Image: Chelsea Lee Photography

VIRGINIA Woolf famously said that “anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman”. In contrast, the “anon” of today would rather, ironically, demonise a poetry night whose performers are exclusively women and non-binary people of colour. As marginalised groups are finally being given an exclusive platform to express their views, outrage ensued due to white men’s entitlement to a space in which oppression has never affected them.

The poetry event in question is the annual Women of Colour Poetry Night held by Exeter’s Feminist Society, in collaboration with the Creative Writing Society and the African-Caribbean Society, to be held on 6 March. It will be a night to celebrate the poetry of women and non-binary people of colour, giving a platform to under-represented voices in order to create a dialogue of progression. Unsurprisingly, with the rise of the Facebook page ‘ExeHonestly’, in which Exeter students can anonymously post their opinions without fear of public condemnation, people began their vitriolic onslaught against the event. Anonymous posters, whether trolling or in seriousness, criticised the event for being racist and sexist due to white men being excluded, despite everyone being welcome to attend. There is something incredibly satisfying, perhaps serendipitous, about non-marginalised voices being forced into anonymity when wanting to express their outdated views. Nevertheless, their comments still expose the dark underbelly corrupting literature to this day; that the literary canon is still mostly white, cis-centric, and male.

I spoke to a coursemate who takes a creative writing module, to gain an understanding of being a woman of colour in a creative space. She felt as if she “was the only one concerned with political writing”, and when she asked her seminar leader, they agreed, saying that she was “a brave writer”, who “tackled things that affected [her] but not white people in the seminar”. This is the crux as to why a poetry night exclusive to underrepresented groups is essential: in order to address prevalent issues facing our society, the mic must be given to those who actually experience them.

Image: Chelsea Lee Photography

The University may have acknowledged Woolf’s stance, that “anon” was a woman, as we do celebrate a host of female poets in the compulsory poetry module for first-year English students, such as the influential figures of Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and Elizabeth Bishop. The problem lies in the fact that only one of the required reading poets is a woman of colour: Gwendolyn Brooks, with her poem ‘We Real Cool’. Thus, it is imperative that we take Woolf’s quotation even further into a broader, intersectional light, and discuss the potentiality that “anon” was a woman of colour. I am not here to dispute whether this quotation is factually accurate. However, I am here to highlight the persistent issue of women of colour being side-lined and silenced in the world of the arts, and how this manifests here at university.

At the heart of the University’s English course is a white, male, Western perspective, which we are sometimes given the opportunity to criticise from a feminist or postcolonial standpoint, but rarely is it the foreground of discussion. As a mixed-race Asian, within my course I had to endure the racist depiction of Mickey Rooney’s character in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (the same module which now features no female directors), albeit given the chance to criticise it. I am upset that my discomfort of both lack of representation and overt racist narratives being shown at our University can so easily be overshadowed by the ‘crisis’ of under-represented voices being given an exclusive platform to perform at a poetry night.

As quoted from an ExeHonestly respondent to the backlash: “White male poetry doesn’t have a history of oppression, as the white male voice has never been sidelined, marginalised, deemed insignificant”.

“University should be a place to broaden your scope of thought, where ideas can be turned on their head and contradictory viewpoints studied in equal measure. Reading texts that mostly advocate western-styles of critical thinking fail to ensure this”, says Nureen Kirefu, second-year English student. She fittingly and wittingly expressed her views towards the controversy of the poetry night in poem form, of which an excerpt is featured below.

Clearly, we can agree that strides must be taken to decolonise the curriculum. But before that, we must fight against the anonymous voices vilifying minority groups who just want an equitable platform. To quote Kirefu again, “literature is universal, and should be presented as so”.

“… it is hard to believe
In the 21st century
An event aimed at uplifting minorities
Where everyone is welcome
To be in attendance
And witness underrepresented voices
Previously thwarted
In poetry and speech
How can it be
Met with such hostility
As I scroll through the pages
of Exe Honestly
still annoyed and astounded
By what I see.”

– Nureen Kirefu

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