Poem by Emily Bowles’ grandmother (below) and a collection of stuffed animals stitched by those same hands (above). Emily now seeks answers in these same pursuits.

Board Member Essay:Intergenerational Creative Communities for fsm.

Editorials Aug 29, 2023

by Emily Bowles

When  I  read  Virginia  Woolf’s  A  Room  of  One’s  Own  25  or  so  years  ago,  I  thought  I’d  discovered what was missing from my identity as a reader, writer, and woman: a lineage of authorship that valued and welcomed voices like mine.  I was a Southern girl who’d spent more years than I care to acknowledge affecting a fake British accent to defy my roots, whose unfortunate bowl cut and stick-figure teenage body led to frequent misgenderings and bullying, and whose writing went from ubiquitous to absent once I (paradoxically) read Woolf and realized that I would never write with that luminescent beauty, equally capable of embracing the universal and making the particular uniquely accessible.

That’s why I sought out historical women’s writing.  I wanted to build a family tree of sorts, one that showed not just me but others who felt marginalized, silenced, misremembered, or  unheard  that  there  were  precedents  and  places  for  us,  that  others  including  Aphra  Behn, Phylis Wheatley, Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Smith, Sarah Scott, Elizabeth Carter, Delarivier Manley, and so many more had written and been read, and that in rediscovering them, we could create nexuses of safety for speech, for self-expression.

Recovery work as an academic meant finding these women and recuperating them, often  using  a  twinned  tactic  of  formal  critical  appreciation  (e.g.,  demonstrating  that  their  works  met  and  exceeded  both  aesthetic  and  commercial  standards  we  have  historically used only to qualify the works of men) and feminist literary theory.  Over twenty years later, these women remind me that all voices have value, even when acts of violent suppression remove them—like Philomela’s tongue—from the literary canon.  

What  grad  school  did  not,  however,  teach  me  was  that  archives  are  living,  breathing  things, and in searching for my own voice, I’ve discovered that every community has its own library of stories. Like many of us, though, I put the least value on the ones closest to me, subconsciously believing that “real” writers were different from my mother, my grandmother,  and  the  people  whose  art  felt  almost  too  natural,  too  visceral  to  count,  based on the constructs I’d internalized.  

Now I see that my grandmother wrote poems that, had she read them at an open mic, I would have wished I’d written, and that my mother’s passion for libraries coupled with her later-in-life pursuit of a graduate degree that led her to teach Classical mythology played a critical role in inspiring me.

Like me, my grandmother struggled with anxiety, and the poetry she wrote is in many ways like mine, its surface concealing what she didn’t want to say yet needed to put on a page.  She also found ways to make meaning when words failed or limited her: she made sock monkeys, stuffed dogs, and hippos, all of which I’ve stitched together now too, often during phases of writer’s block.  

My mother is different.  She’s never published poetry or viewed herself as a writer; however,  she  went  back  to  grad  school  when  I  was  in  high  school,  and  I  have  a  copy  of a Shakespeare edition with our mutual annotations.  There’s a dialogue there that I didn’t see, a conversation we had across words and through them even when we weren’t talking about iambic pentameter.  

I’ve  even  found  community  with  my  ex-husband’s  wife’s  mother,  who  is  a  local  Poet  Laureate  and  writes  poetry  that  showcases  the  beauty  of  home,  family,  and  place  in  ways  that  make  me  see  this  state—the  state  of  Wisconsin,  our  states  of  being—in  brilliant, beautiful new ways.  

As  creatives,  it’s  often  easy  to  dismiss  our  origins,  our  closest  antecedents  in  favor  of  what we’re led to believe has more aesthetic and intellectual value.  When we do this, we’re losing site of our inherent worth—and continuing to marginalize voices, artwork, and  artefacts  that  possess  their  own  magic,  bigger  and  more  encompassing  than  anything we’re taught in school.  As fsm. continues to grow, I hope others will discover in it space to share iterations of creativity that tell their stories rather than the stories we’re taught to appreciate or the ones we’re expected to share.

Poem by Emily Bowles’ grandmother