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The Living Female Poet: Diane Wakoski

Diane Wakoski gave a poetry reading in Madison at the Good Karma Coffee Shop in 1975 or 1976. I can’t find confirmation of this, not even in my diaries. But I remember it clearly. Here was the female poet who lived.

I’m sure I arrived after working an evening shift at the H.C. White College Library, not knowing that this was poor etiquette at a poetry reading. My late entrance was more conspicuous than I had hoped, due to the arrangement of the basement room. It was spring or possibly fall. I wore a London Fog trench coat purchased on sale from money earned assembling drafting tables in a factory two summers before. 

That coat is my memory hook, my madeleine. It was uncannily flattering, like nothing else I have ever worn. 

The room was filled with men, to my surprise. And most of the women there wore trench coats, as did Diane Wakoski herself. She had enviably smooth, long blonde hair. She read from Motorcycle Betrayal Poems.  

You were mean to me,
and I’ve survived,
God damn you,
at last I am going to dance on your grave,
old man,*

Wouldn’t I have loved to have heard the entire program? Her sexual anger stunned me, but then she defied my expectations by stating that she did not identify as a feminist, that her poems were not political. Her obsession with this motorcyclist was clearly passionate, and I had the sense that the men in the audience found this combination of qualities irresistible.    

Falling in love with a mustache
is like saying
you can fall in love with
the way a man polishes his shoes
of course,
is one of the things that turns on
my tuned-up engine**

After the program, a group of men surrounded her. I saw her smiling, confident, fêted, and understood the fascination. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were on my bookshelf. I studied Delmira Agustini and Alfonsina Storni in Literatura Hispanoamericana. Three suicides and a woman murdered by her husband. These were the female poets’ voices I knew. Diane Wakoski’s poetry was a yellow flame–bright, burning, alive. Her voice was not mine. At the time my feeling was that sexual betrayal had something to do with patriarchy and privilege, but her anger and desire rang true.  

The exit out was congested and as I waited, buttoning and belting my trench coat, I noticed a man standing at a diagonal to me. He appraised me with a gleaming side-eye as if not wishing to be noticed. But I noticed. He had been my English professor in my first semester freshman year. He liked to lecture outside on the lawn near a busy intersection. It was distracting and I was unable to receive his thoughts on The Education of Henry Adams. I wondered if he recognized me but quickly realized that only the shape beneath the coat interested him.  

The isthmus that night was full of fog and mist and I strode home alone, happy for the chance to think. Clearly, it was possible to be an independent woman, to fearlessly explore life, and, when betrayed, to recycle the experience into art, and still desire and remain desirable.   

It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time I wondered if this were a path available for blonde women only. Of course, that was just another excuse not to try. Would I ever write anything besides notes to myself? Was I destined to remain an anonymous woman in a flattering coat? These were the life questions I had yet to figure out.   

*“Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch”

**“Uneasy Rider”

Diane Wakoski. Poetry Foundation.

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