Archives for posts with tag: women

Words are powerful. They change meanings, connotations as language evolves. The goddess Trivia was clearly demoted. If you remember saying ‘straights’ to mean cigarettes (rather than joints) you are probably over 60. If you ever said sick to mean good, well below. I remember correcting students who said ‘coloured’ instead of Black. They thought Black was rude, didn’t want to offend.

When I was growing up ‘queer’ was an insult word for gay men. Women (and some men) I know still balk at using it. Most younger people I know prefer it to saying gay or lesbian. My friend, poet John McCullough wrote a wonderful essay for Queer in Brighton‘s anthology exploring and celebrating the word queer for its inclusivity and subversive quirkiness. The lengthening list of letters to describe the LGBTIQ community has amused and irritated people both on the outside and inside of the community. But when you are in a minority or seen as ‘other’, language and being able to name your experience in your own way (rather than being told what you are by someone else) is especially important. You have to fight to be recognised and you’re seldom in a position to take your identity for granted.

I recently went to see the exhibition about the life and work of 20th century artist Gluck at Brighton Museum. One of the things that struck me is how different groups and communities have claimed Gluck.  As someone who wore tailored ‘masculine’ clothes, with cropped hair and who had (quite a few!) relationships with other women she became a lesbian icon. More recently “a trailblazer of gender fluidity” for the Trans community. I couldn’t help wondering what she herself would have made of these legacies.

I love how many younger people (though not exclusively, think American writer Eileen Myles,) are rejecting or questioning gender stereotypes by appearance or pronouns to describe themselves. At the same time I think it’s crucial not to gloss over the misogyny (from the Greek, hatred – no less – of women) in society. It’s not a level playing field from which we choose equal options. As an older feminist I’m heartened seeing young women (men, everyone) take up campaigns about sexual harassment, male violence, economic inequality.  I’m also gutted that we still need to.

So maybe that is something to do with my relationship to the word lesbian.

I love the inclusivity (now) of queer and at the same time I mistrust general words. It’s too easy for women to get lost – be made invisible in them (since men are – still – the default, women the other). Also I have a soft spot for the word lesbian. Maybe it’s what was current when you first come out – like the affection you have for music you grew up with – which makes you embrace a particular word. It’s got limitations as a Western/Eurocentric word –  ancient Lesbos being the birthplace of Sappho, but it makes me happy that she was a poet as well as a woman loving women.  It also suggests an exclusivity (of only relating sexually to women) which actually doesn’t apply to lots of lesbians’ experience. But there’s something uncompromising about a word that is so much about being a woman. I can still remember how arresting it was to hear it and start using it myself. And all the times I heard any woman standing up for herself get ‘accused’ of being a lesbian, her opinion dismissed. I asked a friend who is around 20 years younger than me how she referred to herself, what she felt about the word lesbian. She said she calls herself queer or gay and – to my surprise, since I expected her to think its power had long worn off  – she said the word lesbian packed a punch, so she would reserve it for confrontations rather than casual conversation.

Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Basket the dog

Poets seek to name the impossible, the just-out-of-reach. Those from minority/disadvantaged groups look for words to name that which is sidelined, excluded.  Words do and don’t matter. Lesbian – not a word to hide in.

Gertrude Stein wrote her famous rose sentence in 1913, in her poem Sacred Emily



Russia 1924








My mother was ambivalent about International Women’s Day. On the one hand she saw it as a Socialist festival (for someone who had lived through a decade of post-war Stalinism this could only mean BAD.) On the other hand she loved flowers and liked the Polish custom of men giving women flowers on IWD. I have some ambivalence too, which runs more like this: how can 1 day a year be remotely enough to celebrate what we as women do or who we are? On the other hand I like any excuse to party. And celebrating ourselves as women is vital.

Tomorrow at 11am on March 8th 2016 I will be taking part in an International Women’s day online digital discussion with 3 other artists:

Rifa Thorpe-Tracey who is an advocate for women in tech. Amongst many things she is founder of the Brighton branch of global creative networking group for women in digital, SheSays.

Jamila Prowse who is founder and editor of the independent small-print magazine Typical Girls, which showcases the work of female creatives through print, discussions, talks, workshops and music events.

and Jinan Petra who is a campaigner for women’s rights and social justice. She is involved in a number of activist groups, projects and movements that fight to safeguard the rights of women and girls across the UK and beyond.

I am Maria Jastrzębska a Polish-born, Brighton based poet, editor and translator with a particular interest in borders and boundaries: between countries, cultures, languages, between social and sexual identities, health and illness.

This event is hosted by Melissa Ray who works in Communications at Fabrica the innovative art gallery in Brighton.

You can be our live audience from 11am tomorrow by clicking on:

Zapraszam serdecznie/you are warmly welcome!




