduct is used as a weapon to disempower us by rendering any action we take as 'volatile' or 'emotional' or (best yet) 'unfriendly'. When considering the women in this collection and how amazing they are, the commonality they all share is that they were threatening, both in their strengths and in their vulnerabilities. In essence, the threats illustrate how anything a female-presenting or -identifying individual does can be manipulated into something negative in an attempt to stifle their power. There are specific women that you reference, from Mata Hari to Medusa, from revolutionaries to artists. How did you go about choosing the women and why those women in particular?
These women really came to me, through reading or watching documentaries or random chance. I wrote 'The White Place' after watching a Kusama documentary that referenced her friendship with O'Keefe. The Candy Darling poem came similarly through a documentary. Books brought me the Emily Dickinson, Augusta Savage (Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore), and Barren | Bloom pieces. I learned a lot about Comandanta Ramona helping a patron do research in my job as a librarian. Several of the women come from the Bible, which is something that has followed me since my childhood and I've always been interested in these archetypes and how they inform modern social biases.
Candy Darling inspired the poem The Quickening
The style of your pieces are incredibly powerful. Vivid and energetic, exuberant and urgent. They felt very spontaneous. How did you go about editing and shaping them?
Thank you! That is really wonderful to hear. My editing process is really more of an iterative writing process. I don't write continuously but rather write and rewrite a sentence, stanza, or paragraph over and over again until it feels right and I can 'proceed' with the rest of the poem or piece. There's a variety of forms in your chapbook – from prose poems to a haiku. Did the form come along with the writing or did you choose a specific form for each piece?
The only piece whose form was intentional was the haiku – the constraint makes for interesting challenges and creates a really beautiful cadence to the poem. The rest 'fit' into what I wanted to say - in other words, I knew certain lines or words I wanted to use and the forms came together organically based on those foundational pieces.
Jill Lepore's book Joe Gould's Teeth gave Bender inspiration for the poems about Augusta Savage
What was your route to publishing your chapbook and do you have any good advice on writing that you've heard or that you'd like to pass on to other writers?
For this chapbook, several poems were published individually – some of them were published in magazines a decade before this book came together. I started to see a common note being played through all of these pieces so I arranged them and sent it off to publishers I admire. It was accepted once before but the publishing house folded unfortunately before it came out (the weird, wonderful world of independent publishing!). I was very lucky to have dancing girl press pick it up and I am thrilled to be a part of the artists they publish.
That said, if you have belief in your work, keep sending it out. I see people online saying "This was rejected ten times – should I keep going?" and my answer is always OF COURSE! My first novel was rejected dozens of times. I've had manuscripts rejected dozens of times before I found my agent. Rejection is par for the course but your faith in your work is what will find it its home.
Jesi Bender is an artist from Upstate New York whose work explores the tension between the utility and malleability of language. She is the author of the chapbook Dangerous Women (dancing girl press 2022), the play Kinderkrankenhaus (Sagging Meniscus 2021), and the novel The Book of the Last Word (Whiskey Tit 2019). Her shorter work has appeared in FENCE, Split Lip, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among other places. In her free time, she helms KERNPUNKT Press, a home for experimental writing. www.jesibender.com
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