Author: Ariel Fintushel
Shelley and I met as writing teachers at Oxnard College, and although I was just starting out and she was retired and doing part-time work, we bonded over our shared love of poetry. I am thirty and pregnant, and Shelley is sixty-five and battling her second bout of breast cancer, but sitting across from her, in her bright home in Ventura in a room of hammocks with the screen open, we are connected. It is not only our shared physical traits (we are both short, buxom women with Jewish ancestry) that make me feel connected to her. It is also that, when she talks to me, I feel transported and I feel empowered. Shelley Savren is an author, teacher, poet, and feminist. She shared with me about her time as a young adult in the Women’s Movement of the 1970’s. Through this conversation, I got a glimpse into a formative time in history for women and also for Shelley, who broke away from traditional family values to find her own way. I can hear wind chimes, hooting owls, and a water fountain as we speak.
Ariel Fintushel (AF)- A while ago we were speaking about male domination in academics; that’s how we began our conversation about the women’s movement. You told me that you were a feminist before you even knew what the word meant. Shelley Savren (SS)- Yes. I was a feminist as a kid—well, I talked a lot and was rebellious; I don’t know if you call that feminist, but it was part of my spirit. I wanted to do everything boys got to do, and I was held back by my family. I had a brother who had some disabilities; he was older than me by about a year. But I wanted the same privileges as him. I wanted to learn Hebrew because he got to learn, so they let me do it. My brother was Bar Mitzvah-ed and girls weren’t supposed to be Bat Mitzvah-ed back then. We went to a conservative temple, and I was the third Bat Mitzvah there.
We had things we had to do just because we were girls. I had to do the dishes every night. It was gross. My mother would make a lot of meat, steaks and things, and people would just throw everything in the kitchen sink. It was disgusting, and we had to take our hands and clean through it. My brother’s gum was always on there.
And we had to learn all the lady-like things. I went to dancing school, and I polished my nails—I was a good little Rochelle, but then there was Shelley who fought it. I actually wrote a piece about that once.
AF- Did you find your parents’ dynamic troubling as a feminist? SS- Oh yea. They totally had roles. There was a double standard, and my father was the breadwinner. He went out and worked then he came home, sat down for dinner, talked to my mother about his day, and never really asked a lot about our days. That generation, the women didn’t work. The mantra was, the Jewish housewife has it best. So my mother would do the cooking, the cleaning—well, she had a cleaning lady. She had the middle class lifestyle.
Everyone was Jewish in our neighborhood, and in the afternoon, the wives would all sit out in their lawn chairs. But my mom did all the womanly tasks, and that’s how she was training me. My grandmother had me washing the floor on my hands and knees when I was five. She used to call me mammele, and a little balabusta, housewife. They were training me to be that way.
AF- What is your definition of “feminist”? SS- A feminist is someone who takes a firm stand on women's rights and will fight for them in whatever arena may come up.
AF- So when did you become aware of the women’s movement--when did that shift happen? SS- When I was in college, I realized I fell into the trap of patriarchy. My father was part of all that. I read his journal from when he was in the army, and it was talking about all the women he took to bed—not the “nice Jewish ones.” It wasn’t until the hippy movement was pretty much dying out that I did a shift, and I started turning to women—women weren’t so rough. Erica Jong said it: what is the difference between men and women? And the answer is tenderness. Women are just very tender, and they know what to do because they know what they like.
Then there was the anti-war movement and ban-the-bra, but the whole women’s movement was just starting up in the late 60’s. Nobody shaved, by the way. Our armpits or our legs. Men expected women to be "feminine," and shaving legs and armpits was a part of that expectation. Not shaving or wearing make-up was a sign of rebellion against that. It was a sign of both rebellion and independence. Hippy women did not shave also as a sign of rebellion against what society expected them to do. It was also liberating.
Then after I finished graduate school, late 60’s early 70s, I just packed up a U-Haul and moved out West, to San Diego. I always wanted to be out west, by the ocean, and someone had said to me, “You know, I could go to any city and find a women’s center and just fit right in. I thought about that a lot, so when I came out west, the first thing I did was contact a women’s center.
AF-What did you find when you got there? SS- I found the Center for Women’s Studies and Services (CWSS) (a multi-dimensional and non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the cause of women’s rights). Most of us were in our 20’s and 30’s. We had a building. The first building was an old house that burned down. And the women’s center was a radical one--we did a lot of marching. We got abortion rights. We lost the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) forever—we still don’t have the ERA—it passed, it just never got ratified.
