Sabrina Mahfouz & Iona Lee on women in poetry

National Poetry Day is on 28 September, with the 2017 theme of Freedom. The perfect opportunity then to speak with Iona Lee and Sabrina Mahfouz about the increasing volume of women's voices in the poetry scene

Article by Megan Wallace | 14 Sep 2017

Women have been historically excluded from the literary canon: it’s a fact. Academics and historians widely acknowledge that the social mores of the past severely limited the output of female writers. Furthermore, sexist assumptions about women’s writing being inferior means that it hasn’t been documented or studied to the same extent. Unfortunately, with the strong male bias that continues in the arts (and leads to male artists earning 19% more than women), not all of this is in the past. Spoken word, as a genre closely tied to political protest, can provide some much needed relief. Through this medium, women and minority groups such as POC and the LGBTQI+ community have been creating beautiful art — and expressing themselves in the process.

Two women exploring the artistic potential of poetry and spoken word to their fullest are Sabrina Mahfouz and Iona Lee. British-Egyptian writer Mahfouz is a highly noteworthy figure in the UK literary scene, with a prolific output spanning theatre, poetry and fiction. The UK Young Artists’ Award Winner thematises notions of home and belonging, as well as tackling controversial topics like sex work, and is known for her powerful, lyrical delivery.

A true star of the Scottish spoken word scene and a Scottish Slam Poetry champion, Lee has been performing since the tender age of 17. Now 21, she combines her poetic practice with her studies in illustration. Considering that this year’s National Poetry Day comes with the theme ‘Freedom’ it seems particularly fitting that we talk to these two outstanding women, whose work helps to break boundaries and build bridges.

Hot off the heels of their Phenomenal Women Speak Out event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Jemima Foxtrot and Sophia Walker, we were lucky enough to catch up with Mahfouz and Lee.

With top spoken word poets like Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish currently making waves beyond the spoken word scene, it would seem that it’s women who currently rule its roost. Lee concedes that there is some truth in this assumption: “It is true that there is consistently a good male to female ratio at spoken word gigs and that many, if not most, of the top poets out there right now are female... I suppose the easiest comparison is to stand-up comedy, which has a shite gender ratio. So, better [at representing women] than comedy anyway.”

However, as Mahfouz points out: “The relatively democratic way of getting noticed as a poetry performer is certainly more accessible than other routes such as acting, theatre work, publishing. This is true for women and for all groups outside the straight white male group, but this group still dominates even in spoken word.

“Although it is more accessible, it still means having the confidence to get up on stage and deliver your own work, which is often more difficult for those who are underrepresented in public speaking and have backgrounds that have not enabled confidence to flourish. But of course every year there are more women in the genre for other women to look to as inspiration and that is a wonderful thing.”

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the ‘female gaze’ in art and cinema but does there exist a specifically ‘female’ poetic voice? The answer, at least according to Lee and Mahfouz, is far from clear-cut. “Everyone has a different perspective to offer," Lee suggests, "... and it is true that we do experience this thing we call life differently dependent on our gender. So in relation to subject matter, yes of course. I don't think that there are distinctions to be drawn between female and male writing in relation to style or tone though. There are more differences between 'people' than there are between specifically 'men and women.’"

However, women do need to rework traditions to create a space for themselves on the literary scene, an idea that clearly intrigues Mahfouz: “I'm doing a research project at the moment with [arts organisations] Jerwood and Shubbak into the forms female writers from the West and the Middle East use in theatre work, and if there's a need for a difference formally in order to tell the perspectives that have for so long been ignored. I think there is some of that in all types of writing. Women needing to invent or reinvent forms to fit their words rather than the other way round.”

Femininity is a strong theme in both their work, but in different ways. Mahfouz is keenly aware of the delicate ground one must tread between celebrating difference and highlighting the artifice behind social roles and divisions: “I don't adhere to biological determinism arguments when it comes to femininity/masculinity. At the same time, I'm obviously aware that it exists as a social construct that affects us all and so becomes a kind of reality, however aware of the artifice we may be – so I try to give that the weight it requires while challenging it.”

For Lee, her work serves as an outlet in which she can be unapologetically honest about the facets of femininity over which women are made to feel shame: “I talk (though not exclusively) about periods and female pleasure in sex and other, more 'feminine' issues. I suppose I am attempting to ease the stigma and the embarrassment on these topics. So much of what it is to be 'feminine' is not talked about. We feel embarrassed mentioning that we have period cramps to our boss, or embarrassed admitting that we really like shagging or that we have thrush. What it is to be 'female' is not discussed as much as what it is to be 'male' in the media and in art.”

Lee takes the approach that “the personal is political,” saying that she has "only ever written a handful of explicitly political pieces, but all of my poetry is political in its way.  It comes from a place of privilege to say "I don't care about politics" as so many people do not have a choice. They have to care as it affects their lives every day. My writing about my experiences as a young woman is intrinsically political, even if I'm not writing about the tampon tax or the rape clause or some other female-related legislation. It is also important to use the platform that you are provided as an artist to tackle political issues, especially in the current climate.”

However, for Mahfouz the personal is not the best vehicle for her version of poetic truth. “I think the only way for writers of fictional genres to be truly honest is through characters – this is definitely the case for me and so even my poetry usually employs characters to explore truth. I very rarely write autobiographical poetry.”

This certainly doesn’t stop her work from being political, and as an author she is acutely aware of the power and influence her work holds: “I think there's an argument to be made that every piece of writing and performance is political in some way, even more so in these highly volatile and extreme times.”

National Poetry Day is 28 Sep