On Poetry and Pictures

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

The rest of us watch from beyond the fence
as the woman moves with her jagged stride
into her pain as if into a slow race.
We see her body in motion
but hear no sounds, or we hear
sounds but no language; or we know
it is not a language we know
yet. We can see her clearly
but for her it is running in black smoke.
The cluster of cells in her swelling
like porridge boiling, and bursting,
like grapes, we think. Or we think of
explosions in mud; but we know nothing.
All around us the trees
and the grasses light up with forgiveness,
so green and at this time
of the year healthy.
We would like to call something
out to her. Some form of cheering.
There is pain but no arrival at anything.

Margaret Atwood, “The Rest”


I started pairing my photographs with poems I found on the Internet as a way of playing with the mood of the photograph, and to discover new poems and new poets. It is fast becoming a favorite hobby, and is very effective at relieving stress, anger, and sadness. (Which is why I found myself spending a lot of time with it the last few weeks.)

I’ll look at a photograph and write down my first impressions of it: what it means to me, why I like it or not, and what I was trying to say with it when I took it. From this, I’ll gather select keywords and use these to search for a poem at a site, such as Plagiarist or the Academy of American Poets. I’ll wander about through the results until finding the poem that best connects.

For instance, the Margaret Atwood poem was, fortuitously, in the list that resulted when I searched for the keywords for the photo of the fence. Since I had recently been exposed to her work, hers was one of the first I read, and it felt right for the picture.

When searching for poems for my second photograph, below, another Atwood poem appeared, which clearly demonstrates something. When I find out what it is, I’ll let you know. Regardless, I fell in love with this poem and it was the perfect one for the photograph.

Now, if people ask, “What does the photograph mean?”, I can answer, “Read the poem”. If they ask, “What does the poem mean?”, I’ll answer, “Look at the photograph.” I no longer have to explain myself, and can hold my inner thoughts secret, in plain view.

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and as you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

Margaret Atwood, “Variation on the Word Sleep”



Habitual blogging

See what I did? I got back into the discussion of women in technology and women in technical conferences, and I didn’t want to. Not again. But I saw a few trigger words and bammo, there I was, back into the fray.

Bad self. Bad, bad self.

Too few women in technology and speaking at conferences is an important topic and conversation, yes; but it’s one I’ve been involved in too many times in the last several years – in this weblog and elsewhere. It seems it always comes back to us. The women. Why don’t we just submit more proposals? Why don’t we attend more conferences. Why don’t more of us just enter the field? Why don’t more of us make a difference in the field?

What is our problem?

Obviously, I don’t have the answers. I never will. Instead, I’ll leave it in the capable and motivated hands of people like Liz to continue the battle.

And I’ll write about something I have more of a chance to influence. Like the US policy in Iraq.


Ladylike speakers

Meg Hourihan wrote a comment in Liz’s post about her own speaking experiences, and that her main reason for doing so is to increase the presence of women speaking at these conferences. I commend her for this, but her words did trigger a second bugaboo I have about women at conferences – we tend to be ’safe’. Or at least, my definition of ’safe’.

I wrote the following in comments at Liz’s in response to Meg’s discussion about her own presentation experience:

But Meg, and this is difficult to figure out how to say without causing offense, you�re an ideal woman presenter for many of the conferences you discuss. You�re the right demographic and you�re inherently non-controversial. This isn�t to say that you�re not a good speaker and have something important to say � you do or you wouldn�t keep getting invited back. But it is to say that you�ve learned how to be a woman in the system.

I look at the male speakers at the conferences i used to attend, and I have attended more than a few. (I was one of the few women speakers at that P2P conference you reference.) There were the guys in the suits and the quiet geeks, but the speakers that made an impression were controversial and flaming and full of passion and right in your face. They jump out at you, bigger than life. They get into loud discussions with each other in panels and they swing their arms about and they speak with a zeal about their subject.

They reach off the stage and grab you by the throat. And you never forget.

And then I look at the women presenters � dignified is what comes to mind. Not to mention appropriately dressed. Powerpoint presentation. Occassional panel moderator. Most frequently co-presenting with a guy.

I would settle for women making up only 10% of the speakers, if they stood out, broke the rules, made an impression. Shook the audience up to the point where all the �blogging it live� folks come away saying �Wow! Did you see_____!� �I can�t believe what she said!�

Does no good to be there, if no one remembers us.

So to me its not that the women are making up such smaller numbers of presenters (though that�s bothersome); it�s that they aren�t making a lasting impression when they are speaking.

I haven�t heard you speak Meg, so you could very well be one of these who makes a huge impression. And I can�t imagine Liz playing it safe if she were to speak at a conference. Or to be shy about grabbing the audience by the *****.

So the battle rages on two fronts: more women speakers (and attendees); and blasting the stereotype of the tech conference woman speaker.

But I’m beginning to wonder if my problem isn’t so much women speakers, as I don’t understand the new breed of woman technologists. I find myself identifying more with male technologists than the younger women.

This isn’t directed at any person, as much as this is a general ramble, but it seems to me that the woman associated with conferences are the supporting actors rather than the leads. Panel moderators rather than panel members. This leaves me wondering if women are falling into a stereotype of ‘woman presenter’, or if I’m indulging in my own stereotypes when I view them?

What, or I should say, who I remember at conferences are the people who are passionate. They make bold statements, and issue controversial proclamations, not to generate buzz, but because they want to push the edges of the technology they love. Even when all they’re doing is demonstrating a product, their enthusiasm shines through like a polished butt reflecting moonlight in a dark bathroom.

Whatever they are, and whatever they talk about, they are not supporting actors.

Taking a general stereotype and applying in this specific instance: At conferences, I have heard men being referred to ‘god like’ when it comes to their intelligence and ability, but women referred to ‘god like’ (or ‘goddess like’) only when it comes to their appearance and mannerisms. But where does the problem lie? With the speakers, or with the audience?

The few women speakers I’ve seen at technical conferences just don’t seem to invoke passion in their topics. Now, I’m not talking Steve Ballmer doing the Monkey Dance kind of passion – no woman would ever do that (red cape!). I’m talking about women speakers making a significant impact on the audience. I’m talking about attendees coming away from the conference and going, “Boy, that talk by ________ was worth the cost of the conference!”

But, is this just me? Am I falling into the trap of following a male mindset stereotype that states a ‘good speaker’ at a technical conference must be part Larry Wall and part Scott McNealy, with a touch of Clay Shirky thrown in? Gods of Innovation, Controversy, and Uncompromising Passion?

Women are traditionally more focused on implemention than invention, on practical rather than profound in technology. And in our industry, we need more practical implementation – the dot-com era demonstrated the folly of too much reliance on improbable dreams backed by impossible technology.

But we wish for the improbable and we worship the impossible.

At tech conferences, or at least the ones I used to attend, the focus is on the profound and the innovative, rather than on the prosaic and useful. We tend to remember the former over the latter. Women speakers do tend to talk about the prosaic and useful; by saying, ‘women need to stand out more, speak up more, be controversial – blaze a trail!’ am I denying my own gender’s contributions, not only at conferences, but in technology, itself?

I wonder how many more proposals a conference would get from women speakers, just by changing the word ‘innovative’ to ‘useful’ wherever it occurs in the conference description.

Way too many questions. I need a walk.