Unknown: A Gorgeous Tribute to Forgotten Women

May 20, 2022 | Reviews

There are times when a publication just resonates perfectly with me. With Unknown, a collection of poetry that celebrates forgotten or misunderstood women, I knew I had found something special.

Anna Rose James and Elizabeth Chadwick Pywell explore an enormous amount of varied women in their collection. From mythical figures to historical greats, from sidelined characters in well-known stories to the modern women whose voices we haven’t heard, it celebrates women in every form.

The poems themselves are also hugely varied. Some are more narrative in style, while others are a whirling explosion of rhythm and sound. Some left me with sharp and poignant emotions, while others were more playful and funny. I especially enjoyed the fierce lament of the Gorgon in the poem ‘Gorgo, or Portrait of a woman for whom it will never do justice.’ I thoroughly recommend that you read this powerful and memorable collection.

The collection in the hands of Ceres

Photo credit: Nicolas Laborie

I wanted to find out how the poets went about selecting the women to include in their collection, where their awesome sense of style comes from and their road to publication. Read on to find out more.

I absolutely loved the idea of taking forgotten women both in myth and history and creating poems inspired by them. You include everything from the witch in Hansel and Gretel to Medusa to a photographer killed in the Grenfell disaster. How did you go about choosing these women?

Liz: It was a combination of factors really. I’d been writing flash and short stories about some brilliant historical and mythological women for a while before Anna and I started writing the pamphlet together, so some of them were already firmly in my head, and Anna too had some people she was already really fascinated by. Others we sent each other as challenges, and Ceridwen, we were just both a little bit in love with! She became the centre point, straddling myth and history, past and present, which seems appropriate for who she is.

It was wonderful to see how varied the poems were. For each of the women, did you find you had a different process when creating poems about them? Did you spend a lot of time researching them?

Anna: Mostly I think our process was the same: search for historical figures or mythological characters, get excited, send them to each other, get excited, blurt out a written response to what we had found about them, share immediate ideas and images, play with shape and word choice, hone it, settle.

In terms of research, this lasted as long as it took to feel inspired, at which point we would bounce off and write. We wrote the bulk of the collection as a poem a day, sending a new name to each other each morning and having a draft by the evening. We kept reading about the women as we wrote, informing the poems more with each new learning, but the collection is more about celebrating and exploring these women’s stories than about educating. We would never presume or claim to be authorities on them, we’re just women admiring other women.

There are a lot of forgotten women in our history, so I can see why you would want to focus a collection on them. Why did you think that a poetry collection in particular was a way of honouring their memories and stories?

Liz: The women we wrote about vary enormously in terms of how famous or commonly understood they are; some of them were writers themselves and some have been immortalised in various literary forms, while others aren’t as well known or written about. There are amazing poetry collections out there that do similar things to what we’ve done with Unknown – I suppose poetry works as a leveller, allowing writers to give every character equal attention. I think – hope! – they work well together as a collection, in part because we’re focusing on how incredible and unique they all are or were, and in part because we’re showing what they have in common.

You can get a copy of the collection here or order in any local independent bookshop

Anna: We both write primarily in poetry, so it was a natural instinct for us. It’s a direct, personal way of connecting to your subject, so here it was a way of standing hand-in-hand with these women from myth and history. For the subjects, poetry allows certain breaks through the literary mould that felt right – we were able to showcase them with a sense of freedom, playfulness and empowerment, shifting tone and form to speak to the very particular vibe of each woman.

How did you go about publishing your collection?

Anna: Arduous online searching for publishers that fit us and that we could fit. A bunch of trusted beta readers to help us shape the flow of the collection. Formatting the work to fit the publishers’ requirements. Some very polite emails. Some rejections. A lot of silence. And eventually an enthusiastic acceptance, which was how we knew we had landed in the right place.

Your publisher needs to be passionate about your work. We then had a few calls with the publisher to discuss what working together would look like, got a contract from them to review, had it looked at by the Society of Authors’ brilliant team (this step is vital, don’t ever publish without getting your contract vetted by someone who knows what they’re looking for), and settled on the agreement that worked for all of us.

Holding your own book – a magical feeling!

