Ellen van Neerven’s Feminist Poetry Reading List

Poetry is a form of feminist protest, according to Mununjali Yugambeh author Ellen van Neerven, co-host of the Victorian Women’s Trust 2020 poetry podcast Between the Leaves. On 27 April 2021, Ellen was awarded Book of the Year, Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and Multicultural NSW Award at NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for their second poetry collection, Throat.

Here, Ellen shares the books and poets that shaped the way they think about poetry and feminism — many of which feature in Between the Leaves:

Between the Leaves was jointly hosted by Ellen van Neerven and Hermina Burns, Melbourne based author of two poetry collections, Bite of a Bluebottle and Against Separation Creek (2019). Together, Ellen and Hermina  curated a thematic selection of their favourite feminist texts to celebrate and illuminate the lived experiences of women and gender diverse people. 

Throughout the making of this series, Ellen emphasised the importance of firmly placing poetry within the spectrum of political activism. “I write across genres, but poetry holds a special place in my heart,” says Ellen. “I see poetry as being intrinsically linked to protest — and I see myself as a literary activist.”

For Between the Leaves, Ellen and Hermina hand picked poems by writers such Dr. Maya Angelou, Wiradjuri writer Dr. Jeanine Leane, Emily Dickinson, Maxine Beneba Clarke and more, as well as other less well known poets, in the hopes that listeners will incorporate these new voices into their reading habits. 

Image description: cover of Lisa Bellear's book, Aboriginal Country. It features a terracotta strip through the upper middle and at the top and bottom of the cover, an etching of organic shapes can be seen. It's partially obscured.

Aboriginal Country Lisa Bellear
UWA Publishing

“In twenty years time will he remember this warrior woman? I wonder,” writes Lisa Bellear.

Yes, we do remember you, Lisa. You have made an incredible impact on our lives and our poetry. She was the first female Aboriginal councillor for the former Collingwood City Council, the founding member of Ilbijerri theatre company, community radio presenter, prolific community photographer and an incredible poet who wrote poems that spoke to the experience of being Blak, Proud and Woman. She was able to sharply critique the women’s liberation movement as being at times exclusionary. She was recently honoured with the soon to be launched Warrior Woman Lane in Carlton. 

Lisa’s poem ‘Hanover Street Brunswick 3056’ features in episode five, Race.


Image description: cover of Maya Angelou's book, The Complete Poetry. It features a photograph of Maya as a young woman, wearing a scarf around her head, smiling up at the camera. Over the top of the photograph is a rippling of semi transparent shapes in purple and blue.

Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry Dr Maya Angelou (Penguin Random House LLC.)

“You may shoot me with your words/You may cut me with your eyes/You may kill me with your hatefulness/But still, like air, I’ll rise” 

This collection by Maya Angelou, prominent American civil rights activist, memoirist and poet, brings all of her poems together. This book is a treasured favourite in my house, shared lovingly between me and my mother, moving from her room to mine.

Dr Angelou’s poem ‘Woman Work’ features in episode one, Work.

Image description: cover of Natalie Harkin's book, Colonial Archive. It features a photograph of a close up of a basket woven with aged letters, scribbled with old fashioned handwriting.

Colonial Archives: Archival Poetics Natalie Harkin (Vagabond Press)

Archival Poetics is a decolonial project across three chapbooks: The Colonial Archive (1), The Haunting (2), and Blood Memory (3) by Narungga woman Natalie Harkin. The poems in these chapbooks use the archive (both state and personal) to shine a light on the policy measures that  targeted Aboriginal girls for removal into indentured domestic labour, contested and buried episodes of history that inevitably return to haunt. A must read.

Image description: cover of Dorothy Porter's book, Love Poems. It features a close up of a photograph of poppies in red and orange, swaying in the wind against a clear blue sky.

Love Poems Dorothy Porter (Black Inc.)

 I’ve been savouring Sydney poet Dorothy Porter’s poems since reading the classic verse novel The Monkey’s Mask as a teenager. My girlfriend and I were poor uni students and we took out all of the works of hers we could find at the university library and we were so happy to find a poet that wrote so beautifully and openly about queer love. In her work, I see shades of the world revealed to me, the everyday and ordinary shine a little brighter.

Dorothy Porter’s poem ‘Why I Love Your Body ‘ features in episode six, Love.

Image description: cover of Anne Waldman's book, Fast Speaking Woman. It features a collage of a woman, colourised in yellow staring into the distance. Behind her is a a hyperreal photography of a freeway with cars in acid pinks and greens.

Fast Speaking Woman Anne Waldman (City Lights)

“I’m the woman with the fangs/I’m the woman with the guns/I’m the woman with tomes”

American poet Anne Waldman’s book-length poem Fast Speaking Woman has been super important to many female and gender diverse poets and a big influence on many, including Pacifika poet Selina Tusitala Marsh who wrote her collection ‘Fast Talking Speaking PI” after Anne Waldman.

Since the 1960s, Waldman has been an active member of the Outrider experimental poetry community as a writer, performer, collaborator, professor, editor, scholar, and cultural/political activist.

Image description: cover of Candy Royalle's book, A Trillion Tiny Awakenings. It features a photograph of Candy looking off to the side in a floral shirt, which is mirrored on the bottom.

A Trillion Tiny Awakenings Candy Royalle (UAW Publishing)

A Trillion Tiny Awakenings is a precious gift by the author who sadly passed away at the age of thirty-seven before publication. Candy is a flame that can never go out, and her poems light up and burn your heart in equal measure.

Candy’s touching poem ‘Mother’ about her mother features in episode three, Nurturing.

Image description: cover of Joshua Jennifer Espinoza's book, There Should Be Flowers. It features a purple gradient background with a highly stylised motif of a flower in black and white.

There Should Be Flowers Joshua Jennifer Espinoza (Civil Coping Mechanisms)

“This is not another feminist poem/about the tyranny of western standards/of beauty.” 

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is a trans woman poet living in California. I just love her poetry and her voice as a poet. Ocean Vuong said about this book “This book doesn’t need a blurb. It simply needs to be read,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s poem ‘Makeup Ritual’ features in episode six, Feminism.

Image description: photograph of Tishani Doshi, a middle aged woman with dark wavy hair wearing a red dress.

Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods Tishani Doshi (Copper Canyon Press)

 Tishani Doshi (pictured) is an Indian poet and author based in Chennai. In Girls Are Coming Out of The Woods she confronts complicity with gendered violence. Her poems about violence against womxn speak to the power of no longer being silent. In the titular poem, which reads like an anthem, womxn are coming out of hiding and places of entrapment, confronting their abusers and demanding their space.

Between the Leaves is available now on all good podcast platforms.

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