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    By Lynnell Edwards
    Photos by Adam Mescan

    I was immediately drawn to Ashley Farmer’s new poetry collection, The Women, for its experimental form that seemed to push the boundaries of poetry as usual. She describes the work as a “linked collection of poems, in a variety of shapes and forms, that explore the way our culture thinks of women today.” And indeed the book delivers, with a series of brilliantly faceted compositions.

    For the last two years, Farmer has been the school and teacher programs manager at the Speed Art Museum,
    a position she will leave at the end of July as her husband, writer Ryan Ridge, begins a faculty position at Weber State University in Utah.

    In the preface, you describe researching this book as a series of Google searches for phrases like “sad women,” “women say” and so forth, which, you write, turned up in “advertisements, news headlines, celebrity gossip, feminist websites, beauty tips and relationship advice.” How did you begin to shape a full collection from the individual pieces?

    “When I started this project, I was teaching college writing. Part of the course was devoted to research for beginning writers — essentially, how to find good sources, how to use academic sources, and how to use Google in fruitful ways. I became fascinated with how we’re presented with only a slice of findings based on what Google thinks we want.

    “I was also fascinated with Google’s auto complete search function, in that it anticipates what you’re searching based on what so many other strangers out there have searched for in the past. Right now, when I type ‘How do I...,’ Google completes it with ‘find my way home,’ ‘get a passport’ and ‘love thee,’ which is — to me, at least — both humorous and poignant."

    “So I began searching for phrases related to women. The results were strange combinations: everything from movie reviews to advice columns to CNN headlines. I thought about how, if one were earnestly searching for something personally meaningful and related to, say, ‘sad women’ — if one were really looking for an answer — they might have to click through several pages to find what they were hoping for, if they could find it at all. Those pages of unclicked, essentially discarded results that wash over you — the title and the first few sentences of an article — became my fodder for trying to create something personal.

    “Once I’d created a few pieces from chopping up, re-stitching and writing through results, I knew I wanted to take it further and create a project from it. I’d come home at night and Google, copy and paste — a strangely meditative part of the project — then I’d cut away and rewrite. The result of this re-stitching is a book full of texts that might not always look like conventional poems.”

    Anything surprising about your research process and what you discovered?

    “Because the project took me a couple of years, I became aware of how quickly a certain topic — be it a minor film or a major political event — can dominate one’s feed, then essentially fade away altogether in a matter of days. If I were to start the project over at this point, it would be an entirely different book. There’s something hopeful to me in that. Maybe it reflects evolving ideas and progress.”

    There’s a lot here to suggest you’re responding to the “war on women” that has ebbed and surged in the last several years. Was there a single incident or media moment that finally fired you up to go forward with this project?

    “I think I’ve been deeply influenced and motivated by other contemporary women writers who have explored subjects such as these. Roxane Gay (author of the book of essays Bad Feminist) published my first book, and I learned a lot by listening to her and reading her work. There are so many others, too: women exploring their personal experiences of modern-day politics via fiction, nonfiction and poetry. It’s enervating to hear the conversations taking place about contemporary works by women. I found myself inspired by the creative output of women I know and don’t know, while simultaneously trying to make sense of policies/ media/misperceptions about women that confound me.”

    How do you see your professional life in arts education intersecting with your work as a writer?

    “I’m fortunate to work in a field that complements writing. As an art educator, part of my job is helping others to connect personally to works of art and to see how art reflects all other areas of learning: science, mathematics, literature, history. That process challenges me to grow: In working with others to look closely at the details in a sculpture, I find myself slowing down and becoming a more observant person. In talking with a group of students about what they think the story in a painting might be, my imagination gets stoked. In watching someone push past their resistance to a work that they find challenging, I become more open-minded, too. Art is good for all of us. But I think it can especially feed a writer.”

    In Women Could, I recognize the spirit of feminism from the ’60s and ’70s, but with a distinct and contemporary sensibility. What do you see as the challenges faced by women of generation X?

    “I’m learning all the time to be a better feminist and how to think more about inequality that affects people other than myself. It’s a matter of practice and holding myself accountable.”

     

    Farmer’s prior books include The Farmacist (a novella); Beside Myself (short stories); and Farm Town (a chapbook of poetry). She is working on a novel, tentatively titled Last Pass, about an abandoned silver mine in Nevada that a group of women are trying to bring back to life. 

     

    “Women Could,” from The Women

    Women could use some advice. Women could be the glass ceiling. Women could be his glass ceiling. Women could be paid. Women could own property. Women could save mines money. Women could save two billion annually. Women could vote in the fall elections. Women could serve closer to the front line. Women could lead to the mother of all battles. Women could divorce husbands who were cruel to them. Women could be fair. Women could face pregnancy. Women could give birth at home. What were some things women could not do before the civil war? Women could swap minds for a day. Women could be strong without being objectified or assumed to be acting masculine. Why, women could do that, too.

     

    This originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find you very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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