The book was then with the publisher for layout, which took a while, then we got a proof copy for review – which feels absolutely magical, holding a physical book with your name on it for the first time! We caught any leftover amendments, signed off the final version by email. A little while later a box of final copies was delivered (to Liz’s partner’s house, while I was away, so I got to watch a little video of Liz excitedly unboxing them). We started gifting, selling or proudly displaying our author copies, and planning the launch event with the publisher. As covid was still quite prominent and slightly higher-risk than it is now, we settled on an online launch to begin with, and an in-person launch later, which we were lucky enough to have at our local library, the wonderful York Explore – shoutout to Wendy, who runs a brilliant schedule of events and looked after us very well.

What advice would you pass on to other writers and what other pieces by you can we read?

Liz: I have a new pamphlet out with Selcouth Station Press, called Breaking (Out), which is about coming out in middle age, and am in various journals and magazines, such as Fourteen Poems and The Madrigal. I’m currently working on a lot of poems (not sure I can call it a collection yet) about ancestry and landscape. And in terms of advice, I don’t feel qualified to give it really, other than – write! That’s the advice I give myself every morning anyway. Find yourself a community where you can nag/support each other, and do it often. And read as much as you can, obviously. There’s so much exciting new poetry at the moment – always something new to read.

Anna: The writing process and experience is entirely subjective, so find what works for you. Find your own goals, style, voice. Write what you want to write and find a home for it when it’s ready. I know you can work the other way around, and I do use submission calls as prompts sometimes, but not for the sake of having my name out there – only when it feels inspiring and productive.

When it gets inhibiting, you need to shift tack and possibly re-evaluate your goals. Also, read, and engage with the writing community, especially those in your genre/format – this is non-negotiable if you want to create work that is informed, relevant, compassionate and in conversation with the time you live in. Which is what it’s about for me.

As for other pieces of mine, you can find links to read or buy most of my work here. One of my most recent pieces, which I’m quite fond of, is available to read here. English writer, gardener and diarist John Evelyn, depicts The Royal Society, formally The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge – famous for its early facilitation of ‘cabinets of curiosities’, or ‘wonder rooms’, as “an Assembly of many honorable Gentlemen, who meete inoffensively together”. This poem is informed by humankind’s pillage of the natural world, and dedicated to all the lives lost in the ‘megafire’ of southeastern Australia in early 2020.

Anna (she/her) is a queer, bisexual actor-writer of mixed British and Asian heritage, based in North Yorkshire, co-founder of Six Lips Theatre and Sonnet Sisters. As well as poetry, she writes short stories, fiction, memoir and scripts for stage and screen. Her existing works include Unknown (Stairwell Books, 2021); Little Irritants (Analog Submission Press); Love, Alberta; Wayside; 100 Friggin’ Poems; Is OK To Fall For Camp Boys (self-published). Her work has also been featured in Footprints ecopoetry anthology by Broken Sleep Books (2022), The Best New British and Irish Poets Anthology 2019-2021 (The Black Spring Press Group), Writing East Midlands Writers’ Conference 2021, 330 Words, Alpha Female Society, Bi Women Quarterly, Blue Animal Literature, Calm Down Magazine, Dissonance, Enclave, Forever Endeavour, Full House Lit Fest, Global Poemic, Ink Drinkers, Mookychick, Pareidolia Literary, Prismatica, Thirst Aid Kit podcast, Vagabond City Lit, Visual Verse, What Rough Beast, You Are Here. You may know her voice as that of 3CC0 in the audio drama Tin Can. She is currently working on an English translation of the work of Iranian poet Manouchehr Fallah from the original Farsi, collaborating with the poet’s daughter, actress Sepideh Fallah.

Elizabeth Chadwick Pywell is a lesbian poet of Welsh heritage, living in York, North Yorkshire. She has been published in journals such as Fourteen Poems, Impossible Archetype, Dreich, and many more. Her first pamphlet, Unknown, was co-written with fellow York poet, Anna Rose James. Her second pamphlet, Breaking (Out), about re-examining sexuality in middle age, was published in 2022 by Selcouth Station Press. She is currently working on a collection about womanhood, ancestry and landscape.

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