ALL THE FEMINIST POETS features a single poem and an interview from a feminist poet that we love.
Bettina Judd was born in Baltimore and raised in Southern California. She teaches courses in Black women’s art, Black culture, and Black feminist thought. She has received fellowships from the Five Colleges, the Vermont Studio Center and the University of Maryland. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry by Mythium Literary Magazine. Her poems have appeared in Torch, Mythium, Meridians and other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at www.bettinajudd.com.
THE RESEARCHER DISCOVERS ANARCHA, BETSEY, LUCY
Nurses ask me,
“How much does it hurt on a scale from one to ten?”
Anarcha Wescott, Betsey Harris, and Lucy Zimmerman are
taken into the care of a reluctant country surgeon in
see blood on a white hospital sheet,
tell me I am having menstrual cramps
Betsy’s first birth,
send me home with oxycodone, ibuprofen
Lucy, months out of household duties
after five hours in triage
Anarcha, his first vesico-vaginal fistula
and another prescription
In these three, Sims shapes his speculum, invents his silver
sutures, perfects protocol for proper handling of the female
we wake at Johns Hopkins,
unanesthesized or addicted to opium, children born, children
disappeared. Helpless help.
(Previously published in Meridians 11.2)
Marisa Crawford: Can you talk a bit about the poem you chose, and why you consider it feminist?
Bettina Judd: I actually thought I was going to fail this interview on the first question. But sure, this poem is feminist. It is representative of a series of poems that tell this story of Anarcha Wescott, Lucy Zimmerman, and Betsey Harris, while narrating present-day circumstances on a speaker who is a Black woman. It tells this story and has, for me, done the work of making sense of history and its present day hauntings—meaning the peculiar treatment of women of color by medicine. How racism is truly a part of the legacy of medical practice in the West. I’ve read this poem in many spaces and I see how it too, has allowed for sense to be made of this connection for Black women in particular on a very personal level.
MC: Your forthcoming first book, Patient., was the winner of Black Lawrence Press’s 2013 Hudson Book Prize, and focuses on scientific racism and historical evidence of 19th-century gynecological experimentation on black women. What are your hopes for this book in terms of drawing attention to or recontextualizing these women’s experiences?
BJ: I’d actually like to see folks place these women’s experiences in context. Though that desire may even be beyond my vision. That is, to understand history in context. We are living history right now. One hundred years into the future, some kid will look at what is happening right now in Ferguson for example, and conflate it with the Nadir—it will look no different to them, sound no different to them that black folks are, without remorse or justice, murdered in the street and kept there for display. It will be an era thought to belong to a long ago era like many kids think of Slavery and Jim Crow as something distant from their present experience. They will say something like, “Back in Jim Crow times” and they will be pointing at us.
We can cringe at this lack of historical memory, but the only real tragedy about this is that the conflation also involves a separation from the present. The book is a meditation on the past acting out in the present. Ghosts help with that, so there is a speaker, a researcher and a patient who is haunted by this seeming past. Why are there studies that show that black folks are not given the same amount of pain medication for similar ailments than white folks? Well, we have a precedent for that: There are ethical questions out there regarding Sims’ uneven anesthetization of Black and white women along racial lines. The pain of Black people and certainly Black women is not taken seriously. This brings me to my second hope for the book: I’d like for women who’ve experienced these things to know that they are not imagining things. They are being haunted, but their experiences are very real.
MC: You’re currently Assistant Professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program at the College of William and Mary. How does your work as a feminist scholar overlap with your work as a feminist poet/performer, and how do your interests take different forms within these different venues?
BJ: I find myself distancing from actually calling myself a feminist poet or a feminist scholar. I do write about feminist thought and I hope that my work creative and otherwise does feminist things but I’ve grown tired with the way that feminist has become an identity. I like to think of feminism as a thing that does rather than a thing that is. I’m not the only one, bell hooks talks about moving feminism away from neo-liberal identity and into action in Feminism is for Everybody. Approaching my work with questions like: How can I actualize change in this project? How can my work, even in its making, put in work? is much more of a challenge. It involves work. Enactments. Labor.
I don’t see my work as an artist and a scholar as separate. How that fares when it comes to individual programs or academia as a whole is, sometimes, a different story.
In terms of my interests, well they alter form. I started Patient. in grad school. I could have easily shifted my academic work to the history of gynecology, done some interviews, archival research and produced a dissertation about the legacy in the experiences of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. I didn’t. What I chose, which was really a deeper question to me that I felt was important to feminist thought is an exploration of what Black feminist knowledge looks like, how it is produced in the creative. Patient., along with other creative projects I worked on in the process of writing the dissertation, informed what I researched as an academic.
MC: Favorite feminist poet(s), living or dead?
BJ: My sisters. Khadijah Queen, Ashaki Jackson, Anastacia Tolbert, Natasha Marin. They are brilliant as poets and women.
MC: Last awesome feminist poetry book you read?
BJ: Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney
MC: Favorite girl band, “chick flick,” or reality TV show (or all of the above).
BJ: I love Practical Magic, and Eve’s Bayou. I love the idea of magical women, conjure women controlling their own lives.