Viki Holmes and Kate Rogers, poets and editors of Not A Muse.
In keeping with their status as Muse for the male artist, women often have been assigned a passive role in the Arts, much as they have been marginalized in Society. In quest of a place in Arts and life, the female sensibility gives rise to creative expression every bit as vibrant as its male counterpart, but distinctly different.
Not A Muse, an anthology of contemporary women's poetry, features more than 100 poets from 24 countries. The book is edited by Hong Kong poets Kate Rogers and Viki Holmes, who set out to explore and gather the inner lives of women in the 21st Century.
At the heart of the anthology are the questions about where women find inspiration in daily life and how they express themselves in art. While both Rogers and Holmes reflect on the questions in their own works, the idea for an anthology came to the two long-time friends as they launched their respective collections of poetry in March 2008.
"In a way it's a project to help women create a community of experience through poetry, because we value our sisterhood, and we share a bond and mutual respect," Rogers noted. "The female experience is very different from the male, and gender shapes our experience of and response to the world to some degree."
With the support of Haven Books, an independent English-language press in Hong Kong, the editors sent out a worldwide call for submissions. The selection of works in Not A Muse extends over a broad range. There are works by Margaret Atwood. There are writers from Hong Kong and from other parts of Asia and poems from the Middle East, in translation.
"It gives the anthology legitimacy in a broader sense," Rogers said. "For every woman poet who's entitled to education, freedom of speech and creative expression, there are those who live an under-privileged existence in their home countries, where their voices go unheard and they can't find publications for their works."
The sensibility showcased in Not A Muse points not only to the diverse possibilities of the female experience, but also to the limitations and restraints many women must endure. In making their selections, Rogers and Holmes looked for works that take risks in substance and style.
Some poems touch on subjects from which people often shy away: death and getting older. Amid the diversity of voices, there is postmodern interpretation of myths and classics, reflections on the relationship of the individual to writing, women's issues like pregnancy and the challenges of everyday life.
"I was very interested to see the different forms of story-telling, when we were doing the ordering of the anthology," Holmes averred. "The single unifying element is that these women have something true to say. That the women's experience is active, valid, and it's thought-provoking for the readers."
The collaboration proved inspiring for both women. For Rogers, who grew up in Canada in the 1970's, when women had less creative freedom than they do now, reading the submissions to Not A Muse was empowering.
"I saw the differences in women's life between then and now, but I was also very aware of the limitations in a lot of women's lives. Many are still marginalized and don't have enough room to express themselves," Rogers recounted. "I was very glad to be creating a project that would give them voices."
The reading and editing also brought new insights and confidence in her own writing to Holmes. A full-time kindergarten teacher, Holmes felt that working on the anthology was akin to a 'microcosmic experience of living in Hong Kong'. What attracts her about life in Hong Kong, she said, is the presence of opportunities.
"In Hong Kong if you've got an idea about something, you can try and see if it might work out, as opposed to saying 'It's never going to happen'. The anthology has been very challenging, but it's wondrous to accomplish what we did, to look at it and feel, 'Oh, we could do that'."
Despite Hong Kong's reputation as a materialistic town, Rogers sees genuine interest and support for creativity in the city. "Take our project as an example. If the publisher had been living in another place, she might not have been open to trying something so new and ambitious."
The anthology may well be a significant contribution to the English-language literature of Hong Kong, since it is a unique collection showcasing living female poets from around the world. A highlight of this year's Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, the book launch attracted international attention.
"We're very lucky to launch the book at the festival when a lot of famous writers like Gore Vidal came to Hong Kong. They were witness to a growing atmosphere of support for creativity here," Rogers recalled. "Our anthology was one testimonial to the life of literature in Hong Kong."
For Hong Kong to have a firm place on the world's literary map, the city's writers must continue to thrive. Holmes believes Not A Muse will be a stimulus to further collaboration among local writers, and future anthologies of Hong Kong writing will be crucial to its development.
"I think there's a growing interest in doing anthologies with different themes and in collaboration generally. It's not so much about getting the connections and getting our works out there, but working together to promote one another to the public."
Not A Muse can also hope to reach a wider global readership, since a number of its contributors are university lecturers and professors who are keen to promote the book in the academic circle. Other contributors are also promoting the anthology among fellow writers and potential readers.
"One of our reasons for doing the project was to give recognition to Hong Kong poets like Louise Ho and Agnes Lam. They worked hard in isolation for a very long time, until there was more recognition for Hong Kong writers in the last decade," Rogers said.
(HK Edition 07/04/2009 page3)