When my poetry book The Woman with Two Vaginas was published by Salmon Run Press in 1995, I was horrified that it carried a subtitle (not of my choosing) “erotic poetry.” While there were poems celebrating sexuality in The Woman with Two Vaginas, there were also poems about rape, incest, and child abuse. So when the publisher labeled it “erotic,” I felt a sense of shame. For me—and I think for many poets—writing about sex causes uneasiness. The unabashedly “fun” sex poems, the odes to sex are clear in their intent, joyous—naughty, yes, but intentionally so. But when sex goes wrong—becomes violent and horrible—how do poets portray those experiences without the fear of being labeled erotic?
What first drew me to the Inuit tales that the poems in The Woman with Two Vaginas were the celebratory ways in which female genitalia become part of a story plot. Sermerssuaq, a strong legendary Inuit woman, has a purple clitoris that grows so big when she is excited that a "hare's pelt can barely cover it." Blubber Girl brings her dead love back to life by rubbing a blubber facsimile of him against her magical vulva. Women also bond together in various ways to overcome obstacles, including vicious husbands who are not tolerated. "Two Woman Who Found Their Freedom" are wives of the same abusive husband who run away to live together, happily, in the belly of a whale.
In the tales, male and female powers are often exchanged by gender. In "A Different Kind of Birth," a man has a baby after swallowing a fertile fish. In "My Grandmother is My Husband" and "My Mother Stole My Wife," women turn their vaginas into sleds so they can hunt when there are shortages of men.
In a later book, Kinky, I was able to explore eroticism through Barbie dolls, but also explore gender roles. In the title poem, Barbie and Ken even “exchange heads,” to see what it is like to be a different gender. I was interested in the way Barbie’s curvaceous body is actually quite phallic. (Barbie's creator, the late Jack Ryan, was also a missile designer.) In Lucinda Ebersole's and Richard Peabody's anthology Mondo Barbie, the writer Sparrow's "Barbie: A Memoir" describes Barbie has having "that attenuated airline look--Barbie resembled a stewardess and an airplane." Erica Rand opens her book Barbie's Queer Accessories with a graphic description of a lesbian pornography spread from a 1989 issue of On our Backs in which Barbie is used as a dildo. In a short Barbie memoir called "überdoll," Heidi Glenn describes her pre-teen friend's unorthodox use of Barbie--"Barbie didn't belong in there and at the same time I marveled at how her leg seemed to fit so perfectly in Elizabeth's pee-pee place."
In Kinky, Barbie is mauled, suffers many indignities, sexual and otherwise—but through humor I was able to skirt issues of eroticism when describing violent scenes. I’m not sure if I have an answer as to how to portray the ugly parts of sex in poetry and be sure the poems will always be read in the tone the poet intends. Poets can’t very well attach warning labels to their poems—don’t you dare find this degrading escapade a turn on to dictate a proper reaction. All we can do is put ourselves out there—the celebrations, the indignities, all of it.
The woman in the title poem of my book The Woman with Two Vaginas, is a mythical woman, a ghost whose vaginas are in the palms of her hands. I didn't learn until after my book was published that there was also a real woman, Myrtle Corbin the "Four-legged Woman from Texas," who, according to Leslie Fiedler's book Freaks, had two vaginas and allegedly bore five children—three out of one vagina, two out of the other. In a publicity photo, courtesy of Wisconsin's Circus World Museum, Myrtle Corbin lifts up her long dark late-nineteenth-century skirt to reveal the two of her four legs that would otherwise be hidden. Short, seemingly boneless, legs dangle between her normally-developed ones, her secret eliciting both a sense of shock and tenderness in those who view her. I agree with the late Kenneth Koch who wrote that a poet should not “reveal something” that she would “never want anyone to know”—but, still, most writers like to keep their options open, to at least have the choice to be one of those fools. To use a "dirty" word now and then. To show their secret legs.
-- Denise Duhamel