A few months ago my friend and photographer Matt Bialostocki took the author photo for my second book. I trust Matt. He’s a good photographer and a reader of my poetry so I knew he wouldn’t make me look too pretty. This seems a funny thing to want, to not look pretty, when I spend what is probably too much of my time (smoothing clothes, checking teeth, concealing blemishes and greys) in that attempt.
Looking back on what I wrote about the photo for my first book I was interested in looking ‘serene,’ as though those six years of hard slog to get the book written and published hadn’t actually happened. I think that’s what women do sometimes. We hide the struggle. There’s probably a reason why my second collection ended up being called WORK, and such a short title required a ridiculous number of emails between myself, the book’s editor Amy Brown, and publisher Chloe Lane. But that’s it — even the title took work, as did raising my kid while writing the book, and finishing my PhD. I still feel an ache in my chest when I think about it all. My first author photo ended up being confrontational, or as my publisher said, ‘A bit rock chick.’ In other words, perfect.
The poems in WORK are all about work. The emotional kind; the dedication the characters have to their vocations. The people in my poems have come through some event and are working their way back to normal. Many of the poems are about womanhood and what that can look like: motherhood, loverhood, intellectualism, gender — the brawl of it all. I wanted a photo that would not compromise any of this.
Novelist Amanda Filipacchi wrote a piece recently about her author photo called ‘How to Pose Like a Man.’ Of preparing for her photoshoot she said, ‘I flipped through a book of Ms. Ettlinger’s photos to get a sense of how authors typically dressed for their portraits. I made a startling discovery: The male and female authors posed differently. The men looked simpler, more straightforward. The women looked dreamy, often gazing off into the distance. Their limbs were sometimes entwined, like vines…I decided that I wanted to pose like a man.’
I loved this article, in part because it sparked conversation and camaraderie on Twitter between female writers. The thing is, Filipacchi is posing like a man, but she’s also posing like a woman. The article reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend years ago. She said she avoided appearing feminine at work because she wanted to be taken seriously. I also want to be taken seriously, but to so without diminishing myself. I want to be unapologetically feminine and also be seen as having something important to say. I think about my contemporaries, the female authors that inspire me with their writing and also their determination and complex inhabiting of the world. There are so many – but here’s four.
The final photo was one that Matt shot between poses. We were standing on my deck which is right beside the trampoline and sandpit. Our property rambles down into a council reserve, so the photograph looks as though I’m standing in the bush. I remember I was tired that day, and a little rumpled and self-conscious. The book wasn’t entirely finished, but I felt a new surety about the poems I’d been writing. Matt caught me off guard — mid-gesture, my attention drawn by mess or noise, or undone tasks, or, and this is what I’d like to think, by how big and mighty it felt to be writing the book, how superbly terrifying.