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'Muses and Furies' A Night of Poetry and Feminism at The Southbank Centre

It’s a quiet and intimate night at the National Poetry Library in the usually busy Southbank Centre. Conversations about poetry and its beauty fill the silence as guests begin to rush in to the small yet compact venue. Three poets - Jessica Mookherjee, Julia Webb, and Jacqueline Saphra - take centre stage and introduce themselves along with their newly launched poetry anthologies. The theme of the night is ‘Muses and Furies’, which is a common motif in the writings of all these highly talented poets.

It becomes obvious that the central idea of Muses and Furies itself is multifaceted in its interpretation, as the three distinguished poets find their own relationship to the theme. Mookherjee explains her background of growing up in Wales, therefore having to reconcile with her Bengali heritage. This can be seen as she seamlessly weaves both Welsh and Bengali myth into her poems, demonstrating poetry as a powerful art form that allows artists to wrestle with their sense of identity. Mookherjee calls this genre “immigrant goth”, which she explains to be an exploration of the immigrant experience through the lens of gothic literature. This is clearly evident in her poem ‘The English Girl’, which is about her first trip to India to visit her family. Through gothic conventions of supernatural and dreamlike imagery, Mookherjee highlights the surreal and unsettling feeling of an immigrant experience.

Similarly, Webb relates the theme of Muses to her childhood experience of growing up in a small town in Norfolk. Although the contents of her poetry may seem mundane to readers, an unsettling mood of violence rumbles beneath the surface of her exploration into suburban life. “Meet me at our secret place behind the bus station, opposite the court past door, the boys on probation”, she writes in one of her poems. Webb juxtaposes language to connote the sense of longing with clear anger to illustrate her home town as both her muse and her source of fury.

Lastly, the night ended with Saphra’s readings from her latest poetry collection titled “Dad, remember you are dead”, which explains how her fraught relationship paternal ideas.

Her poems concern both the personal and the political, as she writes about her relationship with her own father alongside classical father figures to reveal the patriarchy’s infiltration of literature

This is encapsulated in her response to W.B Yeats’ highly seductive poem ‘Leda and the Swan’, which discusses Zeus’s deceptive attempts to seduce Leda. Saphra highlights how poetry is dominated by male poets which create a prominent male gaze that places women as mere objects of desire. Thus, the reasoning behind the central theme becomes clear, as the ideas of muses and fury both contain contrasting implications. This is explored by the three poets who concern themselves with the contrasting presentation and involvement of women in poetry. Whilst they may be described with praiseful language, admiring them for their feminine beauty, they are also, frequently, the victims of incessant male violence.

Saphra encapsulates this vision, this attack on patriarchal literature, in her final reading,

“The violence is here.. only a rapist who thinks he’s God, who takes because he can... f*ck that, f*ck Agamemnon, f*ck Zeus, motherf*cker disguised as a swan”.

Here, here.

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