Fat Poets Speak, ed. by Frannie Zellman

The Fat Poets’ Society was founded in 2006 at a National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance conference. Since then, they have grown, increasing the number of authors per book. Each collection is shaped by heading themes, such as “FatDance” or “Singing the Fat Self.” Sometimes a poet’s work appears several times under one theme and none in another. I’m going to give a brief review of each of the three books released by the Fat Poets’ Society, all three of which are edited by Frannie Zellman, below.

Fat POets Speak: voices of the fat poets’ society (2009)

Poets: Kathy Barron, Anne S. Kaplan, Corinna Makris, Lesleigh H. Owen, Frannie Zellman

Throughout the collection, Lesleigh J. Owen answers inappropriate questions, oftentimes with humor, giving readers an indication of how often she’s been put in cringe-worthy situations. For example, in answer to “Did you lose weight?” she replies, “No, it was stolen.” Owen’s interjections are like micropoems that set the tone for the assault fat people experience, often daily. Voices of the Fat Poets’ Society does read like it’s on the defensive — to abuse, concern trolls, and an expectation that the poets should graciously hate themselves. As if in response to the stereotypes of fat women as jolly, loud, silly, eating babies up, and constantly making food, Frannie Zellman writes:

I am not a nice or good fat woman.
I do not have a friendly bone in my body.
I do not cook. I hate playing with babies.
I am not eager to do kindnesses.
I do not pretend sweetness.

Zellman implies a fat person does not owe extra goodness because she is fat, but is the individual she chooses to be in spite of societal perceptions.

Many of the poems read like new writers testing the waters, and so while some may be more straightforward in their ideas than I’m used to with a poetry collection, I appreciate that the poetry that does not ignore the fat body is, as Zellman writes, “soul-satisfying beyond words and beyond relief.” Really, the glory of reading this collection is that it’s unique — the poets’ feelings about their fat bodies are typically silenced in media.

fat poets speak 2: living and loving fatly (2014)

Authors: Kathy Baron, Durette Hauser, Anne S. Kaplan, Deb Lemire, Lesleigh Owen, Eileen Rosensteel, Dr. Deah Schwartz, M.M. Stine, Mary Ray Worley, and Frannie Zellman

The second collection shifts away from being on the defensive and responding to a hateful society to admiring the fat body and its capabilities. Eileen Rosensteel writes a poem in which she and her body have “parted,” implying that her body was stronger than her will to control it:

Body is very needy. 
And I had other things to do
rather than listen to her constant complaining. 
Besides, you should hear how people talk about her. 
She has a very bad reputation. 
We tried to make it work for years. Counseling, behavior modification, 
medications, threats, tears. 
None of it worked. 
Body was not able to permanently change.

The references to ways to alter the body imply the speaker felt forced — by medical staff, society, self-doubt — to modify the body she posses. The body won out.

Elsewhere, Rosensteel describes her body going up the stairs “like a tank rolling up a beach.” Lesleigh Owen writes of “dancing and swinging / my stocky, brown, / capable body.” All the ways these poets explained how they use their bodies and in what ways their bodies help them experience the world were warming, and I appreciated the new imagery for fat bodies.

However, I did notice some body shaming when it came to people who aren’t fat. When flying, the authors lament, they have to sit in “seats that aren’t meant for real people, but more for stick figures.” On the one hand, I could interpret this as all airlines seats are too small because the people who build airplanes are money-hungry body terrorists. But it does insinuate the bodies of people who do fit comfortably in the seats (at least in the waist; never mind leg room, arm space, etc.) aren’t good bodies. I get it, believe me, but I also come from the mindset that no bodies should be shamed, regardless of size, color, hairiness, ability, etc.

This collection pushed me significantly. Though I’ve been reading about fat women for years now (all part of my quest), the love of fat bodies was surprising. Some part of me has accepted tolerance, rather than love. Can you love a fat body — including your own? The answer is duh, yes, but because the message is so rarely distributed, I was shocked before I could normalize what I was reading. I was reminded of Shrill by Lindy West in which the author sat and looked at pictures of fat women for hours until they became normal to her, sloughing off society’s idea that large bodies are bad.

Fat poets speak: fatdance flying (2020)

Authors: Kathy Barron, Tolonda Henderson, Durette Houser, Dawn Howard, Miranda Jacobson, Sherrie Myers, Kris Owen, Lesleigh Owen, Michelle Kriz Parkinson, Frannie Zellman

The most recent collection from the Fat Poets’ Society tends to look back on the havoc wreaked on fat bodies, such as dieting and excluding people needlessly based on size. In Lesleigh Owen’s poem “1981” she describes what happens after her poverty-stricken family living with food insecurity takes her to the “pay-as-you-can” doctor, who says she’s too fat:

I returned home
to empty cupboards
to ponder how to eat less
and further water down the milk.