Doctor Who and the Old Woman


One of my favourite poets Anna Świrszczyńska, pen name Anna Swir, wrote*:

‘Mankind has invented for her

the most abusive

language in the world.’

When my daughter came home from primary school, some years ago, worried that her legs might be ‘too fat’ I felt homicidal. My 19 year old niece says she doesn’t want to be 20. A 25 year old friend says she is starting her Masters degree ‘too late’. My 30 year old friend thinks she may have ‘missed the boat’ in her creative career…You get the picture. My male friends feel it too, but there’s a particularly vicious contempt reserved for ageing women that’s linked to how women are judged on the appearance of our bodies. So it’s different for girls.  Anna Swir’s poem is called Old Woman.

And so much depends on where you live and whether you can afford to eat well and take proper care of your health.

I know a bloke – you probably know him too – see him at all the events and we have talked, we know each other. But he looks straight through me. It’s not deliberate. It’s almost physical. He is searching so hard for the younger women in the room that he actually can’t focus to see me. Sometimes I stand right in front of him and say hello very loudly. Just for the hell of it. Rudimentary courtesy versus desperation. You can literally see the battle in his eyes.

This year I’ve turned 60. I have been forcing myself to tell people my age. People say ‘oh you don’t look sixty at all!’ to be nice and I lap it up, but what does that say about our expectations of being 60? Phew, I don’t look that old yet! When is ‘old’ going to stop being an insult?

Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Vivienne Westwood, Felicity Kendall, Germaine Greer, Catherine Deneuve, Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithful and Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, David Bailey, David Bowie, Terence Stamp, The Stones… Thank heavens for role models. (You can probably think of others.) And for writers like my friend Jackie Wills who dares to use the M (for menopause) word.

What is to be done? Total revolution where each person is genuinely valued for themselves would be a start. Meanwhile I’ve been celebrating – so far with cake and snow in Warsaw, my birth-town. (The top picture is of Warsaw’s mermaid.) I aim to continue. It’s a plan. And an 80 year old friend gave me a beautiful card which said ‘how lovely to be so young’.

So let me end with a Doctor Who moment. You know that bloke? He’s ignoring me and now he’s talking to a younger woman. What he doesn’t know is that we are in one of those temporal paradoxes. The young woman is actually me – only 30 or 40 years ago!  She/I may be impressionable but she’s/we’re also sussed. Who wants to be patronised?

She looks over to me and raises her/my eyebrows. I give her/me a wink and turn to re-enter my own time stream. Wait! She runs after me. In your time, she asks, have they cast a woman as Doctor Who yet? Oh what should I tell her/myself? Any day now, I reply, any day.

Sci Fi_planet rise_121793

*Old Woman in Fat Like the Sun, trans.Grażyna Baran and Margaret Marshment (The Women’s Press)

A New Year! It’s a whole new year and I have been busy launching my new book At The Library of Memories published by Waterloo Press as well as being involved in Queer in Brighton the exciting new heritage project. That’s my excuse for not doing all those things like detox/exercise programs people do in January. Now it’s February, so it’s probably too late to start them anyway…


But I have been making lots of public appearances, which is how I’ve come to think about what (not) to wear. If you are reading this you too may be wondering what to do about that old blue jumper or even whether artists should concern themselves with fashion…

All these questions will be answered but first I must digress. There is a scene in the Devil Wears Prada where the ingénue intern, hapless Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), makes a throwaway remark to her formidable boss, Miranda Priestly (the wonderful Meryl Streep), suggesting she (Andy) doesn’t really distinguish between fashions. Miranda rounds on her. In scathing, icy tones she explains the history of the fabric, particular type of blue colour, shape and style of the very jumper Andy is wearing – its progress from designer to catwalk to high-street and second-hand shop –  making it clear that there is no free or random choice involved. A Marxist historian couldn’t have done a better job.

So no throwing on any old thing, ahistorically. We are constantly responding (hopefully sometimes creatively) to someone else’s agenda – whether in our checked shirts and DMs, monochrome tunics or frilly shirts and pixie boots…

It all goes back to that internal censor (previous blogs) who is so influential in our obsession with appearance.  Luckily, while we make choices based on a top-down communication things also happen from the bottom up. Governments get toppled, systems change, people’s perceptions change. There’s hope.

So what should you wear (to next the party, reading, event…)? Please excuse the binary nature of this advice, I know full well that gender is not binary, so you will need to self-define (always best) or read between the lines… Let’s just say I go to a lot of poetry events.  From my long observation of such occasions: Guys, do shave/trim and do ditch that baggy (blue or otherwise) jumper. Dolls: wear what the hell catches your eye and do believe you are gorgeous.

Winter !cid_image0

Photo at top of page courtesy of Michaela Ridgway.