I lived in North Park and before that, in Golden Hills for a little while. I lived with Kim, who I met at CWSS. It was just the two of us, and we were really tight.
Now I have to say this about CWSS—it was all about self-growth, but about self-growth through confrontation. Everyone was confronted. I journaled the hell out of it. I grew and grew and grew, not so much through the confrontation as through my writing. They pushed me to do that. Every Yom Kippur I’d pull out my journals and read them until sundown, then I’d do a self-evaluation and set new goals. I looked at all these aspects of myself. Not to be so controlling. My fear of being alone. I looked at my body. I don’t want to say I ever conquered anything 100 percent, but I really made a lot of headway on myself, and I’m proud of it.
AF- How did the Women’s Movement empower you? SS- It empowered me to be a part of that movement. It just felt so good because I had been victimized. And I was victimized as a Jew, too, but the problem women faced had to do with men. I felt empowered fighting for women’s rights with other women. The women’s movement had to be autonomous just like the black movement. You couldn’t have white people telling them how to do things, even if they knew how to do things. And we couldn’t have men telling us how to do things.
AF- You said you were the only Jewish woman at CWSS. Did you encounter other minorities? SS- There was a black woman there who was disabled and also a lesbian. She was on the outskirts, but they didn’t mess with her because they knew about the oppression. In the greater lesbian community, there were Chicanas and some black women, but not many Jews.
AF-Why did you leave CWSS? SS- I left because I had outgrown them and I wanted to teach poetry. I came into my own, so to speak, and I saw the flaws. Also, there was a lot of exclusion. There was a woman who was kind of the head of the collective, and to get into it you had to jump through all kinds of hoops. The collective basically excused her behaviors, and she alienated hundreds of women that came through there. She was very powerful and accusatory of other people. She was very harsh.
I wasn't around when the conflict began, so I don't know all the details of it. I'm hesitant to comment other to say that, like all movements, there was factionalism.
I was in another group called the Feminist Poetry and Graphics Center and that group was very small, but those things didn’t happen there. And by the way, we did a lot for women in the poetry community. We published a literary magazine and hosted readings, workshops, even an annual poetry retreat.
AF- What happened after you left CWSS? SS- I was on my own and I wanted to have a baby. I got health insurance from the school where I taught, and then I became a mommy through artificial insemination. Back then, it was not a common thing, especially for a single woman, but I had a friend who knew someone, and we got a contract from the Oakland Women’s Sperm Bank. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. People didn’t believe in me. They thought—you’re too neurotic. My family didn’t know right away. They would not have accepted it at that time.
AF- Tell me about some feminists who inspire you. SS- Adrienne Rich, for sure. She was a very strong, radical feminist. I interviewed her for the women’s newspaper, The Longest Revolution. I became the managing editor there and interviewed several poets besides Rich, including Audre Lorde and Denise Levertov. I also interviewed popular feminist singers. Rich and I corresponded for a long time. She was very theoretical, almost above my head. And she was part of a movement called The New Jewish Agenda, a progressive group that had a platform that included gay rights—she was a lesbian. She really wanted equality for everyone and was criticized by the mainstream male poetry scene. She was inclusive of other women, particularly women of color, like Alice Walker, and when she got the national book award, she accepted it on behalf of other women. She was a small woman like me with a powerful voice. She really wanted fairness and equality for everybody.
Also, Marge Piercy. Her poetry is empowering—very anti-male but also very “strong-woman,” and since the Women’s Movement, she came out with a book called, The Art of Blessing the Day, Jewish liturgy, all the prayers and everything from a feminist point of view, in poetry. If you find a reconstructionist prayer book, they’ll have her stuff in it. There were other people, too, like Susan Griffin and the women who started the first all-women poetry anthologies. And Erica Jong – back then, The Fear of Flying was very powerful for me.
AF-How did you get into poetry? SS-Poetry saved my life many, many times. I always loved to write, but I didn’t know anything about poetry until I was a teenager, and I met someone who had a creative writing teacher. I thought, oh, this is really cool, and I started to teach myself. Then I went to college and I learned how to write there. Then I found Whitman, and he had a profound affect on me. He was a feminist. He was an equality-for-everybody-ist.
One of the things that brought Ami and me together was poetry. Ami was the love of my life. She was the first person to say, why aren’t you majoring in English? But my poetry was shit back then—I didn’t really have the direction and instruction that I got later on when I went to graduate school, and even still, I think I needed to go deeper, go to another level. I needed to read more. But I love poetry. You work at it. You have to get support from other poets. You have to be in writing groups.
