Cathleen Allyn Conway is finishing her PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the co-editor of Plath Profiles, the only academic journal dedicated to the work of Sylvia Plath, and the founder and editor of Thank You For Swallowing. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Well Versed (The Morning Star), The Mary Sue, 3:AM Magazine, Magma, South Bank Poetry, Ink Sweat and Tears, London Grip and in anthologies. Her pamphlet Static Cling was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2012. Originally from Chicago, she lives in London with her partner and son. View her work here.
Fem: Tell us about Thank You for Swallowing. How did it get started?
Cathleen Allyn Conway: Caroline Klocksiem wrote a piece for VIDA about the poem “Thank You for Swallowing My Cum” being included in the 2015 edition of Best of British Poetry. She was not the only one to have a strong negative reaction to the poem or its elevated status as the ‘best’ British poetry had to offer this year. The original publisher of “Thank You for Swallowing My Cum” is an online magazine that was already on my radar because its editors made some shitty “duckface” comments about a selfie included in a submission and they sent that insulting exchange back to the poet. Classy. (I encouraged duckface selfies for all submissions that first year, because you can take the girl out of Chicago…)
In a discussion of Klocksiem’s article I made a joke about starting a journal called Thank You for Swallowing to place all the satirical response poems poets musing about writing. The response was unexpected and polarized: before I’d even published a single poem I had trolls mansplaining the state of women’s work in British poetry and how it ‘should’ be handled and what I was doing ‘wasn’t it’ and I needed to rethink this whole idea because he understood “Thank You for Swallowing My Cum” on a far more significant, informed, deeper level than my puny little girly brain could possible process and OMG that poem isn’t even sexist angry feminazi hater and a WOMAN edited the 2015 edition and one woman speaks for all didn’t you know that and why won’t you engage in a dialogue?!
None of this came from Bobby Parker, who wrote “Thank You for Swallowing My Cum”. He seemed quite distraught by the response, having had no idea his poem could be read that way. While a lot of people told him to ignore us and that we’re all batshit, he instead reached out. We had a good talk about it. I have a lot of respect for him and the support he’s given the site. I think it really shows the measure of the man that he didn’t tell us to fuck off, as so many others would, and so many others told him to do.
Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the work that flooded my inbox less than 24 hours of my starting the wordpress site, I might have given up. But that work. Those poems, those poets, the readers and their submissions, their faith… that kept me going.
F: What types of issues are protested in the mag?
CAC: I want this magazine to be a place where any voice hurt by patriarchy can be heard. So while I say it is women’s protest poetry, that’s not entirely accurate, although the bulk of the poems submitted and published deal with issues, experiences and injustices that are largely typical of women, but not restricted to them, particularly as there is a lot of violence in these poems. I don’t read blind, and I encourage voices from LGBT, disabled, non-binary writers as well as writers of colour, of any age. Anyone who is tired of latent misogynistic nonsense or hurt by patriarchal power structures is welcome to submit and will be read with sensitivity, including white cisgender men. This protest is intersectional. Or it tries to be. When it fails, tell me and I will do what I can to fix it.
F: What does creative writing do for raising awareness on feminist issues? How effective is it as a form of protest?
CAC: My inspiration for this project came off the back of projects like Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot andAgainst Rape, which was managed by the South African poet Michelle McGrane on her blog Peony Moon. Michelle in particular was inspiring because she had just had enough, and her call for submissions touched a nerve from others who had had enough. She used the power she had to make a difference, and following her example I try to do the same.
The previous autumn I used both of these protests in a year 9 scheme of work I created for the inner London secondary school where I was teaching at the time. Poems dealing with issues of race and homophobia in particular resonated with the students because these are issues they experience. They watched the documentary on Pussy Riot and a clip of Andrea Gibson performing her piece “I Do” and quoted lines from it like ‘fear’ is just a verb, don’t you dare let go of my hand – they wrote their own poems of protest, and the work was stunning. When I left at the end of term, that class gave me good-bye poems, which made me cry in front of them on more than one occasion. So proud of those kids.
So when the opportunity to start Thank You for Swallowing presented itself I followed my own advice: I created a forum for these words, because I’ve seen firsthand the impact they can have on the people who need them.
Since then I’ve participated in another project, Poems for Calais Refugees, edited by Marie Lightman, and sadly was abroad when the poet (and someone I’m proud to call a friend) Jacqueline Saphra launched the Poem-a-Thon and raised about £18,ooo for charities responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. Marie and Jackie, through poetry, have done more for refugees than David Cameron and his rotting Tory government, as far as I’m concerned. Of course they’ve done fuck all, so maybe that’s not saying much. But like Michelle McGrane, they took the power they had and did something. They spoke up. They took action. We all need to follow these examples.
F: What sparked your interest in poetry?
CAC: A teacher. What else?