Once upon a time I lived for a year in a violent relationship. I think of my life now in two halves: before that year, and after it; as if my life was a tree struck by lightning. In that place where the lightning hit, there is no sound: only sky silence and tree silence. Sometimes I take up armfuls of language and pour it into the tree’s open wound. Sometimes I think it will be enough. 

It took me ten years to write about that time in my life, when I stood like a tree and did not move and so was struck by lightning, but somehow survived.  

In my first poetry collection The Art of Falling (2015) there is a sequence of 17 poems that examine a violent relationship. Looking back now, I think one of the things I was trying to do was answer that question that is always asked of survivors of domestic violence: ‘Why did you stay?’ I tried to answer it by holding my memories  up to the light, and saying, ‘This is how it was’: the body as a pillar of smoke; the heart as an old monument; the translation of the self by violence. 

I was in the audience at the Southbank Centre the year Claudia Rankine won the Forward Prize for her collection Citizen, which examines casual racism and its intersections with class and gender. I felt something shift inside me during Rankine’s reading, and her work inspired a new commitment in me: to become a better ally, both as a poet and as an organiser of literary events. 

I was converted that night and became (and remain) convinced that poetry can create change in both the writer and the reader. And my rather lofty ambition was to follow in Rankine’s footsteps, but to focus specifically on writing poetry about experiences of sexism. 

Shortly after this, I began a creative-critical PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University to research poetry and everyday sexism. My second collection All the Men I Never Married (2021) emerged from this research, and consists of 48 numbered poems that explore experiences of sexism. They were also another attempt, in part, to answer that question that continued to haunt me: ‘Why did I stay?’ or more widely, ‘Why does any woman stay in a violent relationship?’ And they examine what I began to think of as the landscape of violence that I moved through, that many (if not all) women move through.

I first came across the phrase ‘everyday sexism’ through social media and the Everyday Sexism website set up by Laura Bates in 2014, which invited women to upload their experiences, from the ‘niggling and normalised to the outrageously offensive’. By April 2015 there were 100,000 posts on the site, and women and young girls are still regularly uploading their experiences to this day. In her book of the same name, Bates wrote that while she ‘initially set out to record daily instances of sexism’, the project quickly ‘came to document cases of serious harassment and assault, abuse and rape’. 

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote that when a woman tells the truth, she creates ‘the possibility for more truth around her’; and it was with this thought in my mind that I set out to write poetry about my own experiences of sexism. 

As is clear from what happened with Bates’ project, the word ‘sexism’ can be used to describe and define a wide range of situations. So although I describe All the Men I Never Married in terms of sexism, the poems examine abuse, trauma, assault and rape. 

The academic Rosalind Gill argues that, instead of thinking of sexism as a fixed thing, we need to recognise it as an ‘agile, dynamic, changing and diverse set of malleable representations and practices of power’. In this sense sexism can include a wide range of disparate experiences, from the serious to the seemingly trivial, bringing them into focus as a spectrum of connected behaviours. 

I became particularly interested in experiences of sexism that are so small that I might not even tell anybody about them, or if I did tell someone, I would immediately qualify it by saying, ‘Oh, but nothing really happened’. This idea of ‘nothingness’ seems to me to be at the heart of so many instances of everyday sexism, even instances where I’ve had a close escape from a more serious form of assault. 

Virginia Woolf refers to such moments from our past, that we remember for the rest of our lives, as ‘moments of being’. I wanted to find out what happens when you put the space of a lyric poem around one of these ‘moments of being’, these moments of nothingness. 

I discovered that writing the poem makes it impossible to dismiss, or trivialise, or minimise, the experience. There’s no place to hide. The white space elevates what happened not just into significance, but sometimes into revelation or epiphany. The white space and line breaks call into existence what Cornell academic and critic Jonathan Culler calls the ‘lyric convention of significance: the fact that something has been set down as a poem implies that it is important now, at the moment of lyric articulation’. 

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed wrote that ‘the past is magnified when it is no longer shrunk. We make things bigger just by refusing to make them smaller’. Throughout All the Men I Never Married I refused to make these experiences smaller. I refused to shrink them and instead used white space to make them worthy of reflection and consideration. 

Why, for example, have I been carrying the memory of being a teenager on a log flume with my sister one hot summer, and a man reaching from behind to brush a drop of water from my thigh? Nothing else happened – nothing traumatising, or shameful, or frightening – yet I think I will always remember the way the drop of water sat on my skin and glistened, and the warmth of his knuckle against my skin. It took writing a poem (‘All the Men I Never Married, No. 7’) to work out why I’ve remembered it for so long, the lesson this interaction taught me, the lesson my body has always remembered: that ‘…someone can touch you / without asking, without speaking, without knowing your name. / Without anybody seeing.’ 

And if this is one of Woolf’s ‘moments of being’, then I learnt that my ‘being’, my body, was not really my own; that it could be touched like an object, in the same way any one of us can reach out and touch a wall, or a flower, or run our hands along a railing. I was a teenager when I learnt this, and I have always remembered it, although I spent many years not knowing that I knew it. 

A momentary touch from a stranger, a prolonged experience of stalking, someone’s drink being spiked and their subsequent rape, an assault in a nightclub and being let down by police, a flasher in a park, being talked at on public transport, sexism at a reading, sexism from tutors – all these experiences are explored in my 48 poems. 

Many of them happened to me before the age of 21, before I ended up in an abusive relationship. When I began to gather them together, I felt as if I had my answer to the question of why I stayed in that relationship: I’d been in training my whole life.

Sara Ahmed points out that ‘we need structure to give evidence of structure.’ It was important to me to create a micro-structure of a poem to provide evidence of sexism. I imagined a scaffolding of line breaks and words, lined up like bricks in a wall. But I also wanted to use the macro-structure of a poetry collection to build the separate pieces of evidence into a case, which is more like a body than a building: a body of work. 

Many readers will recognise parallels between the consciousness-raising movements of the sixties and the ideas I’ve talked about here. The brilliant writer and theorist bell hooks calls for ‘critical consciousness’ as the next step from consciousness raising, which she defines as not just the awareness of a personal experience of sexism, but a ‘critical understanding of the concrete material that lays the groundwork for that personal experience… and what must be done to transform it’.  

I realised through writing All the Men I Never Married that I was not only trying to understand what happened in those moments of sexism; I was also trying to understand what hooks calls the ‘groundwork’ that brought me to that experience of domestic violence all those years ago.  

Sexism became alive for me during that year of living with violence, when I almost lost myself, when I was a tree struck by lightning. Sexism lives around that tree and inside it. But in the empty space, where the lightning bolt hit, and I split in half, or my life split in half, something is happening.  New things are growing. 


KIM MOORE’s debut collection The Art of Falling won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Her second, All The Men I Never Married won the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2022, and was described as 'phenomenal' by the judges. She is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-director of the Kendal Poetry Festival.

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