AF- What is it like to write as a female poet, from a woman’s perspective? SS- I’ve read, I think it was in Virginia Woolf’s writing, that there is no predecessor for us as women. We can’t even turn to Whitman. I mean, we’ve got Sappho which is so fragmented, words here and there. So there are no models that we can go back to and say, “This is women’s language.” We’ve had to create it, had to give validity to the women’s experiences. Denise Levertov talked about ordinary language, the common language of poetry, and I think women’s subject matter was that kind of stuff, stuff men did not take seriously. A great example is Anne Sexton. She wrote about masturbation, the breast, all that. She was a feminist way before the Movement.
And we’ve made those subjects legitimate. Women have done that. So when you talk about that narrative voice, yes we have the right to do that in our own way, in our own style, in our own voices, and with our own subject matter, without having to feel we’re lesser than. That’s my feeling about it. You can quote that one, baby.
Shelley Savren kindly gave me permission to include two poems in this interview. These poems were originally published in her book, The Wild Shine of Oranges.
Finding the Women’s Center When factory smoke drags the wind and girdles my lungs in an iron brace, I can’t climb out of my body to breathe.
After the break up, a friend in Cleveland tells me,
It’s the 70’s. Go to any city. Find a women’s center. I haul a trailer west, join a women’s rap group.
Someone hands me a knife, says, Dig inside. You have to open up the hurt. I write, threading my story into a circle we share.
My Grandmother Tells Me Again for Rakhel, Pesia, Feige, Roza and Lea, whose names appeared at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem
so no man should look on her or ever want to touch, my mother never, God forbid, wore her hair in public, just a shaytl made from real hair, kept a kosher home with a floor so clean you could eat from it. Grandpa owned a salt mine in Hungary before the first war, before Romanians tied my father to a wagon and dragged him through the streets.
I didn’t look Jewish, the oldest of seven, with blonde hair, skated on the ice to Catholic school. Sixteen I was married off, by contract yet. Old women cut my golden braid and bathed me at the mikvah to made my body clean. You ask if I loved him. What did I know of love? God forbid you should be so unlucky.
Five years my husband, gone to America, for a better life. What life? At Ellis Island I found him with no money and a leaking heart. I was soon a widow, 29, working in a factory. And what did we have to eat? Nothing. The doctor told me I had cancer, took my uterus, so I wrote in on a napkin, If I die, send my children back to Hungary to my mother.
And you, Rakhele Pesele, we named for my mother and sister with her four little girls – look at their pictures breathing from the dresser – my sister’s hair before marriage, thick and curly, like yours. You, too, will be a bride someday. That’s why I taught you by the time you turned five, to wash the bathroom floor like a good little balabusta. Rakhele Pesele, my little mammele, you are my mother’s name.
We want you to be like us.
Since 1975, Shelley Savren has taught poetry-writing workshops for homeless, abused and neglected youth, emotionally-disturbed adolescents and developmentally disabled adults and at a maximum security men’s prison, juvenile halls, a senior center, women’s centers and for every grade level through California Poets in the Schools. Her work has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union/ Tribune and The Ventura County Star. She is a South Coast Writing Project fellow, holds a B.A. from Ohio State University, an M.A. from Central Michigan University and an M.F.A. from Antioch University Los Angeles and is an English and Creative Writing Professor Emeritus at Oxnard College, where she curates their Literature, Arts & Lecture Series. Savren is the author of two poetry collections, The Common Fire (Red Hen Press, 2004) and The Wild Shine of Oranges, (Tebot Bach Press, 2013) and two books on teaching poetry: Welcome to Poetryland: Teaching Poetry Writing to Young Children and The Form of Things Unknown: Teaching Poetry Writing to Teens and Adults (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Find more about Shelley and her current projects here: www.shelleysavren.com. Ariel Fintushel is a researcher at Women’s Voices Now. She is a California-based poet who has taught college-level Literature and Creative Writing in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. She has also taught writing to youth and, through the nonprofit The Beat Within, mentored San Quentin State Prison inmates on their writing via pen-pal communications. She studied Contemporary Literature at UC Santa Cruz and has an MFA in poetry from SF State. Her work, including comics and audio poems, has been published by Lunar Poetry, Welter, Defenestrationism.net, Shabby Dollhouse, and Red River Review, to name a few. Find more here: arielfintushel.com.