Lily Myers intended her poem “Shrinking Women” to be a personal one.
But a video of her recital at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational was posted to the poetry website Button Poetry and to The Huffington Post, where it went viral.
With more than 3 million views, it continues to circulate across social media websites.
The poem tells the story of women in her family who for generations have been taught to unconsciously shrink while making space for the men in their lives.
“I wrote this poem very much for personal reasons and didn’t ever think it was going to gain this much visibility,” Myers told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “But to be honest, it has opened a lot of dialogues at home that I don’t think would have been open before. And to me that’s the best thing that slam poetry can do.”
The poem gives details of her mother’s relationship with food, the way she has inherited her mother’s eating habits and society’s messages about women and size.
- Lily Myers, poet and student at Wesleyan University.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
LILY MYERS: I have been taught accommodation. My brother never thinks before he speaks. I have been taught to filter. How can anyone have a relationship to food, he asks laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs? I want to say we come from difference, Jonas. You have been to grow out. I have been taught to grow in.
YOUNG: Twenty-year-old Lily Myers, a junior at Wesleyan in Connecticut, reciting a portion of her poem "Shrinking Women" at the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational last April. It won the Best Loved Poem prize, and later, after it was posted on the website Button Poetry and the Huffington Post, it went viral with more than three million views, including one by Lena Dunham of the hit HBO series "Girls."
The poem is one impassioned run-on sentence that starts with her mother disappearing into her wine glass and concludes with Lilly's own awareness that she's taking as little oxygen out of the room as possible. Lily Myers is at KUOW in Seattle, Washington. And Lily, your thoughts on how far your thoughts have traveled.
MYERS: I feel really honored that the poem has gotten this much attention, but I am kind of in shock that the poem resonates this much with so many people.
YOUNG: What are you hearing?
MYERS: People who are saying that they have experienced similar things, that they have felt similar things and maybe not known how to articulate it.
YOUNG: Yeah, and what is that thing?
MYERS: The kind of insidious, like subtle pressures on what our bodies are supposed to look like and on what we're supposed to put in our bodies, but also how we're supposed to take up space and how - well, really how we're not supposed to take up space.
YOUNG: Well, this is where salon.com in an interview was talking to Lena Dunham, again of the TV show "Girls," about space. And the interviewer, Alice Driver, says to her, one of the things that I love about you in the show "Girls" is the way that you occupy space in an unapologetic, this is mine way.
And the reporter goes on to say that she'd been talking about this with her friends, about the way men are allowed to take up space versus the way women collapse into themselves. And Lena Dunham says, well, yeah, I prize comfort highly. I don't know if you saw that slam poem that went viral a couple weeks ago. Of course it's yours.
And Lena Dunham goes on to say that amazing girl talking about being trained to not take up space. You're that amazing girl.
MYERS: Wow, yeah, that's crazy.
YOUNG: Well, but also you did something that others might think is very, very brave because while we heard you talk about your brother, that's about five stanzas into the poem. You start talking about your mother. Let's listen.
MYERS: Across from me at the kitchen table my mother smiles over red wine that she drinks out of a measuring glass. She says she doesn't deprive herself, but I've learned to find nuance in every movement of her fork, in every crinkle in her brow as she offers me the uneaten pieces on her plate. I've realized she only eats dinner when I suggest it. I wonder what she does when I'm not there to do so.
YOUNG: So you say your mother wanes while your father waxes. How did that go over at home?
MYERS: It was a challenge. You know, I wrote this poem very much for personal reasons and didn't ever think that it was going to gain this much visibility. But to be honest, it has opened a lot of dialogues at home that I don't think would've been opened before, and to me that's the best thing that slam poetry can do.
YOUNG: Well, you say women in your family have been shrinking for decades, learned it from each other the way each generation taught the next how to knit, weaving silence in between the threads. Let's listen to a little bit more about picking up your mother's habits.
MYERS: Skin itching, picking up all the habits my mother has unwittingly dropped like bits of crumpled paper from her pocket on her countless trips from bedroom to kitchen to bedroom again. Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark, a fugitive stealing calories...
YOUNG: So Lily Myers there, talking about your mom. This poem has been shared by young women like yourself. But are you aware of how much mothers are sharing it and saying, oh my gosh, this - I think I did this?
MYERS: Oh wow. Yeah, I'm a little bit aware. I've been contacted by some mothers, and I think that's really powerful. I talk about my own mom, but she was brought up with the same pressures that I was brought up with, that millions of women are brought up with. We're all just kind of in this same pattern.
YOUNG: Well, having written this, what's been the internal impact on you? You talk about realizing you say you're sorry before you start every sentence, or you spend entire meetings trying to decide should I take another piece of pizza. Are you now changing?
MYERS: Yeah, and I am much more conscious now of when I do that. I notice when I say sorry, you know, when it's unnecessary.
YOUNG: Well, did you really, like the poem says, ask five question in genetics class, and all of them started with the word sorry? Did you really do that?
MYERS: You know, I don't know if it was exactly five. You know, it's kind of one of those it's true in essence. It's a reflex. I've heard from so many women who say that they relate to that.
YOUNG: But you were saying - are you conscious of it now?
MYERS: Yeah, I am becoming more conscious of it, and I'm becoming more conscious too of the behavior of others that I'm around and when - when one person in a situation is taking up so much space that another person isn't able to. And I'm really attuned to those dynamics now.
It's also just made me want to do more work beyond just myself but in the world, you know? I want to keep this conversation going.
YOUNG: Well, and how about your mother, how she doesn't feel she deserves to occupy space or eat food.
MYERS: Right, we have had some conversations about that. And you know, I was really using food as a metaphor for space in this poem. It does - the issue with women not - being taught to not take up space does often manifest in relationships to food. And I look around and see so many women I know, pretty much every woman I know, having some sort of troubled relationship with food.
There's this critique, that women are taught to critique, you know, so kind of viciously what they put into their bodies, and I don't see men being taught that same thing.
That's why women in my family have been shrinking for decades. We all learned it from each other, the way each generation taught the next how to knit, weaving silence in between the threads, which I can still feel as I walk through this ever-growing house.
YOUNG: I've asked you about the response from people when it went viral. But what about when you were in that room and all the finger-snapping and hooting and - as you delivered your poem?
MYERS: Yeah, well, it's funny because so many comments on the video are saying, oh, why is audience making so much noise, that's so rude. But that's what's supposed to happen at a poetry slam. You know, as a poet I love when the audience is reacting. It means they're listening. It means they're engaged. It means they're responding to what I'm saying. So I love their responses.
I hadn't decided that I was going to read that poem until about 20 seconds before I went onstage. Actually, you can - I'm closing my eyes at the beginning.
MYERS: And I'm kind of deciding. And this was the one that I kind of knew I had to do. And one of my very best friends, who is a very inspirational poet and was our slam coach, really encouraged me to do this poem. She was like, Lily, you just need to do it. This is what people need to hear.
Watching the struggle I either mimic or hate her, and I don't want to do either anymore. But the burden of this house has followed me across the country. I asked five question in genetics class today, and all of them started with the word sorry.
MYERS: I don't know the capstone requirements for the sociology major because I spent the whole meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza, a circular obsession I never wanted, but inheritance is accidental, still staring at me with wine-soaked lips from across the kitchen table.
YOUNG: Lily Myers, thanks so much.
MYERS: Sure, thank you.
YOUNG: Lily Myers. We'll link you to her poem "Shrinking Women" and her viral video from the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. It gob-smacked us. Love to hear your thoughts at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.