Owen’s writing shines in FatDance Flying, giving a level of personal detail in her work that I didn’t notice as much in the two previous collections. In “Love Letter,” she writes honestly about how her body draws attention:

Dear Lesleigh:

It has come to my attention that you are --
how do I delicately state this? --
large, rotund, corpulent,
fatter than a tub of
sopping movie theater popcorn--

The poem twists when the vicious speaker realizes he/she is flabbergasted at how much mental space is taken up by fixating on Owen’s body, and it turns to seeing Owen as a figure of “greatness.” I like that the poet acknowledges the hateful space from which some come, but how the ending can change, and that thinking so deeply about another person’s body, to be consumed by it, gives power to that body. Rather than being on the defensive as the authors seemed in Voices of the Fat Poets’ Society, the poets in FatDance Flying call out fatphobia, name it, tear it down or ignore it, taking away the power hate has over them and making the angry person sit in their hate stew. I found myself smiling while immersed in such poems.

Sherrie Myers has a few poems, short yet powerful, about when she realized dieting was absurd: her crawling on the floor to eat one dropped pea because she was starving on a regimented diet, and when dieters become people who speak and think of little but food, leaving no room for anything else. Myers gives a simple image — crawling after a pea — at smacks readers with the obvious absurdity of purposely starving.

The poems felt more mature and subtle in FatDance Flying, demonstrating the way this group has grown as poets and people, and it was my favorite of the bunch.

15 comments

  1. I am interested, and pleased, that your project is having an effect on how you feel about yourself. Positive reinforcement maybe. I don’t feel bad about being overweight (I don’t think) I just wish I wasn’t. I really loved the lines you quoted from Eileen Rosensteel:
    We tried to make it work for years. Counseling, behavior modification,
    medications, threats, tears.
    None of it worked.
    That’s it, especially now I’m older and less active, none of it works.

    Like

    • Are the people in your family shaped similarly to you? That’s something to consider.

      I think the last, and most challenging line, of being a fat person is no longer wishing or even preferring you were thin. I think it stems from the fact that it is SO INGRAINED that thin looks better and is healthier (even when science disagrees). I used to say I wanted to be so small that someone could pick me up and move me out of their way if the needed. I didn’t just want to be thin, I wanted to be SMALL. How screwed up is that?

      What would happen if every time you got in your truck, looked in the mirror, and said aloud, “I’m cute as hell”?

      Like

      • I’m embarrassed even thinking about it. How about (cue deep voice): I’m a man, and men have stomachs.
        My brothers are all thin, I think their partners starve them (well #2’s an ex-chef and restaurateur, so maybe not him). My mother starved my father, he’d beg me to come round because then mum would serve cake. I take after mum’s father – short and solid.

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        • Okiedokie, sounds like a family of starving people, and that’s not okay. the United World Food Program might come around if you guys don’t get it together.

          Even in your man’s man voice, you can say, “I”m cute and gosh darn it, people like me.” Try it today for me and see what happens!

          Like

  2. Wow the Eileen Rosensteel poem was so evocative. Tonight me best friend and I were discussing what stress and age and hormones can do and how weird it is to experience. We don’t feel old in age but our bodies no longer feel young either. Strange. And yet so much is out of a person’s control even if folks keep on trying to fight it.
    x The Captain

    Like

    • MOST things are out of our control, which is why many folks are doing so poorly in the pandemic. We’re trying to control each other’s actions, our environment, other people’s feelings, the economy…..it’s hard to let go, but definitely let go.

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  3. Great reviews! It was so satisfying reading through your thoughts on these three volumes and seeing the messages get stronger through the years- from defensive to loving to tearing down fatphobia. It sounds like the poets have been through a whole journey, and it’s so encouraging to see you felt it too as a reader- a reminder that it truly is so important to speak out about our experiences, both for ourselves and for others we don’t even know who need it!

    Like

  4. this idea of forcing oneself to look at images of fat bodies for hours is an interesting one. Would people be more accepting of fat people if they were more frequently depicted in media, on tv, on the big screen? I sure hope so, but I think it would take generations to shift this mindset of society, sadly. Regardless, collections like these are ALWAYS a step in the right direction 🙂

    Like

    • Typically, we make assumptions about fat bodies in the media: jolly, piggish, a villain, selfish. The more we normalize all people, the more we can move away from dumb stereotypes. I shall live to see the day, ya’ll!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think the diet and weight loss industry are excellent examples of the ways in which corporations prioritize profit over health. And I think it’s unfortunate how often efforts to create a safe space for a group that’s subject to social bullying, and with so many members feeling ostracized, quickly turn to redirecting that unkindness to other groups. It happens so often, across communities. What happens if some of the contributors to these anthologies do find their body shapes changing, their weight reduced…how would they feel reading poems by their allies that criticize them just because now their bodies are new and smaller shapes.

    Like

    • I’m of the mind that people shouldn’t comment on anyone’s body, and that being fat isn’t a reason to degrade someone or make assumptions based on stereotypes in the media. Thus, if someone’s body changed, that’s their business. However, the issue is if the person’s body becomes more acceptable according to a fat-shaming society and that person suddenly develops a superiority complex, that’s an issue in which the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

      Like

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