Binders full of women was originally a limited-edition chapbook edited by Sophie Mayer and Sarah Crewe created in response to Mitt Romney’s ill-advised comment (which now has its own Wikipedia page!) These lovingly glitter-glued chapbooks have now sold-out, but the chapbook is available digitally for free, with the option to donate to two charities, Rape Crisis UK or the Michael Causer Foundation, the original recipients of the money raised by the physical chapbooks. Sophie Mayer and Sarah Crewe are no strangers to creating poetry projects in response to current events, earlier that year they also edited, along with Mark Burnhope, an anthology with PEN in support of Pussy Riot. Since then, Mark Burnhope and Sophie Mayer (along with Daniel Sluman) have launched Fit for Work: Poets against ATOS, a webzine with a focus on disability in all its forms, and a campaigning agenda.
There is no doubt that these are all worthwhile causes, but does it make for good poetry? Poetry that too overtly displays its agenda can be at risk of being preachy, or not slanted enough. Fortunately, Binders full of women is engaging on all levels. First one has to mention the fabulous punk-aesthetic to this chapbook, with its ripped-from-zine images plastered on the cover, and actual mini-rings binding it together. The editor’s foreword is delightfully quirky, a flow-chart of its creation, a visual brainstorm of its purpose. This sets the tone for the poetry which is by turns funny, experimental, gut-wrenching. Take Sarah Crewe’s opening poem ‘Performance’ which simply, yet effectively, bolds different parts of the word ‘performance’ within its poem:
‘carmela, he bought you a pear. it matches your hips. chimes with your womb in parenthesis. a guns scrapes the wall and the bathtub enamel. your silence is perfect. your acquiesce perpetrates a wife’s anonymity in the script.’
It is a stealthy and deadly method of raging against silent acceptance, that avoids the easy comfortableness of a one-sided depiction.
The subjects vary from intimate moments to large political acts. There is rage at cumulative acts of patriarchal repression, such as the pressure to shave: ‘Tights were not an option, / in the same way that gravity exists’ (Rowena Knight, ‘Razor’). From this theme emerges also Steph Pike’s joyous ‘We Will not be Deodorised’:
‘take your fashion, your body fascism
your plucking and shaving
we rejoice in fat and muscle and hair
we stink of blood and sweat and piss
we will not be deodorised
we reek of the ocean deep hot hunger of our lovers’ cunts
we will not smell of the sanitised chemistry of your misoginy’
A poem that reminds me of Catechism and indeed it ends ‘we are pussies. we riot’. Chella Quint writes a love poem ‘To the Leaking Girl’, perhaps my favourite poem about periods (and in fact it appears to have been first published in a zine dedicated to menstruation poetry, something else I didn’t know), which sees a girl reclaim an accident and turn it into laughter.
There is darker material too, exploration of unhealthy domestic situations, as in Sarah Hesketh’s ‘The Adulturer Teaches his Wife to Swim’ who writes of her imagining ‘his hands in her hair — / getting the magic out’. Michelle McGrane’s ‘A Girl Like That’ is a brutal depiction of rape culture: ‘the cheeky / cunt had it coming’, as is Jacqueline Saphra’s ‘Spunk’, which rightfully condemns today’s still too prevalent attitude of victim-blaming when it comes to rape.
This is a comforting and discomforting chapbook, in all the right ways. Discomforting enough to make you want to stand up and fight for improvement. Comforting enough that I wish I had been in possession of it as a teenager. This is poetry for chanting and cradling, and long may it live.