Jenny Factor
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Let's Continue to Celebrate the launch of The Best American Erotic Poems from 1800 to the Present (Scribner, 2008).

Whose Poem Is This Anyway? On Viewpoint and the Erotic Gaze

Viewpoint Character. The term comes from fiction.  The viewpoint character is the one through whom the action/narration gets filtered for the reader.

In a prose narrative, the viewpoint character is almost always the member of the story who has the most agency, a.k.a., the hero.

In erotic poetry, well, let’s explore that…

In the “come live with me and be my love”/oh-how-I-love-to-watch-her-bathing era of poetry, the woman is most often the recipient of the action of the poem: she is beloved, the beautiful object of affection. So tell me, precisely, how can an object speak…?

How does a heterosexual woman—how does any womanwrite an erotic poem in which she is not object but subject? Where does she find the perspective in which she is central? What tools make that sort of poem fly?

Sharon Olds (p. 129) and Ellen Bass (p. 140) do this brilliantly by creating a poetry of witness, an eros informed by imagery that remakes the world, birthing a woman’s gaze into it.

Olena Kalytiak Davis in "Francesca Says More" (p. 192) has not only seized power and desire, and broken the role of beloved object but shattered the very spine of syntax itself.

Other younger women poets recreate the world in a different way: they use shock. They transgress. No romantic bard with his “glimpse of stocking” kind of love, they go for the higher hemline of desire: they unmake the world with sheer want, with a want that has to tear a structure down just to begin it.

Women writing sex today are quite the unruly bunch. And we have agency.

This issue of "agency" is another reason why I am struck by writing about alternate sexualities—whether male or female, queer or other.  In a traditionally enacted Butch/Femme paradigm, for instance, the viewpoint character (she whose biology, whose arousal and orgasm, defines the beginning and end of the act) is arguably the femme.  In the most playful and fulfilled S/M, it would be almost impossible to pick whose is the narrative's viewpoint character because each partner is taking something so selfish and personal out of the role enacted. In "Misapprehension", I struggled with the unanticipated power dynamics in a relationship between a younger woman and an older one.

Women poets, women readers, these queer women who write: when next you find yourself in an erotic muddle, be the viewpoint character. Or be a voyeur to someone else’s moment of passion, and puzzle for a bit how agency can carry over, across the power lines.

It takes so much courage to let our eyes keep being our own, and not have them co-opted into the perspective of anyone else on earth—or in the poem.  That's the courage of a viewpoint character.

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