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‘Bloody’ Ballads: The Politics Of Period Poetry

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Poetry, since eternity, has been one of the most expressive forms of communication and an exceptionally impactful genre of literature. Poetry delivers a plethora of powerful feelings, sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek fashion and sometimes in a euphemistic way.

Period Poetry Starts Conversations Around The ‘Taboo’ Of Menstruation

In fact, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth called poetry “The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Menstruating writers, therefore, naturally found poetry to be the perfect literary outlet for their feelings and opinions on menstruation.

Period poetry is a body of poems that deal with the ideas of and surrounding menstruation. Since menstruation is a taboo in most parts of the world, using poetry to open up discourses around it is essentially a feminist act. Reclaiming the poetic form to include those who menstruate is revolutionary in the sense that it normalizes and de-stigmatize menstruation and the people who menstruate.

As a student of English literature, it is quite disheartening to see the lack of conversations around period poetry in literary spaces. I remember reading Emily Dickinson’s “The name-of it-is ‘Autumn‘” while studying another of her poems in school.

The poem is elusive in the sense, that at first glance, one would never guess that it could be about menstruation. Since the poem seems to almost trick us into thinking that it is only about the bloodshed of the Civil War, especially during the autumn battles in 1862, readers are prone to miss out on the subtle references to menstruation such as “ruddy pools” and “scarlet rain” in the poem.

Representational Image. Mayer tries to state that menstruation is a valid topic for poetry and honours menstruation through her poetry.

While Dickinson might have been one of the first to write poetry on menstruation, the legacy of period poetry has been carried forward by the likes of Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton, and Rita Dove. Perhaps this article would be incomplete without Clifton’s famous poem, “poem in praise of menstruation”. The poem reads like a hymn to the power of menstruation.

Clifton’s Poems Pay Homage To Ancient Feminine Energy

Clifton writes:

“if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon

if there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta

if there is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain

if there is a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel

if there is in the universe such a river

if there is somewhere water
more powerful than this wild water
pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave

Clifton’s poem pays homage to the ancient feminine energy which creates and nurtures, through menstruation. It is a brilliant ode to the life-sustaining bodily function which, unfortunately, instead of being celebrated, is taboo, in most places.

“Menstruation Is A Valid Topic For Poetry”

Bernadette Mayer’s “Ode on Periods” is another poem that honours the menstrual cycle. Mayer tries to state that menstruation is a valid topic for poetry. She criticizes the phallogocentrism of poetry and in the last line, in a rallying cry, urges menstruators to “Hold the bloody sponge up! For all to see!”

Another poem by the famous American poet Edna St Vincent Millay titled “Menses” is a strange piece that ends with the startling line, “To tedious Hell this body with its muddy feet in my mind.”

Millay had been a huge influence on Anne Sexton whose poems “Menstruation at forty” and “In Celebration of my Uterus” tackle the central idea of being a woman with a body that menstruates. Her confessional style of poetry caused much controversy, with the inclusion of taboo topics like addiction, abortion, and menstruation in her poems.

Ellen Bass’s poem “Tampons” is full of the much-needed female rage as she talks of the power of menstrual blood. She writes:

We’ll feed the fish with our blood. Our blood
will neutralize the chemicals and dissolve the old car parts.
Our blood will detoxify the phosphates and the
PCB’s. Our blood will feed the depleted soils
Our blood will water the dry, tired surface of the earth.
We will bleed. We will bleed. We will
bleed until we bathe her in our blood and she turns
slippery new like a baby birthing.

Opal Palmer Reclaims The Menstrual Hut As A Communal Gathering Through Her Poetry

In some countries and cultures, a menstrual hut is a place where women are banished during the days they menstruate since they are considered to be “impure” on those days of the month. But the generally restrictive menstrual hut is reclaimed as a communal gathering space for women in Opal Palmer Adisa’s poem, “Menstrual Hut”.

She writes:

no private room
or isolated contentment
give me
shared space
where women-to-women
laugh at man’s folly
and squash his fear
a menstrual hut
where women can just be
in charge of
nature’s energy.

A collection of period poems would be incomplete without mentioning the powerful slam poems dealing with this topic. From Raych Jackson’s “Period Rules” to “The Period Poem” by Dominique Christina, slam poetry on periods is bold and unapologetic. The poet’s live performance of their piece adds to the power and strength of this kind of poetry.

Reading and writing poetry about menstruation, therefore, de-stigmatizes and empowers menstruating individuals, one word at a time.

Featured image source: Canva
Image is for representation purposes only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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